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.






Wild-Eyed Poets and Basketball Stars

My father is a lifelong “wild-eyed sports fan.” A native Washingtonian, his childhood revolved around the Senators. One year, he bolted across home plate to shake Roy Sievers’ hand as Sievers crossed home plate after scoring a walk-off home run for the Washington Senators.

I’ve written a few short articles in The Washington Post about Dad’s near-legendary sports-triumphs: the time he sneaked into the White House, along with the Championship Washington Bullets, and had hot dogs with First Lady Rosalynn Carter. His longing to see his beloved Nationals take a pennant, or the World Series continues to keep him moving.

And there is the love he and my sister and I have for going to  Bruce Springsteen shows. Even Dad stands for the legendary encores, and the lights-up tent-revival sing-along of Born to Run and Thunder Road.

A bookworm, too, in his retirement, Dad has developed a callous on his elbow where it rests on his favorite reading perch, the porch swing of his house. Because I am a writer, he has always passed along must-read books and suggested writers.

For years, he has plied me with dog-eared copies of Sports Illustrated as proof that the greatest writers in any medium are sportswriters (my favorites include George Plimpton and his Miami Notebooks and just about anything by  Frank Deford).   Like Dad, I’m sure that at the top of their game, sportswriters are our true poets and storytellers–not, by the way, content creators.

The most recent addition to that list may be new-to-me novelist and sportswriter, Jack McCallum. His Summer 2017 profile of Tom Meschery, poet, teacher, and former NBA star. Check out Meschery’s blog on sports, literature, and news. But first, grab SI, find a porch or imagine one, and swing for a moment as you read.

Believe: The Healing Presence of a Compassionate Physician

Note on this: The process of getting to press in a magazine I revere, The Sun, is arduous, and my interview with my dear friend, Raymond Barfield, was more than a year in the making. Ultimately the introduction that I wrote led to lots of negotiations. So for those of you who might find the basis of our friendship of interest–and some insights on how Ray thinks about the world, and the role of music and language in his heart and practice, here is my unpublished introduction. I’d love for you to respond to it.

Ray Barfield and I first met in the resort town of Hammamet, Tunisia, where the World Health Organization had gathered people from around the world to talk about a new concept, “decent care,” and HIV/AIDS, and dying. It was January 2009, and Obama was about to be inaugurated. Whenever I walked through the souk in the resort, merchants would shout at me in different languages until I turned my head at the sound of English, and be cajoled in to some behind-the-counter drink of tea with mint and pine nuts and conversation about America. Other conference attendees would wave at me quizzically as they rushed to the next session.

I don’t remember talking with Ray during the five or six days of meetings. At meals, I wanted to sit with people who were from places I would likely never see: Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Uganda. Ray, an attractive curly-haired pediatric oncologist from Duke University, did not strike me as exotic. He was just another middle-aged American man, and I’d seen enough of those.

hammamet arch

During our daily meetings of endless discussions, Ray seemed brilliant in what he had to say about the dying of children, and the new mix he hoped to build at Duke, where he had just joined as a professor of medicine and divinity. He was great when it came to arguing about words, like subsidiarity, which most English-speakers did not know, and the others—from the Middle East, India, Africa, Europe–could not translate. It turned out that Ray is a philosopher, too with a Ph.D. earned after he completed medical school.

On the long trip home, I had a several-hour layover in the Charles deGaulle Airport. I was flying business-class, and the lounge was comfortable and bright. I spotted Ray, hunched over and writing something in long hand, and took a seat across from him.

He told me that he was working on his novel, which a major publisher had expressed interest in. I remember thinking I’d really had enough of doctors who, it seemed, were so brilliant that just being able to heal the sick was not enough for them. I was tired, and, honestly, just jealous. For the next few years, we kept up via Facebook.

But in early 2013, I developed what has proven to be an intractable neuropathic condition, one that was accompanied by a year of such stress and loss and sorrow, I thought that I would die. I didn’t know any pain experts, had trouble finding one who would see me—and then remembered that Ray, as a pediatric palliative care physician, would know about pain. I emailed him for help, and he responded with a copy of the very latest research, which detailed the benefits of combining opioids and anti-siezure medications. Back and forth we went by email, as I tried desperately to find kind of relief.

From those early emails, an enduring friendship has evolved. It turned out that, like me, Ray wrote poetry, too, and had a book out called, Life in the Blind Spot. We traded books, although styles were different, out love of language was not. Indeed, our intentions were always the same: to make something beautiful and enduring that matters.

When medication after medication did not help, Ray suggested that my best path to healing would be to spend more time looking for beauty, or to make it when I could not see it.

He told me about his approach to his own life, one that includes all the usual issues of being a husband and father and citizen—and the complex issues of caring for very sick and fragile children, of whom 100 will die each year. (The math on that number is bleak: that is two children each week, no matter what Ray and his brilliant colleagues offer.)

Ray said that he imagines his own life to have come with a bag full of golden coins., which he cannot see or count. Each day, he pulls out one coin, and considers how to spend it. Once it is spent, he says, it can never be reclaimed. And so, he urged me, spend that coin on something valuable.

Ray is at once miserly and generous with those coins. Most of his are spent in a hospital unit, managing bone marrow transplants, or pain in children with sickle cell disease, or playing his beloved guitar for a child in the ICU, or listening to desperate and grief-stricken parents.

Other days, rare ones, the coins go to his guitar playing or his writing. His first novel, The Book of Colors, came out in 2015. Written in the voice of a 19-year old biracial pregnant young woman whose mother has died in a crack house, Ray tells the story of Yslea as she makes her way to beauty.

When he is challenged at the seeming hubris of this—a middle-aged white professor from Duke talking in the voice of a young black woman—he bristles.

“Is there not room for imagination?” he asks. “Can I only tell stories through my own experience? Tell that to Faulkner.” Novelists must take the voices that come to them, Ray says.

I have spent some time at his home in Carrboro, where he is up at five each morning to build a fire near the desk where he will write for a few hours in longhand on plain sheet moleskin notebooks. Once his day begins at Duke, there will no time to write or dream.

The living room has no spare wall space—shelves of books collected over the course of a long marriage fill every wall from ceiling to floor. A stone fireplace is the room’s central focus, and the set-up reminds me of a church or an altar. The room is a peaceful place to be, and I am lucky to count myself welcome there (so long as I stay quiet while Ray lets the muse loose).

Our Sun interview began last October, on a crazy-fast car ride through the streets of Carrboro, where a fall festival was underway. Ray was racing to the home of luthier Wes Lambe to drop off his three guitars, which needed work if they were to sound the way Ray wanted them to.

As the two spoke, I had a glimpse of the artisan within the physician. Ray is deeply attached to his guitars, which, he says, have played a key role in almost every important moment of his life. Most recently, he has taught himself to play like the Australian guitar master, Tommy Emmanuel, a vibrant, layered, percussive sound which Emmanuel calls, “a harmonic cascade.

“Don’t fuck up,” Ray tells Wes as he snaps the last guitar case shut. Leaving those guitars, I sense, is a painful act of faith. If a tool slips, the luthier can easily compromise or destroy an instrument.

It is what the parents who leave their children in Ray’s care must do, too. And so too, the children who are old enough (that is, not infants) to understand what is happening to them. Patients give Ray their bodies, that they might be healed. One wrong move, and they are gone. So Ray works carefully with them, often at the very edges of what might heal.

People often think of doctors as mechanics, or compare health care to an autobody shop. It is far from that. The care of the sick and the dying is an act of the spirit, a glimpse of the holy. Ray knows that he is an artist—and he knows that healing is not always equivalent to curing.

For two days last fall, Ray and I hung out and talked. He can be funny—and he can be cruel. He can be full of beauty, and sometimes, every so often, a bit of grace, too.

This summer, we got together on a mission involving one of Ray’s guitars. He wanted Nils Lofgren, a rock-and-roll hall of fame musician, to sign the guitar. Arlo Guthrie had, Ray said, so why not Nils? Because Nils follows me on Twitter, Ray and I figured there was a chance.

After Lofgren’s show in Annapolis last spring, Ray and I stood in a long line, he with his guitar, and everyone else with their CDs and albums and t-shirts. Nils looked puzzled when Ray set his guitar on the table, but he smiled. I told him that this moment would bring Ray such joy.


Nils wrote, “Believe,”* and so Ray does, or tries, even when life makes that hard. Ray believes in heaven, but more often than not, it is of this earth.


key words: life of a pediatric oncologist, chasing spirituality, finding meaning, care for dying children, Duke School of Divinity, Duke School of Medicine, Dr. Raymond Barfield

Balance of Power in the Pharmacy

I meet a boy who carries a notebook in his breast pocket.
“That’s quite a weapon,” I tease, pointing to the blue stain
spreading across his lab coat. He is a man, but so clean-shaven
and slim, he seems young enough to be a child.
High school job, I think, or between classes.
We wait for my pain pills, which the pharmacist measures
so slowly, he could be using coffeespoons.
His lilting accent assures me I will be relieved.
We are close to done, he says, counting pills.

We are far from it.

The man-child says he is two years
past the Navy, where he worked on ships that lined
the suffering shores of the world, witness to the worst
humans could visit on the living.

He tells me his thoughts move faster
than debris in a hurricane, and he gathers them
in the notebook, trying to piece
his life together again. If only he could collect
them all in one place, put a lid on them,
bury them deep, and move on.
Then, he says, he might find sense
in this incomprehensible place.

What is poetry that does not save nations
but souls? The kid mentions that he is a lefty,
able to spot four-leaf clovers in fields of grass and weeds.
He collects them in his wallet.

Life shoots dreams down. To him, I am one more old woman
with pain pills and worry and grey temples and belly fat.
I want to hold his smooth young hand in mine
and tell him how little we know but this:

words, gathered like storm clouds
on a horizon can unleash a torrent
that changes the landscape of this world.
What’s in his mind, he says, he cannot see.
But it is there, and ready.
He did not sail so many seas, he promises,
for his voice to be lost in the wind.

key words: Janice Lynch Schuster, veterans, dreams, writing, creativity, poetry

A Day Late, but Never Short

Thanks to creative friends, I am participating in a 15-day blogathon hosted by C4Atlanta, whose mission is to bring arts and creativity–and so, joy–to Atlanta and to others in the virtual community. Yesterday, Day 1, was spent in a car, driving through the perilous, dark winding roads of rural West Virginia, trying to get to a ski resort before today’s big storm hits. On the way, in the midst of the usual arguing with spouse, my son became quite ill, but paramedics checked him out, advised us what to do, and we got through the night. He is recuperating today, and I am watching the dark clouds gather outside the window. Slopes tomorrow, words today.

I did write a haiku for yesterday, about my view of my creative life. Here it is:

I pick up my pen.
Critic perched on my shoulder
Cannot slow me down

In response to today’s prompt-brief answers due to arthritic fingers:

1. Have been writing from the moment I knew how, and have always loved the feel of language, play of words, and opportunities to explore my experience, and develop its connection to others’.
2. Where is it going? Hoping to apply my voice to a new project, that I hope will be a biography of an extraordinary woman whose story and work absolutely inspire me. Writing connects people in so many ways, and it has connected the two of us. I cannot wait to tell her story.
3. How evolving? My first love was always poetry, but over the years, have learned to apply my poetic voice to longer, non-fiction work. For some reason, in the last few years, that voice of the essayist has really come to the fore. Some of that is simply because I write all the time. Everything is a possible source, and everyone is a story. I write and write and write.
4. Experience inspires me, and hearing stories from others always inspires me. I have found that my essays in The Washington Post and on Architects of Change for Maria Shriver touch other people. The best moment is when someone sends me a note or even calls to say, “I read your story. It is exactly like my experience. Thank you for telling it.”
5. What next? How to apply all that I know to the very disciplined work it requires to write a biography. I am wide open to suggestions and insights from others.

There! Day 2 of C4Atlanta! I did it.