Monday, March 19, 2012

How I Lost a Kite but Regained My Childhood

How I Lost a Kite but Regained my Childhood
Dangling 20 Feet above the Ground
In Which two Ladders, a Tree, and a Carpet Brush become Well-Acquainted

My cousin sent me a kite for my birthday last month. Today was windy and lovely. It was time to release my inner child. It was time to fly.

The kite worked beautifully. I let out all the string and watched the tiny purple diamond hover above me. Seeing it brought to my mind Al Andrews’ words in The Boy, the Kite, and the Wind: “The eternal wind will outlast anything that flies in it.”

The eternal wind was very strong today. It snatched the pink plastic reel from my hand and threw it across the yard.

My first thought was “Maybe it will catch on the tree!” Well, fate was kind today; it caught on the tree. My kite continued to fly above it.

I breathed a sigh of relief. I am no stranger to tree climbing. Two things are notable about my childhood: I read lots of very big books, and I was sort of a squirrel-ninja. When I was three, I climbed the rock bluffs at Palisades State Park in Illinois and passed people who were climbing with ropes. In elementary school, I could beat all the boys to the top of the jungle gym. I loved nothing better than climbing to the top of a tree in a high wind and holding on. This would be a snap.

Well, first of all, the branches were too high for me to reach. Rather than trying to shimmy up and ruin my new pants, I decided I would use a ladder. It would be quicker, and I wanted my kite back so I could keep flying. But I didn’t know where we stored ladders in our new house. When I checked one of the sheds, I found an ancient wooden ladder barely holding together. I decided that for my purposes, it would do.

I leaned it against the tree and climbed up. It’s a tall tree, but has lots of slender branches. Most of them were placed so that they’d poke me but offer no support as I climbed. I had to pull most of my weight with my arms, which are about as thick as spaghetti noodles.

My first plan was to find where the string was tangled closest to the kite. I would pull the kite in, take it apart, and then tamely pull the string from the tree. It would be easy. I used to be able to climb that high when I was younger.

Well, I also used to weigh about 50 pounds. And I also used to be a lot more flexible than I am now. And I also used to be fearless. At 19 years and about 140 pounds, some of the skinny branches just didn’t seem so friendly. I would have to stand on a branch less than an inch thick to reach the string. My better judgment told me no.

My next angle of attack was to get the reel. It was tangled on the farthest part of one of the lowest branches on the tree. It extended at about a 45 degree angle and was scattered with smaller branches that would make climbing difficult. The reel was at least 25 feet above the ground. I started up, but was dissuaded by all the poky little branches. Then I got a bright idea. I would find a better ladder, stand below the branch, and maybe be able to grab the reel with a long stick or something.

Well, my better ladder was six feet tall. I was not going to reach the reel from the ground.

Give up? Never. I wanted my kite, darn it. I put my game face on and changed into old jeans – something that never would have occurred to me to do when I was 6 – and started up the tree again.

I went back to plan A, but this time I had a weapon: a yellow telescoping carpet brush thingy we use to clean up dog hair. At its longest, the handle was about four feet. The brush made it into a long T. If I could wrap the string around the end, I bet that I could pull it in toward me.

Three different branches couldn’t get me close enough to use it. Carrying it made climbing much more difficult. I had to stick it somewhere above me where it wouldn’t fall while I climbed up to it push it forward again.

Finally, I threw it onto the tricky branch with the reel. It stayed, but I didn’t know how long it would. I had to get over there quickly to try, try again.

The kite danced merrily above. I could hear it flapping in the eternal wind.

When I was younger, I might have walked up that tricky branch like a monkey, using my hands and feet. Apparently the part of my brain that judges distance to the ground is more developed now. I scooted up that branch on my stomach, smushing all the smaller branches that were trying to poke me. By the time I got to the carpet brush, the branch was bent almost horizontal.

I was lying on a 2-inch thick branch 20 feet above the ground. I was fully visible from the highway running past my house. I was wielding a yellow carpet brush, and I was determined. I would detangle that kite reel. I would fly again. I would be victorious.

I held onto the brush as the wind tossed the branch about. The end could just barely reach the kite string. I succeeded in pulling the reel off one branch. Now the string was just tangled above it. When I tried to pull it down, it got stuck on little bud-bearing twigs. I pulled, but tentatively – if the string broke, the kite would probably work itself free and fly away.

Then I got the idea to tangle the string around the end of the brush and drop it. Maybe I could reach the end of the handle using something with the ladder on the ground. I very carefully flailed the carpet brush. When it looked good and tangled, I dropped the end. The whole brush fell to the ground. The string stayed where it was.

After scooting very uncomfortably back down the branch, I employed my next tactic. I climbed down the tree, down the rickety wooden ladder, retrieved the brush, and climbed up the steel ladder below the reel. I would throw the brush like a javelin. It would get tangled in the string, weigh the branch down, and allow me to pull the reel back to me. What could be simpler?

I don’t think most Olympians use telescoping javelins. On my first throw, the handle snapped closed with the throwing momentum and flopped to the ground.

I threw again. And again. And again. I put some spin on it. I tried throwing it with the handle collapsed and at its full length. Finally, the wind blew the flying carpet brush into the barn, where the brush broke off and the whole thing came down in two pieces.

From where I sit on the porch, I can still see my lovely purple kite flying, tail streaming, tugging at the tree holding it down. I can see the pink plastic reel dangling on the branch. I can see my failure.

I got scraped up and made a spectacle of myself to passing cars. I’m still picking bark out of my pants, and my feet are stained green and brown. I am kiteless.

But I spent an afternoon up a tree, just like I would have years ago. It’s a good day.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Peace, Love, Joy, and Dogs

Before coming to Taylor, the PA (equivalent to RA) on my floor emailed all of us, asking us to send pictures that reflected our decorating theme: Peace, Love, and Joy. I'm an artist, but I'm not very abstract. So I took some photographs of real things that make me feel peaceful, loving, or joyful. This was one of my pictures for Joy.

This is Kandy. Kandy's a Bernese mountain dog. My family had her for about five years. She was one of those giant dogs that thinks she's small enough to sit in your lap. She made an excellent pillow, and if you spent any amount of time loving her, she'd love you forever and ever.

I'm an animal person. My mom is a veterinarian technician, and I've worked at two vet clinics walking dogs and cleaning kennels. We now have two dogs and a cat at home, and I love both dogs and cats. The special thing about dogs, though, is how much they love people. They may be stupid or smart, obedient or ill-behaved, pretty or scraggly, but a dog that's been well cared for almost always loves its master unconditionally. Kandy was excellent at that. On a bad day, there were few things as comforting for me as sitting down next to her and giving her a big hug. She was a good dog.

But now she's gone. I've often complained that the worst thing about living in a dorm is you can't have a dog. But I think the worst thing now is that I won't be able to hug her when I go home for spring break.

A sparrow can't fall without God seeing, so His eye is probably on the great big lumbering Bernese mountain dogs of the world, too.

I sing because I'm happy
I sing because I'm free
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches over me.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Problem with Poetry

I recently got to attend a poetry writing workshop outside of class. It was pretty simple; we read some poetry (Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Stanley Kunitz, and Wisława Szymborska), discussed a few elements, wrote, and then read aloud and critiqued each other's poetry.

The conclusions I drew from the exercise were this: if I want to write more poetry, I need to read more poetry. Consequently, I pulled my Sonnets of William Shakespeare and a book of Charles Baudelaire off my shelf to be looked at more closely. I've also been recommended quite a list by an extremely literate acquaintance. Second, and less concrete: the problem and beauty of poetry is that it's very subjective.

The poem I wrote for the workshop is short. I don't think it's high literature, but I enjoy it. It's called Hopeful.

The poet seems to live on paths
Places behind, at hand, and places ahead
While everyman simply wanders past
in fear, blind to poetry in "dead."
With hearts in rapture, some sing of heaven
While darker tongues, they mutter of hell.
I walk along with clearing vision
Where I go, my voice will tell.
My heart lingers like the others
But is quickened by the dreamed-of things.
Change my path? You cannot offer
Hopeful's heart the dreamed-of wings.

I got some good feedback. People asked about word choice, fiddled with meaning and viewpoint, and in general it was a very positive experience. There's only one problem: I like it the way it is. Maybe I'm just ignorant of devices and meaning in poetry. I certainly don't know much, but I do enjoy reading it, and I'm very analytical. I was probably one of the most vocal in critiquing, but I tried to be positive and helpful. I hope the other participants were impacted as positively as I was.

But there are many different styles. I like zany, quirky poems with abstract meanings, but I tend to be more impressed with structured poems with a sharper focus. I like dreaminess. I like unusual phrases. I like a great many things, but it's hard to define what makes a great poem for me, and  what I think is great certainly won't sit well with everybody. My abovementioned literate acquaintance doesn't care for T.S. Eliot, but The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock is one of my favorite poems.

Also, poetry is personal. You may be writing for an audience, but I feel like poetry is more reflective of self than many other forms of writing. Hopeful says what I want it to say. Changing it might make it more accessible to others, but it is really for me. This is why criticism can hurt, in writing in general and poetry in particular. It's a piece of one's self that's been nursed and painstakingly built into existence, or else blindly dashed off in a surge of emotion. Either way, unless you're really just looking to make it better by whatever standards the literary gods that be have put forth, I don't think it's meant to be changed for the sake of being someone else's "better."

I analyze literature. I declare some things to be better than others, and some agree with me. Some of what I say may even may be true. But the really personal aspects of literature? I don't think those can rightfully be declared good or bad. And that is my problem with writing poetry. I write it for me, for amusement, for crystallization of thought. Maybe something great will come out of it someday. But the truth remains that where I am -- writing poetry for myself, unattended by an audience to determine what is good and what is bad -- workshops like this will be interesting, but always subjective. I think that's what I like about poetry, actually.