Waiting it out, with poems and children

There’s a good excuse for my long silence: I’ve been reading and writing poetry, which is consuming much of my spare time. More exactly, I’ve been taking an online course with Peter Levitt, poet, student and teacher of zen.  It’s a type of “translation” course that is not precisely a course in translation.

Here’s how it works: each week, Peter gives us the bare bones of a translated poem, and we “re-write” or “translate” it. To me, it feels like an ongoing, always changing conversation with a line-up of incredible poets: Wang Wei, Neruda, Dmitry Kedrin, and, my favourite so far, Cesare Pavese.  Through Peter’s teachings, I’ve learnt a great deal, about how I read, for example, or how I write. Or, more precisely, how I could read differently. Some of the things I’ve learned seem applicable to other areas of my life. Karate practice. Raising children.

Used to be that, when I read a poem, I would tear through it. When I was a graduate student, it seemed crucial that I come up with conclusions quickly. Often, I would formulate several points before even finishing a poem.

Peter does things differently, and, through his course, I’ve learned a practice of waiting. Instead of tearing through poems, I read them slowly. I read them repeatedly. I wait. I turn words over in my mind, on my tongue. I treat them as I would a friend: I tilt my head and, cocking my ear, I listen to what they want to say to me. Sometimes I understand them. Sometimes I don’t. But I keep listening.

Two weeks ago, my six-year-old daughter stalled at bedtime.

“I want to sleep in your room,” she said. She was harking back to one night a few weeks ago, when our street construction was so loud that I’d let her fall asleep in my bedroom, at the back of the house.

“No, I’ll be sleeping there,” I said. I was longing for an end to toddler and pre-schooler chatter. I was thinking of television. I longed to cauterize serious thought with the vacuous commentary of a talent show host.

“Please?” she said. “Pretty pleasy lemon squeezy?”

Typically, I would find my firm voice. I would tell her to go to bed. This time, I looked at her. “Why do you want to sleep in my room?” I asked.

“It’s less hot,” she said.

I believed her. My daughter, who in winter wears sundresses under her snowsuit, and who refused to wear pajamas until she was four years old, is always hot. And her room, facing west, gets more sun than the rest of the house.

“Ah,” I said, and waited.

“And,” she said,”your bed is more comfortable.”

It occurred to me that the bed she slept in was a cheap mattress we’d bought when she was born so that I could have a place to rest in between night feedings. “Should we be talking about a new bed?” I asked her.

She stared at me. Slowly, she nodded.

“So we’ll think about a new bed,” I repeated.

She burrowed into the bed, asked for a kiss, and wished me good night.

Turns out, listening works as well for raising kids as it does for reading poems.

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