Like Superman

Superman

Superman. Ian HarveyCC BY-SA

I’m seated at the old computer table, listening to second-graders read. Poetry conferences, we’re having. Revisions and final edits before their teacher sends everything off to publish a class book of poems.

“Is it my turn? It is it my turn?” he keeps asking me, from his seat in the middle of the room.

Actually, he’s not on my list of students that his teacher asked me to meet with. So I say, “Not yet. Not yet.”

He manages, somehow, to sneak between his classmates. I look up from notes I’m making to find his impish face beaming up at me. His tiny body wriggles in the chair beside me.

“My turn!” he insists.

I call across the room to his teacher, who’s also conferring with students: “May I PLEASE work with our friend here?”

“Yes, sure!” she answers. “I’m about to meet with him, but if you want to  . . .”

If I want to?

How can I say no?

“Okay, YOUR TURN! Read your poem to me,” I tell my exuberant conferee.

Grinning, he shoves his paper over to me.

There’s nothing on it. Not even his name.

“What, you haven’t written anything yet?”

He shakes his head. He’s still smiling. “No! But my English is bigger!”

He remembers.

At the beginning of the year, I assessed his reading. Just as I was about to console him on his having missed all of the words, he patted my arm and said, “You have big English. Me”— he patted his chest— “little English.”

His perception of everything around him is astonishing.  Whether he has all the words for it or not.

I’ve noticed, in the hallways, that he doesn’t greet me as Haley! anymore. Now it’s Hi, Mrs. Haley. That when I say How are you? he says, I’m good.

“Yes,” I say, “your English is a LOT bigger. That’s for sure. Now, this poem. What do you want to write about?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“Well, what do you like?”

His face lights up. The response is immediate: “BASEBALL!”

“Okay, so, what do you want to say about baseball?”

I take the paper and pencil.

“I like baseball,” he says.

“Perfect.” I write down the words. “That’s your first line. What else?”

“I like hitting the ball with the bat.” He acts this out. He’s a boy full of endless energy.

“Great. That’s your second line.” I write it down. “What else can you say about playing baseball?”

He thinks, gets excited, garbles his words. Something about running . . .

“Wait, slow down. Did you say running?”

He nods, bouncing in the chair. “I run like SUPERMAN!”

Superman . . . 

The first time I saw him, over a year ago, when he came to the United States, to our school, he had no English at all. Unused to a school setting, he frequently had outbursts because he couldn’t communicate his wants, his needs, his questions, his feelings, anything.

He was a frustrated, forlorn soul.

Wearing a Superman shirt.

My first words to him were, “Hey, you’re Superman.”

I pointed to the on his little shirt.

He didn’t understand, but he smiled.

Now, he understands.

Within five minutes, the poem is written. I point to every word, reading to him, then he points to every word, reading back to me. I watch him bounce away to his desk to copy the poem over in his own handwriting.

So you run like Superman when you play baseball.

Maybe you really mean that you fly

because you do

because you ARE Superman.

We shall stand marveling in your wake

it’s a bird, it’s a plane

it’s you.

Supersonic.

*******

For an earlier encounter with my little friend, read Big English

For the record, poetry is an excellent way to help English language learners—really, any student—write more. Poems can be brief with less emphasis on conventions. Energy can go freely into capturing images, ideas, emotions, and building vocabulary.

Wisteria

In recent years, I’ve written lots of short stories, beyond those as models for students or posted here on the blog.  Some of my stories are realistic, usually centering on a character making a self-discovery or a difficult decision. Other stories are more ethereal, with a slightly supernatural element.  

“Wisteria” is one of the latter.

April in North Carolina brings life to the heavy vines snaking through the woods. One day the woods are dark, gray, forlorn, and the next, it seems, they’re bursting with color. Along the highways and back roads, cascades of soft purple blooms reminiscent of grape clusters swathe the trees. The wisteria is beautiful. Its perfume laces the fresh spring air. To me it speaks of old things, old ways, long ago, things we cannot see and did not know, but are with us still, even so.

Regular visitors to this blog will know that I frequently write of my grandparents’ country home in eastern North Carolina, where I spent many childhood summers. It is a tiny, old, remote place. Utterly foreign and mysterious to a little city girl. The images abide with me to this day for myriad reasons: I was happy there. To be with my grandparents was to be in a stronghold of love and safety. Absolute sanctuary. Not until I was grown did I realize how much the environment, the setting, nature itself wove its way into my very being much like wisteria stealthily weaves its way through a forest, grabbing hold of anything it can. Like it did in the thick woods looming eternally dark and secretive around my grandparent’s home. Suddenly, in the spring, these tall, ominous trees were laden with wisteria blooms. They made my grandmother sneeze; they made me stand still and dream. 

For Grandma told stories of long ago, before these woods existed. When a whole community thrived along this old dirt road. When the people in the cemetery in the tiny clearing  across from her house were alive. As a child, listening, these people lived and breathed once more, just briefly, in my my mind. Like ghosts temporarily made corporeal before dissolving again. Standing by their aging white stones, some eroding or so weather-streaked or moss-covered that names and snippets of verse were hard to read, seeing my own moving shadow cast over the grass of their graves, a soft breeze picked up. Leaves and pine needles rustled; birds chattered with wild abandon; frogs plopped into the tiny canal at the cemetery’s edge; crickets chorused from the recesses of the woods because it’s always night there. 

The cemetery vibrated with life. 

I looked up and saw the wisteria nodding, high in the trees.

I tried growing it myself, once.  

A few years ago, a friend of mine, knowing my affinity for the vine, brought me a potted wisteria. I planted it by the back deck with great glee. Another friend built a trellis for me on the deck, so that as the vine grew—which is alarmingly fast—I could tease its tendrils through the lattice. Soon I’d have a glorious arbor of soft purple bliss.

That is not what happened.

Those tendrils, so tender and unassuming, grew daily; they began reminding me of something out of science fiction. Like thin green antennae, they grew out and up from the woody trunk. They held themselves aloft in the air, swaying, twisting—I could actually see these movements. Some tendrils eventually reached the deck and coiled around its posts. Still others stretched, as if consciously, toward the lattice; I guided these green strands to spots where they could weave through in their ever-onward and upward way. 

The first small blooms appeared.

-Joy.

And then one day as I walked across the deck I realized that the lattice was bending, was already quite convex. The wisteria, pulling and pulling, continually gaining strength and momentum (as best I can describe it) was destroying the trellis, was literally drawing it into itself. 

I gazed in fascinated horror. How did this happen so fast?

I noted that one sweet little tendril had reached the gutter of the house, so benignly . . . 

It had to go. 

I cut down the vine. Hacked it to bits.

And mourned.

Not long afterward, I read a science article that posed the question: “Do plants have memories?”

Oh. Oh. Oh . . . .

That wisteria in the woods by my grandparents’ home surely must. . . it’s been there for how long? A century? More?

What, exactly, would it remember?

And that is how my story “Wisteria” was born.

My friends enjoy it. Contest judges and magazine publishers apparently don’t.

For whatever it’s worth, I’ve decided to share a bit of the story here, maybe tinkering with it as I go, just because it’s April and the wisteria blooms are once again hanging in the trees, nodding high above whenever I pass by.

*******

She was the first child I ever saw.

I did not recognize her as human. Tiny, clad all in white, she was rather daisy-like, with her upper petals drawn toward her capitulum. I have since learned that this curiosity is a bonnet, for shielding the female’s face from the sun.

I have never understood this.

I came up craving the full sun over my entire being, excepting my under parts that forbid any relocation, that stretch incrementally downward and outward, darkly drawing moisture. This flower possessed the astonishing power of locomotion. She tottered along the dusty road and into Mr. Griffin’s yard where the pecan tree shadowed the patchy grass. Apparently she attracted dandelions; wherever a fuzzy yellow head dotted the ground, she paused and somehow drew it right to her.

Nearer and nearer she came. To her own fate, I suspected, should she enter Mr. Griffin’s garden. Vigilant about his cultivation, he allowed no weed or creature of any kind to interfere with it. I’d poked my way aboveground to discover him plowing painstakingly straight rows, followed by weeks of planting, fertilizing, constructing poles for his beans, staking his tomatoes, scanning the sky wistfully for rain. The black earth bubbled up into greenness, a ceaseless unfurling, blooming, enlarging. The garden was, I must confess, a magnificent human endeavor. If this mobile daisy dared invade, Mr. Griffin might well appear with his shotgun, as he frequently did with four-footed fauna. I preferred not to witness the annihilation of the only known walking-flora specimen.

I shuddered when the vibration came.

Not the crack of the shotgun; a human cry, a scream:

JENNNNNIEEEE! JENNNNIEEEEE JAAAAAYYYYYYYYY!

A harrowing sound.

I know about harrows.

Mr. Griffin heard it from the cow barn. He came running, pitchfork in hand, looking every which way. He couldn’t see the daisy; she had fallen flat behind a sprawling squash vine. A movement at the road caught his eye: A woman, running hard, clutching her long skirt.

JENNNNNIEEEE!

By this time the daisy had righted herself. She proceeded on through the furrows, right in my direction.

They saw her. Just as her warm shadow fell upon me, the woman was there, Mr. Griffin immediately behind her.

Up into the woman’s arms went the daisy.

Oh, Jennie Jay, you frightened Mama to death. You could have fallen in the creek and drowned.

No harm done, Miss Aurelia. Looks like she was just hunting dandelions. Got a whole bouquet of ’em clutched there in her hands, don’t she.

She loves anything yellow. She’s strong-minded, to be such a little thing. Lord-a-mercy! Sound asleep on the quilt under the oaks one minute and gone the next, when I stepped in to stir the soup!

She didn’t get far.

Thank heaven. Your garden’s a wonder, Thomas. What made you decide to start a wisteria?

Ma’am?

Miss Aurelia pointed to me.

Your little wisteria, there.

To tell the truth, that ain’t my doing. Ain’t even noticed it.  Here, I’ll pull it right out . . . 

Oh, no, Thomas—don’t. Let it be. You could build an arbor for it, train it up. That wisteria would make the place real pretty for a bride, now wouldn’t it?

Mr. Griffin’s sun-browned face burned as red as the kerchief in his bibbed overalls. Miss Aurelia grinned and turned away. A little face peeped over her shoulder, and that’s when I perceived that the white-petaled thing was no walking flower but a miniature human, as capitula do not have two great blue eyes.

Siwia, she said.

My land! Did you hear that, Thomas? Jennie Jay just said her first word! Say it again, Jennie.

Siwia. Siwia.

What on earth?

Sounds to me like she’s trying to say ‘wisteria’, Miss Aurelia.

Well, I never. Not ‘Mama’. Not ‘Papa’. Wisteria! That does beat all. I reckon you have to leave that vine now, Thomas, to mark this occasion for Jennie Jay.

From the moment she spoke my name, I was enchanted. As her mama carried her away, Jennie Jay’s eyes stayed fixed on me.

Thus our kinship germinated.

We were both so new.

That evening, Mr. Griffin cut some chicken wire and made a cage around me.

Just you stay out of my garden, he muttered, the first and last time he ever addressed me directly.

*******

To be continued . . . perhaps . . . .

img_4689-e1523704123634.jpg

The tree I’d be

Cypress trees.jpg

Sunlit Cypress. Teresa PhillipsCC BY-SA

A few days ago,  I happened upon this captivating tweet:

I am well on the way to becoming a tree myself. I put down roots. I sigh when the wind blows. My sap rises in the spring and I turn towards the sun. Which tree would I be? Definitely a walnut tree.

-Roger Deakin, journal entry for April, quoted by writer Robert Macfarlane, Twitter, 04/04/2018

Macfarlane then asks: “Which tree would you be and why?”

—A cypress.

That was my immediate thought.

But why?

After all, one of my favorite scents is Fraser fir (the predominant Christmas tree in North Carolina). I vacuum the stubby needles at holiday’s end and try not to empty the canister for as long as possible, because the fir fragrance fills the air with every subsequent use. The trees of my childhood are dogwood, pine, live oak, magnolia, sweet gum. I have early memories of sun-dappled sidewalks covered with “helicopters”—one-winged seeds, or samaras—that spiral down from maple branches. I tossed the helicopters again and again, as high as I could, to watch them swirl like propellers. Crape myrtles lined my grandparent’s yard; I climbed their smooth trunks, sat in the crooks of their branches, countless times.

Why does cypress come to mind first, then?

Poets and writers, you know when an image appears so vividly that it holds some significance begging to be explored . . . .

For starters, my image is of Taxodium distichum, more commonly known as a bald cypress, or, my preferred name, a southern-cypress tree.

It’s rooted in the swamps of the southern United States, where my roots are. A tree at home in water, in rivers. I grew up in a place called Tidewater, entered the world in a hospital named for its proximity to water: Riverside.

My first recollection of the word cypress was my grandparents’ reference to a place on beyond where they lived, where the little dirt road curved past canals and thick woods that had grown to obscure stately houses: up Cypress Swamp, they’d say. Grandma’s best friend from first grade, who grew up to marry Grandma’s brother, was from Cypress Swamp. As a child, standing on the dirt road, looking through the treetops, if the sun was right, I could glimpse a bit of one old, abandoned house—a roof of cypress shingles.

The word sounded poetic to me even then: cypress. Like a whisper. Like something inviting. Maybe magical.

Although, through the ages, a cypress was usually associated with funerals and mourning. My affinity for the tree is clearly fused to my eastern North Carolina heritage, a reminder of the generations that have gone before me. My family tree, so to speak. It is ancient. Maybe nothing encapsulates that so well as this passage from Our State magazine, in which the author chronicles his boat journey on a river through a cypress forest:

 Many of the trees here must have witnessed those long-vanished species. They would have nodded over Native Americans in dugout canoes. They would already have been tall when the Lost Colony was lost, when the Mayflower sailed, when Attila the Hun was on the move. A few might have stood when Christ was born.

-T. Edward Nickens, “In Search of Methuselah,” Our State, June 8, 2016.

They live for so long, cypress trees, due to their ability to withstand storms; they thrive despite adverse growing conditions. Cypress wood is hard, strong, water-resistant—hence those shingles on the old country houses still standing as a forest  grows up around them. Those hand-hewn shingles sheltered the life therein. Like Noah’s ark, made of gopher wood from an unknown tree that some researchers speculate to be . . . cypress.

I cannot say the adversity, the storms, in my own life are any greater or worse than those weathered by other people I’ve known. I can only say that I’m still here. I view the cypress not as a funeral tree but one that preserves, celebrates, and affirms life; that, ultimately, is the whole reason why I write, why this blog exists at all.

On a fanciful note: Earlier I mentioned the word cypress sounding magical. When I was a child I loved the Chronicles of Narnia. I still do. In these books, C.S. Lewis borrowed from Greek mythology to depict dryads and hamadryads, the spirits of trees that took the form of young girls with their particular tree’s physical characteristics: a birch-girl dressed in silver, another with hair like long, willowy branches. Does a cypress call to me, then, because I am tall (5’8″ in bare feet)? That’s taller than the average American woman (5’4″) but not dramatically so. There must be something more, then, as to why the cypress chooses me, something unique to the tree and to me, other than our having southern roots in watery regions.

The knees.

In cypress forests, knobby projections stick up from the water. Theory has it that those “knees” help the tree breathe, enabling it to take in more oxygen. I don’t know how much truth lies in that theory, but I can tell you this: For my entire childhood I suffered from asthma and the only way I could sleep at night, the only way to breathe, was by curling up in a ball with my knees drawn up under me.

So, yes, my knees helped me breathe.

*******

In the old places

where the water stands still

they live on

holding all their stories

not evergreen

but ever-enduring

reassuring

reaffirming.

With every breath

drawn on their knees

they whisper,

“Remember.”

Real

and ethereal

—if I were a tree

a cypress

I’d be.

Cypress trees - pink

“When we are present in each moment, the past gently rolls up behind us and future slowly unravels before us.” echorooCC-BY

Relics

Mom's empty room

Mom’s empty room. The_DoodlerCC BY_SA

So many stories 

in every room

in every thing.

A lifetime packed

tight in every closet

in every drawer

for even in the time

of abundance 

the memory of deprivation

remained.

A lifetime of love

recorded in cards and letters

all saved 

even poems 

I don’t remember writing.

The photos of my children

so carefully preserved

growing up all over again

here in my hands.

Their father captured 

as a  little boy

in black and white

long ago.

His own father in uniform

smiling, alive

his olive-green dress hats

sealed in a bag 

on a shelf 

deep in her closet.

The ghost of holidays past

pulled from the attic 

with childhood toys

long forgotten.

Tarnished silver in the kitchen

and a fine layer of dust

on the crystal. 

Cookies in a jar

grown stale 

maybe in hopes of

grandchildren coming.

Things with no explanation

only wonder 

as to what they are

and what they’re for. 

So many stories

in rooms once beautiful

in every thing crammed

holding on, holding on

in the hidden places.

A lifetime packed

with living

and loving.

Decades of

acquiring

prospering

overcoming

remembering

all dismantled 

and disposed of

in the space of

a single afternoon.

New life

Baby robins

Baby robins. DanCC BY

Easter morning.

I have a new spring wreath for the front of the house. I should have put it out before now. What’s taken me so long?  

I step out onto the wide front porch, wreath in hand. It’s chilly out here. A light fog hovers;  I shiver in the pre-dawn grayness. The smell and taste of salt from the Bay hangs heavy in the air. I will hurry, as there’s lots to do to be ready for the sunrise service down on the beach. Waking, feeding, and dressing a toddler takes time. Maybe I will wait until after the service to show him his Easter basket . . . 

The old wreath on the front of the house is in terrible shape. I’m ashamed of how it looks, that I’ve left it up for too long. It’s a grapevine with flowers and greenery at the bottom center, behind two white stuffed geese wearing blue bows around their necks. Except that the geese are gray now, speckled, mottled by the elements, and the blue ribbon is faded almost to colorlessness. 

I reach for the old wreath and something dark flies out, startling me so that I drop the new wreath onto the porch floorboards.

A bird. 

I notice, then, the rim of a nest tucked into the wreath’s artificial greenery, behind the stuffed geese. The dry grass of the nest blends in with the bits of fake Spanish moss.

And I hear squeaks.

Standing on my tiptoes to peer into the nest, I see four baby birds. They’re still mostly pink skin, with just the beginnings of dark, downy fuzz. Their wide yellow beaks open.

Mama, feed us. 

I stand, hardly daring to breathe, watching, awed by this new life. How fragile it is. What a precarious place for it to be, for this wreath is attached to the house by just one nail. If it doesn’t hold . . . I cannot bear to think of it.

I retrieve the dropped wreath and step slowly, carefully away. Mama Bird is somewhere nearby, fussing and fretting over the safety of her babies. I will leave them in peace.   

As place my hand on the handle of the old door, I think about this big old house, how long it’s been standing, the storms it’s weathered in a place where storms tend to be more violent due to the proximity to the sea. That it’s a strong shelter, a parsonage provided free to my husband, our little boy, and me. I am going to worry about those baby birds on the front of this house, but I have to believe that the sheltering grace will extend to them, cover them, as it has done for me. 

The sun is just beginning to pierce the fog as I take one last look, as Mama flies back to her own, and Papa Bird shows himself for the first time, landing on the white porch rail by the column, his head cocked, watching me. In the pink light of a new day, I think of the old words: “Behold, I make all things new.”

Doesn’t matter how old, faded, ruined, broken . . . new life begins in the most unexpected ways, in the shabbiest of circumstances. 

Easter morning.

I wipe my tears. I go back inside, new wreath in hand, to my own new life.