Big English

Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic. – J.K. Rowling

He finishes his reading assessment and peers over at my screen where all the words are marked red.

I had to tell him every one of them.

He’s only been in this country for a year.

He is tiny, but his dark eyes are bright, intense. They catch and perceive everything. I can tell.

He considers all the red on the screen, then turns those knowing eyes on me.

Before I can say, “It’s okay, don’t worry, you’ll learn,” he reaches over to pat my arm.

“You,” he says. “You have big English.”

He pats his own chest. “Me, little English. I have big Spanish.”

I point to myself, to finish his thought: “Me, I have poco Spanish.”

He grins at me, and I smile back.

We understand each other in a way beyond words. We are okay, in perfect company, because of this wordless knowing between us. No assessment invented by man can capture the height, the depth, the strength of the human spirit. There is no real reason why trust should suddenly be born in such a moment, but it clearly has been.

“I tell you what,” I say to my tiny new friend, for that is what he is now, “I will help you with English and you can help me with Spanish.”

His grin broadens. His eyes shine.

I hold up my hand: “Deal?”

He laughs, slaps my hand with his own. “Deal.”

And he vacates the chair beside me, going off for the rest of his school day in a sea of Big English. Like a salmon, he has a hard battle, upstream all the way.

I expect he’ll swim, rise, leap – I see it in his eyes, sense it in his spirit.

I wonder what the future holds for him. Something of great importance, great value – I can feel it tugging.

Whatever part I can play, let me play it.

Let the magic begin.

Anchored

Seahorse

Seahorse. Brandon LeonCC BY-SA

The seahorse was the motif of my summer.

He turned up everywhere – on my new beach bags, on a bracelet from a friend, on a spiral notebook given to me, in a pile of decorations for writing journals at a summer institute.

Seahorses galore.

This sudden proliferation was odd, too odd to be random. Loving symbolism, interpretation, and looking things up in general, I researched seahorses, curious about what mysterious meaning or significant message they portend for my life at the moment.

I already knew, of course, that the males bear the young, which is the reason I am mostly using the pronoun he, in honor of the seahorse dads.  I really couldn’t make much of a connection to this appealing characteristic, however. I am the only female in a household of males (including three dogs and two guinea pigs), none of whom are about to become a gestational vehicle.

In the metaphorical realm, seahorses apparently represent a great number of things: patience, persistence, inventiveness, creativity, whimsy – all enchanting. I celebrate and welcome all of these things.

I learned that the scientific name for the seahorse, hippocampus, is the same word for the part of the human brain thought to be the center of emotion and memory.

Speaking as a writer – utterly fascinating.

Seahorses can also symbolize stubbornness (my father’s word was “hardheaded”). Speaking as a human – ouch. Ahem.  I prefer to call it “determination” or “perseverance,” but we’ll keep moving along here.

The thing that strikes me most about the seahorse is that it’s a poor swimmer – one species being the slowest-recorded swimmer in the animal kingdom – and that its tail is invaluable to its survival. National Geographic puts it this way: Seahorses are rather inept swimmers and can easily die of exhaustion when caught in storm-roiled seas . . . they anchor themselves with their prehensile tails to sea grasses and corals.

Ah. A ray of light shines here in the murky depths of symbolism.

The seahorse began appearing, and appeared most often, in things connected with my work as an educator – on a tote bag with a book order, on my notebook and journal.

Education today – might that be the storm-roiled sea, full of conflicting ideologies and solutions that sometimes beget more problems, just for starters? It’s not that educators are inept (“poor swimmers”) but that the ever-changing currents in our ecosystem are vast and powerful, so to shrink one’s spirit and drain one’s energy just trying to keep up, to stay afloat.

Seahorses can die of exhaustion if they aren’t anchored.

I think about how often the word anchor appears in the educational realm – anchor text, anchor standard – signifying the foundation of something upon which other things will be built, or that subsequent learning will connect back to.

But I don’t think that’s why the little seahorse loomed so large of late. In my mind I see him, small and shadowy against a backdrop of coral and waving sea grass, anchored by his tail, swaying peacefully despite the surging sea. I think of teachers and the demands they face. I think of students, who, above all, are too easily caught in a virtual riptide.

What’s the anchor here?

We are.

We anchor one another. Teacher to teacher. Whatever’s raging around us, we support each other, we help each other along. Ultimately, we form the solid thing, the reef, where students can anchor themselves, where their best interests are tantamount to our own, where they are sheltered, nurtured, and given outlets for inventiveness, creativity, whimsy, even in the most uncertain, troublous times.

Hang on, hang together, and believe.

Says the seahorse not just to the educational world – but to humanity.

Seahorse motif

Organic stuff

Blueberries

Blueberries. AudreyCC-BY

The new Teach Write blog, dedicated to “helping teachers teach writers and grow their own writing habits,” invited teacher-writers to post on the topic of Beginnings.

Instantaneously, a dozen possibilities entered my mind, for, truly, there’s no end to beginnings.

Needing to stretch my fiction-writing muscles, I decided to share a short short story about beginnings later in life.

Thank you, Teach Write, for the challenge. 

Organic Stuff

Melva watched him ringing up the fat-free yogurt, the granola, the blueberries, wondering if he had children and why such a distinguished-looking man was cashiering at the Market. Maybe he just wanted something to do. Maybe he needed a little extra cash to supplement his retirement income. She wanted to ask, So, what brings you here to our high-class grocery?

Of course she’d never dream of really asking. That was something her sister would do. Carlice, newly-divorced, affectionately referred to as a “health nut” by the family, was fifty-seven but looked twenty years younger, thanks to the Market and a membership at the gym. Melva had never stepped foot here in the Market until Carlice dragged her along a month ago:

Carlice, checking him out in the checkout line, whispered in Melva’s ear: “Here’s the new guy. Rumor has it that he retired from a bank. He had a wife. Don’t know if she died, left him, or what, but I bet he’s lonely.”

Something in the man’s dignified posture made Melva want to put her arms around him impulsively, to shield him.

 “So,” said Carlice to the man, surveying his nametag, “Ed, is it? You’re new here.”

“Yes.” He didn’t smile, didn’t make eye contact, which pleased Melva because men always fell over themselves around Carlice. This man, Ed, simply rang up the ground turkey, tomatoes, spices, and rice noodles.

“I’m Carlice. You’ll be seeing me a couple times a week. This is my sister Melva. Don’t look for her around here much, though! She doesn’t go for all of this organic stuff, do you, Mel?”

Melva’s cheeks flared. “I, uh, I don’t know. It all depends on how your turkey lasagna turns out. If it’s any good, maybe I’ll try my hand at it.”

Carlice cackled loudly, and, in Melva’s opinion, quite unnecessarily. Ed glanced over his glasses at Melva.

His eyes were blue.

Once a week since then, Melva had gone to the Market. On the first trip she bought everything to make Carlice’s turkey lasagna – it had been delicious. At the checkout counters, she was stricken with self-consciousness. Head down, she scurried past where Ed was working. She promised herself, as she carried the groceries home, that next time she would get in his line.

She thought of him as she baked the lasagna, which turned out to be flavorless and wretched. She threw it in the garbage and called Domino’s delivery.

Now, four repulsive meals later, she finally had the nerve to stand in Ed’s queue. He was too thin. So was his brown-gray hair. She noticed faint liver spots on his hands as he scanned her berries. No wedding ring.

What’s his story?

She wanted to talk to him. Desperately.

“I’m trying to eat healthier these days, maybe lose a few pounds,” she blurted as he rang her items. Her face spontaneously combusted. Melva knew she didn’t blush prettily. She knew she looked like someone who’d misapplied sunblock and stayed out all day under the blazing sun, that she was now covered in big red and white splotches.

Melva, you idiot! You’ll always be an overweight, unattractive old maid who can’t make decent conversation.

He looked at her over the top of his glasses, bagged her groceries, tore off her receipt. It fluttered to the floor. He bent to retrieve it, then stood, tucking a loose pen into his shirt pocket.

“Here you are. Have a good afternoon.” He handed her the bag.

Were his lips turning up just the slightest bit?

She hurried out of the store with her eyes on her Naturalizers.

Tears blurred her vision as she slammed the groceries onto the counter with such force that the yogurt carton split open and the receipt whooshed into the air.

“Fool!” she shouted at herself. “You can never go back there now. Forget about ever getting to know him.” She bent to snatch up the receipt, intending to rip it into shreds, when she noticed handwriting on the backside:

You’re fine just the way you are. –E

She stared, not breathing, not blinking, disbelieving, for what seemed like years.

A slow grin crept across her face.

She knew when she put those blueberries in the cart that she’d never manage to eat them with the yogurt and granola, anyway. They’d only sit and shrivel, which would be a waste of beautiful fruit. She’d put them in a cobbler instead, with real sugar, bleached flour, and a whole stick of butter. She’d take it to Ed while it was still warm.

She’d even get in his line with vanilla ice cream.

Yes.

That would be the perfect beginning.

 

Beacon

Kerosene lantern

Kerosene lantern. hare 🙂CC BY-SA

In reflecting on my reading and writing life, I am most thankful that my tastes cover a pretty wide spectrum. As a child I devoured everything from Dr. Seuss to Highlights, from cereal boxes to Funk and Wagnalls Medical Encyclopedias (yes, really), from fiction series to biographies, from Reader’s Digest to dictionaries, as I marveled over the many meanings a single word can have. 

None of these were required reading in school.

All of this is what I chose to read, was compelled to read, from an insatiable hunger for the experiences, the ideas, the information, the emotions, the beautiful and the stark way of stringing words together, long before I thought about how hard authors work on hammering those words and phrases into something with just the right impact on readers.

Now, as a writer, my tastes run the gamut as well.

With Lit Bits and Pieces, I am usually reflecting on or exploring meanings of every-day experiences. Creative nonfiction, mostly.

Today I am sharing a short piece of fiction – for, truthfully, fiction is forever beckoning me with a capricious and winsome smile.

This was inspired by a personal challenge, a house I once lived in, and being told a long time ago that when she was a little girl, my maternal grandmother sometimes assisted her midwife mother.

-Enjoy.

Beacon

The captain’s wife was going to die.

Lily and her mother couldn’t save her.

They tried.

Vestal administered tinctures she’d made from leaves and bark as six-year-old Lily rubbed Miss Rebekah’s swollen belly, repeating over and over in her mind like a mantra: Little baby, please get borned . . . your Mama’s trying so hard.

Lily’s arms ached. The odors of sweat, blood, and tincture hung heavy in the close room. Miss Rebekah had chosen the highest, hottest point in the house and she couldn’t be moved now. Lily breathed through her mouth instead of her nose to avoid the metallic taste of blood and salt on her tongue. She kept kneading: Little baby, please, PLEASE get borned . . . .

The hours wore on; the sky darkened and thunder rolled in from the Atlantic.

Storms frightened Lily. Vestal said she mustn’t let it show. “When you live by the ocean, Lily dear, storms are always violent. Become accustomed to it. This is where thunderstorms are born, child.”

The wind moaned like a ghost under the eaves; rain slapped against the windowpanes. Lightning burst and sizzled a split second before the thunderclap shook the house. Lily jumped but she didn’t cry out. She sat trembling while Vestal calmly lit the kerosene lamp on the dresser.

Rebekah, sinking deeper in the feather bed, whispered, “Miss Vestal, would you move that lamp over to the window, please, so Captain Turner can find his way home.”

Captain Turner was at sea. Lily knew he wasn’t due back any time soon. Even if he was, he’d never see this lamp through the storm.

Vestal hesitated.

“Please.” Miss Rebekah’s whisper was barely audible, more air than voice.

Vestal carried the lamp to the sill of the window overlooking the widow’s walk. Beyond her mother’s silhouette, Lily could see the surf illuminated by lightning, billowing, foaming, crashing. Lily thought about the women at the marketplace who dressed only in black, murmuring to one another that this Carolina coast was treacherous even without storms.

Women who had watched for ships that never returned.

Rebekah groaned. Vestal flew back to her. The groan was so deep and prolonged that Lily’s courage finally collapsed. She cowered with her hands over her ears while Rebekah, just nineteen, married less than a year, made one last, valiant push before her life ebbed away. Lily knew it was all over when Miss Rebekah lay silent, her pinched face turned slightly toward the window where the lamplight flickered, then stood still.

Vestal gasped: “Lily!”

Lily scrambled to the foot of the bed. There in her mother’s hands was a tiny, motionless body. In all the births she’d witnessed, Lily had never seen anything like this.

The baby had no face.

“Oh, Mama, what’s wrong with it?”

“She’s a caulbearer! All my life I’ve heard of this! Cauls bring good luck, Lily, and healing powers. Whoever owns one will never drown. We must save it for her Papa.”

Lily watched as Vestal gently peeled the membrane, intact, from the baby’s face. Sweet-smelling fluid trickled from beneath the caul. When the veil lifted and she faced the world at last, the baby shuddered, reddened, flailed at the air; she drew a rasping, croup-like breath, then gave a mighty squall, startling Lily.

Vestal beamed.

Almost instantly, there was another sound: heavy boots pounding up the wooden stairs. Captain Turner burst into the chamber, rivulets of rain and seawater running from his hat and cloak, so out of breath he couldn’t speak. He simply sank to his knees on the floor in the circle of light cast by Rebekah’s lamp.

Lily was little, but she believed in miracles, believed that she was witnessing how many, right now? She eyed that lamp, glowing so serenely through the gloom. She knelt by the struggling captain. With a tentative hand, she dared to pat his arm:

“Welcome home, Captain. Everyone’s made safe harbor now. I think maybe you should call this baby Stormy, sir.”

As if in agreement, the flame in the lamp flared and danced.

******

Note: My original version of “Beacon” ended up placing in a flash fiction competition sponsored by Women on Writing – just one of the ways I’ve tried to push and challenge myself as a writer. Here’s their pretty fun response: The Muffin/Women on Writing Interview.