Finding the Words: A Visit with Naomi Shihab Nye
By ANN V. KLOTZ
Ann is the
Headmistress of The Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Laurel School, founded in 1896, is a nationally recognized, college preparatory, independent day school for girls, kindergarten through grade 12, with a coeducational early childhood program.
The poet Naomi Shihab Nye visited our school in April. The week was chilly, daffodils trembling, uncertain of the temperature; in Cleveland, spring does not mean frost has finished. But the air around Naomi was warm and light. “Write what you see,” she invited the children. “Write about that squirrel looking in at us. Write about the daffodils outside the window.”
From the minute she arrived, clad in patterned tights and lugging a bag of books that was heavier than a barbell, I knew her. She was, as Anne Shirley says in Anne of Green Gables, a kindred spirit.
The fact is, I did know her, very slightly. I had read her poems for years and attended a conference in San Antonio some years ago because she was on the docket. I wanted to see her, to hear her read her own words. I was entranced by her authenticity, her calm. Once, I remember at a reading I went to in Arizona, someone asked Barbara Kingsolver if The Bean Trees had been based on her life. “I’m a writer,” she explained so patiently. “I make up stories. I don’t put toddlers in my car and drive them across the country.” But it felt as if Naomi’s poems were her own life, accessible, ordinary. After that reading, I declared myself a fan, sheepish, embarrassed by my effusion, but determined.
“Please come to my school,” I implored.
“I will,” she answered, simply.
And three years later she did. Three years because she is a busy, popular poet. Three years because we needed to raise the money and get on her calendar. Having Naomi come to Laurel felt like Christmas and my birthday and Hannukah rolled into one. I was tingly with anticipation for three years!
And she came.
And we loved her—all of us. We fell in love. A coup de foudre as the French say. Head over heels. From wise English teachers to those more dubious in other disciplines. From Upper Schoolers attentive, laughing when she read of confusing a private home for the McVeigh Museum at 17 to Middle School girls listening closely, writing lists, making poems, being heard by Naomi, whose attention is absolute. Third graders in the audience at the evening reading were rapt. She read the night of the Boston Marathon bombings, but I guiltily put that horror from my mind for a glorious hour. A girl whispered to me, “Ms. Klotz, she is cool—I did not know poets could be so cool.” She told us about her dress—it had come from the closet of a much taller friend who had died, a textile artist, whose children could not bear the idea of not having their mother’s works of art in the world; so Naomi and another friend went to their dead friend’s closet, and Naomi chose the tunic she wore that night, which was almost full length on her.
In Naomi, there was an openness that suggested possibility and hope, secrets revealed. And the poems were glorious. Her simplicity, her seeming lack of mystery, belie, I suspect, the decades she has committed to the craft of writing poetry. She wears her expertise lightly; it feels homey, as if one could make a poem as easily as one makes a project on Saturday morning at the kitchen table with glitter, glue, some uncooked pasta and construction paper. Her craft is like Naomi herself in the tunic that belonged to her dear friend—empathetic, gorgeous, but practical, not tucked away from the world in a closet, but on display in a way that is both humble yet unapologetic.
And then she said it. “Grown ups,” she said, “have a way of talking themselves out of the things they want to do.”
Was she talking to me? I felt my bluff had been called by a tiny, formidable visiting poet, who had looked inside of me, whose indictment of the excuses routinely made seared me. Why wasn’t I writing? Why was I putting barriers between myself and the page? Why had I persisted in keeping myself from what I loved for almost twenty years?
“I’m a working mom,” I whined—“there’s never any time. I’m so busy. I always have schoolwork to do, the dishwasher to empty, rooms to tidy”… hollow excuses even to my own disbelieving ears. But I couldn’t find the habit again.
From 14 till my late twenties, I wrote every day—journals, letters, stories, poems, plays. And then I lost a baby, a miscarriage right after we finally shared our joy with the world. That grief stopped the words. I felt too sad to write though I had done so gratefully in an earlier chapter.
When my brother died in a car accident in August, I returned to school after Labor Day numb, a tenth grader, conscious of the stares and pity my presence evoked. Waiting in the Upper School corridor was Mrs. Goppelt, English teacher, savior, who said briskly, “You cannot be scheduled for creative writing, so we’ll do it one on one. You will write. I will read your work.” This was the 70s on Philadelphia’s Main Line. The WASP mantras of “Stiff upper lip” and “Pull up your socks” suggested that sloppy grief was, unbecoming. Mrs. Goppelt’s steady, kind gaze made it possible for me to express my sadness and rage, to write my feelings because my parents, heartbroken, could not listen to all I needed to say. So, with copybook and cartridge pen, I began the work of healing. And Mrs. Goppelt collected my composition book each week and wrote back to me for three years. Words were a lifeline until I lost them.
To be honest, I did not lose them all together; I have always written plays with kids, but I make them in collaboration, with production in mind. As an English teacher and headmistress of a girls’ school, I write lots of missives and reflections. I teach writing—how to structure an analytical essay, how to craft Elizabethan sonnets. I have written endless college recommendations and thank you notes and the occasional response to a letter from an unhappy neighbor. Last winter, with the teacher’s permission, I wrote for our young son, who hated handwriting so much that he would condense his intricately plotted stories into narrative haiku if he, himself, were forced to hold the pencil. Free of the torture of forming legible sentences, his imagination soared. I applauded his use of sensory detail, his varied sentence pattern—after all, I know good writing. I enjoyed serving as his amanuensis.
But over the past year, I began to notice an insistent voice, muttering reproachfully, “You should write again.” Not for work. For pleasure.
Recently our school suffered huge losses—the death of a beloved member of the maintenance staff, the sudden death of a Junior in an accident, the long battle lost to cancer by a member of the staff who was the mom of three daughters in the school, and the suicide of a member of the Board of Trustees. I wept and wept. Though I heard the voice, nagging me to do what helped, I turned away to the stack of ungraded papers or to a novel waiting on my bedside table. I had gone so long without writing.
“Grown ups talk themselves out of doing the things they most want to do,” said Naomi, persuasive in her quiet authority.
“That’s silly,” murmured one of my third graders. Indeed.
Naomi’s rules are simple: write 3 things—anyone can manage that. Write first thing in the morning. Keep a notebook and a pencil near. The tools a writer needs are cheap and portable. Write what you see. Ask questions. Play with words. If you write about what is around you, you will never run out of things to write about. “See that squirrel outside the library window?” she asked the Primary girls. “Ask the squirrel a question. Compare it to something. Now we begin to have a poem.”
Following her calm instructions, I began again. There was the day before Naomi came and the day after. And the words reappeared. I switched notebooks, from the big one that felt like too much pressure to a tiny purple one to tuck into my bag. I switched from pen to pencil, too—less permanent. And I wrote, for me, again.
In Naomi I discovered a new mentor—shaman, wood nymph, world traveler—rich in empathy and wisdom. Those who know Naomi know she is a fierce advocate for social justice, a conscience in leggings. Observing her time with the girls reminded me again that respect and dignity are essential to learning, to bettering our complicated world. When Naomi listened closely, carefully, each child’s comment mattered. Their faces opened to her, trusting and eager. They brought her their words and their dreams, and she received them kindly, respecting their courage. If Naomi ran the world, we would get more done because we would operate, always, deliberately, showing care and joy, noticing everything around us.
While she was at Laurel, I wished Naomi lived next door; recently, I am glad she doesn't. Her effect on my life might be less if she were always near. Knowing that she exists, glowing somewhere, makes me feel brave again about writing. Far away, she is rare, incandescent, precious, never taken for granted. Naomi is a pathfinder, a muse. There is magic in her wisdom, humor, kindness. In the days after she left, I felt charged, electric with the elixir she had offered.
Months later, I am still atingle, still in the writing habit I had punished myself by forsaking for so long. Next spring, I will not see daffodils without thinking of her love of these spring flowers, which do not do so well in Texas but thrive in chilly Cleveland. Naomi, I suspect, thrives in all settings; how lucky I am to have had her fingerprints on my life.
Editor’s Note: Naomi Shihab Nye was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1952. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother an American of German and Swiss descent, and Nye spent her adolescence in both Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas. Her experience of both cultural difference and different cultures has influenced much of her work. Known for poetry that lends a fresh perspective to ordinary events, people, and objects, Nye has said that, for her, “the primary source of poetry has always been local life, random characters met on the streets, our own ancestry sifting down to us through small essential daily tasks.”
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