One purple Halloween night the mean old witch took flight on her broom, headed east to find her favorite sugary feast. The sloth is the witch’s pet, up the tree, as high as he can get, sleeping under the crescent moon —”HAHAHAAAA!” cackles the witch, “I’ll be back soon!”
poem collaboration by Scout and Franna, who wish you a Happy Halloween. Scout says “Watch out for that witch.”
Winter morning.In my pajamas on the cold kitchen floor, Onyx and Bagel jumping on me with joy. Half-dachshunds, brothers who look nothing alike. Onyx, black and tan (muddled markings; his whole head is tan) is the stronger of the two. A combination of rubber ball and coiled spring, he can jump high enough to give me a kiss even when I’m standing—if I lean over just a little. It’s a feat;at thirteen I’m growing tall. Bagel, long-haired, red piebald, snowy white chest, coloring that reminds me of Lassie, is the happiest dog on Earth except for when it thunders and he runs to hide behind the commode. My sister sits by the wall on top of the vent, her skinny eleven-year-old body drawn into a tight ball, pajama bottoms ballooning and fluttering in the rush of heated air. She doesn’t want to be up, doesn’t want to go to school, is too grumpy for more than a furtive dog-greeting.She’ll play when she’s ready. I embrace the wriggling, wagging, warm bodies, giggling, when I hear footsteps in the hall…Daddy’s familiar stride on the hardwood, in shoes that he polishes every night with a tin and stained cloth until the glossy surfaces reflect like black mirrors…
Suddenly the dogs shoot to the gate (or what we call the gate: a gray particleboard once used under a twin bed mattress when Mama was recovering from back surgery, we slide it back and forth) in the wide kitchen doorway. Barking, ferocious; I have never heard them—or any dog—make such violent noise. They charge the gate, lunging, sounding ready to attack…
There stands Daddy. His face is gone. Instead, there’s huge, opaque goggle-eyes, a distorted nose, pulled and hanging, elephant-like, no sign of human skin or hair; olive-gray visage, that of an ominous specter…
He’s wearing a gas mask.
I had never heard of a strike, picket lines, or unions before. I couldn’t understand why someone would be called a scab for going to work but it did make sense that people who protect said scabs would be scathingly called “Band-Aids”… I knew police were involved, somehow, but the picture in my mind was as muddled as Onyx’s markings, without defining details.
My father wore the same uniform as police but he wasn’t an officer. He was a company security guard. A protector of the gates. Duty-minded. Responsible. The parent who got up with me at night when I had asthma attacks, who would later co-sign my first college loan with the stern admonishment that I’d better pay it back because he couldn’t (I did).
He would die in uniform, but not for many more years, in an attack waged by his own heart, myocardial infarction, three days before retiring, while on his way to work.
The dogs are going crazy. I stare at the mask and the only word that comes to mind is ‘monster’— it isn’t right, it isn’t right, that such things should have to exist because of what people do to each other, that Daddy should need this macabre (newly-learned word) apparatus for his own protection—he removes it. He doesn’t mean to scare. “Gracious,” he says to Onyx and Bagel, chuckling, “what fierce watchdogs.” They cease barking and resume wagging the second his human face is restored.They return, pressing their little bodies against me. I can feel them trembling.
Or maybe that’s me, as Daddy goes about preparing for another day.
The others will have their turn, soon. For now they wait in the wings and on the screens…
In a month when masks are normally worn for celebrating, they came masked for protection—of others.
Several of us stood as sentinels in the misty gray morning, waiting, also masked. Gloved, thermometers ready, when the first bus rolled up and its door opened to release three children.
Another bus carried only one.
But when the first child passed inspection and entered the building, the gathered staff cheered. Applauded. Like welcoming a hero home.
They are heroes.
These kindergarteners, these first, second, third graders in their colorful masks, quietly navigating the building, sitting socially-distanced (alone) at lunch… I suspect these images are etched deep in my brain for the remainder of my days.
I saw this verse on a StoryPeople print by Brian Andreas (1993):
When I die, she said, I’m coming back as a tree with deep roots & I’ll wave my leaves at the children every morning on their way to school & whisper tree songs at night in their dreams. Trees with deep roots know about the things that children need.
I think about how trees
help us breathe
cleanse the air
soften hard edifices
change with the seasons, yet remain constant
color the world
Tree leaves do whisper. Trees talk to each other (they do). They live in groups and look out for one another.
They carry the stories they live within them. You can read them, in their rings.
I cannot decide which is best, to be the tree with deep roots, waving my leaves at the children on the way to school, singing in their dreams…or to be the child, asleep, hearing the tree-song…
I stand, a sentinel in the gray silence of the empty bus loop, masked, gloved, thermometer in hand, watching bits of red and yellow and fiery orange swirling through the air as if stirred by an unseen hand… tree confetti, celebrating life, letting go in order to hold on through the coming winter, who knows how dark or cold, and I’m seized by the sudden desire to run into those dancing colors…
—I am bits of both.
Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the invitation to share on Slice of Life Tuesdays and for also knowing about the things that children need. They, too, carry their stories within them…
Years ago, as I was lamenting things I wish I’d done differently as a literacy coach, my mentor leaned over and put her hand on my arm. Shaking her head, she uttered this unforgettable phrase:
“Don’t should on yourself.”
I wrote it on the cover of my coaching notebook. I would tell it to teachers. We laughed and something was released. The work would still be work, endless and immense, but one felt a bit lighter approaching it.
There are some foundational, common-sense shoulds. One should bathe regularly. One should wear clothes in public. But many shoulds serve as self-imposed bars to remind us we aren’t measuring up, somehow. That we are less. I always loved to write but was trapped for years by the exhortation: “A writer must set a regular writing schedule.” Period. Oh, I’d think, that’s what I should do. That’s what real writers do. If I don’t, I’m not really a writer. Except that my life isn’t ever arranged in such neat compartments of time. Schedules have to change too much. Then: “Writers write every day.” —I should do that! I want to do that! When I didn’t, a niggling sense of failure tugged at my spirit. Cobwebs of despair wound round my heart. The inner critic gloated: “Toldja. You don’t have what it takes.” Scraping should off myself took a long, long time—it likes to fossilize, layer by layer. Its armor is self-guilt. Its color, regret. Should doesn’t need the sharp spear of fear; it is the deadweight of an anvil, iron forming in the soul, shard by shard.
Should isn’t battled with mere acceptance. That’s dangerous ground. I did have to accept that I couldn’t write on the same schedule, every day, but I couldn’t stop there or I would never write. The secret weapon, for me anyway, was reimagining. What do I really want to accomplish? What does success look like for me, within the pattern of my days? I wanted to write more and to write better. I had stories to tell. Eventually they led to this blog. The blog led to wanting to uplift others—there’s already plenty in the world pulling us down. I found myself uplifted in the process. I write several times a week, some weeks more than others. I write whenever I can carve out the precious pockets of time…and for the record, thinking about writing is writing, which I do in the background of my mind all day, every day. A hasty note capturing a fragile new idea before it sprouts wings and flies away is writing. On a Post-It, in the margins of my planner, in notes on my phone, eventually transferring to a notebook… whenever the idea appears, I stop for a second to see it, translucent, barely formed, and catch it. To me that’s the most important thing a writer does. One cannot spin without a thread of silk. And so I had to reimagine what writing looks like, what it really is. I shook off should and carried on with far more productivity on my own terms—without feeling guilty for stopping to rest whenever I need to.
When Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog encouraged writing as a way to “shed your shoulds,” I was reminded, once again, that should is too often an unnecessary, subconscious burden…
Shed your shoulds like leaves in woods Trees shorn of fragility preserve their ability to survive.
Hear should rustling: ‘Don’t forget’ like leaves curling with regret Spiraling, sigh by sigh piling inside, dead and dry cluttering today.
Beware should’sfalse measure robbing Now of its pleasure Shed those shoulds like autumn woods composting for tomorrow.
The moral of the story, Friends: Don’t should on yourself.
Scrape that mess off and use it for fertilizer.
I’ve joined an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join, too.
A list poem, of sorts, inspired by Wallace Stevens‘ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” shared this week on Ethical ELA. The Open Write challenge: “To look outside ourselves to the larger world. Craft a poem about it…the larger world is many different things to people, and in many cases, it’s America.”
Everything hinges on interpretation. There are infinite ways of looking.
It just so happened that this week marked my return to campus in preparation for student cohorts transitioning back to the building. Driving along the familiar back road for the first time in what seemed like ages, car piled with stuff, brain churning with things to do and how to do them, trapped in a constant state of COVID suspension, in a fog very like the one rising from the ground, smoky swirls lending a seasonal eerie-ness to beguiling red-gold trees against an obscured sky, what to my wondering eyes should appear but the sudden darting of a black cat from the woods just ahead on the right. Neatly across the ditch bank it sailed, mission-like, directly across the road in front of me…
13 Ways of Looking at a Black Cat Crossing Your Path in the Time of COVID-19 While Driving to School to Teach Online Near Halloween of ElectionYear 2020
I. Unexpected poetry in motion from the russet woods, long, lithe feline fluidity rippling low along the golden ditch bank, ebony mercury flowing across the gray asphalt, a thing of beauty, a joy forever or at least until… II. Still alive. I didn’t hit it. III. Spawn of inexplicable, maniacal laughter (nowhere near the Joaquin Phoenix level) IV. The omen of—misfortune? As in—Google crashing?—no Wi-Fi?—more lost instruction?—a forgotten mask? —one more directive on what to do or not to do with data, disinfectant, distance? V. Will I even make it to school today? VI. Will students (onscreen)? VII. Spirit of the season, shape-shifter running to and fro on the Earth, demon on the loose, witch’s familiar, unholy harbinger … VIII. This election. Heaven help us. IX. Misrepresentation and slaughter of God’s creatures. X. Curiosity. Where are you running to, little black cat? From where? From what—or whom? Do people other than scientists know that your fur holds secrets to disease resistance? Can the mystery be unlocked, decoded? Pandemics of rats and bats. What if healing sprung from cats. Poetic justice. XI. Portal of memory… I had a little black cat, once. She had no tail and no one else wanted her. The last left in a box of kittens a guy at college was giving away. Brought her home, named her after a magic cat who was exceedingly wise, in a book I read as a child. Couldn’t take her with me when I married and moved into an apartment so I gave her to my dad. He bought turkey from the deli, tore it into small bites, and fed her on the countertop. She wasn’t magical. Just full of ever-purring love. XII. The great portender, seeming to be what you are not… all I know is you are poetry in motion. Run on, blithe spirit. Run on, long, lithe spirit-lifter, ebony mercury flowing… how glad I am our paths crossed. Fear not. We bring one another no harm. XIV. I skipped #13. Too unlucky.
Note on IX: For centuries, beginning in medieval times, superstition and associations with evil led to widespread killing of black cats.Many shelters today will not allow black cats to be adopted near Halloween for fear of their being used as decorations and mistreated, tortured, sacrificed, or abandoned. Just one way of looking at those lines.
This week I’m participating in a five-day poetry Open Write at Ethical ELA. Day One’s writing invitation, “Bodies in Motion,” was sparked by the importance of sports to so many student athletes who haven’t been able to participate—when it may be the only reason they come to school. Many feel most at home with a team, on a field, writes host Sarah J. Donovan, needing to “move their bodies to feel joy, to feel normal, to feel self.” Instead they’re confined to screens and “plexiglass cubicles.” For the Open Write we crafted poems about our own athletic experiences, or those of family members, or even about what we used to be able to do but can’t anymore.
I’ve never been athletic, not ever, in the whole of my life.
My husband, however, was.
Through him I know the vital and abiding value of sports for a young person…
Here’s a scene I witnessed recently at home.
She comes out of his study carrying it in her four-year-old arms and his face is transformed, glowing as if a passing cloud has uncovered the sun. He leans forward in the recliner as she drops it, kicks it, sets it spinning —Oh, no, he says, this one’s not for kicking, it’s for dribbling, just as the ball stops at his feet. He reaches down, lifts it with the easy grace of the boy on the court, hands perfectly placed on the worn brown surface in split-second calculation of the shot so many times to the roar of the school crowd so many hours with friends, his own and then his son’s, still outscoring them all, red-faced, heart pounding, dripping with sweat, radiant —and at twelve, all alone on the pavement facing the hoop his mother installed in the backyard of the new house after his father died, every thump echoing Daddy, Daddy, Daddy. The game in the blood, the same DNA that just last year left him with a heart full of metal and grafts, too winded to walk more than short distances, having to stop to catch his breath, deflated —it needs some air. Do you have a pump, he asks his son, sitting there on the sofa, eyes riveted to the screen emitting continuous squeaks of rubber soles against hardwood. —Yeah, Dad. I’ve got one and the needle, too. His father leans in to the little girl at his knee, his battered heart in his hands: —Would you like to have it? She nods, grinning, reaching, her arms, her hands almost too small to manage the old brown sphere rolling from one to the other like a whole world passing.
with thanks to Ethical ELA for the monthly poetry Open Writes and Two Writing Teachers for fostering a vital and abiding love of writing in students— and teachers. Revise on.
I happened to glimpse them, in a ring Holding hands, a curious thing In the darkness, dancing there Diaphanous beings, light as air Small faces in gossamer veiling Wispy arms fluttering, flailing Maybe in mischief, maybe in glee Luminous little spirits set free …hallowed revenants of you and me, The children that we used to be.
Just a little offering (shades of October? A bit of Octo-plasm?) for Poetry Friday. Special thanks to Janice Scully at Salt City Verse for hosting the Roundup.
The first thing the word stifle conjures for me is heat—stifling southern summer afternoons, air turning to bathwater.
Hard to breathe.
Which makes me think of COVID-19.
It’s hard to breathe with a mask, if you have to expend much energy, if you have to talk very much… I know, because I wear one when I’m out and about.
In thinking of masks, I come to another layer…
There to help protect. To keep harmful stuff out.
Or in. Depending.
Masks may be somewhat stifling.
Filters aren’t stifling at all.
It’s the lack of filters I find stifling, out there in the daily atmosphere, the zeitgeist of our times. Words of fire, of ash, of acid rain, meant to destroy…when their creative power could be harnessed instead to edify, to transform, to transcend. To honor. To heal. The poets know it…
I can only be vigilant with my own filtering. With what I let into my own mind, heart, and soul. With what I let flow in return… recognizing that
—I’d like to continue the acrostic with a sort of reversal using each letter of “stifle” and “filters” on every line but I am tired now. Tiredness stifles the brain.
Humanity is stifling. As in, one’s own. Today an education colleague and I joked that we were done with Earth, having had enough of not-knowing, of virtual realities of teaching, of the inability to move forward with life in general and the tolls taken on us all in so many ways. We kidded about going to live on the Space Station. Even now, recalling, I am “slipping the surly bonds of Earth,” as WWII fighter-pilot-poet John Gillespie Magee wrote, to circumnavigate our planet every ninety-two minutes, seeing fifteen sunrises and sunsets in one day, like the astronauts do. To be among the stars…
Which evokes another favorite quote, this one from Muriel Rukeyser:
“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
And so I slip away from the cosmos, down through our protective atmosphere, back to my own country, to my home, my family, my little spot carved out here in the kitchen, to the waiting keyboard, feeling again the heaviness of humanity.
For us all.
For our very atoms, for the stories we live and breathe.
I reach for the words and it’s a little like reaching for the stars. Not those beyond but their remnants within; as scientists say, we humans are made of stardust.
Seems we should be about filtering light.
I’ve enjoyed the open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join.
Well, it’s a bit early, but I am well-prepared. I might as well sign on.
[logging into Google Classroom]
Now, where is that video link? — aha.
Microphone on, camera on—why, there I am!
Let Me just split My screen [click, click]… pull this window over…
There. Nothing to do now but wai—What’s this? Someone signing on?
Oh! Hello, Principal.
Yes, but of course. You are most welcome. It is My great pleasure. I’ve been quite looking forward to it since the interview…no, I cannot imagine so many teachers taking leave all at once. Tremendous strain, certainly, certainly. The rest of the week at least, you say? Possibly longer? Not to worry. I’ve updated all lessons and classwork activities. Eager to meet the students…what’s that? The dress code? Well, I borrowed this good blue shirt for the occasion…why, thank you. I do love blues. Calming. Shows up well on the screen, I think. A nuisance to button, if I may say… but you were saying—? The dress code is “professional on top” because…oh. I see. I beg your pardon. Let Me readjust…
No, thank you. I certainly appreciate your stopping by, Principal. A great day to you as well…
—Hello, Student! Good morning. You are early. No, no, your teacher is fine, just on a short, shall we say, vacation…
My, how you students are popping up like popcorn! Egads. You’re becoming exponentially tinier on My screen…
Welcome to class today, one and all. Let Me introduce Myself. I am Mr. Henry Rollins Haley. You may call Me Mr. Haley if you prefer, or HRH, which I prefer. I’ll be your substitute virtual teacher while your teacher… ahem….recuperates.
Let us begin by taking attendance.
—Pardon Me, but two of you do not appear to be on My roster. Are you in this class? …Then will you please sign off promptly and go to your own?… Yes, My understanding is that you will have a substitute there also. Someone by the name of ‘Ms. Fluffy,’ I believe. Make haste. What’s that?… My apologies. Let Me rephrase: Hurry on to your own class now. Enjoy your day.
Time for learning to commence! Today we will—wait, that rattling sound—who’s eating Spicy Nacho Doritos?…. How do I know? Of course it isn’t magic. You flatter Me. I happen to be possessed of superior hearing; every single bag of chips has its own distinctive sound, its own signature, if you will…a better question is: Who’s eating Spicy Nacho Doritos at 8:00 in the morning? Is it you, Student XYZ*, there with your camera off? Please turn it on at once… oh! You’re the parent. My apologies… the student is still waking up but will be here shortly? I see. Thank you for letting Me know. By all means, keep the camera off… please…
All right, then, we are ready to delve into our first, if I may say, most exciting activity on—students, I really must ask that you refrain from using the chat feature to have personal conversations unless I direct you to do so, or unless you have a question or comment for Me, of course. I am glad indeed that you’re so happy to see one another and that you are communicating in writing; it warms the very cockles of My heart, truly. I have so looked forward to getting to know each and every one of you, and there is no better way to begin than by this (if I may say) fabulous introductory activity I’ve designed! All right, without further ado—wait, why is everyone frozen on the screen? Hello? Hello? [tapping screen with toenail]. Can you hear Me? Students—?
Dear Google Meet, just a bit of advice: Never state the obvious.
Nevertheless. I shall attempt reconnection.
[refreshes. No Internet access]
[drumming toenails, clickety, clickety, clickety]
I might as well head to the kitchen for a snack until the connection resumes. An energy bar, perhaps…or three or four…
—But I am watching, every single second…
Hello? Anyone there?
Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge and for the vital mission of encouraging writers and writing.
Henry (HRH) dedicates this post to all the teachers out there, in honor of their Herculean efforts and extreme dedication…as well as to all the dogs who faithfully accompany their children in virtual learning, even if they do occasionally lick the screen—the dogs, that is. Children seldom lick the screen.
*Student XYZ: Name has been changed for obvious reasons.
Inspired by an afternoon walk with my son. Weary of discussing the world and its problems, we lapsed into quiet commiseration… then, nearing end of the road, this sound, this airy, magical, musical quivering…
At the end of my road, over the street Where expanse of sky and fallow field meet I walk on in silence, until hearing The faintest vibration upon nearing
Made by a thousand—a million—small things Choir of minuscule cantors with wings Singing their song in darkness, unbidden Deep among long tangled grasses, hidden
Trilling celestial, ethereal sound Otherworldly pulse of the Earth, unbound Cadence of our own burgeoning story Life playing out in wild morning glory
—a quivering —a shivering
At the end of my road, over the street Where sky and field and infinity meet.
–with gratitude for the poetic gathering on Poetry Fridays and to Bridget Magee for hosting today’s Roundup.