Category Archives: haibun
My grief over my father’s death has become my life’s work. Some days I drink from a bitter cup. Other days I choose to spread my bread with honey. And sometimes I lay myself down on the anvil of sorrows and let the hammer fall, shaping me as it will. Sheer stubbornness drives me to try to understand why a tear leans into the wind, hoping to dry itself; or why the dead enter our world saying nothing, giving neither comfort nor counsel, but simply watching and waiting. So far, I have failed in my quest, but I will not quit. Stubbornness, remember?
Walking through the woods
on an autumn afternoon—
this is song enough.
I am following a path that leads, they say, to Willow Woman, who stands in solitude. How will I find her? Stooped and ungainly? Or singing songs that she learned from her ancestors? Songs of leaf and twig. Songs of root and branch. Songs of drought and disease. In the absence of answers to my questions, I keep moving, as I have done year after year. My one desire—I have no other—is to see Willow Woman at last, for in her, wisdom is waiting.
in my neighbor’s tiny yard
one red rose still blooms.
October. The month of the dead and the dying.
As I shuffle through the arroyo, I keep dropping to my knees. An onlooker might mistake me for a pilgrim making my painful way to Lourdes. But the healing I seek cannot be found at some distant, holy shrine. It is here in the dust at my feet: palo verde twigs snapped off by windstorms; brown clumps of parched grasses; and small stones quickly losing their warmth as the daylight fades.
I pause before some tattered sunflowers, bleached and bitten by the unforgiving desert sun, to quench my thirst. Words from a letter written long ago come to mind: “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are…” (1 Corinthians 1:28, Revised Standard Version).
Low and despised is nature’s detritus in the wilderness, but it heals my battered spirit as I kneel in awe and wonder before it.
While three crows argue,
I gulp tea from my thermos—
autumn’s first chill wind.
Until I rented this apartment (pink flamingos flank the door!), I had to walk up three long flights of stairs. Now I’m on the ground floor, and even have a little kitchen garden, where I grow basil, chives, and parsley. I’ve squeezed in one tomato plant and one pepper. After supper each night, I set aside my sorrows (who knew that life could be so difficult?), and pore over maps of far-off places, dreaming of cruises that last for years, not weeks. Could there be a better way to spend my twilight days?
Burn down, white candle,
veer off course, distant planets—
my wineglass is full!
“It is hard to say good-bye to beloved flesh,” Madeleine L’Engle writes in Two-Part-Invention. It is also hard to say good-bye to beloved places. One of the tiny public schools where I taught was no longer able to retain all the teachers on staff. Funding was scarce. Because I was one of the last to be hired, I was among the first to be let go. There was no last-minute reprieve. As I prepared to leave a place I had come to love, I found myself humming a plaintive tune, first sung many thousands of years ago by a disconsolate group of displaced persons: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4).
suddenly a stream
refreshing weary pilgrims
in the wilderness
Several years ago excruciating back pain kept me out of my classroom for the three days. Much can happen, not all of it good, in three days.
According to the biblical story of creation, green growing things appeared on Earth on the third day: “…the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind…” (Genesis 1:12).
I thought of my students as plants that needed to be watered with praise and nourished with kindness so that they would grow and develop. But for three days they were without water and nutrients. For three days, they had to fend for themselves.
Plants that have to fend for themselves often don’t thrive. Weeds may creep in and suck away essential moisture and nutrients. Careless passersby may trample delicate plants. Thieves may jump over the garden wall and steal fruit. Untoward things are bound to happen when the gardener’s away from the garden—even for three days.
I remember thinking: I don’t want my students to wither. I don’t want the weeds of apathy to steal their joy of learning. I don’t want their knowledge to be stolen like ripe fruit. I am a gardener. I belong in my garden.
a blackbird in the orchard
stealthily pecks plums.
More Midweek Motif at Poets United: “Gardens”
Words are the building blocks of thought—and stories. Words spoken by a blind poet around the campfires of old celebrated the cunning ways of a rogue named Odysseus. Words written by Hebrew poets on parchment still tell the tale of the origins of our world: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
My special education students use words every day, not to tell stories, but for far more mundane purposes: “May I go to the restroom?” “I need to sharpen my pencil.” “Can I get a drink of water?”
My students’ vocabularies are limited, and one of my jobs is to help them increase their vocabularies, because words are the building blocks of thought—and stories.
I select five words at random from a list—wrinkles, envy, odyssey, untidy, falcon—and ask my students to find the definitions, and use each word in a sentence. When that task proves too daunting for more than half of them, I make up sentences, write them on the board, and ask my students to copy them.
“Get acquainted with these words,” I say, “because tomorrow we’re going to use them to write a story.”
And we do:
Once upon a time there was a falcon named Julian (although sometimes he called himself Joshua). He was a very confused falcon—probably because he lived in an untidy nest. One day he decided to start an odyssey. The odyssey would take him to a magical land where the phoenixes rise every morning. The odyssey lasted so long that wrinkles appeared on the falcon’s face. He grew wise, and became the envy of other birds who lacked wisdom.
“I like that!” I exclaim as we finish our story. “I think I could turn what we’ve written into a book.”
Even if I never expand the story of Julian the Confused Falcon into a book, this little writing exercise engages every student—even my non-readers. Like the blind poet of old, they eagerly share their ideas orally as I write them on the board. Unlike Homer, however, my students tell their tale briefly.
Who’s to say that a long tale is better than a short one—or vice versa? What’s important is giving my students the gift of words so that one day, without my help, they will be able to tell their own tales as their eager children gather round to listen.
I search for a new story
in the blackbird’s beak.
More Midweek Motif at Poets United: “Gift”
My 9-year-old grandson came home from school and said to his mother:
“I got this airplane from the treasure box today. It’s the first time all year that I had enough tickets to get anything. I spent some on lunch with a friend. It’s the first time I got to do that too. So I spent all I had left on this neat airplane that did loops.
“Then at dismissal, a 5th grader grabbed it from me and pretended like he was going to fly it, but he scraped it against the wall and bent the wings, so it doesn’t work anymore. He was a Purple Folder kid, so I know he has anger issues.
“Maybe I can earn some more tickets….”
Many years ago I was invited to teach an adult Sunday school class. I read the text that we were supposed to discuss, the words of Jesus from Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
“This is an example of hyperbole,” I said. “Jesus is exaggerating for the sake of emphasis. He doesn’t really expect you to hate those who are near and dear to you.”
Willard bristled at my statement. “My Bible says that you have to hate them,” he said.
“It’s a figure of speech,” I countered. “Can you follow Jesus and hate your wife?”
“It’s not a figure of speech,” Willard insisted. “It says hate and it means hate.”
The rest of the class grew increasingly uneasy as Willard and I traded verbal blows.
At last I said, “I guess we’re just going to have to agree to disagree.” And I moved on.
“I hear America singing,” Walt Whitman wrote, “the varied carols I hear.”
I too hear singing, but instead of songs coming from throats of carpenters, masons or boatmen, I hear the songs of sky and star and stone. The songs of weeds and wind and wild things. The songs of crow and cricket and cottonwood. All these songs come from the high desert, and like the Siren songs that seduced Odysseus and his companions, I cannot ignore them.
I hear them as I help a student proofread her essay. I hear them while I confer with a parent about his son’s behavior. I hear them while I am grading papers.
At day’s end, I slip into comfortable clothing and walk into the nearby wilderness. The stones and weeds and dust greet me with rejoicing. They knew I would come.
three stones confer with the wind—
my house is too small
Revised haibun © 2016 and photo © 2012 by Magical Mystical Teacher
More Poetry Pantry #323 at Poets United