The Way It Is
By William Stafford, from The Way It Is, 1998
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Read the rest of the poem here.
I believe that life is chaotic, a jumble of accidents, ambitions, misconceptions, bold intentions, lazy happenstances, and unintended consequences, yet I also believe that there are connections that illuminate our world, revealing its endless mystery and wonder. David Moranis
When I consider my source poem, the back-story holds the meaning that connects later. My life with poetry began early, in a grandparents’ home where I lived until I was five. My father was killed in WWII in the Pacific theater, and my mother and I lived with her parents until I was five. Both my father’s and my mother’s parents were avid readers, and time with them in early childhood set my path toward loving poetry.
Before I could read, they all read to me. I was the only grandchild in both families until I went to school. Everyone wanted to read to me! My mother was an artist, wrote and illustrated stories for me. One grandfather loved Shakespeare. No matter that I was young, he still shared the poems, the plays, about the life of Shakespeare with me. A grandmother was a pianist and taught me the poetry of song. I learned the music of the classics, but also hymns, the words of Stephen Foster, the carols of Christmas. When I visited my father’s parents for weeks in the summers, the first thing we did was visit their library, to gather piles of books, including poetry.
“There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.”
My early life held the beginning connections to poetry, in different voices sure, but all with certain favorites that they shared. Later in school I remember teachers reading poems to us, memorizing for performances and finally, in college, I had the pleasure of working with John Neihardt, Missouri’s poet laureate, in a summer poetry class.
When I became a teacher, of first graders, I wanted to teach them to read, to love reading, and poetry too. My ‘go to’ book then was AA Milne’s When I Was Very Young and When We Were Six. My love of poetry started as a young child, and has continued both personally and in my passion to bring this love to students.
There is this poem taped to my desk lamp. I taught middle-school gifted students, a mixed group, for over 20 years at the school where I am now the literacy coach. There was a long list of priorities in teaching, but one of them was the importance of creating and keeping a community. Sharing “like” things in a mixture of unique preferences helped us become family, a group, a knit community.
“While you hold it you can’t get lost.”
For community building, I have used certain poems for the class, and one of those poems that I held dear was William Stafford’s “The Way It Is.” It would be shared, we would discuss it, what we thought about it and why it might help us as a group. In other conversations, it became a mentor text for voice. When we wrote, students and I referred to it, wishing we could meet this man who wrote so clearly. Of course, we met him in other poems too, and followed along with Naomi Shihab Nye, a student of his, whose poems also touched us. We discussed connections, how paths cross and re-cross, fade away, return again. And we illustrated those paths in artistic responses. The poem became important to each class, is important to me still.
Loving a poem is not new to me and there are others I love, too. And serendipity sometimes makes me shiver. Certain of my colleagues and I exchange Christmas gifts, and one year friends gifted me with the book Teaching With Fire, edited by Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner, an anthology of poems that are important “source” poems for teachers. On page fifteen, there is the Stafford poem again. Finally, when I left the classroom three years ago, the school gave a party in celebration of my years in the classroom, and several of my colleagues spoke about me, to me. It was a pleasure hearing those words, every one. But the surprise, the serendipity that happened is that my head of school, speaking of my time at the school, my work with students and colleagues, ended with a poem he thought defined me. And that poem was “The Way It Is.” I was shocked and a little teary. The thread continues, and with this poem especially, my strong
connection to poetry remains.
“You don’t ever let go of the thread.”
The poem in its entirety can be found at Goodreads, here. And I have written a poem in response.
People wonder how to proceed,
when a boulder lies on the road.
I tell them I hold fast onto the thread;
those who are tangled there with me help.
They heave me over and in turn I pull them along.
The filament unwinds sometimes and loosens.
Sometimes wind blows it askew.
It wants re-winding.
A gentle tug and I’ve re-wound,
for me, for family, for friends.
Keeping the strand strong while everyone winds together
makes it easier to climb over that next boulder.
Linda Baie © All Rights Reserved
Visit the William Stafford Archives online.
Linda Baie is a long time teacher of middle school students at a K-8 independent school for the gifted in Denver, Colorado. She is now the school’s literacy coach. She has a wonderful family, including three terrific grandchildren. Passions are reading, writing and being outdoors. She blogs at TeacherDance.org and tweets @LBaie. She is working hard on writing, sending a few poems to see if they might be published, participates in a writing group, and has been to one poetry workshop, with plans for another. She is holding onto the thread.