Blog Redux

Yesterday in the chaos of discovering that by shutting down the Daily Prompt, WordPress was making it harder for me to pay them for my websites, I thought of blowing the whole thing up. But, at this point in my life, I’m a reasonable person. I did some research only to learn that most of the free or low-cost webhosting sites send you to — yeah — WordPress.

It’s an empire.

I thought, “Do I want to deal with this?” If I am allotted only 3 score and 10 I have only four left. Clearly a hissy fit over WordPress and starting over from scratch with websites for my books is a poor use of a rapidly depleting resource.

In the process I looked at my blogs on Blogger, thinking, perhaps, of reviving one. I found a poem. I wondered who wrote it, and then I remembered I had written it. Wow. My poor brain… Well, a lot has happened since 2013 — five years and my whole entire life has changed. The poem is on my painting blog, A Lifetime Apprenticeship. 

There was This Day,
There was This Shadow,
There was This Woman,
There was This Blue.
There was No Fame.
There was No Reason.
There was No Winner.
There was No Immortality.


This Shaft of Light
This Sharp Blast,
This Foundering Ship
This Lost Child,
This Man Walking,
This Stream Flowing,
This Arc of Passion,


These Hands
These Eyes
This Ochre Clay
This Gold Foil
This Deadly Yellow, but USE IT ANYWAY
This MAGIC Poison White
This Blue from Gold-Flecked Stone
This Green from a Copper Pot
This Short Life
This Single Vision.

I wrote the poem as an ode to the ordinary painter throughout time. The one whose name we don’t know who might have influenced the famous one. The one who painted as a way to feed his family. The one who loved the colors, the process, the images, the beauty. The one who might have discovered a new color or properties of the magical ground on which he painted.

I love pigment. In writing Martin of Gfenn I had to learn how colors were made in medieval times. It was absolutely fascinating. Ultramarine blue — for example — was originally made of ground up lapis lazuli. Its light-reflecting properties in a fresco are amazing. A couple of months ago, as I moved closer to my surgery date, I found some online and bought it. I also bought a real wooden panel and old fashioned gesso (gesso means gypsym) to size the panel and make it ready to absorb oil paint. It should be wonderful.

I’m living in a place where art is big. There’s not a lot else here other than potatoes, barley, hops, horses, cattle. Taos and Santa Fe are well known art centers in this country, but it’s one kind of art, mainly Southwest Art. I want another thing completely when I paint. I don’t know exactly what I’m painting FOR other than myself. I’ve sold more paintings than I have sold words, but the other artists around me don’t think my work is all that good. That’s fine. I would never paint what they paint, either, though I have the good grace not to think their work is bad. It’s just not mine. Rivalry between artists is nasty but real.

In my case, I don’t want to paint the same thing or the same way twice. I view painting as a journey of discovery. I’m never going to be a master. With each painting I’ve learned something new about painting, about paint, about myself, about the world I’m looking at. The painting above is a narrow trail up a California mountainlet in a wet spring. Dusty and I had a wonderful time that day and I took photos. I like painting from photos and I really like the way paintings come out when I paint from the image on my iPad with the light coming up through it rather than shining on it. It’s different. Like this one. This is Descanso Falls in December. Some of this painting works well for me, some of it doesn’t, but it took months to complete and someone was happy to give me $300 so I didn’t have to store it some place. 🙂


Descanso Falls, unframed FASO size

Descanso Falls


For my blogging cat friends, Tabby, Parker and Lucy… This is Catmandu. Please note her crossed eyes. Once in a while, they caused her to walk into a wall, after which she’d look around to see if anyone had noticed. ❤


Walt Whitman’s Birthday

Among the books that are most rewarding to buy in a used book store is Leaves of Grass. I’ve owned three and what makes them so wonderful (besides Whitman’s poetry) are the relics often hidden inside. No one buys that book without loving it. Inside all the old copies I’ve owned have been newspaper clippings, notes, favorite lines written in margins, dedications usually signed with “love.”

Today is Walt Whitman’s birthday.

I remember the day Reagan was inaugurated. I had a party in my apartment in Denver. I was a year or two out of graduate school. I had worked on John Anderson’s campaign. The party was some of my real-life personal friends and a bunch of people from the Anderson campaign. Someone had to bring a TV because I didn’t have one. The plan was to watch Bedtime for Bonzo in which our new President was the adopted father of a chimpanzee. I didn’t have a lot of furniture and my floor was solid oak. There was no where comfortable and I wasn’t really interested in the movie. My friends and I stayed in the kitchen, got plowed and that led, naturally, to my reading Walt Whitman (whether anyone liked it or not).

Back then I had the belief that poetry was more important than politics and writing was the single most important thing for me to do, beyond earning a living or love or anything else.

Whitman had influenced some of that.

There are many amazing poems in Leaves of Grass. Some I’ve taught, particularly “There was a Child Went Forth” which I had my students act out as a way to prove that poetry is not inaccessible. Another that often made it up on my chalkboard was “A Noiseless, Patient Spider” —

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

This one I drew.

But that night of Reagan’s inauguration I wasn’t reading these poems. I don’t think I’d even met them, yet. I was reading from the book within the book, Calamus. My favorite at the time was “Scented Herbage of My Breast.” It spoke to me so clearly of artistic integrity, sexuality and death. He is speaking to the leaves of grass (and other plants) that come out of his heart and will someday rise from the ground above his body.

Nor will I allow you to balk me any more with what I was calling life,
For now it is convey’d to me that you are the purports essential,
That you hide in these shifting forms of life, for reasons, and that
they are mainly for you,
That you beyond them come forth to remain, the real reality,
That behind the mask of materials you patiently wait, no matter
how long,
That you will one day perhaps take control of all,
That you will perhaps dissipate this entire show of appearance,
That may-be you are what it is all for, but it does not last so very
But you will last very long.

At this point in the story — so many years later — I remember that young woman who got so drunk on wine and poetry that she banged her head on the ledge below her kitchen sink when she sat down. I remember her ecstatic lecture to the small group (four? five?) of friends who were also not interested in the antics of Ronald Reagan and a monkey. I doubt they were all that interested in Whitman, either, but the young woman all on her own was a pretty good show.

Far more often than I think of that evening, I think of this poem. I think of what it means to “dissipate the entire show of appearance” and how much that matters.

As for the “scented herbage of my breast” — that young woman had no idea what it would be, what that would mean. She wrote anyway, but had no real story except a sad but lovely romance that could never work.

So she wrote it, as practice, you know, for the real stories that came later.



She was also an artist… These are linoleum cuts

A song from the practice story…


A lovely movie starring Rip Torn as Walt Whitman — Beautiful Dreamers


I’ve begun reading the Goliard poetry. The commentary/introduction to the Goliards of the book I’m reading, Wine, Women and Song by John Addington Symonds irked me big time yesterday. It was all Renaissance this Renaissance that and you know, that bugs me. The way historians conventionally talk about the Renaissance you’d think all that just SPRANG out of nothing, that people lived their primitive, un-Roman, grubby little lives until, voilá, Leonardo. The book is around 150 years old, but that notion lingers on.

This historian compared Goliard poetry to Renaissance poetry and, IMO, that requires a time machine. If I were an intellectual living in the 1880s I’d be tempted to look more at INFLUENCE than comparison, but not this guy. I wanted to hit him over the head with a mallet. An example — at the end of a long and beautiful love poem, the benighted Mr. Symmonds writes:

It would surely be superfluous to point out the fluent elegance of this poem, or to dwell farther upon the astonishing fact that anything so purely Renaissance in tone should have been produced in the twelfth century.

I want to throttle him.

It’s funny to me how we name historical epochs (for our convenience) and then go on as if it were a real thing. “Hey, Leonardo, dude, here’s what I’m thinking. Renaissance? What’s your take on that? Like it? I think it’s a hell of a marketing stragedy for my badass ceiling and sculptures.”

“Mike, leave me alone. I’m writing secrets backwards.”

Yesterday I read this 12th century exhortation to love (remember, these are songs):

No. 8.

Take your pleasure, dance and play,
Each with other while ye may:
Youth is nimble, full of grace;
Age is lame, of tardy pace.

We the wars of love should wage,
Who are yet of tender age;
‘Neath the tents of Venus dwell
All the joys that youth loves well.

Young men kindle heart’s desire;
You may liken them to fire:
Old men frighten love away
With cold frost and dry decay.

For some reason, it reminded me of THIS (written during the Renaissance):

To the Virgins to Make Much of Time
Robert Herrick, 1591 – 1674

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former. 

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

The Carmina Burana is filled with songs on this theme.

What IF (and this is a revolutionary thought) one thing leads to another?

But I’m not fair to Mr. Symmonds. His job was to open the minds of his readers to the notion that the Middle Ages were NOT a Dark Ages. He used the handholds he had to do this. I’m not exactly the audience for whom he was writing and I bet the audience he hoped to reach got his point which was, “Hey, these are really cool and beautiful songs kind of like all that stuff you like from the Renaissance!”

There are HUNDREDS of Goliard songs. I can’t imagine that they just lurked in dark taverns with iconoclastic young clerics. I’d bet they were EVERYWHERE these wandering scholars went in their, uh, wandering. I bet LOTS of non-wandering scholars — you know, just people? — knew them. I bet they had a larger influence than we know or the Church would not have wanted so badly to stem the tide of disillusioned drunken libidinous clerics wandering Europe, looking for teaching jobs and criticizing the hypocrisy of the church.

The OTHER egregious thing Mr. Symmonds does is compare some of the church-criticizing poetry to the Reformation. Again, that requires a time machine. BUT…WE look at the Reformation as a discrete event in history that sprang up spontaneously (simultaneous to the Renaissance?) but it wasn’t. Symmonds even opens his book with a quotation from Martin Luther. Again, for his Post-Reformation readers, that could strike a chord legitimizing the redemption of the “Dark Ages”.

The British art historian, Waldemar Januszczak, in his series for the BBC The Renaissance Unchained makes a good case (pretty much my case). His argument is that the Renaissance is Papist propaganda designed to combat the Reformation. When I began watching the series a year or so ago, and he made that point, I cheered. I’m not casting aspersions on so-called Renaissance art at all (it’s amazing), but those guys were PAID to paint and sculpt what they did to convey the message the Church wanted them to.

Do I like the songs/poems I’m reading? Not a lot, actually, but what’s behind them is very attractive. A whole world. Reading one spring/love/sex poem after another brought me to poor old Faust on Easter, bewailing his age and all the years he’d spent in study rather than gathering rosebuds.

That roses have thorns is, maybe, the wisdom of old age.

If I have the time, I will try to rhyme

There are people in this world who, though very gifted — brilliant, even — in useful ways, still want to be poets. My dad — a gifted mathematician — wanted to be a poet. I knew this about him, but until I cleaned out the garage this past spring, I didn’t realize how MUCH he wanted to be a poet.

There was a lot of (bad) poetry. Great poetry because my dad wrote it, but… One of his treasures was a rhyming dictionary. I treasured it for years and years and years — since I was 10 and he discovered I might be a REAL poet someday. My dad sometimes lectured me on vers libre, poetry with no rhyme or rhythm (often no rhyme or reason) and he wrote poetry in this style.

I did really want to be a poet. I personally (and somewhat secretly) love poetry. Poetry can make my emotions catch their breath. Last fall I was in Taos with a friend and met Pierre DeLattre, a painter and writer. It was an intense encounter because it involved paintings (beautiful paintings!) and Yeats.

Though the study of it enhanced my ability to love it, studying literature and loving poetry are not always the same thing. In my Critical Writing class (a great class with a fine professor) as an undergraduate we were tasked to write 10 different essays about ONE poem by Yeats. I learned more about academic writing in that class than any other I took. The poem I chose was “The Double-Vision of Michael Robartes” which honestly made no sense to me at all until I began writing about it and then it became more than just a poem (“just” a poem?) It does rhyme. The rhymes are somewhat agonized at times, but it all works to a beautiful effect at the end where the final rhyme is broken; close, but not quite there.

These days rhyme often gets a bad rap ( ha ha ). In my opinion, rhyme is a pretty cool thing. It helps people remember. It creates music, something often missing from my dad’s beloved vers libre. End rhymes and rhythm are part of nature. Inside each seed is the coded destination of the flower and the fruit.

For what but eye and ear silence the mind
With the minute particulars of mankind?

“The Double Vision of Michael Robartes” William Butler Yeats

By Heart

In OLDEN days the poets were less writers of poetry than they were reciters of poetry. People would gather round them in the firelight — even if it was Athens it was firelight — and listen to them recite the stories of the heroic deeds of Achilles and Odysseus, the beauty of Helen of Troy, the sad death of Njal. Even the poets believed that the stories were told to them by the Gods. The poetry was there, waiting for a voice. Poetry is easier to learn when it rhymes, is alliterative and has a beat. The muses who gave the poems to the bards knew this. 🙂

In the eras before mine, kids learned poetry in school and they had to be able to recite it “by heart.” My grandfather could recite LONG poems and my mom could, too. I think the old man had all his kids learning poetry from a young age. Anyway, it was always a part of our house when I was growing up. My dad, too. He could recite Robert Service’ “The Ice Worm Cocktail” by heart. My mom could recite “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” I like those poems but the Robert Service poem I like best is “The Call of the Wild” and I can recite most of it by heart.

The few poems I can recite (part or all) I actually feel they are part of my heart, more than words on paper. Some of them I was forced to learn in school and they evoke my school days when I think of them (“Evangeline” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — the beginning of it). Others I learned because they meant a lot to me. Some of the poems are deep, some are silly, some are doggerel, some changed my life, my way of thinking. You see, I love poetry. ❤

In the summer of 2000 I taught Intro to Lit and the first day a student said, “Are we going to do poetry? I hate poetry. I don’t get it.”

I said, “We kind of have to. This is an intro to lit class.” I taught a poem every day, usually one of those I know “by heart.” And usually I recited them wrote them on the board — possible because most of those are short, almost epigrams. She ended up loving it.

“You know all those poems by heart, Teacher?”

“Yeah,” I said.

I’ve even written some poetry. I think some of it’s good, but the one I’m going to ‘recite’ (copy and paste) here is from my Pulitzer Prize winning book of catteral, Cats I’ve Known. It’s dedicated to all the great cats out there and the humans they own.

God Makes the First Cat

God made the world in just one week,
And every creature he made unique
He made the rabbit, horse and frog,
He made the loyal loving dog.

He made the fish, he made the spider,
A hippo to make the rivers wider.
He worked on butterflies and hens,
Then he sat down to think again.

“In all of my menagerie
There’s something missing. Let me see.
A world needs horses to pull plows,
A world needs chickens, dogs and cows.”

“But when the daily work is done,
A world must find some time for fun.
Some time to frolic and to play
Some time to sit in the sun all day.”

“Time to relax when work allows
I must make something to show them how!
Someone fluffy, someone funny,
But more intelligent than a bunny.”

God decided to make up cats,
To give them work, he made some rats.
When he was done, he picked one out
And started to throw the cat about!

The cat was cute, the cat was fluffy
But he didn’t like to be treated roughly.
The cat scratched God on the back of the hand,
And God said, “If you scratch a man,

“Like you scratched me,
You won’t be forgiven so easily.”
God watched the cat for signs of remorse,
But the cat didn’t feel remorse, of course.

The cat just cleaned his ears and hair
And ignored God as if He weren’t there.
“This will not do,” said God to the cat.
“You won’t succeed if you act like that!”

“You must learn to apologize
Or you won’t be fed and that won’t be nice!”
“Now, please, a penitent meow
and you can have a bowl of cat chow.”

The cat stood up and stretched one leg,
He absolutely refused to beg.
Well, God respects integrity,
In small animals you and me.

“You’re right,” sighed God, “I was too rough,
Don’t you think we’ve argued enough?”
God reached down and stroked the cat,
Behind his ears, and down his back.

He was rubbing his hand on the cat’s soft fur
When the cat began to purr.
“What a soft and soothing sound,”
Said tired old God as he sat down.

The cat curled up in God’s lap and stayed
And so God rested that seventh day.

Is Life a Poem?

One of the skills at which I excelled in school was finding the “hidden meaning” in a poem and answering the question, “What is the poet trying to tell us?”

Now I know that was largely because of all the practice I had gotten at home trying to decipher the real meaning behind my mom’s words. It was also because my mom and dad both loved poetry making it a big part of my life as long as I can remember.

It’s a strangely useless and yet useful skill. I had to learn (as an adult) to resist looking for the hidden meaning because sometimes it just wasn’t that helpful. At the same time, if I did not examine reality, I was lost.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my place in life at this moment in time. I’ve had a hard time figuring that out. What am I supposed to be doing right now? I’m not going to teach anyone. I don’t want to write anything. Painting — uh, shudder. I can’t see doing volunteer work (I already taught for 35 years at slave wages), I’ve seen the seamy side of life and it’s over-rated. What am I here for NOW? It seems like things involving the house and chores take up too much time and are never finished. I don’t like yard work, though I kind of like my garden. It’s a big mystery to me. I like to travel, I like to walk and look at stuff. I love natural phenomenon. I like my dogs and friends. Is there a hidden meaning to all this, or is it right there in front of me and I can’t see it?

Then, last evening — troubled by this problem — I went for a walk with my dogs. This is what I got just by going out the back gate.

Just walked the dogs. It was raining. I got to the high school. Hard claps of thunder. Dusty doesn’t mind it if we’re outside together. I don’t know why, but that’s how he is.

Bear looks for messages. In vain? I don’t know.

Little girls riding bikes in the rain, “Hi!”



They keep riding, I look to the east, there is a rainbow, faint and half, but it’s there.
Rain falls just the way a gardener likes it, evenly, straight down. The sun comes out even more. The rainbow is now very intense and double. I look at it for a while. The rain keeps falling. I turn toward home.

The little girls are riding their bikes in the rain through the sprinklers, back-lit and every bit as beautiful as the rainbow behind me.

I don’t know where to turn. I watch the rainbow, I watch the girls.

I decide to go home for reals and the little girls decide to go home at the same time. They ride away like dragon flies in the rain and sunshine.

It’s a special men’s evening at the golf course and the rain isn’t stopping the play. Two guys are standing in the rain looking at the rainbow.


“Hi! Beautiful rain,” I say then think that maybe my take on the rain and rainbow might be different from that of guys playing golf.

And after all of that wonder the alley wasn’t even muddy.

The moment lasted only as long as my walk. When we stepped outside the gate, there was only a desultory, half-hearted sprinkle. The sky was gray. In the distance, were rumbles of thunder and the sky was flat and obscure. When we stepped out of the alley, the magic began. On our return, turning into the alley, the sky was again obscure and gray, the rain fell in half-hearted sprinkles and the show was over.

I think that was a message…

Archibald MacLeish wrote a poem in defense of symbolist poetry entitled “Ars Poetica.” It’s kind of didactic, but it impressed me a lot when I was in high school. This morning the last line(s) seem to sum up the point of life at this moment of mine.

A poem should not mean
but be.

What’s Art, Anyway?

Last week I had lunch with new friends here in Heaven. They are all artists. We talked about — or expressed ourselves — about what makes art. Some cried out against landscapes. Some cried out against something else. Some expressed the opinion that certain photographs and certain kinds of paintings were steps in the “progress” one makes to become a real artist. Some cried out against painting from photographs. One of them and I agreed that if an artist isn’t pushing themselves, it’s boring.

I came home inhibited. I paint landscapes. I paint other things, but I do paint landscapes and I thought they were art because they’re not easy for me. I also paint from photographs — I consider many of the photos I take to be sketches from which I’ll paint at some point. I don’t see why anyone should sit in a mosquito infested field with a sketch pad and go home and paint from it when they could just take a photo. I do other paintings, too, but painting landscapes and painting from photos improve my technique with the brush and with color.

The great thing of painting, for me, has been freedom, but now I feel less free. As I listened, I also thought, ” These guys have been to school and gotten advanced degrees in art. I didn’t do that.”

As far as getting along with my art teachers, I’m 2 for 2. My experience of “studying” art can be distilled into Stephen Crane’s poem.

“Think as I think,” said a man,
“Or you are abominably wicked; you are
a toad.”
And after I thought of it, I said, “I will, then, be a toad.”

My artistic heroes are the guys who painted day in and day out whatever someone told them to paint because they needed to earn a living. Those guys would have mastered the craft in ways most modern artists never need to. When I was wandering around in Verona, I went to the cathedral and went through the oldest part of the church. The cathedral was an architectural concretion. There were workmen restoring frescoes that were more than 1000 years old. A canvas tarp hung between the passageway and their work to help keep their work clean. I sat down outside the tarp and listened to them talk.

They weren’t talking about the meaning of art or if they were or were not artists. They were talking a bit about the materials they were using (native ochres, mostly), but for the most part they were planning their weekends.

I envied them their skills and training, but, as Goethe wrote, through our lives — especially in our youth — we look ahead down myriad pathways. We go a little way on one and then the other before we find the one that fits us best. He was in his late 30s when he turned away forever from the possibility of being an artist. He was in Italy when he made this determination about himself. He’d lost interest in writing. He was weighed down by Sorrows of Young Werther and the resultant fame and the numerous copy-cat suicides. He wanted to write something else. He wondered if he could. Some months in Italy, and he found his way back to unfinished projects — Tasso and Iphegenia among others. The drawings he’d imagined he would do as a record of his Italian journey became the job of a young German artist, Christoph Heinrich Kniep.

I have a beautiful little book of Goethe’s watercolor sketches of places in Italy and Switzerland, some of which I have seen in real life, too. My favorite is his sketch of the Rheinfall. I have seen the Reinfall several times and it makes me happy to be able to look at the vision Goethe had while he was there.

He wrote about it, too, in Faust II, and I recognized it right away in his words — it is also my very favorite passage in all that Goethe wrote — and it is a painting in its way.

The waterfall I now behold with growing
Delight as it roars down to the Ravine.
From fall to fall a thousand streams are flowing,
A thousand more are plunging, effervescent,
And high up in the air the spray is glowing.
Out of this thunder, rises, iridescent,
Enduring through all change the motley bow,
Now painted clearly, now evanescent,
Spreading a fragrant, cooling spray below.
The rainbow mirrors human love and strife;
Consider it and you will better know:
In many hued reflection we have life.

A landscape.

A photo of the Rheinfalls -- there is very often a rainbow.

A photo of the Rheinfalls — there is very often a rainbow.

Water…a Miracle

Writing Challenge Ice, Water, Steam For this week’s writing challenge, take on the theme of H2O. What does it mean to be the same thing, in different forms?

Water is a miraculous compound, but I doubt it indulges in self-reflection. Like all things in nature, it simply IS. At this moment, crystalline bits of it are drifting very slowly past my window. Behind them is a dormant alder tree with its pine-cone like seed pods. On the ground is more water, crunchy, cold, broken, melted and recrystallized.

Identity — for water and for the self — exists in response to conditions in the external world. In the last 30 years the “idea” of an “external” world has been pushed aside in favor of subjectivism, the “personal” vision of reality. What this implies is that there is NOTHING but the self. As a result of the prevailing idea in the world in which I reached maturity, I worried a lot about who I am. It wasn’t until 1998 when I “met” Goethe, and read Italian Journey, that I understood that the varied iterations of our sacred fucking selves are — like water — defined by the conditions of our being. We ARE in relation to the world, the universe, each other. Our intrinsic nature is what it is, but not as unique and unexpected as we may like to believe. At the same time, it’s impossible for us — or anything in nature — to behave in opposition to our nature.

I am a creative person and, measurably, intelligent. Not my fault. An accident or result of genetics. I am also short. I have a droopy left eye-lid. My mom said, “All Kennedys have that. Look at JFK.” Well, this past summer I saw a photo of my paternal great-grandmother (not a Kennedy, a Mackay) and low and behold, there was my left eye looking out of her face, once more illustrating the fact that the truth might not be what we think it is. It’s not a Kennedy trait at all…

The way others perceive me is often quite different from who I really am. Over and over I’ve found myself standing up for my being; yes, I’m creative, but I’m not messy or disorganized or irresponsible. I am neat, organized and I meet (met 😉 ) deadlines. After a while I learned that much of who we are to other people is not us at all; it’s a projection of THEM. My intelligence doesn’t mean anything other than that and it has limits. I don’t feel — as some people do — that I need to prove anything to anyone. I’d rather get to know people than intimidate them, but there are a lot of smart people in this world who really like the game of intellectual domination.

So, if a person keeps their eyes open they can see themselves in life’s moments, especially in new and unfamiliar ones, they will learn a lot about the substance they are. This past week I spent with very good friends and found myself in a couple of situations that were not “usual” for me. One was returning to an environment I escaped when my mom died, proximity to a very intelligent and competitively facetious woman whose notion of conversation was to “win.” I felt myself backing into a corner where once, long ago, in order to “protect” myself, I would have played. I don’t play that any more. I don’t want to do that, be that. Later, I had the chance to change the rules to rules I feel are more valid than “winning.” I was able to offer a sincere compliment on something I was sure this woman both cared about and was insecure about. I watched her melt, turn human and relax, seeing there was no need to “win,” she was liberated. I know myself well enough NOW that I can choose the “iteration” of self that will act in a given situation — but choice is limited by who I am, fundamentally. That would be integrity which is part of every natural thing.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote about this beautifully in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” As a Jesuit, his perception of nature’s law is the word God. His point is that nothing in nature can act in opposition to itself and that is inexpressibly lovely.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame
Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844 – 1889

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:            
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;    
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,    
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.    
Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.


Sometimes we have friends who see us as we are. I have several such friends (aren’t they the true friends?) One of them recently told me how he sees me. “…you are an artist, a mountain woman, an athlete, a friend.” Really that’s a perfect summary of who I hope I am, the person I want to be.

Last Class — Despairing Rant Against Test-based Curricula

Intro to Lit is over and my teaching career is over, too. It seems very anti-climactic to me that my 35 years teaching ended not with a bang, but a whimper. 20 grocery store cupcakes and a packet of napkins. On the other hand, a Bang can be a gun or a bomb and that would be worse than sharing cupcakes and sending everyone home after 30 minutes because the movie I’d planned to show (no, not Stand and Deliver) wouldn’t play because I did not have permission to install Silverlight on the college computer. $10 down the drain, but now I can watch Sidney Poitier in Raisin in the Sun any time I want. That has been exactly once in my life… so…

The parade of sad ignorance lasted until the end. We read poetry by Langston Hughes (“A Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Harlem”) and once again the basic historical background was lacking for them to get the jist of the poems. If this were high school, I’d figure on teaching that first, but at college? They all know that Martin Luther King was a great man, but I learned yesterday that they do not really know why. They did not know of the riots and the deaths around the Civil Rights Amendment. They did not know that white supporters of Black rights were killed alongside their Black brothers. In their minds it was ALL the Blacks vs. ALL the Whites.They did not know about the burning of Watts or the “pray in” in Selma or the murderous demonstrations on the streets of Harlem where blacks and whites marched and died.


I gave them a worksheet they would be able to do for extra points. One of the questions asked about the significance of the rivers Hughes mentions in his poem. Several of my students had no idea where these rivers are — the Congo, the Nile, the Euphrates. Thankfully, they were OK with the Mississippi.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers By Langston Hughes

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

The worksheet (which I wrote) asked them how the poem “Harlem” was prophetic and asked if it was a warning or a call to action. Warning of what? Call to what action? They looked at me as if I’d asked something completely impossible. Please understand we’ve spend time on the history of blacks in the US from WW I on. They had context, but I realized that  I was wrong in assuming they’d learned about American history of the 50s and 60s in their relentless diversity training.

Harlem by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
      Or does it explode?

It was another absolutely dispiriting day except for the fact that some of the students are happy to be learning. Since that’s the whole point of teaching, I left the class with my spirit buoyed that at least by 5 pm, the Iraqi girl knew that the Euphrates runs through her native land and it is the cradle of civilization.

Any of you who read this who are public school teachers, I’ll be straight with you. I lay this at the doorstep of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). I know teachers are somewhat forced to teach what and how they do. I know their lives are assessment and evaluation driven. But this is creating a nation of ignorant people who mistake a quick answer from Wikipedia accessed on their cell phone for knowledge. I don’t know who but teachers themselves can stop this. Who else can? Parents? I think parents are as test and evaluation driven as our school systems and I know that parents are more (irritatingly) involved in their kid’s school life than ever. To what purpose? I, too, have been descended upon by helicopter parents who think interfering with the work of the teacher is OK. It’s not OK. Teachers are already trapped between districts and administrations with certain demands and students who need to learn.

Teaching must be a horrible job, these days, because of these pressures. Or are our teachers, too, so poorly educated and so ignorant that this is actually the BEST they can do? I’m seriously asking. I know at the university where I have taught for 15 years, the GPA needed to get into Liberal Studies (teaching) is very low; a C. It’s well known that the lower paying professions do NOT attract the most intelligent students. This has gone on for a while, that teaching has paid poorly. Has it evolved to a situation in which very ignorant people  of average or below average intelligence are now teachers? Has the politicization of education exacerbated this? I seriously want to know; are teachers today even intelligent enough to challenge our most intelligent students? Or is there validity to NCLB BECAUSE our teachers are just not that bright? Are parents interfering because they must? In my soul I cannot believe this, but more and more I’ve been wondering what’s actually been going on. My summer class has truly frightened me.

I have been giving my books to my students over this past week. Today I decided to give the three books I’ve kept from my senior English class in high school to a student who wants to be a high school English teacher. She was not in class today, but she could not manage those books, anyway. They are three tragedies by Sophocles, Aristotle’s Poetics, and Edith Hamilton’s Greek Mythology. Those were my high school texts — Advanced Placement English, true but that’s supposed to be college freshman English.

I’ve watched the tide of ignorance engulf my students in the past ten years. I can almost pinpoint a year — sometime in 2009 my students (university level) were no longer able to identify facts in a business problem that involved prices on merchandise. The prices would be facts (just one example). “How do you know that’s a fact, Professor? Isn’t it all subjective?”
“Sure it’s subjective if you can prove to me that when you go into a store you can choose any price you want to pay for a shirt, then the price is subjective. So IS it?”
“Why are you tricking us? We want As!”

That’s been my life for the past 7 or 8 years, worse and worse each year.

As a teacher I believe in the John Dewey idea of meeting a student as his/her point of need. That’s usually been a pretty reasonable point. It also establishes my job description for a class. “Where are they NOW? What do they need to get HERE by the end of the semester?” That has always been my map. Find that the first week or two of class and then bring them along, whatever it takes, to the place they need to be. As NCLB has become more pervasive (longer in a student’s academic life) I have had to take them farther and farther along a road that interests them less and less. Why? Because any test-focused curriculum is BORING — mechanical, rote and mind numbing; I’ve had students say to me, “This is the first time I have liked school.” I’ve had students write, “Thank you for changing me.”

I feel at times that the current educational system has forgotten that a fundamental human joy is learning. We love it. It is in our biological imperative to learn, discover, try, test, question; it is our nature. Few of my students feel joy — that is something I also have had to teach them — so they can be excited by a challenge, thrilled by a discovery, moved by ideas, touched by beauty. No test-based curriculum can do ANY of that. It seems to me as if our current school system is stealing from our young people a vital element of their humanity.

Well, this is my song now:

Intro to Lit, part two, fourth day of class

Intro to lit today — intense again. Taught the sonnet. I was a bit intimidated by the idea of teaching them the “form” of the sonnet and all that dry, technical stuff. I wanted to give them the context. Strange class. I ended up teaching the history leading up to the sonnet form FIRST and talking about how historical cataclysms often end up in people finding new art forms. They loved it. They got everything from St. Columbanus in the 800s to Picasso’s Guernica through a discussion of the tragic, world-changing, major events of 14th century Europe, the plague and the 100 years war compared to events in the 20th century that led to new ways of writing and painting and thinking. Then they were very interested in the sonnet, the once new and exciting “little song.”

We read three sonnets together and they loved them. I talked briefly about the “form” but mostly about history. I want them to LIKE the people who made art in the past. I want my students to feel the lives and questions behind the dead stuff in their English book. I want them to know PEOPLE did this.

They have NO background for understanding most of this. Their idea of history is Martin Luther King. That is really IT for most of them. One girl came up after class and said, “Is there intermediate literature after this one?” I thought I’d cry. “I love this,” she said. In fact, I am crying. Literature is a key to the world. I’d like to be able to give them that. “Here. Use it. Open time and see what everyone has done and learned and all the mistakes as well as the beautiful achievements and moments of the past.”