The Boundaries of Pain

when pain burns bright, stirs up a clamor
shuts out the sights of glitz and glamour

when mind and body face exhaustion
fatigued and weary — take precaution

let lights of grief shine bright around you
let noise of horrors’ cries surround you

let in no person, words or thoughts,
who’ll only worsen worries’ knots

set doors and walls to keep you sane
until you’re ready to rise again

and when you rise to meet the day
when you’ve recovered, chased fears away

your friends will be here greeting you
with smiles and cheers awaiting you

blackout poem in green and purple with image of butterfly atop a glass stoppered bottle
les lumières et les bruits de douleur // the lights and the noises of pain
blackout poem in shades of pink with a bird perched on stalks of wheat carrying a half-moon in its beak, and a border of glittering dark pink
il se leva et fleurs étaient à la porte // he rose and flowers were at the door

For Magaly’s Trinkets and Armor 3: Boundaries Save Lives (and teeth).

Images from Hanna Karlzon’s coloring book Seasons.

I Mourn

איכה ישבה בדד, העיר רבתי עם היתה כאלמנה

How can a city
Once bustling and joyous
Become so divided
So hateful and dark

How can a people
Once loving and smiling
Be splintered and fractured
And closed off alone

אם אשכחך
Oh I will not forget you
My brothers and sisters
Shut out all alone

תשכך ימיני
My right and my left hands
Must join now together
Bring all of us home

—–

Today is Tisha b’Av, the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av – the day when the destruction of the Temple is mourned. But we don’t need to go back in time 2000 years to find reason to mourn. We can find it here and now in the exclusion and hatred being perpetuated in Jerusalem in the name of religion. So today, I rewrote Eicha. Today, I pledge not to forget Jerusalem – the Jerusalem that belongs to everyone, not only to Jews.

Four years ago, in the summer of 2014, my mother expressed her pain at my non-observance by saying “it hurts to know Tisha b’Av will be just like any other day for you, that you won’t be feeling connection with Judaism by mourning the destruction of Jews.” But Mommy, I do feel connection with Judaism – by mourning the destruction perpetuated in the name of continuity, by mourning the methods of dealing with pain that fight hatred with hatred – and I pledge to fight hatred with love.

Normal Changing

teach me,
i begged,
teach me to be normal.

show me,
i pleaded,
how i can be normal.

you did and then
normal –

a transitory thing,
normal began to change

and when normal changes
i change my normal

i beg no more
i plead no more
i ask no more
to be taught

teach myself, I do —
show myself, I do —
change myself, I do —
and my normal changes with me


For the second week of Magaly’s Trinkets and Armor: “How do you hold on to your Self when life continues changing the rules of the game without warning?” Hop over to her blog and check out all the ways we hold onto Selves amidst changing rules!

Setting the Bar Low: Teaching Students to Draft

As the summer begins to wind down for me (what, it just started? ah well, it’s almost over too), I’m beginning to put together my fall syllabi in earnest. I’m teaching two sections of first-year writing at a new campus, the College of Staten Island, and as with every campus, I need to tweak my usual syllabus to fit their unique requirements.

I’m lucky not to have taken a complete break from teaching over the summer. Though I’m not teaching a college course, I continued to work with the high-school student who I tutor in literature and writing throughout the year. And as we work together one-on-one, in a style of teaching that is necessarily very different from running a full class of 20-25 students, I am learning new tricks and strategies that I can now use in my college classes.

One of these is encouraging students to fully embrace the drafting process.

In the past, my college students have dutifully submitted first drafts, but as often happens, their revisions for the second and third drafts are minimal. They fix what I commented on, but no more. If I point out a logical flaw in one sentence, they will fix that sentence, and not much else.

The problem is that they think of their first draft as “nearly-done.” I don’t. I don’t even want it to be nearly done! I want to see their thoughts and nebulous ideas early on, I want to see their messy thoughts, so I can guide them in the early stages to better and stronger logical arguments. As Professor Mark McBeth says to his graduate students (me included), “send me pages, no matter how messy and chaotic. I want to see your process” (paraphrased!).

Although I of course scaffold my assignments and have students do initial low-stakes work, their first drafts ought to be messier than they are. This will result in far stronger final drafts, which seems counter-intuitive to them. I even read Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” with them, but they’re still afraid of submitting sub-par work.

So how to encourage students to turn in imperfect work?

I may have stumbled on a method while dealing with a slightly different obstacle that my high-school student was struggling with.

My student and I work together on her essays. Her drafts work differently than my college students’, because I can give her more direct and immediate guidance than I can provide to 25 students at once. She can write her paper section by section, if need be, and build better and stronger sections without having to wait for my feedback. We can slow things down and really get into the outlining and organization and sources etc., in far more detail than I can with a full class.

But when the time comes to write something – anything! – she becomes paralyzed with fear of not getting it right, and she has a hard time beginning to write. At the end of one session, I told her I wanted her to write an introduction in preparation for our next session. I saw her hesitation, and asked how she felt about that.

“Okay, I guess…?” she said. “I just think it’ll be horrible.”

I seized on that and said, “Okay, you know what? That’s your assignment! Write a horrible introduction!” We had a good laugh, I revised her written homework assignment, and she sat down later with gusto to write a “horrible” introduction.

Was it horrible? Heck, no. It was nearly perfect. But she had had fun with it! And when I pointed out one issue and taught her how to correct it, she was more relaxed – after all, I was critiquing a paragraph she had written to be horrible! She didn’t have to take critique of a paragraph she had attempted to write perfectly. We adopted this method for a few weeks, joking about how her task was to write “horrible” drafts, and to then polish them up – but remember to make them horrible first!

After a while, she casually commented to me that somehow, it’s easier to write when she thinks her task is to be bad. I laughed about her phrasing of “being bad.”

“It’s liberating to be bad, isn’t it?” I joked. And her face lit up. Yes! It’s liberating!

Seriously, then, I explained that yes, it is liberating to expect our work to be bad – if you’re not aiming for perfection at the first try, you’re freed to actually write and perfect it later.

And that’s when it occurred to me that I could adapt this method – which I discovered accidentally! – for use in my first-year writing classes.

I have two activities in mind:

Activity 1: I will use this McSweeney’s piece to show my students the typical essay gaffes. I have used this in the past, and my students found it hilarious and good-naturedly ‘fessed up to being guilty of using many of the tired cliches. It’s difficult to get through even the first paragraph without recognizing tics that many of them use, and it’s so over-the-top ridiculous that it induces ridiculous laughter:

Since the beginning of time, bullshit, flowery overgeneralization with at least one thesaurus’d vocabulary word. In addition, irrelevant and misleading personal anecdote. However, oversimplification of first Googled author (citation: p. 37). Thesis statement which doesn’t follow whatsoever from the previous.

After reading it and hopefully becoming more relaxed through laughter and camaraderie, students will then be put into groups and tasked with writing an essay about the theme of the class – but making it as horrible as they can, with as many cliches as possible, using the McSweeney’s essay as a model.

If all goes well, this should be a side-splittingly fun activity. I expect the room to be loud and boisterous.

Since both of my sections this fall will be one-day-a-week, four-hour-long sessions, I am trying to build as much fun and physical activity into the lesson as possible, to break up the monotony and to keep energy levels high. I also want to do this activity on the first day, when everyone is new to the class, to each other, and to me. If all goes well, in addition to being fun it will help create a cohesive group and set the tone for the rest of the semester.

The result of this will be at least four essays that are ridiculously shitty. I will post these essays to the (private) class blog so that students can revisit them throughout the semester.

Activity 2: I will assign a first draft of their first essay, reminding them that their first draft should be shitty. I will stress that it should not be ridiculous and cliched as their fun activity was. Rather, the point is not to worry about avoiding those cliches. The focus should be on getting the ideas down and having something to rip apart and redo for the next draft.

I hope that by that point, my cheerful “now go home and write a horrible first draft” will have the desired effect, and that students will feel more free to play with ideas in the first round so that we can begin to polish them up for the second draft!

Update to come in September…. 🙂


Postscript: As with any planned series of activities, I will have to gauge how the first one goes before I decide whether or not to implement the second. If either class doesn’t respond well to the “horrible essay” assignment, I will of course not go on to use that language for their first essay draft.

Image from here.

Dear Female Paramedic

Stock image.


Dear Female Paramedic Who Saved My Life,

I treated you badly at first. I hope you can forgive me.

You were there to save me, and I didn’t want to be saved.

You stood over me as I curled up in the bathtub, trying to get me out – cajoling at first, then berating.

“Come on,” you said in a clipped voice, “you don’t want the men out there to come in and see you naked, do you?”

When I responded sullenly and said I didn’t actually care who saw my naked body, your voice became exasperated.

“Come on, you have to get out. You can get out on your own, or I can tell the guys to take you out.”

I turned my head around to look at you over my naked shoulder and said drily, “I haven’t even been trained and I can deal with someone who’s suicidal better than you, apparently.”

I’m sorry I said that.

I actually thought you were a good person by that point. You had shown compassion for five minutes already (or at least I think it was five minutes – my sense of time was way off by then), and I had done nothing but act like a belligerent toddler. I wasn’t commenting on your personal abilities so much as I was commenting on the FDNY’s failure to properly train their EMTs to deal with patients struggling with mental health.

I am glad, though, that I made you laugh afterwards. In a job that can’t be easy for you, I showed you – inadvertently, and from the depths of the fog I was in – that I sympathized with your position.

I can’t know for sure, but I think my comments, said from the grip of cynical and desperate hatred of the world, made you treat me with more sympathy.

When I finally agreed to get out of the tub, you wrapped me in a sheet and guided me out of the bathroom, into the living room where I could see the fuzzy outlines of a dozen uniformed men milling around in the tiny space.

“Gosh,” I said. “There’s like fifteen of you here! I’m just one person!”

You said nothing but guided me, hands on my shoulders, into my bedroom to get dressed. I curled up on my bed and shrunk into the corner.

“Are you the only woman in that whole posse?” I asked.

“Yes,” you responded, a quizzical smile twitching at your lips.

My vision was hazy and blurred, but I could see your face as you rummaged through my drawer and took out underwear for me to put on.

I felt the weight of your position, one woman among this group of big heavy men, and turned my face to rest my cheek on the wall.

“That sucks.”

You laughed then.

“Sucks for me? or for you?”

“For the world,” I said, and you were quiet.

Trading Shadows

walking in sun
we are
throwing shadows

my shadow and your shadow
meld into one for a moment
and separate as we part
but know we’ll come together again

walking in sun
we are
dancing shadows

i take your shadow
you take my shadow
i’ll carry yours awhile
you’ll carry mine awhile

walking in sun
we are
trading shadows


I wrote a version of this on Facebook three years ago today, and it came up in my Facebook Memories. I had been walking with a friend and her daughter, and our shadows kept crossing over as the little girls skipped around us.

The photo is from a trip I took to Newport, Rhode Island with some friends in the summer of 2011.

Becoming the Dance

crescendos of passion
rose and crashed
assaulted my ears –
i heard the music

twirling partners
hand to waist and
hip to hip –
i felt the touch

swell of music, whirl
of joy, pain dissolved
in swirls of color –
i was the dance


For Magaly’s first Trinkets and Armor prompt.

There are so many things I do to “soothe or smack [my] unwanted monsters.” Watching dance videos is one of them!

Revamped Patreon Page!

My second attempt at a Patreon page is so much better, with patron-only posts featuring the Alice in Wonderland art-poem series I’ve recently started – more manageable for me, more affordable for you!

The first patron-only Alice in Wonderland post will go live tonight! Get your pledges in to have immediate access!

When I reach 500 patrons, I will be printing a full-color book of the Alice in Wonderland art-poem series for all of my patrons 🙂

My pre-patron-only Alice in Wonderland art-poems:

to see the garden

I tried a new style for my blackout poetry / art-poems. I messed up a fair few times, but I love the result and the style, and I’ll try again with some lessons I’ve learned!

she was going
into that lovely garden
“for it might end, you know”
she alas found
on going into the garden 
she could see but
she had tired herself out
with tears 


The process: I first found my words the way I always do. Then I found an image that paired well with it. Using a lamp placed underneath a glass-surface desk, I lined up the text-page on top of the image, and then painstakingly traced the image (backlit by the lamp) onto the text-page. Up until this step, everything was fine. When I got to applying marker, I didn’t think about how the lines from the image would cut through the boxes of text until it was too late for the boxes up at the top of the page 🙂 When I realized what I had done, I boxed in the rest of the words I wanted to remain uncolored, and then continued with the coloring.

Image from Twilight Garden Coloring Book by Maria Trolle.

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In the process: image traced, ready for ink!

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The Exhilaration of Teenage Rebellion

Originally published on Tales Out of Bais Yaakov.

A few years ago, my sister was in her BY high school play. I sat in the audience and watched the girls having the time of their lives on stage, over-dramatic acting and all. During my sister’s dance, though, I was jolted almost right out of my seat by one of the moves.

It was nothing very exciting. The girls in the dance dropped down onto the floor for two seconds and rolled over, then popped back up and flowed into the next move. They were great, and it looked terrific.

But it sent me way back down memory lane.

In the play I was in, Listen With Your Heart, there was a scene about “The Doctor’s Plot,” when Stalin accused nine doctors, six Jewish, of plotting to kill him, and had them arrested. The dance following this emotional tale had half the girls dressed as KGB officers and half dressed as doctors.

At one point, the dance heads had choreographed the doctors dropping onto the floor with the KGB officers standing over them. The KGB officers would do some motions, and then step away, at which point the doctors would all roll over toward the edge of the stage.

Everything was going fine throughout practice and rehearsals. During the last week of dress rehearsals, one rebetzin came to the public school whose auditorium we had rented out, to watch the “run-through” and comment on any lack of tznius.

She commented on this move.

It’s a complete breach of tznius, she said, total pritzus, to have girls lying on the floor, kal v’chomer when you have other girls standing over them, and kal v’chomer even more when the girls roll on the floor! And even if it weren’t so untzniusdig, it’s definitely not dignified. (Because dressing up in our shiny gray choir costumes was definitely dignified…)

 

The dance heads listened, nodded shamefully, and let her finish.

But then a discussion ensued when the rebetzin left. How could they change this? It would affect the entire choreography, and there were only two days until the first performance on motza’ei Shabbos (three, but you couldn’t count Friday).

The girls in the dance were in an uproar and refused to change it. The heads were ready to change it, because you can’t outright disobey the rebetzin like that.

“But listen,” one of the dance girls reasoned, “Rebetzin Overseer always comes to the first performance. And everyone knows the first performance is basically like the last run-through, no one expects it to be perfect. So make up some stupid change, don’t stress too much over it, and we’ll do it in this first performance. Then she’s gone, and satisfied we’re not being pritzusdig, and we can go back to the way we practiced for the next four performances. And I mean, we could even leave it in for that performance. What’s she gonna do? Get up on stage and make us stop the performance?”

I don’t actually remember what they did. I do remember that the move was in the play, but I don’t know if they used that bit of subterfuge.

Perhaps they did speak to Rebetzin Overseer and convinced her that there was nothing pritzusdig about it. That might at least explain why it was okay for my sister’s dance ten years later to include that move.

There was one time where the logic of this subterfuge did work.

In the same play, the girls in songdance wanted to make use of the audience aisle.

They were originally supposed to exit the stage at the end of their songdance by forming two lines, each one exiting off to one side of the stage. The problem was that the right side led to the classrooms where the rest of the grade was hanging out, waiting for their turn on stage, but the left side led to a tiny room where the props were kept.

And the scene after the songdance lasted another ten minutes, so the girls who exited to that room would have to stay silent there for ten minutes. Not a fun prospect.

So they proposed to their heads that instead of exiting sidestage, the two lines would use the two sets of stairs leading off the front of the stage, walk up the aisles of the audience, and exit out the back doors of the auditorium. Those stairs were being used by the actresses throughout the play already anyway.

The directors of the play said no.

The heads of songdance relayed this message to their group, who weren’t very happy. They grumbled through the first two performances, but were fed up after the third night of having to wait before they could join their friends in shrieking when their performance was over.

So they decided on this plan of action: banking on the directors’ desire for the appearance of a smooth, perfect performance, they knew that they wouldn’t be stopped if they did something ridiculous (one actress had already taken advantage of this and shouted out a hello to her mother in the audience while she was supposed to be acting drunk).

So if they just marched off the stage, no one would stop them.

Sure, they’d get a yelling afterwards, but it was the last performance anyway.

They had to get the two girls who led the two lines to agree to this pact, and to resolve not to lose their nerve. And it worked! They all marched off, still singing as they were supposed to, and walked out the doors. Of course, they were so excited at their little rebellion that they shrieked as soon as they exited, and everyone in the audience heard it through the open doors…

They got a yelling.

But they also got that exhilarating feeling – that sweet, sweet feeling of adolescent rebellion!