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The Work of Memory

 

One of the most anxiety producing parts of being a social work intern is having to write process recordings every week. Some schools have moved onto a much simpler format for these, with two pages of basic description (and evaluation) of a meeting with a client, but my school, and many others, still use a long form that includes: a word for word (approximately) transcript of the conversation, a column to point out the skills the student tried to use, a column for the analysis of events that happened, and a column for the feelings and doubts of the student throughout the interview. On the first page of the process recording, there’s also a section for a description of the who, what, when, where, and why of the meeting, and on the last page there are questions to help you analyze the meeting’s success overall.

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“What is she talking about?”

My early process recordings averaged 13 pages, for one client meeting, and one was up to eighteen pages (my supervisor was not in love with that). The hardest part, for me, is the word for word transcript. Obviously it’s not an exact record of what the client and I said, because I don’t tape my meetings and because I don’t have that kind of memory. In fact, each transcript takes me three or four passes, at least, to get it into the semblance of a back and forth conversation similar to what really happened (though, given that each of my meetings is an hour or so, a lot still gets left out).

I can’t imagine Cricket or Butterfly trying to reconstruct a word for word, or bark for bark, transcript of their day. Their sense of time is, to say the least, imprecise. Cricket forgets how long it’s been since she last saw Grandma. A minute could have passed since Grandma went downstairs for the mail, but when she returns, Cricket greets her as if she’s been gone for days. If she tried to record that event, there would probably be twenty pages in the middle, filled with despair and resentment, as if she’d been lost in the desert without water, for years.

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“Oh my God! Oh my God! Where were you?!!!!!”

For official purposes at my internship, I have to write out a summary of each of my meetings, and that gives me a general record to start from for the process recordings. For those reports, I describe what we talked about in the meeting, and what we resolved for the client to do by next week, etc. But to get those notes into dialogue form, I need to pull a lot more from my memory, and fill in the transitions between topics, and focus on particularly difficult moments: how we get from topic A to topic Z; what order things came up in; Did I say something to bring this up, or did it come out of nowhere; when I was overwhelmed and unsure what to say; when I thought I did well.

I often wonder if the work of remembering is this hard for everyone, or if it’s a specific problem for me, because my brain seems to store things out of order and scattered in various corners instead of in a more linear fashion. I dread doing these process recordings every week, but once they’re done, I feel like I really learned something, about myself, about the client, and about how I want to proceed. I resent having to do them, and yet I hope we don’t switch to the short form, because this method has been my best learning tool, and the best way for me to really resolve the leftover feelings I have after a session with a client.

Ideally, I would become so practiced that I could knock off a process recording in an hour. Then I could do one on every client meeting, or on my own therapy sessions, or on the news shows that drive me nuts. I could write out each of my interactions with the dogs to see where I’m going wrong: like, why is Butterfly still so stubborn about who should be in charge of her leash (I think it’s me, and she thinks I’m wrong)? Maybe there’s a secret hidden in plain sight, and if I could just diagram every moment, I could figure out what I’ve been missing.

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“I will stay right here, looking adorable, until I get what I want.”

Maybe that’s what Cricket is really doing while she seems to be chewing on her feet: she’s processing, and analyzing, and deciding how she wants to handle things the next time I do something that bothers her – like when I say No, or Quiet, or I fail to give her treats when she wants them. Maybe she’s doing this all day long, and sharing her realizations with her sister, and that’s why they keep outsmarting me. That could also explain why they are so exhausted all the time.

It’s a theory.

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“Getting Mommy to do everything we want, every day, is exhausting.”

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The Third Act

The Third Act

 

I’ve always struggled with endings. I can write a beginning and a middle, and even a climactic confrontation, but actual endings, of stories, poems, songs, and especially novels, have been hard for me. I can write myself into a corner, like all of the experts tell you to do, with the stakes at their highest, and no hope to speak of, but I can’t write my way back out again.

We rely on stories to give our lives a more satisfying shape. We can tolerate the stress and conflict necessary in storytelling, because we believe we know that there will be relief and success in the end. But that’s never been my life experience. The tension never really abates. It just ratchets up and up until I get used to the higher level of anxiety. I may look back, a year later, and realize that I’ve solved a problem or learned a lesson, but I don’t feel the relief while it’s happening.

I’m always looking ahead. I can’t help it. Even when I read a book or watch a movie, and the happy ending comes along, I start imagining how badly the next part of the story will go instead of reveling in the joy. I must have accomplished things, or finished things, in my life, but it never feels that way. When I graduated from high school or college or graduate school, I was focused on the abyss ahead of me, rather than any sense of accomplishment at finishing something important. I never felt like I was really closing a book, or even a chapter, unless it was a chapter with a cliff hanger.

I am most comfortable with middles – where it’s just about doing the work in front of me, and not thinking about where I have to go next. But I’m not supposed to just stick to middles. I have to graduate, and start new things, and struggle all over again to figure out what to do, or why to do it.

The plan for my own third act (or fifth? Or ninth?), has been social work school, leading to a career, at least part time, as a social worker. But my third act is turning into a whole drama of its own, with a thousand catastrophes to overcome, and I’m barely a third of the way through the program.

One of the possible endings for a story, instead of a happy ending, or a tragic (everybody dies) ending, is simply getting up the next day to try again; the whisper of a hope of a happy continuation. This is what I’ve tried to tell myself, almost daily, of late: that it’s enough if I can get up the next day and try again. But I don’t really believe that. I want the relief of a happy ending. I want the denouement, the unknotting of tension, that I’ve been promised.

The dogs are so much better at shaping their stories. It’s the naps. Their days are made up of a series of short stories, conveniently separated by restful and rejuvenating naps. Cricket wakes up because she has to pee (inciting incident). She jumps on her Mommy, and cries and scratches, until Mommy agrees to take her outside (Cricket is the heroine of her own story). Outside, she sniffs, and barks, and chases squirrels and random humans, until she is ready to go back inside. Once inside, she stares at her Mommy and the treat bag, until the treat is given (the final climax). Then she eats her treat (denouement), and takes a nap (resolution). This neat structure happens over and over again every day, to Cricket’s great satisfaction.

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“Wake up, Mommy!”

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“Watch me, Mommy!”

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“Where are my treats, Mommy?”

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Sleepy time!

Butterfly hitches a ride on Cricket’s daily structure, but sometimes she gets to be the heroine of her own story: barking me awake, running free through the yard to finally relieve herself of her burdens. But she doesn’t mind being Cricket’s sidekick the rest of the time. There’s something satisfying in being part of someone else’s story, instead of always having to be the heroine of your own. But then again, it’s not like we have much of a choice. This is Cricket’s story and the rest of us are just her supporting characters.          Just ask her.

 

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Butterfly, the trusty sidekick.

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Butterfly, the star of her own show!

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And it’s sleepy time again.

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Until,…

My Internship

 

My internship with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) patients, at an out-patient day program on Long Island, started recently. I get very anxious before and after my hours, but the adrenalin rush gets me through while I’m actually working there. One of my favorite activities they do there is chair yoga, though, because it gives me a chance to breathe again. I wish I could bring Butterfly with me, for my own sake but also for some of the clients, who could use some of her ambient joy. One of the guys used to have a dog, but he can’t have a pet at all now, because his aide has allergies. If he could just sit with Butterfly for a little while each day, and whisper in her ear and pet her back, it could really help him. I know that it does wonders for me.

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Butterfly, my therapy dog.

The purpose of the day program is multiple: one, just to give the families of our clients a respite; two, to get the patients out of their homes and into social situations, so they don’t feel isolated and lonely; three, to fight off boredom and depression in whatever ways we can; and four, to continue, on a more causal and social basis, the work of speech, movement, and cognitive therapy that they can’t do on their own.

I am most interested in that last part, if only because it holds the most potential for my active participation. But for the clients, I think the most essential part of the program is the socializing part. At the day program they can practice their speech and memory skills without being laughed at (for the most part), and their brain injuries are taken for granted; they don’t have to compete with “normal” people for attention, or be embarrassed or ashamed by what they can’t do.

The structure of our days at the program is a bit loosey goosey, but the clients’ favorite activities, over all, seem to be games: guessing games, Hangman, Pictionary, Jenga, Connect Four, Uno, etc. They’re laughing and testing their social skills and showing off. It reminds me of kindergarten, though, with games like Duck Duck Goose and Musical Chairs, which I found extremely stressful. Those games seemed to exaggerate the possibility of rejection for me, rather than mitigate it. But the other interns, and even more so our supervisor, are much more comfortable with this part of the work. They enjoy the games and know how to stay upbeat and playful, pushing back against the depression and stuckness that might otherwise prevail in the room.

I do well with the clients one on one, and in casual situations, because I’m genuinely curious about them, but I’m afraid of how I’ll manage running a workshop or exercise from the front of the room. I wish I could practice some of my group-running skills on the dogs, but, first of all, Cricket is not a joiner, and second, they can’t hold pens in their paws, or answer my questions in words, so a lot of the exercises would be lost on them.

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Cricket is not a joiner.

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Unfortunately, dogs can’t write.

My supervisor suggested that I use my writing background with the clients in some way: so I collected poems and song lyrics the clients might relate to; and I printed out a page of Cricket pictures so that they can identify the emotions on her face, and make up stories about what happened before the picture was taken (I’m hoping her faces will be a good instigator for discussions on anger and anxiety and joy and relief, all kinds of things they wouldn’t automatically discuss with each other out of the blue); and I made up a list of autobiographical questions for the clients to answer and turn into short essays; and then there’s a group exercise in storytelling; and then I did research on hand drumming and handclapping therapy; and I made up a quilting pattern exercise, using fabric and paper and glue. So, at least I’ve found an outlet for all of my nervous energy.

Early on, my supervisor warned me and my fellow interns that some of the clients can be manipulative, and we shouldn’t believe them when they say this or that, and they don’t want to be challenged, and they can do more than they’ll admit, and on and on. Even if all of those things are true, it’s never as simple as all that. Motivation plays a huge role in what people can and can’t do. That’s not being manipulative, it’s about genuinely needing a reason to take an action and not wanting to just do what someone tells you to do.

Depression also plays a big role. The brain trauma itself can cause depression, and so can some of the medications they need to take to control their symptoms, but there’s also the depression that comes from having your life plan obliterated, and your sense of your place in society taken away from you. It is much harder to figure out motivation when you know that you can’t meet your own goals, no matter how hard you try. You need to not only come up with a new set of goals, but you have to accept that those goals will be very modest compared to the people around you. There’s an expectation that these clients should feel grateful that they have a day program to go to, and people who will pay attention to them, but that kind of gratitude can be hard to come by when you feel like so much has been taken away from you.

I’ve learned a lot from Cricket about how to accept bad behavior that isn’t meant to be hurtful. Her short-circuited nervous system means that she has low frustration tolerance, so she will use whatever behaviors she can think of to relieve her anxiety. She doesn’t mean to be a hellion; she just wants to feel better.

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Cricket just wants to feel better.

I’m enjoying the work, but it’s exhausting. When I came home from my first long day at work (Nine AM to Three PM feels long to me), Butterfly was out of her mind with excitement. She’s not used to me being away for so long and it felt great to be getting such a greeting; those are usually reserved for Grandma after she’s been out gardening for five minutes. She ran around in circles and bumped into her sister, who was hopping and panting and trying to sniff my shoes herself. It’s nice to be celebrated every once in a while.

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“Mommy! You’re home!”

The End of the First Year

 

I finished my first year of graduate school in social work, but I still feel anxious, as if there’s some assignment I forgot to do. I did not get all A’s this year, for the first time in forever, and that’s been hard to accept. I did all of the assigned work, and more, but there was some essential disjunct between the work required of me and the way my mind works. I just felt at odds with it all year, but not in a self-righteous or confident way, more like, every once in a while they started speaking in a language I couldn’t understand, and I felt like a moron.

It’s not just a question of jargon, where, once I learned what they meant by certain words, I could catch up. It was something in the way they wanted me to think that just didn’t click for me, and I’m scared that this gulf will remain throughout the next two and a half years of school, and then out into the professional world, and I will never feel quite right in this profession.

I don’t know if the dogs noticed that I was in school this year, because most of the work was done online. They can’t tell the difference between schoolwork and the writing I actually want to do. Or if they can, they haven’t told me. The real difficulty, for them, will come in August when I start going to my internship two or three days a week, and I’m not home for their midday walk. Hopefully, Grandma will be home for lunch and they will not notice the difference, but naptime may be delayed and that will, of course, be horrifying.

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“Delayed?”

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“Seriously?”

Now that I’m free to return to my own writing for the summer, though, it feels like I’m jumping off a cliff. Fiction is unfamiliar terrain again, after being immersed in academic writing all year. I’ve heard people call it code switching, when you talk (or write) differently depending on your audience, but I don’t transition easily, and part of me is afraid that if I let myself fall back into fiction this summer, I’ll have to relearn a whole year’s worth of tropes when school starts again in August.

It doesn’t help that I’ve been collecting so many rejections for my writing over the past few years. The rejections, and the reality they laid bare, that my writing could not be relied on as my career, is what led me to social work school in the first place. But being in school feels like I’m validating those rejections, and saying that I never was that good to begin with. And I’m afraid that if I write something I’m proud of, I’ll want to send it out, to literary magazines and agents, and it will be the same horror all over again. I hate that the publishing industry has gotten me so defeated that I’m afraid to write any more novels. I’m angry that I can’t see a way forward, and to protect myself I seem to have shut myself down.

I’ve been working on blog posts, of course, and articles for my synagogue newsletter, which have given me an opportunity to practice my interviewing and research skills, and to get to know people better and offer something to my community. But I want to write novels. I want to be a writer, not a social worker, not a reporter, not a do-gooder. I want to tell MY stories. The gulf, between my social worker self and my writer self, is getting wider instead of smaller, and my resentment at becoming a social worker is growing.

I need to find a way to survive the process of becoming a social worker, because I really do want to help people; I want to hear their stories and find ways to relieve their anxiety and confusion, at least a little bit. I want being a social worker to develop into something (almost) as satisfying as being a dog mom. I mean, sure, I get annoyed when the girls wake me up early from a nap, or bark incessantly and refuse to tell me why, but mostly I feel shaped and calmed by taking care of them. It’s a set of rituals and a relationship that I rarely take for granted, and I rely on them heavily for my sense of self, and structure, and love.

 

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The oxytocin rush alone is staggering.

 

The Pet Dragon

 

When my nephew was five years old, he had a pet dragon. She followed behind us when we were in the car, and sat on the roof of his house when he was in his bedroom – he could see her sometimes through the skylight. At first, when we were driving home from a restaurant and he was strapped into his car seat and telling me breathlessly about the dragon, I thought she was a he and that he was dangerous. But my nephew made sure to clear that up on our next trip, a state away, where the dragon was still following us – or possibly one of the dragon’s friends, since no self-respecting dragon would take on such a big job alone. Five year olds need a lot of protection. The dragon team, it turned out, when I pressed him for details, traveled by trains specially built for dragon transport. Benjamin, my nephew, was a train freak, so this was not surprising.

Unless you know something I don’t know about a race of dragons visible only to five year olds, we can assume that this was all in his imagination. Even Benjamin believed his story only sometimes. But he was telling me a truth he couldn’t express any other way. He wanted me to know that the world felt like a dangerous place. He wanted me to know that he was lonely, and only an invisible friend the size of a house could possibly relieve his loneliness.

I don’t think I had a pet dragon as a kid, but I did, absolutely, truly, believe that Olivia Newton John could see me from Australia and would come to help me if I needed her.

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Olivia Newton John, always on call.

I used to be afraid that I would create a pet dragon or something like it if I allowed myself to write memoir. I was afraid of remembering things wrong, or being accused of remembering them wrong, and I felt safer in fiction. I’m not as scared anymore, after three and a half years of writing memoir for the blog. I honor the emotion of the moment, no matter how outsized, or how quickly it passes. Just because I don’t feel the same way today, doesn’t mean it wasn’t real and vivid yesterday. I still love the freedom of fiction and the chance to make things make sense in a way they usually fail to do in real life, but I like the subtle joys of memoir too, finding the nuggets of sense in the chaos.

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my little nuggets of goodness.

Cricket doesn’t quite make up stories. She doesn’t mean to exaggerate, she’s just a tad melodramatic. A sound in the hall is really the neighbors coming back from dinner, not evil men intending to blow up the building and steal her chicken treats. But Cricket lives in the world as she believes it is, just like we do. She just has fewer resources for checking out if her view of reality is accurate. She believes what she feels.

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“I know how it is and you can’t tell me different.”

I try not to concentrate too hard when I’m writing, so that whatever unconscious truths are in there have a chance to bubble up. I tell myself that I can write whatever I want, so that I can remember things out of order, or make weird connections, or forget words. I can make things make sense in later drafts, and edit out the nonsense words, without killing all of the pet dragons before they’ve been created.

Benjamin, by the way, ended up getting a lizard a few years later on. Maybe when he looks at that little lizard, he imagines his old friend the dragon has come back to stay, or sent emissaries to watch over him. And it helps.

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Ben’s lizard.

 

I Am Sisyphus

 

My therapist says that I keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter what, and she gives me an A for effort. She expects it of me, and she’s proud of me for it, but also disappointed, because my efforts never really seem to pay off. Most of the time I feel like Sisyphus, who was punished by the gods and forced to roll a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, again and again for eternity. Sisyphus did the task each day. He didn’t just sit at the bottom of the hill and take a nap. But why not?

My dogs don’t mind pushing the same rock up the same hill every day, in fact, they seem to find new excitement in each trip outside, each stop at each leaf, each squirrel sighting. Cricket can put the same level of oomph into fighting me for extra treats every single day.

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Cricket has a very big mouth.

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Butterfly can fly!

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“Leafies!!!!!!!!”

The thing is, the dogs don’t mind the repetition in their lives because their needs are met. Their rituals work for them and are productive and satisfying. Mine don’t work for me. I keep submitting queries to agents, and stories to magazines, and getting nowhere, and I feel like I deserve this, because I haven’t paid off my debt to the universe yet. I just don’t know how I managed to build up such a huge debt.

One of the boulders I push up the hill every day is pure physical pain. Well, pure is a misnomer, because there is always the underlying belief that I cause the pain myself, with my very powerful mind. I am not always in pain, or at least not always in a lot of pain. Some days I’m just aware of something in the background, a niggling doubt that I can really carry that laundry bag, or walk to the car, or dry my hair, without having to take a nap afterward. Do I go out to do the food shopping, or do I take the girls for a walk around the neighborhood? Because I can’t do both in the same day. Some weeks, I can’t do both in the same week. By the end of food shopping, sometimes I can’t stand up straight and my neck and shoulders and back feel like they’ve been hit with hammers.

If I take the dogs out walking long enough to wear Cricket out, I will come home feeling like the world is tilting and a fiery cleaver is embedded in my lower back. And this is something I actually want to do! Forget about the laundry, which I never want to do, or washing dishes, which is truly heinous, and can put me out of commission within five minutes. Why must sinks be so short?!

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“Walkies?”

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“How about we just sit here?”

Physical pain, though, only puts me to bed, where I can still read, or write, or sleep. It’s the emotional pain that takes the gloss right out of my life; it twists how I see and hear and taste and smell; it tells me that I earned this physical pain because I am bad and lazy and useless and disgusting; it tells me that I am Sisyphus and I earned this.

In our society we believe that people get the lives they deserve. If you are successful, it’s because you earned it. If you are a failure, well, you must not have tried very hard. Sisyphus had no choice about his life-long task, and in a way, that’s how I feel too. I have been sentenced to this fate because I can’t breathe without writing. I don’t believe it has been pre-determined by God or by an external authority, but it is so hard-wired into my nervous system that I can’t choose something else.

Do I have the option of attempting more accomplishable tasks? Yes. I take on other tasks all the time that are easier to complete. Maybe Sisyphus did this too. Maybe he learned a language, or listened to books on tape, or the equivalent, as he pushed the boulder up the hill. Maybe he didn’t even see his task as meaningless because the effort itself was satisfying. I don’t know.

Cricket doesn’t need to catch the squirrel in order to find the chase satisfying. She has never actually caught a squirrel, and it doesn’t seem to dim her excitement for the task. I wish I could be more like her. Maybe she understands that even if she caught the squirrel and lived out her dreams, she would still need to get up the next morning and eat and play and chase again in order to feel alive. Getting that boulder to the top of the hill wouldn’t really change anything.

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“Hey, Cricket, what ya doin’ in there?”

 

Nature Poetry

My rabbi adds poetry to Friday night services. Scratch that, he adds poetry to every service he leads, but the services we go to every week are on Friday nights. I am not really a poetry person. I wrote poetry and songs as a teenager, but I felt like I didn’t belong with the other poets. I wrote poems just to get the glitchy thoughts out of the corners of my mind, not to be profound. I just wanted to say what I meant without having to think about rhythm or rhyme, or “the right word,” or what was going to impress people. So much of the poetry I was told to admire was incomprehensible. I love Mark Doty’s prose, but we spent two hours in a graduate class trying to diagram one of his poems, and I still did not understand what he was getting at.

So it was a surprise to me when I realized that I looked forward to the poetry every Friday night. That’s not to say I love all of it, I don’t. But sometimes it says exactly what I needed to hear, that I didn’t know I needed to hear.

“Mmm poetry.”

The other night there was a poem from Yehuda Amichai, an Israeli poet, with the Hebrew version and the English translation both printed on the page. My Hebrew is clumsy, and if I’d tried to just read the poem in the original, it would have been a struggle. It was pretty and melancholy in the English, about the conflicted feeling of being in Jerusalem in 1967, where you expect joy and transcendence, and instead get grief and complication.

In the English the words were bland, plain, clear and practical, but in the Hebrew, the words themselves were onomatopoetic, they bounced. The Hebrew words were playful and full and carried some of those sprouts of joy that were missing from the plain meaning of the poem.

It wasn’t even one of the nature poems, intentionally. It was one of the “Israel is complicated” poems that we get every once in a while, because our rabbi does not believe in making everything nice and simple; he believes in seeing things as they are and still trying to have hope anyway. This is why he is my rabbi.

There was also a poem by Mary Oliver, called “What Gorgeous Thing,” about the beautiful, and incomprehensible, song of the bluebird in the morning. She describes it as “the only thing in the world that is without dark thoughts,” or at least seems so.

“Really?”

I keep thinking that I’ll go to the library and pick up a stack of poetry books and find poems that speak to me, but I never do. I often have to re-read a poem to really get it, even on a basic level (forget about depth, or historical references, or coded language, then I’m clueless). If I like the sound of the poem, or the image it leaves in my mind, or the feeling it creates in me, then I’m in.

It helps that someone else is reading the poem out loud and I’m not just stuck with how the words appear to me on the page. We have some very good readers at my synagogue who can bring out the rhythm or pacing of the language in a way that doesn’t occur to me on my own.

For sentimental reasons, I always like when a dog shows up in a poem, but most dogs make more sense as storytellers than as poets. Cats could be poets. Cats are terse, with a well-chosen gesture or expression saying everything that needs to be said.

A genius at work.

A poet at work.

Actually, I think Butterfly might be writing nature poetry all the time, but her medium is pee, and I am too human to understand it. She is a nature poem all by herself when she stands out in the yard listening to the birds and contemplating the world around her, and then she becomes two poems intertwined, when her sister jumps over her still, contemplating body, to catch a falling leaf before it hits the ground.

My nature poem!

A nature poem!

Cricket, a poem in process.

Searching for a poem…

There it is!

and there it is!