On Tolkien

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes, a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring . . . .
—J.R.R. Tolkien

I went to see the movie Tolkien this weekend. My thoughts, while sitting in the darkened cinema, watching it play:

Story is magic.

Reading aloud is magic.

Words are magic.

All are part of writing magic. 

Whatever critics may say of the movie, however accurate it may or may not be in depicting the early life of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, as a writer, I loved it. For me it beautifully captured the way a writer’s mind works.

When young John Ronald sat by the fireplace, utterly captivated by his mother’s reading and enactment of a dragon, I could relate to how the book and her voice spurred images to life in his mind. How flickering shadows on the walls, thrown by a candle carousel, took on the shapes of  mythological beings, how story played in his brain as vividly as this movie played in mine. I understood how these images stayed with him long after his mother died, after he landed as an orphan in a boarding house, even how they grew nearer, larger, clearer on the battlefields of the first World War while he succumbed to trench fever. I admired the artistry of the shadowy images recurring onscreen as part of Tolkien’s memory, recognizing: That is exactly what images DO. Once they spring to mind, they are THERE. They lurk, they submerge, they resurface. They’re never gone; they settle and swirl about again, waiting, waiting, waiting always, for the solidity of a page.

I loved how the movie emphasized the young Tolkien’s passion for words, particularly in a romantically-charged scene with Edith Bratt, who would become his wife. Tolkien speaks of the beauty of the phrase “cellar door.” He is enraptured by the sound of it. Edith tells him that it is not the sound of  a word that gives it beauty, but its meaning—what the word stands for, all that it connotes. This is reiterated in a scene with Tolkien and Joseph Wright, Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford, on the mightiness of ships, buildings, civilizations, history, all summed up in a three-letter word: oak. Connotations, connections, deep, deep roots, power . . . in language, in phrasing, in a single word . . . is this not an ancient alchemy that writers come to know? 

And, at the same time, how captivating is the story of an orphaned boy making it to Oxford, himself becoming a renowned professor of philology (the study of the structure and historical development of language, if ever you’re a contestant on Jeopardy!). It’s the story of a man overcoming circumstances and being a genius, the roots of which run back to Tolkien’s childhood, to the Latin his mother taught him, to the stories his mother read aloud to him.

—Story.  The apogee of language, of words. The ultimate form for which language and words exist. The creative force, perhaps, that calls them, drives them . . .

In the final scene of the movie, Professor Tolkien sits at a desk before an empty page and begins to write a now-famous line. I’ve read his own account of this: he was grading examinations, mind-numbing, “soul-destroying” work, when he discovered a blank page in an examination booklet. Without knowing why, he wrote on it: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. This instantly reminded me of J.K. Rowling, how the idea of Harry Potter just “fell into her head” as she was riding a train. The genesis, the magical conception, of story;  it does not exist, but then, inexplicably, in the blinking of an eye, it does, and the world is changed by it. The Tolkien Society relates that after the professor wrote that line out of nowhere, he then needed to know: What was a Hobbit? Why did it live in a hole? To find out, Tolkien began to tell the story to his children . . . and thus, eventually, was born the archetype of all modern fantasy.

The old that is strong does not wither. Deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes, a fire shall be woken. A light from the shadows shall spring . . . yes. It seems to me that in these words of his lies proof that old stories Tolkien began learning as a child remained strong in him; they didn’t wither. They sparked in him an unquenchable fire. Those roots of his love for language, quests, myth, survived the freeze of profound loss. His memories, experiences, the images from his childhood onward, all are the shadows, the ashes, from which his own stories spring.

So it is with writers.

Even if all who write are not Tolkien.

It’s still magic.

Reliquary

A little copper box. On its lid, two seahorses free-floating in a bed of tiny, shimmering beads.

When I saw it in the island’s gift shop showcase, it spoke to me:

I was made for you.

But what ARE you? I wondered. A curiously small trinket box? 

Then I saw the inconspicuous card in the shadowy showcase corner—as if it had just materialized.

—Reliquary.

That is when I knew.

“Ahem—can I please see this little box?” I called to the shopkeeper. Once the enchanting object left the glass case it would never go back.

The shopkeeper, an older lady with shoulder-length sandy hair, a friendly face, and a bohemian air, chattered happily as she withdrew the box and placed it in my open palm. One of a kind. Handmade by an artist. A reliquary.

A work of art, I thought, tilting the box in my hand. The beads in the lid shifted like grains of sand; the seahorses drifted over their pearly sea. Meant to hold relics. Something special. Something holy.

I had no idea exactly what. 

I only knew it was mine as soon as I saw it.

Or that maybe I belonged to it.

First of all, the seahorses. A symbol I love, one I’ve adopted as my writerly motif. Hippocampus. There are two in the reliquary lid; there are two in the human brain. They help new memories form. They are tied to learning and emotion.

A glimmering of blue against rolling quicksilver . . . I begin to see, to understand, a little.

Whatever stirs in my brain, in my heart, finds its way onto a page. My notebooks are reliquaries. My blog is a reliquary. They hold my learning—they often reveal my learning to me—as I write. They hold my emotions, my memories, bits and pieces of my existence. My relics. Words.

On a metaphorical level, that is what the box represents. My writer-soul, poured out, made visible, received in a keeping-place.

On a physical level, the box is quite real, tangible, and empty, waiting to hold something worthy. It will come. I will know it when it does. For now my reliquary sits on my dresser. Whenever I pass by, the hippocampi in my brain flutter at the sight of the hippocampi on the lid. For in the vast currents of living, of thought, grains gather one by one to form something solid. Somewhere in the waiting lies an invitation, expectancy, a sudden discovering. A work of art, ever and always developing—because, in truth, we are all reliquaries.

 

Living literacy

Every year, my school hosts Literacy Lunch.

It is a time for families to come share in the love of reading, writing, and learning in classrooms, followed by a meal together in our cafeteria.

Literacy Lunch has sometimes been a vehicle for explaining English Language Arts curriculum, and shifts in standards, to parents. Mostly it’s a time for students and their families to collaborate on literacy activities. We’ve had poetry slams, writing cafés, and a “Step Write Up” carnival. We’ve invited families to SWiRL (speak, write, read, listen) and we’ve gone “wild” about reading (with the school decorated like a rainforest). 

Even though it’s hosted in the middle of the day, Literacy Lunch remains one of our school’s best-attended events. Three days are designated: One for kindergarten and first grade, one for second and third, one for fourth and fifth. Some families come all three days to spend time with their children in different grade levels.

The comment we receive most often from parents: Thank you for this time with my child.

It tugs on the heartstrings, for a parent to tell you this.

When it came time to think of a theme for Literacy Lunch this year, part of my mind kept latching onto the idea of celebrating families themselves. They are, after all, the fabric of our school community, the thing that makes it unique. They are our greatest resource.

Then, in February, Two Writing Teachers ran a blog series on “Teaching Writing with a Social Justice Lens.” Co-author Kelsey Corter penned “A School Can Be the Change”, a breathtaking post on identity, culture, heritage, power, action, and the vital importance of honoring each other by sharing our stories. It was based on her school’s work and the book Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension by Sara K. Ahmed.

I read these introductory lines of Kelsey’s over and over:

More than something we do, school can be the place where literacy is a way of living; a means for understanding the world and our place in it, that which shapes perceptions and molds identities.

The words turned round and round in my head:

Where literacy is a way of living

Literacy . . . living

—Living literacy.

“Well, that’s it,” I announced to my colleagues. “That’s my vote for the theme of this year’s Literacy Lunch.”

For, in truth, while the children  are growing as readers and writers, their stories, all of our stories, are unfolding each day that we live; our families are a fundamental part of that. Every one is unique, every one valuable.

And so it was agreed upon, and the children got to work on Living Literacy: Celebrating Me in Pictures and Words.

It began with them tracing their hands to make flowers, one for each homeroom—a whole garden of beautiful, diverse flowers.

In our lobby and cafeteria, every homeroom was represented by a flower made from students’ traced and decorated hands. Many students artistically conveyed their personal interests – such as hobbies or a favorite book, like Amal Unbound, seen here. Some students across grade levels decorated their hands with flags from their native countries. 

Teachers and grade levels planned identity-related activities for students to share with families:

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Student bios with 3D photos hang from the ceiling of a first-grade classroom.

Many families helped compose student name acronyms. 

In an “All About Me” book, a first grader describes herself.

A kindergarten class asked parents, teachers, and peers for words to describe students. They created camera snapshot posters for a “Picture Me Successful” display (“Drinks a lot of water” may be my favorite descriptor of all! Talk about being observers!).

In third grade, students made booklets of various types of poems and collaborated with families in writing some.

One first grade class published a book of their animal research, with a back section recounting highlights of their year together. These books were presented to families at Literacy Lunch.

Even our tabletop flowers in the lobby and cafeteria were handmade by students.

Second grade families collaborating on “I Am From” poems. 

Fourth grade families collaborated on a “Books are windows and mirrors” activity – analyzing book characters, seeing others, seeing self.

Fourth grade’s hallway display: “My ideas can change the world.”

Fifth graders show families how to create name/identity word clouds in new Chromebooks.

This photo, to me, captures the “Living Literacy” theme almost more than others: Parents recording second graders as they perform a song and dance demonstrating their learning from the study of butterfly life cycles (they also integrated math and visual art). I look at this and I think: WE are living literacy. 

At tables in the cafeteria, families were encouraged to write notes to each other. 

We write when it’s meaningful to us (I hope Mommy is okay, too).

A few notes of feedback from parents

They came. They celebrated. Another Literacy Lunch has drawn to its close – this seemed to be the best note on which to end.

Many thanks to my colleagues for this annual collaborative effort. 

To our families: THANK YOU for coming, for sharing, for being a vital part of the story we live each day. Be happy. Hug. Have fun. Inspire. Love. Sing.

And thank you, Two Writing Teachers, for the ever-flowing wellspring of inspiration, from which I drew the idea for this year’s theme.

My cup runneth over.