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38 Minute Sestina

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Every semester, I have my creative writing students experiment with a sestina. I love this form, because it is about playing with language: essentially, you pick six words and weave a poem around them.

Because it’s a challenging assignment requiring a lot of precise rule-following, I challenged myself to write one in a relatively short amount of time.

Here is the product of 38 minutes of wordplay sitting at my kitchen island:

38 Minute Sestina

land (a)
stone (b)
crack (c)
marry/merry/Mary (d)
foreign (e)
walls (f)

Last summer, Padraic and I visited his family’s land (a)
in Connemara, Ireland. Specifically his father’s one-room stone (b)
house, now a stable for a horse, cracked (c)
all over, like dry dirt soil in a Midwestern backyard. Mary, (d)
Cole, Padraic, and I drunk in the foreign (e)
beauty of low rock walls (f)

separating lamb-dotted green turf. Walls (f)
are much discussed today, in my homeland (a)
of the “free,” of the “brave.” Foreigners (c)
being stacked outside our borders like stones. (b)
Love Trumps Hate, some say, to marry (d)
their idea of America with the hate that is seeping through the cracks (c).

On the one hand, it cracks (c)
us up, Alec Baldwin and and Kate McKinnon on SNL, comic walls (f)
to shield us from our fear. Mary, (d)
Cole, Padraic and I also visited Iceland, (a)
a stone’s (b)
throw away from the “emerald isle.” Foreign (e)

is how it felt, to touch ice dusted in volcanic ash, Foreign (e)
is how it now feels, to have a President riddled with cracks (c)
like my father-in-law’s old, stone (b)
house. A byzantine labyrinth of nonsensical walls (f)
is the brain of the surrogate father of my native land. (a)
When Padraic and I got married, (d)

Obama was the president. And the woman he was married (d)
to, was foreign (e)
to some Americans, as they watched the land (a)
of the free granting privilege to one whose descendants were not free. (Cracks (c)
in our country’s constitution, walls (f)
still erected by everyday Americans, offspring of our nation’s shameful cornerstone) (b)

When they go low, we go high, she preaches, stone- (b)
deaf to the marriage (d)
of America with whiteness. I wish Trump could see the walls (f)
in Connemara, how low and cobbled they are, foreign (e)
to sleek city towers and skyscrapers, full of cracks. (c)
Walls meant for walking, and grazing, and relishing the green land (a).

Padraic’s cousin Mattie lived for his land. (a)
For the wet turf, the ripe berries, the limestone (b).
He cracked (c)
up, at me, Cole, Padraic and Mary (d)
trying to cut turf with a sloane. America — its flatness, its size — is foreign (e),
to Mattie. How I long, in this America, to walk among those low, cobbled walls (f).

Grateful Wednesdays

Kalyan Chakravarthy Half what? (CC BY 2.0)I’ve decided that hump day deserves a regular gratitude list. It’s the best way to slide into Thursday with my head screwed on straight, to pause in the middle of the week for a little putting-in of perspective. And I think there’s added value in listing nuggets of thankfulness  in order to share them — for me, that is. It feels like a subtle way of taking action on what I’ve been given, paying good things forward by making them known to you, dear reader, or by drawing attention to the less tangible things. And for me, making a personal gratitude list public helps me to
cement and augment a more general posture of thankfulness and abundance. I hope it reads less as, “good for me, now let me pat myself on the back” and more broadly as “the world is loaded with wonder.” So, thank you, and without further adieu, ten things, small and not so:

  1. Wait for it…chocolate chip and roasted pear scones, courtesy of Smitten Kitchen. What a slightly unexpected, fruity, chocolatey, tart-sweet combo. While I’m at it, the entire Smitten Kitchen site — a self-contained gold mine of recipes, simple and scrumptious — and also, the mini scone pan I was gifted for Christmas. I never got around to making scones before I had this pan. It’s the little things.
  2. The people in this world who choose a hard path, knowing it’s hard, and knowing that there is no way around it. I’m thinking of Dr. Martin Luther King. I marvel at the clarity of his life’s mission, vision, and moral conscience.
  3. Winter headbands that keep things insulated on, say, an early morning/early evening commute involving lots of walking and waiting in the cold. If you’re reading, go ahead and grab yourself one! Just do it.
  4. The unique beauty of urban landscapes: the warm, orange glow of streetlights against a dark early morning sky, the steep rise of buildings, winding around the lake, the contrast between a bright train car and the sleeping wooden balconies outside. I could go on (I’ll spare you) but suffice it to say that Chicago is a looker, even in the thick of late January.
  5. A new vegetable soup recipe: Provençal Vegetable Soup, from Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris. There are a couple of things about this soup that I find noteworthy: the addition of broken spaghetti noodles and halved green beans, the liberal use of chopped leeks, and last, but not least, the swirling-in-for-serving of pistou, a paste made of raw garlic, tomato paste, fresh basil, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese.
  6. The practice of blogging. I think of it as a practice,  not unlike a yoga practice. It’s something I routinely turn to to clear my head, to challenge myself, to slow myself down and develop a deeper presence of mind and level of self-awareness. I’m thankful that blogging is something I can always return to when I have the time, that there’s now a foundation of entries on this here site to blossom into more entries. And more. It’s a good thing we bloggers collectively have going here, on WordPress. To think that the world of blogging didn’t exist a few years ago…
  7. New horizons/things to look forward to. For me, that includes a very hypothetical, much discussed and absolutely unprepared for trip to Ireland in the not so distant future. The longer it goes unplanned, the longer the gestation phase of my fervent anticipation — a blurry assortment of misty, rolling hills, warm pubs, and long, stretched out days of doing whatever the heck we please. One day we’ll get there.
  8. The space and time to be enjoyed by two adults who don’t have kids…yet. In other words, the absence of a heavy (yes, and beautiful) responsibility. This translates into gym time, leisurely cooking, the satisfaction of getting-stuff-done after work, whimsical and aimless conversations with my husband that have nothing to do with getting stuff done.
  9. The difference between writing for an editor and writing for myself. I say difference because I am grateful for both modes, so to speak. I find both challenging and rewarding in different ways. With writing for myself comes the joy/challenge of figuring out what I truly want to say, and also the spontaneity and lightness of having an idea strike my fancy and setting words to page. With writing for an editor comes more scrutiny, more research, a satisfying degree of clarity regarding form and style, and the meaty challenge of organizing ideas accordingly. With both comes the joy and freedom of returning, writing as much or as little as time dictates, but always knowing that writing is there.
  10. Befitting this rather nerdy post I will end with an entirely nerdy “nugget”: I am proud to say, I am very, very thankful for step aerobics. Yep, that’s right. Doing “mambo cha-cha-chas” and “corner knees” and “helicopter turns” astride a big plastic bench. At about 7:30 on a Tuesday evening when I’ve been alternately sitting and standing but not doing a whole lot of moving, it’s bliss, a way to get the blood flowing if you have an affinity for basic jazz dance moves and/or leanings toward the 1980s decade. Somehow, over the last three or four years I’ve morphed into what some would call “a stepper” — I just wish I had the wristband and the pastel-hued leg warmers to do myself justice. Oh well. When a girl’s gotta step, a girl’s gotta step. Er…woman, that is… (I have a pet peeve for grown ass women referring to themselves as girls. Oops.)

So that’s it. My list of small, and not so small points of gratitude to get me over the hump. I hope they serve you as well. As my dust-gathering Book of Common Prayer reads, “It is a good and a joyful thing, always and everywhere, to be thankful to God.” Amen.

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