My senior year of college, I had a professor who insisted we read and discuss poetry in complete disarray. Every class (and there were three a week) he’d insist we push and pull our chairs and desks out of their straight rows and “clump” up to read and discuss work from dead poets who, in my humble yet know-it-all 22-year-old self’s opinion, made no sense whatsoever.
To say that this approach made me uncomfortable is an understatement. I love people. I truly do, but I’m not great at being near them all the time. Boundaries are important to me. I like my straight rows. I like to stay in my lane, especially when the lane I’m driving in is heading toward something I don’t understand, like the world of poetry, for example. I don’t need a bunch of limbs criss-crossed on the floor or people breathing and sniffling near me while I try to figure out a poem.
The professor, a young lad, probably not much older than we over-confident seniors, wanted us to feel the poem; he thought that was the way to understanding it, and part of understanding was learning to sit in discomfort.
“Look for the constants,” I remember my teacher saying one afternoon while we were working our way through a giant knot that is Wordsworth’s poetry.
I am sitting in a coffee shop across from my oldest daughter Hadley on a Thursday evening. She is drinking hot chocolate — the barista made a heart from frothed milk and Hadley’s trying to keep its shape as she slurps. I’m drinking coffee. The mugs are large, and we both have to drink with two hands, one of the many things I love about this shop.
On one side of us, a man has a journal open, and he’s writing math equations with a sharp no. 2 pencil. Next to him is another man, looking at music written in his journal and conducting. His arms swoop down and across rhythmically. On the other side of Hadley and I sit a young man and a woman, both of whom look like college students, and from their body language and slow, quiet conversation I wonder if they are in the beginnings of a relationship.
“I have ninety texts,” Hadley tells me.
“How is that even possible?” I ask, my heart beating fast, not from the caffeine, but from this monster that I have no control over that is the iPhone 7.
“Well,” Hadley begins, and she tells me about a boy, whose sister stole his phone and began sending messages to his friends as though it was him, as if middle school kids need any help in the art of miscommunication. There was a misunderstanding. There was a screenshot. A friend was threatening to share something that wasn’t meant to be shared.
“Do you need me to intervene?” I lean in and whisper. I reach my hand out to hold Hadley’s. She leans away and looks at the boy and the girl as though she is asking them for help. “Please, you guys,” I imagine she’s thinking, “anyone but my mother.”
“I’m fine,” she says, and she says it so confidently and with so much assurance. “I did nothing wrong. I asked him to stop. I told him to cut it out. He’s choosing not to.”
Our mugs are empty, so Hadley stands to bring them to the tub for cleaning. While she walks across the room, the boy asks the girl if she would like to go on a date with him. She tells him yes.
I was in first grade and standing in line for recess when a boy who liked me even though I made it very clear the feeling was not mutual kissed the hood of my jacket. My jacket was white with a fluffy lining, and I turned around and said, “GROSS! NO!” And then I started to cry. I was just getting ready to do a little jump-roping to “Miss Mary Mack,” and now everything was ruined.
In seventh grade during gym a boy with brown hair and lashes to his nose talked to me for a few days. He was funny and sweet, and I was intrigued and I think he was too, until he learned I wasn’t in the cool crowd. We saw each other every day until we were 18, and he never said another a word to me.
In high school there was a boy who wore a long, thick, black coat and who had long hair, and I stayed as far away from him as possible because he looked terrifying until one day he came to school without the coat and with a haircut — messy and spiky. I threw myself against my locker, clutched my heart, and gasped, “WHO IS THAT?”
Love, lust, crushes, they’re never handled well. At least at first. It takes years of messing up, sitting in disarray, and getting out of your lane to sit across from a person and ask them, in a civilized tone that pulses with the energy and sweetness of all those years of trying: Will you spend some time with me?
Hadley and I walk together to a dance studio near the coffee shop, where she will join her sister in a hip-hop class. She walks ahead of me and watches the college students around her. She is just inches away from some of them. When she reaches the door to the studio, a door I like to call Platform 9 and 3/4 because it’s barely noticeable and it opens to a narrow set of stairs that bring those who climb them to another — I think, magical — world, she puts her hand on the glass and looks at me.
“See ya,” she calls.
“See ya,” I reply, and she goes in. Music pulses and leaps out when she pushes the door open. I stand for a minute and watch her walk up the stairs. I am excited and anxious for all the steps and moves she is learning in this dance. I hope she gets swept away by the music, and I hope she learns to dance to its beat.
I walk past Starbucks and sees students crammed and piled into every inch of the cafe — books, notes, and computers mixed with coffee cups and snacks — limbs every which way. In an Asian fusion noodle shop a few doors down a couple shares a bottle of wine and fiddles with their chopsticks as they attempt to bring noodles to their smiling mouths. They look older than Jesse and I, and I wonder how any of us gets there. How do we learn the poem when it can be so uncomfortable to sit in?
“Look for the constants,” my professor said.
A man on the corner with a saxophone begins a tune I don’t recognize, but it’s jazzy and smooth, and I close my eyes and inhale the music. I am unsure of the melody, and I don’t know the meaning, but my body sways a bit to a tune I am falling in love with.
Perhaps love is the constant; we are the poem.
This week, write a gratitude poem with change and conflict and uncertainty but in the midst of all of it, keep something constant. Give us something (or someone) to look at as we tumble and fall into the poem.
Thank you to everyone who participated in last week’s poetry prompt. Here’s an excerpt from deb y felio that we enjoyed:
a tiny thing
a robin’s egg
a too tough
When I was a little girl, I always wanted to be a teacher. I ended up an accountant instead, and after reading The Teacher Diaries: Romeo and Juliet, I realize it’s probably a good thing, because I don’t have the gift that Callie Feyen has. She pulls meaning from even the smallest things and helps us relate something that can be hard to understand to situations and feelings in our own lives. It’s been a long time since I have read Romeo and Juliet, and to be honest, I didn’t enjoy it very much when I did study it in school. But now I know how much I missed and I am looking forward to reading it with new eyes. If only we could all have had teachers like Callie, challenging us to see more and feel more!
—JJN Mama, Amazon reviewer