Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Looking Backward at Forward, February - April 2014

A tiny pamphlet comes out every three months called Forward Day by Day, giving readers a short daily meditation on a passage from one of the day's readings from scripture assigned by the Book of Common Prayer.  Our own church published such a pamphlet for Lent, so I didn't read all of this booklet, but some of what I did read stands out.  Dates refer to the dates to which the meditations were assigned.

The readings in February are by Bo Cox, who takes off on a line from Hebrews 12:11 about the painfulness of discipline (Feb. 7).  We "just don't feel like" doing some of the things we want to make a part of our self-discipline, but Cox writes, "Letting our feelings dictate our behavior is like trying to steer a car with the back wheels."  Act instead, he writes, and feelings will change.

Cox, who served time for murder, writes that he regretted the consequences of his crime long before he became truly sorry for it (Feb. 8).  But he also needed to hear from a farmer who volunteered at the prison: "Boys, you can't put manure back in the horse."   This is in a response to another line from Hebrews, "He found no chance to repent, even though he sought the blessing with tears" (Hebrews 12:17).

A line from Isaiah 58:9b refers to speaking of evil.  After repeating the familiar advice to say nothing if you can't say something good (Feb. 9), Cox admits how good it feels to join in on gossip and finger-pointing.  It gives us feelings of power and fitting in.  Cox concludes, "I'm learning to smile and step away -- living with myself is preferable to fitting in."

A family squabble over well water in Genesis 26:19-21 leads Cox to the observation that "sharing is about so much more than objects or possessions" (Feb. 11).  Not sharing, he says, is a sign of fear, the lack of faith.  This leads to another observation, that "protection of self becomes promotion of self," seeing oneself outsized.  "Seeing ourselves as right-sized can be a lifetime process," he concludes (Feb. 12).

Cox's prison experience and ministry among violently disturbed people gives him some dramatic illustrations, including one with a cute dog.  A man felt that all the negatives in his life added up to an insurmountable obstacle, so he put a loaded gun in his mouth -- when his little dog jumped in his lap, licking his arm and wagging her tail (Feb. 13).  A day or so later, telling this to Cox, he burst into tears, finally admitting, "I shouldn't say this but -- I'm afraid."  With each tear, Cox writes, he looked more hopeful.  This was Cox's response to the familiar saying "the truth will make you free" (John 8:32).

What is Psalm 100's  "joyful noise?"  A choir?  Hand-clapping?  NASCAR engines revving?  Squeaking rubber on gym floors?  The "still, white silence of new snow?"  The point is to listen for it and to "allow others the freedom to do the same" (Feb. 18). 

When I recently said something about respecting others of different religions, someone observed superciliously, "I suppose you don't believe Jesus when he says 'No one comes to the Father except by me.'"  I pointed her to that day's hymn, which lists ways we "read" God in the world before saying in verse three, "We read Him best in Jesus."  But I could have shown her a page by Cox (Feb. 20), taking off from this in 1 John 2:29:  "If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him."  Cox tells of a fellow-prisoner who bowed to Mecca five times a day, but who also went to the Episcopal service.  "Muslim literally means 'one who surrenders,' Bo.  You're a Muslim too, on your good days."  Cox remembers that man fondly, and ends, "I can't wrap my mind or my heart around a religion that would exclude his righteousness, either here on earth or in the hereafter."

Monday, May 26, 2014

Just a Closer Walk with T. S. Eliot

[Reflection on "Little Gidding" by T. S. Eliot, in The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1971).]

"How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!" wrote the poet, citing his own "prim" mouth, face of "clerical cut" and "his conversation, so nicely / Restricted to What Precisely / And If and Perhaps and But" (Eliot 93).  As my friend Susan Rouse says, "I've always wanted to like him more than I do." In the early 1970s,  our teachers set him on a pedestal:  though we learned a few ominous excerpts by heart (e.g., about "the hollow men" and that sky "like a patient etherized upon a table"), we heard more about his work than we read, so that he seemed to be set apart.  I got the sense that he was too deep and dark for us, on another plane from Keats and Frost -- Shakespeare of Modernist Despair.

Studying his verse dramas shook the pedestal.  A Christian and drama major myself, I wanted to like Eliot's high-brow plays with Noel-Cowardy settings that purported to bring faith to the cynical elite, but The Cocktail Party and The Family Reunion were unconvincing both as plays and Christian apologetics. 

[Photo: St. John's at Little Gidding]
Still, a budding Episcopalian among older Anglophiles, I heard often that Four Quartets was a masterpiece of Christian poetry and philosophy, too.  When I bought the collected poems at age 23, I was sure Eliot and I were going to get along.

It was not to be.  I've known "Little Gidding" by name (without knowing what a Gidding is) and some of its final lines by heart, from "We shall not cease from exploration" to the observation that we will return where we started "only to know the place for the first time."  That fit my experience at 23, and still does, at 55.  But I have to admit that I've not yet read even one of the Four Quartets.  Whenever I've tried, Eliot's lines have been so abstract, so indirect, that I've never stayed awake long enough to make any progress.  The book has been at my bedside 32 years.

Now, at the start of summer break, martini at my side, dogs at my feet, I've relaxed and read "Little Gidding" straight through.  With a little post-poem clarification from an on-line commentary (wish those had been around when I bought this book in 1982!) I'm finding my way.   Here's what I get as I tour "Little Gidding" with Mr. Eliot, my guide:

"Midwinter spring is its own season."  Not three words into the poem, I'm already nonplussed!  I forge on, and later guess that he means the winter solstice, because he mentions "the short day." 
I'm a little amused, a little nostalgic, a little touched, because I know how much Mr. Eliot loves things "in between," and juxtapositions of opposites. "Between melting and freezing / The soul's sap quivers," he tells us, and he points out that hedges now white with snow will, in spring, be white with blossoms.

But where are we?  What are we doing?  "If you came this way" from "the place you would be likely to come from," you'd find this chapel -- thankfully, I've seen a photo of St. John's chapel at Little Gidding -- where "a broken king" came "at night."  I can guess that the "broken king" was Charles I, defeated during the English Civil War, ca. 1640, and the internet confirms my guess.  

At the end of this stanza, he mentions that the place and time is "Now and in England."  At last!  Our first solid object!  Our first proper noun!    It's like an island, a great relief after a page and a half of abstractions and generalizations.

Now, here's a part that I can identify with:
...You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report.  You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
I know what it's like, to come to what Eliot calls "only a shell, a husk of meaning" and to feel what has transpired there before, and to feel the urge to honor it by prayer.  I'm reminded of a poet who came at the same experience from the angle of an unbeliever, Philip Larkin in his wonderful poem "Church Going" (see some of my thoughts on that poem here).  Eliot adds:
...And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
He's expressing something elusive, but it feels real, and it feels important.  Here is a phrase I've known since college, "the timeless moment," an intersection of now with eternity, i.e., what we experience in a holy place, or in a work of art.

Now we're someplace else, I guess.  We get stanzas of four rhymed couplets each, telling us about "death of air...earth...water and fire" with "ash" in the air that "was a house."  Thanks to the commentary, I know that Eliot patrolled his London neighborhood during the German Blitz, walking through dusty air amid the ruins of bombed buildings.  So now, in England means, during the assault on a land and culture.

Mr. Eliot encounters amid the rubble a "compound ghost" who is 'both one and many," who expresses equanimity at the way the time has passed for the ghost's "thought and theory": "These things have served their purpose: let them be. /....For last year's words belong to last year's language...." (141)  The wise old ghost tells him to expect "gifts" of old age, climaxing in "the awareness / Of things ill done and done to others' harm / Which once you took for exercise of virtue" (142).

This seems universal, something I've already experienced, elegantly expressed.

A horn blows -- the "all clear" or the trumpet at the end of time, or both -- and the ghost disappears.

Mention of a hedgerow brings us back from London to Little Gidding, but that hedgerow is somehow the analogy for human attachment to self, detachment, and, in between -- OMG, he loves those "in betweens! -- indifference. I don't see the hedgerows that he mentions, but I do grasp the abstract observation that memory serves
For liberation -- not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past.

I get that!  Love is an attachment that doesn't depend on future fulfillment for its continuation. Now, Eliot brings this thought around to one that ties I and II to III:
...Thus, love of country
Begins as attachment to our own field of action
And comes to find that action of little importance
Though never indifferent.
The places we love "vanish" and create a new "pattern," a new history.  He goes back to English history to quote Julian of Norwich's greatest hit, "All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well," and to meditate on the conflict that made this little place remarkable, the English Civil War, its combatants "United in the strife which divided them," and, amusingly, on how all the combatants now "accept the constitution of silence / And are folded into a single party."  

Here, Mr. Eliot, you're a little over the top: "The dove descending breaks the air / With flame of incandescent terror."  I'm thinking of dove as "the Holy Spirit," and you do wrap the tongues of flame from Pentecost into your verses;  but how am I to know that here you're associating "dove" with "German war plane?"  Don't do that.

Although, on second thought, I do see that you are making a complicated connection here between purifying fire and the fire caused by the attackers.  "We only live, only suspire / Consumed by either fire or fire."

I'm glad IV is so short. 

Here's the part I've been waiting for:  "What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning."  I've known this part a long time.  It's true, the stuff of every graduation commencement speech.  Still, it bears saying, and it sounds more important, coming from you, Mr. Eliot.

Then, in parentheses, you insert a credo for writers, which I must endorse, about the "right" sentence
where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious...
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together... (144)
But the lines about how words lead to words now lead us to the observation (true of King Charles I and of us all) that "any action / Is a step to the block."

History, he writes, "is a pattern / Of timeless moments."

Now we're back in that chapel, where "the light fails / On a winter's afternoon."  It's a specific place and time, in the midst of war.

Finally, after a space, we get that observation about how we "know the place for the first time" when we arrive where we started.  And the poem, natch, ends where it started.  Then we get more Julian of Norwich:  "And all shall be well...."

Tongues, flame, and now tongues of flame, from Pentecost and from German planes, all tie together in the image of flame as a rose, its petals "in-folded."

Mr. Eliot, I've taken this tour with you, and I see the wisdom of old age -- though I'm shocked to realize that I'm about half a decade older than you were when you wrote this poem -- and you've shown me the inter-connectedness of the separate sections, and I draw from the gravity of the particular chapel your love for a place and the history of that place.

At last.  Thank you.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Hugo Cabret: Moving Pictures

Reflection on Brian Selznick,The Invention of Hugo Cabret (New York: Scholastic Press, 2007). 

On the cover of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, author/illustrator Brian Selznick draws a keyhole in the foreground, intricate machinery behind, suggesting what we'll find inside the covers.  Precious machinery is the controlling metaphor of this "novel in pictures," cogs and wheels spinning and interlocking within a clock, in an automated man, inside a twelve-year-old boy's thinking, and in motifs that the author refines throughout the book.

At first, the story concerns just twelve-year-old Hugo, secretly doing his derelict uncle's job of tending the clocks at the Paris Metro station, circa 1930.  He lives in an attic workshop above the station, where he can peer out from behind the numerals on the clock's face.  The workshop is cluttered with machinery, including a damaged automaton left behind from the fire that killed his mother and father.  Because the automaton's robot hand is poised to write something; Hugo imagines that, if only he could wind it up, the machine would write him a message from his father. Hoping that drawings inside his father's small notebook will help him to restore the automaton to "life," Hugo steals cogs and springs from the station's irascible purveyor of wind-up toys.  

Gradually the gears of the story engage a wider array of characters:  the toy-maker's goddaughter Isabelle, her grown-up friends the bookseller and Etienne, who sneaks her into the movie theatre where he works.  Isabelle carries the literal key to the story, a heart-shaped key that will connects Hugo's prized possession to the movies of real-life film pioneer, Georges Melies.  

Aside from the pleasures of emotional ups and downs, as loner Hugo fights for his survival and comes to understand friendship through Isabelle, Selznick gives us the aesthetic pleasure of recognizing motifs that grow in significance throughout the novel.   From his vantage point behind the face of the clock high above the Metro station, Hugo sees all the people as cogs and wheels in some vast machine -- though they seem randomly disconnected from floor level (142); his own thoughts feel like more cogs and wheels (165). 

The story of young Hugo and the old toymaker interlock at a crucial moment when the old man feels that Hugo has betrayed his trust, and Hugo cries, astonished to see that the angry old man also weeps.

The iconic image of the Man in the Moon with a rocket in his eye, invented by Melies, is prefigured, copied, and varied throughout, in many images of the moon above Paris, in a still photo from the movie, in a pencil copy, and in Etienne's eye patch. 

There's another motif, prefigured, then made explicit, of Prometheus -- one who steals to bring light and life and imagination to the world, and who is punished for his good deed.  Hugo, hearing the story, reflects on the many things he has stolen from friends in the course of the story, and what has been stolen from  him. 

I know that Martin Scorcese made a movie of this book, and I suppose that's fitting for a work that lauds cinema for giving us waking dreams; but it's only through Selznick's pages that one can appreciate the author's love for words, for books themselves, and for cinematic effects frame-by-penciled-frame.

Thank you, student Stewart M. for loaning me your copy!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

What The Giver Gives Us

Reflection on Lois Lowry, The Giver (New York: Laurel Leaf Books, 2002). Originally published 1993.

When a fellow teacher put a copy of The Giver in my hands a few years after its publication, I made the mistake of quitting too early.   Another dystopian fantasy, I thought, in flat prose, literally colorless.  

This month, when my class and I reached page 60, we tried to infer what principle lies behind the rules created for "the community."  Some suggested that the rules are all about preventing pain.  One girl had a deeper insight: "They prevent love."  She goes to the root of it.  Since pain comes from losing that to which we feel attached, the "Elders" enforce detachment.  Family units, names, playthings, clothing, careers -- all are chosen by a committee, and all are taken away on a strict schedule.

But, in our country where attachments are promoted and celebrated 24/7,  what in Lowry's bland dystopia resonates with young adults?

The first hint, for me, is Lowry's special effect, a few pages after 60.  When "The Giver" transmits memory from "back and back and back" to our young protagonist Jonas through some extra-sensory magic, we get our first mention of color, along with sensations of coldness and snow.  Lowry has deprived us of description so long that even this little bit has high impact.  It's relief.  Soon, she hits us with graphic descriptions of intense emotional pain that hurt me to read.

Finally, Jonas finds the word for what his life has been missing:  depth.
[N]ow he saw the familiar wide river beside the path differently.  He saw all of the light and color and history it contained and carried in its slow-moving water; and he knew that there was an Elsewhere from which it came, and an Elsewhere to which it was going.   (131)
Swathed in color, light, recorded sound and "activities" that all conspire to keep us moving forward always to the next thing, we Americans may very well lack depth. My students have long scoffed at the printed page as a boring, time-wasting, old-fashioned alternative to images. "Don't Know Much About History" could be the National Anthem.

But  Lowry makes her readers aware of what comes to them in her book through words and imagination.  When Jonas receives a memory via telepathy, we readers receive it too, through the old-fashioned magic of words. 

At the same time, she dramatizes the shallow quality of life among Jonas's insouciant family and friends.  Lowry gives us all a glimpse of what we miss when we live solely on the surface of day to day, without searching, reflecting, critiquing, comparing.....

How many of my students, and how many of their parents (of my generation) know that the real aim of education is to bring depth to all experience?   It's not something discussed when I hear politicians and educators speaking about school reform, testing, and "common core" curriculum. 

I don't see any signs of a "communist" takeover in America.   But the Shallowing of Experience has been well under way for a long time. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

What Mattered was Writing: Updike by Adam Begley

Reflection on Updike by Adam Begley (New York: Harper Collins, 2014). 

I win a drawing for a day off, sleep in to 6:30, and take my marked-up copy of Adam Begley's Updike to IHOP.  Between bites of pancake and sips of coffee, I review my notes on this review of a life endlessly reviewed for nearly six decades by the subject in his own writings -- most of which I've read.  Should someone notify the Department of Redundancy Department?  Yet, after an hour or so, I drive away feeling content.  What do we Updike readers get from Begley's biography that we haven't seen many times before?

At least we get some sharper edges to facts that were blurred by invented details whenever Updike revisited homes of his past.  "Naomi" is the name of his girl friend from high school, called "Nora" in his memoir, "Nell" in his early story "Flight". His mom, whom he portrayed as a disappointed "aspiring writer" actually published as many stories in The New Yorker as J. D. Salinger. and more novels.  The Other Woman, for whom he almost left his family in 1962, was Joyce Harrington, familiar in spirit to anyone who has read Couples, Marry Me, Villages, the Maples stories, and many other stories besides.

Others' perspectives on Updike correct his self-portraiture.  His ex-wife Mary was "dismissive of Updike's female psychology" when he devoted half of Marry Me to the perspective of Ruth, her stand-in: "Possibly," Begley opines, "she noticed that Ruth spends a disproportionate amount of her time brooding about her errant husband" (252).  Drawing on letters from Updike's Harvard roommate Christopher "Kit" Lasch and memories of chums from the Harvard Lampoon, Begley gives us Updike as some of them did, as social-climber (82) and practical joker, albeit talented and manically hard-working.

Three themes emerge in Begley.  First, we read the phrase "he couldn't help himself" enough times that it begins to sound like an ironic comment on Updike's worst behavior.  Updike may have used the same excuse for himself.  In a review of a book about the Tristan myth, written during his affair with Joyce Harrington, Updike objects to the idea that adultery is narcissistic: "But what of that thunderous congestion in the chest...which Tristan endures at the sight of the Unattainable Lady...?"  In other words, what if Tristan just can't help himself?  In the story "Separation," Updike's stand-in Richard Maples weeps at the head of the table, alarming his children, until his wife has to explain that mommy and daddy will be separating: "He could not help himself" (352).  When both Updike's mother Linda Hoyer and his son David each published stories based on the facts of his divorce, he felt "hemmed in -- an absurd reaction ... but as usual he couldn't help himself..." (384).  Did he repeat himself in his final decade of writing? "He couldn't help himself.  The compulsion to circle back... grew stronger as he grew older" (469). 

This theme threatens to make Updike repellant as some of his worst critics always said, blurring the lines between author and creations:  Rabbit, Bech, Maples, and all those other self-indulgent, sometimes cruel, sometimes misogynistic protagonists.  In his book reviews, he's so polite and so insistent on appreciating whatever's there to like about an author, that I was shocked to see some gratuitous discourtesy to Philip Roth (280).  Begley gives us a capsule description of the serious faults that Updike keeps mostly out of his collection of autobiographical essays Self-Consciousness:
[Revealing] flashes of cruelty, promiscuity, narcissism, and petty vindictiveness, the essays are only selectively indiscreet.  His fits of avarice, for example, and his tendency to meet emotional crises with a vacillating indecision to what he elsewhere called emotional bigamy -- those faults are not on show. (427)

I, for one, was a bit disappointed to see just how closely the incidents in the lives of the fictional Maples family hew to the facts of Updike's own marriage to Mary, from bikes and college greens to a whiff of adultery on a snowy night, to the tears (the father's, and later, the son's in my favorite story, "Separating" -- see note, p. 354) to my favorite detail, a kiss that concludes the ceremony of divorce.   Nonetheless, the artistry is in the use of the detail, not in its fabrication.

Another theme is Updike's sensitivity to those criticisms that still cling to his name: that he writes only about himself, or else, that he writes about nothing.  He was first called "shallow" at 25 (153).  Through Begley, we see how he purposefully stretched outside of his own experience to include wide-ranging observations of contemporary culture and events (in Rabbit Redux and beyond) and assiduous research into the Koran (The Coup, Terrorist), car dealerships (Rabbit is Rich), and computer science (Roger's Version)

The third theme turns out to be the best thing about Updike, and maybe an excuse for the worst.  In his son's words, "writing had to take precedence over his relationships with real people" (9).  But for Updike, description was his expression of love.  Begley, reviewing Updike's copious letters to mother Linda, tells us that he sent "weekly bulletins" on his children's growth, "clearly as much for his benefit as hers."  Begley explains, "As so often with Updike, looking, seeing, and noting on paper were acts of worship: description expresses love" (231).  He felt an "inner remove" from the "merry-go-round of Ipswitch adultery" that "freed him from the moral and social constraints most adulterers surrender to," according to Begley (294).  "What mattered most profoundly to him wasn't sex or even love; what mattered was writing."  In his last days, having already written the last expression of gratitude in his last poem, he was "angry," not at death, but at his inability to write (482). 

Begley is a good writer in his own right, letting themes emerge organically from the roughly chronological outline of the chapters, and dealing with those themes through Updike's own early and late writings.  He begins the book, not with Updike's birth, but with a reporter's tour of Updike's hometown, led by the author himself, layered with the fictionalized version of that tour published by Updike a few months later, to explore the biographer's themes of fact, fiction, memory, and the "dangerous" streak under Updike's congenial public persona.  Then come chapters on his Mother, drawing on facts and fictional versions by Mother and Son; then high school and Father, and so on.  Begley's masterful description of Updike's method in Self-Consciousness is a pretty good description of Begley's own work: 
Self-Consciousness is the trace of a mind speeding back and forth like a weaver's shuttle between idea and thing, knitting together abstract and concrete, word and flesh. (428)

Begley shuttles between the facts of Updike's life and Updike's imaginative versions.

In the end, Begley knows that he can do no better than to quote Updike himself, for his last poem "Endpoint" considers all these matters in meter and rhyme -- how he chewed up life (and wives) and "spit them out" in type, how his memories "have no bottom," and what Begley calls "nostalgia...pure as sunlight in the dead of winter:  'Perhaps / we meet our heaven at the start and not / the end of life'" (482).


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Mystery Dinner Theatre for Episcopalians: Post-Mortem

Curse of the Waffling Bishop
Parishes thinking of creating their own mystery dinner theatre pieces, or interested in recreating ours, may be especially interested in my reflection on the process of creating our original murder mystery dinner theatre production at St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, Georgia.

To raise funds, the Episcopal Church Women staged a $50 - a - plate dinner, an auction, and, as a draw, a murder-mystery-dinner theatre.   For the second time, the script was based on characters and situations imagined by members of the parish, shaped into a script by yours truly.  Staging our play in the parish hall, we set the action in a parallel universe, the parish hall of "St. Martin's - by - the - Chicken" Episcopal Church -- a nod to a local landmark, KFC's three-story animated bird. 

Two years ago, we'd created Desperate Church Women, a risky venture after years of using out - of - the - box scripts from other sources.   We were able to build our scripts on concerns of our own congregation, making light of things that sometimes irritate members of the church.  Last week, audience laughed loudest at the things that may have bothered us most: restricted access to the "security code" on church doors, organ malfunctions, defiance of signs in our parking lot that "no skateboarding is allowed," and perennially sluggish payment on pledges.  (see my essay about the first play, and answers to the question, "Can murder be a laughing matter -- at a church?")

The ideas for this play had been around since the previous play, when  Mary Nimsgern missed a rehearsal to attend a Civil War Round Table meeting.  Then an evening service was distracted by the local "ghost tour" company, when the guide walked by with lantern.  Both ideas seemed like a good starting place when we had our first meeting in August.

[Photo: Kneeling, Emma and DeeGee; L-R, Susan, me, Will, Suzanne, Mary, Jim, Tonya, Leslie, Scott]

Once we had our basic situation, we wondered, what would we like to see happen?   We imagined a Civil War ghost, a seance, and a buried treasure.  We drew upon the history of our own town and church, located on a street named for Bishop Leonidas K. Polk who truly was a CSA general.  He did truly gather silver from the Parish to replace what Sherman's troops stole.  Tragically, he was truly bisected by a cannon ball.   We truly have an organ from those times.  Someone suggested an ice sculpture, and someone else suggested that it would be great to have a body frozen in the ice. Would this be a "sequel" to the last play?  We decided to make this play as if the previous one hadn't existed:  "same universe, different story" said our actor Scott Thompson.   

The key moments in creating the script happened when we were able to combine ideas.  Instead of having a reporter investigate the discovery of a corpse in ice, we froze the reporter solid.  Instead of the ghost of the Civil War - era Bishop General speaking to us, we channeled the late reporter through -- who else? -- the ghost tour guide, as she suddenly goes into a trance.  ("Why not?" asked actress Mary, during a script session. "I've gone into a trance at church meetings many times." We used that in the script, natch.)  Since the ice sculptor would necessarily use a chainsaw, we made that instrument integral to the plot.  Because the true nature of the conflict between Confederacy and Union is still (!) fraught with controversial modern-day resonances, we shifted focus from war to "Gone with the Wind" and our national church's centuries-old reputation for "waffling."

After I pieced together a first act, we had a read-through.  After each read-through, we repaired to a local restaurant to imagine what each character would do next.  When I asked, "What is your character hiding?"  the answers supplied us with the material for our "interrogation" act.

When I started a draft of Act Four, we still didn't know who had committed the murder.   We "discovered" that in the way that our fictional detective does, by walking through the comings and goings of the various characters and seeing who must have run into whom, and who must be lying.

I counted jokes that "landed" from my vantage point as house pianist.  My aim had been to give each actor some set piece that would give him or her a chance to show off, and these worked well.  There were, all told, only a few "jokes";  the rest of the laughs emerged from character and situation, as when the socialite Marilyn DuVain Gross protested that, having stolen a valuable auction item, she had to be innocent of the murder:  "Two felonies in one night?  What kind of woman do you think I am?"  I loved the moment when our two teenaged cast members, as outcast skateboarders, began to argue about opera:  "I love Tosca with all that bullfighting crap." "No, you're thinking of Carmen."  Our Sixties' ex-hippie Daphne Dillard, recreating the bisected Bishop General's deathbed prophecy made "as he lay dying, there and there," intoned "I see a bad moon a - rising / I see troubled times today."

I'd like to mention the music.  Violinist Karen Heffron played a mashup of Ken Burns' "Ashokan Farewell" with a cartoon theme and commercial jingle, not to mention eerie ghost music and the grand theme of a certain Civil War movie.  Between acts, we were joined by saxophonist Bill Van Dyke who improvised choruses for standards.

If you're a member of some Episcopalian parish interested in doing a dinner theatre, contact me.  We have two scripts available now; with the success of The Curse of the Waffling Bishop, we expect a third one in two years.  

[Poster image:  clockwise from top left:  DeeGee Reisinger as Vera Rivera, reporter; Scott Thompson as Sean "Skeeter" Wheeler; M. Susan Rouse as Daphne Dillard, tour guide of Ghost 'n' Garden Tours;  Suzanne Swann as Sylva Candler-Stycks, Altar Guild Captain; Jim Chester as The Major, Supreme Verger;  Mary F. Nimsgern as Marilyn DuVain Gross, socialite, and a mash-up of the real Bishop General Leonidas K. Polk with Jim Chester to create our fictional Bishop General William Bancroft Tween.   Not pictured:  Leslie M. Thompson as Serena Nightingale, Tonya Grimmke as Addie Haden; Emma Grimmke as Hot Wheelz, and Will Eubanks as Dawg.]

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Plentiful Payoffs from Poetry Playoffs: 7th Graders Practice Critical Reading, Grammar, More

My seventh graders have nearly completed their "March Madness of Poetry" experience.  Thanks for the idea and the selection of poems to colleague Mr. Pat Hall, who credits our former colleague Mr. Ben Williamson, who in turn credited another source.   The earliest explanation of the idea that I saw in a glance at Google is a teacher's blog here: http://mrspal.org/2010/04/09/poetry-march-madness/

Shall I extol the unforeseen good results of this activity?

Close reading habits established
Sitting in a discussion circle, the students and I approach each poem in a "region" in the same way.  Each student reads until he or she reaches a period, then the next takes up the reading.  After we've read it one time, we pause to deal with any difficult words or allusions, giving me the opportunity to practice word attack skills with the kids.  Then we read again.  Close reading of anything, poetry or prose, demands at least two readings line-by-line, and they've absorbed that habit, now, after doing it for 32 poems in a row.  But there's more to it:

Students then work with the questions, "What does the poet give us for our mind's eye, or other senses?  Are there any characters involved in this poem?  Just what's going on?"  Kids had the option to observe patterns in form instead of content, giving me more opportunities to give names to what they noticed in rhyme, rhythm, and organization.  (I loved it yesterday when a student, commenting on a classmate's original poem, said, "Oh!  He used a couplet at the end to make a kind of punchline, like a Shakespeare sonnet!")

Best of all:  After moderating these discussions for a couple of days, I could let students to discuss the poems without my involvement.   I sat in the circle and checked their names for each incident of participation, intervening only to observe that certain students were speaking over others.  A couple of days later, the class organized into smaller groups to discuss at their own rate, as I circulated among the groups.

Evidence expected for every opinion
During these round-table discussions, we save opinions and theories until we've accumulated a solid set of observations.  (This is, by the way, a copy of the activity I do at the start of every year with a painting, an activity I learned in a life-changing hour when Professor Irving B. Holley tried it on me and my classmates back at Duke.)  The questions then become, "What do we sense about the tone of this speaker? What can we infer about the speaker's attitude towards the subject?"  About patterns, we always ask, "So what?  So there's a rhyme, so the sentences get shorter in the middle and then real long at the end: what's the effect on us?"

Among my favorite moments in the past couple of weeks involved corrections made by students who are not so confident in their own reading and writing.   More than once, they put the brakes on discussions that were headed off a slope into la-la land, pointing out discrepancies between another student's conclusion and the evidence in the text.

Once, reading a poem about an idyllic afternoon in a hammock, the kids confused the increasing "darkness" of the early evening with "darkness" in the sense of depression.  They read the final line as a bitter conclusion: "I have wasted my life."  I pointed out that they'd all laughed when we'd reached that line the first time, and admonished them to include their own gut reactions as part of what they observe:  "If the poem makes you laugh, then either that's what the poet wants you to do, or it's a bad poem."

But what else is more important to learn about writing than the need to cite specific phrases in a text to support one's judgement?

Grammar concepts demonstrated and practiced
After an intense week of close reading, we took a break.  My classes chose locations on campus for an exercise in personification.  I gave them forms with questions:  "What's an object you see?   If it were a living creature, what subject pronoun would you use for it:  he?  she?  they?   What do you observe with all your senses?"  Other questions asked for observations and speculations about feelings, past, and even the relationship between the object and the student observer.  After each set of observations, students expressed the observations in two sentences, each to begin with the subject pronoun (he, she, they).

(I was alarmed to see several seventh graders squeezing under the bus in our parking lot.  They explained, "We're trying to figure out if it's male or female.")

The next day, we reviewed all the methods we'd seen for combining clauses, and I challenged them to write a piece naming the inanimate object in the title (The American Flag, Clouds, The Trophy, Old Water Fountain in the Gym).  Their challenge was to combine the ten sentences they wrote into just three- to - five sentences, using phrases (absolute, appositive, verbal) or subordinate clauses (relative pronoun, adverb).

The punchline, here, was to present each class with their own sentences typed in the same format as the poetry we've been reading.  Kids automatically applied the close reading technique to each other's work, finding all kinds of things to admire, and places where these first drafts could be clarified or developed!

Instant 60-second essays improvised
In the final stage of this activity, we'll work through the first round of competition, then sweet sixteen,  etc., to the final four and the playoffs.  I allow one minute for students to speak for one poem over the other, and then we vote on the winner. (In classes where one gender predominates, we add votes to the underrepresented gender.  Two girls in a boy-heavy class get three votes each.)

We hear impassioned ten-second essays that support opinion with specific reasons:  "Jabberwocky uses rhymes and made-up words in a way that's amusing and thought-provoking," v. "The Road Not Taken uses rhyme as much as Jabberwocky but also has a life-message."   The ones who say, "I vote for this poem because I like it" quickly realize how lame that sounds by comparison.  Yes!

I don't speak; but I make sure that every student speaks up once before anyone is permitted to speak in favor of another poem.   One holdout smiled at me and said, "I'm saving my turn for the next poem."

Besides, it's great to hear seventh graders saying, among themselves, "I love that poem!"  or "I don't really like that poem, because it's so creepy, but it's so true," and even, "I didn't like that poem, but I can't stop thinking about it."

I expect to have students write short essays after the playoffs to explain why one poem deserved to win, one last opportunity to teach quoting from text to support opinions.