Monday, April 04, 2011


I sent my MA thesis to my supervisor on Sunday afternoon. Big sigh of relief! I am sure that more revisions will be required, but for now, it is off my plate. It seems that I have spent most of the last two months writing and writing and doing more writing, which is probably why I didn't write much here.

At the same time, I have been doing quite a bit of reading on monasticism for a presentation I did a few days ago called: "What is monastic about the New Monasticism?" One of the books that came highly recommended to me because it touched on the topic was The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris. It was written in 1996 by a married woman of Protestant background who became associated with a monastery (an oblate, in technical terms). The book loosely follows the format of a diary, with interesting stories and thoughts and confessions woven throughout. Ms. Norris is a poet by trade, and the writing is beautiful, honest, and poignant. As it turns out, this book is not doing much for my research, but it is feeding my spirit.

Writing satisfies and depletes me at the same time. It is a joy to express ideas clearly or to put inner thoughts into some exterior cohesive form, but it requires a vast amount of effort on my part. And sometimes, especially right now when my writer's larder is pretty barren, I need to remember what it is that I do and why I do it. This morning on the subway, I was reading The Cloister Walk and came across a story that made me stop and do just that. It was like coming across a deep well of clear water and suddenly realising that I was very thirsty indeed.

Norris tells the story of coming into an elementary school in North Dakota as a visiting artist to teach a class of fifth-graders about metaphors and similes. Here is what she does in the classroom:

I tell them that for this adventure of writing poetry, we can suspend many of the normal rules of English class. No, you don't have to write within the margins; no, you don't have to look a word up in the dictionary to make sure you're spelling it right - we'll do that later. For now just write the word the way you think it's spelled so you don't interrupt the flow of writing; you can print or use cursive (that's a big issue in third grade); you can doodle on your paper; you can scratch things out (here I show them my own rough drafts, so they can see that I mean it); you can write anonymously or even make up a name for yourself as a poet. ... if I do suggest some rules to follow, I always say, if you can think of a way to break these rules and still come out with a really good poem - go right ahead.

... By now the good students may be feeling lost. They're often kids who have beaten the system, who have become experts at following the rules in order to get a good grade. ... But it's the other students, the bad students, the little criminals, who often have a form of intelligence that is not much rewarded in school, who are listening most attentively. It's these kids, for whom helplessness and frustration are the norm at school, and often in life - maybe their mom's boyfriend got drunk and abusive the night before - who take to poetry like ducklings to water. [1]

And here is a poem that one of those "little criminals" in that class wrote:

My Very First Dad
I remember him
like God in my heart, I remember him in my heart
like the clouds overhead,
and strawberry ice cream and bananas
when I was a little kid.
But the most I remember
is his love,
as big as Texas
when I was born. [2]

This boy, who had been born in Texas, whose father had skipped town on the day he was born, and who had never been known as a good student, found a way to tell his story that day because a poet, a writer, gave him the freedom.

This is why I continue to write - because it is an exercise in freedom. Freedom to let what is inside come out, freedom to tell my (and your) story, freedom to be heard, freedom to learn, and freedom not to be tyrannized by rules.

[1] Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 55-56.
[2] Ibid, 54.

These are strawberries on my kitchen counter. They remind me of summer...and ice cream.

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