Keeping the (Poetic) Faith

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“As sure as time, history is repeating itself, and as sure as man is man, history is the last place he’ll look for his lessons.”

“…a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” –Samuel Coleridge

Reading Go Set A Watchman brought me back to my childhood, when friends from the neighborhood moved away: when I would see them again, a year or two later, I was always surprised to see they had changed, and it took some time to adjust to these relatively new people. They were, at one time, both friends and strangers.

Much has been made of the characters’ changes in the novel, Atticus in particular. Along with the novel overall, these changes felt underdeveloped and rushed. I believe I would feel the same without comparison to To Kill A Mockingbird, but that is the most interesting part of the book: Watchman owes its existence to Mockingbird, yet the existence of the two books and the resulting inevitable comparisons will be troublesome, requiring at the very least, I believe, a certain suspension of disbelief.

Much of the dialogue was flat, but the most difficult parts to read were the parts from Atticus. As I read, I waited for him to redeem himself: I expected some simple, folksy wisdom regarding states’ rights, maybe some empathy for people who are slow to accept change, something that would complicate his character and help me understand him and accept the difference. Nothing came.

In the end, the book focuses on Jean Louise’s willingness to accept this new Atticus. She had, like many of us, a view of this man that was entirely contrary to this new version. Along with her, readers cringe and are left to come to their own place of acceptance. What else are we to do? This is a fictional character, a “shadow of imagination.”

In this way, Watchman turns Mockingbird on its head, or maybe it would be more accurate to say that Watchman carries the emotional appeal of Mockingbird to its logical end: are we willing to see things from Atticus’s new point of view?

And this then is how the book may be an important one for this time, because of issues like same-sex marriage and the Confederate flag. The question the novel raises is interestingly paradoxical: can people be tolerant of those seen as intolerant? It might be a question we need to answer as a society if we are to continue to thrive.

“As sure as time, history is repeating itself, and as sure as man is man, history is the last place he’ll look for his lessons.” –Uncle Jack

Change is inevitable. People change. Values change. Technologies change. However, change’s inevitability should not be used as a logical argument.

The novel argues neither for nor against change. It does instead argue for tolerance, but not the nice-sounding tolerance espoused by Mockingbird, but what might be called “reverse tolerance”: a tolerance of those who are viewed as intolerant.

Had Atticus focused more on states’ rights to explain his role in the citizen’s council, he would be a more interesting character; instead he just sounds simple and scared of change. Although this is a work of fiction and Atticus is fake, a “shadow of imagination,” the issues of the novel and of contemporary society are real, as is the fear, particularly when dealing with issues of culture, religion, and sexuality.

Walt Whitman, You Were No Solipsist, and Neither, I Think, Am I

whitmanOr maybe you were. Maybe the reason you wrote so relentlessly, with such repetition, was just a way of reminding yourself that you were not alone.

Maybe this is one solipsist writing to another. I would explain solipsism, but really, what would be the point?

I was introduced to the concept at a developmentally inappropriate age. I researched the idea in junior high. My brother and a friend brought me to a college library. I had never been to a library with more than one floor; this added weight to the already heavy concept.

I was reading your poem to my students, modeling the active reading and noticing I expect of them. I tell them, listen to me think as I read. I invite them into my head.

In the second class, feigning again to read as if I had not just done the same before lunch, I was stopped at this one line:

“The certainty of others, the life, love, sight, hearing of others.”

And I was off on my solipsist rant.

How can it be that all those cars hold people going places I won’t go and coming from others I have not been? Looking out at all of them—this classroom, my mind—I tell them: I find it hard to imagine that each of you goes home at night and, unless you happen to have some work assigned from me, this home, this life, has nothing whatsoever to do with my life, that the four walls around you hold pictures of people I do not know, that the floors are dusted with dead skin cells of which none are mine.

And most of them, Walt, stare back at me as if I’ve lost my mind.

But in these stares I find relief.They don’t just nod their agreement: “We have our own minds and they are not like yours.” Their confusion confuses me; but my confusion at theirs is all the proof I need: I am not a solipsist.

And then one young lady says to the person next to her: he’s crazy, but he does make sense. And this, even now, writing, alone, makes me smile.

Anxious at Night; Creative in the Morning; Rational by Day

I initially dismissed the idea that caffeine killed creativity. I like and need my morning coffee and thought I couldn’t write or function much without it. Plus, I had read that caffeine boosts cognitive health, not that I didn’t know that already because I had anecdotal proof, which is generally enough to convince me of anything I want to believe (such as the belief that caffeine’s effect kicks in with the first smell of coffee).

I know this much is true: coffee helps me focus.

Then I started experiencing nighttime panic attacks, the ones that wake you in the middle of the night out of a perfectly peaceful sleep—with its rapid eye movement and rhythmic breathing—and make it so that no position is adequately comfortable and everything seems wrong with the world. Breathing can also become something of a chore.

I hesitate to call them panic attacks, but this is about how they start: wake up about four, think about something I did or did not do or will have to do or should have done, fail to get into a comfortable sleeping position. That first thing is merely a trigger, because my brain then proceeds to the consequences of the thing or to related things, and from there, any number of things can concern me, from tooth decay to some aspect of being an inadequate son/friend/father/husband/teacher/neighbor.

Morning always offers a different perspective. I used to think that night was merely a metaphor and that morning merely represented a change, an end to whatever trouble or worry. While it does serve that purpose well, I now imagine people sleeplessly tossing and turning in caves, and not because of the poor sleeping conditions.

“weeping may stay for the night,
    but rejoicing comes in the morning”

                                     -King David of Israel

Night has always been hard, for two obvious reasons: loneliness and helplessness. Lying there, it is possible to believe that no one else in the world is awake, that even on the other side of the world, where it is daytime, everyone is enjoying a restful, midday nap. Plus, you can’t force yourself to sleep, and as long as you are worthlessly lying there, there isn’t anything you can do about that to do list or those worries. Except worry.

There is something else going on, I’ve come to realize: my beautiful, un-caffeinated, creative brain is hard at work, untethered by any of the day’s distractions.

Coffee helps to focus. Focus helps with problem solving, rationalizing. And convergent thinking. When I know what I want to write, coffee helps.

But without coffee, my brain is seeing possibilities, making random connections, developing random theories. Divergent thinking.

Even if I’m not writing first thing in the morning, many of my best ideas come then, before coffee and the daily grind steer my focus elsewhere. Of course, because I have less control, that is inevitably when my worst thoughts come as well. So now, when I lie awake at night, fearing the worst, I appreciate the terrible beauty of the human brain, steer my mind toward better things, and look forward to the light and coffee in the morning.

When Life Imitates Reading The Scarlet Letter

You are staring at a page that is thick with words. The 20141229_105900paragraphs are page-length and there is little white space providing relief. You’ve been reading for some time now, but it nothing much, if anything, has happened. Honestly, you are quite confused by it all, you are not enjoying it (this probably wasn’t a choice book), and you feel the pressure to keep up. You are not sure if you are up to this challenge, and even if a large part of you doesn’t care about any of it, this reading is unavoidable and there remains a nagging sense that not being up to the challenge says something about you and that falling short will somehow negatively alter your life’s path.


You are staring into the darkness of the situation. Maybe someone has died or is dying. Maybe you just failed miserably and publicly and are now questioning other parts of yourself. Maybe it’s a serious no-win decision. Maybe someone left you for good or worse, simply turned their back on you. Whatever it is, it consumes you. It dominates every thought, and makes it seem as if nothing else is happening. Honestly, you are quite confused by it all, you are definitely not enjoying it, and you are aware, vaguely, that life is going on for others who are leaving you behind. You are fairly sure you are not up to this challenge—and while it’s clearly not your fault, or while there are reasons to explain or justify your role, there is no avoiding it and you are certain that falling short here will speak volumes about your limited worth as a human being.


The teacher has spoken of symbolism, metonymy, theme. Somewhere in this relentless outpouring of words there lies some deeper meaning (maybe a line or two of clarity?) or wisdom. There will be a test. You notice an inverse relationship: the less clear a passage, the more meaningful it seems. But this only slows you further, frustrates you more. This, this is why people hate reading. You read a line like this:

“Again, a mystic sisterhood would contumaciously assert itself as she met the sanctified frown of some matron, who, according to the rumor of all tongues, had kept cold snow within her bosom throughout life.”

You think, that may be an example of metonymy, but you still aren’t sure what is happening, or why; and only a slight respect for a book that has stuck around for more than a century and the fear of a library fine keeps you from throwing the book away. You despair, wishing you could go read something else, something clearer, an instruction manual perhaps, something that will just tell you what you need to know.


You’ve heard of silver linings and lights at the ends of tunnels. Things happen for a reason. You hope. This is a test; you are responsible for finding the meaning. The darker the moment, the harder you must look. Life slows more as you look for signs everywhere. You are going, hypothetically, past an animal hospital. On the sign it says, maybe, “A healthy pet is a happy pet,” and because you’re desperate for meaning (maybe an answer or simple solution?), you wonder if this could be saying something to you specifically: maybe you should be exercising more; maybe you’ve been neglecting those you love. This is just one example: you see meaning, or potential meaning, everywhere, even though you still aren’t sure what is happening, or why; and this relentless interpretation of all of life’s details is exhausting. You despair, wishing you could go back to a time when an animal hospital sign could be just an animal hospital sign, when there was no need for deeper meaning.


You know how to read. It isn’t the words—most of them, at least—that are giving you problems. It’s the way the words are strung together that’s giving you fits. In a perfect world, you would be sailing through this book, and the symbolic parts would glow with a holy light. But this is a world of broken mirrors, and you’re struggling. What you need is a filter: the ability to decide which words are more important than others.

You need to decide where the meaning is effectively and efficiently. And the patience to wait when it doesn’t.

If you’re just reading, take heart. This is just a book; this is just a test. Learning now to plod away, to keep your eyes moving, and training your mind to detect meaning and significance and to ignore what can be ignored. In a perfect word, these bad things wouldn’t happen, and everything would simply glow with holy light. But this is a world of broken mirrors, and we all struggle. What we all need is a filter: the ability to decide which words are more important than others.

We need to decide where the meaning is effectively and efficiently. And the patience to wait when it doesn’t.


Aye, There’s the Rubric

I am not anti-rubric.

In a perfect world they wouldn’t be needed. However, they have their benefits. And I don’t really have a choice, which means, I need to do it the best I can.

rubricBut even when we’re doing our best, when we try to do everything right, there is still sometimes the need for a little damage control. This is a story of trying to do everything right in a world of cracked mirrors.


Students had about twelve minutes to answer a question about the first chapter of The Scarlet Letter and how it relates to the following chapters. I told them their grade would not be tied to the rubric score, that this would be a chance to help us understand the criteria of the rubric better.

Before I read any of the students’ writing, I wrote a paragraph of my own, setting a timer for twelve minutes.

Then I set the stopwatch to monitor my time as I began reading and typing feedback to the roughly sixty student paragraphs. For every minute I spent on each writing, that would be an hour; my goal was to keep it to about three. I type feedback because I can type faster (and more neatly) than I write. Plus, I think students seem to value it more, and that also means I have a copy of the feedback.

The feedback starts to feels a little formulaic (after so many repetitions), but to do it in a short amount of time and to make it meaningful, I follow this general format:

  • Something positive about the writing
  • A detail from the writing that is specific and shows it is individualized
  • A question or wondering about some revision

Before I gave them my feedback or their score, I gave them my example (without telling them it was mine—many assumed, but others didn’t seem to give it a thought). They read it individually and underlined lines from the rubric. Then they discussed in groups and had to come up with a final score. Each group shared, and we discussed the differences of opinions as well as the difficulties in evaluating with a rubric.


It was generally decided upon that my writing was a six. Out of eight. I had generally fallen short on some in-depth analysis. The group scores had ranged from five to eight, but most had said either six or seven. So there seemed to be some general consensus.

I gave them their writings. They had to assign it a rubric score and provide some feedback about what they did well and what could improve. Once they did that, I took their papers back, gave them my typed comments, and wrote my score on their paper.

Several of the students had agreed with me on their score. Others were just one off, sometimes one higher and sometimes one lower. But a surprising number had scored themselves much higher than I had. When I talked with them (as many as I could in the class period), we looked at their own feedback. Some had written that they had done well and just needed to add more detail from the chapter. This was the opportunity to reinforce the point I’d made earlier: a low score on the rubric isn’t necessarily a long ways from a high score, but may just be missing key elements, such as using details and examples to justify thoughts and opinions.

I was feeling pretty good, particularly when one student said, “Your feedback made me happy. Thank you.”

At least I made someone happy. I try to make the feedback specific and place the responsibility back in the students' hands.

At least I made someone happy. I try to make the feedback specific and place the responsibility back in the students’ hands.


One student, I could tell, was upset by the rubric score.

He had agreed with my feedback and even seemed pleased by it. But when he saw my rubric score, compared with his, his demeanor changed. He is an insightful reader and a hard worker. But this particular writing didn’t score high.

Fortunately, we had a chance to talk. I went through his writing with him to point out the strengths and to discuss what could be improved. I reminded him that there had been little time to write. He was placated mostly, but still troubled.

We talked some more about writing in general and this particular assignment. The main point I tried making clear: I don’t want a rubric to stand between us. He has tremendous potential; I am a guy who can help him become an even better writer.

I don’t doubt that he will do much better. But I worry about what damage has been done. I worry that when he looks at me he will see a scarlet rubric on my chest, that he will forget the helpful feedback and not see me as someone who wants to help.


This was written, primarily, as a chance to process the experience. However, putting myself on display and sharing feedback is more unnerving for me than is sharing my writing. But teachers of writing should write–in ways that make them uncomfortable. So there it is.

Any feedback would be interesting. Rubric scores, however, are optional.

Cracks in the Mirror

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I was reviewing expectations with students and I had this picture on the PowerPoint slide. I told them about how the mirror broke, how we didn’t fix it for months until our daughter cut her finger when she was cleaning the mirror, how it was a pain to replace and how it cost a decent amount of money for a new mirror. In short, broken mirrors suck.

Yet, every time I brushed my teeth and leaned forward over the sink, I saw my comically distorted face and I smiled. It made me happy. Simply and pathetically happy.

It’s a world of broken mirrors, I told them. It’s an imperfect and fallen world where mirrors break, where technology isn’t always available and working, where standardized tests and grades are a necessity, where life intervenes on learning—or at least on getting work done.

They are largely a group of high achievers. They care deeply about their grades. They place a lot of pressure on themselves and have high expectations and standards set before them. I want to see them reach and even surpass those goals, and to help wherever I can. Like me, they have lives that sometime interfere with schooling, lives that seem at times to not want us to learn, lives that make us wish we could just stay in bed all day.

The trick, I’ve learned, is to watch for those moments where the crack in the mirror provides a holy glimpse of hope and humor. Sometimes it’s all we can do.

dr-seuss-writer-from-there-to-here-and-here-to-there-funny-things-are

Things to Remember After the Storm

Be careful: those steps out the back door are slippery when they’re wet; the last thing you’d want right now is a nasty fall.

Take walks whenever the weather permits: sometimes that slow pace is exactly what you will need; other times the simple, miraculous act of putting one foot in front of the other will be good for your soul.

There is a difference between belief and believing: the former is a reserve to be drawn upon now and then; the latter is the act of carrying that reserve from here to there—and the bigger the load, the bigger the challenge.

Replace some of the canned goods and emergency supplies for the next time you can’t make it out to the store.

A downed power line could kill you in an instant.

People were very kind, some of them went out of their way, and others even had flat tires themselves but still showed up anyway.

You sunburn easily, and there’s some history of skin cancer in your family, so don’t think a sunny day isn’t—in a way—its own danger.

There are seasons for fruit-bearing; and then there are times when the best that can happen is that your leaves don’t wither and fall off: Hold on to your leaves.

There’s work to be done after a storm; take that work very seriously. All of it.

But there’s also no need to rush from the door to the car or to give yourself extra time on the road; stop and talk. People matter.

Lightning separates nitrogen molecules, which then become part of the plants we and the animals we eat; our bodies can’t do that alone.

Thinking metaphorically about lightning—along with just about everything else—can be exhausting, but so is a good workout.

Storms are forgotten, and while no one ever complains about a beautiful sunny day, nice weather has its own way of spoiling you, making you lazy, and lulling you into some really dark places*; if that doesn’t tell you what a weak and pathetic creature you are, nothing will.

There will be other storms; but, one day, there will be no more storms.


ancient monks recognized this and called it acedia

In the Shadow of the Cutwater

We were writers. Our identities were forged by our actions. If anyone was to ask, our response was to be: I am a writer. We could say this in part because we were with others who would respond: we are writers, too.

We sat at a small concrete park with our notebooks on our laps. Across one street, people gathered outside a homeless shelter. The sound of construction across the other street—another building in the revitalization of this downtown area—drowned out the animated conversations of those milling about the park, people who knew the place well enough to know we were not a normal part of it.

We had dedicated four weeks of our summer to reading and writing. We had our own reasons for coming and our own reactions to being there. And when the time was done, we went our separate ways.

Through the weeks there was one true constant: the river was flowing. We spent time writing each morning, some of us by the windows that overlooked the city, the river directly below us, a peaceful and pristine vignette that belied the rockiness and pollution.

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Photo by Ben Clore

In the morning, when the sun was reflecting off the water, the true nature of the river revealed itself. Thousands of glittering ripples, like clamoring paparazzi, spoke of the flow’s forceful and relentless turbulence. But there were other places where the water was smooth, where things looked still. On the lee side of the cutwaters—the rock columns that support the bridge—the river seemed to turn back on itself; it was as if this shadow would provide some escape, as if the force of the water coming back might hold us against the stone pillar.

Here perhaps, if only for a time, the river might just stop.

After the four weeks, we rejoined the flow, as all must. We became part of that river again, the river that flows not with time’s measured pace, but with swirls and eddies that disorient, over and around rocks that batter without mercy.

We lingered in the stillness of our writing community awhile; we had spent more time together than with our own families. For some of us at least, the time and quiet allowed something to find footing in a place some of us never knew existed. To those who have not discovered that place, who have not found its home, we have only three words, which we will share over the noise of construction in a concrete city park.

Don’t Call That Dog Lifesaver

Disciplined (as a transitive verb, or a verb that requires an object to receive the action): The father disciplined the child.

Conviction: a final declaration of guilt

3D_Judges_Gavel The voice that spoke in the middle of the night said, yes, indeed it was God’s punishment. The voice, I would come to recognize, had the same sadistically sympathetic tone of the impaled pig’s head that spoke to Simon in Lord of the Flies.

In the daylight a different sense overtook me: this form of punishment and of punishing didn’t seem like the God I know. I’d suffered an injustice, that was all, a life-altering and a question-everything-you-know injustice. I deserved pity, not punishment; compassion, not correction.


Was God punishing Joseph for the arrogance of his dreams—the dreams that, in the end, were prophetic? That never seemed to come up in Sunday school. The Bible glosses over how agonizing it must have been for Joseph in that pit, his brothers plotting his fate above ground.

I’d more or less decided “no.” God wasn’t punishing me for any particular sin or strain of sin (most likely of omission).

Then I turned to the Bible and read what I didn’t want to hear. Oh, I shied away from the Old Testament; I didn’t need any fire-and-brimstone God. Like many Christians in adversity, I’d been cherry-picking verses as if I were picking out clothes based on the day’s weather: I went to Hebrews 12—Turn your eyes on Jesus. A spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. I should have stopped there.

But I kept reading: “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children… God disciplines us for our good… No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.

Conviction: the act of moving a person by argument or evidence to belief, agreement, consent, or a course of action

dunce-cap1The word disciplined has negative connotations. I automatically associated it with punishment, of being sent to some spiritual corner to “think about what I’ve done.” I associated it with be a child.

Mostly, I didn’t like thinking I was wrong, especially about something like the very nature of God.

What followed got me thinking about myself as a father: “For what children are not disciplined by their father?” I wondered, do I really discipline my children? I’ve hidden IPods. There were some timeouts. I yelled. A lot.

Now, however, it more often it goes like this.

One of my children accuses another of being mean or unfair. The other says that’s not true, and this goes on until I step in and mediate. Sometimes somebody says, “You’re just trying to get me in trouble.”

And I laugh. “Who said anything about being in trouble? What ‘trouble’ have I ever really gotten you in? We’re just figuring this out together, that’s all.”

What I’m saying to them, essentially, is that I want them to see some bigger picture, that whatever issue they are fighting over is trivial—that they need to be able to work out, collectively and individually, the problem facing them, because there will be others, many, many others. And I am here to help them.

Disciplined (participle). He is disciplined. The disciplined runner…

Conviction: the state of being convinced

The voice that comes to me now sounds more like my own, as I both comfort and discipline my children: “Who said anything about being in trouble? What ‘trouble’ have I ever really gotten you in? We’re just figuring this out together, that’s all.” It’s the voice of a father. To His child. I’m more than all right with that.

“God is educating you; that’s why you must never drop out. He’s treating you as dear children. This trouble you’re in isn’t punishment; it’s training, the normal experience of children.” Hebrews 12, The Message