Thursday, October 17, 2013

Daily Prompt: Apprenticeship

"Eternal apprenticeship is the life of the true poet."

Theodore Roethke

When I was between the ages of three and eight, my parents did not own a car. We lived in a Washington, D.C. neighborhood convenient to shops and public transportation. We walked; we wore down the soles of our shoes. One of my favorite strolls was to Pat Pino’s shoe repair shop on Pennsylvania Avenue. On the way, my father and I talked about important things that I no longer recall. The walk took us past the Library of Congress where I heard famous poets read; their names meant nothing to me; their voices impressed words into the soft matter of my brain like cuneiforms wedged into Mesopotamian clay. 

One day, my dad and I were walking and he referenced something that happened. I said, “I don’t remember that.” He marched ahead with his long stride. “That was before you were paying attention,” he said. What had I been doing? I wondered. I’d been frittering away my time while the whole wonderful world was happening. 

We arrived at the cobbler’s. I paid attention. I smelled acrid polish, sweet leather, dust redolent of the paper bags used to package resoled shoes. Pat Pino’s hands were black beneath the finger nails like those of my great uncle who was a rancher on a property thousands of miles to the west. The floor of the shop was unfinished wood. 

Pat Pino’s shop is gone. Our house was sold. I’ve moved far away. But one day, twenty-six years later, at a writing retreat in Joshua Tree National Park, I recalled the shoe repair shop and wrote a poem. The prompt included three random words: sole, budget and amplify.

On a Budget

He’s on a budget and hesitates
to buy even shoelaces. The value
of each dollar amplified
by next to nothing. He can slide
the lace higher and tie a new knot,
use the extreme tips to form a bow.
He remembers walking home
from the cobbler with his father,
along the gray sidewalks, street noise
amplified by the building’s faces.
Realizing in an instant how every moment costs,
because right now weren’t they wearing down
their new heels? Yet those who go shoeless
we name the insane.
We insulate our soft soles
from the spit and dirt of our daily tailings.

(published in We Have Trees by Alexa Mergen)

When we pay attention, we accrue memories to store in our cells like honey. An aspect of the poetic mind is to notice with all five senses. I add a sixth, imagination, the pictures we create in the privacy of our individual minds, the amalgam of what we take in and who we are. Our minds desire to make connections. So paying attention, absorbing in the now, draws out memories from the times before. Writing a poem stills time between then and now. When you pass along that poem to a reader, or better yet, read it aloud, that stilled moment returns. Lyric poems are concentrated and generally brief. They sustain concentration long enough to have something happen. That something is an awareness of feeling--which is pretty much equivalent to being alive.

Daily Prompt: How are you apprenticed to the art of paying attention? To poetry? Think through moments you have accrued that make you who you are. Write about a moment when you were attending to the world. Change what you need to (as I changed the character's gender) while remaining true to the sentiment.

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