Friday, January 27, 2006


hello loves,

i'm writing to you from jamestown, the birthplace of lucille ball. here's where i am for a week, teaching poetry through the RIPLEY WRITES project of the chataqua arts council (thanks to david schein). at the moment, i'm all tucked into my electric blanket.

every morning, i get up before seven when it's still dark and wind my way through "amish country" to a town an hour away in Ripley, NY. i pass horse and buggie signs. i pass signs with symbols for cows and grapes. david says we're in wine country and i follow the chataqua wine trail for most of my drive. the most startling view is chataqua lake shimmering and icy, surrounded by torquoise and white old houses.

ripley is a hushed, rusty town with empty store fronts displaying "for rent" signs. several victorian style farm houses stand stiff and abandoned along the winding roads. on the main street, there's a seedy bar on the corner with grainy siding and around the corner from the school, a famous place called "meeders" where a woman bakes 15 different kinds of pie everyday. i had strawberry rhubarb and fresh apple. yum. i hear lots of people fill up this restaurant for fish fries on the weekends, men in plaid and ladies in sweatsuits boasting penn and fredonia state emblems. my guide, matt, tells me that all of the farms have died, leaving people in search of work in erie factories.

america's farming past seems ghostlike in a way. collapsed barns as shy objects standing still on the horizon. i have no idea what it means to grow up in a farming culture and then see it fall apart because of a shift in consumer trends and mass corporate farming schemes. i try to imagine my students' lives in a world where wrestling, hunting, curing one's own beef jerky, and yes, shopping frequently at wal-mart, are all part of the scene.

so, here i am with ripley fifth graders. j, a tall, lanky kid with dirt beneath his long finger nails, tells me he wants to be a poet, wants to get his feelings out, has to take ridilin but feels like when he writes poetry, a silence comes over him and he can write. he tells me he wants to trade his sister in for me. today he rushed over and handed me a whole notebook of poetry he'd written the night before. they were all about heros who saved people from drowning in lakes.

a tells me she wants me to be her mom because her real mom hates her. but she has a "teenager" friend named christine in the next town over who has a baby and christine is a good friend to her. i had to secretly pass along angelica's suicidal poem to her teacher, because i'm worried, and i'm only a guest, and i can tell she's been neglected. she's desperate for secrets. she's desperate for love.

veronica writes these wild playful language poems that make me laugh. later she tells me she has a major crush on steven, a boy with a crew cut and a little mole on his cheek. she boasts that she has a rich dad who knows hugh hefner. really? i ask her teacher later, who shakes her head. no -- veronica has a dad in her life, but he's not rich. she has lots of stories.

alice tells me she can relate to acute angles because they're small like her, and hardly noticeable.

in the afternoon, we turned off all the lights and learned to bend beams of light.

then we wrote about it -- about bending beams of light.

i'm having a marvelous time here, listening to what's going on inside. watching what's happening outside. trying to notice, to feel.

tomorrow i'm going to ask 6th graders about the personalities of numbers. is 7 a man or a woman? bob and i have had intriguing debates about this, i can't wait to hear what they think. i think i've had debates about this with several of you. tell me, is 3 a girl or a boy, bossy or scared? i love thinking about this.

it's amazing to remember all the layers of living we do, to remember that everywhere at any given moment, in any given town, there are whole universes spinning in the minds of every person, every child, whole worlds of thought and structure and wonder.

i love you all, spinning.

see you (some of you) saturday when i fly back to chicago and leave my slicked out silver rental car behind.

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