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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Struggles and a Sense of Play

I realize that I haven’t been entirely honest. Also, that I’m being too preachy. Mainly, I haven’t been open about my struggles. Among others (Haruki Murakami, Sarah Selecky, Anne Lamott), one of my greatest influences is Ayelet Waldman. What I admire about Waldman is her candour. I wish I had even half her chutzpah. Writing honestly is easy; facing your parents at a family dinner after they’ve read one of your “tell-all” pieces is something else entirely.

So, in the spirit of Waldman and some of her (possible) literary predecessors like Colette and Anaïs Nin, here goes.

The reality is that I struggle every day. Each day, I have to talk myself into doing simple things. Partly this is because I’m often at home, with young children. Most of the time, I feel exhausted, with a mountain of housework to be done (I hate housework almost as much as I hate living in mess. In the interest of full disclosure, I have help, but anyone who’s ever run a household knows that housework is Sisyphean). I have financial business to attend to and children’s activities to organize. In this atmosphere, karate starts to seem like another item to be ticked off, one of many tasks keeping me from curling up on the couch with Real Simple, or watching another rerun of Angel (and when is Game of Thrones starting up again, anyway?).

Some of my other struggles include:

    • Leaving my happily playing children at home while I go to karate class
    • Leaving my whining children and a cranky husband (sorry, husband) at home while I go to karate class
    • Practicing karate at 9:15 am after school drop-off, following a white night (I’ve had many of these lately, mostly due to the Toulouse terrorist attacks. Like the victims of this attack, my children are three and six years old, and go to a Jewish school. You can imagine the sleeplessness these resemblances have prompted)

In other words, these days, I approach most tasks with a feeling akin to making my way through molasses.

But I also think that many of struggles have to do with my relationship to performance.

Lately, I’ve noticed that I’m atypically afraid of doing karate, of, for example, trying certain techniques.

The other day, the instructor prepared us to do flying side kicks. For years I had been studiously avoiding practicing flying side kicks, for the very simple reason that I suck at them. Until Saturday’s class.

The instructor brought out two large, blue mats. Two tall men were instructed to hold them while the rest of us kicked them (the mats, not the men).

“Line up,” said the instructor.

Great, I thought. I’m weak (I’m still recovering from that darn neck injury), I have to do flying side kicks, and I have to do them in front of everyone.

We lined up. My turn arrived. I ran, I leapt, I executed a terribly weak sidekick. The mat barely moved: it gave a weak knee kind of tremble, the type you get when you haven’t eaten lunch and for a split second your legs give out. I went back into the lineup.

Watching the other students, I noticed that the kids had the easiest time with these kicks. Of course, being two decades younger than me, they have flexibility working in their favour. And the young men, especially, have a kind of helpful gusto, a brash confidence. But I think that in addition to these attributes, they have something else. And that is, a closer relationship with playing. Those young girls and boys kicked the mats with joy. They approached the exercise with a sense of play, and not with a feeling of dread.

I kept kicking. My kicks improved slightly, but not much. I’ll keep you posted.

I think that it’s also helpful to approach poetry this way. When I read poetry now, I think of Emily Dickinson’s line, “My business is circumference”. It speaks of measurement and linearity, but also to something circular: doing something with intent but without trying to master it, to hem it in.

I want to approach karate this way, particularly difficult techniques such as rolling, flying side kicks, and reverse crescent kicks. With a kind of circling or, using another analogy, in a kind of darting, humming bird motion. In other words, with a sense of play.

So, in this spirit, I pledge: 1. To be more honest and 2. To play more, in karate and in these entries.

Poem

On occasion, I’ll include poetry entries. Here’s the first:

Be soft in your practice. Think of the method as a fine silvery stream, not a raging waterfall. Follow the stream, have faith in its course. It will go its own way, meandering here, trickling there. It will find the grooves, the cracks, the crevices. Just follow it. Never let it out of your sight. It will take you.

 

Sheng-yen (b. 1931)