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Filtering by Tag: Rilke

You Learned What You Were Ready To Learn

Christina Lee

The Sower - Van Gogh Of all the pranks I’ve ever pulled, my favorite remains convincing every guy in my music theory class to dress up like our professor.

We loved Dr. Clemmons. He was kind, funny, patient and generally excellent. He was also sartorially predictable.

Stonewash tapered jeans, sneakers, white tucked-in button-down, red tie, brown belt, wire-rim glasses. This was his daily uniform. And the night before the final, I called every guy I knew on campus to rustle up 15 identical outfits. The next morning, the guys paraded in one by one.

Surrounded by his clones, Dr. Clemmons laughed, high-fived, and took time to pose for plenty of pictures before he settled us down and passed out our final exam.

I was so proud of myself. It didn’t really occur to me that he might have preferred I spend finals eve studying for his test. I don’t remember my exact grade in the class, but it’s safe to say it was less impressive than my costuming skills.

Years later, we ended up attending the same church, and I worked up the courage to ask him, “How did you put up with all of us? I wish I could go back and take your class now. I’d be such a good student!”

My former professor laughed and said, "Well, you learned as much as you were ready to learn.” 

This spring, I’m teaching poetry, and I think about those words most every day. Seventh grade brains are all over the map, developmentally. While one girl is crafting an iambic treatise on good and evil, the chick beside her is writing a rambling declaration of war against the girl who stole her boyfriend, and the boy behind them is writing a very descriptive piece re: failing to hold in a fart.

And I swear to you, these students are all doing their best.

I can get disheartened, bringing my students everything I know about poetry in the best way I know how, and getting back poems about farts and hot dogs.

Henri Nouwen said that when serving others, he was always fighting “fear of rejection, hunger for affirmation, and a never-decreasing search for affection.” And I notice this neediness in myself sometimes.

I can still remember one student from last year (we’ll call him Jake) standing before the class, intoning his poem about chips in a mortified monotone, “So crunchy /so crisp / the salty surface / I lick.” As he spoke, his eyes blazed with the injustice of my assignment.

This year, we held a school-wide poetry slam, and I got to see many former students perform. This slam was voluntary; so imagine my surprise when chip-boy bounded up to the podium. As he introduced himself, I steeled myself for a rough few minutes.

But his poem was incredible. It was clear and vivid and powerful, and he spoke with pride and confidence. As he strode off stage, I hooted and hollered with the crowd, but I felt a little twinge behind my smile. What had I done wrong last year? How had his current teacher helped him unleash this masterpiece? Why had I ended up with a listless ode to Hot Cheetos?

Breakthrough moments like this are a teacher’s version of a bonus check, so it makes sense that sometimes we’d be a little greedy for them. But these moments belong to our students, not to us.

Don’t get me wrong: a good teacher never stops asking a student for his best. She gives feedback and sets high expectations. But she also knows how to release control, to trust her students, and to allow them to develop at their own pace.

When we release our students from our own “hunger for affirmation,” ironically, that’s when we teach best.

Rilke says, “In spite of all the farmer’s work and worry, he can’t reach down to where the seed is slowly transmuted into summer. The earth bestows.”

As I prepare to say goodbye to this year’s group, I hope I have taught them well. I hope I’ve helped them understand a little more about writing, literature and poetry. Yes, I even hope they did well on their state testing.

But I also hope I’ve helped them feel permission to be themselves, and gracefully accepted the gifts they have brought me, even if they weren’t the ones I asked for. I hope that I’ve let them to learn as much as they were ready to learn.

You Must Change Your Life

Christina Lee

railway-station-1007167_1280 Naomi Shihab Nye describes poetry as “a conversation with the world, a conversation with those words on the page allowing them to speak back to you—a conversation with yourself.”A few weeks ago, at AWP, I heard Nye speak on a poetry-activism panel with Luis Rodriguez and Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Griffiths’ photography and poetry gives voice to the grief and rage she feels at the police brutality in America. Rodriguez, the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, has seen poetry unite his diverse, complicated city. All three poets spoke with a beautiful urgency, reminding us of the power in our art.  

This seemed to be the theme of AWP. Claudia Rankine was the keynote speaker. Her book, Citizen, is the perfect example of revolution-inciting poetry.

In fact, every session and panel seemed to be built on this same idea. Throughout the conference, I kept thinking of the last line of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” After contemplating the beauty and power of the statue, the speaker feels an edict: “You must change your life.”  

The Monday after the conference, I drove to work in a bit of a funk. I missed the urgency and energy and buzz of the conference. Then the story of Dagmar and Wali came on NPR and reminded me that returning to regular life was the whole point.  

The story concerns a very odd couple: Dagmar Nordberg is a 60-year-old Swedish museum director. Wali Hafiz is a 23-year-old Afghani engineer and refugee. Wali was brutally beaten and left for dead by the Taliban after he refused to support their efforts. He was forced to leave his wife and young daughter and flee to Sweden. This excerpt from the NPR transcript describes Wali and Dagmar’s first encounter:

They met on a train platform in a nearby village on a freezing cold day last November.

"He was standing there in a T-shirt, with his jeans and his cotton shoes," Nordberg recalls. "And I thought he was just one of these boys playing computer games all day long. And I've come to that age where I can say things, so I just passed him by and I said, 'It's winter!' "

Hafiz says he had so many problems he couldn't think about the weather. And besides, he didn't own a jacket. Nordberg remembers he was so stressed that he was sweating, but he replied politely.

"He said, 'I know, ma'am,'" she says. "That was the first time I heard Wali's voice."

Nordberg says she understood then that he was a lost refugee and she could either go on with her life or help him. "I just knew I had this choice here and now, and whatever I do will have consequences," she says.

So she took him in, taught him English, and secured him an apprenticeship. If you play the story to the end, you’ll hear them laughing together at her kitchen table…two unlikely kindred spirits.

I’m sure Dagmar, as a museum director, would have liked what Nye, Rodriguez, Griffiths and Rankin had to say at AWP, if she’d been able to hear it. I’m sure that when she curates the art in her museum, she looks for works that challenge and inspire change.

What amazes me is the way she altered her life in one moment, because of one encounter. Her story reminds me that it isn’t enough to listen to great speakers or to feel moved by great art. We must also be willing to take action.

I can’t get over that line she called out over the train platform— “It’s winter.”

Those words did what Nye says all poems should do. They connected strangers and moved them from hostility to understanding. They began a conversation. And ultimately, they transformed.

Printed out on a page, separated from their story, they might not look like much. 

It’s Winter.

Still, that’s the best poem I’ve heard in years. 

Rilke and Foolishness

Christina Lee

Rilke in Moscow by Leonid Pasternak Sometimes, when I’m burnt out, I look to Rilke. Not his Letters to a Young Poet, or his masterpiece, Duino Elegies, but to his very first collection, Wegwarten. It was self-published, and he handed it out on street corners. One version of the story even claims he did this while “dressed in the black habit of an abbé with long curly hair.”

I really hate feeling foolish. I think, perhaps, it’s my deepest fear. I know, I know….my deepest fear ought to be something more lofty or noble, but honestly, embarrassment terrifies me.

I teach junior highers, so basically, I spend my days with 130 walking manifestations of this fear. They are never still—always tucking, brushing, fixing, sweating, lip-glossing, whispering, watching. They are little machines of anxious, self-protective energy.

When I think back on my own junior high years, I remember how intensely I wanting to blend in—to disappear, be it through diets, trends, or the right hedge of friends who would shield me from the blinding glare of individuality.

Even as a writer, even all grown up, I struggle with this. I obsess over how to write what I think editors want to read. How to snuggle into a writing community in which my voice will be welcomed and lauded. I skip certain contests and journal submissions, just to avoid the embarrassment of unrealistic expectations.

Of course I also fear writing forgettable poems, yet my pride steers me away from topics that would fuel really memorable poetry—family dysfunction, social justice, feminism, sex. Topics with the potential for embarrassingly spectacular failure.

In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury writes,

You're afraid of making mistakes. Don't be. Mistakes can be profited by. Man, when I was young I shoved my ignorance in people's faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you'll never learn.

As I write this, I am a few days away from working  The AWP Conference & Bookfair, and I know my first instinct will be to try to blend in with the crowd. But I’m going to try to shake off that fear. I’m making it my goal to embarrass myself early and often, for the sake of celebrating writing. To strike up a conversation with the writers I really admire, or share poems with fellow attendees, or hit up an open mic. Knowing me, it probably won’t go 100% smoothly. I’ll probably suffer at least a slight scrape to my pride.

After the sting fades, I’ll remember Rilke handing out his poetry on the street. Wegwarten was universally panned. In that moment, Rilke looked pretty foolish. But you know what? It worked out okay for him.

Loving the Expanse

Daniel Bowman, Jr.

14 spring

The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky. . . . For the more we are, the richer everything we experience is. And those who want to have a deep love in their lives must collect and save for it, and gather honey.

  — Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet

On New Year’s Eve I had the privilege of attending the wedding of two of my dearest friends in cold, lovely Georgetown, Ontario (bonus: I had set them up). I pulled double-duty as a groomsman and reader. The passage I read—shown above—surprised me when I first saw it. I had read Rilke’s famous book of advice when I was young, but I’m sure I arrogantly passed over some of the language about an “expanse” between us, and the “impossibility” of merging. I was twenty and in love and those words didn’t account for how I felt! But here was this wonderful couple on December 31st, 2013—in their late twenties, well-read, self-aware—who had chosen a passage focusing on the distance between them to be read at the very event that would bind them together.

I read the passage in the ceremony. And I’ve contemplated it many times since. I’ve been meditating on the facts that “even between the closest people infinite distances exist,” and that if people can accept such a truth, “ . . . then a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

2014 will mark, to my eternal gratefulness, my sixteenth wedding anniversary with the woman I love. I’ve begun to wonder how many of the problems Beth and I have lived through over the years can be traced to my failure to honor, much less love, the expanse between us. Instead, at my worst, I try to change her, to transform her into something much less that the fullness of who she is. That robs her—robs us both, really—of our “freedom and development.”

And that robbery is, frankly, nothing short of evil.

So I think back to New Year’s Eve when I celebrated two dear friends pledging vows. One of those vows was a profound determination to love the expanse between them. As I look toward spring, I’m thankful that this long winter will be over. I think of the increasing warmth of the sun, and the return of living, growing things. Yet I can see that true renaissance—rebirth—will only come into my life if I, too, vow to see Beth each day “as a whole and before an immense sky,” and to love the expanse between us.

Let us go forth and gather honey.