Monday Earworm: Gerry Rafferty

Monday Earworm has returned! I don’t know about you, but I had a kinda tough September. Between work and school stress and a hip flexor injury, I’ve had a somewhat hectic time of things. But that’s okay! Because things are finally starting to feel a little less bonkers. So here! Have an earworm!

So today is my mom’s birthday. One song I always associate with my childhood is “Right Down the Line” by Gerry Raffery because I knew from a young age it was a song that was really special to my parents. They’re still going strong at 46 years of marriage (well, 46 years as of October 6th), and since I know my mom loves this song because it reminds her of my dad, and I’ve always loved this song because it reminds me of my parents’ happy marriage, well. If I were musically coordinated enough to play the piano and sing at the same time, this song would be high up on the list along with almost everything from Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes and Fiona Apple’s Tidal.

Here you go.

 

My Flash Fiction Story “Mother” Has Been Published

This is just a quick announcement to say that my flash fiction story “Mother” has been published! It earned an Honorable Mention this year in the Spider Road Press Annual Flash Fiction Contest. If you’d like to read it, please click this link.

In related news, I’m super happy right now! Wheee!

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means To Me…

At the school where I teach, which is non-sectarian, our character education mission is guided by four core values: honesty, responsibility, kindness, and respect. While we try to teach and model all four of these all the time, each year the school chooses one core value to highlight with special emphasis. It’s a four-year rotation, and this year the focus is on respect.

Last year, I was awarded what is essentially Teacher of the Year. (It was a glorious shock, let me tell you!) But part of that means that this year, I was invited to speak to the entire community about our core value of focus. Since that’s a big audience — approximately 1700 people — the largest I’ve ever addressed, and my stagefright was intense, I fell back on a skill that comes naturally to me: storytelling.

And since it went well, I’d like to share my remarks with you.

***

Good morning. Thank you for inviting me here to speak about our core value of respect. This morning I’d like to tell you all a story.

When I was seven years old, my mother and my grandmother began teaching me how to cook. My grandmother, whom I called Tita because that’s the Arabic word for Grandma, would come over to our house every Saturday, and she and my mother would spend the day making Lebanese food. When I was seven, they decided it was time I start learning how to do it, too. Now, learning to make Lebanese food is not a quick or simple process. There are no written recipes involved, and it takes most of the day; for example, making a batch of pita bread takes about five hours.

And while we made the food, Tita and my mother told me stories. I learned about how our family’s recipes had evolved over the generations, brought from Tripoli and Zouth-n-Kayek, from Bekfiya and Beirut, then to San Antonio and finally to Houston. I learned about the many people in my family who’d made this food before me and what their lives were like. I learned Tita had not had to measure a single ingredient since the age of twelve because she’d made cooking for her large family a big part of her life’s work.

And while I mixed ground lamb and onions and pine nuts to make kibbe, or stuffed grapeleaves and yellow squash with lamb and rice, I learned I was part of a rich and beautiful tradition. In learning to make this food, I came to understand my place in my family, in my culture, and – I thought – in the world.

One Monday morning, I decided to take some of the delicious Lebanese food I’d made to school with me for lunch. At that time, schools didn’t worry about food allergies, so my second-grade classmates and I all traded food in the lunchroom every day. As soon as everyone sat down at a table, the negotiations would begin:

“I’ll trade you a ham-and-cheese for your cupcake.”

“If I give you my Cheetos, can I have half your peanut butter and jelly sandwich?”

Things like that.

Well, I’d packed my Wonder Woman lunchbox that morning with some of my favorite foods, foods I was proud of, that I had made myself while participating in my family’s heritage. I started with the cookies. I asked, “Would anyone like a ma’amoul? No? I also have graybeh.” They looked at me like I was speaking Martian, not Arabic. So I switched to the English names: “How about a date finger?”

There was similar disinterest for my entrée, spinach pies. These are warm hand-held pies made of soft bread and filled with spinach and onions and lemon, and they were my favorite lunch. I’d brought two because I was sure someone else would want one.

Most of the reactions to my lunch ranged from unkindness – my classmates calling my food weird and gross – to polite distaste. They declined to sample any of it, much less trade me their Oreos for it, even though none of them had ever tried these foods before. And I felt torn: on the one hand, it looked like I was going to get to enjoy it all myself without having to share it; on the other hand, my seven-year-old sense of identity had become wrapped up in this food, in the communal process of creating it, and in what it meant to be Lebanese and to be part of my family. This food represented my culture, my accomplishments, and who I was as a person. So when my friends said my lunch was weird and gross, it felt like they were saying I was weird and gross.

Now, I mentioned that some of them were polite. They didn’t insult my lunch, but they didn’t want to try it, either. Politeness looks like respect, but it is not the same as respect. If you look up respect in the dictionary, you’ll see it means “to consider something in high regard.” To respect someone or something means that you think that person or thing is important and has value. If you look up politeness in the dictionary, you’ll find it means “marked by an appearance of deference or courtesy.” Some of my classmates politely declined to share my food, but it felt like they didn’t want to share in my experience, in who I was.

I did have one brave friend who, after she saw me eating my lunch, decided she would try it. She asked me if she could have a graybeh, which is a thick butter-and-sugar cookie with half a walnut embedded in the top, and I gave her one, and she liked it. Then I broke a ma’amoul – which is a sweet crumbly pastry filled with spiced dates and rolled in sugar – and gave her half. She liked that as well. She even had part of a spinach pie and declared it to be “actually pretty good.” She shared her chocolate bar with me, too. That one friend showed me respect by appreciating what I had to offer.

I want to paraphrase something my wise friend Christa Forster once told me, which is that all the things which make up who we are – our memories, our traditions, what we like or value – these things which make us unique and special are all golden. And when we share what matters to us with each other, we share that gold. And when we accept other people with an open mind and an open heart, when we celebrate what makes each other unique and special, we become richer. Just like my friend in second grade who discovered a whole new cuisine she liked eating, when we respect other people by accepting them, we gain a richer understanding and appreciation of them and what they have to offer, and also of the world.

Thank you so much for your attention today. Have a wonderful school year.

Monday Earworm: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

My dad with one of his cousins on a street named for a president.

Earlier this summer, while I was in Maine attending an absolutely amazing writing retreat, my parents were in Lebanon. It has been a lifelong goal of my father’s to go there, to see his family there, to see the country his people come from. He was born here in the States, but he has always wanted to go over, and this year he finally took the chance to do it. He and my mom went with a handful of close cousins and a really big tour group.

part of the Lebanese coast

 

 

For my father, this journey was a dream come true. He is a passionately religious man, so he loved that they visited numerous shrines and historical holy places of various faiths. He is intensely devoted to his family, so it was wonderful for him to experience it with his wife and cousins. We are deeply rooted in our Lebanese heritage, so going to see the country and its shores and its many important sites, and to eat its food at every meal and to attend a sahria at night and to spontaneously break out into dabke at lunch with many of the other tourists, was glorious. Two of our cousins occupied the presidency a few decades ago, and so to meet the current president was a little bit of a treat.

They also went to see a Kahlil Gibran site, of course. How could they not?
We asked them to send us photos. Dad sent us eleventy jillion photos of temples and shrines. Here’s one.

I’m happy for my parents to have made and enjoyed this journey, but what their experience taught me is that chasing one’s dreams — as hokey as that sounds, let’s be honest — is a worthwhile pursuit. Seeing the fruition of his dream inspired me to believe a little more confidently in my own.

Dad planted a cedar tree in honor of his grandfather, who immigrated to the States about a century ago. My parents have played a small part in helping Lebanon’s cedar reforestation efforts.
Mom standing next to some cedars so you can see the scale. These are pretty big trees.

I’m a hybrid author, as you may be aware. I’ve been published in a variety of ways, including independently, traditionally, and through small presses. One thing I’m still hoping to achieve, though, is agented representation for my literary fantasy novels. They are the biggest and broadest literary endeavor I’ve made to date, and I want to go the full traditional way with them if I can. And this week, that first novel is headed out my electronic door to agents. Wish it good luck, will you?

But it’s Monday. I’ve promised you an earworm.

This is probably my favorite Tom Petty song of all time, and I’m not gonna lie, the video reminds me a little bit of The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton.

What dream are you running down right now? Share it in the comments, if you would, so we can all wish you well on your path.

 

Poem-A-Day: Justin Jamail

I come from a ridiculously large family. There aren’t very many writers in it, and even fewer poets. Besides me, I’m not sure there are any other academically trained poets in our branch (meaning immediate to five generations, from my great-grandparents’ generation to my children’s) other than my cousin Justin. His first book of poems has just come out — and you should absolutely go out and get a copy now, I’ll wait — and he will even be reading in Houston on May 21st at 7 p.m. at Brazos Bookstore. So, you know, if you’re in the area, come join us. He’ll also be reading in Montclair, New Jersey, on April 25th at 7 p.m. at watchung booksellers.

(And if you’re in my family and reading this and know who else among us is an author of literature of any sort, then hey, please let me know.)

In the meantime, please enjoy this marvelous poem by Justin Jamail. Every time I read it I enjoy it even more. Remind me some time to tell you a bunch of stories about him.

***

The Book of Praise
.                – after Sidq Jaisi

My God! This line has no peer – truly
it is not the beginning of a poem but the rising
of the sun! Such felicity, I am sure, cannot
be humanly acquired – the creation itself
is less astonishing. We must have a new calendar
for who now could do anything with pride
beyond the scope of this monument? Yes, yes,
it is true, and the volta of this sonnet, is it not
like the shaking of the earth? Oh, but our joy
now is equaled by grief for our future selves
who in a few moments must endure the end
and by pity for our ancestors who could not
have known the extent of earthly perfection,
though they deceived themselves and felt glad.

***

photo by Amber Reed

Justin Jamail is the author of the book Exchangeable Bonds and his poems have appeared in Hanging Loose, Ladowich, The Hat, and many other journals. He is the Deputy General Counsel of the Metropolitan Opera. He grew up in Houston and now lives in Montclair, NJ.

Poem-A-Day: Robin Beth Schaer

One of the most beautiful books of poetry I read in the last year was Shipbreaking by Robin Beth Schaer. I keep it on my nightstand and flip to a random page sometimes before going to bed at night just to read a poem that will clear my mind.

It’s one of those books whose poems are so finely wrought that their artistry emanates from every syllable without coming off as pretentious or too academic or more-poetic-than-thou. These are poems that feel intentional in their craft and heft, and which tell intimate stories. But they’re not an “easy read,” by which I mean they aren’t accessible to a fault: you can’t read them without paying attention, your mind really focused on something else. These are poems that feel glorious to wrestle with, and when you’re done, you feel like you’ve read something that matters.

***

AT HOME

 

The copper carries my wishes.
A storm snapped a dozen trees

the day you left; the same
straight firs cut for masts.

The Gazette held no word,
no sight of your sails. Each week,

my fingers traced columns of ships —
Flying Cloud, Lion of Waves,

Golden Empire — with titles
broader than their beams,

bold as thoroughbreds, as if
a name could seal a fortune.

My mind slipped to the ocean
floor, littered with wrecks.

I placed silver coins
beside your picture and knit

scarves until we received
the rattle and whalebone

swallows. I send you handshakes
in return. Our son was born

this winter: eight pounds
and eager thirst, no fever.

It was three days of labor
with compress of nettle

and yarrow leaf, every knot
in the house untied. His ears

are tiny shells, hands in fists,
your brown hair. The cradle

is drawn with yellow dories.
For your birthday, a party

without you here: spongecake
and cherryade. Hope you were

given bread and molasses.
My love, remember, the polestar

is not alone, but twinned,
a pair of suns, guiding you North.

 

***

Credit: Robin Beth Schaer, “At Home” from Shipbreaking, published by Anhinga Press. Copyright © 2015 by Robin Beth Schaer. Reprinted with the permission of the author. 

***

Robin Beth Schaer is the author of the poetry collection Shipbreaking (Anhinga 2015). Her writing has appeared in Tin House, Paris Review, and Guernica, among others. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, Djerassi, Saltonstall, Vermont Studio Center, and VCCA. She has taught writing in New York, New Jersey, and Ohio, and she worked as a deckhand aboard the Tall Ship Bounty, a 180-foot ship lost in Hurricane Sandy. Her website is www.robinbethschaer.com.

Poem-A-Day: Sarah Freligh

“So I Call My Mother On Sunday” by Sarah Freligh is one of those poems that’s just so spot-on about families and about life that I don’t know how I could possibly say anything to introduce it that would be worth its truth.

***

SO I CALL MY MOTHER ON SUNDAY

every Sunday, though I don’t say
how are you anymore because I know
she’s dying and each day will be worse
than the day before. Her liver’s rotting
the way an apple goes bad, swelling
as it softens and maybe smells sweet
as fruit does before you toss it.
I ask her how the weather is, snowing
like crazy here, about the traffic
at the bird feeder. She likes to watch
the small birds, chickadees and nuthatches,
not so much the sparrows though
today she says the minister’s there
and she’s planning her funeral. She wants
to be cremated. She wants an urn
and the family to bury her, no one else
in attendance. A memorial service, maybe
sandwiches after. It’s been snowing
every day for a week now, I say, we’re knee
deep in it. Did you hear me, she says
and I tell her it’s such heavy snow
to shovel every hour I get so tired
of shoveling, god, I want to cry.

***

Sarah Freligh is the author of Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis. Other books include A Brief Natural History of an American Girl, winner of the Editor’s Choice award from Accents Publishing, and Sort of Gone, a book of poems that follows the rise and fall of a fictional pitcher named Al Stepansky. Her work has appeared in Sun Magazine, Hotel Amerika, BOAAT Journal, Rattle, on Writer’s Almanac, and anthologized in the 2011 anthology Good Poems: American Places. Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in 2006.