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.

Suddenly sunflowers

Where I live
rolling fields
of soybeans, tobacco,
and occasionally cotton
are the familiar.
I imagine
it all looks like
a patchwork quilt
of various textures
and patterns,
from the sky.
Driving by
the pastures
where the pair of old mules
lived and died,
on my way back to school
at summer’s end,
I see something
unexpected.
Sunflowers.
Tall and tangled,
bordering a garden.
Light-seeking sentinels
with open faces
and inner resources
as myriad
as seeds.
At sight of these
yellow-petaled suns
my heart leaps
a little.
Is this what they’re mostly for,
sunflowers?
Beyond seed, oil, fiber,
beyond cleansing the soil
and waters
of nuclear radiation,
burning with their own
silent, mysterious fire
just to inspire?
I realize as I drive
backroads I’ve not driven
in a while
that they are everywhere.
All around me.
Whole fields of them
where I’ve never seen them
before.
They buoy my spirit.
Whatever task
lies before me,
I am up to it.
I stop at a store
to buy sunflower seeds
for my workday lunch salads,
as if channeling
the power of the sun
while remembering
what Van Gogh said,
as he painted:
The sunflower is mine,
in a way.

*******

My first encounter with sunflowers was in childhood summers spent deep in the countryside. My grandmother’s brother, who suffered trauma at birth and who lived alone in the old homeplace with his siblings looking after him, planted sunflowers in his garden. I marveled at their towering height and how their faces always followed the sun. Fields of sunflowers have indeed been planted to remove toxins from the soil after nuclear radiation. They are cleansing, healing, and surprisingly buoyant: their stems were used as filler for the first life jackets.

There could hardly be a more encouraging motif as the new school year gets underway.

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the space and invitation to share these noticings in the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge.

Brave beginnings

with thanks to Tammi over on Ethical ELA for sharing the “sevenling” poem. She writes: “The sevenling is a seven line poem written in two stanzas with an additional single line wrap up. The first stanza (lines 1-3) consists of three lines with connected ideas, details, statements. The second stanza (lines 4-6) also contains three ideas, details or statements. These may or may not be connected to previous stanza. Line seven should wrap up the poem or offer a juxtaposition to your previous stanzas. Because of the brevity of this poem, the last line should leave the reader with a feeling that the whole story has not been revealed.”

This is my first sevenling, really a tribute to someone special…reveal to come afterward.

Facing the Inevitable

Life pivots on this point.
Resolute but trembling at the threshold,
she considers her new place of belonging.

Releasing pent-up breath,
she takes a draft of courage with familiar paper and pencil:
“#1 Teacher seems nice #2 Not too scary”

—She’s starting kindergarten. 

My granddaughter’s handwritten takeaway following kindergarten Open House:
“#1 Teacher seems nice #2 Not too scary”

Strength and safety to all going back into schools as COVID rages on.

Thanks also to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge and for always promoting writing. To paraphrase Donald Graves: Children really do want to write. They want to leave their own marks on the world. At age five, that is. Too often “school” turns writing to a chore, emphasizing receptive literacy over expressive, or valuing the ideas of others over one’s own.

Let us be about nurturing a lifelong love of the craft and belief in the power of one’s own thoughts and voice.

Write bravely.

Last hurrah

Twenty-four hours ago I woke with the sun by the sea, rested and at peace with the world. I spent a few hours sitting at the ocean’s sandy altar beside my beloved sister-in-law, who’s like my own flesh and blood, speaking of the past, present, and future. Remembering loved ones lost. Cherishing new little ones, our children’s’ children. Hardly any other people were out and about; the beach seemed to be our own for these few sacred hours.

“Look! Dolphins!” my sister-in-law pointed. Out in the glimmering, watery distance, a distinctive leap…dolphins, navigators of the deep, ancient symbols of protection.

Just above the surface, gliding with astounding grace despite their unwieldy appearance, brown pelicans. Flocks of them. More than I’ve ever seen at one time before. Breaking their flight with dives and a mighty splash of white spray, catching fish and bobbing for a while in the waves.

Pelicans, a symbol for resourcefulness. And sacrifice. Legend has it that mother pelicans sacrifice themselves for their young, if need be. They wound themselves to feed their children with their own blood. They are social birds which hunt cooperatively—representing teamwork. Community.

Twenty-four hours ago, I sat breathing the same salt air as the pelicans, stood in the same sparkling waters as the dolphins.

Today I pack my bags, load my car, and return to school, masked. COVID rages on. Many unknowables lie ahead.

Yet I remain at peace. Diving, leaping, or gliding, I shall navigate as called for in the ebb and flow of moments. Children await, life awaits, time does not. The ocean remains. A reminder of constancy, of strength.

Here’s to the mighty plunge.

Low-flying pelicans. Tony Alter. CC-BY

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers…strength and protection to all in this uplifting community of teacher-writers, seasoned navigators of life and story-sharing.

Shedding

Let me preface this post with a restated confession: I am not exactly a fan of snakes.

But they, like all of nature, have lessons to teach, if one is willing to learn.

I hope to always be teachable, so…

Early in the summer I found a snakeskin in my garage. Just a little one, but still.

A few weeks later, I found another.

This morning, I found a couple more.

So.

Snakes seem to have been vacationing in my garage. Let us think on that momentarily versus thinking that they’ve taken up permanent residence there.

Here is why I say this: The skins, I’m pretty sure, belong to smooth earth snakes. I’ve seen a couple over the past year or so, which is saying something: These are nonvenomous, shy, fossorial snakes that don’t like to be seen. The first one I saw was dead, lying across my sidewalk after a rainstorm. Pale gray body. I thought it was a worm until I saw the tell-tale scales. The second one was stretched out in my flowerbed mulch, black tongue flickering in and out “smelling” the air, trying to determine what I was. That’s it for my lifetime earth snake sightings. Two. They are uncommon, tiny creatures…just the size of these silvery skins left behind.

So they live in the ground around my home, harmless little things, going about their business of eating earthworms and itty bitty snails or whatever.

And coming into my garage to moult.

Which is nevertheless discomfiting. For me, anyway. Not for the bashful snakes.

I don’t especially want one to come all the way inside and hang out or anything.

But they do have me thinking (among many things) about shedding one’s skin. Metaphorically, that is. As in, what sorts of things I wrap around myself and cling to when I could be letting go and growing. Mindsets, habits, beliefs, assumptions, what have you. Which things actually nourish me, and which actually constrain me? Which are beneficial, and which are harmful? What do I need to shed and leave behind, to better move forward?

I suppose this thinking occurs because summer is waning. I return to work next week not knowing what the year ahead will look like, other than back to masked here in my district. I think about the possibility of a full return to virtual learning. It is more than a great many teachers can take. Yet… we got through last year. The children got through. There were good things in spite of the trials; there were surprises. Many from the children and most concerning ourselves. School of 2020-2021 took a toll on everyone. We had to shed quite a bit of familiarity and comfort to get things done. But we did it. We grew.

I don’t wish for a repeat any more than I wish for snakes to be summering in my garage. I cannot ignore the timing of COVID rearing its more-venomous-than-ever head again when we thought it was on its way out, just when we are on our way back into the schools. I now have a granddaughter starting kindergarten. Her little sister will be born this fall. There’s always a lot at stake when it comes to children—in the words of Herbert Hoover (ever how unpopular a president he was in his day): “Children are our most valuable resource.” There’s nothing more precious. They represent our tomorrows; they are the culmination of our yesterdays. We have to shed the fear of failing them. Not assuming the worst, or that “we can’t,” but doing daily, as only that given day dictates, what must be done for their care and nurture as well as for our own. We have to be… well, “as wise as serpents.” When it comes to plans, we have to hold on loosely, ever how painfully contrary it is to our nature.

This summer I had plans for household repairs and updates. That was before the dryer quit working. Followed by the air conditioning during the hottest week of the year (of course). Followed by turning on the water one morning and nothing coming out of the faucet; the pump died.

I did repairs, all right. Just not the ones I planned.

But I got through. I now have a new dryer and water pump. The AC unit didn’t have to be replaced, thank heaven. All is working well. Throughout this whole process I thought about adapting. I dried clothes out in the hot sun. I remembered how my grandparents never owned a dryer. I thought about that one window air conditioner they had (late in their lives) against a sweltering Carolina summer and no AC at all in the old Ford Galaxy 500; I once left a stack of 45 RPM records on its back deck under the windshield. They melted. They warped and ruffled like clam shells. I’ve never had to pump or draw water in my life, but I had plenty of bottled water and didn’t have to miss my morning coffee while waiting on the new pump.

So I attempt to bring the lesson of shed snakeskin to a point here: In the discomfort is growth. Newness lies ahead; it approaches incrementally as we scratch away at the constraints and setbacks of now. Endurance is possible. We certainly know this. Sometimes the thing that needs shedding most is our perspective…

Meanwhile, I go back to cleaning out my garage, another thing I hadn’t planned to do right now, but the snakeskins sparked it. Time to purge what needs to go and put up a shelf to keep everything else off the floor. I am working on it. Hot, tiresome, dusty work, but I can see my progress.

And it feels good.

Thanks to the snakes.

******

thanks also to the Two Writing Teachers community, where writing our way through is a way of life…courage and strength to all.