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.

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Reaching for Miracles While Staying Grounded

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Dear Readers,

It’s been a while since my last post that I had written last week before the Thanksgiving holiday.

My students and I had finished composing a poem based on Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, striving to understand the light in van Gogh’s painting, and sharing the Light with others to inspire hope. The poem and the creativity of teenagers who at my request are forbidden to look at their phones while we write together carried us all into the thick of holiday season.

And then the unexpected occurred. I took a picture of our group poem with my phone which I have had for only two years. (I thought I could make it through life without one just like I have never owned a credit card.) The burst of light that came through on the picture shown on this post was due to how I held my phone — or was it?

Starry NightAs a Quaker, the theme of Light carries me every day. I believe in miracles.

But I also believe you have to be open and allow them to happen.

It takes courage to do so. And sometimes a little effort.

When I lived in a monastery in my early 20s, I joined the community of monks to begin praying at 4 a.m. They had told me that there was less noise at that hour and God could hear more clearly.

But what was I doing in a monastery in my early 20s?

I had received a Fulbright scholarship and taught in a monastic school in Austria in the mornings and studied at the University of Vienna in the afternoons. The monks invited me to join their community.

It was a miracle I had received a Fulbright. I’m not brilliant. But I put myself out there, applied for one, and, as the miracle drew nearer, allowed myself to believe.

It changed my life. I had wanted to be a writer for Sports Illustrated. Instead, I moved to Austria, later worked at an embassy, and, after moving back to the United States, became a philanthropy professional.

Luckily, I’m also able to teach a few classes and luckily, the teenagers who sign up for them open up about their dreams and hopes.

My message to them: keep one foot rooted in what you need to accomplish every day, and let the other foot move high above the ground as you reach for more. Miracles really do happen.

 

Thanksgiving: The Unexpected Light

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My last post was about Vincent van Gogh’s painting, Starry Night, and the poem my students and I wrote about it. We all took turns, each of us adding a line that fit with the one before it and anticipating lines that would come after.

Starry Night OriginalBy the time I saw my students again in our poetry workshop, a week had gone by. I only teach this workshop twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays, and last Monday was a holiday.

It was by chance that my students and I had focused on Starry Night. I had a different lesson plan prepared when I saw a computer cover with the painting on the floor and picked it up. I turned my mild annoyance about the messy habits of teenagers into a new lesson where the students and I explored the loneliness and hope we saw in the painting.

It turned out to be a lesson in my personal life last week although I did not share that with my students.

Starry NightMiddle age definitely comes with highs and lows. At the beginning of the week, I was filled with great hope about a possible new chapter in my life that ended up being put on hold and now may never happen.

Just like when my students and I discover how lines of a poem usually move a verse to a meaningful conclusion, this chapter seemed to fit. And then the line was erased, gently and in retrospect not altogether surprisingly. But it still would have been nice if the line could have been worked in!

On that day, though, for some reason unknown to me, many students in the school where I work mostly as an administrator gave me high fives. A few who had never spoken to me before said they wanted to learn German or poetry. It was as if they sensed I needed those high fives! And I was grateful for them.

Later in the week, one of my former high school classmates posted a clipping about my having won a national writing award when I was a teenager from the nostalgia column — Remember When — the local newspaper runs. Thousands of miles away from difficult teenage years, many of my former classmates whom I have not seen for a long time were excited to know that not only did I survive those years, but that I was still writing poetry in English and German!

So maybe the disappointment I felt earlier is a harbinger of hope. Maybe the line was meant to be written a certain way. Maybe what I teach my students — stay true to yourself and passions even if the miles you put in are sometimes painful — is a lesson for me every day as well.

My Thanksgiving message to readers of Tennis, Trisomy 21, and Taking in Life Together: look at the two pictures at the beginning of this post. Do you see more clearly the Light in the closer view of the second picture of the poem my students and I worked on? When I took the picture, I had focused on the words of Starry Night, not the Light that came with them.

Hope is given to us even if at the time we don’t know it. We just have to be open to it.

 

 

Poem in Progress: My Students’ Version of Starry Night

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In my last post, I wrote that my students and I had begun to compose a poem together, our own version of Starry Night based on the painting by Vincent van Gogh. I had changed my lesson plan that day after picking up a computer cover version of van Gogh’s often reproduced masterpiece off the classroom floor.

During the poetry workshop, I had also referred to Anne Sexton’s poem, The Starry Night, but fortunately was not able to recite it nor did I have it with me.

I write fortunately because the themes of Anne Sexton’s poem are stunning and haunting, but also deal with subjects I’m not going to explore with teenagers in great detail. I leave that to their parents, counselors, or experts in particular fields. I am just a full-time administrator who also teaches two subjects I have loved my entire life: German language and poetry. I can strive to convey how loving anything, including friends, music and sports, and staying faithful to that love is worthwhile, but that is what I want my role to be with teenagers right now.

I can, though, also take students through writing a poem from scratch to almost finished. Most often, I believe a poem is never truly finished even when it is published.

Isn’t that like anything in life? I’ve now completed 22 marathons, and will be aiming to finish three more next month, but given the chance, I would do parts of them differently. Poetry gives you that chance!

But enough of my philosophical thoughts at 5:30 a.m.! My family is still asleep, and I have miles to go before they begin their day, so I will post a picture of our unfinished poem and write next week about how the students and I wrote it together, line by line.

Starry Night

 

A Poem Worth Waiting For

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This past week I walked into my Friday morning poetry workshop, a room filled with teenagers ready for the weekend. All of us wanted to reach the end of the school day to embrace other parts of our lives.

One talented student has a voice from heaven. Later that afternoon, I heard her practice for an upcoming performance. (I briefly entered her rehearsal room and applauded!) One young man had a sports meet the next day and was understandably conserving his energy. Another teenager was composing a song during the workshop on his computer, usually something I’m not wild about (phones and staring at computers during poetry — yes, I’m a traditionalist). His doing so didn’t bother me, though. He was lost in his own world of creativity and being pretty respectful about it.

Ruckmann-by Kubota!As for me, although I love teaching, I’m in the thick of my busiest season as a school administrator. I’ve also been volunteering for a political campaign that will wind down after Election Day. Later that afternoon, I joined signwavers who included the gentleman who will very likely win a seat in Congress. By the time we packed up signs we had been waving on street corners and all gave each other high fives, I was riding an adrenaline rush!

But neither the students nor I had that rush at the beginning of the poetry workshop earlier in the day. Then I looked on the floor of the classroom and saw a computer cover that showed Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night.

I picked it up, showed it to the teenagers, and asked them if they knew anything about Vincent van Gogh or Starry Night. They did not! I try very hard not to lecture when I teach, even if I hope that this generation of teenagers will have the same curiosity I did about the world. I remind myself that they have perspectives I never did. I can learn from them as much as they might from me.

I often talk to my students in the poetry workshop or the German elective I teach about finding a passion that can become a lifelong friend, like music, poetry, running, tennis — anything that you can go back to at different points in your life time and time again.

I even mentioned last Friday during the workshop a favorite poem of mine, The Starry Night by Anne Sexton. I told the students that I had first read the poem at their age, that I’ve gone back to it several times for inspiration, that I would share it with them on Monday when we meet again.

Truth be told, I haven’t read The Starry Night for about 10 years. Since then, I’ve become a father of a young girl who will become a teenager before I know it.

I reread the poem after the workshop. It’s stunning, but I’m not going to discuss it with the teenagers on Monday! If I ever teach a poetry class at a university, I’ll have students read it together. The themes, explored in achingly beautiful words, are a bit dark to talk about with young learners. I’m not going to go there as they say.

But we did try a new favorite method I’ve explored to convey the excitement of creating poetry to students: a group project where students and I each take a turn writing a line of a poem. Last Friday, we began our own Starry Night based on the students seeing the computer cover reproduction of Vincent van Gough’s painting. I’ll be sure to share it with readers of this blog for my next post.

A Brief Interruption of Poetry

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Draussen vor der Tür!I was excited about my weekend post about poetry. I had chosen my theme. I was ready to go, even this morning.

And then I, as a trained journalist, continued to read and watch the news.

Although I am striving in the third year of my blog to narrow the focus to poetry, an art that has helped the world and humanity for centuries, sometimes the world gasps.

I know I did this week, first with the man who sent mail bombs to 14 Democratic political figures. His family attorney said he found a father figure in Donald Trump, the occupant of the White House who has applauded reporters being attacked.

Then, on a much different note, Megyn Kelly, a television host (still) with NBC news who is paid $23 million a year, asked during her (now canceled) show why blackface is considered racist, that wearing blackface for Halloween was a fun childhood tradition.

Megyn obtained her undergraduate degree from the same university I attended which has one of the best journalism schools in the country. I’ll never earn anywhere near $2.3 million let alone $23 million in my entire life, but I sure know instinctively without a lot of coaching that racially insensitive remarks are not only tone deaf and always out of bounds, but can also inflict a great deal of harm.

Which leads me to this morning when I decided to put my planned post on hold.

So far 11 people have been killed in a synagogue in Pittsburgh by a suspect who had a history of making anti-Semitic statements online. I am stunned and speechless which is why as a Quaker I can write in silence and hold families in Pittsburgh in the Light while my husband and our child attend Halloween festivities.

My daughter, born with an extra chromosome, will likely encounter misguided and hateful people in her life. Fortunately, like her other father, she is a Buddhist. We teach her every day to practice peace.

A good friend who follows this blog urged me to write more poetry as a way to inspire others to peaceably voice opposition to the violence and hatred that is becoming so prevalent these days, every day.

Poetry also helps me find a way to process what this middle-aged guy can truly say is the most frightening time in the United States he can ever remember.

Please join me in holding our country in the Light.

 

 

My Daughter’s Poem

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Aloha Followers of Tennis, Trisomy 21 and Taking in Life Together,

My last post about poetry ended with my high school students pushing through a Friday and then being jolted away from their phones and texting by their middle-aged teacher plucking a poem from memory and reciting it for them. They were surprised and even smiled!

My eight-year-old daughter spent most of last week with her fathers at work. She participated in the workshop and talked about it much of the day. Later, that evening, she drafted a poem.

Da kommt ein Sturm!What I hope to give to my students and daughter, who has Trisomy 21, are truths that are pretty universal: discover what you love, be grateful if it becomes a lifelong friend, embrace the highs and lows of that friendship, be patient, steadfast and attentive to the friendship. Those friendships for me have been tennis, training for marathons, reading, and poetry.

I recently learned that I’ll be teaching the workshop all year at the school in Hawaii where I have worked for five years, a wonderful coaching opportunity for a guy who spends most of his working days as an administrator. I love stepping into a classroom even when teenagers are counting down the hours to the weekend.

And I love when my daughter is excited about writing her own poems. This morning, we finished her second draft.

The Train Ride

A train drives on its wheels, in curves and straight lines.
The train’s conductor decides how he feels.
Will he hold steady or make the train swerve?

Sometimes I like a ride where I don’t quite know
exactly where the train will go.

Written by Ellen on 20 October 2018

Reciting Poetry

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lichtMy busiest time of year, and it will remain so until early January, was made a bit more complicated when our daughter unexpectedly needed to accompany her fathers to their workplace for most of this week.

The reasons why are the subject of another post, but fortunately our daughter’s dads both work in the same high school where our colleagues didn’t question why our eight-year-old kid was joining students much older.

I probably had an easier time than my husband. Alone in my lovely office with my lovely daughter, I enjoyed her company.

My husband, who is not an administrator, and as a teacher does not have his own classroom, was stretched a bit more than I as he balanced the vicissitudes of parenting and his paid job simultaneously.

To be fair, our daughter was a great sport.

Our school in Hawaii promotes fluid learning and flexibility — hence, the many open spaces, movable walls, and, for teachers, no rooms they can call their own.

So what does this have to do with poetry?

When I applied for my job, as I have with all my jobs working in small, private schools, I asked to be a teacher or a coach for a few hours a week so I can also get to know students and their families and not just be the office guy. It allows me to step outside my organized little world into a classroom or playing field with all its rewards and challenges.

In my current position that I’ve held for nearly five years, my boss has let me teach German and poetry, two subjects that have been near and dear to me for my entire life.

My daughter was with me during the poetry workshop yesterday at the end of a long week where students and adults alike were tired.

I came into a room where teenagers were slouched over tables looking at their phones. I greeted them in German! They knew I would remind them to put their phones away. They knew I would ask if any of them since the beginning of the week had found a new poem they wanted to share. I knew they were coasting a bit toward the promised land called the weekend.

Since many of the students are new to poetry, I changed the subject a bit, asking them how they managed difficult or unexpected stretches in their days or routines, how they might overcome a bit of anxiety if they faced a tough homework assignment, test, or presentation.

I offered a solution: find a great poem and memorize it a few lines at a time so that it becomes a friend for life during difficult or enjoyable times, like unexpectedly having your child accompany you to work most of the day!

Draussen vor der Tür!The students gave me a look that said, “Show us, don’t just tell us.” So I did. I plucked from my memory a passage from Die Brücke am Tay, a ballad by Theodor Fontane. Although the last time I recited it was five years ago, it came back instantly. I stood in front of teenagers and my daughter and repeated it aloud, slowly, in German.

The students, who include a German exchange student, stayed a little longer than needed in the workshop. For a few extra minutes, they kept their phones in their backpacks. A few even smiled as they left the room.

Later that evening, my daughter sat down and wrote a poem.

Keeping the Streak Alive!

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Dear Readers,

I’ve always finished a marathon — all 22 I’ve entered so far.

I can’t remember the last deadline I’ve missed.

I was the kind of guy who always turned in his homework early, probably one of many reasons why I wasn’t exactly popular.

Since I began this blog, I’ve never missed posts that I’ve promised so that my readers know when to expect them.

Ellen - HulaOn a weekend where I wanted but could not bear to follow the news about the Supreme Court, I was fortunate that hula rehearsals, performances, and an all-consuming gala were front and center for my husband, daughter and me — really the only world that mattered for us.

I did squeeze in a few online courses for professional training for my job before I crawled into bed last night.

Then I work up this morning and gasped! Had I really missed my first promised blog post ever?

Then I remembered: Columbus Day!

I don’t even support the holiday, but it gave me an out —I don’t post on holidays or holiday weekends.

So I’ve kept the streak alive and I promise a poem or a post about poetry this weekend.

I try to keep my promises!

Thank you for all your support of this blog.

Why I’m not Posting a Poem this Week

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Ruckmann-by Kubota!Dear Readers,

When I decided to keep my blog going a third year, I decided to narrow my focus in themes I would explore.

I also, with the intensified sense of years rushing by, decided to write in a genre that has been familiar and reassuring to me since I was seven years old: poetry.

Posting a new poem nearly every week reminds me of a 15-year stretch in my life when I was a writer dedicated to reading and creating poetry in elementary, middle and high school, college, and a couple years of postgraduate studies. My days back then were exciting as I discovered a new poem, rediscovered a favorite poet, or created new verses on my own. I gained confidence I lacked in so many other parts of my life. I won awards. The best part for me was that it came pretty naturally, like hitting a lefty forehand in tennis. I rarely had to think too hard about writing poems, and believe me, I’m an overthinker!

Growing up with a great deal of verbal and physical abuse for being identified as gay, even though I was not yet sure I was, a quiet room where I could write poems or tennis courts were usually the places where I felt safe.

Usually.

A few followers of this blog have asked me about my thoughts about the testimonies this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. They have also wondered about my opinions about the recent US Open final and Naomi Osaka. They understand my goal in the third year of my blog. But they’ve also said they miss reading my thoughts about tennis and other issues to which I have a personal attachment.

Draussen vor der Tür!I think I’ll hold off about identifying, as a middle-aged gay man, with Christine Blasey Ford. In a way, it’s too personal right now. I’ve been crying a lot this week. My admiration for Dr. Ford is boundless.

I’ve gone back and forth about Serena. Just when I thought I had finally made up my mind about the US Open final, I read a wonderful article by Cara McClellan.

I was the guy on his high school tennis team whose teammates snickered during my matches or actually rooted for my opponent to “beat the fag.” The coaches stood by silently. They never interrupted the matches. They never asked for the remarks, laughter, or snickering to stop.

It was tough to hold my head high, not to cry, to focus on the individual point, to be a fair sport. Fortunately, my role models were Althea Gibson, Evonne Goolagong, Björn Borg, Arthur Ashe, Chris Evert.

To my mind, Serena Williams is an outstanding role model. She has every right to speak up. The more she does, the more she helps anyone who has been taunted, ridiculed, faced discrimination, been traumatized, whose behavior has been mischaracterized.

I feel bad that Naomi could not fully celebrate her well-deserved victory. She also has a fascinating life story, and I’m sure that even in her young age she has faced more than her share of stumbling blocks on her path to greatness.

What gives me hope, even with all the tears I’ve shed this week, is the courage shown by Dr. Ford, Serena, and Naomi. I hope my opening up as much I have in my blog and my poems — which has been difficult at times — has been worthwhile for all of you who are reading them.