The Backpack of My Soul

At dawn, I try to prepare a light backpack,
Removing the weight of anxiety and self-doubt.
I make sure to have fresh food for the journey;
May it nourish me to wisdom and friendship.

On meeting the dawn’s chill outside, I take out
Warm clothing to drive away bitterness and arrogance.
There’s a map to help me find the way and
A guidebook that alerts me to the beauty of the path.

The contents of my pack sometimes surprise me:
Gems I forgot were there, or missing necessities.
But at the end of the day, when darkness approaches,
I know I can reach into its stillness and feel divine light.

— G. Christopher Clark, May 2020

(This poem/prayer is included in Blessings for the Backpack of the Soul, along with its Spanish translation, below)

La mochila de mi alma

Al amanecer, intento preparar una mochila ligera,
Eliminando el peso de la ansiedad y la duda de mí mismo.
Me asuguro de tener comida fresca para el viaje;
Que me fomente en mi la sabiduría y la amistad.

Al encontrar ahí fuera el frío del alba, saco
Ropa cálida para alejar la amargura y la arrogancia.
Hay un mapa para ayudarme a encontrar el camino y
Una guía que me hace saber de la belleza del sendero.

El contenido de la mochila a veces me sorprende:
Gemas que olvidé que estaban allí, o necesidades perdidas.
Pero al fi nal del día, cuando se acerca la oscuridad,
Sé que puedo buscar en su quietud y sentir la luz divina.

Christmas in Fennville

Pachysandra peek through the thin snow.
A leaf straggles slowly on the north wind.
Upside-down, woodpeckers search for suet.

Interrupting the frozen surface of the pond,
Air bubbles up meekly in two small circles.
Bass and bluegills rest seven feet below.

Behind a white fence the fire pit shivers.
The silent playhouse, under a gray tarp,
Waits for walls, windows, and a door.

After dark, cars passing by the gray house
See a yellow star crowning the arborvitae
And candles flickering in the window.

Inside, three magi approach the manger
On the mantle above the glow of a warm fire
And a toy train toots under the glorious tree.

Sweet carols and piercing toddler squeals
Accompany bountiful meals, bulging stockings,
Thoughtful presents, and boundless love.

(Chris Clark, December 2019)

Let the people of God go singing

Let the people of God go singing.
Let heaven and nature sing.
Sing all ye citizens! Give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Let the people of God go singing,
Sweetly singing o’er the plains.
Repeat the sounding joy
Over the hills and everywhere.

Let the people of God go singing.
Sing we joyous all together.
Raise a song high above the trees,
With a voice as big as the sea.

Let the people of God go singing
Until music floats o’er all the weary world.
What sweeter music can we bring
With the dawn of redeeming grace?

—— Assembled by Chris Clark for Christmas 2018

The “Happy Place” playlist: a found poem

It’s a beautiful night and we’re looking for something dumb to do.
Give me back my wig, baby, let your head go bald.
Don’t hold back ‘cause there ain’t no use.
Show me how big your brave is.

There’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me.
I just want to take you away from here.
I don’t even care if anyone sees me dancing.
Hay algo que me mueve y no sé decirte muy bien lo que es.*

Voices from the larger towns filled our heads full of dreams.
Standing on your mama’s porch, you told me that I’d last forever.
I’ve got a full stock of thoughts and dreams that scatter.
Zitty zah yoom, gumyoo dumday.**

Nobody ever said it was a righteous world.
Every day there’s a new thing coming.
We didn’t start the fire, no, we didn’t light it but we tried to fight it.
All will be well; you can ask me how, but only time will tell.

I think I’ve finally found my hallelujah.
They don’t know what you’ve done for me.
You’ve made such a happy man out of me
I want a new drug – one that makes me feel like I feel when I’m with you.

Bonjour, mon petit bureau de change.***
When you are next to me I come alive.
Why don’t you lie down for a couple years; I’ll look after things.
It’s a new dawn for me and I’m feelin’ good.

————
Chris Clark, November 2018
————
* Something moves me and I can’t quite say what it is. (Julieta Venegas)
** [scat] (Bobby McFerrin)
*** Hello, my little money exchange office. (Flight of the Conchords)

Walking prayer

for Nancy Puls Clark, 1943-2019

As I step onto the dormant country road,
The neighbor’s manicured lawn mocks my to-do list.
Graying skies and recently bared elms frame my stroll
And I savor cleansing breaths of fresh autumn air.

A few tiny birds and black squirrels are the only fauna.
Traces of trees that toppled in a recent wind litter the shoulder.
Soybeans have been harvested, exposing the ground.
Arrayed in rustling rows, leathery corn stalks wait their turn.

You lie in a Gotham hospital awaiting major surgery,
But I imagine you walking beside me talking about pecan pie,
Laughing at corny jokes and asking about ancestors.
In the distance, over the lake, the sunset is about to blossom.

Close your eyes

Diesel fumes chase the bus rumbling along a narrow road
while your tepid soda and stale snacks clash with cabin fever.
Air brakes jolt sticky passengers and the door swishes open.
Hints of pine sap on a brisk lakeside breeze revive the weary.

Friends slap your shoulder while strangers smile, shaking hands.
Pealing bells, shuffling feet, and falling chairs are your soundtrack 
for steaming trays of oatmeal, grilled cheese, and meatloaf.
The sweet wax smell of crayons welcomes you to the craft lodge.

Oaky fireplace smoke permeates your hoodie while squirrels chatter.
You slide into soft sheets as the wind whistles an old camp song.
Over the canoe’s edge, your hand straddles the cold stream current.
You taste cherry strudel, fried asparagus, s’mores, and sweet wine.

The scent of lilacs guides you to crashing waves and crying gulls.
The beach crunches, scours your toes, then offers silky driftwood.
Your fingers trace inspiring words carved long ago into a bench.
Sudden snores and raucous revelers upset the peace of 3 AM.

A cold shower, toothpaste, and your last cup of anemic coffee.
You sweep sand from running shoes, shirt pockets, and bedsheets.
Roommates offer you gifts of smooth pottery and goodbye hugs.
There’s thunder over the lake as a soft rain caresses your arm.

By Chris Clark

This was written for the 2018 Wakonse Conference on College Teaching. While preparing for the conference I was thinking about imagery and realized I clearly favor visuals. Each line in this slideshow of impressions evokes other senses.

Challenge

I walk into the woods alone.
She says her chair doesn’t know her.
He asks when teaching will get easier.
They dare you to be your own self.

Deer track, hummingbird, random raccoon,
Ultralight, paddle board, flock of ducks,
Dune grass, driftwood, alpine meadow.

She, he, they — ideation, activator, includer —
Black, brown, white — red, blue, green.

Sustained dialogue, mentoring, expectations,
Storytelling, spirituality, honor and privilege,
NTT, adjunct, TA, undergrad, retiree, dean.

A chemist explains a more inclusive formula.
An artist models creativity and passion.
A counselor shepherds the enterprise.

Camino, bus ride, death march, polar plunge,
Questing, board game, marshmallow, flashlight,
Ceramic mug, jelly jar, tree-themed hoodie.

Brown, black, white — them, her, him —
Blue, red, green — connectedness, input, intellection.

Salisbury steak, pulled pork, tofu, refried beans,
Fish boil, fried asparagus, cherry strudel,
Fruit, bagel, oatmeal, bacon, lots of coffee.

A graying mentor channels Socrates.
A bubbly sophomore sees a prof clearly.
A lone instructor balances work and life.

Canoe, golf club, rope, harness, ladder, wire,
Meditation, watercolors, challenge by choice,
Slowly inching away from the comfort zone.

White, brown, black — adaptability, restorative, futuristic —
His, hers, theirs — green, red, blue.

She tells them that tenure eventually comes.
They hug him for unloading a tough story.
We walk out of the woods together.
I dare you to be your own self.

—–
May 28 2017

Written for the Wakonse Conference on College Teaching – finished shortly before this reading at the conference talent show.

The Pond

A summer sun stretches the pond’s shore
as clover repairs its ring-around path
and thousands of fireflies celebrate the Fourth.

Many want access
but poison ivy and vines crowd the banks.
I must prune.

A fall breeze wanders lengthening nights 
as pond-side trees go blaze to brown to bare
and sandhill cranes honk in a graying sky.

The water’s unclear
while tiny green duckweeds block the surface.
I must skim.

Winter wreathes a towering pine in white
as frantic woodpeckers gobble suet
and snow depths make walking a trial.

All would ice over
without the pond’s electric heart below.
It must pump.

Spring showers and snow-melt rush in
as buds emerge from lilac and honeysuckle
and returning birds cheer all sides of the pond.

Everything rouses.
Daffodils, lilies, and black-eyed Susans
must revive.

—————-
Chris Clark, 12/22/16

Janey Remembers

It’s a decade after graduation
And Janey is taking her daughter to soccer.
She’s forgotten your insane reading list
And sweating through a monster macro midterm. 
But in her mind she can see an open door,
And taste Tootsie Rolls from the bowl on your desk.

Janey has a raised ranch in Racine and an SUV. 
She can’t remember a B-minus on a term paper 
Or paying ninety bucks for a bewildering bio book. 
But she can hear you choking up
While reading a powerful passage from Pericles, 
And smell popcorn at a finance study session.

Janey’s a junior assistant with a tough load. 
Confident, caring, and capable,
She has no memory of Avogadro’s Constant
Or the day you managed to misspell memento,
But she remembers your cheering at her tennis match 
And concern over limping into class the next day.

Janey has an appointment with her doctor 
Because her cholesterol has jumped to 209. 
She doesn’t care that you skipped chapter 9 
Or called on her spontaneously at 9 AM,
But when you “projected the condition of your soul 
Onto your students and your subject,” Janey felt it.

It’s a decade after graduation
And Janey still remembers that open door, 
That candy bowl, that warm smile.


By Chris Clark

[quote based on The Courage to Teach, by Parker Palmer] 

Written for the Wakonse Conference on College Teaching, May 2015 
Dedicated to Joe Johnston on his retirement from the University of Missouri

Teaching is Messy

Day one and the syllabus is a tidy closet
Where goals and grading scales hang neatly.
The course calendar is a freshly set table
Of inviting readings and juicy assignments.

As weeks go by, the learning room hums,
Filling with the music of knowledge.
But teaching is messy – the place gets cluttered.
Grading turns tricky, plans become muddled.

The most engaging activities play out
Like bouncy games in the den.
They also make marks on the wall
And leave chaotic souvenirs.

Students munch on inspiring concepts
And drop breadcrumb bits of ideas.
I scoop them up and try to put them
Back together as a chocolate muffin.

The brightest assignments are taped to the fridge,
While misfired strategies get crumpled and tossed.
I straighten the frames on shiny test questions
And polish the murky ones.

As the final class days approach,
I find dust collecting under neglected skills
And cobwebs in corners that resist learning.
There’s not always time to be orderly.

Teaching is messy and that’s all right.
I can deal with the disarray.
Picking up happy plates and midnight glasses
Reminds me that the venture was a hit.


Chris Clark 

For the Wakonse Conference on College Teaching

Touched by a squirrel

An acorn fell on me
Disturbing my preoccupations
As I rushed off to Atlanta

I don’t think it was deliberate, like in the comic strip
Nor did it hurt or startle me much
Just distracting enough for inspiration

The acorn seemed to split as it landed on my arm
Absently, I saw the pieces hit the ground
Making me somehow sad

I couldn’t figure where it came from
Then looked back and forty feet up
The highest branches were the probable source

The episode reminded me I hadn’t written in a while
Busy with engaging projects at work
Dealing with little crises at home

I began to think of the responsible squirrel
I don’t really like them, the chubby, hairy rats,
But they work hard to get ready for winter

I guess they are also part of the big picture
A dropped acorn would have once helped
Spread the primeval forest or regrow it after a fire

All that from a little nut that barely touched me
After pulling a trash can around to the side of the house
A mundane, inspiring bit of serendipity


by  Chris Clark

April 2014

Where I’m From

I am from big feet and strong voices,
from Lincoln Logs and a basement darkroom.

I am from seven people in four small bedrooms,
from cold milk waiting in bottles by a suburban back door
and engineers waving from trains that run through the back yard.

I am from forty-foot maple trees 
with branches that hold adventure.

I am from swimming in a clear lake and baseball on a quiet street,
from a steel-framed bike with foot brakes
and a pink station wagon with no seat belts,
from English muffin pizzas and powdered skim milk.

I am from Minnie Struller and Nicolás Julia,
from a shipwreck off the English coast, 
from a wagon returning from Gettysburg
and a VW Beetle returning from a camping trip.

I am from Sunday mornings in church
and Sunday nights signing around the piano.

I am from big hearts and strong families.


— Chris Clark

[listen to a reading here]

Avian Inspiration

The hummingbird zooms in,
A semi-solid specter
Hovering in sight for an insufficient second,
Erect, wings beating impossibly fast.

Like the glorious idea
That flirts with the cloudy edge of my brain,
The hummingbird zips away, barely observed.
Neither one intends to be glimpsed again soon.

Now a woodpecker settles on a scraggly tree.
Tapping a few times along the branches
Until it senses me nearby and takes flight.

But moments later, fifty yards away,
It begins to knock out an uncomplicated rhythm.
The woodpecker’s message is clear and plain.

But the hummingbird promised wonder.


Chris Clark

May 30, 2010, for the Wakonse Conference on College Teaching

I am PowerPoint


I am PowerPoint.
I am the dispenser of knowledge,
Organizer of content,
Displayer of charts.

I am PowerPoint.
I tell you what to do.
I require that you switch off the lights.
I insist that you use me the entire class period.
I control the course; do not stray from my linear path!

I am PowerPoint.
I demand that you convert the Gettysburg Address into bullet points.
I am a virus; if you hand me out, then students will stop going to class.
Don’t worry about backup plans; my technology never fails.

I am PowerPoint.
I am the seducer.
Go ahead; fill me with animation and clip art.
Use all my transitions and sound effects.
Cram as much text as possible onto my screen.
Sacrifice readability for flair.
After all, image is everything!

I am PowerPoint.
I am the absolute corruptor, the pushy punisher.
I disrupt, dominate, and demean.
You can misuse me – even abuse me,
But you cannot refuse me.

I am PowerP…
Hey! What are you doing?
You can’t blank the screen! I’m in charge here!
What are those students discussing?
Why aren’t they looking at me?
Okay, that’s better… What now?
Why is this provocative image on the screen?
Where is the text? Where are the bullets?
Ahhh … there they are.

By Chris Clark
For the Wakonse Conference on College Teaching

The Silent Piano

On the edge of a kitchen wall, penciled lines with names and dates
Form a column that won’t soon get any taller
And there is room for more photos on the refrigerator door.
Yet the silent piano stands patiently in the living room,
Its overstuffed bench promising Tori Amos and Robert Schumann.

The dungeons and dragons are played out.
Unopened junk mail loiters on a dusty dresser
And a profile of Matt Damon looks after a flock of stuffed animals.
Meanwhile, the silent piano stands patiently in the living room,
The ancestor photos on top dreaming of Claire de Lune.

In the garage, green and rusty red bicycles dangle, poised.
A pea coat and ball cap hang vacant and ready in the hall closet.
In the cupboard a Class of ’97 mug thirsts for what is around the corner.
And the silent piano stands patiently in the living room,
Its dormant pedals anticipating preludes and carols.

Chris Clark

Sudden Encounter

A solitary star shoots across the colorless late spring sky.
Minutes later a furtive squall catches the awestruck beach unawares.

First a gentle rain sets casual astronomers scurrying for cover,
then, as they shake sand from hooded sweatshirts, the sky opens up.

A dazzling flash brings brief clarity to the lakeside shadows.
The jagged bolt of raw electricity links heaven and earth.
Static shimmers in the air at the edge of the shadowed porch.

The impact is so close that there is no time to react
before a head-splitting bang rattles the cottage windows.
A mottled blue mug teeters on the rustic handrail.

There is awe in the light, wonder in the sound, danger of a fire,
and it happened in the space of two heartbeats.

Chris Clark

Commencement 2004

Mixing frantic exhilaration and exhausted sadness
Each one arrives, the restless beginning of a melody.
Different instruments are timidly sampled.
Daring rhythms shift delightfully left and right.

One undecided sound attempts to influence others.
But an emergent tune steadily gathers itself.
Meanwhile, wizened composers have their say and
Classic masterpieces validate their brilliance.

After a foreign sojourn tenderly bends the sound,
An unambiguous form at last takes shape.
Its colorful depths are explored with enthusiasm.
Challenges are met and the arrangement matures.

Now a solo performance looms with uncertain results.
A glorious composition cycle is climaxing too soon,
Painstakingly polished, the piece must move on,
Mixing wistful sadness and anxious exhilaration.

Chris Clark