The Odes of March

On: my smashed hand, an epic basketball move & an invitation to write

Greetings. If you’re new to Truth & Dare (thanks and welcome!), here’s how it works: Each month you’ll receive one Truth (a writing prompt) and one Dare (an artistic gesture in the world). I created Truth & Dare during the pandemic when I taught high school students online from around the city of Portland — it was a lonesome, isolating time with school abruptly cancelled and no real idea (at the time) about what the covid virus would do to us. It was originally intended to be one 3-week workshop, but we were so loath to say goodbye to one another that I wound up teaching five workshops back-to-back instead. The fact that there was a global pandemic unfolding in the background made the twice-weekly lifeline of Truth & Dare particularly vital for all of us, and the writing and art those students made was some of the most potent, vivid work I’ve seen.

Speaking of potent and vivid – thanks to all of you who mailed your beautiful messed-up weird, perfect collages – my replies are forthcoming! It’s not too late to get a bird collage in the mail, if you’d like, (details in the footnote).

In the summer of 2021, I was feeling very important indeed. The Street Books project would be featured in a national magazine, and I was invited to a photo shoot. My co-author and sidekick Ben “Hodge” Hodgson came with me, and we met the photographer at Skidmore Fountain, where I’d first encountered Hodge in 2011 when he lived on the streets in Old Town. We set up the bike library, arranged a few books, and I practiced striking a national magazine kind of pose. It was hot and windy, but I’d decided to wear my dapper black jacket, as it’s one of the only sort of dressy things I own. The wind between the buildings created a kind of tunnel so that as I leaned against the bike, a sudden gust blew the lid closed on top of my right hand and smashed it. It split the middle knuckle, began to bleed profusely and my hand swelled up like a mangled little baseball mitt. All of this happened without anyone’s notice, so I gamely pushed the lid open again and continued posing, hoping that I wouldn’t cover the books in blood, surreptitiously blotting the top of my hand to the back of my black pants. When I finally showed it to Hodge, he did a double-take and then set off to find some ice. Since most places downtown were still closed to the public, (stupid Covid), the only place Hodge could find open was the local strip-club, Mary’s. He returned with a clear plastic glove full of crushed ice, and I found relief with that cold hand resting on my own hot, swollen one.

Yes, the hand holding the books is dripping blood

There are plenty of morals that could be drawn from this story. Get too puffed up with pride, and the universe will slam the lid on you? Don’t wear a black jacket on a hot summer day? But I tell this story not to illustrate a lesson, but to mention my friend Hodge as someone I am beyond grateful for. Our friendship can be traced back to that first meeting at Skidmore Fountain and we have had so many grand adventures since. There’s nobody like him.

What things or people are you grateful for in this world? So grateful that you’d, say, devote an entire stream-of-conscious book-length poem to them? For the poet Ross Gay, the answer is a sick basketball move. To be precise, the gravity-defying reverse lay-up by Julius “Dr. J” Irving in the 1980’s NBA final game against the Lakers. He describes this sweet move in gorgeous detail in his book, Be Holding, but as with all great books, it’s about so much more than that lay-up. It’s about Black life and death, migration, witnessing, and unabashed gratitude for the beauty of the world.

Ross Gay is a poet who captures the details of everyday objects and interactions, rendering them with great enthusiasm into works like The Book of Delights, among others. His keen daily observations are distilled into compressed vignettes and each one is a nudge to the reader, as if to say Can you believe all this beauty? Dwelling in a mode of gratitude or a state of wonder isn’t easy, especially in life’s tedious or difficult moments, but it’s worthwhile just to try to cultivate the practice. Research has shown that mental health and well being can be boosted when one makes a regular practice of listing gratitudes. So with this in mind, I’d like to invite you to participate in something I call the Odes of March15 Minutes for 15 Days. Each day, from March 1st to March 15th, you’re invited to sing some praises: Write a 15-minute ode to something or someone you love.

What’s an ode, anyway? An ode can be praise of a person, place or thing. The word comes from the Greek word, aeidein, which means to chant or sing, and indeed, odes were often sung to celebrate victories at athletic events in ancient Greek times. Odes can take the old school rapturous mournful form, like John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” (in college I was like, yeah, Keats, I see your drowsy numbness and raise you one!), or new school celebratory forms like Chance the Rapper’s tender, cheeky ode to his grandmother in his song “Sunday Candy,” or Jamila Woods’ sizzling prose poem “Ode to Herb Kent.” Don’t worry too much about adhering to any traditional structure when it comes to writing odes — I usually just free-write toward a thing I want to pay attention to that day, then shape it after. Or leave it be. Past subjects of my amateur odes include: an ode to our giant maple tree, an ode to the rain, and “Ode to Black Black, Buried in the Yard.” If you want to brush up on your odes and watch a lesson that combines Keats and Chance the Rapper in one delicious ode sandwich, I invite you to make a cup of tea for this 23-minute lesson I created during the pandemic.

As I said before, it’s not easy to walk around in a state of beauty-inspired ecstasy these days, especially with the immense suffering happening in the world. But taking pause to note a bit of gladness might be exactly what we need in order to balance the despair that we’ll no doubt also encounter in the space of a day. It’s worth a try, anyway. Some years I’ve written just a few odes before getting too busy or distracted. So you should know that if you embark and then crash and burn, that’s also okay. One ode is better than no odes, and if you fail to write any, you can always submit a limerick instead, like my friend Hodge once did, when I’d gotten ahead of him:

You are two steps ahead down ode road / And I fear I have shirked off the load / I am steeped in such sorrow / But I’ll write one tomorrow / And that is the ode that is owed.

And now to this month’s Truth & Dare:

Truth: Get ready for the Odes of March next month. Make a quick list of all the things you are grateful for, for the things you love so much you want to sing it out. If you don’t have a writer’s notebook or journal, now’s the time to get yourself something special.

Dare: Go for a walk in your neighborhood and explore the ecosystem found on the backs of street signs, (it’s akin to lifting up a rock and studying the life teeming in the soil). Record some of your observations in your notebook, in the form of notes or a sketch, (and hey, this could be fodder for an ode).

I’ll publish a post on March 1st to get us going! Let me know how it goes, feel free to share lines in the comments. And if you are a high school teacher, please feel free to steal any ideas that are helpful, or use the whole lesson. Thank you for reading this far. You’re the best.

Note: I will be teaching my Art of the Letter workshop, in April (two Monday evenings, the 1st and the 29th, 6-8 pm, PT, via zoom). Renew your postal practice and sign up to write letters during the national letter-writing month. Sliding scale, $80-120. Email to reserve your spot, (no one turned away for lack of funds).

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