You and I

This isn’t my all-time favorite poem, but it is close.  Below the poem is my explication of how I think the poem and the poet create meaning. Of course, part of it is what I am bringing to the poem, but much of it is the realization of the genus of the poet Jonathan Potter. I’ll bet his wife (or girlfriend) loves this poem, also:

Before you read the poem, or while you read the poem, listen to Garrison Keillor’s interpretation. The sense is always, first and foremost, in the sound.”

Start at 3:30

http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/www_publicradio/tools/media_player/popup.php?name=writers_almanac/2011/02/twa_20110228_64

You and I

Jonathan Potter

 

You are a warm front
that moved in from the north,
a blind spot bearing beautiful gifts,
a garden in the air, a golden filament
inscribed with the name of God’s hunting dog,
a magic heirloom mistaken for a feather duster,
a fountain in a cow pasture, an anachronistic anagram
annoyed by anonymity, a dollar in the pocket
of a winter coat in summer.

And I am the discoverer of you.

 

You and I

Jonathan Potter

Surprise! This poem is built as a cascade of metaphors, falling one over the other, over the other, until the first word in the title and the first word in the poem become the last word of the poem. It is a cascade of air, not water. Each image suggests a discovery. The images start as nebulous air images and then gain substance; they give way to concrete images as the poem progresses, just as the relationship of the poet to his lover gains substance when he recognizes how his love is materializing for his lover: he realizes her beauty coming into his awareness.

“You and I” describes the poet’s surprise as he realizes just how special his love is. The first images evoke surprise: “a warm front that moved in from the north.” Fronts (air and moisture) tend to move in quickly and this front is a surprise because warm fronts don’t usually move in from the north.  

He is surprised as her beautiful gifts materialize, having been hidden just out of his sight, or better, they have been there all along, and he just notices them. Potter uses alliteration (blind, bearing, beautiful) to highlight the growing awareness of her presence as a gift: nothing is apparent (blind), something is coming (bearing), and the gift is revealed (beautiful). The placement of the word “gift” at the end of the line emphasizes the surprise process when he at last notices her.

The poet uses “gift” to start the alliteration of the next two lines: (garden, golden, and God.) The garden in the sky image evokes beautiful star-filled heavens, whereas the golden filament inscribed with the name of God’s hunting dog is the divine connection of loyalty and love between the poet and his love connected by nothing less than the thinnest of connective tissue: a golden filament ties him to the divine and to God’s hunting dog. God’s hunting dog helps the poet find the love and loyalty of his love that the poet can’t discover on his own.

The feather duster transitions the poem to more concrete images. Dusting off the everyday routine of their relationship, he discovers a covert love passed down to him as a magic heirloom that has been passed from her family. She comes from a loving past, and he is surprised by the revelation of that love.

The “fountain in the cow pasture” is a concrete image of the sublime being made manifest from the mundane. There is the surprise at the discovery of water (an image of the presence of God) flowing from the mundane (a cow pasture). 

“An anachronistic anagram annoyed by anonymity” is a fun attribution to the feelings of the “You” in the poem. She is annoyed her presence in the poet’s life is not recognized immediately. He is a little slow on the uptake of her love for him; it takes him awhile to appreciate who she is (the anagram).

The penultimate surprise is the dollar lost in the winter coat (a reference to the warm front surprise), until he discovers it in the warm summer of their love. In other words, as their relationship grows, he continues to be surprised by her love and her presence.

The second stanza’s meaning comes directly from the form of the poem. The poem is about two people discovering love (You and I). The first stanza is the “You” of the poem. It starts with the word “You.” The second stanza is the “I” of the poem. Notice how the title is used in the first words of each stanza: “You” as the first word of the title, “And I” as the first two words in the second stanza. The poet completes the relationship of the title and as the discoverer of “You” (his love).

So what is the back-story on this poem? I have no idea. What is my take on this poem? It is one of my all-time favorite love poems because it reflects how I first discovered my love for my high school girlfriend, and it describes the discovery of when I first knew I was in love with my wife Eva.

If you actually stayed with me this far, let me know how how you liked this poem and this explication.  Don’t be shy: I feel like I am writing in a vacuum.

 

The Way You See the Problem is the Problem

I like fun stories! This is a fun story from the book, Zen and the Art of Happiness. Chris Prentiss is making a point about “As you believe, so it is for you.”

 

Acting on the basis of what you believe is what brings about the conditions of your life and the degrees of happiness you have experienced. In the breakthrough 2004 film What the Bleep Do We Know!?, physicist and author Fred Alan Wolf, Ph.D. observes: “There is no ‘Out There’ out there, independent of what goes on in our minds.”

Take the story of Max. Max owned a thriving sandwich shop. There were always people waiting in line to eat at his little shop. He gave away free pickles, free potato chips, sometimes a free soft drink, and his sandwiches were famous for being overstuffed.

One day his son, who lived in a distant city, came to visit. They had a good visit but as the son was leaving, he told his father, “Since I have been here, I’ve been observing how you run the sandwich shop, and I have to tell you for your own good that you’re making a big mistake giving away all those extras. The country’s economy is in bad shape. People are out of work, and they have less money to spend. If you don’t cut back on the free items and on your portion sizes, you’ll be in a bad way before long too.” His father was amazed, thanked his son, and told him he would consider his advice.

After his son left, Max followed his son’s advice. He stopped giving away free items and he cut back on the generous portions of food in his sandwiches. Before long, after many of his disappointed customers had stopped coming, he wrote his son: “You were right! The country’s economy is in bad shape, and I’m experiencing the results of it right here in my sandwich shop!”

The poor economy that the man’s son saw all around him was real. Despite the poor economy, though, the father had been running a successful sandwich shop. He didn’t realize that times were hard, that many people were out of work, and that money was scarce. He was treating everyone with great generosity and he was reaping the rewards that such actions always bring: a positive, generous outpouring of good things. But after his son told him about the “bad shape” the country was in, he began to act as if it were so, bringing about the only possible result—a negative, fearful, ungenerous experience that he believed was “out there.” Was it “out there”?

The answers are never “out there.” All the answers are “in there,” inside you, waiting to be discovered.

I have seen several similar scenarios in my life; the story rings true for me.

Hungry Ghost

In the Buddhist Wheel of Life, there is a realm called the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Hungry ghosts suffer from extreme hunger and thirst. They wander constantly in search of food and drink, only to be miserably frustrated any time they come close to actually getting what they want. For example, they see a stream of pure, clear water in the distance, but by the time they get there the stream has dried up. Hungry ghosts have huge bellies and long, thin necks. On the rare occasions that they do manage to find something to eat or drink, the food or water burns their neck as it goes down to their belly, causing them intense agony. (Wikipedia) The hungry ghost image is a metaphor for modern day addiction.

This text was originally posted on my Facebook wall in December 2015. Lots of people have read it, and I was encouraged by their response. It felt good to write the story; it was both necessary and cathartic to put this experience down on paper:

 

I am reading In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate. I mention that by way of having met a “hungry ghost” up close and personal this morning.

The morning started with the intention of riding my fat bike to the Knik Glacier. I wanted to change up Nature’s chessboards and play by wilderness rules for a while. I took Kenai and Jack (loopy Labs) for a five-mile walk early morning walk to get them tuned up for being left behind all day. Sometime on my walk, the electric power grid  shut down all over Wasilla.

I returned home to a dark house. I keep flipping the light switch on an off to light up the living room. Frustrated, I woke up to what was happening. My daughter, Samantha woke up with a request to make a trip to Carr’s grocery store to pick up some bacon and milk for her breakfast. Ever the dutiful dad, I drove into the dark, rainy morning in search of bacon and milk.

As I drove down Church Road in Wasilla, in the dark, in a pretty strong rain, I saw a young girl who looked exactly like my near neighbor to the south. I flashed on her face noting that she wasn’t my neighbor, and kept driving a few hundred more feet until I got a heart message from my Good Samaritan grandmother telling me to turn around, pick this girl up, and take her where she needed to go. I made the u-turn remembering the last time I played the good Samaritan role: I sustained a severe dog bite on the left calf from a crazy Jack Russell terrier while trying to extricate some woman from under her car. That’s another story.

Did I mention that this girl was walking in Church Road and not on the bike path parallel to the road? She was dressed in black; her clothing barely adequate for the weather. I rolled down the passenger window and asked her to get in.

She said, “I don’t want to get nail polish on your car.”

She thought better of it, and she opened the door and got in.

She was clearly “tweeking.”

She reeked of nail polish, but otherwise seemed harmless. I asked her where I could take her. She didn’t seem to make much sense at first, focused on her drying nail polish, but she rallied and said, “Knik and Railroad.” As we drove toward Knik, she asked my name and then introduced herself in a tenuous voice as “Kaylee.”

She definitely knew the house she was trying to find. She walked into the house and came out shortly afterwards saying, “They are all asleep… they don’t want me there.”

Okay. Next stop, the east end of Wasilla.

I asked her where she went to school and she thought for a while and said, “West.” Continuing, (I’m pretty predicable) I asked her if she worked in Wasilla and she said, “No.” “Do you work in Anchorage?” “No.  I’ve never worked before, but I need to work on that.” “Good.” (Again, pretty predictably clueless, as I can be.) “Did you just graduate from West?” “No. I’m thirty-one; take a left here.”

We ended up in a cul-de-sac surrounded with wrecked cars and discarded motor homes. I said I would wait for her to get inside the motor home she indicated before I left. She looked into a wrecked car on her way to the motor home, considered something in the car, and then just stood outside a dilapidated motor home as I turned my Subaru around.

I stopped. She got back in the car. “Where now?” “I don’t know, they were tripping in there.” “Okay, I’m on a bacon run and I need to stop at Carrs. How about you  come into Carrs with me and I will pick up my bacon and milk and we can figure out where to drop you off afterwards?” “Could you buy me some nail polish remover?” “Sure.” The power was just coming back on in Carrs. I got Sam’s bacon. I got Sam’s milk. She followed a store manager to find the nail polish remover.

My first thought? Ditch this girl!

I found myself standing by her as she selected four “pretty” colors of nail polish, nail polish remover, and clear polish. She held them up to me and said in a child’s voice, “Aren’t they pretty?” I said, “Pick two and put the others back.” “Okay, thank you.” At least she had “thank you skills” built into her operating system. Expressing gratitude will get you a lot of small gifts in my house.

We paid for the items. The cashier and the carryout guy clearly recognized the hungry ghost by my side. She was still fidgeting and tweeking pretty noticeably. They looked at me, and then at her, and then at me again, trying to make a connection. I could feel my patience and my goodwill starting to flag.

Outside the store, I told her I would take her back to her mother’s house. “Okay.” We sloshed through the rain to Church Road, the lights had come back on in the neighborhood. As it turned out, she lived down Mystery Street a few houses off Church Road in a house where someone had been shot and then arrested about a year ago. I had just walked past that house an hour before while walking my Labs. She lived barely a thousand feet from me.

As we pulled up to a house, she asked me if I “partied.” Pretty predictable. What encounter with a hungry ghost would be complete without that question?

I said “No” and added lamely, “I’m sixty-five.”

She said, “You could come in if you want.”

I demurred. She walked to a truck in the driveway, looked into the vehicle, opened the passenger door, sat down and closed the door.

I backed out of the driveway and said to myself, “Goodbye hungry ghost. Don’t spill your nail polish remover.”

I wonder if this encounter had anything to do with me declaring to myself yesterday that I no longer believe in karma. For me, Karma is an artificial construct; but maybe not.

A hungry ghost… “But for the grace of…” Well, I was looking for a different chessboard to play on this morning.

 

 

 

 

Drinking to Distraction

That blog title should get just about anyone’s attention.

Continuing the theme of writing about what I like, I offer a book recommendation for today’s blog. The gold standard of books concerning alcohol addiction and subsequent rehabilitation to an effective life is Carolyn Knapp’s memoir Drinking: A Love Story. Drinking to Distraction was written after Knapp’s memoir.

 

Why would anyone read two books in one week about alcoholism? Who knows? Both books are well-written; I like good writing.

 

I started and finished reading Drinking to Distraction, written by Jenna Hollenstein, in two hours. This book is short: about eighty pages. Her story is not dramatic: she didn’t drink and drive and kill someone; she didn’t wake up in bed with a strange man after a knockdown night of drinking; she just got tired of using alcohol to ease her anxiety in social situations. Hollenstein gradually decided it was time to stop drinking. She recognized that she drank to cope with her empty life when she was home alone in her apartment. She drank every night and her drinking continued for ten years. All of her friends drank excessively. That pretty much describes a formula for addiction with no easy escape.

 

So what sets the book apart from the average addiction memoir? Hollenstein’s discipline is extraordinary; she recovers her life from the ash heap of addiction with very little outside help.

 

With a gentle nudge from her therapist, Hollenstein opted to dry out in out in an outpatient rehab setting for four weeks. Afterwards, she tried AA; she left AA because it didn’t work for her. Hollenstein struck out on her own and used the process of introspection to conquer the hold addiction had on her. She carefully redefined her values: she replaced couch time with physical exercise (running) to distract her from hitting the bars after work and to reduce the time alone at home. She read (and initially ignored) a book on meditation before she decided to quit drinking. She recalled from that book that meditation helped people live more simply and calmly. She worked hard to learn how to meditate. Her description of her first meditation session is classic: she never gets control of her monkey-mind; she can’t even sit still for ten minutes. Hollenstein looked up the author (Susan Piver) of the meditation book The Wisdom of a Broken Heart. Pilver and Hollenstein both lived in Boston so Hollenstein called up Piver and went to her office to learn the discipline needed to meditate. In her quest to stay sober, Hollenstein explored Zen meditation, and incorporated those ideas into her life. She practiced tremendous self-restraint by mindfully forcing herself to avoid the triggers that drove her to drink. When she could consciously slow down her response to those triggers, she gained the control she needed to resist her temptation to drink.

 

My take away from this book is that it is possible to conquer alcoholism and establish a meaningful life through thoughtful self-examination and through tremendous self-discipline. AA didn’t work for Hollenstein; she found a more effective way to get control of her life by taking control of her mind and reprogramming it to not respond to temptation. She became the author of her every next moment.

 

The book is well-written, short, and might just help an alcoholic find a path to a more effective life. I hope a female friend who is an alcoholic can find inspiration and direction in Hollenstein’s text. It is worth reading just to observe the power of Hollenstein’s determination.

 

Oh, and did I mention she quotes Shakespeare in her text? Always a plus.

 

The Start of a Great Friendship

So how does one get off to a good start launching a blog? Easy. Tell a good story about a great person. Here goes:

 

In the Fall of 1992, I landed the assignment of teaching a speech class at Houston High School. I think the principal and scheduling counselor were proceeding under the dim theory that if a teacher loved to talk as much I loved to talk, he would make a good speech teacher. I remember the mild sensation of panic when I got the assignment to teach Speech. I thought, “Oh my gosh, what am I going to do?” Not to worry. The class was loaded with twenty near-genius students. I recognized that fact right away, and I vowed to myself to just stay out of their way and see how they handled the curriculum assignments. At the top of the genius list was Jolene Bagley and (her future husband), Mike Perry. That speech class was a once-in-a- lifetime gift. We presented expository speeches, demonstration speeches, oral interpretations, and drama skits! Jolene and Mike blew all of us away with their creativity and unbridled imaginations. I learned to love those two, and I loved teaching that class every day of that semester.

 

Jolene followed the speech class into my drama class the next semester; Mike followed another drama, Lisa Somebody. It’s okay Mike; we missed your talent, but we struggled on without you.

 

So how often do you get to teach two classes full of creative and imaginative students in one year? Jolene, Lisa Lockett, and a cast of others became a production team to breath life into Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Lisa memorized half the lines of the play for her role of The Stage Manager. She didn’t biff a line! Jolene became Emily, the dramatic center and driving force of the entire play. I have produced the play dozens of times; I have seen the play professionally produced several times; I have never seen an Emily as perfect as Jolene’s characterization. She was sheer magic!

 

Two years ago, at the end of my third hour American Literature class, I took out my cell phone, put it on speaker, and speed-dialed Jolene at home. She answered and I asked her, with no introduction, “Emily, what are the most important lessons you remember from our production of Our Town twenty years ago?” Jolene’s response spoke point for point to every major theme I had just taught that class the preceding month. There was an audible gasp and then clapping for how well Jolene remembered every important lesson and how she had incorporated those lessons into her life each day. Those students will never forget that class!

 

I could only guess at what success lay ahead of Jolene. She has lived a charmed existence as a French teacher, a Math teacher, a wonderful wife, a house-designer, a lover of dogs, an Amazon-published author, the mother of two gifted, creative, and energetic children: Emma and Jack, and the daughter of two very proud parents: Jim and Jamie Bagley. I count her as one of my best friends who just happens to be my newly-appointed writing mentor.

 

Jolene delivered the 2014 CTHS commencement speech as a personal favor to me, and to our principal, Mark Okeson. The applause for her masterful and carefully crafted speech was long and genuine. Jolene made everyone look great that day!

 

Frequently, Jolene and I chat about books, writing, raising and loving our children, loving dogs, the joys of marriage, the curiosities of religion, and just about every topic imaginable. No filters exist in our conversation. We don’t finish each other’s sentences, but I admire her sentences; we both have to reign in our own enthusiasm in order to hear each other’s thoughts. I have few friends, but I have only good friends: I count Jolene’s friendship as one of the greatest gifts I have received from my long teaching career. Jolene makes me believe in good Karma.

 

Jolene and I have the relationship every teacher and student should have: we have remained friends for almost twenty-five years; we will continue to do so for many years to come.