Abiding images

Last week I spent several days on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, studying writing with teaching colleagues from across the state.  This extraordinary opportunity was provided to us by the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching – heartfelt thanks to you, NCCAT, for your support of teachers, and for inspiration at a time when it is needed more than ever.

Ocracoke is, in the words of our faculty advisor, who’s native to the island, “a windy, sandy, watery place.” It’s also tiny and breathtakingly beautiful. One of our assignments was to capture abiding images from this idyllic locale in our writer’s notebooks.

Abiding images are symbols with deep personal meaning to us, often recurring, according to dream analysts. Abiding images are part of us, shaping our lives the way the wind and the water continuously shape this island. To poets and writers, abiding images come from a wellspring inside us – stories, dreams, conscious and unconscious memories – each as unique to us as our own fingerprints.

Our task was to walk in this brine-tinged breeze, under the moody sky, without speaking to one another. We were to walk alone, searching for the images that speak to us.

I prefer to think of it as being called by the images that wish to speak to us.

The long beach grass rippled like hair against the ground; the sea, shimmering and calm on the Pamlico Sound side, flowed ceaselessly from left to right like words across a page. Come, was the inherent, compelling invitation. Come. Listen to me. I have stories to tell.

I filled seven pages with abiding images and took pictures of a few.

There were the pink wildflowers, startlingly bright against the beach grass. Marsh pinks, they’re called. Sabatia stellaris. Our advisor said for anything to survive on the island, it must be hardy, yet here were these delicate flowers with perfect yellow stars in the center, as if painstakingly hand-painted by an artist. Incongruous. Surprising. Hopeful, somehow, for these flowers carry the mark of the heavens in their upturned faces.

I came across some shells by a small hole in the sand, out of which grew a thin, solitary blade of grass. No other grass stood anywhere near this one long, lonely strand, this one hair from this one follicle. There are secrets in the sand, the advisor told us. So much more goes on in it and below it than we really know. 

This curious wisp of grass shivers, nods.

I walk farther and discover the ivory-yellow skeleton of . . . something. I don’t have a frame of reference for it, other than knowing it’s a bone, something once alive. It worries me. I want to know what creature it was and why it’s here in such pristine condition, with no other marks in the sand near it in this isolated spot. How long has it been dead?

I learn later that it’s the skull – just the skull, although it’s the size of a chicken – of a red drum. North Carolina’s state fish.

I still don’t know why it was lying there all by itself.

The last of my abiding images is at the marina in front of the NCCAT building, which used to be the old U.S. Coast Guard lifesaving station. As I turn to go back inside, I encounter a rusted handle quite suddenly in the sand near the marina’s edge. It’s sticking upright, clearly attached to something buried there, and it’s obviously been around a long time. What’s THIS secret hidden in the sand? I don’t tug on the handle, although I want to; I imagine pulling it and a door coming forth from the sand to reveal an opening with stairs leading down to . . . anywhere. A bunker, a secret gathering place, another world, another time. Oh, the stories this strange handle evokes!

Perhaps I will write one of them yet.

For now, the images abide in my notebook and in my mind; they shape me, even as I shape my thoughts about them. I carry them with me while I leave a piece of my heart, perhaps a piece of my soul, behind with them.

We belong to one another. That’s what I think as the sun goes down over the Sound, as I hear boats over in the marina rocking as if they are waking from a long sleep, coming back to life.

We abide.

 

Sunset Pamlico Sound

Sunset on the Pamlico Sound.

In reading and in writing, our instructors told us, “Setting is everything. It drives the story, drives the characters’ actions.” 

The hallway

Hallway

Hallway. DSC_003. ColinCC-BY

A large part of my job involves helping teachers and students grow as writers. I often define writing workshop as an artist’s studio, a place with time to fall in love with the craft of writing.

As I consider my own writing experiences, the image of a hallway forms in my mind. I am actually in this hallway. I can see numerous doors, one of which stands partially open, and through it I can see a window, and beyond that, trees, bright in the golden light of afternoon, probably in late spring or early summer. The branches sway in a breeze, making the leaves dance and beckon, but there is no sound, not from this vantage point. I would have to go through the door and open the window, probably, to hear the rustling, the insects, the birds, to feel the sun’s warmth and taste the laziness of a free afternoon – if, in fact, the afternoon is lazy and free, as it seems to be from where I stand.

Other doors are closed, and knowing that I can open any of my choosing sends a compelling shiver through me – each door leads to a different place, experience, and story. They are all mine to explore, at my leisure. I will never know what’s behind the doors unless I go and open them. Some lead to the past – when I walk through, I can see my family, some of whom are gone now but alive and remarkably young in this place.  They don’t seem to mind at all when I come – in fact, they seem to welcome my visit the same as they always did. If I go farther, I see old friends, classmates, even people I didn’t know well but who are somehow connected to an idea, a moment in time when I learned something or realized that something mattered. My childhood dogs bounce up at the makeshift gate between the kitchen and the living room in their typical greeting; I smell cigarette smoke, the old Kirby vacuum cleaner, the old worn rug; fried chicken also lingers in the air. But I do not want to stay and wander like a ghost here in my childhood home. I can come back another time, anytime I like.

Behind other doors are chairs where I rocked my babies. Here I sit with their soft warmth in my arms, their fuzzy heads nestled against my neck. I feel them breathing, slow, easy, contented in their slumber. I can stay here a while and just be, just rocking, holding one boy for a long time and then the other. I can see them when they are a little older, one always chipper and friendly, the other absorbed in his own thoughts, spending hours lining up his Hot Wheels or taking things apart to put them back together. They are safe and well in this place, so I will leave them here, after I kiss their satin-soft cheeks once more and tell them that I will always love them.

Other doors, I suspect, lead to worlds that I can still create, both real and imagined. I can only see so far in the future; only some things are certain and I will alternately face them and embrace them as they come. I could linger far too long in the imagined worlds, just to see what will happen, to discover the secrets and the magic, knowing all is of it is at my command.

I am surprised by the door that opens straight into the natural world. I have discovered this about myself, that the workings of nature have a strong pull for me. Some of the discoveries are breathtaking, like the iridescence of a dragonfly’s body, the precise blue and orange painted pattern down a caterpillar’s back, the powerfully sweet fragrance of a gardenia, of honeysuckle, and the tiny war-plane drone of a hummingbird’s wings. Others discoveries are not nearly as pleasant – a horseshoe crab decaying on the beach, a tobacco worm (a non-native North Carolina neighbor recoils in horror – “Is that a dragon?“) crawling on my porch rail, a scar on the wood trim by the roof where lightning struck the house. Not pleasant, but fascinating all the same. I had no idea until I started writing that nature spoke so much to me – just now, as I capture these words, the sun bursts forth from behind the clouds beyond my bay window, shining on the laptop and my hands as I type, like a validation, an invocation.

Other doors lead to mysterious places like cemeteries, where time is irrelevant. I don’t know these people, but I look at the stones, the names, the dates; I read the poems on the older, eroding ones, and I want to know: Who were you? What were you like? What was your life like, what did you love, and how did you die? What’s your story?

The most curious thing of all about this silent hallway is that whichever door I open, in whatever order, wherever I go and however far or for however long, I find myself there. Myself as I was, as I am, as I will be.

I give myself a nod.

And I write.

 

Turtle meditation

It’s almost summer here in rural North Carolina, which means two things: tobacco is lush in the fields, and turtles are busily crossing the roads.

Which also means that turtles are frequently run over by inattentive drivers.

There by the roadside, these wounded creatures die. Sometimes they leave a trail of blood on the pavement where they dragged themselves to the other side. Any roadkill is disturbing to see, but something about the inner pinkness of the turtle showing through the broken shell pieces troubles me immensely.

Maybe it’s because the shell, perfectly designed to protect the turtle, failed to do so.

But turtle shells are not meant to withstand the weight of a vehicle.

The pinkness represents vulnerability to me; I automatically begin thinking of other vulnerabilities due to failures of structures meant to protect or to edify.

Brokenness occurs on many levels in societies. Governments fail to protect the people, businesses fail to protect employees, family members fail to protect one another.

As an educator, an instructional coach, I see how expectations grow greater all the time and how the weight rests heaviest on teachers. I worry about the cracks, the brokenness, the damage – for, you see, the children are the most vulnerable part, the part we cannot afford to lose.

Any alleviation of this weight, any solution to such brokenness, lies first with the drivers.

Whomever and wherever you are.

Pay attention.

Reflect: Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote: “All things great are wound up with all things little.” Consider the brokenness around you. Repairs and healing will not be complete in a day. Where’s a small place you can begin, in a small but positive way? Positive results only come from positive words, ideas, and actions – and awareness. 

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In-between places

Gloomy forest

Gloomy forest. gorchakov.artemCC BY

I read the final page and close the cover. The idea of being separated from someone you love intensely, whether by distance, time, or circumstances, comes with a stab so sharp that it almost isn’t bearable.

Never mind that The Time Traveler’s Wife is fiction. The frequent separation of Claire and Henry, especially their final one, is crafted with this piercing truth, the longing for the “in-between” period to be over so that the characters can be together again. Sometimes the interim lasted for years.

While Claire and Henry usually had the advantage of knowing the duration of their separations thanks to his time traveling, the rest of us don’t get such clear glimpses of the future. We have to endure the various in-between stages of our lives, not knowing how long they’ll last, not being able to speed up time, not knowing the outcome, often having little or no control.  These in-between places are often laced with deep aching, a sadness and desperation at being apart from someone we  love. Existence is as flat and barren as a desert. The emptiness is huge, frightening; we want to rid ourselves of it before it consumes us. The scope of this in-between-ness is too much for us. The loss cannot be dealt with as a whole but only lived through in chunks  – a day, maybe just an hour, at a time.

There are in-between places other than those of relationships. The loss of a job, long illnesses, hardships, disasters – all can be dark places that sap our strength, sometimes with no foreseeable guarantees that all will end well. Living in these situations is like navigating a dark, unfamiliar forest. Not knowing which way is the shortest or best way out, we often go in pointless circles without realizing it.

I recall an in-between place that’s quite different. It’s remained in my mind since I was a child, on my first reading of The Magician’s Nephew.

It’s called The Wood Between the Worlds.

In the attempt to move from our current world to another by wearing magic rings, two children land in a sort of “connector” place. Here’s how C.S. Lewis describes it:

It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals and no wind. You could almost feel the trees growing . . . a pool every few yards as far as his eyes could reach. You could almost feel the trees drinking the water up with their roots. This wood was very much alive. When he tried to describe it afterwards Digory always said, “It was a rich place: as rich as plum-cake.” 

Digory discovers that he’s not frightened, excited, or curious. He’s forgetting why he’s there and what he knew of his own life, even his mother, who’s dying.

If anyone had asked him: “Where did you come from?” he would probably have said “I’ve always been here.” That was what it felt like – as if one had always been in that place and never been bored although nothing had ever happened. As he said long afterwards, “It’s not the sort of place where things happen. The trees go on growing, that’s all.”

Not the sort of place where things happen, but things go on growing around us while we are numb, sleepy. Who among us hasn’t experienced this?

Digory has an epiphany nevertheless – he tells his companion, Polly:

That’s why it’s so quiet and sleepy here. Nothing ever happens here. Like at home. It’s in the houses that people talk , and do things, and have meals. Nothing goes on in the in-between places, behind the walls and above the ceilings and under the floor, or in our own tunnel. But when you come out of our tunnel you may find yourself in any house. I think we can get out of this place into jolly well Anywhere!

Digory is right. The rest of the book deals with the results of his and Polly’s choices, both wise and foolish, but suffice it to say that they get out of The Wood Between the Worlds to witness the birth of a brand-new world.

Narnia.

Here’s another illustration, not out of fantasy.

My family once decided to travel from Raleigh, North Carolina to Boston by train. There was a problem with the train at the first segment of the trip – it had to be made by bus. Arriving at a different station, we boarded the train at last.

What we didn’t realize is that the train would stop at every major station on the East Coast even when no one was getting off or boarding. Long into the night we rode, stopping in deserted stations, sometimes for an hour or more. Bleary, exhausted, regretting our choice of transportation, we wondered how long this train would sit in this place where nothing was happening, and why.

I fell asleep.

The first light of dawn woke me. I looked through the train window at gray nothingness to see a shoreline slowly materializing. After having come through the unsightly backsides of major cities for most of the trip, this was unexpected. The sky turned pink, the sea rose-gold and sparkling, with the rising of the sun.

It was breathtaking, one of the most glorious sights I’ve ever seen.

After nineteen (eternal) hours on the train, we arrived in Boston.

The trip home was longer, as another train’s battery died and our train had to deliver a new one to them.

The point is that while the in-between places are static, and we often arrive in them for indeterminate stretches of time, they do serve a purpose. We can rage at the nothingness there, fervently railing at the passing of time, or sink into numb paralysis for the duration. Or we can see the in-between places as connectors, the temporary segue from one phase of our lives to another. Away from the energy, the hustle and bustle of life in this world, the in-between place may be one of needed rest, one of learning, reevaluating, recharging, restoring, until the path becomes clear and we can move on with living where the action is.

The next destination may not look like what we imagined.

It could, in fact, be far more glorious than we ever dared to hope.

Reflect: What in-between places have you experienced in life? What stories can you tell about enduring and getting through to the other side? If you are in an in-between place now – strength to you. It is temporary.  Reorient yourself; think, and begin preparing for what is waiting for you just ahead – be ready to meet it.

And write!

Fintervention 

​Last week our black goldfish, Kicker, indicated a desperate need for help.

It was pretty obvious. One day he was floating at the top of the tank, unable to swim. Still very much alive, he seemed trapped at the surface of the water. After a day or two of this, I wondered what, if anything, could be done.

I researched the condition: Swim bladder disorder. Kicker has all the symptoms.

I applied the recommended solution: Feeding him cooked, skinned green peas (I wonder who discovered this and how?).

Problems ensued. Most of the green pea chunks that I tried to feed Kicker either came apart or sank too quickly, before he could get to them; although Kicker can move, it’s limited. He has great trouble maneuvering and navigating. I watched with increasing concern – how long can a tiny, ailing fish last in this suspended state?

I did more research. One site recommended putting the green pea chunks on a toothpick.

Voila!

As you can see in the video clip, it worked.

Each day I am able to make sure Kicker eats his peas. He sees me coming and excitedly tries to meet me, paddling himself backwards, sideways, upside down, whatever way he can, to get his sustenance.

Kicker’s still kicking, but he’s not well yet.

Another layer of intervention is needed, apparently.

I can’t help but think of all the children who struggle with reading.

Very quickly, their needs become obvious – these readers cannot keep pace or go deep like their classmates. The reasons are varied and must be explored; a diagnosis must be made, an approach must be developed. Research-based strategies that worked for others can be employed, but time is of the essence – is it working or isn’t it? Is the child making progress or not? How long can a child float at the surface in such a suspended state before the condition worsens? What are the long-term ramifications? What else can be tried for the sake of the child, whose future is at stake?

To not do anything is to . . . well, in Kicker’s case, it’s to watch him die.

When I first started teaching, a well-respected teacher told me, “You can’t save them all.”

Those remain some of the most chilling words I’ve ever heard.

What if that was my child?

Would I not do everything in my power, seeking the advice of others, hunting down books on interventions and overturning every virtual stone in cyberspace, to find answers? Would I not TRY?

As I write, Kicker watches me from his tank. He’s waiting for me, for whatever help I can give him. When I go to him, he will meet me and do the best that he can. I will try another research-based strategy today, as I don’t know when his window of time will close.

We owe the children no less.

 

If you’d like to read Part One of Kicker’s saga: Flipover

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A time to break down, a time to build

Old hotel

Old hotel. PhillipCC BY-SA

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven . . . a time to break down, and a time to build up . . . . 

Ecclesiastes 3:1, 3b

Along the country byways where I live, there are lots of old houses and barns in various stages of falling down. There’s an odd elegance to the sway of a gray weatherboard structure still holding its own, somehow, after decades, maybe even a century, of standing. Eventually, the wood returns to the earth, and the earth, in time, takes it back into itself.

I don’t know why I love dilapidated houses and barns so much, beyond their elegiac grace. I do not know why I find pictures of abandoned structures like schools and churches so compelling. Eerie and haunting, too, but mostly intriguing. Perhaps it’s due to my love of story, my wanting to know who was there, when, and why the places were abandoned – where did all the people go? Is there no one left who cares any more?

I only know that there’s a time to break or tear down, just as there is a time to build.

This doesn’t just apply to old, unsafe buildings.

It might apply to us, as we age. With time our bodies break down, albeit slowly, as they are not meant to keep going forever. Sorry, I do not have a build parallel for this.

It might apply to systems, procedures, approaches that once worked and don’t anymore – a time to examine, evaluate, break down and build anew.

Which begs the question: When is it time to break down? To build?

When the structure is dangerous, apt to cause harm, can no longer be used for the purpose it was originally intended, needs far too many reinforcements, has limited or no more effect, the time has come to break it down.

It’s the inevitable, really.

If a purpose remains, and a structure is needed, it can be built fresh. Stronger, more durable, more appropriate, more effective, more creatively, sometimes even simpler than what was there before.

Take stock around you. What’s falling down? What needs to go? What needs to stay, be scrapped, be rebuilt altogether from the ground up? If it’s not working, why, and where should you begin?

And do you mean for what you build to last for a day, a year, or a lifetime? The planning and the vision make all the difference. The foundation is the most essential part.

Consider who you’re building for, and why.

You’ll find the way.

It may be time.

Flipover

 

This is Kicker, a goldfish given to my soccer coach son by one of his teams.

Kicker is not well, as you can see. In fact, we thought Kicker had kicked the bucket, but then we noticed a little fin and mouth movement.

After watching the tiny creature floating helplessly on its side for a morning, I wondered: Can this be fixed? Can poor Kicker be helped?

An Internet search on “floating goldfish” reveals that goldfish are susceptible to a disease called swim bladder disorder or flipover, frequently caused by overeating. The swim bladder is what gives the fish its buoyancy; it cannot function properly if other organs are swollen and pressing on it. This essentially paralyzes the fish.

Kicker has been flipped like this for three days. My thought now: How much longer can this little fish last?

And, being an educator and a writer, I cannot keep from seeing deeper meanings, metaphors, analogies.

I’ve often said that teachers are becoming paralyzed with regulations – too much, too many, suppressing the natural artistry and creativity that comprise great teaching. Expectations are needed, certainly, but when so many are placed on schools, on teachers – on students – what happens to freedom of movement and growth? How many teachers feel like Kicker, floating helplessly near the surface, unable to do anything about it?

In turn, how many students feel that way?

Is there a remedy?

For Kicker, there may be.

Green peas.

Yes, really. My search tells me that feeding cooked, skinned green peas to a fish affected with swim bladder disorder often alleviates the condition. The experts say not to feed the fish for three days after the onset and then to try the peas.

I gave it a shot. It’s very hard, by the way, to get food in the mouth of a fish that can’t swim. But Kicker fluttered his fins and opened his mouth, clearly trying his best.

Kicker seems to be a little livelier this morning – he’s always greeted us, wagging his whole body just like a dog, whenever we approach the tank. Today he’s twisting a bit more, fluttering his fins and tail excitedly. He even gyrated himself all the way over, a complete 360. He’s still not very mobile or upright yet – but I see better movement, and I am hopeful.

Back to teachers, to students: What’s the remedy to glutted systems?

Certainly not adding more. Green peas won’t cut it here – if only they could! – but perhaps they hold a metaphorical answer. Perhaps the answer lies in boiling away, skinning back, getting to the inside part, the valuable part, the part that matters most. Education is not something to be done to children any more than professional development should be done to teachers; growth and learning come from a place of inspiration, desiring to know more and having authentic opportunities to explore, to ask “How can we make this happen?” or the greatest learning question of all time: “What if …?” It all comes from tapping what’s within, not from exterior layers upon layers, causing figurative flipover.

Goals and standards are necessary. They can be met, exceeded, in fact, with inspiration, creativity, and freedom – these lie at the heart of educational wellness.

Our survival depends on it.

 

If you’d like to read Part Two of Kicker’s saga: Fintervention

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Mastering the monster

School bus

Bus #147. SebamirumCC BY

Life takes many unexpected twists and turns – a friend of mine says, “Life is one wild ride.” The mysterious is frequently interwoven with the breathtaking, the brightest moments often collide with the darkest, and the greatest desires of our hearts almost always involve epic challenges.

It took me the better part of two decades to finish college, for example.

I married at twenty, quitting college with a year and a half of coursework in general studies and theater arts. My boys were born. My husband completed two degrees needed for his work. I took a variety of jobs, all the while wanting to return to college myself, taking a class or two whenever and wherever I could. Sometimes I dusted off the old textbooks and plays, reread portions, dreamed of going on with my education.

When my younger son started kindergarten, I took a part-time reading remediation position that became full-time, until the program was cut after a couple of years.

“I’d like to keep you on, if you’re willing to take a teaching assistant job in first grade,” my principal told me. “Furthermore, there’s a distance education cohort beginning for paraprofessionals to get teaching degrees. You should pursue this – you’d be an excellent teacher.”

I pondered the prospect. A teacher. At the elementary level? I don’t know. High school English, maybe, but . . .

“It’s a consortium,” the principal went on. “If you’re a full-time teaching assistant, our county qualifies you to attend with financial aid. The books are even covered.”

Here it was, the long-awaited chance to finish school, only it didn’t look exactly like what I imagined.

The principal noted my hesitation. “It’s a perfect opportunity. What are you waiting for?”

Turns out that the program had K-12 reading certification built in.

That was the tipping point.

I love roller coasters. They climb and climb, gaining momentum, then – wooooosh. Hold on tight, as you don’t know what’s coming next – a pretty good metaphor for the wild ride of life. I applied to the program, got in. I loved my classes, my advisor, my instructors, my classmates. Returning to college was exhilarating.

Until.

“Of course, as a full-time teaching assistant in our county,” my principal said, “you’re required to get bus driver licensure.”

WHAT? 

I’m not overly fond of driving in the first place. The idea of maneuvering something as big as a bus, loaded with kids, being the only adult responsible . . .

“I’m not sure I can do it,” I said, going cold and clammy. My stomach lurched like it does after a sudden twist on a coaster, only worse.

The principal smiled. “Yes, you can. Look at it as something that gets you where you want to go.”

That’s what it came down to. If I wanted to finish school, to teach – which I now wanted to do more than anything, the ultimate situational irony – then I would have to face the big yellow monster.

My dad had driven a school bus when he was in high school. So had his sister. Back in their day, students were drivers. Daddy told stories about students tampering with the governor so the buses would go faster – I could envision the buses bumping down the country dirt roads, whipping around the bends in thick clouds of dust, kids bouncing wildly. He told the tales with glee; I listened in horror. While I darkly imagined Daddy’s great amusement on learning that I’d be driving a bus, if he’d lived to see it, this connection to him helped, if only the tiniest bit.

Look at it as something that gets you where you need to go.

I couldn’t let a bus stop me from finishing school or embarking on a whole new career that stretched out before me, glimmering and beckoning like the sea.

I signed up for the training.

The trainer started off with lots of stories, such as a driver once tipping a bus over by trying to avoid a squirrel, which is why we should never swerve if an animal runs in front of the bus.

I put my head down on the desk.

Then there was the first exam: Memorizing all the parts of the bus, how these parts are connected, what these parts do and why, what every light means. This was conducted by walking with the instructor, pointing everything out and giving an oral explanation. A written exam was also given.

I briefly considered failing these exams but my pride wouldn’t let me.

The training culminated in behind-the-wheel practice with the instructor, who asked: “Ever driven a Mercedes before?”

“No sir,” I answered.

He chuckled. “You’re about to now.”

I thought he was joking.

He wasn’t.

The bus I learned to drive on was made by Mercedes-Benz – who knew? It almost drove itself.

I managed to get this monstrous thing, this almost-airplane, through the narrow tree-lined streets of the nearby little old southern town without doing harm to anything until the instructor said: “All right, make a stop. Let these imaginary kids off the bus.”

I made the stop, opened the bus door. The flashing lights came on, the stop sign came out. I even counted imaginary heads.

For the first time, I thought: I’ve got this. It’s not so bad.

Then, as I closed the door to move on, the instructor said, “STOP!”

“What?!” I jumped a little in my seat. I stood on the brake.

“You just ran over a child,” said the instructor.

“I – what? How? I counted all the imaginary heads!”

“You didn’t check your mirrors. Kids can hide close to the bus and you’ll never see them if you don’t check all those mirrors. That’s why they’re there. Kids have been killed that way.”

I returned to work that afternoon in the deepest funk. A teacher assistant colleague greeted me: “Hey, how’d the training go?”

I sighed. “Not great. I ran over an imaginary child.”

My colleague grinned. “How did the imaginary parents take it?”

I laughed in spite of myself.

Still, I put myself on the prayer list at church. Seriously. The youth minister consoled me: “Look, when the time comes, God will give you driving grace.”

He was right.

The first time I had to drive, on my own, with real kids, it wasn’t a magnificent Mercedes bus but an old “cheese box,” as the kids say. I boarded with driving grace in my head and rosary beads in my pocket, given to me by a friend – and I’m not even Catholic.

I – and more importantly, the kids – lived to tell about it.

In fact, my driving the first-graders on their field trip to the movies (a trip of about three miles, consisting of three turns, one of which I took too close with a back wheel going over the curb, causing the bus to sway and the kids to scream), made their writing journals. When the teacher asked them to write about their favorite part of the trip, our entire class wrote various versions of this, with various spellings: “My favorite part of the field trip was when Mrs. Haley drove the bus.” On all the pages I was depicted at the wheel of the big yellow monster, my hair flying in the breeze for some reason, and smiling.

In the eyes of the kids, apparently, I was a great success.

I consider my mastery of the yellow monster my most dubious achievement, closely followed by my passing a college course on golf. No animals ever ran in front of me, all the kids got home, and other than the door handle rolling off one day and causing me to drive back to school with the stop sign out and all the lights flashing so that every car on both sides of the road pulled over, I am happy to report that I only had to drive a handful of times without incident until I finished the teaching degree and moved on, when I no longer had to drive a bus.

It did, indeed, get me where I needed to go.

Those obstacles that stand in the way of what we want, where we want to go – there’s no shortcut, no way over or around them. The only way is through, even when it doesn’t seem feasible, beneficial, or possible.

Whatever it is, whether it looms in front of you, in your past, or inside you, face your monster. Look it in the eye.

Then make up your mind to master it.

Grace be with you.

Song of invisibility

I sit straight up in bed. “Oh dear.”

My husband jumps: “What’s wrong?”

My brain can’t form thoughts yet. I was dreaming about . . . something. Whatever it was has already melted away.

He repeats: “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. I am – startled.”

My husband sighs, turns over, goes back to sleep.

I can’t. I lie there with my heart pounding.

I’ll write for a while, I decide.

The predawn house is dark but for a nightlight in the hallway. I creep around, wraith-like, to avoid waking the three sleeping dogs. Heading toward the kitchen, I hear it, loud and clear, as if it’s on the front porch, trying to find a way in:

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will . . . .

My favorite onomatopoetic sound in all the world. I’ve not heard a whippoorwill that close to the house before.

Is that what woke me? 

And then I start thinking about symbolism, so while my coffee brews, I look up whippoorwills on the laptop. Chilling stuff. Harbingers of death, disasters, impending trouble. Being visited by a talking Raven might be more desirable.

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will . . . .

Okay, it’s a captivating sound, more enchanting than haunting, I think, pouring cream in my coffee. I’ve loved the call of the whippoorwill since I first heard it, the summer after I moved to rural North Carolina. It dominates a warm country night, an energetic, compelling song rather than a plaintive one. It makes me want to stand still and listen for a long, long time. I continue my online reading, how the whippoorwill is referenced over and over in story, song, and poetry. Folks, it’s really a mating call. That bird isn’t going to be lonely for long.  

And then I read: A group of whip-poor-wills are called a “seek” or “invisibility” of whip-poor-wills.

My imagination takes flight. Those are magical words.

“Seek” implies “seeker,” someone on a quest, not to mention Quidditch. Few words have greater magical connections than “invisibility” – it’s a coveted power. Granted, in this context invisibility and seek define a homely, nocturnal bird that is rarely seen and which is simply  seeking a mate with its fervent night song, but still . . . could there be something more?

I’d awakened with a sense of imminent danger, bolting upright in bed. Oh dear, I’d said, just as I crossed the line between sleeping and waking (this a hypnopompic state; I looked it up just now).  While I cannot remember a dream-creature – or any shadow-people, for the true paranormal enthusiasts out there – attempting to do me harm, I do wake sometimes because of a dry, rubby cough, thanks to the flu earlier this year and my latent asthma. I wonder if irregular breathing is the root of this.

What an unromantic notion.

Whatever the reason:  Suppose the whippoorwill arrived at my house not as a portent of doom but as a protector, a preventive force. What if it knew to sing its song – because, let’s face it, that song is all about life and reproduction, not death – to wake me at the very moment before disaster struck? Exactly what, then, did it seek to drive away or undo – and why? What did my evaporated dream have to do with it?

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will . . . .

Ah, here are better words to describe the call: Ethereal. Otherworldly. 

A little bit of magic in the still of the night from the seek, the invisibility – although I always hear only one.

I sip my coffee, smiling at my flight of fancy.

Although it could be something more . . . .

slice-of-life_individual

Fresh-cut grass

Grass

Grass. montillon.aCC BY

As daylight hours grow longer, spring stretching toward summer, the hum of a lawnmower is ever-present in my little neighborhood.

Yesterday my younger son mowed our lawn. When I arrived home after work, there stood Banjo, our yellow Lab, with his front paws on the wooden gate leading to the backyard, barking his welcome. As I walked from the car to pet him, the clean, green fragrance of fresh-cut grass also rose to meet me.

It’s the smell of home, of childhood, of long ago.

I closed my eyes against the waning afternoon light. In the cool of the day, for a second, I was there, in another neighborhood, another yard.

My father was so proud of the corner lot he bought in the summer before I started school. This was our first house. Up until then our family had lived in apartments. At the time, having two bathrooms (really a bath and a half – my sister and I dubbed them The Big Bathroom and The Little Bathroom) seemed a great luxury.

By the front steps to the left of the sidewalk stood the black lamppost. Beyond this, the yard sloped toward a chestnut tree and the ditch, which entered our yard from under the street and joined the backyards of all the houses on the block. When I wanted to visit my friends, I took the shortcut, running alongside the ditch. (This ditch sometimes caused flooding, which is  another story starring my dad: The secret gates.)

A maple tree stood on the right side of the front yard. My mother’s gardenia bushes and forsythia comprised a small hedge near the front steps, and at the right corner my father eventually planted a camellia bush, brought from his own childhood home.

My father kept our lawn immaculate.

He did it for years with a push mower. I wonder now if he ever rued having that corner lot with so much grass to cut, especially in the summer when his fair face grew florid from the sun and heat. He wore a towel around the back of his neck to wipe away the sweat.

I played outside a lot as a child; the scent of grass wafted through many games and adventures with my sister, the neighborhood kids, the dogs.

I can’t remember the first time the fragrance brought a pang. It just hit me one day: I stopped, inhaled.

Fresh-cut grass.

Daddy. 

For a split second, I was a child again, standing in the front yard in the cool of the day, glimpsing the streets, feeling the hum of everyday life, lazy afternoons, the maple tree stirring.

The sense of order, continuity, stability behind it all is my father.

All present and real in that clean, green smell.

Our last phone conversation was about his cutting the grass. He had a riding lawnmower by then:

“My chest is sore. I think it’s from turning the wheel on the mower. I probably shouldn’t have gone over the yard twice.”

“Why do you need to do it twice, Daddy?”

“Well, I don’t need to do it twice. I like to cut it in one direction and then the other. It makes a pattern. Looks so nice.”

“Has that made you sore like this before?” 

“Not really. I overdid it this time.”

“When do you go back to your heart doctor?”

“I don’t go to him any more. Once you’re healed they see you for a while but then they release you. I only see a regular doctor when it’s time for check-ups.”

I don’t like the sound of this. He’s been mowing his lawn forever and hasn’t been sore. It could be overexerted muscles, but . . . 

“Daddy, you should go back to the cardiologist. Just in case.”

He didn’t make the appointment. His mind was on getting through his last week of work and retiring after nearly forty-one years as a security guard at the shipyard.

Four days later, on a bright, early-fall morning, he walked across his prized lawn for the last time. He was in uniform, going to work. He had three more working days to go.

The neighbor across the street happened to look through her window and saw him lying beside his car.

It was his heart, of course. It just blew, six years after his first attack and bypass surgery.

He died there by the green, green grass of home.

That’s a damned sad song, he once told me, shaking his head. “The Green, Green Grass of Home.” That and “Danny Boy.” When I was stationed in Las Vegas, at the nightclubs somebody always asked for “Danny Boy.” Why do people like songs about dying? Why not ask for something cheerful, for God’s sake?

Something cheerful.

It’s not a song, Daddy, just a blog post about fresh-cut grass, but there’s cheer in it, because the grass, though cut, always heals itself and grows again, and you are always present in that sweet scent, and I am a child without a care in the world, only I don’t realize it yet.

I do now.

Thank you for everything. I owe you much.

Love you.

* * * * *

Daddy - USAF

Daddy served in the United States Air Force before I was born. Memorial Day seems to be a fitting time to honor him. Although his service to his country was long past, he was nevertheless in uniform and on his way to perform his duty when he died – one of the most dutiful men I’ve ever known. He was also a storyteller. With Daddy, stories occasionally became epics, as he liked to talk and frequently got in trouble for that in school, according to my grandmother. I owe my love of story in large part to them. Here are two favorite stories of mine derived from theirs, featuring all of us:  Born and Baby’s breath.