Cactus malpractice


Kelly’s cactus. GinnyCC BY-SA

I want a puppy, but his answer is always “NO.”

Tweety, my yellow parakeet, has died after six years of squawking, escaping his cage, and flinging seed hulls everywhere.

“No more birds, either,” says my father, in a tone that I dare not challenge.

I am bereft. I want something to take care of. Some small living thing that belongs to me.

I’m getting too old to catch caterpillars (the forest tent caterpillars, to be exact, which have amazing, detailed patterns with brilliant blue stripes and are not very hairy) and keep them in used margarine containers until they turn into little brown moths. Far too old to catch toads after school and bring them home in my metal Charlie Brown lunch box, which I was quickly forbidden to do.

I sigh. 

On a trip to Woolco, something catches my eye. It’s enchantingly tiny and it won’t make a mess or escape in the house.

So I ask: “Daddy, can I have a cactus?”

He looks at me oddly, as if he’s trying to decide whether or not I am being a smart aleck.

“Sure,” he says. 

The cactus costs 89 cents, the same as a 45 rpm record. It’s spherical, about the circumference of a quarter, about the height of a quarter standing on its edge. 

“Isn’t it the cutest thing?” I ask my Dad.

He raises his eyebrows. “Well, it’s certainly easy to take care of.”

For a couple of week, the cactus sits on my dresser, until I start worrying that it’s not growing. I know cacti don’t need a lot of water – maybe it needs more light, more heat. Cacti grow in the desert, after all.

Hmmm. How can I help it?

I know! The mirror in the bathroom is in a large frame. I can climb on the sink and put the cactus on the top of it, right up there under the light. 

Sure enough, it fits perfectly, just inches away from the bulb.

After a few days, I climb up and check on my cactus. It’s grown taller! I give it a few drops of water and return it to its makeshift sun.

And then I forget about it for weeks.

When I finally remembered the cactus and scrambled back on top of the sink to retrieve it, I found only a little brown crisp in the tiny pot.

Burnt slam up, as my grandfather might say.

I stood there gazing at the destruction in my hands, feeling a pang of horror mixed with shame – Am I the only person, ever, to kill a cactus? 

I meant well. I wanted the cactus to grow, to thrive, to have what it needed.

I just failed to check on it more than once to see if my plan worked, or to determine if it was even a good plan in the first place.

And the cactus couldn’t say Hey, this is too much light and heat, not enough water – I do still need that, you know. 

It just quietly withered away.

The word that comes to mind is mindfulness.

A mighty and crucial thing, indeed.


Note: There were hermit crabs and, yes, puppies in my near future. 

They fared far better.

Lit happens

Lit happens

I saw the T-shirt on display behind the register of my local indie bookstore, as I succumbed, yet again, to rampant bibliophilia.

Lit happens. 

Had to have it.

Oh yes, there was one in my size, in blue. The store owner smiled as she added it to my total. “I can order it in red for you, too. I tell people the color stands for being well-read.”


As I returned to the store to pick up the red Lit happens T-shirt, I thought about literary people being well-read. Bibliophiles. Bookworms. I thought about the shirt my aunt made for me decades ago, with iron-on letters spelling Bookworm: “Because you always have your nose in a book,” she’d grinned.

I turned the the idea of lit happens around in my mind, from being well-read to learning how to read: Literacy happens.


How does literacy really happen?

Research immediately tried to crowd my head, for a big part of my bibliophilia is professional. My shelves at school and at home are lined, overflowing, in fact, with books on growing readers and writers – how to teach, assess, reinforce. Every bit of it is powerful.

But I pushed the research back for a little breathing room, to think about my own path to literacy. How did I become literate?

It’s anything but strategic or elaborate.

Sure, my grandmother read to me from the time I can remember – the same books, over and over, until I could anticipate and recite the words before she read them aloud. I didn’t ever think of my parents as readers – they were big TV watchers – but I do have a memory of my mother reading “Sleeping Beauty” aloud to me, deliberately changing the name to “Beeping Sleauty.”

“No no no!” I am laughing hard. “Her name is SLEEPING BEAUTY.”

“Oh, that’s right,” says my mother, turning the page. “Let’s see if the prince uses his sword to cut through the thorns to find Beeping Sleauty.”

The sound of the transposed name is hilarious; I dissolve with laughter. My mother begins giggling, which means we will be laughing for a while – her cackling is utterly infectious.

It was wordplay, not word work – not intentional, just being silly.

So much fun.

My parents had one bookshelf in the living room, containing a set of encyclopedias, (including, oddly, medical encyclopedias, maybe thrown in with the purchase of the standard set), old dictionaries, high school yearbooks, an avocado green Living Bible, and a set of children’s literature anthologies, Through Golden Windows, by Grolier. The book titles: Mostly Magic, Fun and Fantasy, Wonderful Things Happen, Adventures Here and There, Good Times Together, Children Everywhere, Stories of Early America, American Backgrounds, Wide, Wonderful World, Man and His World. 

These anthologies contained a multitude of classic stories and authors; I read some of them over and over while eating my breakfast cereal until the covers were grimy with use, particularly Mostly Magic. In these books I first encountered Medio Pollito, the little half-chick, Little One-Eye, Little Two-Eyes, and Little Three-Eyes, Tom Sawyer, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Daniel Boone, Robin Hood, and so much more.

An excerpt from the dedication page of Through Golden Windows:

What can books give to a child that is growing up in today’s curiously complicated world? Many things, we believe, although the evidence is not altogether conclusive. Facts and information, of course, about almost everything; understanding of himself and others; confidence and security; fun and laughter; friends and friendships; escape from reality at times – all these are the possible results if the right book is used with the right child in the right way.

But suppose the right book is not available? … Or suppose parents and teachers do not know the right book? Many, by their own admission, do not know children’s books well. Must the child’s values in reading be left to chance, while he struggles with everyday problems, or grows up without feeling the full rapture of a good book?

That was written in the “curiously complicated world” of 1958. Well before I was born. Thirty years before the World Wide Web. Before much of the educational research lining my shelves was begun.

What strikes me are the words “grows up without feeling the full rapture of a good book.”

That, I believe, is where the path to literacy lies, in getting that first taste of rapture from a book. The right book mentioned by the Grolier editor in 1958 isn’t a “just-right” book referenced in reading education today, one that is leveled, that a child can read without too much difficulty. The right book could actually be a magazine or blog or site. The right book always was, and always will be, one in which the reader immerses so that the word “reading” doesn’t even seem to fit the process of pursuit, the wanting more, the needing to know, the absorption of the ideas and images, the stepping out of self.

Note that I didn’t mention school in my early path to literacy – for the bulk of the literate life occurs outside of school. Many of my friends and teaching colleagues say that they didn’t enjoy reading until they were grown. That’s an awfully long wait for the full rapture.

When the words become more than words, when they become the window, the gateway, to all that lies beyond what one can immediately see, arousing a driving desire to get through and drink it all in – that’s the rapture.

Lit happening.

Through Golden Windows



Ruby-throated hummingbird tongue. Pete MarkhamCC BY-SA

I hear it as soon as I step into the garage – a small flapping sound. I stop, trying to locate it – there’s also an accompanying sort of squeak. Mouse-like. I brace myself – I’ve found mice in here before, as well as a small copperhead snake that fortunately got away from me faster than I could get away from it. But mice and snakes don’t make flapping noises. This is the sound of little wings beating.


In a corner, beneath a window, I find the source. A hummingbird. It’s clearly in trouble. Not until I pick it up – almost weightless, just a quivering sensation in the palm of my hand – can I see why.  A bit of cobweb is stuck to its wings and wrapped in its feet. The hummingbird must have flown into it or picked an unfortunate place to perch. Once in the sticky thread, it was rendered helpless, unable to fly or free itself. How it got inside the garage is another question. 

This bird, utterly tiny, trembles in my hand. Its iridescent jewel-tone feathers glimmer like soap bubbles in the sun. I see its heart beating rather than actually feeling it. The bird’s eyes are bright, alert. How long has it been trapped like this? How much energy has it spent trying to rid itself of this confining cobweb?  The sound of its wings beating furiously and its cries of distress are testimony to the fierceness with which it tried.

“It’s all right, it’s all right,” I say in my most soothing voice, although I know my presence alone must be terrifying. “Be still, now.”

I pull the gossamer thread from the tiny, clenched toes, from around the wings where it’s loosely draped. The wings beat now with renewed zeal, as with vibrant hope or celebration. The hummingbird is suddenly airborne. I don’t even see it happen, it’s so quick. I run to the garage door, fling it open, and my little bird zips through like a miniscule fighter plane on a mission, into the wild blue yonder.

I watch it go, and my spirit soars with it.

I remembered the hummingbird this morning, when I heard softer wings beating in my garage, this time a big yellow-and-black butterfly (Eastern Tiger Swallowtail), trying to get out of a window. I caught him, too, and set him free outside.

It triggered the hummingbird memory, and got me thinking about being trapped. How hard it is to free ourselves of those things that hold us back, how they stick to us like a cobweb to a hummingbird’s wings. Past experiences, loss, failures, our own choices or choices of others, pain, regret – they feel more like chains. Burdens that keep us from living fully, maybe even from trusting life again, as that sometimes feels huge and potentially dangerous.

I think of things we desperately want to accomplish and the hindrances, the things that bind us, keeping us from moving toward those goals. The hummingbird fought to be free, in order to live – that was its goal, staying alive.

Surely it’s the teacher in me that suddenly thinks of Frederick Douglass. Reading his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave  for the first time in college, I was struck by his desperate desire to read and write. As a child he befriended little white boys in his community to get them, bit by bit, to teach him how to read – in a time when it was forbidden to do so. Douglass fought hard and long to stay alive, to have a better life than the one prescribed for him; with the help of others along the way, he escaped the bonds of illiteracy and slavery. A brilliant man of words and influence.

All of this comes to me, on hearing wings beating in distress. Matthew Arnold wrote of Percy Bysshe Shelley: “A beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” We do not have to remain trapped, ineffectual. Our better selves, our better angels, would recognize those of others when their beating wings, their beating hearts, are caught in a void. It’s within our sphere of influence, within the parameters of our power, to help find the way out; in so doing, our own do not beat in vain.

Mystical morning

Ocracoke surprise

The island dawn is one of nebulous grayness, the sun an oblique white disc shrouded in veils of clouds. Painted from a palette of pearl, silver, and slate, the sand, the sea, the sky are starkly monochromatic, like an old black-and-white-movie. The temperature is indeterminate, neither hot nor cold. The morning is not uninviting nor inviting; it simply is.

As I make my way past softly rolling dunes of long grass shivering and undulating in the wind, I think only of the ocean, the opportunity to savor its splendor in relative isolation, away from commercialism. I expect to see a die-hard beachcomber or two; surely this a shell-collector’s paradise.

I do not expect the tree.

There it is, up ahead in the sand, directly in front of the path where dunes give way to the shore, with the shimmering, empty Atlantic for a backdrop.

How curious. I’ve not seen a tree smack in the middle of a beach before.

Are there others? I scan the shoreline, as far as I can see, on the left and the right.


This is the only tree.

Did it grow here, somehow? I investigate. I suspect not, as the sand is built up around the tree’s base, although I can’t discern human handprints. Or footprints. I don’t even know what kind of tree this is, although I saw numerous others like it lying in the Pamlico Sound on the Hatteras side of the ferry ride to Ocracoke. I should have asked the crew what kind of trees these are and why they lie so far out in the water. 

Driftwood, then. 

It stands here on the vacant beach with its thin, snaky branches twisting skyward. Shells dangle from some of the vine-like tips, reminiscent of castanets on fingers. Or earrings.

I am enchanted. I’ve a sense of standing in no-man’s land, except that someone has clearly been here. Maybe someones, plural. Mystery people were inspired to plant this bit of driftwood and to decorate it with what was near at hand. 

The tree is dead. Shells, for all their intricate beauty, are but skeletons. I marvel at the human heart, its great desire for creativity and play. At the ability of the inner artist to see that random pieces of things no longer living, broken things, can come together in such an unexpected way. Whimsy in the wind. The beach tree stands as a mystical reminder that all is not lost, that all has value, that there’s beauty beyond the brokenness if we are willing to rearrange the pieces. The extraordinary lies not beyond the ordinary, but within it. Not beyond us, but within us, within our very grasp, if we just reach.

The ocean sparkles despite the obscured sun, like the twinkling of an eye when someone’s just about to smile.

Ocracoke morning

Note: The title is a deliberate play on that of a previous post about my son’s trip to Iceland – both attempts at capturing the essence of place: Mythical morn.


The last stop


Nursing Home

The Last Station Nursing Home. Ulrich JohoCC BY-SA

I push the wheelchair down the hallway. We pass an old man in a wheelchair; he lifts his hand in greeting, although he’s never seen us before. In the lounge, a tiny, gray-haired woman is holding a doll in her arms, rocking it while she watches TV. She takes a spoon from the tray in front of her, scoops up something orange – maybe jello, maybe mashed peaches – and tries to feed it to her doll. My throat constricts. With every step, I feel like the world is converging, that I am being squeezed into a narrowing tube.

I come to the room. 

“Here we are, Grandma. This is your room. It’s really nice.”

In the wheelchair, Grandma covers her face with her hands. She begins to cry.

I kneel, nearly panicked, feeling akin to Judas Iscariot. “Stop! Please don’t cry. You will make me, cry, too. Is that what you want?”

Instantly her hands drop. She lifts her wet face, squares her thin shoulders. “No, no. I don’t want you to cry.”

She looks at me with those watery blue eyes that I know so well. She places her bony hand over mine on the arm of the wheelchair. “If I have to come to this place, then I am glad you are the one who came with me.”

For a long while we just sit in the waning afternoon light, holding each other’s hands. There are no words.

Because there are no words.

I feared the day would come when she didn’t know me. She forgot many things – what era we currently lived in, that many family members were long dead. I debated whether or not to tell her when she mentioned her brothers or her son – my father – that they were gone. How many times can a person stand to lose someone they love? She watered her artificial poinsettia at Christmastime and, still in possession of her physical strength, managed to get out of the building through a window (if I recall that detail correctly).

She eventually lapsed into a docile silence, looking at every visitor with a sort of curiosity, but no longer struggling. She’d stopped speaking. At this point, she wasn’t feeding herself any more, so I would feed her whenever I was there.

Taking the plastic spoon in my hand, I say – I don’t know why, maybe because of tradition, habit, courtesy, or simple spontaneity – “Grandma, do you want to say the blessing?”

I know she hasn’t spoken in weeks. I guess I expect to say grace for her now.

But she bows her head, clasps her hands . . . and recites, perfectly, word for word, the Lord’s Prayer.

I sit, awestruck. This isn’t the family blessing, my grandfather’s prayer, that we always say when we give thanks. But she knows it is a prayer; it remains intact in her mind.

I thought of all the nursing homes I’d visited through the years, usually during the holidays to sing Christmas carols. The Alzheimer’s wards are especially haunting, with their heavy doors and alarm systems. The people sit, physically present, enduring their days, but mentally elsewhere, often unresponsive unless one of two things occurs. When a child comes in, the faces of the elderly suddenly light up. It’s an eager expression. They lean toward the child, smiling. Some even hold their hands out to the child. Whether it’s the newness of life or the memory of  what once was, the presence of  a child is magic here.

As is music.

Carolers walk the halls, singing, and residents wheel themselves to the doors of their rooms. Some smile and wave, others nod in time to the song, until we sing “Silent Night.”

Some of them were just sitting at dinner, one leaning to the other, saying, “I don’t know where I am. What is this place?” The other responded, “I don’t know either. And who are you?”

They may have been playing Scrabble earlier that afternoon, although the words won’t come and the tiles are too hard to see anymore.

But when “Silent Night” begins, the light comes back on in their faces. They sing every single word with us – even a woman, rocking her doll. 

This is my grandmother’s favorite hymn – she taught me to play it on her chord organ long before I started school, placing my little fingers on the keys over and over until I got it right. 

She was born the day after Christmas and died three days before Christmas, almost on her ninety-first birthday. We sang “Silent Night” at her funeral.

These thoughts and images swirled in my mind yesterday as my son played the keyboard at his grandmother’s convalescent center. I noted the absence of one resident who followed me nimbly to the exit the last time I visited – I saw the eagerness on her face, the light of it – just as the alarms went off and the nurses gently escorted her away from the door.

She died last week.

My son plays hymn after hymn; the residents clap after every lively rendition. Someone sings in a clear, soft soprano, every single word of every stanza, in perfect time with the music.

This is my story, this is my song . . . .

Even at the last stop, when time seems to be no more, when the days and nights and years and epochs melt together, when the stories lie dormant, music sweeps in like a breeze, stirring  fallen leaves into the air again. The words rise to the surface, for they are there, always there, in the deepest, darkest places. No matter how long they lie, the old, familiar melodies bubble back with the first strains. Released.

They sing, and I marvel. At the power of it, at the gift of it, at the peace of it.

Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming. Silent nights are coming. But until then, their hearts go on singing.

I stand amazed.



Only time for a quick hug

Only Have Time for a Quick Hug. JackieCC BY

I recently learned of the UK’s Empathy Museum, which began in 2015. Their mission: To help us look at the world through other people’s eyes. To walk in their shoes.


Part of the exhibit, “A Mile in My Shoes,” is an actual collection of shoes worn by a Syrian refugee, a war veteran, a neurosurgeon, and many others. A person can don the shoes and walk in them while listening to a recording of the original shoe-owner’s story.

Another project of the Museum is the Human Library – instead of checking out a book, you can borrow a human for a conversation. “A Living Book,” says the site.

The keys to empathy are story and dialogue. Experiencing what others have experienced.

The Museum was founded by – can you guess? – a writer.

A thousand things flood my mind as I read about the Museum. Although I know it well, the power of story to impact and transform the mind and the heart is driven home again, anew. To live for a moment inside of others, to see through their eyes, to feel the stab of their pain, their fear, their sorrow, their longing, their joy (for joy, too, is a stab; read C.S. Lewis and William Wordsworth) is to bleed away part of ourselves on their behalf. Empathy is a simultaneous forgetting and remembering of our own soul-aches, while standing in someone else’s shoes.

Shoes remain, as stories remain. People do not. I have long been haunted by the image of shoes lying around the wrecked stern of Titanic when it was discovered. Author Charles Pellegrino writes that it took months for scientists to realize that these pairs of shoes, still intact after seventy-three years on the ocean floor, were uniformly spaced about eighteen inches apart, with shoelaces still tied. There’s no other trace of the people at all – not even teeth. Only the shoes remain to mark where the bodies came to rest. Scientists are at a loss to explain exactly how leather and shoelaces endure when no other clothing or skeletal remains are to be found, yet the shoes are there, the final witnesses, the last word in the story of their wearers. (And one more secret of the utterly mysterious ocean).

It is also worth noting how the hardcore scientists, successful in their famous mission to find her, wept over the Titanic.



For the suffering of others.

It’s also important to note that the word origin of empathy is rooted in passion as well as in suffering, hence the photo at the top of this post. The little girl runs to hug the stuffed bear in a burst of feeling, then runs away too quickly for the camera. Her image is blurred, ghost-like; a reminder that life is fleeting. She will not be a child for long. She may or may not ever be in this place again to see this bear, but in this moment, she is spurred to action.

That’s what empathy does – the short walk in someone else’s shoes strikes our souls so that we come away changed, wanting to make changes. We are all islands in a common sea, wrote Anne Morrow Lindbergh, twenty years after the kidnapping and murder of her baby boy. The common sea – the human experience, with all of its sufferings, its horrors, its joys, its beauty. See – really see – the people around you. Hear them. Feel their soul-aches, even as you feel your own. That’s empathy. Read it, write it, speak it – and by all means, teach it. A little soul-ache goes a long way in making the world more livable.

For all of us.

Note: The idea of soul-ache came to me while reading Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.”





Mythical morn

Iceland beach

Sea stacks (Reynisdrangar) and black sand beach,  Vík í Mýrdal, Iceland

The breaking of the wave cannot explain the whole sea. – Vladimir Nabokov

My older son toured Iceland this week, capturing his own abiding images of the exotic landscape.

We struggled to find adequate words for encapsulating the stunning scenery.

Desolate. Windswept. Wistful. These drifted in and out of my thoughts when viewing the photos, although they were a shade off, a tad too dark, didn’t have the exact right feel, weren’t sufficient. Uncaptured words, like elusive, shadowy birds, circled round my mind, never quite touching down.

It’s like being on another planet, my son texted.

Ethereal, I texted back, almost happy with that word, as it’s one I love and it almost fit.

It’s mythical. 

My son nailed it.

He was, after all, the one there taking it all in.

Land of legend and lore, glaciers and volcanoes, sharp contrasts and starkness, sparse, picturesque villages, moody skies and morning mists, Iceland is mythical. Not in the sense of Avalon and Atlantis, for one can actually stand at the volcano’s edge or scoop up handfuls of the black sand at the beach, really tiny pebbles of basalt. The whipping wind, the rocky coast, the crashing waves – the Vikings would recognize these still.

It looks like something out of Tolkien or the Chronicles of Narnia, said my son.

Experiencing Iceland vicariously, I did what I always do when I wonder about things – I looked them up (until this moment, I hadn’t thought that looking things up might count as a hobby; I am saying it’s mine, the next time I’m asked). There in the Internet’s vast sea of words, the facts have as magnetic a pull as the legends.

On the southern tip of Iceland, where my son stood on the black sand looking out at the craggy basalt sea stacks, the ocean is unimpeded all the way to Antarctica – there is no land mass in between. Hence the Atlantic rollers – long, powerful waves – can attack this shore with ferocity. I envision the sea drawing itself back as far as it wants, like a pitcher winding up for a fastball. Treacherous, even deadly (local legend features sea trolls and shipwrecks), there’s yet something lyrical, spiritual, about the wild freedom of the ocean at this point on the globe.

The Earth is mostly water; we are mostly water. 71% of Earth is covered by water; there’s 73% water in the human brain and heart. The ocean’s inspirational pull on us may be that simple – like recognizing like. We see the beauty and the power of the sea and something stirs deep within us – humans have waxed poetic about the ocean from time immemorial.

The thing that draws me most about this particular spot, the fascinating black beach at the village of Vik on the southernmost tip of Iceland, is knowing the ocean is unhindered here, from the shore at the uppermost part of the world to the lowest. The vast freedom, the power. The creative force. It draws me as a writer, as a teacher, as a human. That we are capable of great destruction is an understatement – but that’s not where I am going. From our entry into the world to our exit, there’s not a time we aren’t hindered by obstacles, both physical or metaphysical, taking their tolls on our bodies, minds, hearts, spirits. It’s astonishing how we are inspired to carry on, unfathomable how the smallest of things can be the source of willing ourselves onward – we flow over, around, through what would hold us back, finding peace despite what looms, ever how great, in our paths. As with the ocean, humankind has waxed pretty eloquently, deeply, about trouble, trials and pain. It’s a shared experience; none of us is unmarked. The difference is how we make our way, individually.

To be truly unleashed and still live seems an impossibility, so I ponder the power of unhindered inspiration – the indomitable force that would be. What heights, what depths, what creativity. Ultimate constructive power, unlimited possibility.

If such energy were harnessable . . . well, that’s the stuff superheroes and sagas are made of.

I tap into it as much as I am able, and let it flow on – one grateful conduit of ideas, images, and meaning, in my little part of the boundless, surging sea.

Iceland waterfall

Skógafoss, a waterfall in southern Iceland at the former coastline.

Note: Prior to writing this post, I had been toying with a piece about an enchanting encounter on a beach much closer to home. The titles of these posts are deliberate plays on one another, attempts at capturing the essence of place: Mystical morning.

Twilight’s gleaming

Twilight Zone

Rod Serling – Twilight Zone Button. Tony AlterCC BY

“It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.” 

– Season One opening narration, The Twilight Zone television series (1959-1964)

What’s your Fourth of July tradition, fellow Americans?

For my family, it’s watching The Twilight Zone marathon on Syfy.

I have to ask myself: Why do I love this series? Why is it so addictive? After all, special effects have advanced light-years since these shows were filmed; some of the outer space/alien/futuristic costumes and settings are primitive, even laughable. Rod Serling, garbed in dress jacket and skinny tie, strolls out of inconspicuous places – other rooms in houses, offices, or even the woods – to comment on the rising action and the characters,  occasionally smoking a cigarette in true ’60s vogue.

Part of the fun is seeing famous people when they were heartrendingly young, when their stars were still on the rise: Carol Burnett, Telly Savalas, Elizabeth Montgomery, William Shatner (THE Captain Kirk, before the inception of Star Trek). There’s Burgess Meredith, the best of the best character actors, Mickey Rooney beautifully playing an angry drunk. The furniture and props in many episodes, some fashionably chic, some commonplace, are now vintage, nostalgic slices of a bygone era. Something must also be said for the show’s camera work, the strategic zooms, the compelling close-ups. In truth, between some captivating characterizations and the cinematography, there’s a great bit of artistry in The Twlight Zone.

But all that’s just part of it. What really draws the viewer, ultimately, is the story.

The Twilight Zone breaks the dimensions of time and space, to be sure – it takes us away from Earth, brings us to an Earth we don’t recognize, allows us to step into the past and sometimes into a future that isn’t future anymore (I just saw a calendar on the wall of a restaurant in  one futuristic episode: 1974. Geez.). Statues come to life;  a warm, vibrant grandmother is really a custom robot; dolls talk, wreaking havoc and destruction. People down on their luck find good fortune; people lose fortunes; people are at the mercy of forces greater than themselves; people possess supernatural powers that are often abused or taken advantage of by others.

The most haunting thing about The Twilight Zone isn’t the supernatural, however. It’s the journey within, the recognition of the worst parts of ourselves. Selfishness and greed are common themes, with catastrophic consequences – not that the Zone is didactic. In the spirit of the best short stories, with O. Henry-esque twists at the end, The Twilight Zone follows the dark convolutions of the human psyche. Endings are intriguing, but not always happy.

My favorite episode is “A Stop at Willoughby.” A man is locked into a job he hates by a demanding, socialite wife; a hardcore boss berates him for his ineptitude and lack of drive. He’s miserable; he can’t please anyone, least of all himself. On the train commute between home and work, he falls asleep and dreams of a stop that isn’t on the line – a back-in-time place, where women carry parasols and children go fishing and men ride penny-farthing bicycles (the ones with the huge front wheel). The vision of this place, Willoughby, is so real and inviting that the man thinks about getting off there in his dream.  He wakes to the ongoing pressures of his life, but yearns more and more for the slower, contented pace of Willoughby. His wife mocks him for wanting to be Huckleberry Finn, then turns her back on him just as he caves from the pressures at work. On the train, he dreams of Willoughby once more, and this time he gets off, where the townspeople greet him cheerfully by name, as if they’ve always known him, as if he belongs there.

The story doesn’t quite end here; there’s a final scene with a big final twist, but I would be the ultimate spoiler if I told it here. The episode – all the episodes – are meant to be experiences for the viewer. Here’s part of the closing narration: “Willoughby? Whatever it is, it comes with sunlight and serenity and is part of The Twilight Zone.”

Perhaps that’s the pull of the Zone – that beyond the darkness, horror, oppression, bad choices, fears, the worst of humanity, there lies something better, that’s worth the pain of overcoming. Where morbid fascinations, bystander mentalities, selfish desires and regrets melt away. A place of healing, of peace, of freedom – where the best of humanity thrives, has a voice that’s heard. It’s not a place to be merely maintained, but is always being actively created.

What does that sound like to you? What would a Magic 8-Ball say?

Utopia? Very doubtful.

America? Most likely.

The Twilight Zone? Yes definitely.

So celebrate.

Cherish. Savor. Digest. Mull.

Not just food, but your tradition, your story. Yours as well as others’.

And see beyond.


Rare perspective

Ocracoke lighthouse inside

On my recent trip to Ocracoke Island for professional development, courtesy of the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT), my colleagues and I were treated to something unexpected and rare: A visit inside the Ocracoke lighthouse, which is closed to the general public.

The Ocracoke Light, as it is called, is the oldest and smallest of the Outer Banks lighthouses. So tiny, in fact, that the only person allowed up the spiral stairs is the bulb-changer. There’s just enough room for this maneuver at the top. The bulb is about the size of an average man’s pinky finger. It’s not the bulb, of course, that shines a steady light fourteen miles out into the Atlantic and the Pamlico Sound; the fourth-order Fresnel lens, historic in itself, magnifies the light.

The history is compelling, how the land was purchased for so little (two acres for $50 in 1822), and how this diminutive lighthouse originally operated by burning whale oil. Tiny yet powerful, standing on high ground, this lighthouse still guides ships safely through the inlet to other inner ports. I was also drawn by the graves nearby, almost obscured by a white picket fence and sheltering live oaks, just a stone’s throw from the lighthouse door. I wonder how many people ever notice this.

“Who were they?” I asked the NCCAT facilitator, an island native who had the key to let us inside the lighthouse. Imagine walking around with such a key in your pocket! “The people buried here – were they the original landowners?”

“Some,” was his answer, which set my mind surging so that it was hard to pay attention to the presentation. Who gets to be buried in such a captivating place, on a remote little rise overlooking the sea, at the foot of a lighthouse? What an incredible resting place.

It got me thinking about the human connection to place, to each other.

The original light could only shine about five miles out to sea – not always enough to save some of the ships. With the new lenses, really multifaceted prisms, the light shines almost three times farther. That it is a steady light seems significant to me – it does not blink or rotate at intervals, as other lighthouses do.

Perhaps because I am an educator, I connect this to teamwork, to the light we can shine individually only going so far, and how the strategically focused, combined efforts of colleagues goes so much farther in what we can do for students. There’s power in collaboration, in steadily striving for a common goal, in strengthening one another for the sake of those we are trying to help.

This doesn’t apply only to education. It applies to any organization – in fact, to humanity as a whole.

Which leads me to contemplate the rare perspective of being inside the Ocracoke Light – there’s a tiny bulb at the top with a mighty lens to magnify its illumination during the night, but I am here in the day, and I see natural light spilling in a tiny window.

That, to me, is inspiration. The natural light that shines through whatever little window into the human soul. Such light may leave periodically with the temporary darkness, while the light from the top of the lighthouse shines far for the benefit of others, but it always returns again, driving the darkness away.

We have only limited glimpses into the hearts and minds of others; we can hardly recognize our own, sometimes. There’s no real correlation between the light shining through a window to the inside of a lighthouse and its ability to shine a light at night – but for a human, there is.

Inspire. Be inspired. Appreciate your own rare perspective, and you’ll better see that of others.

A little light goes a long way – longer still, if we magnify that inside each other.

Ocracoke lighthouse