Why I write, 2021

The Children’s Eyes (When They Are Writing)

The children’s eyes
are windows to the skies
sun-bright,
moon and star-studded night,
reflected wonderlight.

The children’s eyes
are toy-wagon wheels
absorbing, bearing, hauling
so much more than playthings.

The children’s eyes
are gates in a small walled garden
which widen when they realize
the stunning flora growing within
—cultivate it, Children.

For in my own walled garden
of memory
lush greenery still grows
not concealing
but revealing
what I now know
to be healing.

All I’ve lived and seen
eventually spills forth
in story or verse
above and through and over
the old stone wall

for even in the moonless,
star-obscured,
darkest night,
there is always
a ribbon 
of light. 

This, Children,
is why I write.

Speaking of things I’ve seen…artwork on a concrete wall in Asheville, NC.
The garden struck me as metaphor for writing, growing there in the brain.

*******

with thanks to Andy Schoenborn for the “eyes” and life experience poetry prompt on Ethical ELA this morning, to Two Writing Teachers for sustaining a community where teachers of writing flourish, and to the National Council of Teachers of English for designating October 20th as National Day on Writing.

and in honor of all the children who inspire me, every time I’ve come to your classrooms to teach writing.

Poignant poise

(a pantoum)

Little seabird with only one foot
Standing perfectly balanced at the shore
You’re so calm, so still
Despite wind-ruffled feathers


Standing perfectly balanced at the shore
You’re a picture of grace
Despite wind-ruffled feathers
For you aren’t alone


You’re a picture of grace
Safeguarded, transcending
For you aren’t alone
Flanked by faithful friends keeping watch


Safeguarded, transcending
You’re so calm, so still
Flanked by faithful friends keeping watch

Little seabird, with only one foot.

As best I can determine, this is a laughing gull, already wearing winter plumage. I thought it was merely standing on one leg before realizing the other foot was gone. I have since learned that such sightings are common: many gulls lose feet and legs when they become entangled in fishing nets while hunting for food. What you cannot see in this close-up are two fellow gulls standing nearby, looking in different directions like bodyguards. I was struck by the poignant poise of this little shorebird and the proximity of the others. Gulls are symbols of adaptability, resourcefulness, community, survival, and strength. Maybe even uncommon grace.

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge

Here

a Spiritual Journey offering

in memory of my father

and in honor of Micah, my granddaughter
who will be born later this month

*******

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again…
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — 

over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”

October is here
and with it, memory:
it is the month

of my father’s birth.
I am here
because he was here
once upon a time.

October is here
and with it, wild geese

coming home.
My father loved them
like he loved planes
in the wild blue yonder
of his service years

when he was young.
At his funeral procession
a flock of wild geese
stood by in solemn ranks.

He chose to be buried here
so Air Force jets
would fly over his grave

every day.

October is here
with its fiery oranges, reds, golds
and heartrending blue.
Blazing colors that are here
for just a little while,
coming and going
before the long sleep
and eventual rewakening
.

October is here
with its bright story
of permanence
cloaked in

the temporary darkness
of impermanence.

October is here
with its beckoning to
see, smell, taste, feel, know
life in all of its spice

and fullness,
never bound by a calendar,
a schedule, a checklist…

October is here
with its own organic order,
a natural reminder

of all our comings and goings
and of the taking of one’s place
in the family of things
.

October is here.
You will soon be here
,
firstborn child
of my firstborn child
.
I, too, am
the firstborn child
of a firstborn child
.
My father named me
for his mother.
Your father named you
for God

by whose infinite grace
I am here
to see your coming.

A downy-soft blanket and a whole lot of love are here awaiting you, little precious one.
Your name is one of ancient faith and praise: “Who is like God?”

*******

with much gratitude to Ramona Behnke, who inspired our monthly Spiritual Journey Thursday group to write around the word “here” with this quote from Emily P. Freeman’s podcast, Episode 188: You Are Here (And It Matters):


“What if you being all the way here actually mattered, with your cold feet and your stomachache and the light shining through the window. You with your stack of books, by the bedside table and hopeful feeling inside your heart. You with your deep grief, over a loss you thought you’d be over by now, standing in the kitchen while you microwave your coffee. For now, this is true. So what is true of you? And do you really believe God is with you no matter what? That you are not alone, that you don’t have to be you all by yourself? Here’s to being where you already are. Fully present with all that is true. And then here’s to doing your next right thing in love.”

*******


Fallidays

a poem which began as I was driving to work through the darkness and fog that appeared on the first day of October…

October awakens
in the night.
She rises in silence,
stirring white veils of fog
within the world’s
darkened bedchamber.

She knows
I am awake, too,
watching,
and that I am aware
it was not as dark
yesterday morning
at this same time
when September
was still here.
October gathers

her black satin robes
shimmering silver
in the moonlight.
She whispers of magic
and I shiver

just before the sun bursts forth
like a famous artist
with palette in tow-

There is no blue without yellow
and without orange,
and if you put in the blue,
then you must put in the yellow
and orange too,
mustn’t you?” 
and suddenly everything is
yellow and orange and blinding blue
with flecks of scarlet and brown
against the still-green
canvas.
For all her dark mystery
and the death-shroud she carries,
October doesn’t speak
of endings.

She points instead
-see that golden thread glittering
there in her sleeve?-
to celebrations just ahead.

Ah, October.
I see you
disguising your smile
as you creak open
nature’s ancient alchemical doors,
reverently ushering
in
the leaf-bejeweled holiness
that I shall henceforth call
the ‘fallidays’.

“Female ghost”WhiteAnGeL ❤.CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

How would you personify early October?
It is difficult to find a photo of a veiled figure comparable to the dark morning bands of fog.

“Figure In The Fog”. paulmcdeeCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The quote, “There is no blue without yellow and without orange…” comes from Van Gogh, written in a letter to his brother. I have used it several times in poems. Seems especially fitting here for the colors of October, illuminated by the artist-sun.

“Symphony of autumn colors”. PeterThoeny. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Writing Challenge
(even when my small-moment story morphs into poetry)

Dear student…

That email you sent.
Almost didn’t open it.
Seemed like random spam.

Thank God I did, though:
I hope you remember me…
the little girl who

halfway wrote a book
‘bout five or six years ago…

-How could I forget?

Never finished it
but now I’m writing this one…
-You are still writing!

You can’t know the gift
it was, assisting your craft
as it developed

the pure joy I took
from the spark in your child-eyes 
born of storylove

-that’s YOUR gift, you know.
Your storytelling power.
It’s grown stronger, still.

And your plans, to be
a therapist. A healer.
An author. Oh, child

you have no idea
what your words have done today.
I read them again

and again, amazed
by your remembering me.
I compose my thoughts

to respond to you,
most of all to say that you’re
unforgettable.

*******

I wasn’t this child’s regular teacher but the school’s literacy coach, supporting writing workshop across grade levels at the time. Her fourth-grade teacher asked if I could make time to work with her as she had fallen in love with the craft and wanted to write historical fiction. We carved out the time; we made it happen. I blogged about it in 2017: Tripping the write fantastic. That teacher invited the student back a couple of years later to share her writing with a new crop of fourth graders. I blogged about that, too: Still tripping the write fantastic.

In the recent surprise email that sparked the poem I posted today, the student also wrote: “Every now and then I’ll read what you wrote about me on Lit Bits and Pieces, and it always makes me smile and feel inspired.”

That, Dear Student, makes ME smile and feel inspired. ❤ Can’t wait to see where your writing takes you!

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge…for teachers must write to teach writers.

Thanks also to Allison Berryhill who hosted an Open Write on Ethical ELA with prompting “a poem to a student.”

Photo: “Steal Like An Artist – ‘Write the book you want to read’.” Austin KleonCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Shimmer of being alive poem

Late September

across the street
the first few spots
of yellow dot the lush green
abundance of trees
despite the searing blueness of sky
and bathwater-saturated
Carolina air

lingering summer

yet in it I feel a tinge
the tiniest tinge
an almost imperceptible
coolness

deep in the wooded shadows
from a sun-patched limb, no doubt,
a lone cicada takes up his rattle
crescendo, decrescendo


they were late arriving this year
but still here

driving to work
along the winding backroads
a darting from the left
two gray squirrels, 
scampering in tandem
right in front of me
on the double yellow lines

I stop for them 
they stop for me

after a moment
of squirrel contemplation
one continues on across
but the other, the other
turns back
with something in its mouth

not an acorn, something hanging
pale-colored
I’ve never seen the likes
but instinctively know:
that’s a baby squirrel

and on I drive, thinking
of the old squirrel twins book
my grandmother read to me
so long ago

and of how I shall read it
to my own granddaughter
arriving in a few short weeks

the morning September sun shimmers
rose-gold in my rearview mirror
like promises steeped in time

I no longer dream of dying
like I did when I was nine
now, in my first tinge of autumn
I dream of new babies born
every night

*******

with thanks to Sarah Donovan at Ethical ELA for the inspiration to write poetry
around moments of knowing “I am alive.”

Milk carton analogy

breakfast for all if they want it
during COVID,
so they enter the cafeteria,
pick up a bag with a biscuit or
cereal or french toast sticks
(without syrup;
the cafeteria ran out of it yesterday)
or breakfast pizza, whatever
that given day provides,
and wait for a neon-vested
safety patrol in fifth grade
to send them,
one by one,
to my colleague or to me
so we can seat them

protocols say they can’t sit facing
one another at the diagonal,
spaced-out tables
so seats fill up fast,
and a lengthening line
of masked, bag-clutching children
must stand until somebody in the
crowd finishes eating, meaning that
my colleague or I must dash over
with spray cleaner and a paper towel
(that won’t absorb)
while calling for safety patrol:
“I can take one here!”

the children seem so dazed, sometimes,
like they don’t recognize this planet or
maybe even humanity anymore
but once at the seats,
they open the bags
to eat

forgot the jelly

go back and get it

I need a spoon

it’s in your bag, look again

and invariably, the one thing
most often prompting a
little raised hand:

I can’t open my milk

I see. Have you tried?

shaking of small head

well, you must try

some little fingers are more adept
than others…some little faces light
up upon realizing: they actually can
open the milk carton, without help

some must be told, no, not
on that side, see the side with
the arrow, it says open here,
push it back, all the way back,
see these words, push here,
no, not smush, more like pinch,
like this, see?

one by one, the cartons open

like windows in the mind, for one
does have the ability to do things
not attempted before, and the secret
is really in the trying, not relying

learned helplessness

is what I am thinking about
as I scrub my hands five times
before I can go finish preparing
four training sessions
for teachers tomorrow,
on professional learning teams
and problem-solving
in the time of COVID
even though I’m already tired
and the day’s only just begun

yes, we can
we must try

*******

special thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge

September morningsong

-a pantoum-

Just outside my window
an unexpected song
so loud and full of joy
I want to sing along


An unexpected song
bright spirit, wild and free
I want to sing along

until you fly from me

Bright spirit, wild and free
winging your doxology
until you fly
from me
I’m clinging to your singing

Winging your doxology

so loud and full of joy
I’m clinging to your singing
just outside my window.

The Carolina wren is a little bird with a big voice. I’ve been trying for days to get a photo of this regular visitor perched on our birdhouse church. I finally managed it this morning. As wrens are a common symbol for artists, musicians, and poets, a poem seemed called for. The pantoum form beckoned, with the rhythms of its moving, repeated lines (per new line, in stanzas of four: 1234 2546 5768 7381).

The wren also represents rebirth, immortality, and protection. It is considered a guide through dark times.

Mostly I am awed by its glorious singing.

Season of shivers

September. Days growing notably shorter. Darker mornings. Sun blazing at midday, chorus of feverish buzzing from the treetops, cicadas singing loudest just before the last.

School. Children swathed in masks. Eating lunch all over the building for safe distancing. Even in a recessed section of hallway, sitting on the floor in portable blue plastic seats with built-in tabletops for food. A study in balance. Like seesaws. It takes coordination to stand up without losing what’s left of your lunch.

In the evenings, exhaustion. Everyone expresses it. Everyone. The nightly news drones on: Death and dying. Afghanistan. Hurricane destruction. Epic flooding. Rising COVID cases. Delta variant. And you might want to invest in warm clothing, Viewers. The Farmer’s Almanac predicts an unusually cold winter…it’s being called ‘the season of shivers‘…

Season of shivers. So poetic. I want to make something out of it, turn it around in my hand like a crystal, watch it sparkle in the light. I will hold onto it a while.

Isn’t it already a season of shivers. Church closed again, three weeks to date, as COVID struck a number of our members at once. Granddaughter in kindergarten for a week, now quarantined for two, following an exposure. Colleagues wanting to talk about intervention for students who were kindergarteners and first graders during the last year and a quarter, when instruction went virtual. A frantic clinging to norms when norms are gone. We can’t start with intervention. We must be about reinvention. Daunting.

Children. The most resilient of us all. I am sent to the cafeteria to supervise half of second grade while the other half is spread across the hallway and classrooms. Two to a table, facing the same direction. Cheerful. Chattery. They have to finish eating in time for me to clean all the tables before the next grade level arrives. I am the only staff member present. Normally there are two. Even office staff is pressed into service at lunch time, covering all locations. Skeleton crews, everywhere.

I manage it. The kids are in two lines, masked, lunch boxes in tow, awaiting their teachers. They watch me. They’re not sure what to make of me. They are quiet.

Beyond the propped cafeteria door, a balmy September afternoon. The swelling of cicada-rattles. Loud.

Do you hear that buzzing? I ask.

Nodding of masked heads. Like little bobbers on water.

Do you know which insect makes that sound?

Cockroaches! shouts a boy.

Crickets? offers a girl.

No. It’s a cicada.

They like the sound of the word. They say it aloud: Cicada.

I describe it. With my fingers: This big. Long wings. Hatches underground, climbs to top of trees. That buzzing is made by the males. It’s a love song. Doesn’t sound like a love song, does it?

Giggles. Shaking of heads.

They have questions, but their teachers have come. They must go.

Thank you for telling us about cicadas, says a girl, as her line begins snaking away.

At the door, the last boy stops, turns back: Where is that rattle, on the cicada?

In his belly, I say.

The boy nods. He runs along the sidewalk to catch up with his class.

I stand still in the shadowy silence, this momentary transition, listening to the miniature buzz-saw, helicopter-blade whirring of the cicada congregation. Loudest they’ve been all summer, just as it begins to die.

How well they must understand, cicadas, about the season of shivers.

Shiver. benjaflynn. CC BY 2.0

*******

When I began writing this post, I hadn’t planned on including cicadas. They crept in of their own accord. Because I love them, and their song, I let them stay. I often write of them. Cicadas represent, among other things, personal change and transformation.

Many thanks to the Two Writing Teachers community and the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge. Sharing our stories is also about personal change and transformation. We grow through it.

Shield of virtue

A Spiritual Journey Thursday offering

with thanks to my Spiritual Journey writing friends and to Karen Eastlund for hosting on this first Thursday in September. Our theme is “virtue.” I began writing on this topic last month: What is virtue?

Allow me to start my circuitous spiritual journey route today with a question, Dear Readers: Do any of you remember a vintage device called Viewmaster? From back in the olden days before cable, videos, DVDs, movie channels, and Virtual Reality headsets?

My grandmother bought one for me in the early ’70s. It looked exactly like this:

My Batman & Robin Viewmaster 3D Viewer and Reels. 1966. Jimmy Big Potatoes. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

You’d remove the reels, ever so carefully holding them by the rim, not getting your fingerprints on the little squares of film. Notches on the rim indicated proper insertion; these would be centered at the top. Then you’d hold the Viewmaster up to your eyes, aim for a light source—lamp, overhead fixture, or window—and voilà! The magical 3D scene would draw you in. When you were ready for the next scene, you’d push down the little lever on the right.

I didn’t have Batman reels as pictured in the photo above. I had Lassie, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Bambi, some others I can’t recall at the moment, and the first set Grandma ever purchased for me: Sleeping Beauty.

I recall my childhood horror of Disney’s Maleficent and her curse on Princess Aurora, who was subsequently disguised as Briar Rose, relegated to living in the woods. My child’s blood ran cold at the spindle scene in which the young girl pricked her finger (creepy multiple hands appeared there), which ushered in her enchanted sleep instead of death…

Enter Prince Philip, her rescuer.

The good fairies Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, always working on Aurora’s behalf, gave two objects to the Prince: The Sword of Truth and the Shield of Virtue.

That Shield of Virtue has lain dormant in my memory for decades.

Today I retrieve it, blow off the layers of dust, and consider its gleaming significance.

The Shield of Virtue (vignette). C-Lemon. CC BY-NC-ND.

The shield, emblazoned with a cross, protected Philip from Maleficent’s fiery breath when she transformed into a dragon; in the movie, she cries: “Now you shall deal with me, O Prince, and all the powers of hell!” (yes, this is an animated Disney movie made for children. Fairy tales, as you know, can be quite Grimm).

As I contemplated writing on the topic of virtue again, this shield kept rising to the viscous surface of my thoughts. It is more than a magical token.

There’s a real Shield of Virtue. A gold one, awarded to the first Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus (Octavian), so inscribed: The senate and the Roman people give to Augustus, son of the divine Caesar, in his 8th consulate, the shield for virtue, clemency, justice, and piety towards the gods and his native land.

Marble copy of the Shield of Virtue (Clipeus Virtutis) of Augustus. Carol Raddato. CC BY-SA

The Shield of Virtue is a thing that was given. It denotes battle. Above all, valor. It is a defense. By very nature of its name, the Shield of Virtue represents high standards, mercy, fairness, loyalty, acting on behalf of others.

I return now to the spiritual journey. A path of treacherous turns, often littered with brokenness. Dark forests of encroaching thorns and dragonfire as ever the fictitious Prince Philip faced. Ongoing warfare, threat of destruction…

Armor is desperately needed. As Paul wrote to the Ephesian believers:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm…in all circumstances, take up the shield of faith, with which can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one…(Ephesians 6:11-16).

The spiritual battle is real. A shield is given; one of faith. It occurs to me that virtue and faith are inextricably intertwined. Courage is born of believing in something greater than oneself (my favorite definition of awe). Tapping into this disperses unique fuel in one’s veins, enabling one to grasp the shield and to power through, trusting. Scriptures repeat that the battle isn’t even ours, but the Lord’s. His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart… (Psalm 91:4).

Somehow, an acrostic seems called for.

Valor. Let it not be born of vainglory but of an
Infusion of love, of mercy, of divine strength.
Righteousness not fashioned by humanity,
Tempered and refined in heat of battle.
Upward, toward the light, let me always cast my
Eyes.

Strength to all.

*******

Another lens through which to view virtue, from my previous post on this theme:

Within the angelic hierarchy of Judeo-Christian tradition is a class of angels known as Virtues. They are connected to motion and order of the cosmos, dispensers of grace, exceptional courage, unshakeable faith, and miracles. They are balance-bringers; in a world so unbalanced of late, the angelic Virtues must have their hands full. As I write, I imagine them roaming the streets, unseen, fervently seeking ways they can impart divine strength.