What lies within



They aren’t beautiful, scuppernong grapes. Their unassuming greenish-bronze skins are flecked as if with age spots. Hardly inviting.

If you have never tasted one, you have not fully lived.

Yes, the seeds are a nuisance, difficult to manage in polite company, as one must spit them somewhere.

But put one in your mouth, gently split its remarkably thick skin open with your teeth … oh! The burst of richness is almost breathtaking. Embryonic wine, a touch of dying summer, a whisper of sweet things to come, something of all Christmases and bit of Heaven is encased in that homely little orb. No other taste on Earth compares. When I first studied mythology, I wondered if ambrosia, the food of the gods, was actually scuppernongs.

I first encountered scuppernongs as a young child. I can see the vines towering over my head, the flickering sunshine and shadow of wide leaves, the poles my grandfather erected, his straw hat, the plaid pattern of his sleeve as his big wrinkled hand reached up to pick the grapes for me. No words; just richness. Just joy.

A lot of things are like scuppernongs – unappealing on the outside, messy and more work than seems necessary. Teaching is like that. Writing is like that. Living is like that. Get beyond that first impression; it’s misleading. Press on to the heart of it. What you find there will take your breath away.

Reflect: When has the appearance of a thing, an experience, deceived you? What surprise was waiting for you within?









So we beat on


In the summer of 2013, my older son and I embarked on what we now call The Dead Writers Tour. The Great Gatsby film, newly released, was creating a resurgence of interest in the novel and F. Scott Fitzgerald himself. My son had just completed his second year teaching high school social studies, his favorite portion of which is the Jazz Age; he had even begun coordinating his history lessons with the English classes’ reading of Gatsby and teaching his students how to dance the Charleston.

Perhaps it was our shared loved of literature and writing, or the joy of the whole summer lying before us, teachers on the loose, that beckoned us like the green light beckoned Jay Gatsby. Perhaps the movie was the impetus for adventure, capturing the zeitgeist and ending, as the novel does,  with my son’s favorite literary quote:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Fitting, indeed, for a young history teacher who was born by a bay (albeit one in Virginia, not New York).

“You know, Mom,” said my son, as we left the cinema, “That quote is on Fitzgerald’s grave.”

“Is it, now,” I mused. “As much as you love it, you ought to go take a picture and put it up in your classroom.”

The light in his eyes was instantaneous. Out came the phone to research the grave’s location: Rockville, Maryland. How far is that from home in North Carolina? A quick check in Apple Maps: Right at four hours.

“That’s a day trip,” I said. “I’ll come with you. It will be our summer celebration kick-off.”

So, on a mid-June morning, we left long before daylight. We ate breakfast while it was still dark, chattering about our teaching accomplishments that year and our dreams about writing, lamenting the constraints of time in the daily grind of making a living. The hours passed quickly, despite the epic traffic snafu of D.C. Once on the other side, however, we sailed right into Rockville.

The cemetery is at a Catholic church in the midst of bustling city streets. After navigating such noise and chaos, I was not expecting utter silence on entering the graveyard. It was like a cosmic mute button was suddenly pressed, or that I had passed through a portal from one world to another. The city receded at once; all I could hear was a faint shivering of tree leaves overhead in the breeze, oddly cool for June, and the occasional flap of little American flags, remnants of Memorial Day, at the graves of veterans.

How incredibly peaceful, I thought.

“There it is,” whispered my son, pointing.

Fitzgerald was easy to find; his grave was the most adorned. As we approached, a brown rabbit hopped out of our path to a more remote patch of sun-dappled grass where it could nibble, undisturbed. At at the foot of his grave a flag commemorated Fitzgerald’s World War I service. On the headstone, the author’s full name signifies an even deeper connection to the flag: his famous cousin wrote the lyrics to the “Star-Spangled Banner.” I reveled in having my own first name in common with these writers and Fitzgerald’s daughter, buried nearby. A pot of daisies had been placed by the headstone, a nod to the love of Jay Gatsby’s life. Most interesting of all is that Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, who was at least part of the inspiration for the character of Daisy, is buried with him in the same grave.

Any student of F. Scott Fitzgerald knows his struggles, that he was always teetering on the brink of financial ruin, that he and Zelda lived a frenzied life, that both of their deaths were sudden and tragic, him with a heart attack in his forties and her a few years after, in a fire at the mental hospital where she was a patient. Fitzgerald never knew The Great Gatsby would become the beloved American icon that it is.

We stood there in the stillness, my son and I, drinking in the sight, lost in our own thoughts. After a bit, we took the pictures.

One or the other of us sighed. I am not sure which.

“What do you want to do now?” asked my son.

I looked up at the sky. The day was golden, still young; we had time, perhaps, for another adventure.

“You know,” I grinned, “Baltimore is only forty-five minutes farther. Poe is buried there.”

My son chuckled. He took one last look at the final Gatsby lines etched on the weathered granite slab. “All right, Mom. Let’s go.”

So we beat on.

Reflect: What literary works or quotes strike a deep chord in you? Why?

-Happy Birthday this week, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Cicada rhythm


Image: Cicada on a post. Jo Naylor CC BY 

Summer is dying now, taking with it one of the things I love best: The song of cicadas.

If you’ve ever heard cicadas in full throttle, you might not agree with “song” as a fitting description of their cacophonous buzzing. It’s not pretty. The noise can be deafening.

Yet when I hear that first discordant rattle sometime in May, my spirit rises, my own heart sings in response.

The song of cicadas calls to me from long ago, when I was a little city girl spending sultry summers in the country. The song evokes narrow dirt roads keeping an ominous forest from encroaching on rustic homeplaces, tiny cemeteries where baby after baby is buried under white monuments adorned with lambs, and the old church just around the bend. The song is one of ages, the rising and falling of generations, all of us coming and going in our time. It is a song reverberating with tire swings hanging from pecan trees, canals teeming with frogs and turtles, white-tailed deer bounding up from lush ditch banks along fields at dusk. It is the bright song of the sun, of hope, of continuity. It is the dark song of the night, oddly comforting; something out in the blackness is vibrantly alive, maybe keeping watch, while children drift off to sleep. It is the sound of safety, stability, belonging. Calling and calling, the crescendo mirrors the rhythm of life, brimming with promise, echoing eternity. When I hear it, I am a child again, no matter how many summers have come and gone. My home is in the countryside now and it is with a deeper pang each September that I note the song fading out. Every May, as I mark another year of my existence, I listen for the first returning rattle. You’re back! my heart sings. Ah, but we were here all along, they might say, if cicadas had words. There’s a lot of living and loving yet to do. You have today. Carry on.

Reflect: What’s one thing in nature that inspires you? Why?





Making it real



Image: Porch front. Liz West CC BY

Many of the second graders were bent over their desks, writing. Others were rereading their work with pencils in hand, like diminutive journalists editing reports in a newsroom. A few more looked off into space, thinking, before returning to the pages lying before them.

One of the joys of my role as literacy coach is getting to write with students and teachers across grade levels. The previous day I had come to model realistic fiction writing for this class, focusing on how to bring the stories to life with detail and dialogue:

“When I write realistic fiction, ladies and gentlemen, I often use what has happened in my own life. That’s why you were sad when my main character’s favorite toy got ruined – you felt what she felt, because it was something that had happened to me. I could give a lot of descriptive detail because I really lived it. That’s why you laughed at the conversation between my characters, because those were real conversations I had when I was that age. I just let my characters say those things. If you want to bring your realistic fiction to life, try using some things you have really seen, said, done, or felt.”

The children decided individually whether dialogue or more detail in setting was the thing they most needed to work on, and today I was back to see how it was going. One by one, I knelt beside them to hear revisions they’d made. I noted excited twitches as I approached – these kids knew their work was better.

I paused by a desk where a girl was absorbed in writing. I remembered her piece from the day before, in which she described a porch where two little girls were having a conversation. When she’d read it aloud, I could envision the girls sitting together on the porch, but the dialogue didn’t seem to be about anything in particular. “Try to think of what might matter to these girls,” I had advised. “Are they happy about something? Worried? Think about what matters to you and see if you can help your characters have a meaningful conversation that a reader would want to read.”

Now I knelt beside her. “Do you want to read your writing to me, or keep working?”

“I want to read it to you.”

She did. As I listened, a line from Emily Dickinson’s letter to a publisher sprang to mind, asking if her verse “was alive”: Should you think it breathed – and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude . . .

“What a major improvement in dialogue! This part, here, where your main character tells her friend that she’s excited about getting a stepfather to do things with, but is also a little afraid – that’s the best line in your story. This is where it really comes to life. It’s great writing.”

She looked up at me, eyes big and solemn. “I did what you said. That’s how I feel. My mom is getting married again.” And she bent back over her writing, drawn like a duck to water or a swallow to the air, a compulsion I fully recognized, for when we write, we are putting pieces of our souls on the page. Facing our fears, meeting ourselves where we are, daring to hope, finding a safe haven, maybe to heal. Even in the second grade.

Very real, indeed.

Reflect: What truth will you write about today?