Baffled

Posted April 26th, 2014
Roommate and Tawfiqa

In my college dorm with a special room-mate,
my daughter, Tawfiqa

I just got back home from seeing the movie, “Heaven is for Real” and I’m baffled.

“Heaven is For Real,” based on a book of the same name, is the story of a four-year old boy who has a near-death experience. Once he returns to his body, he begins relating anecdotes of his visit to heaven. He’s quite matter-of-fact about it all. Sadly, no one else is. Not the members of the church board, who prayed fiercely for his recovery; not his mother who leads the church choir; not even his father, who is the church’s pastor. And that’s what’s baffling. A man acquainted with the holy scriptures, which declare the existence of heaven, in no uncertain terms; a man who has read about, and, I’m sure, preached on the promise that, when a believer dies, he or she will enter heaven and be greeted by loved ones who passed on, before—this man does not actually believe that his son has seen heaven, or that heaven physically, literally—not metaphorically—exists.

What is such a man doing in the pulpit? What exactly is his wife singing about every Sunday morning? Why do members of the church board bother to gather, at all? That is what baffles me. After all, when it comes to the Nicene Creed, Heaven and Hell, death, resurrection and eternal life are pretty basic.

In May of 1974, I rocked back and forth over the grave of my daughter, Tawfiqa, my one and only child. She died just before her fourth birthday. As a poet and author, it’s fair to say that I am quite the wordsmith. However, believe me when I say this: I do not possess the language to make you understand the depth of the pain I felt at the loss of my child. The pain I feel. The pain I will continue to feel until the day I die. What makes it possible for me to stand, let alone laugh and know joy in my life, is the certainly that I will one day see my precious child again. The Bible has taught me that. The Spirit of God has impressed that upon my heart. Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ who died on Calvary, then conquered death by rising again, did so, in part, to make that very reunion possible. If you believe that, as I do, you live your life with power. If you don’t, as the pastor in this film did not, then you live within the constraints of your own human power, which is to say, with no power at all. Let’s face it, human power is, at the end of the day, an illusion. I’m not interested in living with the limitations of man. Are you? But I digress.

My central question, here, is why anyone would pour himself into the work of the church universal if he doesn’t even believe in its most basic doctrines. And when he, for a moment, began to consider that maybe heaven actually was real, why did he care that people made fun of him for it? If, in fact, he’s going to heaven, he will most certainly have the last laugh. When people mock my faith, that’s what I hold onto. But then, he is not me.

Maybe the gentleman in this story was placed near the Light so that his own son could lead him fully into it. Yeah. That could be it. Of course, what this particular man was doing in that particular church pulpit is really none of my business. It’s God’s. Better I should direct my time and energy into feeling grateful—grateful that I believe in the Christ who died so that I could live for him here on earth, and with him some day in heaven; grateful that I can look forward to seeing my beautiful daughter, again, as well as my foster brother, and many others whom I’ve lost along the way; grateful that my belief in such things is matter-of-fact—not because such things aren’t miraculous, but because the God of the Universe has shown me miracles time and time again.

What about you? Have you run into any angels lately? Have you experienced the miraculous? Do you even want to? The one great power we humans have is choice.

The Problem with Poetry

Posted February 26th, 2013

For the record, just because a particular notion is repeated, over and over again, doesn’t necessarily make it true. The earth is not flat, nor is it the center of the universe. People of African descent are not intellectually inferior to the white race. And contrary to what you may have heard, over the years, from (well-meaning?) editors and agents, poetry can, and does, sell.

Pardon me if I presume to know what I’m talking about, but I am, in fact, sitting on a lovely sofa, set in a small, but beautiful home, paid for by a career built on writing children’s poetry and novels-in-verse. I believe that qualifies to say a thing or two on the subject, yes?

Poetry booksI recently spoke at a conference at which I heard it stated, unequivocally, that poetry doesn’t sell. When those words hit the air, I wanted to leap out of my skin. I’ve been hearing that old adage since I first entered this field more than 30 years ago. Had I, for a moment, taken that oft-repeated statement to heart, I’d have no career. The 50-plus books I’ve published, most of them children’s poetry, or novels-in-verse, would not exist. I would never have won the NCTE Award for Excellence in Children’s Poetry, nor awards for my body of work, or the ALA Notables, Coretta Scott King Award and Honors, or any of the other awards and citations my poetry has earned. None of it would exist if I’d believed that well-worn idea.

To be fair, if you are a poet, it is highly unlikely that you will become wealthy working in this genre, no matter how well you hone your craft. That much is true. But chances are, you already know that. I would wager that most writers, keen on this particular genre, aren’t looking to make a killing in the marketplace. They simply have a penchant for the lyrical line, and a passion for metaphor. Like me, they pen poetry because they, quite frankly, can’t help themselves. Poetry is in them. It’s part of their DNA. Poets don’t value their work in terms of fiscal weight, and that’s where we differ from agents and editors.

Agents and publishers are in the business of making money by selling books. We all understand that, although I wish interest in producing a rich and diverse variety of quality literature for the next generation, were more widespread. Still, we shouldn’t be surprised when agents and publishers push for vampire lore while the genre is hot, or discourage dystopian novels when they feel the trend is waning. Not so long ago, writers were dissuaded from creating books for teens, as there was yet no perceived market for them. That makes sense, right?

But. Aren’t we glad Judy Blume ignored the naysayers, back in the bad old days, and wrote novels for teens anyway? Aren’t we glad Jack Prelutsky and Shel Silverstein beat the poetry drum before verse was in vogue? Aren’t we grateful for Myra Cohn Livingston, and Eloise Greenfield, and Lucille Clifton, and Arnold Adoff, and a host of other poets who’ve enriched the lives of young readers?

poetry books and books-in-verse

I attended the first inauguration of President Obama, in 2009. One of my favorite moments of the ceremony was the reading of a poem. I love that poetry has played a part in inaugural celebrations of the past. Each time a poet has risen to that great podium it is a reminder that this genre has something substantial to offer. Poetry can provoke, challenge, disturb. It can soothe our souls, or spur us on to greatness. It can inspire, uplift, and make the heart soar. However, poetry can accomplish none of these things if it is not written.

I’m all for being honest with poets about the realities of the marketplace. I know that poetry, in the main, does not sell as well as prose. But it can, and does, sell. Is the field extraordinarily competitive? Absolutely. Is crafting quality poetry difficult? Of course it is. All good writing involves a huge investment of time, energy, and often, research. But that’s a lousy excuse for telling a gifted poet, who has a hankering for haiku, who eats and sleeps simile, who mires himself in metaphor that he or she should give up the very idea of penning poetry as a literary career.

Here are a few thoughts: the next time you come across a poet who clearly demonstrates a gift for this genre, don’t tell him to hide his light under a basket. Instead, tell poets to be smart about their choice of subject, to research the market to make sure their ideas haven’t already been done, to consider the needs of school curriculum and shape their work accordingly so that their books of poetry will be as marketable as possible. Encourage them to consider narrative books in verse—novels, biographies, historical fiction, creative non-fiction.

On the other hand, if the writer has no gift for this genre, tell him so. If his poetry is not topical, tell him that. If his poetry is not age-appropriate, tell him that. If you, personally, lack the know-how, or frankly, the interest in selling poetry, tell him that. But please, whatever you do, don’t tell a poet not to be a poet. That’s a bit like telling a leopard not to have spots!

ph_novelsinverseOne last thing: While poetry may, indeed, be difficult to place, it is not impossible. So please, please stop telling tomorrow’s poets that poetry doesn’t sell. If you do, you might as well tell them that New York Times bestseller Ellen Hopkins is a figment of our collective imagination; that Sonya Sones and Prince Honoree Helen Frost do not exist; that Newbery Honoree Joyce Sidman does not exist; that J. Patrick Lewis, and Naomi Shihab Nye, and Paul B. Janeczko, and Jack Prelutsky, and Sara Holbrook, and Jamie Adoff, and Tony Medina, and Marilyn Nelson, and Georgia Heard, and Marilyn Singer, and X.J. Kennedy, and Jane Yolen, and Margarita Engle, and Lee Bennett Hopkins, and Pat Mora, and Allan Wolf, and Gary Soto, and Eloise Greenfield, and Nikki Grimes, and a host of other working, publishing, award-winning poets do not exist. And that, my dears, simply isn’t true.

The Prince of Peace

Posted December 21st, 2012

NativityEvery now and then, someone in my life nudges me to write my memoir. I nod and make reasonable excuses for putting it off. I’ve got this children’s series to finish first; my comprehensive workshop notes require all my attention; I’ve got a conference keynote to prepare; my car needs a tune-up; the windows need washing; isn’t it time for a pedicure? Some of these are actually legitimate obligations, of course, but authentic or concocted, they all get in the way of progress on the memoir.

Someday, I’ll get around to crafting a complete memoir, but God keeps telling me that it’s time to share a bit of it, right now. No, I don’t hear voices, except for the occasional character from one of my stories. But God does effectively communicate to me through other people, through my devotionals, through his Word—pretty much any way that he can get my attention. Which, I admit, can require a considerable amount of effort on his part. Sometimes, I can see God banging his head against the wall of heaven, saying, “What is with this chick? Is she deaf?” Of course, we both know that I’m not, and sooner or later, God gets through, and I tell him, like I did this morning, “Okay, Lord. Message received.” He wants me to share, so I’ll share.

Ready? You’ll need to sit down for this one.

I once had a beautiful little girl named Tawfiqa. If you’re a dear and especially old friend, you know that. Otherwise, this may be news to you. I don’t talk about her much, mostly because I don’t want to go there. In 1974, my gorgeous girl drowned in a pool at the babysitter’s. She was just shy of 4 years old. I won’t try to convey the depth of my grief, because it was bottomless. Besides, language is thoroughly inadequate to the task. What I can tell you, though, is that, in all the years since, whenever I learn of the death of a child—anyone’s child—my heart is hurled back to the emotional tsunami of my own loss. What’s more, in those agonizing moments, nothing separates me from the mother of that other child. In that instant, the mother and I are one. As such, the massacre in Connecticut laid me low.

My immediate thoughts were not of the red-flag issues others raised following the massacre—gun control, mental illness, and the pervasive nature of violence in our culture. No. My immediate thoughts were of the mothers, whose hearts had just been ripped from their bodies, just like mine. No past tense was necessary. This kind of pain is present continuous. No language can approach or contain it.

Wrenching as this news was, and continues to be, I know exactly where to go with my grief. I gather the shattered pieces of my heart, and the hearts of all those mothers, and fathers too, and lift them up to God in prayer. I’ve had a bit of practice.

When my daughter died, all those years ago—yesterday?—a sound came out of me that was more animal than human. Then, once I could catch my breath, I began to whisper the most theologically sophisticated prayer I could muster: Help me, God. Please, help me. I followed that with three days of fasting, at the end of which I asked Jesus to come into my life and fill me up. And he did. Best decision ever!

Yeah, yeah, I know. You’ve heard it all before, but I don’t care. I had come to the end of myself, and I needed help to take that next breath. The child, who barely filled that tiny coffin, wasn’t just any human being. This was the precious soul I’d carried in my own body for nine months, the warm, wiggling infant I’d nursed at my breast. This was flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, and her sudden, horrific, inexplicable absence—from my life, from the world—sucked all the air from my lungs, and left me prone. The death of your child will do that to you. Even the memory clogs my windpipe.

In those dark days, I needed solace, comfort, and strength. I went to the Cross to find it, and I did. But I received something more, in the bargain. I was granted a gift of peace. I’m not talking about some warm fuzzy feeling, or numbness, or the absence of pain. No. I’m talking about an unfathomable, palpable, pure sense of peace about the loss of my child. Did that peace eclipse my grief? Not even for a millisecond. But it did sustain me throughout my mourning, and it gave me the assurance—no, the certainty—that there was both light and life-abundant for me at the end of this unimaginable, pain-painted tunnel. God’s peace made it possible for me to live, heart open and hopeful, going forward. And that, as they say, is worth shouting about.

In this technologically evolved age, many in our culture make light of the Christian faith, but it is no feather on the wind. It is stubborn, and sturdy, and more powerful than some imagine. What happened in and through me in the days following my daughter’s death made that clear to all those around me.

One evening, I got a call from the adult son of the babysitter—we’ll call her Jane. Jane, it seemed, was inconsolable. Since my daughter’s drowning in her family’s pool, Jane had taken to bed, wracked with guilt, swimming in tears, and unable to function. Her worried son asked if I would please agree to see her. I did.

I visited Jane’s home, the house in which my daughter had breathed her last, and I found a woman bereft indeed. She was unable to care for, or even engage, her own children, safe in the next room. It was impossible that I should feel pity for her, but I did. I took her in my arms and I rocked her, and comforted her while she wept. I told her that I held no malice toward her, that I did not blame her for my daughter’s death. I’d leave it to God to sort out blame, I said. As for me, I clung to the belief that I would see my daughter again, some day.

Slowly, Jane calmed down, and I gathered myself to leave. I encouraged her to rally herself. After all, she had a family who desperately needed her. Then I left, never to see Jane again.

I look back on that day, and I shake my head in wonder. Whose arms were those wrapped round the woman who was, at least indirectly, responsible for the death of my child? Those arms were God’s. He loved her through me, spoke words of forgiveness and compassion through me, accomplished something I never could have done on my own. When I talk about the power of faith, and of God’s love, and of God’s peace, that’s what I’m talking about. And when I think of those mothers in Connecticut, it’s the love of Christ, and his healing, and his perfect peace that I pray for—for them. As for that bottomless grief I mentioned? Only God’s reach is long enough to touch it.

Each Christmas, as I the decorate the house and trim the tree, gather with loved ones and sip cider, write my Christmas poem and wrap presents, I remember the gift of peace I received from the Prince of Peace himself. His gift is available to all who seek it, and that’s something worth celebrating, isn’t it?

Merry Christmas!