There are two reasons I may need a new toaster.
One, my toaster oven has twelve years of goo on and in it.
Two, even though I’ve put loaves and loaves of bread
in it, I can never quite seem to get it right.
I awaken with a healthy desire for toast: golden,
warm, crunchy on the edges with a slightly soft center.
It should be easy: bread, heat, time, toast. Right?
I’ve been making toast for forty-eight years,
I should be pro. But, often, it come out too pale
or burned around the edges. My fair share of
black bread has been thrown down the dell for the
squirrels and woodchucks. Even they reject it, I’m sure.
I want my toast to be the same every day, same as I want
the circumstances of my life to be stable.
I want roads to be smooth, latches to lock, spiders
to see me and scurry away every single time.
I thrive in a perfect toast life, all of my ducks in a row.
This month of advent, this time of waiting
lulls us into toast complacency. We’re waiting
for a baby, a song, the smell of pine,
the glint of white lights, the tinkle of
Salvation Army bells. There’s rhythm and routine
to this season, and, God, how we expect it to be perfect.
Golden, strong on the surface, soft and vulnerable
in the middle. But, what if God has another plan
for this year? What if God lays something gangly
and disappointing at your feet? What if hardness
pops out of someone’s mouth? What if,
no matter how much you stand there monitoring that
which will sustain you, it comes out not quite right?
Can you say – this, even this, is holy too? And,
even though you may not like it, can you say I will feast
on what you serve me, lord. Yes, this, I will eat.
You don’t know when it will hit.
You could be waiting in line
at the carwash, or frying
eggplant in your apartment,
when, without a doubt, you know
something is about to change,
something needs to change.
And, unlike other times,
when newness was thrust upon you,
you will rise up, start to pack
not worrying about your
favorite encaustic painting,
or the collection of spoons
that you’ve had since you
were a child. Your bag
will be light, your shoes
will be sturdy. You will say
your goodbyes confidently,
then head to the west,
where the sun gives you
more time, more light,
to do what you need to do.
I started writing this poem for tomorrow, but it really seems like a preface to the advent season, so I’m going to post it today.
Thanks to the 42 people who submitted prompt words for this series; I’ll have to double up some days. Let me apologize, in advance, for any sacrilege that will spew forth. It really has nothing to do with the words they picked, but with my own sloppy theology.
This first poem was prompted by the words “hippopotamus” and “Japanese sweet potato” sent to me by Jennifer Vail and Celeste Tibbitts, respectively. Yes, those two words, together, caused some stress.
Here goes. Thank you, before I begin, for your readership the next twenty-five days. I will try to serve you well. And, as always, in the flawed way I attempt it, I will try to serve God as best I can.
The title of this first poem: God making God’s plans
I’ve tried some men a few sassy women too,
but nothing’s stuck. Maybe I was too obvious,
and their habits were too engrained.
I should try again with a child.
Maybe that girl, there, riding the hippo
in Somalia, or that boy squatting by
the longhouse, milling corn for
his mother. He sure looks like a good kid.
Maybe I should wait for a while,
toss my great light to the east – find a
peasant harvesting sweet potatoes
for a shogun in the rich region of Kii.
Harvesting would be a good analogy,
for what I’m intending to do, right?
No, no, I don’t think I can wait that long.
The sixteenth century is too far away.
I’ve got so many things in process:
Buddha looks like he’s going to
pan out really well, I’m still working on
the Muhammad plan. Down the road,
I can picture something with a musician,
but I really need something else soon. Now.
I’ve sent rains, I’ve cast people into exile,
I’ve set bushes on fire. Since those aren’t
getting the desired effect, maybe I need
to be more subtle so they won’t suspect
what I’m up to. A baby, I need a baby!
A handsome young soldier and a beauty
for the parents, for sure. No, too obvious.
Maybe, an older man, a young mother.
A virgin too, they’ll all talk about that later.
I should throw in an angel. A bright star!
Yes, that would be a nice touch.
I know, I know, eventually, I’ll send down an edict
to kill all of the kids, make the people
think I’m sticking to the age-old power paradigm.
Boys? Girls? Who should I sacrifice?
Eenie, meenie, miney, moe. Boys, boys it is!
This will cause the man and woman
to journey to an old home then the long way to a new home, because…
because…c’mon, what’s the metaphor…
movement is what’s needed to
find the sacred, commitment, too!
And I’ll make sure the kid is born
in a simple place, to remind them
that goodness is not complicated.
And that baby will suckle right next
to the sheep in the stable to remind them
to share the bounties of the earth.
And, boy, I’m on a roll now,
I’ll make them go home a different way,
so that they’ll worship the gifts
of change and the unknown. They’ll know
I’ll always be keeping them on their toes.
I should probably get some presents,
maybe myrrh in case they get sick.
And frankincense, I love the way that smells.
This is good, this is taking shape.
I’ll need a name, a good name. Abichail, Barzillay?
No, too long. I think a good two syllable name
would be best. Mered? Rinnah? Um, Jesus.
Yes, Jesus. That sounds just right. Jesus,
after Joseph, they will think,
but, I’m picking it for salvation.
This is all going to end in salvation,
deliverance to something better and wider
than they have ever seen. A love larger
than the sky they walk under, deeper than
the seas that clean their skin. These people,
my people, they really have no idea
what I have up my sleeve. No idea
how this one small thing will grow so big.
There is bread in the stuffing,
bread in the bread basket,
bread in the bread pudding,
bread in the cupboard waiting
for tomorrow’s thick turkey sandwich.
There is wine on the counter,
wine in the wine glasses,
wine in the grapes of the Waldorf salad,
and a dash in the sweet potato casserole.
There is bread and wine at this table,
and there are disciples – twelve, more or less.
Disciples of family, ties to the ties that bind,
and there are disciples to the idea,
the idea of thanksgiving and thanks.
Disciples to obligation and habit.
Disciples of light and disciples of darkness,
knowing that the coming winter
–with its burdens – will have its grace.
Disciples to yes, disciples to change,
disciples to doubt and jubilation.
Some come with their fishing nets,
their briefcases, their holiday haircuts.
Some wearing last year’s jeans tighter,
good grades or deeper wrinkles.
Some come with warm corn pudding,
others with empty hands, ghosts on
their back and in their pockets.
And we all will sit at that table,
or scattered around the room
with heavy plates on our laps.
Someone, please, someone please stop
before the first fork is lifted
to say – this is bread broken for you,
this is wine, to help you remember.
That is enough of a prayer:
to admit that we are all broken,
and bound. Together somehow,
even in the loosest stitches.
That we are here on the tip of our long lives,
carrying every wish and disappointment,
built and better from all that came before.
I started this blog because I was pissed about something and wanted to prove that I would receive an audience and accolades because of my writing. As always, I expected something I wrote to go big, get viral. And that sooner or later I would end up on NPR talking to Ira Glass. That clearly has not happened yet, but I can still hope it might.
2,559 visitors have made 6,659 views. You all liked a piece called “What students want” best of all and Days of Repentance #9 hit it big too. Actually, I know exactly what you like – at least based on views and Facebook activity. You like essays or poems when I am happy. In general, you prefer essays to poems. Narrative poems to language poems. Essays in which I make a plea for hope.
It would’ve been easy to just write those — happy,hopeful essays. But writing is a muscle and I never wanted to just build bulging biceps. It’s always about proportion, strengthening all of the skills. It’s about getting the ass in the chair, too, even when you’re too tired to take a shower. 90 straight days.
If I would’ve tried this much consecutive days of writing ten years ago, I would’ve gone apeshit a few days – those days when no one clicked, no one liked. Or those posts when a kick ass poem went seemingly unappreciated. Then, my ego was soft and malleable. Now, I’m hard as a rock. (In a good way). I write for me now. Because I’m good at it, because I engage in the world in a more positive way. Because I’m nicer. Because I get a softer heart and a more observant eye.
No doubt, there are far better things I could’ve done for 90 days. Maybe walk 10,000 steps a day like my friend, Janet. Paint for 90 days. Dance. Meditate. Eat healthy snacks.
Maybe I could’ve tried to be as good a teacher as MK. Or as energized at work as KJ. Would’ve been good to be polite, even. Or go 90 days without complaining. Yeah, that would have been a fine goal. THAT would’ve been life-changing.
I’ll be back, probably around Advent. I’ll write my way to a new birth, as I like to do each year. But, for now, I’m going to take a break.
The sunset was beautiful tonight, screechingly colorful. I watched it and became aware that all of that showiness naturally leads to darkness, a time of rest. So I’m heeding the sunset. Going to lay down for a while, write when I want to, not because I need to.
Thanks for being with me, friends, for this stretch. Your readership is, and always will be, grace to me.
Today, Hannah and Jenna, two teenage girls raked my yard – front and back, put away the deck furniture, and helped me clean out the room off the kitchen. My washer died two days ago and I have decided to move the laundry upstairs to help me and my aching knees. These girls were impeccably vigilant, hard working, and polite. When I crawled upstairs on my hands and feet like a bear, Hannah didn’t laugh at me. She said, “That’s not too bad, Jean.” Sweet girl.
Likewise, Janet helped me by coming upstairs twice with lunch for some school guests this afternoon. Andy took care of some business in the nurse’s office for me because she knew I didn’t want to walk downstairs this morning. Anne put away my porch furniture on Saturday. Cullen changed the lightbulb in my guest room last week. When I called Mike about converting the back room to a laundry area, he said that he would be right over to give me an estimate and he was.
All of these people have gone out of their way to help. They know when I start a sentence with, “Would you mind…” I am actually saying that I’m having trouble walking. That doing the proposed task would make me wince. Every single time I have sought assistance, friends have responded. Frequently, they offer to do more before I can think of what else might need to be done.
It was not all take and no give, mind you. Today, Fernway hosted a school from Northern Michigan and I give our visitors all of the resources we have built and created the last five years. So did Sean, Denise, Wendy, too. At Fernway, we give everyone everything. It’s just our way.
I spent the first half of my life proving my independence, showing everyone that I could handle it all singularly. Now, if I should be so lucky, I will spend the rest of my life proving the merits of interdependence. I am so much smatter now than I used to be.
Every small and large deed matters and is noticed. Thank you, friends, for the ways you help me. I am so grateful for your generous kindness.
This is the kind of day that makes you thankful
for everything. The last blast of summer, the sound
of leaves kicked up on the sidewalk, purple dresses,
shoes on the wrong feet. Who cares if the washer is
dead in the basement, if all the books are overdue?
Though it takes the light from the sun eight minutes
to reach the Earth, it took millions of years for
that energy to move from its core to the surface
before lift off. Today, it feels like the sun itself
is celebrating that hard work, that it knew, all along,
it would reach us and we would lift our faces to it,
stop in our tracks to wonder and coo. It feels like
the sun had been plotting for eons. Willing to toil,
toil so long, to give us this perfect kiss of a day.
What if you found yourself in a new place or
with a new person, engaging in the world,
with the world, in a new way, and you knew,
as sure as your face holds your nose,
and your breath fuels your lungs, that you
were exactly where you were meant to be?
Would your eyes not fill with the salt of the ocean,
would your heart not beat blue like the sky?
If I had had a pen, I would have written
“Me too” right next to this X. I was here,
seeing this too, knowing at last how sweet
the journey is, how lucky the traversing too.
Those of you who know food, know that a James Beard award indicates that a restaurant is topnotch and its chef is of the highest quality. Myles Anton, the chef at Trattoria Stella in Traverse City, was a semi-finalist in 2013 then named one of the James Beard winners for the Great Lakes this year. He cooked my meal tonight. Veal chop, fingerling potatos, shitake mushrooms in a wine sauce with a side of cauliflower in jalepena butter. It was the finest meal I have had in years. Thing is, I had the best lunch I have ever had today too. At Spanglish. A slow cooked carnitas tortas (is that right?) with slaw and avocado. The sweater I am wearing has the remnants of both meals. It is the most delicious sweater I will ever wear.
But the day’s accolades can not just be restricted to the meals I ate, it was a James Beard day all around. The kids at Bertha Vos School are awesome. I painted a birch tree water color with the kindergarten students. There were – close your ears, Fernway people – ten students in the room. I hung out with the grade 1 and 2 students during reading and became fast friends with A, who made me laugh talking about Strega Nona. Then C was my partner in Mandarin class; she taught me the names of fruits and gave me a purple yarn bracelet. I was led on a perfect tour by L and M – got to see the hoop house they use for growing vegetables. L gave me an apple he grew on his farm. It’s a gem of a school and the principal there, my new friend Katie, has got it going on. And, oh yeah, I did some IB work too. POIs, environmental scans, you know the routine.
In the afternoon, I got to work with the really incredible teachers at Interlochen Community School. They came with questions for upcoming units of inquiry and I did my best to share some ideas. It was boom boom boom snappy, ideas clicking, growth happening. Collegiality of the best nature between Michigan and Ohio. Forget that Wolverine Buckeye rivalry; we are all on the same side when it comes to IB. Angie, the principal at Interlochen,. is incredible and her staff is eager, committed, smart.
It was another incredible day Up North. James Beard dinner. James Beard dinner conversation. James beard-ish lunch. James Beard apple. James Beard tour. James Beard kids. James Beard principals. James Beard teachers. James Beard drive across town. James Beard sunset. James Beard temperatures. James Beard stroll down Front Street. You get my point.
Thank you Michigan for extending your grace my way again. Tomorrow, an AM visit to Bertha Vos then I am heading home. I can’t wait to see you again, Traverse City. “Up North,” I plan on sayng that a lot in my future.
Today was one of the best days I have had in a long time.
Woke up laughing with someone I love. Then headed north then west to Northern Michigan.
Up the glorious M22 to Empire, Michigan, which I fell in love with instantly. There are empty lots for sale there and I know my brother could and would design me a really cute tiny house. My desire to live there is not hyperbole. I walked through the best art gallery I have ever visited then a decorating store where I spoke with a relocated Brit who sold me the latch from a Roman safebox, AD 100. Yep. He said that the town is being swept up by people who summer there from San Jose, Austin, Marin County. Who knew this tiny haven was so hip too.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park where I took this picture. It was the next spot on my tour. The golds. The golds of the leaves. The blue of Lake Michigan. The dunes. The sky. If you have not been, you must. Again I was reminded of the importance of our National Parks, the rangers, the preservation of land. The best pictures I took will be posted when I return from this trip. My Canon was click, click, clicking.
Then onto Glen Arbor, MI where I found a bar to eat lunch and watch the Steeler game. They let my diet coke last two hours and tolerated an occasional yell and explosion of applause. Yes, I bought some M22 souvenirs at the M22 store. Maybe I’ll work in that shop after I build my house in Empire.
Or Traverse City, which was my next stop. I don’t think I have ever driven through a town that felt more like home. The historic victorians in pristine shape. Front Street, bustling on a Sunday Night. The Bay, right there out the driver’s side window.
Tomorrow, while my colleagues are having conferences, I’ll be on an IB school visit, helping two schools as a critical friend. That’s exciting too, to share what I know is always a pleasure. I met my Traverse City freinds a couple weeks ago when Chris and I were on an IB trip in Miami. And now, I’m here after their invitation. Life is good. I feel it again. It is.
Thank you, Michigan, for an amazing day.
The point of this blow by blow? This post? I wrote this line a couple years ago and it very much applies today: vacate your life. Leave what you know behind. Allow your eyes to see what they have never seen. Let your brain be sparked again, by dissonance, by newness, by pure joy. Go to a new restaurant. Talk to a new person. Be curious. Explore. Pull over at every scenic view. Realize that it’s all one big scenic view. All of it. And that you are lucky to be here, in it. For real.