Why read depressing stuff…?

Why read depressing stuff…?

I’ve told you the success story of the poetry book club I belong to, right? How we grew fond of the more authentic conversations we had, bracketed by poems each of us brought to the monthly meeting. How I ~ a complete newbie in town ~ found a community of like-minded readers & lovers of words.

Much of what we share is hard reading. Not difficult to understand, but sometimes difficult in its content, how it hurts to be brought in to such a tragic situation, landscape, life… This past meeting I brought in poems b;y Jericho Brown, from his first book, Please. They were not easy to live with, dealing as they do with the dark ambivalence Brown felt/feels for his sometimes-violent father, and the mother who stayed with him.

But we read them, and we talked about domestic violence. And about writing what is hard, but true. And the conversation shifted then to another poem, offered by another member — Emily Dickinson’s ‘#314: hope is the thing with feathers…” Talk moved from Dickinson in general (and the movie about her life) to hope, to reading poetry overall.

That’s the beauty of poetry, right there: it starts conversations that matter. Or at least it seems to. I’ve never met anyone — even those who claim to dislike it — who didn’t light up when asked about childhood favourites. Something a grandparent read, or a parent. A nursery rhyme, possibly.

Somewhere along the line, we lose that. More accurately, school often beats it out of us. As a friend of mine (another English teacher!) once said, it takes an English teacher to make you hate poetry. Billy Collins is right: too many people want to “tie the poem to a chair with rope/ and torture a confession out of it.// They begin beating it with a hose/ to find out what it really means.”

We don’t do that at Poetry Book Club. We just share & visit. You don’t always have to “know” what a poem “means” to enjoy it. Just like you don’t have to sugarcoat the ugliness of grief. Which leads to another poetry book review, courtesy of my beloved Nimrod International Journal. It’s a conversation about Colin Pope’s heart-wrenching collection Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral. I highly recommend it, even if it’s ‘depressing.’ It’s also gorgeous, beautifully crafted, and just amazing. Enjoy!

Poetry Book Club: Sharing Other People’s Breaths…

Poetry Book Club: Sharing Other People’s Breaths…

I’ve never belonged to a book club before. Many (if not most) of my friends do, and sing their praises. But my own reading has always been so eclectic that I never believed anyone else would want to read what I like.

Then I gave a ‘class’ in reading poetry. We read poetry weekly, from 2 different anthologies, but we also brought in poems we ‘found’. Or poems we already loved. A couple of times, even poems we DISliked. It was WONDERFUL! There were poems of love and death; there were playful witticisms; there were social manifestos. There was Shakespeare and Auden and Mary Oliver and Natasha Trethewey and so many less famous life changers.

Six of the 10 people who were in that continuing education class wanted to keep reading poetry together, and two more wanted to join us. Because something happened when we shared poems — conversations deepened, voices became a kind of music, much like the various poetic voices we discussed.

This is a piece on that book club I wrote for much-loved journal, Nimrod International Journal. You can read about the journal (with which I’ve been lucky enough to be associated with for DECADES) at the Nimrod website. And the nudge to begin your own poetry book club is here. You’ll see more from the poetry book club, I’m sure, in the months to follow. As well as book reviews I’m doing for Nimrod. It’s the best way I know to stay prepared for poetry book club. And it’s the breath part of Tea & Breath ~

a funeral playlist…??

a funeral playlist…??

Admittedly, mortality has been on my mind lately (see previous post). Still, when I saw this idea ~ a funeral playlist! ~ in a recent Oprah (of course!), I loved it.

The idea is that the songs we list should ‘represent the things we value.’ Or be ‘essentially you.’ Hmmm… Not sure what songs are really ‘me.’ And what that would even mean…? Although I know we did pick songs we associated with my mother when we did her funeral – old big band, jazz standards, a few crooners. A musical hit (Dites Moi, of course!), a Doris Day favourite… Because we four daughters are all over the place spiritually/religiously, hymns were in short supply. And to be fair, I don’t remember Mother as a big hymn fan anyway.

My own funeral playlist has only a few constants; the other 6-7 songs (you’re supposed to list 10) vary as my mood does. A couple of classical favourites would always be there – Bach’s Brandenburgs, particularly number 4. And Pachelbel’sCanon in D, of course. I’ve been playing an extended Canon playlist (29 riffs, so far)! for years, whenever I need soothing. And the Brandenburgs work much the same, although #4 is my favourite.

Another sure thing is über idiosyncratic (although the album it debuted on was named best NPR album of 2006), the Decembrists’ Crane Wife.Crane Wife 3is the one I love – the Japanese folk tale it comes from is so poignant: love gone greedy, the beautiful wounded crane ~she had no heart so hardened…

Then there are a couple I’m not sure I will ‘always’ love, although they’ve certainly been favourites for years: Death Cab for Cutie’s I will follow you into the dark; Playing for Change’s Stand by Me. I have several coversof Leonard Cohen’s Halleleujah, too, as well as the original. 

Here’s my question for you: what songs do you want to be remembered by? What says ‘you’ musically? And how do you feel about the whole idea of a funeral playlist? When you go to a funeral (and do you?), does the music matter to you? Since music is important to me – isn’t it to most of us? – I don’t want songs played that have no significance to me. But then again… It’s not like I can do much about it by then!

Share your favourites! I’d love to hear what you like!

the comfort of tea ~

the comfort of tea ~

This past year has been fraught with … perhaps peril isn’t the right word, but certainly rife w/angst. Tea has been a great comfort. Writing has not (ergo: no entries on the blog since February!).

My beloved was ill for more than a year – beginning February last year. It was spring of this year before we were out of the woods. I use we intentionally: it seemed as if I too was hurting from chemo, as if my own body was eating away at itself… Mortality had breakfast with every morning. Only a ‘good’ year in that he made it. I’m much lighter in spirit these days! 

Writing was nothing I wanted to undertake: too much reflection, too much energy. It was all I could do to get through the days. As a result, my happiness journal project – supposedly a year of lists – isn’t finished 162 weeks in, what with the move the year before, then settling in. My gratitude journal went 2 weeks at a time with no entries, some months. Factor in multiple illnesses, two active grandsons plus life in general: watching a well-loved cat fade into passing; juggling the happiness of bird-watching with the need to feed & clean feeders; swinging a toddler in his swing, in the midst of a gnat swarm (really!) Returning to Oklahoma for my baby sister’s TWO graduations: one her BA, one her MA. Welcoming family for the holidays. Life is funny that way, the poignant with the memorable.

I’ve tried to breathe through it all, often scanning my body for tension as I focus on breath in, breath out. I’ve even mentioned ‘grounding & centering’ to my elder grandson, both to prep him for when he’s a bit older & we can do it together, and to remind myself to practice. I’ve focused on big sky mind: clouds come, clouds go. Only the sky remains. Pain rises up, but it passes.

Through it all, there’s been tea. The warm comfort of a mug, the distraction of a tea tray laden with family china & a nosegay from the flourishing garden (you should see the roses!). Today it’s a large mug of white peach matcha, and a piece of rhubarb ginger scone from this weekend’s Saturday Farmers Market. 

I’ve come late to appreciating matcha – probably because I had no clue how to brew it! It turns out you can know a boatload about something, and NOT know something fairly important. Like…you brew matchaat 180°, NOT boiling (212°, fyi). And you only ‘brew’ for the time it takes to whisk the fine powder into the water thoroughly. I sometimes steep for 3 minutes, but no longer, ever, or the matcha becomes quite bitter (which I used to think was just how it tastes!).

You learn all the time, if you pay attention! And the one thing I’ve learned this past year is what my priorities are. Not always what I’ve assumed: writing isn’t as important as family, nor is it as comforting as tea. It’s not even above gardening! (Did I mention our roses 😏?)

I’ve also learned to forgive myself for guilt, for fatigue, for shrieking at people (truly!), for the failings (big & small) of normal human beings under pressure. It’s freeing, that, to treat ourselves with as much compassion as we do our loved ones. And it’s a basic tenet of most spiritual paths: the Golden Rule means very little if we can’t learn to love ourselves first. Tea makes that much easier!

tea and poetry ~

tea and poetry ~

Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things. ~  Okakura Kakuzō in his Book of Tea

It’s tea time — that golden hour of slant afternoon sun that warms tables & fills rooms with light. My elderly cat (18!) sprawls on the table runner, basking in the sun. It’s the time when water burbles happily in a kettle — glass, if you’re lucky, so you can see the bubbles! — and you find a mug, or a cup & saucer, and maybe a cookie. Or two…or three…

Today’s tea is brought to you by poetry, and Okakura Kakuzo, practically a poet of tea. See the above quote if you doubt. One of the lovely moments in life is to read poetry you love (or write drafts you probably don’t! — while you sip tea.

My favourite tea used to be a china black, a nice serviceableKeemun. It’s still the house tea, and the fav. But as my tea time moved later in the day (winter nights come early), I found myself drinking more herbal teas, fruit teas, and occasionally a small pot of matcha when I really need some energy.  My favourite is peach matcha. It allows me the ritual I seem to need, to calm down & refocus my dissipated attention. I indulged myself in a little  matcha scoop, as well as a small bamboo matcha whisk. To brew it, I use a small (2-cup) glass pot, when I want more than just one gai wan


There IS a fair amount of caffeine in matcha, but nothing like what there is in two (or more!) large cups of black tea. And theine is significantly smoother to process than caffeine.

Yesterday, however, I made masala chai, as I have often these cold winter days. The gentle spice is warming, and the addition of milk & sugar make it a bit more substantial than the jasmine I tend to drink in summer. Today it’s Hao Ya A, an extravagant holiday treat from my beloved. It’s a glamourous uptick on the usual Keemun, this one even more assertive. And while it sounds almost sacrilegious, I like it with milk & Demerara sugar, as I do most afternoon tea. Again, it just feels more comforting. And while milk & sugar may not seem poetic, a hot cup of afternoon tea — lightly sweetened & with milk to the colour winter grass — is the best kind of material poetry. You can feel the magic grow with each peaceful sip.

So heat up your kettle, if you have one. Or microwave a mug of water. Add a tea sachet (they’re much better quality tea than teabags, if you can afford the little bit extra!). Even an Oreo goes well, and you can have a lovely respite mid-afternoon, when work & all the rest of the world can recede to less importance. I promise: it’s the best moment of the day. And immeasurably poetic, isn’t it, Okakura Kakuzō-san?