Literacy Class: Learning the Language of Love

vintage photo looking down on woman lounging on floor reading. This past week, I taught my last English class for quite some time. Three years ago, I moved to my new city in the Midwest. Almost right away, I started teaching literacy to people (mostly women, mostly older, all East African refugees) who have been denied access to education.

The levels of trauma, displacement, oppression, and prejudice contained in that single educational qualifier “non-literate” are hard to explain.

I taught in the corners of crowded libraries, classrooms, computer labs. I taught inside of makeshift police offices and elder housing complexes. I learned about the housing crisis in Minneapolis, I met large families who lived in homeless shelters, I learned of the cracks in the system, how gaping and wide open they turned out to be.

I helped people fill out forms and connect with resources and each other, I learned Somali songs and went to weddings, I ate delicious food and learned how to put the proper amount of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and cardamom in the tea I made for us all.

I scolded people for driving without a license and visited women in their apartments after they gave birth. I delivered cheese and pineapple pizza to people, baked hundreds of Funfetti cupcakes, which were much too sweet for any of us. And in the end, I saw maybe one person learn to read. [Read more…]

How To Arm Yourself Against Irrationality

people-running-the-central-station-by-national-museum-of-denmark-on-flickr-no-known-copyright-restrictionsIf I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
—1 Corinthians 13: 1

My four-year-old enthusiastically agreed to another term of gymnastics with the parks and rec department. He’s not particularly athletic, but he enjoys climbing over obstacles, hanging from bars, and tumbling on mats, so we signed him up.

Nonetheless, one Saturday morning he was lying on his bedroom floor in a pile of clothes, crying and screaming because he didn’t want to go to gymnastics.

“There is no such thing as gymnastics!” he shouted. “I want to stay home forever!”

He’s been speaking in this way for several weeks, now. Normally I’d chalk it up to a preschooler’s creative logic. But these aren’t normal times. His absolute rejection of reality and his stated desire to accomplish absurdities remind me too much of the insane rhetoric of a certain world leader and many of the voters who are trying to justify their support of him.

Sure, that’s a little dramatic; if anything, it says more about the leader and his supporters than it does about the preschooler. It probably says something about me, too, like that I hold my children to unreasonably high standards of coherence and rationality.

My world leaders, too, apparently. [Read more…]

Poem for the New Year: “In the Candleroom at Saint Bartholomew’s on New Year’s Eve” By Heather Sellers

ImageThis poem moves me and impresses me with its sense of almost-but-not-quite arriving at connection. Everywhere I turn within the walls of this poem, I come face to face with human need and the world’s shortcomings in meeting that need. Mourning her mother, the speaker attempts throughout the poem to do a simple thing: light a candle. Instead, she finds herself confronted with failure and dampening hope. In the candle’s failure to light and in comparing herself to the other mourner’s open grief, the speaker sees the distance between herself and her mother, some final failure to connect or satisfy. Struggle, longing, and love are three threads tightly woven through stanzas of vivid detail and painful confession. Formally, the linked sounds, repetition, and snatches of rhythm give hints of the familiar, adding to a feeling of déjà vu that is mirrored by the narrative itself. The final stanzas push the walls of the cathedral outward, identifying this one speaker’s pain with a bigger wound shared by us all, and perhaps offering, there, the possibility of solace.

—Melissa Reeser Poulin [Read more…]

The Best Words: Selections from the Sex Tapes of Tremendous Male Poets

flowerssmallI knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
   —Theodore Roethke, “I Knew a Woman

I know a woman who feels injustice in her lungs. A therapist, all day she catches others’ damage and offers it back to them as healing. Now I see her grow tense, ball her fists, seek something to strike while an abusive man asks an entire nation to hate with him. [Read more…]