On the Edge: Writing Haiku (5-7-5) to Save My Soul

Like most American school kids, I learned to write haiku (i.e., 5 syllables–7 syllables–5 syllables) in third or fourth grade. It is a Japanese poetic form that, other than World War II and the Cherry Blossom Festival, represented all that I knew of Japanese culture or literature until I reached college. Compared to English formal verse, such as sonnets, villanelles, and sestinas, haiku seem like child’s play.

To counter that, here are a few examples by Japanese masters of the form.

My life,
How much more of it remains?
The night is brief.
—–Masaoka Shiki

 

Don’t weep, insects–
Lovers, stars themselves,
Must part.
—–Kobayashi Issa

 

Scent of chrysanthemums…
And in Naru
All the ancient Buddhas.

—–Matsuo Basho

Basho, widely seen as the greatest among Japanese haiku masters.>

By the age of 9, I had quit haiku. By 12, I only wrote free verse. After attending one of Maryland’s earliest STEM high schools, I decided to escape what struck me then (and still does) as the drudgery of college English classes. I earned a mathematics degree: writing verse was not my problem. Calculus was. I still wrote poetry late at night, after crying rivers over algebraic forms, topology, and boys.

But about five years ago, a series of disastrous life events, including the onset of a chronic pain condition, led me back to haiku.

Living with chronic pain has meant struggling to control it before it controls me. For the first few years, I could no longer write for the love of language or story.  After spending long days writing for a consulting firm, by night, I was spent. Stress often meant that my pain was totally out of control. Since I’d failed to find relief in online yoga classes and guided meditation, haiku filled a space.

At first, I simply wrote notes on my iPhone. In fact, I still do, having composed one today during an acupuncture session:

Black lab yellow stars

my son watches from heaven

someone send him home

Eventually, I began writing haiku as affirmations of my own life: my strength, my power, my body, my beauty. And I liked the visual created when I superimposed my haiku on photographs that I took.  I had found an app called BeFunky that was easy to understand.

At first, I used handsome or striking or beautiful photographs of my own–because who sets out to shoot ugly?  When I ran out of images (never syllables, it seemed) I’d ask friends–and, in fact, some began sending me “haikuable” photos. Thus began my life as a haiku artist, creating wordworks that I call haikugram. Low risk, high gain. Here’s one of my first.

My mother, who sculpts in canvas, has a studio at The Torpedo Factory. She and several of her artist friends, who have spent years collaborating, brainstorming, and inspiring one another, have begun to face the central issues of aging: loss, grief, dying. Every so often, she’d send a friend one of my haikugram.

This is one breath, written for my son, Chad Jameson Schuster, who was 24 when he died on October 1, 2017. His life was a burst of energy and light.

In fact, the best haiku rely on close observations of nature, woven into the most elemental truths of human experience. They are a very short form of verse and are quite challenging to write. Haiku must cut, from the first line or image to the central line, which links two opposing thoughts or images, ideas and moments.

Today, however, the 5-7-5 rule is not so much in force unless one prefers it. As it happens, the Japanese count a phonetic sound called on  that approximates English syllabic counts, but not quite. Some English-speaking writers now define haiku as, “A short poem to be recited in one breath.”

(What does one do with a person like Michael Phelps, an Olympic swimmer whose one-breath could outlast the rest of us mere mortals by minutes, not seconds?)

Since writing my haikugram, I’ve found lots to celebrate, mostly an unusual chance to inspire others, and encourage them to write. A long-ago college friend who, like me, has a chronic pain condition, saw my haiku on a creativity website we both follow. He decided to try writing them, and asked me to coach him. Eventually, he added his to photos. Today, his haiku are far better than mine, and often brilliant in their marriage of human and natural experience.

Another friend, a fabulous fiction writer and editor of a large feature magazine, surprised me with news that he, too, is writing haiku. For years, he has been unable to write fiction, overtaken by his work as an editor and teacher. But haiku, which can be written in an hour, or nuzzled around all day in one’s brain, seem manageable. A challenge worth completing.

My most haiku-able moment came when I set out to teach haiku writing during a special event at the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The program, Evenings at the Edge was a chance to celebrate the newly reopened gallery, one that had been my favorite since high school. The night I attended was to volunteer for a group called Split this Rock, a group that aims to get poets more involved in public life and policy, especially by working with the next generation of poets.

Chalkboard haiku, spur of the moment haiku in my kitchen

In addition to areas designated for spoken word poetry, music, and gallery gazing, a room was set aside for people to write haiku. Haiku were to be written on special cards and then posted on a wall. The rules were that haiku were to be anonymous and could not feature any political commentary. Tough to do in Washington, DC.

I had volunteered to coach others. Many visitors sat down with a sigh, perplexed at what they were to do. When I said, “Haiku, you know, 5-7-5,” their eyes would spark, and they’d say, “Oh, I did that in elementary school!”

Heads would bow and pens, crayons or color pencils would fly across the notecards.

At one point, a handsome young man sat down at the table across from me and, although he remembered the form, could not think of a thing to write. He attributed this to his being “tech minded” and “a computer guy.”

Lenten roses in my yard, 2-27-18, photo by Pat Sislen

“No excuse,” I teased. “I’ve got a math degree.”

He looked at my graying hair, I know, and smiled.

“Okay, then what I can write about?”

I asked him what he’d seen on his way to the event from his office.

“Snow, icy parking lots, icy roads, lots of traffic,” he said. “It was dark outside, and it was cold, cold, cold. I am ready for spring.”

“Spring,” he said, and looked at his haiku notecard, bowed his head, and began to write. A few moments later, he looked at me and said, “I’ve got something.”

My son, 16, joined me at On the Edge with Split this Rock

He read, “The brevity of life/A flower blossoms.”

It was a one-breath haiku and it was, I knew immediately, a marvel. And yet I knew if he flipped the two lines, it would be an even greater marvel of a haiku. I asked if he’d try flipping the lines and see how it sounded. So he did, reading it aloud once more.

We were silent.

My other lefty, 23, Split this Rock

He looked at me again and said, “I see what you did there. I see what you just did. You and me, we just wrote a haiku.”

“I didn’t write that, you did, I just suggested you reverse the order. That is an amazing haiku. You have to hang it on the wall,” I said. Perhaps I commanded.

“I can’t believe it, I wrote a poem. I did it. You got me to write a poem. I just wrote a haiku. Thank you! Thank you!” He jumped from his seat, joy emanating from him.

Image by Bo Mackison

I saw what I did there. Did you? I became more than myself by helping someone else become more. That sensation was astonishing, and it carried my spirit for a few weeks. After a long break in which I’ve felt incapable of writing anything at all, I am writing.

Here I am. Do you see what I just did? I am writing.

Please comment. Let me know that you are here, write a haiku. I’ll answer.

 

 

 

 

KEY WORDS: HAIKU, JAPANESE FORM, ON THE EDGE, SPLIT THIS ROCK, HAIKUGRAM, LIFELONG LEARNER, LIFELONG LEARNING, NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, EAST WING, WASHINGTON, DC

Who Has the Words for Sorrow?

After my son Chad died, so many people wrote me and noted that they simply had “no words.” Others hugged me and said the same thing. What they had, I know, was love, for Chad, my family, and me. I understood just what they meant, for I had no words either, and no way to express the depth of sorrow, regret, and longing created by his death. As someone somewhere wrote, an entire chapter has been torn from the book of our family. It will never be rewritten.

The other day, I went into the basement to put in a load of laundry. When the kids were growing up, the boys were relegated to the basement, where they could fart, yell, make a mess, and create walls of Axe without causing me too much distress. I was home alone, trying to recover from a double whammy of the flu and then pneumonia.

And yet it seemed that someone else had been there. I don’t know why it felt this way, as if the doors had suddenly been closed, or the curtains pulled shut. I had an overwhelming sense that Chad was right next to me, and that if I could only turn my vision just so, I would be able to see him again, and hold him, and tell him how beloved he was, and how we missed him. I would be able to tell him to be at peace, and that it would be okay, that he could rest.

But I could not seem to turn. Instead, I cried. I tried to make myself laugh, remembering the time we had an earthquake and the two of us—Chad, over six-feet tall!–thought we should seek shelter in the bathtub. Times I heard him singing to himself. Times between times.

I cannot draw Chad, so I draw birds, flowers, an owl or two. Anything that for a moment feels like the words I wanted to say and never could.

 

 

Key words:

Chad Jameson, grieving, compassion, sympathy, what to say, loss of a child, support, saying goodbye, grief

When Chad Was 24, Grief Came Home

My son, Chad Jameson, was a fearless and loving man. He would have done anything for anyone. But he was not able to do what his own soul needed to end an addiction that he battled for a decade.

On Sunday, October 1, he died in a “recovery home” in Annapolis. He was 24. He would have turned 25 on October 7.

If all the people who loved Chad had been able to bottle that love as a cure, he would have been healed and come home again. In fact, any person facing any addiction would have been healed, and no one would have been left to suffer.

And Chad would have been able to come home at last, steady and smart. He’d have banged open our front door and smiled, then grazed through every cupboard in the house and the fridge, eating all food he could find (so long as he need not cook it).

He’d find his little brother, Ian, to wrestle him or arm wrestle or talk so fast I couldn’t understand their words. They would always smile and laugh.

If Gigi, my 3-year old granddaughter were around, he would play with her–or any other child–and make them laugh and feel special and beloved, because Chad himself was still an 11-year old boy, so desperate for the love that vanished when he was three and his mother died in a car crash. How I wish I’d loved him more.

He was so smart and sweet. When he was about four, he heard something about Israel on the radio and said, “Israel? Is Israel real?” He loved the play of words.

I always thought or hoped that when he “hit bottom,” he would come into his own, and touch the lives of children with joy. Instead, may the lives touched by his short life, by his love and, sadly, by his dying, be strengthened. May then know that there is no shame in asking for help. That medication saves lives. That addiction is a disease.

Every life is more than its actions. Every life is the Light it brings to us all.

Please God, let Chad fly at last as the brilliant star dust from which he came, and when we look into the dark and are afraid, let that fearless kid who tried swimming across the ocean to get to Europe that time he was 4 turn his face to home, so that his laughter might lift these heavy hearts. I was not ready for goodbye, nor were any of the broken spirits here, with the holes in our lives. Let his bright Light shine in us and on us. For the ones we love are never far from us. Call their names, pray to them, sing their favorite songs, whisper–they will always come.

How to Cope with the Cycle, Not Stages, of Grief

I was invited to write about grief for a popular website, so I have been thinking about it, and what I might write. So many have written and sung and drawn their experiences of grief and loss. What could I add to that canon?

I found myself thinking of something my friend Reuben mentioned so many years ago after his dad died–that the sight of a dapper older man walking down the street with a hat tipped a certain way could start his  grief all over again.

For me today, it is this blizzard. In February 1994, I was a single mom of three under the age of 5. My granny, who had bought the house next door to mine so that she could stay near to help with Conor, my first baby, had fallen and broken a hip.

That summer, my uncle had built a back step to the deck off my kitchen–low rise, long run– so that she could come straight across the yard and in the backdoor, bypassing the steep stairs out front.

When she came home to recuperate from the broken hip, my job was to get over in the morning, to check on her and get her set up for the day.  Alyson, my youngest daughter, was a month old, so I would strap her in a Snugglie under my maternity coat, and bundle up Conor and Meredith, ages 4 and 2, in snow clothes.

Someone would inevitably need to go potty the minute I had them all dressed. But eventually, we would tromp across the ice and snow to my Grandmother’s house. I would pray not to fall with the baby strapped on.

The deep snow today reminds me of that winter, and a year in which I lost my marriage and my grandmother. I was  thinking about how much I still miss her, and also how I did not know to appreciate her more. I expected her to live forever, even though I was old enough to know better.

When Conor was a newborn, I would get  irritated with my two grandmothers–who only ever loved and helped me–because they had so much advice for me about what to do with that colicky baby.

They wanted to hold him all the time, take him from me and urge me to rest, or shower, or work on a freelance job. My Grandmom Hourihan (Graom) would arrive every weekday morning around 8 to take him to the living room so that I could get some sleep. My Grandmom Lynch (Meme) would come every Tuesday and sit in a chair with me and sing The Tennessee Waltz.

Before our move to the exurbs, my mother, Mary, and my great aunt, Anna, who both worked nearby, would come by for a cup of coffee and a sandwich. I was lucky to be surrounded by their decades of experience, but too foolish to know it.

Now that I am a grandmother, too, I know it. I understand what my grannies were about, beyond helping me with adjust to motherhood.

Holding a baby is a brief touch on the future; the old know that our time for holding babies is limited, and that we will become invisible before we become nothing. I know that my times of holding babies is long gone, save the few times a week that my grandbaby allows me to carry her.

An artist friend died earlier this month–alone and unexpectedly at the age of 73. Luckily he was a writer, so I am able to hear his voice through his blog, Waterfall Road. A friend of his posted this from TJ’s blog, 2014:

I don’t believe this is the path of my enlightenment in one lifetime. I see it a cycle through this lifetime in self-awareness, saying in signs I’ve done well not to get side-tracked, passing through opportunities for distraction, indulging some and letting them go, returning to the flow, allowing the flow, trusting the flow that just keeps rolling along. 

More than ever, I feel myself in that flow, as TJ said. It will just keep flowing along, always forward, never back. How I wish I could flow back to 1994–not the bad times–so my grannies could once again give me their accumulated love and wisdom and heart. I would make a pot of coffee with plenty of cream, and we would admire my beautiful babies.

“Doll,” my Grandmom Hourihan would say, as I fretted over some milestone or misbehavior or worry, “Slow down. It’s over before you know it.”

Or as Iman posted  on Instagram about  David Bowie  dying, “sometimes you will never know the true value of a moment until it becomes a memory.”

 

Keywords: grieving process, grieving loss of relationship, grieving for celebrities, grieving process for friends

Bowie Tribute on The Health Care Blog

Thanks to the editors at www.thcb.org for featuring my tribute to David Bowie and one of my favorite songs, Ground Control to Major Tom.  I’ve contributed to THCB in the past, but always about health policy. I’m glad to have found a kindred spirit there, who can appreciate that we do, in fact, mourn our icons and celebrities and public figures, who come to represent and even become a part of a time and space in our own lives.

I have since colored the image and hope others will find it mysterious, joyful, with a bit of longing for a time when life seemed that it truly might last forever.

Bowie in the stars

And just in case you’d like a clean copy of your own to color, feel free to try this version–but be sure to share what you come up with!

The stars look very different today

The stars look very different today

Dreaming of Margaret

There are no ghosts for me to fear.
When you arrive here, mid-dream, post-
midnight, you appear whole and rested,
your mind ready and quick as ever.
We get on with things.

You are dressed in our favorite shade
of purple–you were the only grown-up
who dared love such color in my Seventies
childhood of mustard and green. I wanted
to be just like you: confident enough
of what I could do to do it.

Tonight, you must be near, reminding
me of things I have forgotten.
Just one more time, we stand side
by side and cheer our candidates
and make poor jokes. We walk
arm in arm, to New York City

and a theatre. Your diamond smile,
your perfect hair. The best day
I’ve had all year. Then the dog

barks and the sun snaps
through the blinds. To find
you, I see, I need only
close my eyes.

 

on a wing and a prayer, 1

LAST WALTZ

for Grandmom

 

Grandmom in Alaska

Because she believed, I did,
all those Sundays she filled me
with forbidden fruits,
a grandmother’s reward
for having persevered. Everything
tastes better with sugar,
even oranges and secrets
kept from home.

In old St. Jerome’s church,
we’d kneel for communion,
long after my parish priest
had dispensed with being
an intermediary for God,
and handed me a wafer
All that was holy
flourished in my palm.

The years sped by so fast,
time invisible as angels.
Now, though belief is less rote,
I mouth her prayers
to lift her journey
to its end. If there were candles
I would blaze a trail.

I smell her Noxzema kisses
and count pennies won
at gin rummy, and remember
how I danced on her toes
and she laughed.
“Step lively,” she’d say.
“Here’s your hat,
what’s your hurry?”

Surely, now, some light-
footed prince has freed
a card for her and swept
her away in a drift
of stars, a cascade of ‘wow’
a mystery that sets
her free.

Key words: poetry, end-of-life, vigil, grandmothers, family, grief

All Soul’s Day

For Grandmom
June 26, 1915-November 4, 1994

I was born into a golden dream
of an old woman’s heart.
She held me when others could not,
rubbed my ear, whispered lullabyes,
rocked me hard or soft.

I thought I’d always be her doll.

What I held for granted vanished
that November, all the gold
in the world could not have saved us.

My turn to whisper, then, holding
her rosary in both our hands,
my incantations some lament
I could not name. I thought she’d always
be mine to love. Our souls surely rested
together in  worlds that do not end.

What would I trade
for one more moment
in the corona of her love,
science of her affection,
calculation of her black pen
working problems in ink
until I understood what ‘x’ equaled?

I would always be her doll.
We could pack the car again,
drive out into the night,
just over the speed limit,
me in my pink seersucker skirt,
her with a map and quarters
enough for any toll.

What river could we not cross,
to get back on that highway
that lasted beyond night?

 

tags: grandmothers, love, grief

 

Orders

what did I mean to save
that day I stood pounding
your chest, fired by urgency
that was not love
but habit
a current that ran once?
I felt it for years
even after it had stopped
and you could not deliver

what did I hope would return
to life that night
with my desperate pleas
my counted breaths
my lips pressed hard
to yours, together

what was left
in the cold spaces
between us, the disruption
like Arctic air pushed south
to Tampa. We were tangled
up in wires

if only I had shut off
that device, the one that jolts
me awake lonely nights
when I reach across a smooth sheet
for your rough hand
closed into a fist
you will never open

key words: DNR, love, grief, poetry, Janice Lynch Schusterleaves on fire