Thursday, February 7, 2019

Meaning-Maker Essay - Writing Exercise Model

I asked my students to do this assignment I call a Meaning-Maker Essay. Out of respect for their time and in solidarity with their struggle, I did the assignment myself.

The were to gather bits and pieces of their own unfinished writing as raw material. Then they had to mine for gold by choosing ten phrases that they liked for some reason. Then they had to pan for gold by finding ten words from those ten phrases. Then they had to chose five words and write four sentences after each word. Each of the four sentences had to be either (1) Descriptive, (2) Narrative, (3) Illustrative, or (4) Analysis of process. What results is a Meaning-Maker Poem. Then, by expanding ideas and rooting the meaning of the poem in the essay format, they had to write a Meaning-Maker Essay.

This was the long process of pre-work for writing a personal essay. I wanted to show them that the process could lead somewhere, and it did. This is what I made of it.

Raw Material

The House of God
I am an atom of the mass of all
And the gravity that I have
Attracts what I need
To slide through infinity to me
To make what I want

I am a conduit of life’s consciousness
And every thought is a spore
Spawning a blessed expression of reverence
of the infinite creative force

I am a reflection of life’s perfection
And every moment is now
And now is everywhere
And even those who have passed on
Live there

Energy moves through me
I am an atom of the mass of all

Never had sleepovers with my boys at my house
Cuz I never had the real good toys at my house
Never had sega genesis or a mongoose bike
Never had the Jordan basketball or the shoes with lights
I bought my first nikes with my own money at 14
After slanging campaign flyers all over New Orleans
I shared one pair of girbauds with my sister
Splashed bleach on my jeans
Drew Bart Simpson in the white spots to hide the fact that they were Lees
See mama had a middle class profession
with working class pay
Raised three kids on $35K
Special Education, librarian night shift
And she earned herself a masters degree as a gift on her 50th
See my mama was a lower 9 soldier
So I don’t know how to bow
And I ain’t built to fold up

Daddy from the 7th ward
Mama from the nine
That means I got a hard head
And I don’t mind dying
But I’m trying to live
And leave something for my kids
So I hustle every day to handle biz

A time for rhyme
If we make a place for poetry…

You can rhyme polemic politics with their endemic opposites
Unify a divided nation with alliteration
Make a symphony of a cacophony
Juxtapose to forge a closeness between opposed forces
Make a consonance in the spaces between consonants
If we connect vowels like the waters connect continents
Rhyme crosses every border
And in chaos
Rhyme brings order
Now is the time for rhyme
If we make a place for Poetry

Mining for 10 Phrases

1.     Lower 9 Soldier

2.     Love those we loathe

3.     Make consonance in the space between consonants

4.     Connect vowels like the waters connect continents

5.     Juxtapose to forge a closeness between opposed forces

6.     I’m a conduit of life’s consciousness

7.     I am an atom of life’s mass

8.     Live in some now

9.     I’m trying to live

10.  Every thought is a spore

Panning for 10 Words

1.     Soldier

2.     Love

3.     Consonance

4.     Connect

5.     Opposed

6.     Conduit

7.     Atom

8.     Now

9.     Live

10. Spore

Meaning-Maker Poem

1.     Soldier…
Hard hands grip palms
Worry wept in sweat.
She said, “Whatever you want, baby,”
and walked me through the store, waiting at the edge of each aisle, unsure.

2.     Love…
A warm breath spun a web of whispered wisps of hope
when mama kissed my cheek
she said, “Love you, baby,”
and pressed the button, and pressed the gas, and pressed on to work.

3.     Now…
Between blinks—brief black breaks from the blinding busy—
while all the world wobbled and toggled between day and night—
she said, “How was school, baby?”
She put palm to calf and squeezed and released, and breathed deep, raised
her feet

4.     Live…
She is boxed in a frame—twenty years of loss congealed in the gloss of film.
I light the candle and bow my head to the flicker of flame.
She said nothing, but her picture spoke in a vision, “I live.”
I finished the prayer. I placed the burning wood on amethyst. I sighed.

5.     Spore …
A pudgy hand—small, but certain—pushed my knee forward.
I snap my leg straight to hold myself in place.
She said, “what you doing, daddy?”
I picked her up, pointed to my mother, and told her why I pray.

Meaning-Maker Essay

My mother was a soldier. That’s what we call people in the N.O. who survive the floods even though they can’t swim. Soldiers push through fear. She pushed through that and lack and loss and worry. Her hands were hard from all the pushing through. I knew this for sure the one time she slapped my face. I knew it because it stung for miles as I hung my head and cried.
We were in the sky blue Caravan. It was after school. I was a wise fool spewing truths I knew in my long youth. “You racist against your own people” for not letting me ride the bus, I accused. She responded with a slap that said, as a matter of fact, I will die before you disrespect my struggle.
She had fought white boys in the 1950s to get her siblings home safely. She had had her finger broken by a wild boy, 13 in fifth grade. She had grown up in the Lower Nine, the part of New Orleans that floods the whole world with memories of suffering. She had given her life to the children of a poor city, in whom the weight of the worst of the world had crystalized. A word to the wise would not have done.
I needed to feel the hardness of her hand, this little, thin woman. I needed to know the sound of her flesh. I needed to stiffen my neck against the force of her fury. I needed to hang my head and cry.
Thirty years later, twenty years after she’d died, I hung my head again. I had lit a stick of Palo Santos to cleanse my body of night of worries. I faced my mother, boxed in a frame, frozen in the last healthy year of her life. I had laid the smoking stick under her image, when through tears I’d been swallowing for years, I said thank you. And she rose with the smoke like a returning soldier, and washed over me. I hung my head and cried.
Loss has taught me a lot of things, mostly how to find. When you lose your mother, your father, your brother, you have to find your way forward. The way for me ain’t been no crystal stair. The only way out has been through. Yet, in the space made by these pillars of my life falling as waves do, I’ve found a way. I pray—not to any God you might recognize or any saint you might study. I don’t pray to any secret or sorcery, or to the sun in the sky above me. I pray to the words themselves as they come, that they might turn into flesh. And with deep, deliberate breaths, this is the prayer I have kept: Let me be an instrument of your intention, a conduit of your consciousness, a reflection of your perfection. Let me be your hands now.
Maybe God is listening. Maybe my mother hears. Maybe the words fall on the deaf. Regardless of where the words fall, may they continue to rise in my breath. May they march across fields of time. May they trench in life’s gravity. May they launch to trace my life’s trajectory. May my words be soldiers, that go forth, onward ever, and may they return in peace.
My mother was a soldier and the last words she would ever speak told of her final fight before her final flight, “Where you been?” She’d been waiting for me. And the last sound she made was a song of even tone—a vibrato underneath—“lead me, guide me along the way”. She took my hand and let go.