Saturday, August 31, 2013

Seamus Heaney

"I rhyme
 To see myself, to set the darkness echoing"

In 1997, while sitting in a crowded Dublin church awaiting the start of my friend's wedding, I leaned over to fix a disobedient strap on my new sandal and accidentally head-butted the man in front of me.  When he turned around to see who had smacked his skull, I greeted him with a dumbfounded stare.

On that day, Seamus Heaney was the only Nobel Prize winner I had ever met.  He'd been honored with the award in 1995 and he's likely to remain the only Nobel recipient I will ever literally go head to head with in a church or anywhere else.

Later that night, while the reception marquee slowly sunk into the rain-soaked lawn of the bride's family estate, people danced and drank and Seamus Heaney held court at his table.  As I was sitting across from him, he heard my American accent and asked me where I was from.   When I said I was a native of Missoula, Montana he inhaled from his cigar, stared for a moment at the smoke, and then recited from memory this Robert Bly poem about my beloved hometown:

There has been a light snow.
Dark car tracks move in and out of the darkness.
I stare at the train window marked with soft dust.
I have awakened at Missoula, Montana, utterly happy. 

With his rich Derry accent and deep voice humming through each word, everything around me dissolved. I forgot to breathe, I babbled a series of "thank you's", and then I took a long drink of Guinness.  It was my 27th birthday.  I had no idea it would be so special.   

I've had a crush on Seamus Heaney ever since.

He was a poet who gave private moments power and reminded his readers that history is always personal.

On Tuesday I will begin teaching a class of 12th grade Literature students selected poems from Heaney's remarkable body of work. Having led classes through the study of his intimate sonnets and some of his longer and more political pieces for almost a decade, I am often astonished at how fully his words resonate with teenagers.  When he critiques tribalism, teens understand the real implications of inherited animosities and when he links childish imagination to adult longing they recognize the nostalgia that comes with aging.  

Even a difficult poem like "Personal Helicon", one that requires a bit of research and explanation, opens itself up to 9th graders who sometimes want to believe that poetry is beyond them.  It is my favorite poem, and this is a link to Heaney's lovely reading of it:

A few years after my momentous birthday celebration, I read the poem "Scaffolding" at a different wedding.  It's a gentle tribute to the sovereign power of love:
Masons, when they start upon a building,

Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,

Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done

Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be

Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall

Confident that we have built our wall.

"Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun"
Seamus Heaney
April 13, 1939 - August 30, 2013

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

An Artist from Here and There

 This fascinating painting is actually a massive mural hanging high above India Street in San Diego's hip neighborhood of Little Italy.  Created by Mee Kyung Shim, the narrative face is a sample of the work this Korean born visual artist, who now calls San Diego home, sells in her local gallery. 

Check out her website to get a sense of her talent and what she is hoping to express at:

I Kicked a Rock.

Today I kicked a rock
While surfing 
Without a board.

I was playing
in the waves
Avoiding stingrays
By shuffling my feet.

The rock was sharp
My skin was soft
And the tip of my big toe
Was sliced.

Pain surged
As salt water and sand 
Dug into my nerves.

Like a wounded sea creature
My angry body
Hobbled across the beach.
Wincing. Mumbling. Breathing.

Eyes trying not to look 
At the blood
On my flip-flop.

Tourists smiled.
Joggers pranced.

In my car, 
I honked.

Sometimes yelling
Nasty words
At the knives
Stabbing inside my foot.

Better now.  
   Medicine applied
      Pills popped.
         Ice pack melted.

Going back out tomorrow 
With a board.

Feet won't touch the ground.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Flower Power in San Diego's "Little Italy"

Sunny San Diego lends itself to an abundance of colorful flowers and plants all year long, but summer brings out an amazing bounty of typical and exotic displays.  It's hard not to walk away from a farmers' market anywhere in this city without buying a bunch to take back to your home or to your hotel room.

Yesterday I visited the Saturday market in the trendy and lovely neighborhood of Little Italy.  Located just north of downtown and not far from the airport, this part of town is home to pricey condos and authentic Italian shops and restaurants.  It can be a bit challenging to find parking, but once you've done that you can stroll the streets listening to great music (seriously, the bands are terrific), sampling local produce and buying handmade crafts. The weekly market runs from 8am-2pm.

The Banksia flower was the source of much fascination. It looks a bit like an artichoke flower, but it has an attitude all its own!
The choices at Little Italy's Farmers' Market are plentiful and affordable!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Adventures Begin...

The New York Times has an interesting photo series in yesterday's issue that highlights college students who have decided to live and study at universities far from their hometowns and even their home countries. Some make huge sacrifices to travel far from friends and family in pursuit of education, while others have simply hopped state lines to pursue specific degrees or vague adventures.

The pictures and comments are mostly loaded with optimism and hope:

The same paper has also recently published two essays by young men who are attending Ivy League schools, but came to their lauded universities from less than privileged backgrounds.  These two entries offer a blunt set of perspectives on the hurdles some people must leap in order to go after their goals:

It's nice to see a little bit of balance in the representation of young people who go away to school.  It's always exciting to start the journey, but sometimes staying the course is a challenge.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Baby Days

My friend Jenny, who recently accepted the job as principal of the high school we both attended, traveled from San Diego to Boston a few weeks ago.  Pregnant and in the company of her two young daughters, she went into early (too early) labor and was immediately hospitalized. 

She and her doctors hoped to hold off the premature baby until mid-August, but the little girl had other plans.  Born on Sunday, Jenny's third child is fighting infections, but beating all sorts of odds.

Jenny has documented this emotional journey in her blog, and it's the site worth following this week: