Saturday, November 30, 2013

Poem Inspired By Memories of Autumns Past

I've had this poem simmering in my brain for the entire Thanksgiving break.  I can't put a year on the event I recount, but I can guess it was between 1975 and 1979.  I can say for sure it was a Monday. Deer hunters will know why.

This is dedicated to my family, especially to those who've passed away: Uncle Mike, Uncle Pete, and cousin Bruce--Stick Stephens himself.  Oh, how I miss them and can't wait to see them again.

Deer Hunting on Uncle Mike’s Farm

Lounging comfortably on the cool earth,
My back resting against the perfectly curved trunk of a grand White Pine,
A pump 12-gauge shotgun sitting across my legs,
My seat a thick carpet of soft, fragrant needles.
The rich, fresh scent overwhelms my nose,
A sigh escapes, a smile plays across my face.
The sky, dark and foreboding this morning,
Has cleared to a brilliant, blinding blue,
Though my view is all but blocked by branches.

(replete with coffee, sandwiches, homemade cookies, and laughter)
is over.
Time to sit until dark, quiet, unmoving,
Hoping for but dreading what I hope will and won’t happen.
In the distance to my left I hear the occasional lowing of contented cows.
Straight ahead, high on a hill across the valley,
Barely visible through the newly leafless trees,
Is my great uncle Mike piling up firewood
In preparation for the coming winter.
The rhythmic clicking of log against log is my lullaby;
I drowse in and out of sleep as the dappled sunlight warms my face and soul.
In the lovely woods all around me are my family
—dad, uncle, brother, cousins—
Alert for movement.
Hoping to slay the biggest buck.

The sun drops near the tree line.
Shadows lengthen.
A squirrel barks overhead.
The air, bereft of light, chills.
I fish my toboggan, 
Blaze orange, crocheted by the precious hands of my mom,
From my coat pocket and pull it down over my ears.
The damp, cold ground filters through the needles,
My bum has grown numb.

Almost time to call it a day.
Peanut butter and jelly on white bread,
Dunked into steaming bowls of spicy venison chili,
Wait at home, warm and welcoming.
I think but would never say aloud,
Please God, don’t let a deer come by. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What the Hey is a Gwawdodyn?

I discovered a poetic form with which I was completely unfamiliar while reading my most recent edition of Writer's Digest.  It's called a gwawdodyn, which is a Welsh poem made up of as many quatrains as you want with an interesting meter and rhyme scheme.  The first, second, and fourth lines rhyme and contain nine syllables while the third line contains an internal rhyme and is ten syllables long.  In another version, the rhyme in the third line is not at the end of the line and rhymes with the end sounds in the other three lines.  I liked the form, so I thought I'd give it a try.  I think I cheated a little on mine.  The sample given in the magazine had the internal rhyme on the fifth and tenth syllables, whereas I just put it wherever I could get it to fit.  I also carried thoughts from one stanza to the next.  But it's a poem.  What fun is it if you don't break a rule now and then?

Here it goes:

Gwawdodyn About Poetry
Inspired by Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry”
by Joe Stephens

“I’m bad at poetry,” they all say.
"Studying poems makes a bad day.
Must you make student life so full of strife,
By torturing us with rhymes this way?"

“But poems,” I say, “are like language
Concentrate.  And besides what damage
Can I do to your psyche? It’s likely
You’ll thank me someday when you manage

To read a poem and see the light.
The words will leap up and take such flight
In your mind’s eye if you will simply try
To let them soar—don’t hold them too tight.”

Once in while I see a wee glimmer,
But mostly their eyes remain dimmer.
I hope that someday they all find their way
To finding joy in each word’s shimmer.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Obligatory Thanksgiving Post

To paraphrase the great philosopher Frank Burns, you can't swing a dead cat on the blogosphere without hitting a "What-I'm-Thankful-For" blog entry this time of year.  Since it might be required by law, I feel like I ought to write one myself.  The problem I've had lately, though, is an attitude of ingratitude.

People who really know me--I mean really know me, and I can count those people on one hand--know that I'm going through the darkest time of my life right now. For reasons I don't share with anyone but family and extremely close friends, my personal life is in complete upheaval.  Most of the time I'm able to put on a funny face and carry on like life is normal.  But it isn't.  I am relatively certain it will never be normal again in the way it has been since I was in college.  It may become a new normal, even a good normal, someday, but it I feel pretty strongly that the old normal is over.  And, on many levels, that breaks my heart.  

And that brokenness is manifesting itself in one very specific way.  I am normally the biggest of Christmas nuts.  I start playing Christmas music secretly in October and publicly the first week of November. And I have listened to some, but I find myself more and more opting for non-holiday music.  Or even silence. But I can't take the silence for too long because it starts my brain churning and makes my stomach hurt. The thought of Christmas just makes me feel a little ill. I want to just skip over it. I don't mind the time off of school, but even that has its drawbacks. Spare time leads to too much time to think.  To think about how my life isn't what it should be and I'm not the person I should be and how I'm disturbed by the thought that I'm coming to peace with those concepts. I guess I'm saying I suck and am learning to be okay with that. 

feature photoAnd yet, I am reminded, pretty much daily, through my devotions and my family and my friends from church and by God, that I have more to be thankful for than I could fit in a book or even a library, let alone a single blog entry. So I'll just talk about a few that come to mind right now.  Let me say that, though it won't be a category unto itself, my relationship with Christ is shot through all of them.  Without my faith, I have no idea where I would be now.

First is my family. When I say family, I mean biologically and those who choose to be. I can't stop thanking God that my parents, both nearly 80, are in great health. I can't adequately express how much that means to me.  I also have siblings I love so much, and I'm happy to say that they love me back. Finally, there are a couple people, and they know who they are, who are family because they've chosen to love me and be there for me. I'm truly thankful for these people who have been such a support in my time of need.

I am also thankful for my health. I'm trying to convince myself to stop taking this for granted and be more proactive about keeping myself healthy. I know I'm at that age when I can go one of two ways--toward staying young and vital or toward old age and sickness. I want the first one and, to a great extent, I'm in charge of which path I take. I think the height of thankfulness would be not to waste that for which I am grateful.

Finally, I am thankful for being one of those oddballs who has a job he absolutely loves.  Two jobs, actually, though I've only ever gotten paid for one of them. As a teacher, I'm so blessed to spend my working hours with people who make me so happy. And I get the privilege of being able to make a positive impact on their lives. May I never take that for granted. Beyond that, I've rediscovered a passion for writing that lay dormant for decades. Even if I never get published (Though it wouldn't be terrible if that headlines my thankful list next year at this time!), writing has helped me deal with life by temporarily escaping it while spending time in a world of my making, a world that makes a lot more sense than the real one does. 

I could go on for a few hundred more pages, but I fear this has gone on too long already. Thanks to those of you who've made it all the way to the end. I really do appreciate it. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

I Got a New Office

As I write this, I realize the title is kind of a lie.  It's not like I've relocated or anything like that; it's just that I never had a place in my house that I used as my office, my writing nook, my lair.  Lair.  I like that.  Makes it sound like I'm a superhero.

Be that as it may, I used to write wherever the mood struck me.  Sometimes it was the living room, but it felt like public space, not like a place to hunker down and write. Others, it was the basement, though my 73-inch television often talked me into watching it instead.  It's like having a movie theater in your house--how do you not watch it when it's right there?  Once in a while, I would try the dining room table, but the chairs were designed by the Marquis de Sade and made my cheeks go to sleep in about twelve seconds.

Much of the time where I ended up writing was nowhere in the house at all.  One of my favorite spots has always been the little back corner at Panera Bread.  But, though I've never tried it, I have to think they would prefer that people at least buy a drink before coming in and hogging their Wi-Fi.  Even if they didn't say anything, I don't think I could do it without feeling too guilty to work.  And being an as-yet unpaid writer, I can't really afford to pay for the privilege yet.  Sadly, I often don't stick to coffee there either.  Have you ever tried not to eat there?  One does not simply walk into Panera without gaining a pound or two.

Another favorite spot, where I didn't feel guilty about using free wireless without buying anything was the Wood County Library.  Problem with that place, though, is not only do they not sell good coffee (or any coffee for that matter), but they don't even let me bring in a bottle of water.  I'm a bit weird about drinking from a public fountain.  I'll do it, but I won't like it.  I'm friends with the director; maybe I could talk him into installing a coffee shop. Or maybe I could just check books out of the library like a normal person.

I've had a room in my house that's been called the study or, alternately, the office since my wife and I moved in.  It has a whole wall of shelves with cabinets on the bottom.  Truthfully, the room is what sold me on the house.  I always felt like it would be a perfect place to work.  We even kept our desktop computer in there on a pretty substantial computer desk back before desktop computers gave way to laptops and tablets.  Eventually, it seemed silly to have that big desk that took up so much space in what was really a small room, made smaller by one whole wall being bookshelves.  So I sold the desk for a song and the room basically became storage.

But now I feel like I've turned a corner.  I cleaned out the clutter and many of the books that were just taking up space, with no chance I would ever even look at them.   Now I have a chair and ottoman with a reading lamp where I read and do my devotions every morning.  And in the opposite corner, I converted one end of the bookshelves into a little desk by taking out one of the shelves and adding a bracket.  Unlike the hulking computer desk that used to take up half of the room, this place feels like it was always here.  It fits.  It's part of the space instead of taking up space.  It's the exact right size and exact right location.  It's Goldilocks.  I find myself coming here in the evenings instead of crashing on the couch in front of the idiot box.  I grade papers here.  And I'm writing my first blog entry here. I've read so much about writers making a place to write.  I thought it was hooey.  It's not hooey.  Because I have an often time-intensive job, I haven't had much chance to write lately, but I feel like now, I'll make an effort to work it in since I have this place.  This room is my retreat. My writing nook.  My lair.