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Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Hi, everyone! Happy Valentine’s Day!

I’m blogging today over at Tote Bags ‘n’ Blogs. I’m sharing some of my favorite silly, cynical and sentimental quotes about love. I hope you’ll stop by and share some of your own favorites! Three randomly selected posters will receive their choice of titles from my backlist!

I also wanted to share with you some of the Valentine’s Day cards from what’s left of my antique postcard collection. I’ve kept only the ones I loved the most, and apparently a lot of those were love-related. No surprise there! 🙂 I hope they’ll make you smile, and maybe pop over to the one you love and give them a great big smooch! Surely we can all be shamelessly in love with love today!

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Edna Nichols

A scientist named William Osler apparently once said, “No bubble is so iridescent or floats longer than that blown by the successful teacher.”

I’ve been lucky enough to have several teachers like that.  One was Edna Nichols, who taught English and creative writing at my high school.  She also was the advisor (inspiration, fearless leader, drill sergeant) for the little literary magazine we published.  She may not have realized it, but she was terrifically important to me.

In some ways, my memory is probably suspect.  My time with her was long, long ago, that infamously self-absorbed age—the hormonal teenage years.  I was young, diffident, easily embarrassed, terrified of being conspicuous.  I’d been newly transplanted to this high school, having just left the part of town where I’d been born, and where all my friends still lived.  I had just adopted a new nickname, in the hopes of sounding confident and breezy instead of the prissy former convent-school girl I really was.

I was, I think, a bit lost.

She wasn’t.  She owned her classroom, and, for that hour, she owned us, too.  She was middle-aged and she looked tired, but wiry.  She wore her curly hair short, and it was the color of a night with lots of clouds.  Her eyes watched you with the sharp, restless attention of a bird.  A hawk, not a sparrow.  A hawk with lasers.  She saw everything, and one look into those eyes made it clear that trying to fool her was a waste of time.

She wanted your best, and it irritated her when you didn’t give it.  When she was irritated, the eyes sharpened, and she made a wry comment that didn’t quite sting…but almost did.  Like a warning shot, into the wall beside your head.  Close enough to change your attitude without hardening your heart.

The year she taught me, she was recovering from surgery, and she needed to lie down.  She brought her patio chair into the classroom and taught from a reclining position.  Looking back now, I can’t believe she held control of a room full of seniors that way.  But somehow—perhaps with those eyes alone–she did.

I teach now, too, though just part-time, and never with her brilliance.  But when I recently broke my foot and had to teach from a ridiculous knee-scooter for seven long, embarrassing weeks, I remembered Mrs. Nichols and the elan with which she carried off her “chaise lounge.”  I knew it could be done.

I wish I remembered more of her magic.  I wish I knew how she maintained such strict discipline without blighting the confidence and enthusiasm necessary for reading poetry or writing from your soul.  Many, many times I’ve wished I could go back to my high school, and sit like a ghost in one of the empty chairs, watching Mrs. Nichols teach.  I could learn things now, I’m sure, that I was too young to understand back then.

How did she convince me that my silly, self-indulgent poems were good enough to publish for the rest of the school?  How did she inspire me to take the infinitesimal seed of talent and grow it into a lifetime career?  How did she blow the bubble of writing joy into my life, a bubble that still floats through every day?

Perhaps it was that, in the end, she liked us.  She believed in us.  And she kept her message simple.  She had one writing rule, stressed over and over until we finally got it.  “Begin in media res,” she’d say.  Begin in the middle of things.  Begin where it matters.

And she had one life rule, too.  She signed my yearbook with this Jonathan Swift quote, and I’ll bet I could find that same message in a hundred other yearbooks, too.  “May you live every day of your life.”

I just learned that Mrs. Nichols has been struggling with some health problems.  I hate that.  I hate that she’s not still standing in a classroom, aiming a wry joke just beyond the ears of some teenagers who need to settle down, so that she can teach them the joys of books and poetry…and life.

But I know the bubbles she created in all these years still survive.  And I want to thank her for mine.  Be well, Mrs. Nichols!  Thank you.

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I just read my first book on my new iPad.  I don’t know how I feel about it.

I have to admit up front that I got the iPad for free–sort of.  It came along with a graduate study program I’m taking, so my relationship with it is less demanding than it would be if I’d paid cash straight out.  I had to cart it home from Pennsylvania anyhow, and I’d finished my most recent book (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO….wonderful!).  So I decided to test-drive the iPad on the plane.  I bought Harlan Coben’s new mystery, CAUGHT.  I love Coben, but I don’t usually keep his novels when I’m done.  Bookshelf property in my house is at a premium, like beachfront acreage in Paradise.  It can be acquired only by fabulous artists (like KY CRAFT) or word-geniuses (like DOROTHY DUNNETT).   Coben goes into the library box, so that the next guy can enjoy.

So…the pros:  Reading on the iPad was convenient on the plane.  The page is big enough that I could see even with these weak eyes of mine, but small enough that it didn’t seem to annoy the guy in the seat next to me.  The backlighting worked in the dim atmosphere of a late-night flight.  Flipping through pages is kind of fun (I’m easy to amuse), and the bookmark feature is nifty.

But…the cons:  When I got home, and I crawled in bed at night, ready for my lovely ten minutes of reading before passing out, I looked at the cold, hard metal device and…I didn’t really want to finish the book.  It seemed uninviting, more like a robot than a friend.

It’s a machine.  A machine.  You see, I’m old-fashioned in a lot of ways, one of which is my love of the printed word on paper.   I love the look, the feel, the smell of my eclectic personal library.  I get a warm fuzzy from just glancing over at my big, battered bookcase and seeing the jagged-tooth line of novels, how-tos, histories, poems and childhood leftovers.  I take them for granted far too often.  I don’t organize them properly.  I use them for coasters and paperweights, and, once or twice, to hold open an irritating window.  I tilt them and stack them haphazardly.  I tear their dust jackets and dog-ear their pages.  But, in spite of all this, I love them with the kind of love I ordinarily reserve for family members and old friends.

They stand for so many things: for love and wisdom and laughter, for my heritage, my comfort and my memories.  I grew up in a home with a library that held thousands of books, and my father’s bookplate, faded and curling at the edges, turns any book into a treasure.  No dwelling becomes a home to me until the books are on the shelves.  When I first visited Trinity College’s exquisite library in Dublin, I practically burst into tears, as if I’d finally landed on my home planet.

And yet…I don’t want to be the narrow-minded old bore who won’t embrace the future.  I love learning and changing.  I have been dragged, growling, to a hundred things (Facebook, iPhones, iTunes, tofu) only to end up addicted, unable to imagine life without them.  So to my more-evolved friends out there, I pose the question.  What’s wonderful about reading books on machines?  Help me see the light!

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Today at lunch, one of my best writing buddies and I were talking about joy. Specifically, how to get more of it into lives that have become so busy, budgets that have become so tight, and families that have grown and changed and sometimes separated.

We talked about the little pleasures from the past, the moments when we’ve felt most at ease with our worlds and with ourselves. We mentioned floating on a raft in the Gulf of Mexico. Long walks with something corny on the iPod. Cooking up something wicked in the kitchen (this was my friend, not me…lol). Making silly things we aren’t even very good at, like Christmas ornaments, posters, ceramics, macrame.

And then I mentioned poetry.

She’s polite, but her eyes got wide. Poetry? I’m sorry. I know it sounds impossible. Isn’t poetry something you slave over in school? But I can’t help it. I’m a geek that way. My parents were both writers, and they both created beautiful poetry. They shared their favorite poems with my sister and me even before we could read. They quoted the greats when they wanted to give advice. “Ah, love, let us be true to one another…” “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter…”

And we got hooked. I still find wisdom, beauty and consolation in the poems I love. They give me much the same feeling I get from a really good romance. Here’s what Percy Shelley said about poetry: “It strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty…”

Isn’t that what we want from a book? Don’t we want a writer who can help us see our worlds through fresh eyes? Don’t we want to awake anew to the beauty that is a part of everything, but we’ve begun to take it for granted? Don’t we want to remember what that first rush of falling love feels like…that first coming together in wondrous intimacy?

Of course, I also want to make silly things and play with paints, like a preschooler. The picture at the beginning of this post is my beloved collection of hand-painted mugs–hand-painted by me, a woman who has absolutely zero artistic talent, at one of those do-it-yourself pottery places. I’ve made five so far, the first back in 2004. Each one has one of my favorite quotes on it. So far, I’ve got

“Margaret, are you grieving?” from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poignant “Spring and Fall”
“I’ll come to thee by moonlight,” from Alfred Noyes’ tragic ballad, “The Highwayman”
“I am half sick of shadows,” from Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott”
“Yet we will make him run,” from Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”
“The seven stars go squawking, like geese about the sky,” from Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”

They look like a pre-schooler’s work, and yet I cherish every one. I remember the fun I had making them, with my friends, my sister, my daughter… And I remember each poem, and the joy it has brought me through the years. In fact, I think it’s time to make another, because every set of coffee mugs should have at least six, don’t you think?

Any suggestions for the next quote? Anyone out there a poetry geek, too? If you don’t have any poetry to share, I’d still love to hear where in this hectic world you still can find nuggets of joy. I just heard from my friend while I was writing this post, and she reports that she’s out in the pool, floating on a raft and refusing to let anything get her down. That makes me happy. Or, as Shakespeare would say, “But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, all losses are restored, and sorrows end.”

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My father used to tell us, “Everyone in the world is either Irish or wishes he were.” I was a kid, so I believed it. It didn’t take me long to discover that everyone values his own heritage that same way, but I still secretly think it’s super cool to be Irish. 🙂

So, in honor of this day, which of course has a special sparkle for me, here is a list of my favorite Irish things!


1) The music. Someone once said of the Irish, “All their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.” I’m the corniest person on the planet, so I love a good tear-jerker song. Try listening to Bing Crosby sing “The Isle of Innisfree,” and you might see what I mean. If you’ve ever been away from your home and your people, you’ll cry at that one, or your tear ducts are broken. How about “The Fields of Athenry” or “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen”? Sinead O’Connor singing “Molly Malone.” Christy Moore singing “Nancy Spain.” Anyone doing “Danny Boy.” Even while they’re tearing out your heart, you’re hitting the “repeat” button! Don’t like to cry? Hmmmm…you must not be Irish! 😉

2) The Dingle Peninsula in Western Ireland. This is what heaven looks like (as the song said). The picture here is of my daughter in a magical little cove called Slea Head. If you get a chance to go, do it. The Burren, the Cliffs of Moher, Lisdoonvarna…if you can, stay in an absolutely charming little B&B called Castlewood House, where they serve breakfast that was made by the angels.

3) The words. The irreverent definition of blarney is the ability to tell a man to go to hell in such a way that he looks forward to the trip. Whatever you call it, words fall from Irish tongues like fairy dust. Think of their wonderful blessings: “May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back.” And “May you be buried in a coffin made from the wood of a hundred-year-old tree that I shall plant tomorrow.”
And when they turn their words to poetry…to the lyrical celebration of nature, of life, of love, of fear and innocence… that is heaven, too. Yeats is my favorite Irish poet, and these are two of his images that I love the best:

From “Sailing to Byzantium”:
“An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing”

From “Song of Wandering Aengus”:
“And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.”

Ooops… I’m suddenly realizing that three things isn’t enough! What about their gorgeous actors (Liam Neeson!), their art (The Book of Kells), their plays (Pygmalion!), their novels (Maeve Binchy), their courage, their beer and their history? But I mustn’t go on forever, so I’ll leave you with the Irish blessing I love best.

May the saddest day of your future be no worse than the happiest day of your past.

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