Lament and celebration poem

with thanks to Andrew Moore, host of Sunday’s Open Write on Ethical ELA. Andrew challenged teacher-poets to compose around lament plus celebration (these don’t have to be related; this is meant to be exercise in writing freely, in any form). He writes: “My inspiration comes from a distinct lack of good sadness, grief, and lament beside a healthy laugh and looking forward to the changes the future may bring.” The poem can be as light-hearted, silly, or serious as the poet desires.

Here’s where I am today:

Remains

Today, I mourn 
the destruction of trees along my rural byways
the displacement of wildlife
the destruction of Ukraine
the displacement of her people
the systemic demoralization of teachers
the systemic misplacement of trust

Today, I celebrate
the remnants
of trees
wildlife
Ukraine
her people
teachers
trust

Today, I hope
for restoration
in revelation 
and reverence

before all
become revenants

“The Elephant – great destruction.” Public domain. Note the trees, the cities, the elephant all in stages of disappearing … elephants, by the way, symbolize wisdom, memory, prosperity

******

with thanks also to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March.

Ingredient poem

Thanks to John Noreen who hosted yesterday’s Ethical ELA Open Write with the invitation to pay homage to food that comforts and sustains us. John focused on process; he suggested that we “create the way we cook.” He says when he cooks, he takes a central ingredient and gets going, improvising along the way.

Sounds like a metaphor for writing to me…

Daily Writing Staple

An idea forms
inside my brain
like an egg forms
within a bird


one moment
nothing
and the next
the shell
of something


I feel new presence
of fragile life
within

or at least
the provisional sac
of nourishment
for building and 
sustaining life
as it forms

deep inside
living membrane

until it should hatch
and eventually fly
on wings of its own


or

like my breakfast egg
boiled for long enough
at the right temperature
the idea solidifies
and gives life
to me

one simple ingredient
containing a whole world
of possibility

and I almost never settle
for just one.

*******

with thanks also to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March.

Death calls

Subtitled The morgue, part 2. A slice of memoir.

And so it was that the house for the dead became a house for the living. If there were any ghosts of soldiers or prisoners lingering in it for over twenty years, perhaps a three-month-old baby’s cries and the acrid odor of diapers drove them on.

Even I wouldn’t be there long. The shadow of death falls like a blanket; the living must keep moving out from under it.

My memories of the house are fragmented, all in black and white. A living room with plain white walls. A window with pale curtains likely made by my mother. The black slats of my crib. Years later my mother said there were little black footprints on the wall from where I pressed my feet through the crib slats. She didn’t have the heart to wash them off. My grandmother wanted to know why I’d been put to bed with dirty feet.

I had a white blanket with satin trim. I sucked my thumb and rubbed the satin against my nose with my forefinger; eventually the satin pulled away from the blanket. I’d rub it between my left thumb and fingers while sucking my right thumb. A soothing rustle, rustle, rustle. I called it my Silky String.

That is almost all I can remember for myself of the old house that was once an Army hospital morgue.

Pa-Pa was the reason we came to live here; he was the reason we had to go. He owned the house. When he died suddenly from a heart attack, his children took over his property. We were the stepfamily. Grannie had to leave the big house next door. My father, mother, baby sister and I had to leave this first house of my remembering. It was March. I was not yet three, when the long shadow sent us searching for a place to be.

When death calls, the living must answer.

*******

All these years later, I watch the news. Tanks, warships, airstrikes, destruction. A hundred and nine empty baby strollers placed in Lviv’s central square today, commemorating the children killed in the invasion of Ukraine.

I think of morgues.

And of the mothers. And little footprints left behind.

And people being driven from home. That is what wars do. That is what death does.

My son, in his mid-twenties, comes in as night falls. Dressed in suit and tie. I know he’s tired.

“Long day, wasn’t it?” I ask.

“It was,” he answers. “Maybe I won’t get called out tonight.”

For a minute I see him at age five, pulling out the church directory every time a member passed away. He’d grab a pen, cross out the person’s photo, and write the word Died.

Funny how these things come back to you. Memories are ghosts.

And life is circular; all things are connected.

My boy eats supper, collects Dennis the dachshund, goes upstairs to rest and, I hope, to sleep. Unless his phone should ring in the night. If it does, he’ll be back in suit and tie, leaving home to pick up someone. He’ll transport them to the house waiting to receive them, where he’ll begin the preparations for their burial or cremation. Got a death call, he’ll say, if his dad and I are still up. If not, he just goes quietly into the night, a mortuary emissary.

For when death calls, the living must answer.

Window in the living room of the house that was originally an Army hospital morgue.
I lived here from about age three months to almost three years.

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March.

The morgue

a slice of memoir

By 1949, the Army base where a million and half people were processed for service in WWII stood deserted. This had been the last stop before boarding ships for western Europe. All branches of military personnel, not just Army, passed through here — even some civilians on secret missions. Surely these young people made time for the cantina, laughing and maybe dancing to big band music, or for a show in the base’s theater before they left American soil, maybe for good… how many wouldn’t return to see the wooden arch bearing the message WELCOME HOME at the camp’s entrance, erected over the wide road cut through the forest? And how did the Axis POWs feel, seeing this sign on their arrival? Did they wonder what welcome awaited them here in an Allied prison? They would be put to work; they would also be given their own canteen.

All that remained four years after war’s end were empty buildings, ephemeral fliers, yellow canteen coupons occasionally spiraling in the wind, and weeds growing tall in their eagerness to swallow it all, to satisfy the hungry forest.

A local man overheard talk that the decommissioned land was being sold and if you had a way to move a building, you could buy one cheap.

He had a way of moving a building. He had a place for it, on his own land right beside his own house. He signed the papers and took his building.

It made for a nice little home, he thought. It had a concrete floor with pipes running through for radiant heat. Solid. It would need a little paint, a little work here and there. He could do it. He was pleased with himself. He would rent it it out, make a little money…

Quite some years later, a young man came to ask about the house: We can’t stay in the apartment where we are anymore. It’s not working out… he and his wife had a baby. They wanted to be in a safer place.

The older man, now gray-haired, pursed his lips for just a moment before agreeing.

And that is how I came to live in the house which was once part of a bustling World War II Army base at a port of embarkation.

That was my dad and mom who needed a place to live.

That was my step-grandfather, Pa-Pa, the sometime opportunist who’d moved the building. He’d married my mother’s mother.

I, of course, was the new baby.

This house is the first home I remember. In this place, my memories would first come into being while I watched the interplay of light and shadow on the walls. Here I would dream my first dreams and cry out in the darkness until my father came to settle me back to sleep, sometimes holding me in his arms all night when I suffered asthma attacks. Here I would begin to recognize the distant rattle and whistle of trains, long before I first crawled on the warm, warm floors in wintertime or knew the cold and silvery moon.

I wonder if this is where I first came to understand the word ghost.

The little white house with the heated floors was, after all, the Army hospital morgue.

Photo: Shocking Wonder. CC BY

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March.

Until we meet again

Today I write in memory of my grandfather.

His name was Columbus St. Patrick Brantley.

He was born in 1906 “up the swamp” in coastal North Carolina. Farming was in his blood. He married my grandmother during the Depression and worked as a sharecropper. My father was born in a tenant house. Just before WWII, Granddaddy went to Virginia to work as shipwright. He tried farming and house painting after the war but “couldn’t make a go of it,” so he went back to the shipyard, where he was still working when I came along. For the record: the whole family said I looked exactly like him when I was born.

He didn’t work on Sundays; that became our day together when I was small.

He retired when I was six. He and my grandmother moved back home and thus began my many journeys to the little white house nestled in the bend of an old dirt road, where the woods had grown up all around, taking back house after house where people lived no more.

In his later years Granddaddy recorded stories of his life on audiocassette to give to his family. He could remember seeing his first Model T at age three or four. He said that mail was delivered by horse and buggy; farmers ordered chickens that were delivered in cages. He had a whole string of pins awarded him for perfect Sunday School attendance at the little Methodist church. He loved listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. He spoke of his nine siblings, including a sister, Peaney (Penelope), who died of diphtheria at age four. He outlived them all. He lived to see both of my children. He could remember an ancestor speaking of Dublin.

Near the end of his life, I gave him a framed print of an Irish blessing. It hangs by my front door now:

The last time I saw him, he was dying of lung cancer at ninety-two. It was springtime. He’d grown weak but was fully dressed, sitting in his recliner by the door; he tried to coax my two-year-old to sit in his lap, like I did when I was little. I sat by his chair on a stool and held his old, wrinkled, work-worn hand.

Do you remember how we used to go to the park on Sundays?

I do, Granddaddy. We took bread to feed the ducks.

And the old locomotive?

I can just remember climbing in it together…

He was tired, always a man of few words. We sat for a long time together, not speaking at all.

When it was time to go, I kissed him on his forehead.

I love you, Granddaddy. God’s got you safe in His hands.

That’s the best place to be. And I love you.

He held tight to my hand.

It’s been twenty-three years. You can’t imagine all I have to tell you, Granddaddy. There’s been another pandemic. Wars and rumors of wars. Your great-grandsons are grown. The little two-year-old you tried to coax into sitting with you at that last visit plays piano and guitar; he loves singing the old-time songs that you loved. His brother’s a pastor with a baby girl; he tells me almost daily that something about your great-great-granddaughter reminds him of you. God remains faithful from one generation to the next. It’s almost springtime again, the fields are so green…

Until we meet again, Columbus St. Patrick.

I love you.

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March.





For love of all creatures

Many years ago I read a series of books about a young 1940s veterinary surgeon beginning his career in Yorkshire, England. The stories are captivating, hilarious, heartwarming, and heartbreaking; the characters—some of them animals—are larger than life, unforgettable. I fell in love with these stories right away.

And so I have again, with the Masterpiece Theater version of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. When the series premiered in 2020, it was deemed “the surprise runaway hit of the year.” The second season recently ended and I do not know how I am going to endure until Season Three. I have begun watching episodes over and over…and over…

I have to ask myself why.

Maybe it’s that I loved these stories so much when I was young. I recall encountering the name “Tristan” for the first time and being so enchanted by it (and by the comical character, another young vet) that I thought about naming one of my eventual children Tristan (a thought which earned a resounding Are you serious? NO from my eventual husband). Maybe it’s that I find details of long-ago rural veterinary practice fascinating. James delivers calves and tangled-up twin lambs; in the show he must figure out how to untwist a mare’s uterus to deliver a foal, or both will die. Or maybe it’s James’s ongoing struggle for acceptance by the local farmers who are often mistrustful, preferring their familiar “old ways” (I so relate to this as an instructional coach, sometimes).

I suspect it’s all of these. And more.

Beyond James’s love for the animals and his gentle spirit is a compelling, refreshing sense of purity. Times aren’t simple, life is hard, loss is always imminent, yet there’s a richness in it all, a sacred honesty born of living close to the land, a sense of true interdependence and valuing all living things…

Not to mention the scenery. The Yorkshire Dales are breathtaking. I have to go there someday. I feel like I have seen this place before, in some of my most beautiful dreams. Place is a character in itself, alive, vibrant, calling in its own voice, and the Dales will not be outdone by human nor beast…speaking of which: the animal performances are astounding (how DO the directors manage this magic?).

As the series progresses, so do relationships. I will not say anything more than this: Conflict, humor, and great love are all bound together by cords of civility. Reputation matters. Honor matters. Honoring life matters…

And just as one is getting cozy at the end of 1938, and snow begins to fall, and farmers lead draft horses through the town streets at the close of day, and young people are gathered together, beginning new chapters of their lives…the first war plane flies overhead in the darkening sky…

And I’ve an overwhelming desire to stop time, to hit rewind, to savor peace… which we almost never realize we have, until we don’t…

Yorkshire Dalestricky (rick harrison). CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

*******
with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March.

Flower pajamas

Evening, near eight o’clock.

My phone vibrates.

A text from my son.

No, wait… from my granddaughter, age six.

She types her name with a colon so I know who’s sending the message.

Scout: are you wearing your flower PJ’s?

(Backstory: She stayed with me on the night her baby sister Micah was born. I got us matching pajamas as part of our celebration).

(Me) Hi, Scouty ❤ ❤ No, I am wearing my cardinal nightgown and leggings and housecoat because I am cold!

Scout: cuz I am wearing my flower pjs….

(Me) Aww. I will go put mine on.

Scout: OKAY [with sunflower emoji]

(Me) Love you, Scoutaroni

Scout: Love you too good night ❤ ❤

(Me) Good night! [many heart emojis]

—It is a very good night. ❤

Franna loves you, sunflower girl

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March.

Maiden in the woods

For years now, I’ve caught glimpses of her when I’m driving down a certain road near my home. Between fields and old farmhouses are patches of woods, and that is where I see her.

I might confess that ever since I was a child, whenever I ride by an expanse of woods, I’ve daydreamed about seeing people amongst the trees as I go whipping past. Maybe people of long ago, making a reappearance on the land where they once lived and hunted. Maybe enchanted people, unable to go beyond some magical barrier, or simply relegated to this place of relative obscurity where they are least likely to be detected. In summer, the woods are full and dark; their secrets are more secret than ever, but in winter, the woods are revealing. So many trees are bare and shafts of sunlight illuminate the papery russet detritus of the forest floor…when I ride past in wintertime, I imagine someone stepping back in the shadows, or bending over a cookpot, or doing whatever it is one would do in a secluded woodland semi-existence.

So, actually seeing this maiden in the nearby woods for the first time gave me quite a turn. Now, of course, I know she’s there. I’ve been trying to figure out who or what she is. Perhaps a dryad (Narnia, anyone?), the shy female spirit of a tree, usually an oak in Greek mythology. Dryads look something like their trees and can live for centuries. Or maybe a hamadryad, a nymph so intimately bound to her tree that if the tree dies, she dies, too (anyone remember the scene in The Last Battle when the beechtree nymph runs to the Narnian king, Tirian, to say the talking trees are being felled, then falling and vanishing as her own tree is cut down?).

Although I could never get a good enough look at this maiden in the woods to decide if she might be a dryad or hamadryad, she didn’t seem “tree-ish” enough. No. For one thing, she wears clothes. A top as blue as the bluest untroubled sky, the kind with no clouds in sight, so blue it imparts an inexplicable ache in the heart. She has a long white skirt and some kind of white headdress. And she carries something red in her hands—berries? Grapes? What IS that, and what is she, and why is she standing out here in these woods?

One day, I kept telling myself, I’m gonna stop this car and get a picture…

And so I did.

Last week I pulled off the road and quickly got my shot… I dared not go too far or get too close, as I don’t know whose land this is and… well… you know… possible enchantments…

She appears to be a young Roman woman carrying a harvest of grapes home from a nonexistent vine. Not a goddess, not a dryad. I can’t discern why she’s here. A puzzle. No obvious reason that I can see. I wonder, too, if she was once pale marble or all bronze or solid gray cement—turned to stone, perhaps?—before some artist, whomever it was, chose to spruce her up with color. No telling how old she is, how long she’s been here, and why, why…so many untold stories…

I bet the trees know all about it. I would ask, if only I understood Tree. For they do speak to one another, you know. They have a whole communication network of their own, underground, in the air…

But I am merely human, and as always, the trees hold their mysteries close.

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March.

The feather

on the second anniversary of school shutdowns due to COVID-19

Bleak days. A long, rain-spattered, windswept season, gray as ashes, as stones, just as hard, cold, and immovable. Day to day to day the green promise of spring seems like a dream barely remembered; naked tree branches twist skyward as if beseeching the heavens for renewal…

We go through the motions, automatons numbed by a pandemic not quite past and the ripple effect of unprovoked war on the world stage, as if we’ve somehow fallen through a wormhole to eight decades ago… what year IS this?

I am tired, my colleagues at school tell one another. So tired. Some don’t know if they’re coming back next year. Some don’t know if they’re going to stay in education at all. Our principal is leaving in four weeks.

The children have seemed shell-shocked most of this year. Maybe I seem the same way to them, especially now that masks are optional and I find myself not recognizing some of them; I’ve never seen them without masks before. I don’t know their faces below their eyes.

As I walked the hallways last week, I had a sense of dragging myself over a finish line, except that there is no finish line. Not now, not yet…

But even in the bleakest, rain-spattered, windswept season, when gray goes grayer still, bits of brightness are always swirling. Maybe as tiny as a feather, a soft semiplume shed from a creature with the gift of flight. It might appear to be half one thing and half another… it might have the appearance of dark, wispy, wayward hair as well as a tapered tip dipped in fiery red, altogether like an artist’s brush with which we might, we just might, begin to dispel despair by painting our moments as we will…

So much symbolism in a feather. In the bird that releases it.

It is said that when cardinals appear, angels are near.

I don’t know about that.

I just know a cardinal feather is a symbol of life, hope, and restoration. And courage. And love. And sacrifice…

Falling from the grayest sky
Ethereal, riding the wind
Alluding to nearness of angels
Tiny trace of a nearby cardinal that
Has lost a bit of his insulation
Ephemeral, perhaps, to him
Restorative tincture, to me

Semiplume cardinal feather photographed by my friend,
E. Johnson, 3/11/2022.

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March.

Rambling autobiography

I was born in a state named for a queen, by a river named for a king, and in a hospital named for the river. I adore books, words, wind chimes, church bells, birdsong, the crying of gulls at the shore, ocean waves crashing, the utterance of my newest name, Franna, in my granddaughter’s voice, the aliveness in my son’s fingers dancing over the keys of my grandmother’s piano until the house and my soul burst with his music, and silences. I bought a white flannel nightgown and sheets with bright red cardinals on them at Christmastime because Grandma loved cardinals and Christmas, it is the season of her birth and her death, she is nearest then, so now I lay me down to sleep in heavenly peace. I have her wedding band; I wear it every day. I never dreamed of being a teacher. One of my sons became a teacher, too, then a preacher, like his father. When I was eight or nine, I had an imaginary black cat; one time after climbing from the backseat of Grannie’s car, I flung my hand out to keep the imaginary cat from escaping and Grannie slammed the door on my fingers (no one ever knew about the cat…sorry, Grannie, it wasn’t your fault). My favorite place is out in the middle of nowhere along an old dirt road where my grandmother then my father then I played as children, where cicadas in the woods sing as loud as Heaven’s choir about being born, living, dying, and the Resurrection. I can still smell Old Spice in the cool of those evenings when Granddaddy leaned down to offer me his clean-shaven cheek to kiss, Good night, I love you, see you in the morning. I dated the handsomest black-haired man I’ve ever seen for just three months when we decided to get married, thirty-seven years ago. I fainted at a funeral one summer afternoon but not from grief. I gave my real black cat to Daddy when I got married because I couldn’t take her to the tiny apartment that would be my new home. I once had a yellow parakeet; Daddy got it for my sixth birthday and it lived until I was twelve, dying one summer when I was at Grandma’s playing on the old dirt road — such a mysterious balance, the giving of things and the living of them. I am a grandmother now. I want to have a good dog as long as I am alive and to see my granddaughters grown into all their beautiful becomings before the cicadas sing me away to the riverside where I shall meet the King, at last.

If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me.

Psalm 139:9-10

*******

with many thanks to Denise Krebs for the inspiration. Here are Denise’s starters (borrowed from Linda Rief) for a rambling autobiography:

I was born…
I adore…
I bought…
I have…
I never…
One of my…
When I was (age)…
My favorite place…
I can still (sense)…
I dated…
I fainted…
I gave…
I once had…
I am…
I want to…

and thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March.