Four Monday morning poems

The couch has seen better days
but then so have I.
And, yet, we both face this Monday
sagging with relief
at the quiet that fills the house
once more.

 

*** 

 

My hand whips through the crowd of gnats
a scythe sending them scattering to the wind.
But then, just like Robert Patrick,
(the T-1000 Terminator)
they reform,
a buzzing, floating, angry mass
And in the end my scythe is worthless;
my lip gloss, ruined.

 

***

 

If a leaf could bear my weight
and I could balance there
surveying the world
perhaps I, too, would offer myself as a sacrifice
to the whipping wind
and not even mind as it carried me away

 

***

 

Sometimes when your hair falls down your neck
from a terribly placed ponytail 
and the breeze gives you a tickle
it's not so hard to take an extra two minutes to smell the flowers
as they say
because today the flowers are not metaphorical
they are right at your feet
swaying in the same breeze that tickles your neck
and you wonder
how many people did it take?
how many animals?
how much stardust of lives past
to make these flowers and to make this wind,
these things that stop you for a moment
on this gauzy Monday morning,
making you take an extra breath or two
before you stumble upstairs to the shower
to begin your day 

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My baby and her baby

During those bleary nights
with the wailing
and the impenetrable sour milk smell
and the dozens of dirtied blankets
and the frantic pacing
and the helpless tears
and the exhausted arguing
and the sore nipples
and the brief consideration of using duct tape in a variety of off-label ways
I never thought of the beautiful Sunday afternoon I might spend
teaching endless swaddling lessons
to a patient little girl who likes to fiercely claim
she is now too old for dolls 

In which I struggle to make a coherent point about how children do not need to be broken like wild horses, and how Walter Dean Myers made me cry, and how it’s all related

In Texas right now, it's testing season. Children from 3rd grade through high school are subjected to hours of bubbling in answers on standardized tests. In elementary schools the walls of hallways and classrooms are required to be stripped of all work, and bulletin boards hang empty. Everything from drawings to starred essays to maps are taken down. The walls are laid completely bare. Specials (PE, music, art) are canceled during testing. Some schools allow children to bring in books to read when their tests are complete, some schools don't. Basically, our schoolchildren are on academic lockdown. The school year up until this point has been about whether or not the kids can accurately answer test questions. And often, the teachers – rather than concentrating on teaching concepts and connections – are forced to concentrate on teaching children not how to discover answers on their own, but how to properly answer questions so that their tests will earn high enough scores.

When my son was in the third grade he was chastised for adding dialogue into a paragraph about a fun day he'd had. "It sounds like you're making up a story. Just tell details about that day. That's what you need for the test."

Are you kidding me?

And so this is what school in Texas has become. A sickening dance where talented teachers try to impart an education upon their students when the state – and thus funding – demands that they teach children how to robotically answer questions during high-stress, high-stakes hours and days in April.

It is a travesty. It is a disaster. It is a disgrace.

And maybe that sounds like hyperbole, but I don't think it is. In fact, a lot of people know it's not hyperbole, and we are struggling to figure out what we can do about this. Because Texas is not alone in this hideous trend, not by a long shot. Do we "opt out" of testing? Refuse to let our children take these tests? Well, we can try, but what does this accomplish? It doesn't change curriculum. It doesn't change how the teachers are forced to teach throughout the year. It doesn't change what our children learn in the classroom. But it does skew the metrics, which in turn punishes the school. It's not the school's fault these tests are so awful. It's not the fault of our teachers', either. It's the fault of our legislators. 

It's so easy for lawmakers to legislate these tests – looking for an easy way to get metrics on whether or not schools and administrators and teachers and children are "successful." But what they're missing is that a standardized test cannot measure the full extent of a child's education. Ever.

On Sunday I was at the International Reading Association Conference, and was lucky enough to hear Walter Dean Myers and Katherine Paterson speak. The entire ballroom was nearly full with librarians and teachers who rushed the front of the room with cameras and iPhones and managed to delay the beginning of the session with their fangirl/fanboy enthusiasm. It was one of those moments where you sit to the side and do your Julia Roberts laugh because the moment is so surreal and wonderful. (And never fear, I took pictures, too. They just turned out super crappy – though I have a nice closeup of the chopsticks in the lady's bun who was sitting in front of me.)

At one point, Walter Dean Myers starting talking about the difficulties in being the current National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. Children aren't reading, he said. And they aren't being read to. He flat out stated, "It is a national disgrace. The children in this country are being failed by education, and by the country. We must talk about it, not ignore it." And this next quote… this is the one that stopped me cold. He said, "Equal opportunity doesn't mean a darn thing if you aren't equal."

What he meant by this was that children who have no books, who are incarcerated, who are homeless, who are abused, who do not have the simple luxuries of breakfast and shoes that fit – they do not walk into a classroom on equal footing with other children. He talked about what makes up a child's education. Certainly, it's the classroom, but it's also just walking down the street. It's the child's experience with his or her parents or lack thereof. It's his or her experience with safety on the streets. It's his or her firsthand knowledge of hunger, of violence, of need, of basic necessities. These experiences make up a child's education just as much as what happens in a schoolroom.

When a teacher has to spend so much time teaching children how to take a test, she has limited time to teach other things. And one point Mr. Myers made was that while teachers are able to tell students, "Read so you can live; read so you can grow up and have a better life," children believe it's true for somebody, but not necessarily for themselves. They see how it might work, but have no examples for how it might work for them.

But when a teacher has the time and the resources to sit with children and read aloud to them, the kids are finally given an opportunity to see how these statements are true. They see real examples of how the world opens up. They see kids who overcome obstacles. They see kids with the same skin color, the same tribulations, the same clothes, the same feelings, and they see them breaking through to the other side.

Children are being failed because they don't have books at home, and they have prescribed books at school. They are being failed because they are not being read to at home OR at school on a regular basis.

This is when Katherine Paterson jumped in and said, "How can you believe that books are wonderful if you don't know how wonderful they are?" And what she was referring to is how can children believe their teachers when their teachers tell them that reading will expand their horizons and teach them innumerable things and open doors for years to come – if these students never have a chance to hear what books have to offer? You can put a book in a fifth grader's hand, and you can tell him or her it's about a shipwreck or basketball or a dragon or whatever, but that's as far as you get. When you sit with a class and read out loud about the shipwreck or basketball or dragon, the children immediately become part of the story.

Ms. Paterson's eyes got very bright and she curled her hand into a fist and she told the teachers and librarians, "This is the rebellion you can take up – reading out loud instead of teaching kids how to scribble marks on tests." I thought the roof would come tumbling down from the response she got.

Teachers want to teach. They love their students and want to grow them into the adults that will propel our country and our world into the best possible future. They want this. They are desperate to do this. But they are hamstrung. Sure they can buck the system here and there, but if it means the test scores go down in their school then a litany of repercussions take over.

So… do parents care about testing? Most of them loathe it. It stresses out our kids, it requires handouts and boring work starting in the youngest grades. Do teachers care about testing? They HATE it.

What does this mean, then? It means lawmakers are so obsessed with metrics and "accountability" they have forgotten what schools are for.

Schools.
Are. 
For. 
Learning.

Can you imagine what would happen if, in Texas alone, the billion dollars that goes to the testing corporation went directly to the schools instead? Can you imagine what children would learn and experience if their schools had the actual resources to teach them? And I don't just mean teaching them to read and write and add and subtract, but teaching them how to think critically, and how to interact in the world, and how to draw conclusions from whole concepts that cross over from reading to writing to adding and subtracting and social studies and physics and everything combined and in between.

"But how would we measure success?" the lawmakers might ask. "How will we know if the teachers and administrators are doing their jobs?" "How will we know that the students know the fundamentals?"

How?

You will know when the world doesn't implode in 30 years. You will know by the leaps in science and engineering. You will know by the future works of art and literature. You will know by the cures for cancer and world hunger. You will know by lowering rates of incarceration. You will know by the plummeting rates of drop-outs and teen pregnancy. You will know by future diplomatic successes. By new inventions. By the protection of our own goddamned species.

Those metrics might not easily be taken now, I grant you that. But taking a ten-year-old, ripping his creative work off the classroom walls, sitting him in a desk for four hours, telling him he can't have music class today, forcing him to answer endless arrays of questions – the metrics that result from this? The only thing they measure is how successfully you can break a child, and then how well you can train him. Is that what education is? 

Katherine Paterson is right. It IS time for a rebellion. Walter Dean Myers is right. Children's educations span so much more than what is inside a school room.

"Children who are being given up on understand that they are being given up on," he said.

And while this may sound dramatic to those of us whose main testing hardship is getting up early enough to fix pancakes on testing mornings, for children in different circumstances, it's so much more than that. School for these children is a safe haven. Yes, in the United States of America there are children who only eat when meals are provided at school. The only time they are read to or hugged or hear "I love you" or are given a book is when their teacher does these things. Don't you think these teachers – shoot, our country as a whole – can better serve these children by not concentrating nearly all of the curricula on standardized testing? Children do not have standardized living arrangements. They do not have standardized worldviews. The do not have standardized life experiences. 

Katherine Paterson told the room that "when you are safe and happy you can learn." Schools are sanctuaries for many, many children. This means they are sanctuaries for the future of our country. 

And what are we doing about that? How are preserving and supporting and protecting these sanctuaries?

We're slashing budgets. We're ripping artwork off the walls. We're firing librarians, and when we're not firing them, we're teaching them how to be test administrators. We're undermining teachers. We're asking them to buy their own classroom supplies. We're giving them ultimatums that don't solve any problems.

This is a disgrace. It's a failure. And it is going to haunt our future if we can't figure out what to do about it.

The results of attempted meditation

I'm not sleeping well. This probably has something to do with a 4-year-old who insists on climbing into bed with me and my husband every night, and then twisting in violent, gymnastic pinwheels as he chatters in his sleep.

In order to fight the sleepiness that plagues me, I've been trying to set aside some time for meditating. If this meditating turns into a 20-minute power nap, then even better. The incredibly frustrating problem is that I can't calm my mind. I can't meditate. I've been trying to choose a word to fixate on – something I can repeat in my head as I lay down and close my eyes. No other thoughts, just this one word repeated over and over until I feel renewed and reenergized.

This is what happens:

[me laying in a quiet room with my eyes closed]

Calm
Calm
Calm
How could that manuscript get rejected like that? Everything is the worst.
Calm
Calm
What if I write a whole new book using a different character's point of view?
Calm
No, that is a terrible idea
Calm
What if I write a picture book about terrible ideas?
Calm
Calm
Can Ike-a-saurus really be almost old enough for Kindergarten? This can't be right.
Calm
What was that noise?
Calm
Calm
Man, the dog really smells today. What is going on over there?
Maybe I should switch words. I don't feel very calm.
Quiet
Quiet
My shirt is probably so wrinkled now.
But really, do I care?
Quiet
I need to get my ring fixed. Why haven't I done that yet?
Quiet
Quiet
Seriously, how could that manuscript have been rejected like that.
Uuuuugh.
Quiet
Maybe there is something wrong with my hormones
Am I having a hormonal problem?
A hormone storm!
I should go to the doctor.
But, ugh. The doctor.
Quiet
Quiet
Quiet
Oh, shit! I have a meeting tonight.
Quiet
Does the babysitter remember? Surely she does.
Quiet
Hopefully she does
Quiet
I should text her
Ugh, now I have to drive in traffic tonight
Quiet
Quiet
When was the last time I wrote a blog post?
Is that smell me?
Quiet
I should eat lunch
Maybe I should concentrate on the name of a publisher
Quiet
Quiet
Then I can use voodoo magic to avoid rejection
Quiet
Quiet
Maybe I really will outline a companion book from a different character's POV.
Then I can have two books no one wants!
Quiet
Quiet
Or maybe I will just write a sestina about rejection 
Quiet
Because that isn't dorky at all
Quiet
Quiet
Oh, screw this, I need some coffee. 

Musings on life and death and trains and assassins

I'm reading a book right now that is so good I'm having to pace myself. I've been rationing it everyday so that I can make it last longer. It's, Dark Triumph, the second book in Robin LaFever's His Fair Assassin series. The first book, Grave Mercy, was pretty damn fantastic, too. Anyway, these books are about assassin nuns who are sired by the god of Death. They go around killing bad guys who are "marqued" with these smudges that only the assassin nuns can see. After they kill the bad guy they experience his soul for a brief moment and it's all very sad and chilling and wonderful rolled together. (For both the assassin and the reader.)

I was reading this book last night in the quiet of an already sleeping household when I heard a train go by. We don't live very far from the tracks at all, so we hear trains all the time. It's not a bothersome thing – actually, it's very comforting to me. I love to hear the trains, and sometimes the kids and I will walk down to the tracks to watch them go by.

Normally at that time of night there is considerable train traffic, and sometimes they go by really fast. Last night was a whopper. That thing was flying.  I expected to look out the window and beyond the trees and see it whipping across the tracks like something from a cartoon. But of course it was nighttime and we don't live that close to the tracks, so there was nothing to see. 

Right about the time I remarked to myself (and to Twitter) about how fast the train was going, it let out an insistent, sustained, loud blast of its horn. I mean, this was an Others Approaching kind of spine-tingling blast. My oldest kiddo came downstairs and we stared at each other while we listened and I told him that something must have been on the tracks.

Then there was a distant squeal of brakes. And a bang.

And then there were sirens. Lots and lots of sirens.

And then there were helicopters. Lots and lots of helicopters.

I went outside and still couldn't see anything, though I expected to see some Spielbergian flashlights. Then, after searching around on the Internet I found out what had happened. A pedestrian was struck and killed by the train. And, even at a distance, I had heard the entire thing unfold. The last moments of a life, the struggle to protect that life, and then the recovery.

I am no assassin nun, so I didn't feel a soul rising from the person who was hit, but I did feel a sense of terrifying wonder at how quickly these things can happen. One moment alive. One moment not alive. One moment conducting a train. One moment watching helplessly as your train takes a life.

Was the person on the tracks on purpose? Did he or she somehow not hear the train? Was the train going too fast for this area? I don't know the answers to any of these questions, though I'm sure there are various agencies seeking answers.

My questions are more of an existential nature, I guess. How strange it is that people were sleeping and reading and eating and watching TV and making love and listening to music and washing clothes all while, just a few yards away, a life was lost in one quick instant. How can it be that life continues on, so mundane, even as a person meets death almost within an arm's length away.

I guess this how everyone feels when faced with a death, whether it is of a stranger or a loved one, whether it's sudden or lengthy. How is it that the world keeps spinning and people go on with their mundanities as lives are plucked gracelessly (and possibly gracefully) away from this earth? I don't know what I expect, though. Surely, the world can't stop for a moment every time someone dies or is killed. It weirdly feels both melancholic and reassuring that the world does not stop. But I can't help wondering if anything would be different if we could all get a brief breeze of the lost soul, just like the assassins do in this book.

If you could feel the breeze of a soul as it left a body, would that change how the world works? How would it alter things if the soul of the person you killed settled over you for a moment, like a kind of reverse caul, and then disappeared? Or even if you didn't kill them, but were nearby as they died. Would doctors have more compassion? Would gunmen stop what they were doing? Would a train conductor be less (or more?) haunted?

This is, of course, assuming we all have souls to begin with. And, I guess, that is a rumination for another blog post one day. (I think I am squarely on the side of Souls: Yes, We Have Them.)

Anyway, this post is really neither here nor there, just something I was thinking about this morning as I listen to the birds and watch the breeze blow through the newly green leaves in all the trees that surround those train tracks. It's a gorgeous morning. Resplendent, even. And someone, who was breathing 13 hours ago, is gone now, back to the stardust from whence he or she came.

And here I am, sitting in the same spot on my couch as I sat last night, nothing having changed, except that I have had a good night's sleep, a very sweet banana, and am wondering about Big Questions That Are Scary And Wondrous. 

I think I will not ration the pages of this book today. I think I will read like the wind.

Say what?

I got an interesting phone call the other day, that didn't seem like it was going to be interesting at all. It seemed like it was going to be a huge pain in my ass, to be honest.

We've been sending back what's left of our homebound medical equipment over the past few weeks (months?) because Ike-a-saurus doesn't need it anymore, and because keeping it here for emergencies is something our new health insurance has deemed a Very Expensive And Unnecessary Idea. So… fine. It was most difficult for me to relinquish the pulse ox, but I did it. And I didn't even cry (well, until later).

So, anyway, there have been a lot of annoying phone calls lately from various service providers and doctors offices and agencies, etc. while we sort out ways to cancel all of the lingering orders. (Formula, nursing, etc.) The phone has been ringing a lot, and while I'm thrilled it's ringing because we're getting rid of things, it's still a hassle.

A couple of days ago, the phone rang for the millionth time and the Caller ID said Cincinnati Children's and I was all, "WTF. What do they have to do with anything?" Then I wondered if maybe one of the lingering orders had come from them and I just didn't know. Like, maybe the Cincy docs had set everything up for the monthly formula deliveries.

But lo, it had nothing to do with any of this. The person on the other end was a doctor in charge of a medical study we'd signed up for years ago. Because Cincinnati Children's is a teaching hospital there are always a ton of studies and things going on. Some of them just ask for your consent to use samples taken during biopsies, and that sort of thing, so that they can study… whatever it is that they study. The samples are anonymous, it's all for a good cause, you don't have to go back for any reason, it seemed selfish to say no when they asked.

So this lady is asking if I remember giving consent for a team to study some cell biopsies Ike-a-saurus had taken during one of his many scopes. I didn't remember the specifics but was like, "Yeah, yeah, totally. I remember. How did you get this number? Isn't everything supposed to be anonymous?"

She kind of hemmed and hawed and said soemthing about there being a clause where a family can be notified in case of emergent circumstances. This is, obviously, when I started to panic. What did they find? Why were we being notified years later? sweat, sweat, sweat, panic, panic, panic.

The doctor calmed me down and said the only reason why their findings are of an emergent nature is because of how rare they are. She asked all these questions about Ike's illnesses, and about scars from his surgeries. Has he made remarkable comebacks from grave diagnoses? Have we noticed his surgical scars are barely visible? Have we noticed that when he skins his knees he bleeds less than other children? Has he ever broken a bone? Have we ever thought he might have broken a bone, but then he was fine the next day? Etc.

Lots of disturbing questions.

Finally, she got to the point. Her team has run all of these preliminary tests and it appears that Ike has something called Overactive Cellular Renewal Syndrome, also known as Extreme Manifesting Ecogenetic Neocytolysis. The team thinks maybe all of the kids in our family could have it. It's something that happens to the genetic code when the code has been altered by some kind of environmental event.

What kind of "event"? I asked, because we haven't taken any trips to Chernobyl. She said that what her team is studying is a kind of leap ahead in evolution – changes in body processes that are genetically related, but also possibly environmentally related as well. And this "syndrome" that they think Ike has is a kind of ability to heal yourself from the inside out.

I ask the next obvious question: "Like Wolverine, you mean? But without the adamantium and the animal stuff?" There was a long pause and then she said, yes.

"So, you're telling me my youngest son – potentially all of my kids are real life X-Men?"

"In a sense, yes."

"omg."

"I know."

And so we chatted some more and she offered to fly the family to Cincy so that all of the kids can undergo non-invasive testing. (DNA samples and things.) I hung up, immediately called my husband and we talked for a long time about all of this. I mean, this would explain a lot about Ike and his history. And it would be cool to know what's going on with the other two kiddos. It would also be cool to be part of medical history.

But then we started worrying the kind of worries you do when you've watch too many X-Files episodes. Would this be a good thing for the children? What about privacy? Obviously, that wasn't so secure, as proven by the phone call. How long before word of this leaks out and god forbid someone tries to hurt the kids just to time how quickly they heal.

No. We decided no. We would not be participating in the study any longer. We will not be going to Cincinnati to follow up. And not just because we're conspiracy theorists or overprotective parents, but because none of this real. April Fools, nerds!