Leaving the Doldrums Behind

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MarathonEn route to teaching my poetry workshop this week, I stopped in the faculty area of the high school where I work. My colleagues were having a last cup of coffee before facing teenagers who, even in Hawaii, are feeling winter doldrums.

I’ve been facing a few of my own. With my next marathon not until July, my enthusiasm for training more than three a week is pretty tame and lame right now. The Australian Open, the first major of the year, has been over for two weeks. Work is plentiful but in a quiet, cover-the-bases phase for a busy season that revs up next month for spring.

High-charged emotions about my daughter’s progress in school have subsided as I’ve processed verbal and written summaries from her teachers and counselors. I’ve repeated several journeys in my brain, taking it all in and interpreting the messages from others, many of which have been positive, a few though that I’m still figuring out.

A poem that I recently posted in this blog about my sister and mother was not only accepted for an international exhibit, but was also published in a newsletter sent to my colleagues who work in philanthropy. Flush with courage about having reached back in my memory to write an appropriate tribute to my mother, sister, and, for that matter, all women (and men) who work hard to keep their families going while holding on to their own identities, I reposted the newsletter piece that included the poem and information about my career on my own Facebook account and a Facebook page created by my high school classmates, many of whom I haven’t seen for several years.

Some of these classmates were not exactly kind at times as I struggled growing up as a gay teenager on the edge of Appalachia. Poetry and tennis pretty much saved my life.

As soon as I posted, I wondered if some of my former classmates might kid me about being too self-promotional. As I’ve learned to be an advocate for my daughter and even for students I teach or for whom I fundraise, I’m also figuring out how to be an advocate for myself, even with people who in my past were at times (I hope unknowingly) cruel to me and others struggling with their identities when they were growing up. It’s as if, over Facebook, I’m saying, “Hey, look guys, I survived. I’m married to a man for 17 years, have a gorgeous daughter, have finished 24 marathons, have a career, am still writing and publishing poetry.” And then, gasp, perhaps I’m even saying, “So do you like me now?”

Cringe and then uncringe. Because after I posted, so many of the responses from friends or people I didn’t know were friends whom I haven’t crossed paths with in years were affectionate, generous, gracious, thoughtful, even loving.

I wish I didn’t process as much as I do, but I am a Quaker after all! It took me a few days after I made the Facebook posts to process that sometimes my fears, based on experiences from my past, hold me back from moving forward, from even making life a little more enjoyable for my family and me. Moving forward gives me a greater chance to be open and appreciate others who strive to leave February and life doldrums behind.

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Living the Life of a Poet

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On Thursday I walked into a poetry workshop I teach. It was early in the morning, and phones were being checked for messages which somehow always seem to be urgent and need an immediate response.

Or do they?

I put my phone away and my students did as well. I held forth for a few minutes about striving to live my life as a Plain Quaker, as least as much as I can in the world today. Until three years ago, I did not even own a cell phone.

I asked my students, who are not Quakers, if simplicity is related to living a life of a poet.

A very talented young teenager said, “Why, yes. You probably see life differently.”

I was impressed and asked him to keep going with this theme.

“Well, for instance, in today’s hurried world, if you see leaves on the ground, most people would probably just step over them or not notice. A poet might say or write something like, ‘Beautiful leaves, once green, left their tree in a different shade and are now sleeping gently on the ground.'”

Not bad for 8:20 a.m.!

Draussen vor der Tür!The world can be hard to keep up with, to slow down and take a few minutes to appreciate fallen leaves!

In fact, my student wrote a sonnet about a fallen bird which I published in our school newsletter this week that has a readership of over 1,000!

I often feel like I live two lives: one as a Plain Quaker who turns off lights at home, much to the dismay of my family, who does not know how to work a microwave oven, who turned in his driver’s license, but who has to embrace technology in his professional life to keep his career moving forward.

I recently read about Mary Oliver, the Pulitzer-Prize winning poet who died last month at age 83. Mary described her relationship with nature as a source of solace, beauty and wisdom. She never graduated from college. For many years, she lived with her partner in Provincetown, Mass., where they sometimes fed themselves by digging for clams and searching for berries.

My students took in how there will always be part of me that wishes I could live like this, simply, without fuss, true to being a poet and a Plain Quaker.

I asked if they thought this might be possible for them. “It would be awfully hard,” said one young man. “No, it would actually be impossible!”

 

 

Improving a Poem

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Aloha Readers,

Last August I drafted the poem below about my sister and shared it on this blog.

Filet Mignon

Autumn in Stratford, Ontario,
after the Shakespeare Festival
my sister joined her high school classmates
for dinner, already sated with the finest
poetry that our mother, a high school
English teacher, ordered for her daughter,
on an evening lined in gold and crimson leaves
that fall early in Canada. 

The filet mignon my sister chose at the restaurant
was overcooked, a bit gristly, served hurriedly
by staff thick into their evening shifts,
not knowing the high school girls
already were certain of their tastes
long before they would cut through the world
as teachers, doctors, attorneys, mothers,
some as betrayed wives on the rebound

who years later might take their own children
up north to whet their appetite for life
and all that is good and right
even if meals don’t live up to their billing,
to learn that filet mignon can be savored
if cut in small portions, exposed to heat
but not dried out, enhanced with gentle sauce,
and will more likely keep its flavor.

 

I have good news: the poem has been accepted for a Diversity Art Showcase for an international conference this spring!

I wrote a few friends to share the good news, including members of a professional association to which I belong, and the poem also will be reprinted in the association’s newsletter!

Here’s the funny spin: although I consider the poem one of my better efforts in the last year, I wasn’t yet in love with it!

But that was fine. I sent the poem to my sister, perhaps hoping for a kumbaya moment we could share about growing up together. She liked the poem, but could not remember going to the restaurant and ordering filet mignon even though her look of disappointment when she did has stayed with me for decades!

So I put the poem away, moved onto new goals and poems and marathons until I submitted it for publication. After it was accepted, I kept staring at the poem. I knew it needed tweaks. Last night I had an inkling about what they were, but I was too tired to try to make them! This morning, when I woke up, the improvements came easily. Here they are:

Filet Mignon

Autumn in Stratford, Ontario,
after the Shakespeare Festival
my sister joined her classmates — (deleted “high school”)
for dinner, already sated with the finest
poetry that our mother, a high school
English teacher, ordered for her daughter
on an evening lined in gold and crimson leaves
that fall early in Canada.

The filet mignon my sister chose at the restaurant
was overcooked, a bit gristly, served hurriedly
by staff thick into their evening shifts,
not knowing the high school girls
already were certain of their tastes
long before they would cut through the world
as teachers, doctors, attorneys, mothers,
some as betrayed wives on the rebound

who years later might take their own children
up north to whet their appetite for life
and all that is good and right
even if meals don’t live up to their billing,
to learn that filet mignon can be savored
if cut in small portions, exposed to heat
but not dried out, enhanced with gentle sauce,
so it will more likely keep its flavor. — (changed “and will” to “so it will”)

© Rüdiger Rückmann, 25 January 2019

 

Am I now in love with the poem? I’m liking it better for sure. I thought the first version was a little too wordy. I generally like poems that are lean. The ending baffled me: it was almost there, but not quite. Now it’s better. It’s funny how changing just two short words can make a difference.

This morning, I asked the coordinator of the Showcase for the international conference if he would accept the newest version (and final version for now). He wrote “Of course.” He made my day!

Identity

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Dear Readers,

I have to admit: I gave in to the latest fad for 2019: The 10-Year Challenge!

rudiger_r_annapolisMarathonFor me — not that I was trying to raise the stakes — it was actually The 15-Year Challenge as that amount of time rushed past between the guy on the left running hard and fierce, and the far more mellow dude on the right pleasantly exhausted after a 20-mile training run.

I know, this could also be called The How Well (or Not So Well) Have I Aged Challenge!

My identity as a runner has been a constant for nearly 20 years. It’s nicely intertwined with my identity as a tennis player for 40 years, as a poet for even longer, as a practitioner of the German language most of his life to honor his maternal grandfather, as an openly gay man around the time I took up distance running seriously, and as a believer all his life of fate linked to faith.

Draussen vor der Tür!I encouraged my students in German class and in my poetry workshop this week to enjoy discovering their identities, to redefine themselves if needed at different times in their lives, but to try to hold true to their identities as long-term commitments, to my mind, are usually beneficial as long as they can be translated into kind, creative contributions to communities that make the world better, be they running groups, gatherings of poets and artists, linguists who promote appreciation of different cultures, tennis players who can bring the sport as instructors to young people to give them confidence and joy.

Boy, is this getting a little serious!

I also have urged my students to have fun (and be safe) in exploring who they are and who they might become.

I was all of 17 when I applied to be accepted into classes and a workshop taught by Tess Gallagher when I went to college. I was a bit too serious when I studied creative writing with this remarkable poet. At that age and in that era, it’s certainly no surprise I was insecure and terrified of being a gay man. Tess and some my classmates urged to me to be less formal, to relax, to square my shoulders and be more confident, to try to have a little fun in finding my identity as a poet and as a person.

Da kommt ein Sturm!It took me decades of living in different countries and parts of the United States before I landed in Hawaii, the proud husband of a linguist and father of a stunning young girl who loves poetry in German and English!

I’m so grateful to Tess, my family, and many friends and teachers for all their patience and wisdom, for how kind they were to take notice of the Ugly Duckling I believed myself to be who has now run 24 marathons, published poetry, taught, played way too many tennis matches and — most important of all — learned to enjoy life.

While the runner on the right shown in the picture at the beginning of this post is a lot slower than the younger version of himself, I’m also a lot happier and more comfortable with who I’ve become.

 

 

Finishing a Poem – For the Time Being!

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Dear Readers,

In the third year of maintaining my blog, I decided to focus mostly on poetry which I teach, write and sometimes publish. Poetry has sustained me since I was seven years old. Read classic poems in English and German by wonderful teachers, including my mother, writing my own poetry was frequently a joyful experience, an escape from bullying that seemed to come my way often as I grew up gay in a small town on the edge of Appalachia.

If I were mocked for not being athletic nor manly enough, I knew I could usually write a good poem! And guess what? By the time I graduated from high school, I had won 15 national awards for my poems, had them shown in statewide exhibits, in galleries, was even flown to a writer’s conference after I had tied for first place in a national contest in my senior year.

Da kommt ein Sturm!I originally decided to start a blog after I found out my gorgeous daughter would be born with an extra chromosome. My initial thoughts for her, knowing little about Down Syndrome, were “Oh no, this world is tough. How will she be protected, able to think her way out of difficult situations, survive cruelty she will likely face.”

I’m thrilled to write my daughter is stunning, smart, reads and speaks two languages, will likely be college bound, and has an abundance of what I lacked growing up: confidence.

My blog has focused on my daughter, but also tennis, marathon training and running, and this year, poetry. In the first year of my blog, I posted every day except weekends and holidays. That was a worthwhile challenge! In my second year, I wrote one day during the week and one weekend day. I realized I had a loyal audience who would stay with me, and to my very pleasant surprise, fellow writers and poets came on board to follow my blog. In my third year, I decided to keep the blog going but narrow my focus so that I could meet other life deadlines, like helping my daughter achieve her potential, paying more attention to my marriage rather than take it for granted, and advance in my full-time career that I love and helps pay the bills!

Wow! What a preamble to this poem that I began at the end of 2018. Dear Readers, if this were a poem I was extremely excited about, I wouldn’t wait this long! It’s a fine enough, but it needs work, and I will take you through my steps to achieve that. Thank you for bearing with me! I will probably put this poem aside for a while after this post. I may later try to publish it. The beauty of poetry, to my mind, is that a poem is rarely finished forever.

Trade Winds – 1st Draft – 2nd Draft

She came last night, invited,
after the heavy rain and stayed
like a guest who knows her host
wishes she would appear more often.

She made her way past the equator,
back and forth deciding whether to move
north or south, along the ocean waves
before choosing white or volcanic sands,
and then she moved land inward, losing speed
until she visited me in my sleep
and I awoke, spoke gently to her
and hoped she would not see me pray
for her to that she remain through the night
or return soon to help me navigate
the turns of a fast approaching day
or promise to return, to stay with me
and hold me another day.

1st draft written by Rüdiger Rückmann on 29 December 2018
2nd draft written by Rüdiger Rückmann on 13 January 2019

An Unfinished Poem: Trade Winds

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Dear Readers,

Last week I presented a poem in first draft. Here it is:

Trade Winds – 1st Draft

She came last night, invited,
after the heavy rain and stayed
like a guest who knows her host
wishes she would appear more often.

She made her way past the equator,
back and forth deciding whether to move
north or south, along the ocean waves
before choosing white or volcanic sands,
and then she moved land inward, losing speed
until she visited me in my sleep
and I awoke, spoke gently to her
and hoped she would not see me pray
for her to remain through the night
or return soon to help me navigate
the turns of a fast approaching day.

1st draft written by Rüdiger Rückmann on 29 December 2018

 

In last week’s post, I wrote that I would take readers of this blog through stages of how I write a poem. So I let this poem go until now so that I could better share it with all of you!

The poem, or at least the first draft, came easily. I live in Hawaii. Trade winds are welcomed here like, for most people, spring after a long winter. After a difficult week, the trade winds brought me much needed sound sleep. I did not know the trade winds were coming, but when I woke up, I knew the subject of my poem.

Why did I make the subject a woman? My answer is pretty simple: Mother Nature guiding navigators on the sea or in life on smooth and difficult paths. As a middle-aged gay may, Mother Nature is also a bit neutral and safe for me — appealing, exciting, calming, even spiritual. Had I made the subject a man, the tone might have changed, and without overthinking, the tone for this poem seemed pretty natural and right.

How about the rhyme scheme?

Although I love studying patterns of rhymes, I don’t force them in my own poetry which I have been writing steadily since I was seven years old. For me, it’s like playing tennis left handed. I was born a lefty. It’s instinctive for me to hit a forehand in tennis. I’ve rarely modified my forehand over many years. I put a little more thought in my rhyme schemes in my poems than I do hitting a crosscourt forehand, but I sure don’t agonize about them. If I did, I would not be ready for the poem to be written.

I will, though, in a poem’s second or third draft, look for better words and rhythm.

Let’s stop there for now before my readers lose interest. After all, this post has no pictures, only words! In my next post, I will bring the actual poem into a second draft and check in with followers of this blog about their reactions.

Thank you all for following Tennis, Trisomy 21, and Taking in Life Together! I wish you all good health and much happiness in 2019!

 

Poem in Rough Draft: Trade Winds

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Die ganze Familie und Coach Kawika!.jpgDear Readers,

The New Year is almost here, and my goal for 2019 is to continue to return to my roots — my original hair color.

Just joking.

My hair is pretty much the same as it was in high school, although gray is finding its sure way into the dark blond and, yes, it’s maybe a tad thinner.

The roots I yearn for are what has sustained me for years: reading good poems, writing poetry, and now, as a part-time teacher (who has a full-time job but is grateful to teach), encouraging others to be creative.

Reading and writing poetry changes the brain for the better. I believe it helps preserve optimism and even a healthy innocence that the world today needs more of. It brings out my better instincts.

So for my last post in 2018, I want to maintain my goal for the third year of this blog: focus on poetry.

Last night, after a week where my moods fluctuated, I prayed for a good night’s sleep. And then the trade winds came and I knew all would be well. I woke up and decided to take readers of this blog through stages of how I write a poem.

But before I do, I want to thank my family and running coach in the picture above for helping me when I feel less than certain of having the stamina needed, mile after mile, to stay confident and calm through the highs and lows that life presents. My eight-year-old daughter, born with an extra chromosome, completed her first “official” mile at a Christmas Holiday Run. She is my best gift every year, in fact every day.

And special thanks to my husband, my buddy Dave, a great runner, my friends, my running coach Kawika, and all of you, Dear Readers, for encouraging and inspiring me. I wish you health and happiness in 2019!


Trade Winds – 1st Draft

She came last night, invited,
after the heavy rain and stayed
like a guest who knows her host
wishes she would appear more often.

She made her way past the equator,
back and forth deciding whether to move
north or south, along the ocean waves
before choosing white or volcanic sands,
and then she moved land inward, losing speed
until she visited me in my sleep
and I awoke, spoke gently to her
and hoped she would not see me pray
for her to remain through the night
or return soon to help me navigate
the turns of a fast approaching day.

1st draft written by Rüdiger Rückmann on 29 December 2018

 

Faith, Marathons, and Patience

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Yesterday I had my official I’ve Finished Two Marathons in Six Days letdown.

It hit me at our home YMCA. Just like going to church or temple on Sundays is a given for many families, including ours, Saturday visits to the Y are the norm for us. Our daughter is a member of an amazing hālau hula or school where hula is taught. We had been on a waiting list for nearly two years.

Meine FamilieComing to an island with groups of people who have known each other for years and often even have grown up with each other, we — two middle-aged guys from the Mainland raising a young daughter born with an extra chromosome — have needed to be patient.

Moving to Hawaii cold as we did has had its challenges. The cost of living is really high. The rich, cultural diversity — which has always appealed to my husband and me — can be a culture shock for some new residents straight from homogeneous communities on the Mainland. And, let’s face it, we are living on relatively small islands in the middle of a vast ocean!

Personally, except for my Quaker community in Iowa, I have not missed the Mainland.

I’m terrified of flying. I love multiculturalism. I definitely believe No Man is an Island, but I sure love living on one. My husband and daughter are Buddhists. Our family has been welcomed by the Shin Buddhist community on Oahu as if we had always belonged. We love Girl Scouts, our daughter’s elementary school, the Fulbright Association in Hawaii. We’ve volunteered for candidates for elected office. My work in philanthropy as an advancement or development professional has brought me to people who have become lifelong friends. I’ve run 9 marathons in Hawaii and have become a better athlete in a way I never expected.

Have I left out Quakers in Hawaii? Did I leave the part about the marathon letdown hanging in this post?

Well, yes. I believe it’s pretty natural after reaching any “weighty” goal, like finishing two marathons, or 52.4 miles to be exact, in six days, or a peak season in fundraising (which is still not over), or holding your breath as you find a way through challenges in raising a child or your marriage, to stumble around a bit, to feel like maybe you ought to run another marathon as a way to postpone other parts of your life that have been neglected.

Like my faith life.

As I wrote a few paragraphs earlier, the one part of the Mainland I get nostalgic about is my Quaker community from Iowa, formally known as the Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative who despite the formal designation are for the most part extremely liberal, sometimes Plain Quakers (think Amish) who worship in silence and harmony.

No community is perfect, but if there is a member of IYMC who consistently disrupts the peace and unity of the Meeting which can affect the good works, including activism related to social issues Quakers are known for, that person would be “eldered,” or strongly counseled to adjust his or her ways, especially if his or her actions resulted in Quakers leaving Meeting because the strain of patience for this person is too great.

Draussen vor der Tür!The community of Quakers I have found in Hawaii is one I want to embrace, a group of people who help me live my faith and find ways to explore its deeper layers, who give me the great gift of letting go of chasing after immediate rewards, like finishing another marathon, and striving for more “weighty” goals of what we call discerning the Light.

Unfortunately, a member of the Hawaii Meeting is a lot for me to bear. Her actions drove my husband away from Meeting, and led me to take a two-year break from worshiping with other Quakers. I attempted to return yesterday, with my family, and nothing has changed. The member provoked through her words and gestures to me — at a Christmas gathering! — questions I wish I didn’t have to try to answer.

What do I do, dear Readers? Leave for another two years? Forego this part of my life because no matter how much patience I and others have invested, nothing seems to change?

By speaking to Meeting elders and writing this post, I’ve done all I can do for the time being. I do not have time for nor want drama for my family, me, nor other Quakers. If my being present brings out a side of this person that presents challenges for me and others, I would rather stay away. But isn’t that giving in? And missing out? And not helping this person change and my discerning parts of me that can change?

And I bet most readers of this blog thought Quakers lived in perfect peace all the time!

 

 

Marathons on Temporary Hold

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I completed my 23rd marathon last Sunday and my 24th yesterday.

Our fall/winter semester ended last Thursday.

Now I want to take a break!

Except as a professional fundraiser (or Facilitator of Philanthropy!), I can’t. It’s one of the  busiest times of year in my field — and not a good sign if it isn’t.

I also will mention I’ve been married to my extremely patient husband for 17 years and we have an eight-year old daughter who was born with an extra chromosome. She is smart, healthy, and gorgeous, but she and my husband would benefit from my spending a little less time chasing after marathons.

Granted, the 23rd marathon was actually a fundraiser for my school. In its fifth year, our team has grown from two to 15 members, and we’ve added a 10K option so that people who don’t feel ready for a marathon can still participate — and celebrate as you can see from the photo in this post.

Marathon Team.jpgAlthough my husband did not have a good day on the course last Sunday, he completed his second marathon: pretty great for a guy who out of nowhere had a stroke four years ago when he was 41.

Many other members of the team were attempting and then completed their first marathon, including students and parents in their 40s and 50s.

I don’t need a lot of credit for helping them achieve their goal, but as anyone who has ever guided a team may know, a lot of time is invested and often not acknowledged. To be fair, a few wonderful friends went out of their way to thank me. But I also had to bite my tongue or hold my fingers from texting or typing an email with my gut thoughts a few times in the past few months when I received requests or concerns that sent me into a temporary state of disbelief!

I know those thoughts are not exactly “Quakerly,” which is why the marathon yesterday was balm for my soul. I struggled, but I reached the finish line after five hours — actually it was closer to six than five, but not bad for a middle-aged guy who is less than a perfect athlete.

Most readers know that all marathons are 26.2 miles, but the differences between the two marathons I completed these past six days are considerable.

For one, the Honolulu Marathon is the fourth-largest in the United States with major sponsors, crowds, and finishers’ medals! It literally begins with fireworks.

Papa und Ellen!The marathon yesterday in Hawaii Kai was a much smaller event, run in a lovely neighborhood by about 40 participants. It’s an official event and registered on accredited sites, but when runners and walkers complete the distance, they receive a certificate rather than a fancy medal, their times are measured by themselves and the amazing event director rather than electronically, and they literally keep each other company on the course and are cheered on by a few residents out walking their dogs rather than thousands of spectators. You hold onto your water bottles rather than toss them on the street expecting someone else to pick them up.

And that is why I am now satisfied: I made new friends and reestablished friendships in Hawaii Kai yesterday; I let go of minor gripes about coaching and found gratitude for whatever role I may have played in helping team members achieve their goals; I made a vow to pursue my faith life with greater purpose; as an athlete I pushed myself to a reasonable limit without going overboard so that I can now move onto other areas of my life. I’m putting marathons on hold now for about a year and creating space for other challenges and the joy that I can feel in pursuing them.

Holding Up

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It’s now December which for me means my busiest time of year as a professional fundraiser and, since, I moved to Hawaii, marathon season. I’m the marathon coach at our school, and in the five years since a friend and I started out as the team, we’ve raised more than $10,000. We’ve grown to 15 participants this year.

Personally, I’m hoping to finish my 23rd marathon tomorrow, and, for my own self-esteem, two more the following weekend. I know that the dream of completing a 24th and 25th this year is selfish. It’s put stress on my family, not to mention my legs! I hope to pull back in the years ahead so I can be a better husband and father.

I also teach German and poetry at my school and sometimes offer my students pearls of wisdom which they usually receive with humor but also an earnestness that surprises me given they are teenagers!

When I do offer those pearls shaped by a middle-aged guy’s life experiences, I try to live by them. Otherwise, I think very bright and alert teenagers would see right through them!

poetry

So here are a few insights that nicely intersect with the latest group poem my students and I have drafted:

1) Stay upright — both in class (I see so many teenagers these days slumped over and I wonder if it’s because they have been on their phones all night), and during a marathon!

2) Choose wisely — whether it’s words or pace in a marathon, stay in your comfort zone while you are stretching for a little more.

3) Understand the path you are taking and adapt. No two poems and no two marathons are the same, even if as a poet you return to themes you’ve explored before or as a marathoner you go back to your favorite course.

4) Enjoy the unknown. As writers and athletes, we may have a good sense of how a poem and marathon may turn out, but we never really know until we finish!

This poem drafted in the picture above will get better this week when the students and I meet once more before Winter Break. I look forward to sharing the new version and letting readers know how our team made out in the marathon before I try for two more next Saturday and Sunday.