So Much Depends Upon a Poem Glazed with Rainwater Beside the White Chickens

“so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens” –Wiliam Carlos Williams–

What a simple stark image. Williams is a straight shooter, and that’s something I love about him. My students heard two of his poems this week, and as we discussed what about his poetry resonated with people, we came to the conclusion that perhaps it was the simplicity. He is simply conveying an assertive observation about a wheelbarrow sitting out in the yard next to some chickens. I reminded the students about Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry” where he says that all students want to do is “tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.” Not only that, the students “begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.” Whoa. I don’t want to be teacher to those students. I don’t want my students believing that beating poetry is what they’re supposed to do. I don’t want any human believing that.

As a teacher and as a human, I have to remind myself that the simple things can mean just as much (if not more) than the depth and elusiveness of mystery. Mystery is fun at times. But simplicity? It’s the refreshing, cool (unflavored and not even carbonated) water of life. (Though I have to say, I’m quite the fan of seltzer water. When Polar goes on sale — buy one, get one — at Winn Dixie, my husband literally loads up a cart full of cases. Does he get some sidelong glances? Oh, yeah. Does he care? Nope. When he loads them into the back of our Nissan Versa, does the car sag? Yes. Man, I love my husband.)

Funny to think that at the time Williams wrote this poem (in the 1920’s), his simple, stark style broke the “rules” of poetry. Williams as a rebel and a rule-breaker? I can get on board with that. As soon as a group of people start thinking “Well this is the only way to write a poem/pen a novel/give a speech/lose weight/find a spouse/be a Christian/be successful/live life,” we’ve got to stop and immediately assess. Williams refused to be a rule-following robot, and so should we.

Poetry gets a bad rap. People think of it as lines of boring, enigmatic text written by erudite-elitists. And some of it is. But some of it? Glittering jewels spilling from a treasure chest on a sandy shore. I agree with Coleridge’s assertion that poetry is “the best words in the best order.” The issue (or beauty, depending on your perspective) is that every human has a different definition of “best.”

One of my all-time favorite poems is one of the simplest. To me, the words are rubies and diamonds and emeralds. To others, maybe not. But at this point in my life I have (finally) learned to be confident in appreciating something even when popular opinion runs contrary. So if you’re a PEE (Poetry Erudite-Elitist), you might not like this one. But I don’t much care.

One day after another–

Perfect.

They all fit.

“One Day” Robert Creeley

If anything, you might skim over that quickly and wonder why it would resonate with anyone. I liken this to my admittedly very limited understanding of art. I look at a Jackson Pollock piece and think, “Huh? Am I missing something here?” But perhaps for others, they see it and see chaos and confusion and addiction and emotions colliding together — and they resonate with that.

To me, words are images, so in that way, I appreciate art. In the Creeley poem, each day of life is a puzzle piece connecting to the next, fitting perfectly. How beautiful is that image? We certainly don’t know what life has in store for us, but it’s comforting to know that each day fits perfectly into the next — no matter what you do (or don’t do).

After my students read “The Red Wheelbarrow,” they wrote their own version, starting with Williams’ first stanza (“So much depends / upon”). Every single student wrote a different poem. Every single student had a different opinion on what they greatly depended upon.

Such a simple poem. Such a simple prompt. And yet it produced wildly different poems about subjects ranging from grades to sweet tea to Minecraft gardens.

Might it be that sometimes it’s the simplicity that reveals the complexity?

He said that when he was little

he wanted his house in Heaven to be made out of

Legos and peanut butter.

Because he liked them.

How sweet and simple and profoundly representative of childhood. It is about a boy and his two favorite things. But when I read it as an adult, it’s about the innocence and simplicity of childhood. And I resonate with that.

So while it’s good to have the mystery and depth, it’s necessary to have the simple, the stark, the single puzzle piece. And if you’re a reader? Please don’t be a PEE (also: Prose Erudite-Elitist). Some of my older students sometimes tell me that they don’t read YA literature because it doesn’t have enough literary merit. GAG. They tell me that Rupi Kaur is that Instagram woman who writes a sentence and calls it poetry. The irony here is that their own snobbery is holding them back from being better readers, better writers, and better humans.

Don’t snub the simple. Don’t exalt the turgid. And don’t hate poetry based on what you read in high school. (I’m sorry, by the way, that you had teachers who fed you boring, unrelatable poetry.) If you’re on Instagram, and you’d like to dabble in some modern, simple poetry, here’s a good place to start. And here are some of my favorite poets: Maya Angelou, Pablo Neruda, Ted Kooser, Mary Oliver, Robert Creeley, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, E. E. Cummings, Langston Hughes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Stephen Crane, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Edgar Allen Poe. And if nothing else, wander around a bit on the Poetry Foundation website.

Take a sip of the cool, refreshing water that is simplicity. Let it quench your soul. And remember, you can’t live without it.

Out of the Echo Chamber and Into the (Red)woods

“Neurotics complain of their illness, but they make the most of it, and when it comes to taking it away from them they will defend it like a lioness her young.” –Sigmund Freud–

The father of psychoanalysis has some words for us today: Complainypants* complain of [fill-in-the-blank], but they make the most of it really actually love having something to complain about, and when it comes to taking it away from them they will defend it like a conservative his guns.

(Listen: I have an uncle in Tennessee with a truck bed full of guns. I wouldn’t mess with that.)

So because I don’t want to go up against a lioness or my gun-loving uncle, I’d love to figure out a way for everyone to live well, complain less, and not feel threatened.

The first question to tackle is WHY in God’s grandeur do people “need” something to complain about?

I know I have a tendency to get caught up in the echo chamber of my own voice spewing verbal vomit of the complaint du jour (Mmmm, that sounds good — I’ll have that). And let’s visualize for a moment verbal vomit spewing in an echo chamber.

Ick.

And if you’re more extroverted than I, perhaps you usher other fellow complainypants into your echo chamber. Now we have several people, in an enclosed area, verbal vomiting.

Uh, this is straight unsanitary.

But back to God’s grandeur.

God has created a pretty great earth for us to tinker around on. Just the fact that the sun comes up every morning is pretty awesome. (Do a quick poetry search of the word “aubade” — a poem celebrating the dawning of the day — and you’ll get pages of results.)

When I was a camp counselor years ago (shout out to Redwood Camp in the Santa Cruz mountains), I’d take my little elementary-school darlings on (very easy) hikes through the redwoods. WOW, would they complain. We are literally in the middle of the most magnificent redwoods on a beautifully sunny (but not too hot because it’s Northern California in the mountains) day, breathing in the fresh, crisp air with birds twittering in the background and the 9-year-olds are finding things to complain about. I had to institute a rule: if you complain about one thing, you have to verbalize five positive observations. And you know what? It worked pretty darn well. A potential complain-fest turned into a waterfall of gratitude.

It was a simple exercise in perspective that worked really well for 9-year-olds.

But I’d venture to say it’d work well for us humdrum adults as well. Because even though the “world is charged with the grandeur of God,” we somehow continually hone in on the negative. And then talk about it. Maybe even out loud. And maybe even to other people. And before we know it — yep, vomit-covered echo-chamber walls surrounding us. It’s so gross in there, but we’ve acclimated. We don’t notice the vinegary, acidic throw-up smell. We’re not fazed

by the slow crawl

down the wall

of globs

and chunks

and

corn

kernels

and stomach acid.

Imagine being outside of the chamber and opening the door to that! And to see multiple people inside bobbling around? It’s enough to make a person sick.

Why, we might ask, don’t the people inside HOOF IT OUTTA THERE?

Well here’s where things get interesting. And sad.

When we get comfortable in our environment, it’s difficult to make a change — even if the change will benefit us and everyone around us. Just a quick assessment of American culture will tell us that we looooove being comfortable. (I wrote about that here.) And what’s more, when we get used to complaining-as-default, we forget how to communicate in any other way.

Go ahead and think of that person in your life who’s always complaining (maybe it’s you). If you’re in conversation with this person and you’re only allowed to talk about positive topics, would they (you?) have a difficult time coming up with things to say? The following isn’t shocking or new information, but I’ll say what many others through the centuries have said: It’s easy to complain. It takes more effort and creativity and confidence to speak about topics in a positive light.

Just take a minute and transport yourself back to high school, the land of gossip and cliques and lip smackers. What do you and your friends more often than not talk about — how well so-and-so did on her speech . . . or can you buhlieve Jessica posted a pic with Eric when he and Danielle just broke up last Tuesday? If it was the former, congratulations. You were a better person than I in high school.

(I’d like to take a moment and make a general apology about who I was as a person in high school. I wasn’t horrible, but I sure as hell could have been better.)

So far we’ve

  1. gotten comfortable in our environment (acclimated to the vomit pooling at our feet) and
  2. started to forget how else to communicate (complaining is easier, and we’ve become products of our environments).

And now . . . for a delicious dose of delusion!

When our complainypants voice is the only one we hear echoing back at us or we surround ourselves with other complainypants and their chittering voices or we seek out other complainypants to be complainypants together, we start to believe that these negative opinions are the

only

ones

that

exist.

This is a problem. This is where we lose touch with reality. Perception becomes reality. And the perception? It’s stinky and gross.

This is a problem for the delusional Debby’s (not to be confused with Debbie Downer) out there, but it’s also a problem for the positive Polly’s — unless they speak out.

So maybe you’re sitting here reading this post thinking, “I’m actually a pretty positive Polly most of the time.” Great! You have an important job to do: YOU, my friend, have to take down the delusional Debby’s, one Debby at a time.

When you are talking to a complainypants friend, thinking, “I don’t agree with him-her,” it’s time to get to work. You must speak up. You must voice your opinion. If you don’t, your silence will become validation to your complainypants friend that you share their opinion. Yikes.

This is also a problem.

Problem 1: Being delusional.

Problem 2: Perpetuating said delusion.

To recap, we’ve

  1. gotten comfortable,
  2. forgotten how to communicate in healthy ways, and
  3. become delusional.

Wherever you are right now, stand up. What is the thing in your life you’re complaining about? Now take a big step backwards. Think about what preceded your getting to the point of complaining. Why are you at a point in your life that you’re complaining about the thing?

I’m going to venture to say that one reason you’re complaining about the thing is that — in some way —

you care.

So before we trap ourselves in the verbal vomit echo chamber, chunks flying, let’s

take

a

step

back.

Let’s realize that maybe complaining can possibly come from a good place.

Last week at my school was the whirlwind that was Homecoming Week. On Friday, each grade participated in a lip sync competition. This has become quite the big deal at my school, so naturally, whoever didn’t win was going to be mad.

I may have (horrifically) underestimated how angry the seniors would be if they didn’t win.

(They didn’t win.)

One senior girl charged up to me, complaining that the competition was rigged! She complained that the juniors were cocky and shouldn’t have won! She complained that the judges didn’t fill out the rubrics correctly! She complained. I was annoyed and taken aback and frustrated. (As student council co-sponsors, my colleague and I work hard to make homecoming games as fair as they can be, including creating rubrics to be filled out by unbiased judges.)

But as I was talking to my colleague after school that day, we both came to the realization that we’d rather the anger (and subsequent complaining of unfairness) than indifference. She complained . . .

because she cared.

Students bursting with school spirit, charging through a great week of playing games in the hopes of representing their grade well? I respect that.

So can we all take that step back together and assess why it is we’re complaining? Is it because we actually care about something? Perhaps there’s something we can do (action) to make the situation better before we even get to the point of complaining. Perhaps we can change our mindset and focus on the five other positive things going on.

Is someone else complaining to you? Encourage action. Or a shift in perspective. Remind them of the five other positive things going on. But speak up.

And give yourself (and others) some grace. Complaining is so ubiquitous it’s easy to get sucked in. And it may even stem from a good place of caring. So as we do in life every now and then, let’s take a step back (or a step out of the pool of vomit), lift up our head, reassess, and forge ahead as best we can to a life well lived.

*The term “complainypants” comes from a blog my husband and I enjoy: Mr. Money Mustache. Here’s a fun (but rated M for mature) article to check out: “How to Tell if You’re a Complainypants.”

Dead Dogwood Trees and a Happy Birthday to My Husband

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity . . . and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.” –William Blake–

A few weekends ago, while I was in the middle of cooking dinner, my seven-year-old comes running into the kitchen telling me that Daddy needed my help outside. (I didn’t go. I was in the middle of pan-frying gnocchi!) A couple minutes later my son comes in again, this time saying that a tree is going to fall on the roof or the car if I don’t come help. I move the pan off the hot burner, put on my flip flops, and head out to see what in the world is going on.

Was it surprising to me to discover my husband holding onto a rope which was tied around a half-cut dying dogwood tree in our front yard? No. At this point in marriage (15 years — read my anniversary post here), I have learned — from the sages at CBS’s Big Brother — to expect the unexpected.

So he tells me that I have two choices: I can hold the rope (I might want gloves) which is holding the tree (very very heavy) or I can use a CHAINSAW AND CUT THROUGH THE REST OF THE TRUNK. Suffice it to say, I chose the former. (Yes, I’ve been married for 15 years. No, I never thought my husband would actually think I’d pick up a chainsaw AND USE IT.)

Wrapping the rope around my waist proved useful, and once I had a firm hold (OF A TREE), my husband walked over to the trunk, stood up on the picnic table next to it, and CHAINSAWED THAT SUCKER. To prevent the tree from falling onto the roof of our house or onto the top of our vehicle, my job was to pull the tree in a different direction.

In a different direction . . . TOWARDS ME.

My husband assured me it would be fine. I’d just need to run (FOR MY LIFE) after I pulled the tree just enough to get it to fall away from the roof and car. What happened next is a bit of a blur, but I do remember his yelling “RUN,” my screaming (bloody murder), and covering my head with my hands and bolting.

If I didn’t bolt, a tree would have literally fallen on top of me.

I did get scragged (new word; made it up) by some small branches on my way out, but all in all, I escaped mostly unscathed.

Success!

I appreciate William Blake, but I might change the quote to “The tree that moves some bolting mad out from under it as it comes crashing to earth . . . ” And even though my husband might seem batsh*t crazy with his ideas, I’m always the one who actually goes batsh*t crazy when I get roped into one of his schemes.

One night, years ago when I was pregnant with my first child, I remember being woken from sleep to a muffled yell: “Jen!” I couldn’t tell where it was coming from, and in half somnambulism, I got out of bed and staggered down the hall toward the source of the yell. I could still hear it, but I had no visual. Into the living room I went. The yelling seemed to be . . . above me. I looked up at the ceiling. Nothing. Then another yell, clearly from the ceiling. This time, I saw movement on the ceiling in the corner. It was a cord, dangling. My husband was in the attic, in the middle of the night, yelling out to his pregnant wife to help him connect some cord to some plug for the TV or stereo or I don’t even know what. I had to drag a chair over to the corner to reach the cord, and I remember thinking “Who does this? And in the middle of the night with a pregnant wife no less?”

My hubs.

I have a lot of (not-fun-at-the-time-but-funny-to-reminisce-about) stories with him. And I will tell you it sure keeps me on my toes.

We do tend to have fun doing these harebrained activities. And then laughing about them later is pretty great, too. Boredom isn’t something that happens all too often with us (though some boredom is important, my friends).

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.”

One thing I love about my husband is his perspective on life. Like Blake says, two people can see the same tree but react in two completely different ways. (Husband: Will cut tree. Will pull down. Will succeed. Wife: DEATH.)

I’m going to end this post a little early this week. I’m going to go spend time with my husband and create more (batsh*t crazy) stories with him.

If you know him, wish him a happy birthday tomorrow. I’m beyond grateful to get to spend all of his birthdays and all of mine together. He is the best. Even if he’s nuts.

Todays, Tomorrows, and Turkey-Cheese Sandwiches

“Tomorrow is never simply a repeat of today.” –Rob Bell, Love Wins

Well thank goodness for that. You know, we have bad days sometimes. We just do. And it’s nice to know that after a bad day, we’ll go to sleep and wake up in the morning to a new day, a new dawn. It’s no wonder that an entire genre of poetry is dedicated to celebrating the morning. An aubade greets the morning and looks forward to a beautiful and bright day. How lovely!

So as I read through Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, I am captured by his idea that Heaven will be on a renewed earth, every day different than the one before. That we will work and live and grow and change and be in union with one another and God. Just yesterday, my husband and I were chatting about Heaven and what we think it will be like, and we were both struck with this strange, discomfiting feeling that maybe we wouldn’t want to be in Heaven.

Because the Heaven we grew up believing in is a place of perfection — but also of stagnation. Now I don’t pretend to have any answers on this, and I certainly acknowledge that my finite, mere-mortal brain can’t even begin to comprehend what God is capable of. But I also believe that God definitely wants his mortals to think. And so I think about things.

I think about things like Heaven.

And Hell.

And I can’t wrap my mind around the concept of Heaven without there being stagnation. If everyone is perfect and everything is perfect and everywhere is perfect, then how is there variation? Today is perfect, tomorrow will be perfect, and all days will be

perfect

perfect

perfect.

How can we be in an eternal state of perfection? (Wouldn’t it get boring?) Even writing this, I feel like the religious people out there are shuddering: How can Jen presume to know that perfection — as defined by God — might be boring?

I can tell you that even as a child I didn’t really understand how Heaven could be perfect — with us in it. Yes, yes, perhaps if we all received new souls before entering the pearly gates . . .

but then would we still be . . . us?

So when I read some of Bell’s ideas about Heaven being a place where we continually are “participating in the ongoing creation of the world,” much like what Adam and Eve were tasked to do, I resonate. In fact, I can recall a picture in my pink (Mom chose the color; I actually detested pink when I was young) children’s Bible of the Garden of Eden. I thought, “This! This is what Heaven will be like!” And because I had a particularly scarring experience as a child of stepping in still-warm rottweiler poop (I was barefoot; it squished between my toes — more about it here), I thought, “And I’ll be able to walk around barefoot and never have to step in anything gross or sharp or sticky.” What a heaven!

To read about the idea of Heaven being a renewed creation — a new earth — I get excited. Bell talks about how in Revelation 20 “people will reign with God.” He clarifies that “‘reign’ means ‘to actively participate in the ordering of creation.'” Whaaaat?? This is sounding like God really knew what we need and what we love. Like God really knew us — fully. To create a heaven where we “explore and discover and learn and create and shape and form and engage in this world”? Sign me up. I can do without the gold streets and mansions. That just seems weird anyway. Give me mountains and lakes and trees and sky.

Tomorrow is never simply a repeat of today.

Even in this (mere mortal earthly) life, I love the idea of tomorrows being different than todays. Variety is the spice of life, after all. And if you’re familiar at all with Rob Bell’s philosophy, he believes that God created this world to function as a heaven on earth —

right now,

in this life,

for us,

mere mortals.

And I think God knows that the mortals he created need variety. We’re not robots programmed to follow a set of rules. And we’re not on this earth living in a “waiting period” just to get to Heaven. That kinda takes the joy out of living, doesn’t it? It makes it seem that we’d be living with a serious case of the-grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side syndrome. Ick.

One of my coworkers eats a turkey and cheese sandwich for lunch —

every

single

day.

And that is fine. He knows what he likes, and I can respect that.

I am not like that. I need different food —

every

single

day.

I even have a hard time stomaching weekly meal plans where you eat the same meals every week or two. When we have leftovers, I find myself trying to reinvent them into different meals. Variety is the spice of life, indeed. Even with literal spices in literal food.

I read somewhere that it’s good for us to drive alternate routes sometimes — just to change things up. And recently, I read an article from NPR about a book called Severance that pokes fun at an apocalyptic world where people get stuck in their ways after being infected with Shen Fever:

“Once infected, ‘the fevered,’ as they’re called, forget to eat or bathe; instead, they ‘loop indefinitely,’ until they die, performing rote tasks like folding sweaters or vacantly turning the pages of a book over and over.”

But of course, with apocalyptic fiction, there are always kernels of truth. How many of us are mindlessly performing our daily tasks and sending emails and tapping on our phones and eating meals and and

and

and

and.

We aren’t meant for that kind of life. We are meant to “explore and discover and learn and create and shape and form and engage in this world.” So let’s do it.

Let’s explore our neighborhood and city. Perhaps there’s a hiking trail or a local restaurant waiting for us to discover it.

Let’s learn better ways to live life. Maybe a simple reorganization of our sweater drawer. Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it won’t have a positive effect on us.

Let’s create. Let’s put words to page, creating a story or a poem where once there was only a white abyss.

Let’s shape our bread dough so that when it bakes, it rises.

Let’s form the minds of our children so that when they turn a corner to a challenge in life, they assume the fighter’s stance: feet rooted, torso angled, fists out, chin down.

And let’s engage. Let’s engage in our relationships with friends, with family, with God, and with this beautiful heaven-creation.

I think that when we do this, our tomorrows will never be simply . . . anything.