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Serving in Nica-time: Day Five

Day Five:

(Disclaimer: There are probably several mistakes and misspellings and errors of thought in these posts. By the end of the night, I'm about tuckered out, but I want to get my thoughts down before I go to sleep. It's 10:39 right now in Nicaragua as I'm posting this, which is 12:39 a.m. eastern time--my day started at 4:00 a.m,, which is 6:00 a.m. eastern time--the time I usually wake up at home. When I return from clinic at the end of each day, I try to upload the day's photos right away, but this little laptop takes a long time, and the internet service is working as hard as it can to post the pictures. It usually takes me most of the evening, and there's often other things happening that keep me from getting it all done before I collapse. Today, I got the bright idea that I would take my laptop and do my writing while everyone else is doing their jobs, but, alas, laptops are not allowed in clinics, and my dumb arthritis won't let me write longhand for more than a sentence or two. By the time I finally get all my thoughts down, I don't even want to think about going back and correcting my spelling mistakes. I hope you can see past them to the intent of what I'm trying to say.)

It's about noon and I'm sitting at the weight and height station just inside the large wooden door at Guadalupe Arriba. The door is swung open, and Chris is in front of me making balloon animals for the children, the sun streaming in and throwing this gorgeous golden light on their faces. Of course, the adults are interested, too. Last night, Chris practiced with the two large bags she ordered online before she came, hundreds of long balloons in "carnival colors," which she says aren't quite as bright as she had hoped they would be. It doesn't matter to the children. They're loving every minute of it. It looks like Chris is, too.

This is the third clinic day we've had since we've been in Nicaragua. Every day, every building, has a feel and character of its own. The way of speaking here, for instance, seems to be different from the other areas we've visited so far. The translators are having a little bit of a harder time understanding because the people talk so quietly. Nelson said it's likely they aren't used to having people visit from other places, so they're slow to speak. Most of them seem to have a hard time looking us strange visitors in the eye. They love having their photos taken, though, and I've learned to point to the lens and say, "¡Mira aquí, por favor!" While they often look so very, very serious in the photos, as soon as I turn the camera around and show them the result, they smile and laugh and nod and say, "Gracias," then point to their child or their mother or their friend and say, "¡Ahora ella!" or "¡Ahora él!" or "¡Mi hijo/hija!" Some of the children will lift a finger and say, "¡Aquí!" And then, the moment the lens is directed at them, they will strike a solemn pose and wait. When I take a photo of an older woman then show it to her, she will often laugh and cover her mouth. I try to tell each person that they're beautiful, or handsome, or that the picture is very good. The very elderly usually put their hand on my shoulder and start talking and talking. Today, Carlos, one of the translators, called me over because he thought I would like to take a photo of a 70-year-old man, Salvador, who was seeing one of the nurses. I took Salvador's photos, showed it to him, and told him he was "muy guapo." He started talking right away, so I asked the translator to ask him how he felt about getting his photo taken. He nodded and said he liked it very much, that he thought it was very good that I was taking pictures. I asked him if he liked seeing his own photo, and he said, yes. Yes, very much.

Being a person who loves communicating, who loves telling stories and, especially, listening to them, this trip has been quite a challenge for me. One of my favorite past times is asking questions, finding out a person's history and discovering the things that really matter to them. Here, I can't do that except for with my own team members. And that's wonderful, because I love hearing their stories ,too. But the people here have such amazing stories of hard work and love and loss and family, so it's frustrating to lack the language tools necessary to hear what they have to say.

This morning, I met pastor Alberto. I offered the standard greeting, and he began speaking to me very quickly in Spanish. "No hablo español," I said, which was an improvement over yesterday when I was saying, "No habla español," which, as Jeff told me, means no Spanish is spoken here. This must have thrown the poor people I spoke with into a panic wondering how they were going to convey their medical concerns to this crew of Americans if no one spoke their language. I tried, with Alberto, to tell him my name, and to tell him Jaynie's name, and to tell him Lori's name, but he said he didn't understand. So we just stood beside each other in silence, not able to talk about the weather, or the beautiful church we were standing beside, or the precious baby playing beside us in the dirt. I know it's okay to simply stand in silence next to someone, but when you'd prefer to hear all about their life, their past, their faith, their pains and joys--it's frustrating.

The ropa y zapatos room is in Alberto's room. When we arrived, there were two young children sitting on the bed in Alberto's room playing instruments that looked like guitars. Perry got a great video of the boy playing. A quick look around the room revealed several instruments--the two guitars, plus a tambourine and what looked like a big guitar when a rounded back. "¿Què es eso?" He told me what it was, but I couldn't understand, so I asked, "Is it a bass?" He looked at me blankly, of course, so I pantomimed playing a bass and tried to sound like one, too. "Boom, boom, boom?" "Si!" he said. "Si!" He played it for a minute, and, yep, sure enough, it was a bass.

I met a little girl I called my "gemela con zapatos rojos," my twin with red shoes. She had bright red Converse tennis shoes on, just like I have been wearing to clinics. Though I could say little more than "zapatos rojos," it was fun to make even a small connection. She then taught me the names of all the colors for the shoes that her friends and sisters were wearing. I had Jaynie take a picture of our four red shoes together, and then I took a photo of her beautiful face.

Several people who have seen the photos I've posted on Facebook have said that the people here are so beautiful and look healthy enough. Are they really in need? The answer is yes. Yes, they are. Here are a few things I've learned while I've been here, because I knew virtually nothing about Nicaragua before I came: It's not uncommon for people to lose loved ones--children, spouses, parents--to parasites. A woman I photographed yesterday named Ursula lost four children and a husband to parasites--or at least that's what she thinks happened. She can't know for sure because they had no reliable access to healthcare. Now she only has her young granddaughter and great granddaughter as family, but no way of providing for them because she can't see.

In Nicaragua, adolescent pregnancies account for 1 in 4 births nationally. On the first day of clinic, I held the baby of a young girl who looked to be no more than 12. She was alone--no man, no parents, no grandparents. The baby was wearing a rag covered in a pink grocery bag for a diaper. She was a very loving and protective mama. She held that baby close to her the whole day. When I held the baby for just a minute, she became very anxious and wanted her back. Her face was so sweet and round, she looked like a baby herself.
More than 30% of children have some degree of chronic malnutrition, and almost 10% suffer from severe malnutrition. During one clinic, Dr. Andy had concerns that a young girl was suffering from anemia, and he asked the mama if she had pollo in the house. No, no pollo. Tortillas? No, no tortillas. Each thing he would ask about, the answer was no. One little girl's face was so pale from anemia, and she wouldn't even speak or smile. Her mother said she barely ate and didn't care to drink, either. When asked if the little girl drank a "lot" of water during the day, the mama said, "Yes. She drinks one glass a day." Today, a young boy reluctantly told one of the care providers that he was unable to see the chalkboard in the classroom and that he doesn't see cars until they're upon him. The care provider said he was smart and got good grades, but without being able to see the board in class, he was essentially teaching himself. Consider this--more than 50% of the U.S. population wears contacts or glasses, but in rural Nicaragua, you rarely see a person with glasses, because they don't have access to eye care. Most of the country's income goes to the richest people in the country, while less than 15% goes to the poorest. The work the rural people do here is very difficult and labor intensive. Parents will often lie about their children's ages for them to work. A middle-aged woman at yesterday's clinic had been picking coffee beans since she was 12. Even so, the working people live on only about $1 per day. Some of the poorest people are elderly women who are the heads of their households, which is the case in about 1 in 3 households. And yet, very few women own the land they live on, and most work on land that will never belong to them. One woman Dr. Andy saw this week had such terribly debilitating rheumatoid arthritis in all of her joints--misshapen hands, swollen knees, pain in her elbows--that she lived in constant pain. If she had happened to have been born in the United States, she would likely have had a knee replacement. But here in Nicaragua, she can only hope to manage her pain. We had run out of arthritis medicine, too, though she was able to leave with ibuprofen to ease the pain. The people here have been handed so much political unrest, natural disaster, inadequate infrastructure, and little or no access to basic human necessities like clean water, education, employment, and healthcare. And so much of it has only to do with the fact that they were born here and not somewhere else. The place of their birth. That's it. That, in and of itself, becomes a major factor in their quality of life.

I'm not saying it's necessary to travel to a developing country to serve others. There are people within five minutes of me who are in need. But my feeling is this--if you feel pulled toward a place, if you feel a responsibility to it and to its people, if a particular geographic location captures your heart and tugs you back there again and again, then go. Be there. Do what you're skilled to do. Helping to meet basic human need is never a mistake, regardless of where it is.

The day is winding down now, and the last patients are being seen. Tomorrow will be our last clinic day. It's hard to believe, because it feels like we've just begun. It's so strange, because time does become virtually nonexistent here. Returning home and having a schedule and certain times you have to be certain places will be very strange. I'm not sure I'll be able to adjust again. I might just have to stay on Nica-time for the rest of my life. Lo siento, friends and family.

Much love now and more later from San Ramon, Nicaragua.


Serving in Nica-time: Day Three


Day Three: March 16, 2015

Lo siento. Lo siento. Lo siento. It's one Spanish phrase I'm pretty good at saying. I say it when I'm squeezing through the narrow aisle of the bus with my camera dangling from my neck, my camera bag jutting from my hip, and my big backpack swinging into everyone's faces. Lo siento if I hit you with my pack. Lo siento if I step on your toe. 

Yesterday was our first clinic day, so after a morning of packing the bus and loading our backpacks with the supplies our hosts suggested (flashlight, roll of toilet paper, water bottle, snacks, hand sanitizer), we climbed aboard the bus and lumbered up the bumpy roads. We passed through the main part of town, bustling with locals who were popping in and out of shops. We passed la biblioteca pública and a little shop whose exterior stucco walls were hand-painted with logos--Google, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Buildings are bright blue, pink, and orange. Up, up, up the bus climbed until we reached a sharp turn up a steep, gravel road, one side lined with coffee plants, the other with tiny houses built from brick. Some had windows blocked by corrugated steel or thick steel bars. Most had one or two lazy, emaciated dogs lounging in the dirt. Lo siento, little doggies. Lo siento, perros flacos.

The people were lined outside the door when we arrived. I waited in the back of the bus until those ahead of me were off so I didn't thwack them in the head with my backpack or my camera. Before the trip, Jaynie and I had purchased two new camera lenses to take along. I had agonized a bit over whether to purchase a telephoto or a wide angle. Once I was inside the little Nicaraguan church, I knew the wide angle 17-35mm had been the right choice. There was very little room to move around, so taking in a lot from close up is so helpful. Plus, I must admit, I'm sort of a sucker for those documentary-style wide-angle shots.

One of the first patients was an older blind man in a white hat and white shirt who came hobbling across the road, his cane cautiously feeling the way in front of him. Justin, our team ranchero who keeps things running smoothly, took him by the elbow and guided him into the church. The man told Dr. Andy that he was having trouble sleeping because his whole body would itch. He wasn't eating much, either. Andy told us later that the man had spent much of his life drinking, which I suppose contributed to his blindness, and now he had cirrhosis of the liver. I'm sorry, blind man. Lo siento. 

All through the day, Tanya would call out "Próximo!" and then Perry would go to the door and call out "Próximo!" And the next person would be lead to the triage table to tell the worker their name and why they were there. By the end of the day, we would see more than 100 people, treating more than 300 people, including the other people in each person's household. They received treatment for parasites, and joint pain, and headaches, and stomach problems. The farmacia team would dispense hundreds of doses of ibuprofen, vitamins, TUMS, antibiotic, Bag Balm, and hydrocortisone cream. 

In the ropa y zapatos room, Jaynie and Lori spent the day distributing the clothing and shoes that had been donated for the mission. They ran out of shoes quickly, and women's clothing soon after that. Women came for clothes, and Jaynie had to tell them, "No mas. Lo siento." Men came for shoes, and Lori had to tell them, "Lo siento. No mas. Lo siento." It's hard to say no to someone who is standing in front of you and trying to decipher your rudimentary Spanish. It's hard to say no to someone who could really use a gently-used pair of shoes. But the airlines only allotted us one 50-pound piece of luggage each, and then we paid for another 50-pound piece, but those were mostly for supplies. An additional bag, Kathy told me, cost $125 to check. 

But there were plenty of people who did receive clothing and shoes and hats. The older woman with the green bandana who hugged me for taking her photo really loved the dress she received. There were little boys who received shirts and pants, and little girls who received shoes and dresses. Lori gave away a dress that Chris had helped her granddaughter Katie make as a sewing project. The dress has a new home in a little mountain village near San Ramon, Nicaragua. 

For the first part of the day, the ropa y zapatos team had a hard time communicating with the Nicaraguan people. Neither of them spoke Spanish, so they found themselves pointing and shrugging a lot. The translators were working with the doctors and the dentists and the nurses. Lo siento, ropa y zapatos team! Lo siento! Then along came Javier who lived in the village and had spent three years in Belize where he had learned English and spoke it fluently. Javier taught us to say, "hermosa," and "no mas zapatos," and "muy guapo," and "¡qué linda es!" At one point, I took a photo of a young man leaning against the doorway of the room, a beautiful halo of light framing his face. "Muy guape!" I said. Javier laughed. "Guapo," he corrected me. "Guapo." Lo siento, man in the doorway. I asked Javier what I had said, and he said it didn't really mean anything, but I had almost said, "cuate" which means "twins." 

"So if I see handsome twins, I can call them cuates guapos?" 

"Si," Javier laughed, "you can call them cuates guapos." 

Javier told me that it's very hard to find work. He preaches during the week, and he finds whatever work he can in the village, but he said it's not easy. 

While I was in the ropa y zapatos room eating my lunch of enchilada on a crispy tostada, an elderly man hovered around the clothing table, picking up pieces, holding them up, and then putting them back down. Each
patient receives a card during their visit, and some are given the option of choosing clothing while it's determined that others don't have quite as much need. The man had already been through the ropa y zapatos station, but he seemed to feel he had forgotten something. A Cincinnati Reds baseball cap had caught his eye, and he turned it round and round in his hands. The man wasn't going to ask for the hat, so Jaynie offered it to him as part of his allotted ropa. Immediately, he placed it on his head and hugged each of us tightly before posing for a portrait with his new hat.

The dental team worked on the raised platform of the church, the feet of Dr. Lindsay's patients jutting out into the alley beside the building. Dr. Lindsay hovered over the patients, touching each of their teeth, asking, "Dolor?" The first man she saw had his lower seven teeth extracted. Watching the team work was amazing. So much compassion. So much patience. Their assistant, David, gladly responded to their beck and call, cleaning instruments and handing out stickers to the children, and doing anything that was asked of him, all with a big smile on his face. At one point, he was so eager to get from one place to another, landing him on the floor. "Are you okay, David?" I asked. Without a moment's hesitation, he popped back onto his feet and called out, "I'm great!" 

Sometime during the day, I plopped onto the floor next to the height and weight team of Chris and Annie. I sanitized my hands and pulled a bag of roasted, salted almonds from my pack. A little boy stood in front of me, so I asked him his name. "Mi nombre es Memito," he said. I held out the bag of almonds, and Memito shyly took a couple and popped them into his mouth. After he had chewed and swallowed them, I asked him if he liked them. "La gusta?" He nodded, so I held out the bag again. He took a few more almonds than the first time. After he had eaten them, I held out the bag again. As his mother called him away, he stuck his hand in the bag and grabbed as many almonds as he could. I guided his other hand into the bag, and he filled that one, too before running off. A few minutes later, he was back, and I offered him the bag again. This time, I noticed he had a small pocket on the front of his pants, so I held it open, and he caught onto the idea quickly, filling the pocket with almonds. The next time he came back, there were only a few almonds left in the zip-top bag, so I gave it to him. Immediately, he tried to share his new acquisition with me. A lot of the mothers struggle to provide enough protein for their children. I wished I could pack a whole suitcase full of almonds and fill all the pockets of all the children there. 

At the end of the day, Nelson, the codirector of Corner of Love, presented the hosting church with the proceeds from the day. Each patient must purchase a ticket for a very small sum in order to be seen, and those funds are given to the organization that opens their doors to the Corner of Love clinic. After the presentation, Javier prayed. I could understand about zero of what he was saying during that prayer, but, let me tell you what--that man prayed with such passion and fervor that tears were streaming down my cheeks by the time he said, "Amen."

And almost as soon as it had begun, the day was over, the supplies were packed back onto the truck and the bus, and everyone was saying, "Adios," and "gracias" to everyone else. Javier gave me and the ropa girls big hugs, saying he would miss us so much. We agreed that we would miss him, too. 

Okay, I'll admit this one thing. I have trouble sometimes owning my feelings. I often think I *shouldn't* feel a certain way. That if I'm sad about something, it's because of my faulty way of thinking, and I shouldn't feel sad. If I feel proud of something, I think it's wrong of me to feel proud. I think about this post even now, and I think, "Should I really feel that way?"

But here's the truth about today. I said "lo siento" a lot. Or at least I thought it. I felt sorry that I didn't have more almonds, or more ropa, or more zapatos. I felt sorry that I couldn't understand the woman with the green bandana when she held my hand and spoke to me in Spanish. I felt sorry that I said, "hermana" instead of "hermosa" when I was trying to tell the young girl how pretty she was. I felt sorry that I couldn't say, "Desculpa, por favor" properly when I was trying to squeeze through the crowd. I felt sorry that I couldn't feed the skinny dogs or translate for the dentists or take the perfect picture or hand out medicine or hold someone's hand and say, "It's okay. It will be all right." I will own those feelings, whether they are naive or silly or misguided. What I felt was sorry, and that's all I can own--my feelings. Sorry that I couldn't do more, say more, know more. I am trying to be glad for what the team is able to do, which is a LOT. They are the doctors and the dentists and the nurses. They are doing miracles. They are the rock stars. But I do feel inadequate. I'll surely do the best with what I have, though, because I know there are miracles here, even if I can't see them all. That's nothing to be sorry for.  

Much love now and more later from San Ramon, Nicaragua. 

Serving in Nica-time: Day One

Day one: March 14, 2015: More than flexible

"Not just flexible," the Corner of Love handbook says, "but FLUID."

The first day initiated the travelers--all 24 of us--to the concept of fluidity. Fluid, for some of us, meant waking at 4 am to arrive at Akron Canton airport by 9 am for a 11am flight. For others, it meant heading back to the counter to print out boarding passes when the ones printed at home weren't scanning properly. For some of us, it was a first-time experience to juggle bags of liquids, take off our shoes, and heave heavy carry-on bags onto the conveyor. Or maybe finding out what happens when you accidentally toss your boarding pass in the trash with your water bottle (not much--they can print another one again fairly easily). Saying goodbye to loved ones. Leaving behind the known and familiar. Heading for the curious and mysterious "somewhere else" of San Ramon, Matagalpa, Nicaragua. 

For my daughter Jaynie and me, the fluidity also included boarding a plane for the first time, settling in together with lots of friends (all wearing our tan Corner of Love shirts) and strangers within a svelte hunk of metal, awaiting the moment when the pilot would dart down the runway, picking up speed faster than my husband in our Honda along the back roads of Holmes County. The plane, not unlike the Honda, Barreling, rattling, lurching, and then--voila!-- (quite unlike the Honda) aloft, hanging in the sky, sailing gently, clouds blocking out the ground on which we had solidly stood just an hour before. And then the whole thing in reverse order--aloft, lurching, rattling, barreling, and, this time, braking. 

Fluidity, too, meant a long layover in Atlanta and fumbling through the trash for Jaynie's boarding pass before discovering it could be printed again. A train to our concourse. A meal in the food court. Sushi at a little in-airport spot called One Flew South where the first question the server would ask each diner was, "How long do you have?" Art above each waiting area and encased along the walls. Ceramics and sculptures and installation pieces of giant animals or bugs formed from bronze and hanging from the ceiling. Our team members mingled with one another, began bonding. We talked about aeronautics and canards on airplanes, about previous flights and mission trips. Some scrolled through Facebook news feeds and others read books and others knitted the hours away. And then the flight was delayed. And again. But, fluidity, remember. Preparation for our time in Nicaragua. Where did we need to hurry to? Andy, our team leader, was waiting patiently in the temperate 80 degree Managua and would be there when we arrived. 

In the air again. A group of young people shared our flight--a crew donning green shirts and headed for a town about 2.5 hours north of Managua with a primary focus on providing clean water. We talked to a young man aboard who has been to that town about 15 times in his life. I joked that he must have started when he was four, and I wasn't far off--it was 10. His enthusiasm for providing such a basic human need was inspiring. 
The flight attendants served sandwiches to us, and peanuts in little pouches, and small squares of chocolate chip blondes. I got to know Nadine, who had been brave enough to sandwich herself between Jaynie and me. While Jaynie watched the world pass below us from her window seat, Nadine and I talked about her family, her career (calling, really) as a nurse, her sister Betty's career (calling, too) as a Navy nurse (they were both along for this adventure), and what this trip would mean to us. I think we both got a little bit emotional talking about how humbled we felt to be able to strike out on such an adventure, thanks to the support of generous and unbelievably supportive people. 

And when we did arrive, fluidity meant ignoring full bladders and heavy backpacks to stop in the hallway and fill out the new customs forms Nicaragua had just created, then waiting some more to be photographed, have our passports stamped, pay our $10 visa, and slip into this new country. Some of us took the "slipping" business a little too far. 

A carousel of luggage circled round and round in the center of the Managua airport. Each of us had checked two 50-pound suitcases or duffles crammed full of supplies--pain relievers and stuffed animals and ziplock bags and Sharpies--and now it was time to claim those bags. For me, fluidity meant falling on my behind as a result of racing across slick tile in an effort to save my pack (containing my laptop) from being smashed beneath the wheels of a luggage cart piled with hundreds of pounds of medical supplies. I was all right, and so was the pack, and though I was splayed on the floor very indelicately, my dignity was saved as arms reached out--familiar American arms and unfamiliar Nicaraguan arms--and hoisted me to my feet. All of those cell phones tucked in pockets and no one caught my performance. 

Fluidity meant meeting our leader and waiting for the co-director, Nelson, who had been suddenly taken ill, but, nonetheless, arrived to receive us and stood on the back of the white pickup truck to load up our bags. Then, the two-hour bus drive in the dark to the compound. Hills and speed bumps and steep roads. Unloading damp luggage from the top of the van and the back of the truck. Letting those at home know we'd arrived with a quick text and an "I-love-you-so." And now, the compound--quiet but for the hum of the fan and the tapping of these keys. My roommates Anita and Lori and Chris are fast asleep. 1:19 here. At home, 3:19. For some here, the first 24 hours has passed since their adventure began at 4 o'clock this morning.

A fluid day, indeed.



You Are Already Poets

Right to Read Week Kickoff Presentation
Walnut Creek Elementary

This morning, I spoke to a group of students who had just finished some very rigorous testing at a time when most human beings would rather be climbing a tree, or riding a bike, or eating soup. I started the presentation by asking the school's principle, Mr. Ken Miller, to read the following poem, which nearly caused a riot (Children can very quickly become a mob, if one is not careful):

Good Morning, Dear Students
“Good morning, dear students,” the principal said.
“Please put down your pencils and go back to bed.
Today we will spend the day playing outside,
then take the whole school on a carnival ride.
“We’ll learn to eat candy while watching TV,
then listen to records and swing from a tree.
We’ll also be learning to draw on the walls,
to scream in the classrooms and run in the halls.
“So bring in your skateboard, your scooter, your bike.
It’s time to be different and do what you like.
The teachers are going to give you a rest.
You don’t have to study. There won’t be a test.
“And if you’d prefer, for a bit of a change,
feel free to go wild and act really strange.
Go put on a clown suit and dye your hair green,
and copy your face on the Xerox machine.
“Tomorrow it’s back to the regular grind.
Today, just go crazy. We really don’t mind.
So tear up your homework. We’ll give you an A.
Oh wait. I’m just kidding. It’s April Fools’ Day.”
(At this point, I apologized for my cruelty, admitting that it was unfair to present such a poem when April Fool's Day was a month ago. And then I began my talk)
I'd like to start off by saying that, during this presentation, I'll be addressing the students here, not hte adults. But adults can listen in; however, I apologize in advance if I insult your species.
(To the students) How many professional poets do we have among us?
(A few hands)
By "professional," I mean someone who does poetry for a living. Someone who gets paid to be a poet, and pays their electric bill or grocery bill or mortgage with that money. 
(A few more hands)

Good. Not many. 
I mean, eventually, I hope at least half of you will raise your hands when someone asks you that question, but today, I'm relieved.
I'm relieved because, to be honest, I'm quite nervous about this presentation. I dreamed about it a lot last night. Nightmares, actually. I dreamed that you were all gathered in my bedroom, and it was very messy there (because it's very messy there), and I couldn't find my notes, or my books, or my poems, or my phone. There was one girl, a tall, strong blonde, who kept hugging me and picking me up and spinning me in circles. Mind you, I like hugs. I don't, however, like being spun in circles, unless I'm on a tilt-a-whirl or a merry-go-round, but, even then, not so much. 
One other reason I'm nervous is because I know I only have a little bit of time to talk to you today about how fabulous words are. I wish I had hours and hours to spend with you discussing poetry and words and stories and songs! Clocks are terrible, terrible things! I wish we could throw every single one of them into the sky and the wind would sweep them up and take them to some everlasting storage facility so we would never have to set eyes on their hands again! 
I was nervous enough about sharing with you today that I wrote a poem to remind me of everything I needed to do to prepare. 
Whatever You Do
by Denice Hazlett

Don't forget to pack your books, 
your stories and your rhymes 
Don't forget to check the date
At least nine hundred times. 
Don't forget to gas the car. 
Don't forget to eat. 
Don't forget to type your notes
So they'll all be nice and neat. 
Remember to be get lots of rest
the night before you talk, 
And before you go to sleep,  
to set your alarm clock.
And, maybe, most importantly, 
because there always is a chance...
Oh, please, Denice, whatever you do,
please don't forget your pants.  
And here's the big reason why I'm so nervous. Because you, all of you, even if you're not professionals, are already poets. You, and you, and you, and you. You were born that way, poets every one.  
From the time you were born, you have paid close attention to everything. You study things. That's how you learned to walk and talk and sing.  
You remind me of this poem by one of my favorite poets, Billy Collins: 
My Hero
by Billy Collins

Just as the hare is zipping across the finish line,
the tortoise has stopped once again
by the roadside, 
this time to stick out his neck
and nibble a bit of sweet grass,
unlike the previous time 
when he was distracted
by a bee humming in the heart of a wildflower.
Here's another way I know you're already poets. 
You ask a lot of questions, which is fabulous. You are curious about so much stuff. You could spend hours and hours sitting under a tree playing with your dog's ear, or reading a book, or pretending to be a pirate, or playing Minecraft. You study clouds and dirt and bugs, and maybe even make them into pets. Do you know about A.A. Milne? He wrote Winnie the Pooh. He also wrote poetry, like this piece: 
by A.A. Milne

I found a little beetle; so that Beetle was his name,
And I called him Alexander and he answered just the same.
I put him in a match-box, and I kept him all the day ...
And Nanny let my beetle out -
Yes, Nanny let my beetle out -
She went and let my beetle out -
And Beetle ran away.
She said she didn't mean it, and I never said she did,
She said she wanted matches and she just took off the lid,
She said that she was sorry, but it's difficult to catch
An excited sort of beetle you've mistaken for a match.
She said that she was sorry, and I really mustn't mind,
As there's lots and lots of beetles which she's certain we could find,
If we looked about the garden for the holes where beetles hid -
And we'd get another match-box and write BEETLE on the lid.
We went to all the places which a beetle might be near,
And we made the sort of noises which a beetle likes to hear,
And I saw a kind of something, and I gave a sort of shout:
"A beetle-house and Alexander Beetle coming out!"
It was Alexander Beetle I'm as certain as can be,
And he had a sort of look as if he thought it must be Me,
And he had a sort of look as if he thought he ought to say:
"I'm very very sorry that I tried to run away."
And Nanny's very sorry too for you-know-what-she-did,
And she's writing ALEXANDER very blackly on the lid,
So Nan and Me are friends, because it's difficult to catch
An excited Alexander you've mistaken for a match.
You're poets because you can tell people how you feel--when you're happy, when you're sad, when you're angry, and what you're angry about. And you can use your words to solve problems the best way possible, and you can forgive. Even if Nanny lets your beetle out. 
And you like to do fun things. Poets love doing fun things! You like riding tilt-a-whirls and merry-go-rounds and large dogs. Most of you can probably really identify with this poem:
The Swing
by Robert Louis Stevenson

How do you like to go up in a swing,
   Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
   Ever a child can do!
Up in the air and over the wall,
   Till I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all
   Over the countryside—
Till I look down on the garden green,
   Down on the roof so brown—
Up in the air I go flying again,
   Up in the air and down!
Here's another way I know you're already poets. Because you probably have the same problem I do. You get so distracted by beautiful things that you forget to do your chores. Poets do that, too! Not all poets, of course, but some of them. Like this guy: 
I Meant to Do My Work Today
by Richard Le Gallienne

I meant to do my work today—
   But a brown bird sang in the apple tree,
And a butterfly flitted across the field,
   And all the leaves were calling me. 
And the wind went sighing over the land,
   Tossing the grasses to and fro,
And a rainbow held out its shining hand—
   So what could I do but laugh and go?
Laugh! LAUGH! That's another reason I know you're a poet! Because you know how to laugh! You LIKE to LAUGH! In fact, if I read this poem to you, you'll probably laugh at it:
Willie's Wart  
by Linda Knaus and Kenn Nesbitt 
Willie had a stubborn wart
upon his middle toe.
Regardless, though, of what he tried
the wart refused to go.
So Willie went and visited
his family foot physician,
who instantly agreed
it was a stubborn wart condition.
The doctor tried to squeeze the wart.
He tried to twist and turn it.
He tried to scrape and shave the wart.
He tried to boil and burn it.
He poked it with a pair of tongs.
He pulled it with his tweezers.
He held it under heat lamps,
and he crammed it into freezers.
Regrettably these treatments
were of very little use.
He looked at it and sputtered,
"Ach! I cannot get it loose!"
"I’ll have to get some bigger tools
to help me to dissect it.
I’ll need to pound and pummel it,
bombard it and inject it."
He whacked it with a hammer,
and he yanked it with a wrench.
He seared it with a welding torch
despite the nasty stench.
He drilled it with a power drill.
He wrestled it with pliers.
He zapped it with a million volts
from large electric wires.
He blasted it with gamma rays,
besieged it with corrosives,
assaulted it with dynamite
and nuclear explosives.
He hit the wart with everything,
but when the smoke had cleared,
poor Willie’s stubborn wart remained,
and Willie’d disappeared.
And this one!
Fancy Dive
by Shel Silverstein

The fanciest dive that ever was dove
Was done by Melissa of Coconut Grove.
She bounced on the board and flew into the air
With a twist of her head and a twirl of her hair.
She did thirty-four jackknives, backflipped and spun,
Quadruple gainered, and reached for the sun,
And then somersaulted nine times and a quarter-
And looked down and saw that the pool had no water.
Here's another reason I refuse to believe you're not already poets.  
You talk in metaphors! You've done it from the time you were very young! 
Can you guess how many children I have? I have five.
My eldest son, who is now 23, once was two, which is how growing up goes. When he was two, he saw something he couldn't quite describe as we were driving down the road, and this is what he said about it:
"LOOK! Mama! LOOK!
It…it…it…has a long tail!
And a lot of pages!"
What do you think he saw? 
No, it wasn't a book. 
No, it wasn't a fairy tale. 
No, it wasn't a squirrel. 
It was a train! Long tail? A lot of pages? He didn't know what to call it, so he used the words he had. For you, that comes naturally. For grown-ups, we have to work at it a little harder. 
Metaphors give us a picture of something without telling us exactly what that something is. For example, if I were to say to you, "I'm so nervous! Look at my hand! It's a little hummingbird!" What would you think that would mean? You can see it in your brain and know how I feel without me shaking my hand like a vibrating little creature. 
There's a lot of metaphor in poetry. Often, poems are long. Willie's Wart was a long poem. Sometimes, poetry is toooooo long. Rarely is poetry too short. Here are two short poems. See if you can spot the metaphor or the simile (a simile is LIKE a metaphor): 

You are a cat
who wants a fish
but is afraid
to wet her paws
Or this one: 
I'd Rather 

I'd rather drink muddy water, sleep in a hollow log,
Than to stay in this town, mistreated like a dirty dog.
And you, my friends, are poets--yes, you are--because you can get the idea of poetry, get the feel of poetry, you can understand poetry, even if the words don't make any sense at all! Here's a very famous poem that doesn't make a bit of sense, but makes lots of sense, too. 
by Lewis Carroll

(from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872)
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.
"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
  The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
  The frumious Bandersnatch!"
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
  Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
  And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
  The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
  And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two! And through and through
  The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
  He went galumphing back.
"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
  Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
  He chortled in his joy.
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.
You know what that poem was about even if those words don't make sense to anyone at all in the whole world. Was that poem about a fuzzy, harmless little bunny? Of course not. But you already knew that.
Because you're a poet.
And you like good stories, which can also be poems, which, of course, don't have to rhyme. Did you know that? Good. I'm glad you have good teachers who teach you the truth. 
Sure, it's fun to rhyme. But sometimes, it's fun to write or read a poem that does a good job of paying really close attention to one little (or gigantic) moment in time, or one little (or humungous) place, or one little (or enormous) idea.
Here's a poem by one of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman. Did any of you see the movie Coraline? That's Neil Gaiman. Neil Gaiman wrote that book. Here are Neil Gaiman's instructions for you in case you ever find yourself inside fairy tale--or in case you'd like to write one:
by Neil Gaiman

Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never
saw before.
Say "please" before you open the latch,
go through,
walk down the path.
A red metal imp hangs from the green-painted
front door,
as a knocker,
do not touch it; it will bite your fingers.
Walk through the house. Take nothing. Eat
However, if any creature tells you that it hungers,
feed it.
If it tells you that it is dirty,
clean it.
If it cries to you that it hurts,
if you can,
ease its pain.
From the back garden you will be able to see the
wild wood.
The deep well you walk past leads to Winter's
there is another land at the bottom of it.
If you turn around here,
you can walk back, safely;
you will lose no face. I will think no less of you.
Once through the garden you will be in the
The trees are old. Eyes peer from the undergrowth.
Beneath a twisted oak sits an old woman. She
may ask for something;
give it to her. She
will point the way to the castle.
Inside it are three princesses.
Do not trust the youngest. Walk on.
In the clearing beyond the castle the twelve
months sit about a fire,
warming their feet, exchanging tales.
They may do favors for you, if you are polite.
You may pick strawberries in December's frost.
Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where
you are going.
The river can be crossed by the ferry. The ferry-
man will take you.
(The answer to his question is this:
If he hands the oar to his passenger, he will be free to
leave the boat.
Only tell him this from a safe distance.)

If an eagle gives you a feather, keep it safe.
Remember: that giants sleep too soundly; that
witches are often betrayed by their appetites;
dragons have one soft spot, somewhere, always;
hearts can be well-hidden,
and you betray them with your tongue.
Do not be jealous of your sister.
Know that diamonds and roses
are as uncomfortable when they tumble from
one's lips as toads and frogs:
colder, too, and sharper, and they cut.
Remember your name.
Do not lose hope — what you seek will be found.
Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped
to help you in their turn.
Trust dreams.
Trust your heart, and trust your story.
When you come back, return the way you came.
Favors will be returned, debts will be repaid.
Do not forget your manners.
Do not look back.
Ride the wise eagle (you shall not fall).
Ride the silver fish (you will not drown).
Ride the grey wolf (hold tightly to his fur).
There is a worm at the heart of the tower; that is
why it will not stand.

When you reach the little house, the place your
journey started,
you will recognize it, although it will seem
much smaller than you remember.
Walk up the path, and through the garden gate
you never saw before but once.
And then go home. Or make a home.
And rest.
There are a lot of metaphors in there, too, but you might have to read it a few times or wait a while before you get them all. 
So, yes, you're all poets right now. You get it. You understand it. You can see it, because it comes to you naturally. You were born a poet. 
What you need to do, though, as you're growing up, is hold onto that part of you that makes you a poet. Sure, you can do other things. You can be a carpenter, or a welder, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a librarian, or a baseball player, or a teacher, or a computer programmer, or a barista, or a world traveler, or a mechanic, or an astronaut, or a nanny, or a beetle. But keep being a poet, too. Keep finding the metaphors, because, as we get older, we forget to describe things they way we see them. Sometimes we forget to do all those things poets do when they're born. 
You don't need to write things down to be a poet. You can make poetry in your head. You can make poetry with your mouth. You can sing a song, or tell a story, or act out a play. Those things can be poetry, too. You can tell poems to make someone laugh.
Last night, I was feeling a little down, because sometimes, even when you're a poet (especially if you're a poet), you feel down after you have a "disagreement" with someone from your family, or you're nervous about talking to a roomful of poets, or you're worried about forgetting to put on your pants. So my friend Ellen shared this funny poem with me, which is called a limerick, and it made me feel better, because poems can do that. So I'll share it with you, too. 
A sleeper from the Amazon
Put a nightie of his gra'mazon.
The reason was that
He was much too fat
To get his own pajamazon.
Writing your poems down is fun, too, because then you can share them with other people. And they can share them with other people. And they can share them with other people. 

Now, don't get me wrong. Grownups can be poets, too. As a matter of fact, when I was getting ready to share with you today, I asked a bunch of grownups what poems they loved, and most of the poems I've shared today came from them. From grownups! In fact! The poems I've shared today were even WRITTEN by grown ups! It's true! It's possible! You can become a grownup and still stay a poet!
And you know what else? You can grow up and be a PROFESSIONAL poet! That's someone who makes a living by paying attention, studying things, asking a lot of questions, being curious, telling people how they feel, laughing at life, getting distracted by beautiful things, making metaphors. You can even be hired by the whole United States of America to be the official poet of your country, like Billy Collins, who used to be our country's Poet Laureate, or Natasha Trethewey, who is our country's Poet Laureate today. A Poet Laureate writes poems for special events in our country and sometimes comes up with ways to teach people about poetry.
You can also be the Poet Laureate of your state, although Ohio doesn't have one yet. Sad face. Forty-four other states do. Maybe you'll be the first one in Ohio. Yes, you. 
I know poets who do competitions. They write poetry and show up on stages and win prizes. There are poets who write books. There are poets who write music that people go to concert halls and listen to. There are poets who travel the world and trade poetry with other countries, because poetry is everywhere.  
Sometimes grownups try to make poetry too difficult. They worry too, too much about things like rhyming, and meter, and line breaks. Of course, you can use those things if you want to, but you don't have to, and you certainly shouldn't worry about it. And if you are worried about it, you can deal with that worry by writing a poem.
This last poem isn't for you. It's specifically meant for the grownups in the group (but you can listen, too). 
Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem   
and hold it up to the light   
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem   
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room   
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski   
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope   
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose   
to find out what it really means.

Is God Plausible?

Photo courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

"If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
~Kurt Vonnegut

Whether or not you believe in a higher power, you've likely had discussions about God's existence. What is one line of thinking--your own or someone else's--that leads you to believe that the existence of God is plausible?

What's the most compelling argument you've heard in favor of the existence of God?