Poetry

Kill Your Sunflowers

cpetersoapril

In March, I started my tomato seeds in black plastic trays in our farm’s greenhouse. To overcompensate for the old seed I was using, I put two seeds in each tiny cell of soil. When both of them grew, the little square was crowded; I had to pull and discard one of the seedlings to make room for the stronger of the pair. As I was culling those seedlings, removing the extra tomato plant and tossing it outside on the ground, it reminded me that the lesson of culling is hard to learn, especially the first time.

While others might call my kind of gardening haphazard or messy—I plant a row here, a row there, some of them listing off to one side—I like to think of it as artistic gardening instead of untidy. The year of my first large garden, I had enthusiastically planted my sunflower seeds quite close together and as they grew, my more experienced husband could tell they were crowding each other. Seemingly willy-nilly, he began to pull out some of the plants that I had spent a considerable amount of time planting and caring for.

“No,” I tried to stop him, “What are you doing?”

He kept pulling them. Ruthlessly: “They’ll be more productive if you give them more space.”

It only took me a few weeks to learn that he was right. My giant sunflowers took up not only their own row but the entire section of the garden, shadowing their neighboring green beans and tomatoes in an effort to lean toward the sun.

Just like the weeds and plants, my words when I’m writing can get overcrowded, ideas littered like weeds that got out of control because I didn’t take the time—early on when they were small—to cull them.

As writers, we know it’s hard to let go of these words. Because finding a metaphor or just the right word requires digging deeply. I can sense it sometimes as I try to submerge into that place where words and images live, the level place just above presence, prayer, and silence, where the grasses become single blades, where I become a birdwatcher, where a sinkful of dishes is poetry.

Even as I sift through my son’s box of impossibly small Legos, helping him find the perfect piece for the instructions to a red motorcycle, the search for something small, the focus on finding the red piece amidst a sea of colorful hard-edged plastic bits, is much like searching for the right word to describe the way a cottonwood seed feels as it floats from the heavens to rest on my palm.

When you have taken the time to go that deeply—often setting aside other important things in your life in order to have the time and space for that kind of effort—it’s difficult to realize that some of the words and ideas you have toiled for have to be removed or repaired.

A writing professor from the early 20th century named Arthur Quiller-Couch spoke in a lecture: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—wholeheartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

Yes, sometimes we must erase the words we have fought so hard to find. The phrase “murder your darlings” or “kill your darlings” has been miss-attributed to more famous writers ever since. I guess some people “steal” their darlings rather than “kill” them.

When I must murder my darling words or my precious sunflower plants, I have to remember what I am preparing for. Creativity, like a garden, requires the deep digging at the beginning and the painful editing in the middle. But how do our gardens, books, essays, and poems respond after all that work? If things go well, they bear fruit.

Except when they don’t. Sometimes my garden, after all the digging and productive killing, still gets knocked over by one hour-long hailstorm. No matter how much I work, hornworms appear on my tomato plants, Japanese beetles wreak havoc on my flowers, and deer feast on my green bean blossoms, killing them before they’ve even begun.

As with growing food, the toil and labor of art doesn’t guarantee a final product of perfection. Sometimes our work is just not there yet. But the experience is rewarding in itself. Just as I become a better and more knowledgeable gardener every year, each piece of writing I struggle through teaches me what to work for and what to plow under.

But it is not only the writing that grows with all of this struggle. The gift of creativity is that I also learn about the deepest parts of myself, others, creation, and God. This process of creating is often like a spiritual practice, an active, patient, and liturgical return to the very depths of life, sifting with dirty nails to make enough room so the seed can be planted in a place where it will be broken open and expanded to make room for new life.

Where I Am Today

I can feel the tears

And this time I’m trying really hard to stay near You

But I can feel the water behind my eyes

Sometimes making it hard for me to see You.

 

I can feel the waves of doubt

Hitting me like bullets in a windstorm

And I’m squinting my eyes

Trying to see You although my vision often times feels weary and worn.

 

But I did say that I would seek You

In hope as well as in despair.

I did say that this time I would keep You near

And not push You off like You don’t care.

 

I did say that I would not close off my heart

Like I’ve done so many times before.

I did say that I would try out this new journey of trust

Even if it meant walking while I’m sore.

 

And yes, sometimes I feel like I have a limp,

And yet, I have to walk through my daily routine like nothing’s wrong

But this time, I’m trying to stay near Your heart

So I can hear You as You delight over me with a song.

 

There’s a decision to make.

I can hear an old soundtrack playing a familiar tune.

It invites me to cast off this fight to be strong

And instead recline to a familiar position that doesn’t trust You with this wound.

 

The familiar tune encourages me to shove off assurance

And keep distrust as the forerunner of thought

While passing the baton to victimization and dismay

Oftentimes keeping any opportunity for peace at fault.

 

And I know that tune

I can sing and belt out every word.

It’s the song that I know all too well

Because in some broken places in my heart, it’s the only song I’ve ever heard.

 

But I said I would listen to new lyrics

Ones that emphasized your faithfulness—even in tears

Lyrics that take away my woe and sorrow

Even if that’s all I’ve known for years.

 

I made a vow to my heart

That I would lean back and let You lead.

So this time I’m not letting my own opinions go first.

I really want You to succeed.

 

I know all too well—the feeling of doubt and distrust.

I’ve practiced that life for far too long

And it took me in painful circles

Even though I was the one who let it go on and on.

 

I’d like to try something new,

And I understand new doesn’t mean shiny and pain free.

New does mean Companionship with You, the Comforter,

Who has promised to remain ever so close to me.

 

You will be here

Even though I might cry, and weep, and fall limp with pain,

But this time I’m not by myself.

I can lean my heart up against You who too has endured the same.

 

I’ve found a friend

Someone who is beckoning to journey this path with me

And even though I at times might feel shame and condemnation

You have come to rescue me from that false identity.

 

I can take a deep breath

And not try to be a superhero without a power or a cape

Instead I can actually stand in His shelter

And let Him save my heart, my emotions, and the day.

 

Goodbye eternal misery

Goodbye to the endless trail of no hope and emptiness

Hello Comfort and Life

Hello to the One who has come to give me rest.

 

Sing Your Song over me Jesus!

Push out everything that would prevent me from hearing.

Sing Your Song over me Jesus!

Help me lean back, I let You lead, You are the only one I want steering.

A Poem in Two Parts

 

Part 1: Metaphor to My Simile

I sat on the floor

pen and paper in hand

contemplating what I would try to get you all to understand,

yet I’m not sure any man or woman

could stand in my place and say it with elegance and grace

what need to be articulated to my class 1A.

 

Last Thursday when I broke the news

of the due date when I wouldn’t be in this class,

many of my scholars interpreted my absence

as neglect and abandonment.

Many of them might have even seen it as some form of punishment

thinking I want to be away or stay away

and some even think my absence is some kind of get away.

 

I’m glad you all asked me . . . or pushed me to write

This poem

these stanzas

these lines with or without rhyme

because now is the time to tell you all what’s on my mind.

 

Ahem . . .

I don’t like missing any 2nd of any class

and before you all pass me by 1 more time in the hallway,

lend me your ear at level 0 so you can hear what I have to say.

 

Let’s count it off.

 

One, I don’t like missing because I’m not sure everyone will honor you like I do.

 

Two, I’m not sure any sub will treat you like royalty like I see you.

 

Three, I have a passion for being with you and that’s just the reality.

 

Four, absent or tardy, when you come through that door

and when everyone is accounted for,

then and only then do I feel like we can move with achievement, success, and yes, even more.

 

Five, one of my number one reasons for being alive is to serve you with hope and challenges,

push back and applauses.

You need me like I need you so it sounds like we are all a bunch of dependent clauses.

 

Six, you all are like a metaphor to my simile

and this is no hyperbole.

I have no reason to exaggerate.

Each and every day I really like to see ya

even with your steady ups and downs, making groans and noises like onomatopoeia.

 

Seven, I recognize that you are a teen and some want to be heard and some don’t even want to be seen and that’s cool because

 

Eight, 8th grade has so many personalities and that’s why I have to give you “All of Me” so

 

Nine, please give me all of you

even when you’re mad at my absences and perfect imperfections,

all of my uncontrollable circumstances.  

You all please listen to my advances when I say

 

Ten, I don’t fret when it’s you without me because “I can see clearly now the rain is gone.”

The 7th grade leftovers of you are done.  

Whatever was . . . is dead and dry.

You are in 8th grade and your maturity is showing and that’s no lie.

 

Eleven, that’s why when I can’t be here, I prep you for us being apart, but I have no fears.

Scholars in 8th grade are some of the most mature scholars I’ve seen in years.

 

Twelve, I don’t tell you where to sit, but I keep you where you are.

If you are successful and it shows,

why would I move you around and knock you down like dominoes which leads me to

 

Thirteen, the superstitious number of luck.

I’m glad we gave that theory up.

You all aren’t lucky.

Your intentionality to be scholarly removes all luck.

You’re just ready to be trusted, sub or me, you all are the real treasures.

I’m just honored to be your teacher because

 

Fourteen, it’s a real pleasure.

 

Fifteen, so whether you applaud or not at the end of these lines,

I clap for you every day in my heart because I know where we’ve been

which means for me every day is a new start.

 

Part 2: No Snaps

I know that I make my 1A harass me

when I don’t show up for class consistently

so they think have permission to pass me

and label me insufficient with truancy

even though I can’t help all of the scheduling.

Sometimes the emails come in the evening

when you’re at home chilling and watching TV.

But oh, they don’t know about a teacher’s life

and how I’m always here to almost 7 at night

making copies and writing on white boards with the janitors, right

because I want the best for them and their lives.

I look in their eyes and all I can see is Fight! Fight! Fight!

No, not the kind with fists, but with words, right?

Talking symbols and propaganda til the bell rings

and feeling each word just like a bee sting.

These kids get deep like a switchblade

and if you can’t hear their thoughts, you need a hearing aid.

These active listeners don’t know when to give it a rest

One person wants to share and then everyone is next.

I love this class because they think they’re the best

and if you tell them otherwise, you might get hit in your chest.

no, not with fists but with a debate or contest

They swear up and down the exit ticket was easy.

Make it seem like everything in here is breezy

and that’s cool because they love learning.

 

I think your scores are great.

I really do,

so if you ask me why there’s a pain in my heart,

it’s because I really don’t know you.

 

Some think a label like “Honor Roll” or Commended” or grades like 80’s or 90’s make you great

and yet I overhear you in the hallways

and I know some of the people you’ve hurt

and it makes me wonder if you think life is one big checkmate.

 

Ms. Scott, where is this coming from?

This poem is supposed to be about you, not us.”

Thing is, I’ve told you a million times and I’ll say it again,

“I love you too much not to make a fuss”

So here it is. . .

 

Wherever 9th grade takes you,

decide to grow up and give up on

likes, tweets, thumbs up, and follows,

because just like an unnecessary end to a friendship,

all that is fake and will only leave your heart feeling hollow.

 

I’m trying to tell you,

you are the seed you plant.

You are the seed you put in the ground.

It’s okay and it’s right to grow up

and let negative, sneaky friends find someone else to be around.

 

This class, you’re too mature for me to turn the other cheek against the drama you create in your own life.

If you’re breathing, you were born,

and if you were born, you were born into a family,

and that right there has enough strife.

 

I want you to grow up and not follow the propaganda of bullying

under the hidden masks of likes or dislikes

like all that mess is right

you sittin’ up all night

thinking about your new followers

like it’s civil like a movement, right?

I want you to be civil,

way more than I want you to be right.

Give UP your right to be right

and instead fight for someone else’s.

 

You want some REAL likes and follows

stop being so hollow.

Shallow minds talk about people.

Great minds help them.

 

Who will you be?

 

This might, for your listening ears,

be my last poetry piece

and I’m okay with no snaps.

I’m okay with no applauses

because in the end, I’m after your character

and everything else is just white noises.

 

Writing for Rescue

Tanya Cooper

It’s interesting to me that The Mudroom’s first anniversary would fall on a month where the theme is Vocation, Career, Mission.

When I was younger I adored Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, and the legendary Harriet the Spy. I took out books from the library on the history of the FBI. I pretended I was a detective, skulking around the neighbors’ houses, peeking in their windows, watching them from the stone tower in my driveway, climbing up on our garage roof for a better view. I convinced my sister that our neighbor buried human bones in his yard (they were deer bones; back then, everyone hunted in Philadelphia).

Growing up close to the Atlantic shore fostered a deep love for the ocean and its creatures. I dragged home horseshoe crab carcasses, collected  mermaid’s purses in the jetty rocks, and created habitats for the sand crabs I caught in the tide pools.  By the time I was 12 I was torn between wanting to be an FBI agent (way before Scully’s time) and a marine biologist.

That never panned out, although I do have huge Pinterest boards full of Oceany Stuff and Cephalopods.

Tammyat5beach

Before she left and I was placed in foster care, my absentee-alcoholic mother did one thing right: she taught me to read. I was 4. After that reading became home to me; safe, dependable, welcoming, while my real home was not. When I would lose my library cards or rack up a big fine, I would get a form, use a different name, and have my mom sign it. I had at least three aliases. When I was in high school I tore the magnetic strips out of the school library books and stole them. I had an impressive collection of the Folger’s Shakespeare editions.

Words took the place of criminals and crustaceans. Words became family, helped me sleep at night, gave me a reason to wake up in the morning. There were so many to read, so many to write.  

I honestly did not know I would live a life of words when I grew up. It surprised me. I started in the mailroom of Cornerstone magazine and became receptionist, poetry editor, proofreader, and finally one of the senior editors. I even published a poetry chapbook. And then I quit.

There was no conflict or hostility or rancor, I didn’t lose my love of words, or becoming disenchanted with the publishing world. I was drawn into women’s ministry as a replacement for a woman in our church who was having surgery and needed two months to recover. Those two months drew gifts out of me I didn’t even know I had. I fell in love with ministry, the mentoring, discipleship, praying together, encouraging, challenging. It became second nature to me.

I found my life’s work. Writing took a back seat, then the seat was pulled out and put in the garage, and then it was just buried by the clutter for years. I kept a journal, read voraciously, held book discussions, read out loud to my friends while we played cards. A friend and I would occasionally write poems together, disjointed conversations in staccato verse.

I was introduced to blogging in 1995. It was Xanga back then. I wrote some hilarious posts from Phoenix’s perspective as a baby. Life set in, transition happened, there were new cities, new jobs, new churches. There was financial struggle and personal heartache. There was loss of loved ones, loss of community, loss of hope. For years I was empty, dark, and silent.

I returned to writing cautiously. A narrative email to a friend. A long text telling my story to a friend. A complicated Facebook message to a would-be friend about the reality of my life right then, the depression, anxiety, despair.

I created and abandoned a few blogs, trying to find my voice, my niche, my reason for being. I kept writing, kept reaching out.

People read my writing. They responded. I felt heard and understood. I felt less alone. Like I existed. The most surprising byproduct of all was that I was helping people. My story and my struggle brought light to other women’s darkness, made them feel less alone.  

More and more women contacted me, asking for prayer, sharing their own stories, wanting a friend to walk alongside them in their depression, loneliness, heartbreak, and addiction. When I would become despondent or ashamed, believing I was useless and disposable, God kept reminding me, “I will use your deepest shame to bring myself the most glory.” He promised that my suffering would never be for nothing.

I thought writing was only for a season and then I would have to do the hard work of ministry. I was so wrong. God merged the two and gave me a new commission: Write for me. Write for your rescue. Write to give others a soft place to land. Bring light to the shadows, the ones in your  heart and the hearts of all the others.

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