Laughing Buddha

Hotei

Hotei Buddha. Shanna RileyCC BY-SA

“Come see what your aunt brought you!” Mom calls. 

My aunt has given me some pretty neat gifts: A shirt with iron-on letters that say Bookworm and a Partridge Family album. She’s a fun person, sometimes, like when she records us singing Olivia Newton-John songs on her tape recorder and says we sound professional, or lets me try on her wigs.

I can hardly wait to see what she’s brought this time. I fly down the hall from my bedroom to the living room.

My aunt is smiling wide. She hands me something wrapped in brown paper, saying: “Be careful -it’s breakable.”

I unroll the wrapping, pull out the breakable thing.

It’s a statue. A little bald man with a big belly and no shirt, wearing only a skirt, with his hands up in the air. He is laughing – at me, I think, because I don’t know what in the heck he is.

He’s also solid pink. A little darker than Pepto-Bismol.

I am confused. 

“I made him in ceramics class,” my aunt says, looking pleased with herself. 

Every grown-up female I know is making ceramics or macrame or decoupage. But I’ve never seen anything like this fat little pink man.

“What is he?” I ask, feeling disgusted, while he laughs at me silently. 

I think about dropping him.

My mother glares at me.

“He’s Hotei. If you rub his belly, he’ll bring you good luck,” says my aunt.

I want to say he needs it for himself, but my mother speaks up:

“Look at what’s underneath.”

I turn Hotei head down. Under the base on which he stands is an inscription:

Made for Fran with love. Aunt E.

I look up at my aunt and see the earnestness in her eyes.

She never married, never had children of her own. When I went to high school, she attended my plays, convinced that I’d make it on the stage in New York City. She directed my wedding, bought dozens of outfits for my first child. When I started trying to write short stories, she asked to read my work.

“You should send this to magazines!” she said, genuine excitement in her voice. “You could be published!”

She didn’t live to see my second child.

Hotei sat on my bedroom shelf for many years, and yes, I rubbed his belly. Some days more than others.

But I didn’t need him for good fortune, not really.

I had my aunt.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

 

 

 

Where the meaning is

My colleague is weeping.

She’s just read aloud a passage from The Unstoppable Writing Teacher: Real Strategies for the Real Classroom by Colleen Cruz, specifically from Chapter Five, entitled “I’m finding some student writing repetitive and boring.”

In this passage Cruz  relates the story of being observed by teachers who said that some students in the class had chosen “boring … almost shallow” personal essay topics. Cruz confers with one of these students. He’s writing about why Christmas is his favorite holiday – his reasons are the food, the presents, watching videos. As Cruz continues to converse with the boy, she feels pressure building under the skeptical eyes of the observers; the conferring is going nowhere. But Cruz presses on. She keeps talking, feigning enthusiasm: “There’s just so much to say about videos on Christmas. I would love to hear what you have to say about them.”

And then the boy explains that every year on Christmas, after the presents are opened, his mom lets him watch all their previous Christmas videos, when his dad was alive. She can’t endure the videos during the rest of the year, but at Christmas she watches them with her son.

“It’s like we’re all together again,” said the boy.

Like Cruz and the observing teachers in the story, my book study colleagues and I all have tears in our eyes.

I write in the margin of that page: Go deeper and deeper to the meaning. 

I think about a second grader writing realistic fiction. Her first attempt at dialogue was rambling, pointless; the characters were talking but not saying anything. When I mentioned that we can add things from our own lives to make characters think and feel things that we do, to “make it real,” she revised the dialogue to a conversation about a girl who was worried about her new stepfather liking her. When she read it to me, I said, “Wow, your story really came to life there! What made you write about the girl’s worries over her stepfather?”

The child answered, solemnly, “My mom is getting married next weekend.”

I think about a girl describing how she and her grandmother waded through the regular flooding of their impoverished hometown in Viet Nam.

I think about a fifth-grade boy who never liked writing, how he developed an enthusiasm for it with his memoir on making the hard choice to tell the truth after having lied. A girl new to the school wrote about a girl having to move often. The piece opened with the narrator shouting at her mom; the anger was palpable.

A dim recollection of the movie Where the Heart Is flits through my mind – the young pregnant girl pressing a hand against her abdomen, saying, “That’s where the heart is.”

Cruz says students “have a subconscious need to write about particular topics, but they don’t consciously know why.”

Our job, then, as writing teachers, is to help students go deeper to the why, to where the heart, the meaning, is.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

 

 

 

The storm passes by

Church after tornado 6-18-13

Our phones are popping at the same time:  “Take cover immediately . . . .”

Outside, the wind gusts; objects are striking the building, the windows.

We quickly gather the children who’ve come for Vacation Bible School – there’s about seventy of us in all – and they get down on the floor, balling up with their heads against the painted cinderblocks of the main hallway.

The wind is roaring now. The electricity goes out. The emergency lighting flashes on, bright as spotlights, adding a stark, garish quality to faces and bodies. The fire alarm goes off, a deafening blare, as it’s right above us. A boy with hearing aids rips them out of his ears.

The children are still, silent, as heavy objects strike windows in classrooms – will the windows shatter? For a split second I am tempted to look out and see if Miss Gulch is riding through the air on her bicycle just as she morphs into the Wicked Witch of the West.

Instead I kneel over several children as a shield, leaning my head against the cool concrete wall.

These walls are solid, I think. Safe.

But just around the corner in the fellowship hall is a hutch with a large, framed photo of the church when it was nearly flattened by a tornado twenty years ago.  

Minutes are eternal when destruction is banging on the door.

If we die, I think, at least we are in church.

My husband, the pastor, prays aloud.

The wind soon abates, dies away.  

We go outside to find long strips of vinyl from someone’s home strewn in the parking lot. Big pieces of plywood from who knows where are lying against the building. Shingles are scattered about like fall leaves. The trashcans are way across the graveyard – we trek over to fetch them and we see the gap in the woods where the tornado came through. It cut a path through the cemetery, knocking down a line of gravestones. Silk and plastic flowers, little angel statues and other loose memorials left by families for their loved ones are blown everywhere.

The children retrieve and replace them.

Parents begin arriving, alarmed. Others in the community come to see if everything’s okay.

Just as we are leaving, I turn back toward the church – “Look!”

Arcing up from the woods across the street to the woods behind the cemetery, in the sky directly above the church, a rainbow gleams.

All is well.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

A rising tide lifts all boats

Boats

Fishing boats. karol m. CC BY

At a recent team meeting of K-12 cross-curricular educators dedicated to improving writing instruction, we discussed the Calkins and Ehrenworth article entitled “Growing Extraordinary Writers: Leadership Decisions to Raise the Level of Writing Across a School and a District” (The Reading Teacher, Vol. 70, No. 1, July/August 2016). While takeaways included the need for a shared vision of good writing and good writing instruction, as well as a need for shared expectations and ways to track growth – the reason for the formation of this team – what struck me most was this line on the transformative power of professional development: “It should be focused on strengthening teachers’ methods and spirits.”

Yes. Spirits must rise, I thought. Before we can raise the level of writing, before we can raise the students at all,  we must first raise each others’ spirits. 

The truth is that professional development is so seldom inspirational. For the last year, when I planned professional development in writing for teachers, my driving question was, How can I inspire them? How can they tap into the wellspring of their own power, their own voices, all that matters to them?

When I spoke on this at the meeting, a colleague chimed in: “We have to be the rising tide. If we rise, we’ll raise others with us.”

“Yes – a rising tide lifts all boats,” I responded, recalling those words associated with John F. Kennedy.

I grew up in the Tidewater region of Virginia. I have been on the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel when the tide was high, in a storm; as I descended into the tunnel, waves crashed above the entrance and spilled over the car. A layer of salt remained on the windshield when it dried. I’ve seen boats grounded when the tide was low, making the would-be sailors push and pull that much harder to get them afloat. I’ve walked floating docks of marinas on sunny days, feeling the sway of the boards under my feet as boats rocked with the incoming tide, the metal of their moorings and buoys clanking softly, rhythmically, as if coming to life with with the rising flow.

When the tide rises, it lifts everything with it – everything rises.

When our spirits rise, we lift others around us – everyone rises.

That’s so needed in education today.

It’s so needed everywhere.

The power lies within you. Tap into that inner wellspring; let it flow.

And rise.

Note: The one word I chose for for myself at the beginning of this year is Rise. If you’re interested, here’s my little poem: Rise.

slice-of-life_individual

My grandfather, St. Patrick

Columbus St. Patrick

Columbus St. Patrick Brantley, circa 1924-1925, age 18 or 19.

On a small family farm in Beaufort County, North Carolina, in late September of 1906, my great-grandmother had her fifth of ten children. Her previous children were named Franklin, James, William Hosea, and Penelope (not pronounced pe-nel-o-pee, mind you, but pen-a-lope, rhyming with cantaloupe).  Thankfully the girl was called Penny,  which the family spelled Peaney.

This new son was named Columbus St. Patrick.

We do not know why.

He wasn’t born on March 17th.

The family wasn’t Catholic; they were Baptists and Methodists.

Legend has it that a great-great ancestor came over from Ireland, but this isn’t evident in the family tree roots running deep in North Carolina and Virginia to the 1700s. In fact, as Columbus St. Patrick grew up, his southern dialect carried traces of Elizabethan English: He pronounced his brothers’ middle names as Acey and Hosey – that’s Asa and Hosea – and a neighbor’s name as Miss Etter, which I believed was spelled that way until I saw it on her mailbox: Etta.

His middle name troubled him.

I became fascinated by names around the age of five. My own given name is in honor of my grandmother, Ruby Frances. I asked her: “What’s Granddaddy’s middle name?”

“It’s just S,” Grandma replied.

“S?”

“Yes.”

“How can a name be S? That is just a letter.”

“It’s an initial. He had his name changed to an S.”

I didn’t know anyone could do that. Your name is your name; it’s who you are.

Grandma went on: “It’s S because his middle name was St. Patrick and it bothered him his whole life, so he changed it.”

Even as a preschooler who knew nothing of Saint Patrick yet, I felt a pang at this. What a magical-sounding name. Strange, but pretty.

Later that day I crawled into his lap and in the blunt way of children, asked: “Granddaddy, why did your mother name you St. Patrick?”

Granddaddy shook his head, briefly drawing a hand over his face as if to brush the thought away.

“I have no ideer,” he replied, sighing.

Those who did know were already long gone.

When St. Patrick’s Day rolls around, of course I think of Granddaddy. He was St. Patrick. He was a man of faith and a man of the earth, a farmer; Saint Patrick is depicted holding a cross and a shamrock. Saint Patrick sailed on ships in the fifth century; his namesake built them in World War II. Columbus St. Patrick spent his life serving others, putting their needs ahead of his own, always a compass for doing what is right, what is good.

The venerated saint is said to have driven the snakes out of Ireland. I recall Granddaddy killing copperheads with a hoe on the dirt road of his country home when I was a child. When he grew too old to manage the hoe, he simply grabbed his shotgun and that was it for the copperheads. No harm was going to come to his own, not on his watch.

“Never kill a black snake,” he told me. “They keep rats and mice away.”

I suppose it would not do for North Carolina to be rid of all snakes.

Today I celebrate my heritage as do many others, but I suspect very few can say they are St. Patrick’s granddaughter.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

Courage (part two)

The surgery took longer than expected, but the surgeon came to the waiting room at last.

“It went well,” he said. “Your husband’s eye is removed and the implant is in place, covered by membrane and attached to the muscles as it should be, if he were to get a prosthesis.”

He paused.

If it went well, why is he pausing? Something’s not right.

He continued: “I had to remove a lot of extra tissue, as it was dark and there’s no way for me to tell if it’s just natural pigment, or bruising, or melanoma.”

I was shaking. “What does this mean?”

“I took all of the dark tissue but he may never be able to wear a prosthesis, as there may not be enough support for it,” said the surgeon, gently.

I nodded. How are we going to tell him?

“Pathology will send the eye to Wills Institute in Philadelphia – they’re the best. They’ll analyze the tumor, whether or not any cells have spread . . . .”

 I closed my eyes as he spoke, not having considered this possibility.

I recalled the oncologist’s words when we consulted him: By the time it’s found, it’s usually metastasized. Radiation and chemotherapy are ineffective. It’s nasty.

That doctor had treated five patients with ocular melanoma in the last two decades.

All five had died.

Please, God. Please let those cells not have spread.

And then I went to recovery to hold my husband’s hand.

He squeezed mine, hard.

Half his head was bandaged. When an eye is surgically removed (enucleated), that side of a person’s face bruises badly. A conformer, a clear plastic piece like a huge contact lens, is put under the eyelid to hold its shape during healing so a prosthesis will fit.

The pain is intense for the first few days.

When the bandage had to be removed the first time for the application of antibacterial ointment, my husband said, “Get me a mirror.”

I handed it to him.

“Dear God,” he said, looking at his reflection.

It was the only time he cried.

After that, he never complained, not once – all of his energy went into healing.

The first night back home, when he went to bed, my husband said, “I see a light.”

“There isn’t a light,” I said. “I just turned it off.”

“I see it with my . . . what used to be my eye,” he said. “A bright light at the floor. Then it sort of swept up to the ceiling.”

I thought about amputees who still feel rings on fingers that are gone, or sensations in legs that are not there anymore. Phantom pain.

“I think it’s a phantom light,” I told my husband.

 He saw it for a few nights, this ghost light, the optic nerve trying to adapt to not seeing anymore. And then it stopped.

The bruising absorbed in a week or so and the eye – what do you call an eye that’s not an eye? A non-eye? – didn’t look as alarming as one would imagine. Just a pale orb, sort of like sclera without an iris. Not frightening at all, nothing like a hallowgast from Miss Peregrine.  Just different.

And every day we wondered about that pathology report.

Three long weeks went by before the surgeon called:

“No rogue cells in the tissue around the eye! The timing couldn’t have been better – the tumor was in the early stages.”

We threw our arms around each other; we could get on with living.

It wasn’t all that easy.

At first my husband wore a black eye patch to shield the removed eye. Everywhere we went, little kids called out, “Look, a pirate!” My husband just laughed and waved at them. An eye patch, however, is quite convex. It bumped against the lens of his glasses, which he had to wear all the time now for his remaining eye, as it was becoming strained.

He tried adhesive bandages designed for eyes next. Our grown sons said, “Dad, the eye patch looks better than those Band-Aids. A lot better.”

My husband sighed. He decided to try wearing a contact lens in the real eye, doing away with glasses so he could go back to the eye patch, which worried all his doctors:

“You only have one eye now – you can’t afford an abscess or corneal infection,” they told him.

He tried it anyway – and learned that in order to put a contact in, you really need two eyes to see what you’re doing.

At last he resorted to tinted lenses and gave up on coverings altogether.

He had trouble with depth perception, driving after dark, merging onto the highway. He was startled by people approaching him on his left side, because he couldn’t see them coming.

He bumped into things, hard enough to leave bruises.

He had trouble reading, which worried him more than anything else – he’s a minister, and reading is the foundation of his life’s work. He got a magnifying glass to be able to study his Bible.

He became restless, quiet.

At an appointment for his strained eye, the neurological ophthalmologist asked: “Why haven’t you gotten a prosthesis?”

“The surgeon said with all the tissue he removed, there may not be enough support for it,” answered my husband.

“Hmmm,” said the ophthalmologist. “How long has it been since your surgery?”

“A year.”

“I think you should investigate it. Here’s the name of the ocularist. He’s only about an hour away.”

We called, and learned that the ocularist sets appointments in the morning. If the patient is a candidate for a prosthesis, he makes it in his office that day and the patient leaves wearing it.

My husband hung up the phone, his face alight with hope.

“What if . . . ” I struggled, “what if you’re not a candidate?”

“Then I tried, and that’s all I can do.”

I worried the whole trip about how the idea buoyed his spirits, fearing that we’d be sent away, and how would that affect him?

Our younger son drove us. The three of us sat in the office together as the ocularist examined my husband.

“Oh, that was a lovely surgery,” he said. “Lovely. Great movement of the implant. Let’s get to work.”

“Do you mean,” I hardly dared to confirm, “that he will be able to wear a prosthesis, after all?”

“Sure – not a problem.”

I sat there watching as the mold was made of my husband’s non-eye, then as the resin was poured into it to create the prosthesis, thinking, This is like a cross between a medieval apothecary and Lemony Snicket. It might have been downright gothic, except that the room was sunny and cozy, being part of a house converted to an office.

The last step of the process was painting the prosthesis. We watched this man, this artist extraordinaire, open his set of paints and create his little masterpiece. He held the prosthesis up to my husband’s eye for comparison: “You have a lot of ocher in your iris. I have to add more.”

Back to dabbing paint he went.

As long as I live, I do not expect to see anything like it again – it was nothing short of a miracle when the ocularist placed the prosthesis over the implant, and my husband looked at me with two big, beautiful brown eyes.

My mouth fell open.

So did my husband’s, when the ocularist handed him the mirror.

We arrived at 8:00 that morning.

We left at 3:00 that afternoon, with the new eye.

On the porch of the office as we were leaving, in the bright the afternoon sun, my husband said, “Tell me how it looks.”

A perfect match – one would not know which was the real eye.

“It’s unbelievable,” I said. “Amazing.”

“It looks great, Dad,” said our son.

“I feel like myself again,” said my husband. A grin spread across his face.

“I just wonder how long it will be before someone asks if I can see out of it,” and he dissolved with laughter.

That was just three weeks ago.

He hasn’t stopped smiling since.

*******

(Note:  Just before the surgery, when we didn’t know what would happen next, we made the seemingly insane decision to adopt a seven-week-old Lab puppy who needed a home. If you are interested in the puppy’s story in relation to this experience, here’s a previous post: The unplanned baby.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

Courage (part one)

Corridor

Corridor. danie; CC BY

“Do you know why you’re here?” the doctor asked.

When doctors don’t smile, the conversation isn’t going to be good.

My husband, pale but resolute, nodded his head.

Ocular melanoma. We’d never heard of it before.

It’s rare.

He had a freckle on his retina near the optic nerve in his left eye. Probably a birthmark, the optometrist said. We’ll just watch it.

They watched it for six years.

It was growing now, spreading, causing light flashes, changing color, leaking fluid.

The retina specialist looked grim. Maybe a radiation chip could be applied to slow the growth of this thing, but it would still be there. The sclera would have to be cut and peeled up for the chip, which would stay in for seven days.

The research hospital wanted to wait and see what the tumor – not a freckle anymore, but the tumor – would do.

Everything we read online about ocular melanoma said Do not wait. 

There is no cure.

The cancer doctor we consulted said, By the time it’s found, it’s usually metastasized.  Radiation and chemotherapy have no effect. It’s nasty.

My husband looked at me. I could see myself reflected his big, beautiful brown eyes.

He said:

“I want the eye out. As soon as possible.”

The optic nerve is connected to the brain, you see, and the pictures showed the lesion -the tumor – reaching for the optic nerve like a hand reaching for a piece of savory fruit, for juicing.

“Okay,” I said, without even blinking.

We found a surgeon, a highly respected one,  who agreed. “I have to tell you enucleation is an easy surgery to perform, but it’s an extremely painful recovery.”

My husband said: “Let’s do it.”

On the night before the surgery, I kissed his left eyelid. It was the last thing, the only thing, I could do for that beautiful eye which would be no more.

It was a long wait at the hospital. When the orderlies finally came, my husband’s sister, our niece and I told him we loved him, kissed him good-bye. As the gurney rolled down the hallway he was sitting up in his gown, waving at us, grinning from ear to ear in his usual gregarious way.

He knew he would come out of there without an eye, that the recovery would be rough, and he was smiling.

That’s profound courage, I thought. The bravest thing I’ve ever seen. 

I waved back, tears blurring my vision, until he vanished from my sight.

(To be continued tomorrow).

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

 

Follow the light

Hermit crab

Hermit crab. Jessica DiamondCC BY-SA

Daddy has a story to tell this morning:

“Last night, a sound woke me up.  I got out of bed and listened.  A steady clinking was coming from the bathroom. I thought: What in the devil could be making that noise in the bathroom? I went and looked around – didn’t see anything. I bent down to look at the pipe under the sink. Nothing. The noise was much closer, though, almost right in my ear . . . I turned my head and there on the sink leg was that hermit crab, crawling up. His shell was hitting against the metal leg – that was the clinking.”

I look in the glass bowl where my pet crab Shermie lives. He’s completely inside his black-and-white shell now, obviously sleeping off his late-night adventure. 

“He got out of his bowl and went that far? Why would he do that, Daddy?”

 “I guess he was following the light.”

The bowl is in the living room. I look at the hallway. The bathroom is at the end, around the corner on the right. That’s an awfully long way for a little crab. I imagine him crawling along the hardwood floor past the bedrooms in the dark. It’s a good thing none of us got up and stepped on him. 

Shermie’s stalk eyes peek out of his shell and I wish I could ask him: Why were you trying so hard to get to the light?

Maybe it wasn’t the light. A quick skim of the Internet reveals that hermit crabs are nocturnal creatures which often climb out of cages at night, when they would normally be in search of food and water; in the wild, they do this in droves, traveling for miles. When a pet hermit crab escapes – apparently quite a few do – the experts say to check the bathroom, as the crab might be seeking the humidity of its natural habitat.

In the days before the Internet, however, we didn’t know all of this.

For years I thought of that tiny creature and the Herculean task of climbing out of a wide, smooth glass bowl – how, I do not know to this day – to make his way, alone, through the dark toward the only light in the house.

And I would think: If Shermie could figure out where the light is, then so can I. There’s a light to follow out of this darkness, somewhere. I’ll find it. I’ll climb out.

slice-of-life_individual Early Morning Slicer

 

 

Morning snow

Snow

There was crisp, dry snow under his feet and more snow lying on the branches of the trees. Overhead there was a pale blue sky, the sort of sky one sees on a fine winter day in the morning. Straight ahead of him he saw between the tree trunks the sun, just rising, very red and clear. Everything was perfectly still, as if he were the only living creature in that country.

-C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Snow swirled down in the gray dawn yesterday, winter whispering farewell in its dying breath: I’m still here, but not for long. Just one more time . . . .

There’s a silence, a stillness, to Sunday mornings anyway, a sense of expectancy, an invitation to step away from the world.

Of course I think of Narnia. I always do when it snows.

I was ten years old, scouring the school library shelves for a book I hadn’t read yet, when I encountered a compelling title: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 

“Sounds interesting,” I thought, opening the cover, not realizing that it was a portal to another world that I’d never fully leave  – or want to leave. I fell in and never climbed all the way out again. Part of that pull is the longing C.S. Lewis infused into the Narnia Chronicles, the sense of “realness” that pervades the magic. Lewis poured what he loved into the stories, and they live because of it.

Having facilitated a writing workshop for teachers just the day before on “creating the magic” – writing about what matters to you, tapping into your heart, your dreams, your struggles, your memories, making your writing authentic so you can help students do the the same – I watched the snow, remembering Narnia.

Writing is the closest thing to magic that there is. As teachers we create the atmosphere for our writers. It’s one of excited expectancy, of energy, when young writers discover the power within them, learning how to harness words to impact readers. Writing, after all, is meant to be shared – it’s the connecting of human minds and hearts.

Which is why, for me, Narnia is never very far away.

Especially when it snows.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

 

 

All that you hold dear

Fawn in hands

A new idea is fragile, fleeting

capture it as soon as you can.

Find the meaning

what it makes you think

how it makes you feel.

Nurture it

as you nurture the artist within you

so the idea and the artist will grow.

Play with the words

the images will come.

Play with the images

the words will come.

Trust your inner writer

to find a way

of conveying that idea, that image

so that others think and see

and feel.

There’s power in that fledgling thought

in every feeling connected to

 all that you hold dear.

More power in sharing it

than in holding it tight, unspoken.

Let it breathe

let it live.

It wants to.

It is precious.

Even

priceless.

Inspired by my writing workshop with teachers yesterday on “creating the magic”  – first as a writer, then for your writers.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer