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Filtering by Tag: Jill Reid

Cue the Fairy Tale Characters, Please

Jill Reid

jill-reid_fairy-tales-nov-16-post My sister once bought a Dollar Store Snow White wig for my daughter. Three-year-old Ellie used to drag it behind her the way Linus clung to his blue blanket. She donned it at breakfast and slept in it at naptime. Day after day, wigged and rapt, she caressed the cheap dark locks with sticky toddler paws as Disney’s Snow White’s soprano pierced the thin walls of our apartment.

Symbols are powerful. Even sticky old wigs have their magic, and in retrospect, the season of the Snow White wig was thick with both fairy tale and curse. Disney’s Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty and Snow White played on loops on the living room TV, their Technicolor endings a crescendo of orchestra music, ball gowns, and satisfying conclusion. Meanwhile, I re-read passages for literature classes in which the dragon killed Beowulf, and Othello murdered Desdemona. Mr. Hyde overcame Dr. Jekyll, and poor tentative Alfred J. Prufrock measured out his “life in coffee spoons.”  

Those stories, in contrast to the fairy tale, were as fragmented as the world my child and I lived within. During the season of the Snow White wig, my own life experience with single parenthood, toddler potty training, and exhaustion dug in its heels against the “simplicity” of fairy tales. Really, how do you embrace the enchantment in Snow White’s story, when what you have read and lived and survived suggests that in your own story, should you ever bite into one of life’s poison apple, you will have to drive your own poisoned self to the ER?

That was also the season when, in the middle of a week sopping with the weariness of cynicism, my notebook became a revelation. I sat at my desk writing the word “Loss” over and over without even realizing the path my pen was taking. And next to that, I jotted down a statement by C.S. Lewis that, prior to that moment, had existed only as a lovely sentiment I intended to quote to students.

“Loss. Loss. Loss,” my notebook read. "Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again,” C.S. Lewis told me. And just like that, after months of rolling my eyes at Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, I saw the wisdom in Ellie’s beautiful, tangled Snow White wig. “What,” I could almost hear Snow White whisper, “has ever been easy about overcoming a curse?”

Perhaps when C.S. Lewis talks about growing old enough to read fairytales again, he alludes to the slowly re-gained wisdom in believing in the possibility of the cursed truly overcoming their curses  - even on this side of heaven. Rather than a curse that divvies itself out over a lifetime in wrinkles and mortgage payments, the fairy tale offers one pure cup of concentrated curse, potent as Snow White’s apple, for us to swallow and overcome all at once. There is a special kind of relief in knowing exactly what curse you’re up against , how to defeat it, and that it can be defeated at all.

Of fairy tales, Neil Gaiman, in a paragraph of G.K. Chesterton’s longer explanation, wrote, “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Each day, the dragons gather.  They show up in the latest news cycle.  They loom when I sit down to pay the bills or comfort a sick child.  In class, I spend hours discussing all the gray spaces where the heroes fall to dragons or where, sometimes, there are no heroes at all. But, as I grow older, I believe more and more that in a world full of dragons, there is a special wisdom in embracing the fairy tale, matted and familiar as a Snow White wig, as a place of empowerment, where we can, at least for the breadth of a story, watch the dragons fall.

'But I Can Do It Afraid'

Jill Reid

ear-191625_1280I was 27 years old when my daughter, my only child, Ellie, was born. It took years to conceive her, and then suddenly, on a pre-dawn Saturday morning, my water broke like the rainstorm that always arrives on days a meteorologist has confidently assured you, “Enjoy, folks. Today will be a sunny 70 degrees.” There were no signs Ellie would be a full three weeks early.

There was no packed bag. There was no gas in the car. I was down to two public-presentable maternity outfits. And the cute one was dirty. I was stunned to be so irrevocably out of time. I thought there would be weeks yet to locate the inner courage to properly and calmly  and bravely bear a human life. Instead, I pulled wrinkled maternity jeans from the hamper and ran them through the dryer. My husband and I scraped toward the hospital on a quarter of a tank of gas and even less courage.

Labor contractions are big bullies. There is often no warning when they will hit you hardest, and once they begin in earnest, you are at their mercy. But that sort of unstoppable force can also be a kind of relief. There’s no thinking. There’s no planning. There’s just bearing. During birth,  life leaks then shatters its way into the world, and you are the conduit through which it will pass. And it’s beautiful and joyful and terrifyingly unstoppable.

The next day, groggy and elated, I remember my husband telling me how brave I was during labor. I also remember looking at him like he had turned purple. This was not bravery, I thought. This was a matter of going on. A child ready to be born must be born. Bravery was something noble and solid that filled up a person from head to toe, that gleamed within like a warm, steady light. I was not brave. I was scared and tired and an absolute shaky mess of hormones and relief. I had even opted for the epidural.

*                *                *

When Ellie turned three, I was rain-storm shocked again. This time, I found myself “single mom-ing” my life with her. Each day, I went to work, paid the bills, made the dinner, read the bed-time stories, drank too much coffee, and lay awake at night convinced at how royally I was screwing things up. Because I was always scared, I also believed that I was not really brave but simply acting, as I did in that delivery room, at the behest of life and doing my best to keep up and remember to breathe. Somehow, I had forgotten that bravery does not exist apart from the very fear that requires it to form, solidifying like a rock we sling against the darkness.

A few weeks ago and at eight years old, Ellie begged to have her ears pierced. At this, I caught my breath. I vividly remembered from my own childhood experience that ear piercing involves pain. My writer’s sense of imagery brought visions of needles. Sharp objects would make a space for themselves in her skin. I also knew she would be terrified once she sat in the chair, and the process began. So, I told her that maybe she should wait, that it was okay to take more time to gather up her courage if she wasn’t feeling brave enough right now.

But Ellie stepped into her own story like the heroine I want to be. “I’ve wanted to do this for a long time, Mommy, and I am really scared. But I can do it afraid.”

Already in the car from school pick-up, we rushed to the mall. I held Ellie’s hand, and quiet little tears fell down her cheeks. She squeezed her eyes shut. Her right hand shook in her lap while courage bloomed as two dainty studs in Ellie’s pink earlobes and caught slivers of the ceiling’s fluorescent light. Ellie smiled at her image in a mirror. I sucked in a gallon of air.

Ellie did it afraid.

What I have forgotten about courage, Ellie has reminded me. Courage is at its finest in the company of fear. Courage is at its most beautiful in the hands and heart of the underdog, of the grieving, of the single mom or dad, or in the brimming, tight-shut eyes and terrifically shaking hands of an eight year old kid. In his Narnia books, C.S. Lewis describes bravery in a passage I’ve often read and always forget to apply to my own life, “Peter did not feel very brave; indeed, he felt he was going to be sick. But that made no difference to what he had to do.” Thank God we don’t have to feel brave to be brave.

In a few weeks, Ellie can change out her first pair of earrings for another. I will take her to the shop where her ears were pierced. I will let her choose two shiny new pairs of earrings. I will help her slip them into the healed spaces opened up by both her fear and her courage, and I will watch her smile at the gleam she gives off in the mirror. Maybe, “doing it afraid” is the only kind of brave that matters.

On Flashlights and Wanting to Believe

Jill Reid

"Vintage Christmas Postcard Krampus" by Dave / Flickr photo Christmas Eve 1928. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons As I write this piece, in part, out of fondness for my pre-Internet childhood and an old love affair with a boxy and rabbit-eared television, I can see us. We are sitting rapt – my two little sisters cross-legged beside me, our faces iridescently lit by the FBI flashlights that spear the dark glaze of an eerie and abandoned field. I can see Mulder and Scully pushing the light forward, toward us as we lean into it, intersecting one another like the glowing crossbeams of their flashlights.

I have forgotten many things about being a child, but piercingly clear is the part of my childhood and adolescence spent watching The X-Files. I remember the metallic smell of the antenna in my hands as I worked toward the delicate arrangement that would render a clear screen. I remember the big bowl of popcorn and pushing through angst and fear to deliciously tremble week after week as Fox Mulder and Dana Scully dodged monsters and aliens, their faces tense with the work of believing and proving what no one else could.

And it was worth it – the increased fear of a dark room, the occasional nightmare about spaceships or shape-shifters. It was worth it because as Mulder famously told us and as the opening credits stated week after anticipated week, “the truth is out there.”

Having grown up in the world of faith, in belief in the humanly impossible—in arks and Ascension and water into wine—I didn’t find Mulder’s words hard to accept. My whole world was informed by the supernatural, by the persistent grip of redemption and grace and by what I couldn’t always see and couldn’t always touch. I cheered for Mulder’s tenacious desire to uncover truth, for his skeptic partner Dana Scully’s increasing ability to begin to believe with him, too. And as they struggled with the paranormal, I sensed how faith in what couldn’t be seen or touched could become the foundation against which all the experiences of my life, even the frightening and unexplainable ones, were contextualized and illuminated. I even saved money to buy an expensive flashlight that I told myself was for reading beneath my bed covers. Really, I think I wanted it to illuminate my dark room the way Mulder and Scully’s search illuminated the space between me and the television on nights The X-Files came on.

One day, The X-Files went off the air. Soon after, I went to college. And I only kept a flashlight inside the glove-box of my car on the chance I had a flat tire and not because I anticipated a situation that involved the goose-bump pull of a dark field. Somewhere, in my movement through the long corridor of my twenties and early thirties, the unexplainable became too easy to explain with despair and disillusionment. Time has a way of relieving us of our wonder and expectation, of dimming our flashlights and making darkness seem more commonplace than even the simplest light. After the usual bouts with time that produced deaths and divorces and friends moving across the world, it was the joy that baffled me, the surprise that someone I loved did not die or divorce or move far away.

A few months ago, it was announced that David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were going to revive my old friends, Mulder and Scully, for six new episodes. In honor of the show’s new season, I began re-watching the old episodes. And I was surprised at how completely I had forgotten about the unbelief. And I’m not talking about Dana Scully, the skeptic to Fox Mulder’s persistent enthusiasm. I’m talking about Mulder, whose energy of faith was its own kind of light in the dreariest and most hopeless of circumstances:  “It’s hard, Scully,” he said. “Distrusting everyone and everything—it wears you down. You even begin to doubt what you know is the truth.” Stunned, I thought about how his words articulated a disillusionment buried in my own movement away from wonder. I understood what Mulder meant: the work of belief can be exhausting.

The revival of one of my favorite series has reminded me of the longing, of the unquenchable desire that is the human struggle to believe. Tonight, another episode will air. The flashlights will glimmer into focus. Mulder and Scully will reappear across my living room. And if they, years later and in middle age, can still be pulled into the fray of search and hope, if they can still be compelled to ready their flashlights and hit the dark and eerie fields, I can, too. Maybe I will call my sisters, remind them to turn on their TVs, and pop a bowl of popcorn. Perhaps, at the first sound of the theme-song’s whistle, I will become 14 again—a total nerd, a total dreamer, a total fan of the insatiable human capacity for belief that relies both on the resilience of imagination and the mystery of faith and that resurrects itself into the most unsuspecting life when she has forgotten to believe resurrection can happen.


Jill Reid

"Green Gables House, Cavendish, P.E.I." by Markus Gregory / Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons At a writing workshop, I’m asked a question I’ve often been dishonest in answering: “What writer(s) have influenced/influence you the most?” On such questionnaires, I carefully write the canon worthy names. Sometimes T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson make the cut. Or Flannery O’Connor, Shakespeare, Marilynne Robinson, and W.S. Merwin. But I know my list is lying. I know that no matter how many modern and classic and award winning names I identify and no matter how much each of those writers have and do influence me on a near daily basis, I’m never really telling all the truth unless I include her.

Unless I talk about L.M. Montgomery.

If I’m being the kind of honest that disdains pretention and doesn’t care what the list “should” say, I would talk about being 12 years old and saving to own every single book Montgomery ever wrote, even the out of print ones. I would tell how at recess or hiding in the quiet of my closet, I filled notebook after notebook with stories and poems in attempts to emulate her style, to make the kind of stories I wished she were still alive to write. If I’m really telling the whole truth, I would talk about just how much I longed to be part of the stories she told because her work was a creation so splendidly rendered that I wanted to touch it all with my own hands or at the very least, use those hands to reach out toward it all with my own words and stories.

Most famous for her writing the Anne of Anne of Green Gables, the endearingly stubborn red-haired orphan with an unrivaled imagination and penchant for seeing beyond the bleakness of her circumstances, Montgomery saw over twenty novels into publication during the turn of the 20th century, an era not well-known for “taking seriously” its few successful female writers. And while I find, particularly as a woman, her publication record deeply impressive, I fell in love with Montgomery’s voice long before I quite realized there was anything incredibly meaningful about her lonely position as a successful woman author in the early 1900s.

It was Rachel Lynde and the brook that babbled into submission as it passed her home that did it:

It was reputed to be a headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade. But by the time it reach Lynde’s Hollow it was a quiet well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s door….

And the first taste of November concentrated into words:

It was November--the month of crimson sunsets, parting birds, deep, sad hymns of the sea, passionate wind-songs in the pines. Anne roamed through the pineland alleys in the park and, as she said, let that great sweeping wind blow the fogs out of her soul.

Of course, there were so many discoveries. So many perfectly chosen words and in those words, so much knowing and feeling known. Most of all, L.M. Montgomery’s books worked like a place that after years of visiting, begins to feel, to become, something like a home.

About ten years ago, I lost my childhood home. It still exists, but for hard as well as necessary reasons, my family packed up and left it behind. They said goodbye to the rye grass pastures and the wrap around porch my grandfather built; they left it all the way you leave someone you will always love and always regret leaving. They moved on to a new town and began all over again. And when, states away, I traveled home for holidays and visits, I felt I never really came “home.”

A few weeks ago, on a work errand that sent me hours south of my own home, I found myself on the road that bent past the old house and land. And so hungry for home, I nearly stopped on the side of the road to scoop up a fistful of dirt I was considering placing in my empty Sonic cup until I could get back and rehome the soil in a mason jar I would tell no one about.

I didn’t stop, though. I drove on, and before bed that night, I rifled through my shelves looking for something to help the ache. And I found Montgomery and Anne and her journey towards home, ironically, comforting me in the loss of mine.

It’s important to pay homage to the often unsung writers who grabbed hold of us in the really formative years, the years where the concrete of  bones and brains were just beginning to set, and one good sentence pressed in the soft plaster would leave its mark forever. There is something comforting about how a book, or a perfectly loved authorial voice, can work like a placeholder in our lives and offer us the stability necessary to venture into the darker and complex stories, the new towns and jobs, even the tragedies and gray endings that spill forth from the great literary canons and life experiences we learn to embrace or tolerate later on. Those first guides don’t cease to be important as we move into more complicated stories and lives. If anything, the first books become even more essential.

There are books that can take us home; there are places inside the lines that somehow make a home for us to come back to. Montgomery’s works, so important to the child I was, are also just as meaningful to the adult I am, bookmarking a sense of home for me and cutting a path toward the other writers and the other homes I would and will know.

Letters to Self

Jill Reid

Photo by Fred Guillory / CC BY 2.0 At some point each semester, I talk to my writing class about the importance of keeping a journal.So much of what writers produce must be attached to deadline or assignment.  Under these conditions, we check our tone, weigh risks, and write beneath the shadow of an imagined and rolling eye. Under that kind of constraint, it’s important to have a place where our voices can crack with the terror or silliness or strain of the immediate moment without the pressure of public presentation.   

So, I press fresh paperback journals into young hands and quote Flannery O’Connor famous words, “I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” I tell them to write without burden because keeping a journal will make a space for discovery that even the most exacting assignment might not produce.And while I fully believe the possibility of this sort of discovery is real and true, I almost forget to expect that sort of discovery for myself.  

In a letter to college freshman, Alfred Corn (now a famous poet), Flannery O’Connor addresses Corn’s concern for new and intense doubts about his Christian faith. As any reader of O’Connor would expect, her responses are profound and thoughtful. Assuring him that real faith must encounter real doubt, she reminds him that “doubt is an experience that belongs to faith.” Using her method of letter writing as a catalyst for a free-write, I direct students to “write a letter to your past self that suggests experiences of doubt and faith without using either of the words doubt or faith.” And when I go home and search my own shelves for an old journal, I am surprised to discover that I have been writing these kinds of letters to myself for a long time.   

For a fevered hour, I sit with my own journals, the stiff-spined and the scraggly paged, cheap composition books and mahogany moleskines. I read and reread and find that beyond the images and ideas I left for myself to develop into poems and papers, I have also been writing very personally to my own self. I stare a long time at four sentences that lament the doubt a past self felt about my capacity to “really” write, and I begin to remember, flanked by my own words, that the doubt I experience today in my writing life is nothing new. Suddenly, I wanted to hug the author who admitted this struggle, to high-five her, embracing “yesterday’s” voice with an abandon I would never direct at “today’s”. The experience of having my own past voice directly address my present one was like encountering an inheritance someone else had earned and carefully saved for the benefit of another generation. Yesterday’s voice admitted angst that today’s voice still understood. There was such relief in that mutual understanding.

A letter, in its nature of direct and intimate address, clasps my imagination in the same way my grandmother’s old hands cup the face of my daughter. There is something about a voice that belongs to a moment I intimately know; I can believe in that voice because I can believe in the reality of the moment from which it speaks. How shocking, for the writer, so used to falling in love with other voices, other stories, to find her own voice worth listening to.

Metaphysical poet, John Donne, writes that “More than kisses, letters mingle souls.” While the act of writing letters naturally lends itself to the passionate longing of lovers, I am moved by the letters that I have, even unknowingly, been writing to myself. I am breathless for notes scrabbled in margins and smudged blue into spidery paragraphs. How vital our own voices can become, shimmering in margins of shelved journals, waiting to reach across time and distance like a letter addressing us in a moment we most need to hear from a friend.

Writing in Place

Jill Reid

airport-731196 In late July, just as the lawns on my street were properly scorched and my small garden gave up its last stunted tomato, my daughter, Ellie, and I boarded a plane for upstate New York. We ate chocolate chip granola bars and chewed the gum we stuffed in our backpacks the night before. In flight, I jittered on Starbucks espresso, and Ellie drew pictures of clouds with the fresh blue notebook and green pen we bought just for the trip. And when we found our luggage on the carousel and headed toward the entrance where my best friend was waiting to pick us up, I suddenly had the strangest desire. For the first time in weeks, I felt compelled to sit down and write.

Known for his writing about the power of myth, C.S. Lewis believed that "the value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity." Standing in that airport in that moment plunged me into a story that could have belonged to someone whose life is much more exciting than mine. Everything about the heft of my backpack, the squeak of Ellie's shoes, and the drag of the suitcase along the airport tile felt bigger, more profound than it had six hours ago in Louisiana. This fresh place in location freed the ordinary to be all that it had been before, but that I was unable to experience under "the veil of familiarity." Suddenly, there was something mythic about holding my seven-year-old's little hand, her favorite doll under her arm, the both of us standing in a place we never stood before and might never stand again.

Writing in any place is tough. "Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job," writes Neil Gaiman. "It's always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins." I write, more often than not, against the urge to go back to bed, to clean my kitchen, or do just about anything else in the world besides sit down with that blank page. On my better days, I write, anyway. But the writing isn't always good; the writing doesn't always feel worth it. And sometimes, in the process of waking up, making the coffee, and staring at the screen, I experience the treadmill sensation of moving without moving, of writing in place.

In her poem, "Sometimes, When the Light," Lisel Mueller suggests that an angle of light is enough to produce the mythic jarring of relocation.

Sometimes, when the light strikes at odd angles and pulls you back into childhood

and you are passing a crumbling mansion completely hidden behind old willows

or an empty convent guarded by hemlocks and giant firs standing hip to hip,

you know again that behind that wall, under the uncut hair of the willows

something secret is going on, so marvelous and dangerous

that if you crawled through and saw, you would die, or be happy forever.

The surprise in the poem arrives not just in the "secret" taking place behind the shagginess of unkempt trees. The surprise in the poem also arrives with the word "again." The speaker knows "again that behind that wall" something "marvelous and dangerous" is taking place, and the fresh angle of light has transformed the crumbling landmark she might overlook on her routine drive to work into a revelation. She has seen this place before but forgotten to notice the "marvelous and dangerous" about it.

I seldom have the chance to board airplanes for New York. Somedays, the only landmarks I see are the ones I pass on the way to the kitchen table where I sit down, morning after sleepy morning, to drink my coffee and work out my writing. But right now I'm still charged with the loss of familiarity I experienced after that flight. And I'm also on the lookout for fresh angles of light to illuminate again the "marvelous and dangerous" that I have forgotten to notice.

On Literary Companions

Jill Reid

19 Reid photo Perhaps, I am flirting with literary sacrilege in confessing I am not a huge William Wordsworth fan. It’s a dark secret I keep from my students each time we traverse the timeline of the British Romantic movement. While I appreciate his massive and game-changing contributions to the canon, I prefer to make my way through the literary landscape of the 1800s deliciously horrified by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I mean, who can resist a text that incorporates the diversity of grave-robbing, romance, a “monster” who recites Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the line “by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open”?

Still, out of literary respect, I always make sure we spend a little time on Wordsworth. This year in my British literature class, we read “We Are Seven” from his famed collection of Lyrical Ballads. Sing-song and balladic, the poem is structured by short stanzas of dialogue between an adult and a child, and, in the dialogue, directly contrasts the adult and child’s differing views of what can be considered “real” and alive.

In the opening stanza, the speaker asks the reader: “A simple Child/what should it know of death?” (lines 1-4). This questioning of the child’s ability to distinguish the real from the non-real continues as the adult argues that the little girl cannot logically claim, “We are seven” when two of her siblings have died and two have moved away. But the adult cannot argue this child down. An imposition of a more logical and tangible reality will not overcome the intangible but very real understanding of her family identity:

“But they are dead; those two are dead! Their spirits are in heaven!” Twas throwing words away; for still The little Maid would have her will, And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

I admire Wordsworth’s little Maid. My grandmother would call her “hardheaded.” But I understand that stubbornness. Her brothers and sisters are alive unto her. The adult and all his logic cannot diminish their presence in her life.

In class, I often talk about “being human.” For me, one aspect of being human means being haunted. We are, knowingly or not, haunted by people—the family and friends who imprint so deeply into our lives that we are never truly separated from them—their influence and shadows, their words and DNA. But Wordsworth’s poem also prompts thinking about another kind of “haunting.” As readers, we are often haunted by the fictional. There is something about the companionship of characters, of literary characters, that can haunt on some level the way the dead can.

For passionate readers, how much of our “everyday lives” are saturated by the presence of characters? How often has the fictional become something more than fiction, a bond formed with companions that continue to exist influentially in our lives long after their book is clapped back on the shelf? It is a wonder that in a stifling crowd of people I sometimes find myself wondering about Scout Finch or having an inner dialogue with Anne Shirley or thinking about Shakespeare’s Viola or Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne so completely that each of them are as present and part of that moment as the noise and heat of the crowd pressing against me.

A good writer can make characters as real as the ham sandwich we packed for lunch, as tangible as Louisiana humidity in July. There is comfort in that realness. There is comfort in not giving into the rigidity of Wordsworth’s adult speaker and in choosing to let the imagined be “alive unto us,” in walking through our lives alongside our literary companions. In doing so, we find that there is community anywhere there are carefully written words. Surely, the dead have great influence over our lives, but perhaps, the imagined, in their own way, also haunt, in the best possible sense, the way we move through and perceive the world.

Laughing in Class

Jill Reid

L0003910 Carved ivory upper and lower denture It’s the first day of the poetry unit for my freshmen composition class. All morning, I rehearse my opening lines like a high school invitation to prom: Would you like to read poetry with me? I promise we’ll have a good time. After a few minutes, I advance to the break-up speech: No really, it’s not you. It’s me. I can’t help it. I just really love poetry. It’s ok. You can admit it—I know you hate it. Maybe we should just break up.

Of course, I don’t say any of this. What I actually offer my class is a poem. I tell them that I’ve even chosen a funny poem. I tell them I’ve done this because poetry is often funny. And I avert my gaze in an attempt to ignore the dubious glances that follow.

At this point each year, I get worried. The problem is that in over ten years of teaching in both high school and college, I am not surprised when my students express their past experiences with poetry as sterile and cold, overly academic and irrelevant to their everyday lives.

Dana Gioia famously wrote in his highly lauded essay, “Can Poetry Matter?,” that poetry’s readership has been severely divided into classes of academic and common readers, noting that “outside the classroom—where society demands that the two groups interact—poets and the common reader are no longer on speaking terms.” I realize despite all their years of being tested on literature, many of my students have yet to engage with a poem in any sort of personally meaningful way. However, I know poetry is more than what they’ve experienced so far; good poetry establishes a meeting point between the poem and the reader that, at its best, is both warmly and meaningfully human. I want them to find even one poem they can hold against their humanity until it illuminates something about what it means to be human in a particular skin, in a particular moment, and in a particular place. I want that for them more than I want them to write a decent paragraph.

And I’m counting on a “funny” poem to wedge open the door between my passion and their doubt. So, anxiously, excitedly, I begin reading this poem.

Prof of Profs BY GEOFFREY BROCK For Allison Hogge, in memory of Brian Wilkie

I was a math major—fond of all things rational. It was the first day of my first poetry class. The prof, with the air of a priest at Latin mass, told us that we could “make great poetry personal,”

could own it, since poetry we memorize sings inside us always. By way of illustration he began reciting Shelley with real passion, but stopped at “Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”— because, with that last plosive, his top denture popped from his mouth and bounced off an empty chair.

He blinked, then offered, as postscript to his lecture, a promise so splendid it made me give up math: “More thingth like that will happen in thith clath.” Source: Poetry (July/August 2008).

When the first giggle emerges beneath the bill of a baseball cap in the corner of the classroom, I exhale and think that nothing really terrible can happen for the rest of the day because a student laughed at a poem in my 8:00 class. Apparently, I have nailed the lisp. Also, I discover that my students enjoy the poem. They tell me that they would love to read more poems like this. They ask me if any more exist. I am giddy. Yes. YES, I say, working hard to stifle the middle-schoolish glee I feel manifesting itself in a snort laugh.

Anne Sexton once wrote: “Watch out for intellect,/because it knows so much it knows nothing/and leaves you hanging upside down,/mouthing knowledge as your heart/falls out of your mouth.” Her poem indicates the danger in courting the intellect at the exclusion of the heart. Her words further illustrate what “Prof of Profs” so humorously acknowledges. Bock’s poem emphasizes the intersection between the academic and the “ordinary,” and the poem shines with the playful way the two worlds inform each other, contrasting their concerns and realities in a “plosive” and humorous tone. A studied engagement with art should not nullify our human-ness but rather increase our awareness of it. There is no checking humor at the classroom door because humor belongs to the experience of being human both inside and outside the world of the poem and classroom. Truly, art often makes space for such worlds to collide. And for a brief moment, in the grip of a good poem, my students and I bear witness to the glimmers and sparks that follow such collisions.

Persona and Poetry

Jill Reid

Beauty and Death “My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours.”—Frederick Buechner

 Last fall, I spent a few weeks teaching two beautiful essays to an undergraduate creative writing class. One essay was written by Frederick Buechner and the other by my talented friend Callie Feyen. Both essays dealt with moments of loss and growth and reached far back into the writers’ pasts, all the way to childhood. One of the most interesting things my students discussed in regard to the essays was the way both authors were able to compress time in their narrative voices. The essays were rich with both the voice of the children they once were and the adults they had become. My students loved the essays not only for the stories they told but more, I think, for the voices that told them. These were voices both broad and specific enough to belong to the writers, as well as every reader who had experienced similar loss and growth.

Energized from the discussion, I went home and tried to write a poem for the first time in weeks. I made coffee, stared at the screen, and heaved more into the blank space than any poor page deserves to bear. It took two more weeks before the poem and its voice came together enough to sound less like Jill the person and more like Jill the writer—someone who crafts voice and imagery capable of embodying both 'my' story as well as the stories of others.

Voice, the construct of tone behind a poem’s unfolding, has become much more than a craft concern for me. Learning how to create and wield “voice” has allowed me to move through spaces as a writer I would never be brave enough to risk as just Jill. When I entered the MFA program at Seattle Pacific University three years ago, I was choking on moments and images and memories that I couldn’t control or temper into poetic line. I was a newly divorced, single mom putting myself through grad school, and I felt like a walking stereotype. The world smacked of pain. An unpaired sock on the floor, the mockingbird cracking into the glass door, even my umbrella turning inside out in the rain—every image brimmed with the shock of loss.

My poetry mentor, Jeanine Hathaway, who has written extensively utilizing the power of persona (see her Ex-Nun Poems), looked me in the eye and asked, “Why not try a costume change?” I blinked at Jeanine. “Tell the story. But use a persona. It will free the poem to be the poem and your experiences to be your experiences.”

In a way, persona saved me. I was able to write about the unpaired sock and the mockingbird and the umbrella, but write about them outside of the moment I experienced them. Instead, those images unfolded in the crafted persona of a professor/mom or the granddaughter of a Creole farmer. And while those personas comprise elements of my identity, they are also constructs that allowed me to be both emotionally present and distant enough from the experiences and the poems to do them all justice. With my voice tucked inside the right persona, I don’t get bogged down in the mire of how I remember something or how I would say something. Instead, I am free to know what I would say or did say while writing what the persona would say in the way she would say it.

Each time I sit down and lack the courage to tell a story, I think of Jeanine and the power of a costume change. Eventually, I get the nerve to rummage for the right persona and let it lead me through the difficult spaces. I am learning to follow and create the voice that helps me to be brave.


Trying to Capture It All

Jill Reid

Capturing flower This Christmas, my daughter received her first diary. She did not expect or ask for it. But as I sat on the bookstore floor, figuring how many Amelia Bedelia books and candy canes would slide into her reindeer stocking, I saw it—a small diary, the cover bright with a single blue owl, its giant eyes wide open and jewel yellow. On Christmas morning when she dumped her stocking, two Amelia Bedelia books and one blue owl diary, replete with a lock and two tiny silver keys, tumbled into her growing pile of presents. I fumbled for my camera only to realize I had forgotten to change the batteries. The irony of the instant thickened; Ellie smiled at her diary, and I lost one of the morning’s moments I meant to keep.

Maybe my being a writer has strengthened my notion that first journals are a pretty big deal. I still remember mine—its sky-blue cover, the pages tall and crisp, silver lined and longing for the blue ink of its attached pen. I wanted to write down everything. And that felt exciting and also bit like a burden.

In his book, All Over But the Shoutin', Rick Bragg acknowledges the importance of a single moment: “It was a good moment, the kind you would like to press between the pages of a book, or hide in your sock drawer, so you could touch it again.” Bragg’s words suggest something of the writer’s intense desire to frame instances in ways that feel concrete and touchable. Even before that first diary, I hardly remember a time when I did not feel a need to record what I noticed with words that tried to get inside the noticing and hold the smell and look and feel of the moment in ways that felt true. The problem, though, is that everything, every smell and texture and color, clamors to be noticed. So much pleads for attention, and part of being human means there is only so much attention to spend on any given moment.

As a writer and now, as a parent too, I struggle with urgency, with the frantic need to capture the moment, all of the moments: ordinary Tuesdays and boring three o’clocks as well as Christmas plays and birthday milestones and even the way the light bloomed in one open patch of cloud cover on my way to the coffee shop this morning. All of it seems important. It feels a waste to let any of it go unnoticed and unwritten. There is a pleasure and also a heaviness in knowing what words can do—the power of discovery they wield, the way they hold to the wisp of an instance even after it has dissolved.

But something has occurred to me in the slow writing of this piece, something so simple and basic, that I am ashamed to have forgotten it. Each day I bear witness to acts of grace around me—the unexpected gift of a diary or the surprise of light breaking through cloud. Perhaps it is easy to forget, in all this noticing and rendering, that grace is also offered to the writer. Spilling into the fissures and cracks of my own lack and finiteness is the same grace I watch play out in the moments that surround me. Somehow and without my remembering to expect or ask, another Tuesday, another three o’clock, another moment arrives like an offering. Maybe I will miss some of what I mean to see or remember or write down. But that’s okay, because grace also comes in the remembering that as a writer (and a parent) I am allowed to do more than merely capture moments or lament missing them. I am also free to create them.

Reading for Connection

Jill Reid

($(( In December, winter finally feels real. Our yard is a red field of pine needles I can’t keep raked. Even in Louisiana, the air has turned cold enough to hurt. Today, my daughter and I walk around our neighborhood. Ellie wears her new blue coat and last year’s pink scarf. She twirls and leaps between the pinecones and acorns that garland the road. Sometimes, we hold hands and leap into the leftovers of autumn, pressing against what has fallen away, hoping for a satisfying crunch beneath our soles. Our neighbor’s chimney unfurls thick woolly plumes. We suck in the good and cold smoky air. Everywhere we are bombarded with choices to notice and connect, to make contact with the season we are in.

On our walks, Ellie and I read the sounds and smells and images surrounding us. I want to teach her how important it is to notice well, to expect to encounter the sacred and profound between the lines of sidewalks strewn with acorns and leaves. As we walk, a poem spins in my mind, and connects itself to this moment I am 34 years-old and holding the hand of my six-year-old daughter as we walk slowly down our street. My mentor and friend, Jeanne Murray Walker, wrote the poem. I can hear her voice in each line as I whisper the poem to myself.

“Connections” By Jeanne Murray Walker

After, against, among, around. How I admire prepositions, small as they are, nothing but safety pins, their lives given to connecting. They are paid help, maids in black uniforms who pass hors d’oeuvres. Or better, they’re the joy that leaps between us when we get to know them. Without connection, what can survive? Because the lawn waits for the sun to wake it from its winter nap, we say sunlight lies on the grass. Even the simplest jar connects – jar under moonlight, on counter, jar in water. It was prepositions in the Valley of Dry Bones that stitched the femur to the heel, the heel to the foot bone. And afterwards, they got up to dance. Between, beside, within may yet keep the chins and breasts from tumbling off Picasso’s women. If I could, I would make prepositions the stars of grammar like the star which traveled the navy sky that night sweet Jesus lay in his cradle, pulling the wise and devious kings toward Bethlehem, and us behind them, trekking from the rim of history toward Him.

In its long smooth threading, Jeanne’s poem reveals both how small and resilient are the bridges that connect moments and people and object. Words pull “the wise and devious kings / toward Bethlehem, and us behind them, / trekking from the rim of history toward Him.” Something as small and fragile as a preposition seams time and place and person together. Something as small and fragile as a baby in a manger connects mankind to the miraculous.

When I’m finished whispering the lines, I call Ellie to me and long to remember this moment the way I remember the lines of the poem. I wonder if Ellie will remember any of it at all. The sky darkens, and patchy strings of Christmas lights flicker here and there in neighbors’ yards. Ellie and I follow them like stars. We breathe the cold air and hold bare hands until the cold forces them back into our pockets. In a moment, we reach for each other again.

The Poetry of Loss and Resurrection

Jill Reid

Robert Freidus Sometimes, especially when I’m most in need of meeting myself—the actual Jill long lost within the daily, rigid busyness of life—I hunt for myself in the files on my computer.

I look for me between the lines of what I have managed to write down, in words and images that, over time, come together in patterns and threads and whispers. And I try to understand what I believe I have been trying to tell myself. I have discovered that the Jill who has been writing these past few months is one who can’t stop talking about the past, about memory, about loss.

A few months ago, I stood in the cold corner of a funeral home with a twenty-one year-old college student whom I have come to love and admire very much over four years of teaching her. Just a day earlier, she was taking notes in her English literature class. Now, she was standing near the casket of her mother, killed on impact in a tragic car crash. And just like that, the month became not her first month as a college senior, but the month in which her mother died, the month she would forever associate with brutal and unexpected loss.

I know that grief and loss almost always find us when we aren’t looking. And even when we are looking, our God-given human instinct to exist, to expect others to continue to exist along with us still baffles our ability to navigate what we somehow feel was never meant to be—this road of vanishing faces, this road of vanishing moments. We feel we are made to last. We feel those we love were made to last. And yet, like pencil etchings on a growth chart, our human lives can feel so measured by the losses we endure, the grief we live with.

A few weeks after the funeral, I read a poem by Lisel Mueller that stunned me in all the aching and haunting ways the best poems do:

“When I Am Asked” by Lisel Mueller

When I am asked how I began writing poems, I talk about the indifference of nature.

It was soon after my mother died, a brilliant June day, everything blooming.

I sat on a gray stone bench in a lovingly planted garden, but the day lilies were as deaf as the ears of drunken sleepers and the roses curved inward. Nothing was black or broken and not a leaf fell and the sun blared endless commercials for summer holidays.

I sat on a gray stone bench ringed with the ingenue faces of pink and white impatiens and placed my grief in the mouth of language, the only thing that would grieve with me.

I think the poem haunted me because of how powerfully Mueller’s images portray a collision of experience—that relatable and agonizing experience of being alone in a cheery, bright world with your own dark grief. The placement of a hard “stone bench” in both the middle of her poem and the middle of a garden communicates something of the hardness and ruttedness one faces in the middle of loss. The flowers bloom beautifully and unsparingly, advertising their wholeness in a season where “nothing is black or broken” except the mourner, sitting on a gray bench, stuck between bloom and loss.

Mueller’s poem helps me understand the self I have discovered in the files of my computer. I think I write about loss and memory and the past because those things never really are lost or past. I think we write poems and read poems because, among other things, poetry becomes the landscape of resurrection. When Mueller finds that language, that poetry will “grieve” with her, she not only resurrects the memory of her mother, but she also raises up her own grief and gives it a safe space to unfold, to exist. In our busy lives, it does seem that there is little room to negotiate loss. But in the world of the poem, there is space, not only for those we mourn but also for those who mourn.

(Photo by Robert Friedus)

The Discomfort of Empathy

Jill Reid

empathy-john-edward-marinEach fall semester, I anticipate him. I keep open a substantial space in the syllabus for one of his plays. I move through Beowulf and trek through Chaucer until I arrive at that sweet spot – Shakespeare. But however giddy I am about the bard, each year I field the same question that, when pared down to its bare bones, asks – What does dead old Shakespeare have to do with me? What does this centuries old story have to do with my field of biology or law or business?

Like any educator, I welcome the questions. They give me the opportunity to acknowledge the relationship between the words we read and the world we inhabit. Especially, the questions give me the opportunity to talk about empathy, a topic getting a lot of press in education circles and one that has recently and brilliantly been addressed by Leslie Jamison in her book, The Empathy Exams.

 In my classroom, I often find that students struggle to connect the experience of discomfort to the experience of empathy. When my sophomore survey class finished Othello, some students kicked against the merit of a text they found so disturbing, so violently tragic. Despite their reluctance, the presence of their discomfort was the clearest sign that they had read the text with empathizing sensitivity. True empathy is a painstaking, uncomfortable process that resists the cheap comfort of stereotype, prejudice, and self-righteousness.

Writer James Baldwin once said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

Baldwin’s words suggest that we read not only for our own sake but also for the sake of others. We read not to escape from our own pain but to connect that pain to something larger than itself. And that connection occurs when a thoughtful reading snags our senses on the heartbreak or even foolishness of someone else, and we stop in our tracks and walk alongside that struggling character. Empathy does not require the reader’s agreement with a character’s choices, but it does require his understanding of that character’s plight. There is something Christ-like in becoming a reader vulnerable to the pain and hardship of a story’s characters, in extending grace “to the least of these.” Yes, characters in stories are fictional, but perhaps, if a reader can practice the act of empathy in the world of fiction, she can learn to render it even more graciously in the world of the hospital and the law firm and the boardroom.

(Painting by John Edward Marin)

“Try to Praise the Mutilated World”

Jill Reid

christ Storm Christ For me, autumn is the season of association. Perhaps, it’s in its ghostliness, in its smoky, leafy Halloween flavors that remembering becomes important. I’m really not sure. I only know that today, when I inhaled that first crisp earthy hint of autumn in the air, I began to remember.

For most Americans, remembering in autumn means lingering on the autumn of September 11, 2001. I remember, particularly, that I was studying abroad in London, shoving my way toward a better view of Queen Victoria’s portrait in Buckingham Palace when security guards escorted our group out onto the lawn, and my sister and I squeezed clammy hands and waited for news of our family, of our country. I remember riding the Tube to class across the city and feeling shame for fearing everyone, the old man and the teenage boy, the woman whose eyes were cast down on the gritty subway tile. I remember huddling in a hotel lobby on Bedford Square, the smell of taxi exhaust and street vendors roasting chestnuts wafting through the open window, while professors weighed the dangers of our class meeting in a threatened area of the city.

Mostly, I remember not knowing how to reconcile my existence in what seemed like two very disparate worlds. There were the smooth arching corridors of The British Museum through which I walked and gawked each week. And there was the rubble of the World Trade Center blaring across every paper and screen. There were the extremists fleeing London to join the Taliban. There was the kindness of British strangers who, upon hearing an American accent, would draw near to touch our shoulders, tear up, and offer condolences.

As is often the case for me, a poem offered me another way to think about the world:

Try to Praise the Mutiliated World by Adam Zagajewski

Try to praise the mutilated world. Remember June's long days, and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine. The nettles that methodically overgrow the abandoned homesteads of exiles. You must praise the mutilated world. You watched the stylish yachts and ships; one of them had a long trip ahead of it, while salty oblivion awaited others. You've seen the refugees going nowhere, you've heard the executioners sing joyfully. You should praise the mutilated world. Remember the moments when we were together in a white room and the curtain fluttered. Return in thought to the concert where music flared. You gathered acorns in the park in autumn and leaves eddied over the earth's scars. Praise the mutilated world and the gray feather a thrush lost, and the gentle light that strays and vanishes and returns.

Christianity’s most universally recognizable image, the crucifix, embodies how horror and mercy, evil and goodness can be nailed together in the same mind-blowing frame. We live in a world in which “executioners sing joyfully,” a world with exiles and ships that sink into “salty oblivion.” And we live, too, in a world of “wild strawberries”, where we must remember when “we were together / in a white room and the curtain fluttered.” Zagajewski’s poem offers a view of a difficult world, a mutilated world in which violence and beauty often linger near one another, as well as a world which has the capacity to astonish the careful witness with the way the “gentle light … strays and vanishes / and returns.”

Writing against Loss

Jill Reid

memory This summer, along with a talented poet friend, Rosanne Osborne, I co-led a poetry and faith workshop using Dave Harrity’s book, Making Manifest. The book emphasizes writing as a way of recovering an awareness of ourselves and our Creator by focusing on the significance of single moments, both past and present. The makeup of the workshop was both surprising and just right, made up of multiple generations of women who discovered, through writing, how much more they had in common than any of us initially anticipated. For a month, writers in all stages of life wrestled hard with memory, paying careful attention to what Dave Harrity calls “the disappearing instant,”and living inside the particularity of a moment long enough to locate the images and words capable of capturing the moment’s essence and implications.

Writing about memory can be a tricky thing. “The writer must,”poet Jeanne Murray Walker instructs, “learn how to manage time and manage it well.”For writers, this managing of time is a tall order, particularly when, as busy human beings, we feel much more managed than managing. However, there is reprieve in the world of a well-written poem. That poem has the supernatural ability to stop time, to allow for the kind of reflection that counters the pace of the “real”world.

As challenging as it can be to set up the world of a poem, to find a way into the lyric or the narrative, to decide which lines to cut, to settle on the dominant image that, hopefully, will beautifully marry all the poem’s assorted parts, the poem that delves into memory offers the writer and the reader an opportunity to sit still inside of a single moment, to settle into instances crisp as the day they were happening. The poem offers the writer and reader the chance to recover something that has been lost.

Poet Ruth Stone writes that “memory becomes the exercise against loss.”Stone’s words imply high stakes for the writer who chooses to engage the past.   The struggle of that poet is the struggle to recover and locate someone else’s memory in her own, to be both universal and specific, and to do both in the breadth of a page or two. Those poems are difficult to write and often to read. But those kinds of poems are my favorite ones. Poems that strive to unearth the past push us to be our most human selves, to locate our forgotten persons and moments, to pull them from the margins of the past, and give them space to breathe again. Ultimately, such poems offer us the opportunity to have faith that our participation in this act of recovery truly is an exercise against loss.

(Illustration by Gurbuz Dogan Eksioglu)