Wishing You A Propitious 4699 Year of Poetry
by Blake More
According to my mother, one of my earliest sentences was "I canít wait till Iím 35". While my friends wanted Barbieís and plastic horses, I longed for experience, awareness, wisdom¾ the kind of self-possession that only comes through time. Good or bad, this expectant mantra has dogged me through my life, but I didnít take it seriously till my thirtieth birthday when a voice came into my head while I was meditating and whispered "five more years."
Well, those five more years arrived this year. 2001. I made it¾ whatever that means. I was contemplating this anticlimactic detail when I contacted the English teacher at Pacific Charter School, a K-8 school in Mendocino County, to set up my poetry visit. When we looked at the calendar for available dates, I noticed the Chinese New Year fell during the week we both had open. Gong Hay Fat Choy. Chinese Lunar New Year #4699. It was perfect: a great way for a 35-year-old snake to usher in the year of the snake. I decided to create a special three days of poetry centered around the customs and traditions of the Chinese New Year.
About two weeks before my classes at the Charter School were to start, I hit the internet. Nearly seventy pages of text and twenty classic Chinese poems later, I made myself stop; it would take at least 15 lessons for me to share all the fun stuff Iíd gathered. It took some doing, but eventually I organized the material into three lessons: Chinese Red Couplets; Origin Stories, and Recipes For A Snake Year Celebration. For atmosphere and effect, I put together three Chinese-flavored outfits¾ all in New Yearís red of course¾ and, on the night before the eve of new years eve, I was ready for class.
Chinese Red Couplets:
"May you have a mouth as sharp as a dagger but a heart as soft as tofu"
I began this lesson with an introduction into the Chinese New Year¾ what it is, when it is, who celebrates it, why¾ and after explaining that New Years is the biggest holiday of the year in China, I asked the students what the biggest holiday in America is (all said Christmas or Chanukah). I then had them give me examples of things their families traditionally do to prepare for the holidays. We then compared this list to the new years preparations in china (shopping, paying off debt, traveling to visit relatives, cleaning, and decorating their houses the coming celebration.)
I explained that, according to Chinese tradition, everything associated with the New Years should represent good fortune and decorations are an important part of this tradition, especially a type of hanging scrolls called ëRed Coupletsí. Revealing a ëRed Coupletí hanging scroll I made especially for the lesson, I asked the students if they knew what a couplet was (at least one student in every class, even in the younger grades, knew the answer¾ hurray!). I added that "Red Couplets" are special Chinese good luck sayings written in gold on red paper and hung on doors for good luck. We made an inventory of typical good luck themes, such as praise of nature, longevity, wealth, happiness, good marriages, lots of children, etc. Next, we made a shopping list for images related to each of these themes. Finally, it was time for students to write their own red couplets (which, of course, ended up much longer):
May this year bring you
The easy peace
Of a ridge stream
Bubbling and twisting
Rocks formed so long ago
May you always notice
Tiny mushroom polka dots
Brown and spindly
Caps reaching for sky
Like baby fireworks
Bursting from deep
Beneath the earth
When they were done, students turned their poems into hanging scrolls and by the end of the day, the doors and windows were decorated for the celebration to come.
On the second day of class, New Years Eve, I started the class by asking students why the Chinese chose the color red for their hanging scroll decorations (students said Happiness, Good Luck, Good Fortune). After I commended them on their memory, I then went on to explain that Red also frightens off the ancient monster 'Nian.' I asked if they wanted to know more about "Nian" and, as expected, I got a collective "YES". So, I told them the legend of Nian, which basically is the tale of a monster who tormented people around New Years, destroying crops and homes until an old man came and saved the day by tricking Nian into leaving the villagers alone.
I wrapped up the Nian myth by explaining that the Chinese phrase "Guo Nian", which used to mean "Survive the Nian" has now become "Celebrate the (New) Year" since the word "guo" in Chinese is has two meanings¾ to "pass-over" and "observe"¾ and Nian is simply the word for "year". Thus, the custom of putting up red paper and firing fire-crackers originally came from the need to scare away Nian.
I next asked students if they knew any origin stories associated with American holidays, and they mentioned Arctic shamans, spring fertility rites, pagan new years, generous indigenous peoples, and the star spangled banner (it is Mendocino County, after all). I passed out several "origin poem" examples, and after we read and discussed them, I invited students to come up with poems reflecting their personal creation stories¾ the earliest stories they remember hearing about themselves, even if they donít remember the tales personally.
when I was born
Mama said I had three chins
a beer belly
cheeks red as wine
first and only
I came out all at once
eager for my first cry
a sound so fast
she didnít need to push
only smile when the doctor
put me in her arms
long enough for my elbow
to leap up
plant itself in her eye
every time she tells this story
she reminds that my newborn albums
only contain pictures of me and her manicured nails
the bottoms of her homemade dresses
capri pants, willowy arms
I donít remember any of it
Recipes For A Snake Year Celebration
Finally, New Years Day had arrived, and looking around the room, I saw a sea of red sweatshirts and sweaters: to my delight, many of the kids remembered me saying that Chinese children dress entirely in red on New Years Day. I passed out peanuts (in their shell) and had students guess what they symbolized (long life), then told them about some of the traditional new years foods and how they are all associated with a symbol or desire for good luck (for instance, Black moss seaweed is a homonym for exceeding in wealth).
I gave them a brief explanation on the lunar calendar and the Chinese zodiac, including the reasons 2001 was the year of the metal snake. I then shared the legend of the zodiac (another origin story, I reminded them) and, bringing back the food analogy, brought up Chinese New Years foods and how these special dishes made me wonder what kind of ingredients went into baking up a good new year. Again, I had students make a shopping list of words used to direct cooks (add, mix, stir), measurements (tbsp, tsp, pinch), cooking utensils (pots, baking dish, spoon), and results/surprises (delicious, burned, golden brown, a dente. When this was finished I assigned a "Recipe For the Snake Year" and had the students draw a spiral/snake on a paper plate (head in the middle) and write the poem along the spiral (beginning at the snakeís head), decorate and cut out their snake, and hang them up in the classroom
Recipe for a Good Metal Snake Year
Take a cup of books
Fold in a good teacher
Stir really well
Let sit till recess
Then add a tsp. of sugar venom
A month of rain
Soak into a lucky smelling perfume
When ready, bring mixture to a boil
throw in a metal rose
Stir with lots of breath
(it will become thick and dreamy)
Pour all ingredients into a waffle iron until scaly
Sprinkle on a year of happiness and money
Top with firecrackers and balloons
Eat Every day or when hungry
(especially until the full moon)
¾ the monkeys, roosters, dogs & rats
PCCS, 1-3 grade class, 1/24/2001
I still donít know if this year is going to bring any extraordinary fireworks or not. But, it doesnít really matter, not only did I get through my early thirties without aging worries, but all of us at the Pacific Charter School certainly got a great New Yearís celebration¾ and some fabulous poems¾ out of the deal.
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