Imagine

Central Park

On a Central Park pathway, near the Strawberry Fields memorial to John Lennon.

A group of fifth-graders sits in the hallway, making a poster about the human nervous system. I stop to admire their work:

“Wow, that’s a really vivid brain you have there.” It is, in fact, neatly colored with the brightest neon pink.

“Thanks,” grins one of the girls.

“We forgot the cerebellum, though,” says another.

“Yikes! That creates a problem for your diagram-person, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, with his balance and movement and stuff.”

One of the boys turns away from his work drawing . . . something. “Do you know who Albert Einstein is?”

Struggling to keep my face composed, I reply, “Yes, he’s my favorite scientist.”

“I was thinking how we only use about ten percent of our brains and as smart as Albert Einstein was, just imagine what he would have done if he could’ve used the other ninety percent.”

“Fascinating, isn’t it?” I muse. “For all of us. If we could use our whole brains, we might be something like superheroes.”

The kids nod sagely.

“So, here’s my favorite Einstein quote,” I tell the kids, who pause in their illustrating. Expectation is clearly written on each face. They truly want to know what this brilliant man had to say. “When a parent asked Einstein how to raise a child to be a great scientist, Einstein replied: If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

As their brains process this thought, the young faces look ethereal. Unblinking, gazing somewhere beyond the immediate surroundings, bathed in a light from an unseen source.

Especially the boy who mentioned Einstein.

“Whoaaaaa,” he finally says.

“Think on that a while. Later you can tell me what you believe it means.” With that, I leave the children to their work.

Imagine.

As I walk down the hallway,  a conversation with an esteemed colleague at a recent meeting replays in my mind.

I am glad to see greater focus on nonfiction writing, she’d said. After all, these children won’t be writing fiction in college.

It took my breath away.

Perhaps none of the kids we teach will grow up to get MFAs in creative writing— in other words, possibly earning a degree in composing fiction.

But some might. And are there really no more creative writing electives in college these days?

I understand the rationale behind the words, that in college students will primarily be writing research papers and essays. It’s important to put the foundation in place now, at the elementary level, for their future success.

But are all students going to college? Aren’t the standards college and career ready? In a day and age when innovation and creativity in the workplace are highly valued, think about the impact of understanding plot, subplots, character motivation, personality traits, overcoming obstacles to reach goals, ingenuity—all of which can be developed by reading fiction, surely, but writing fiction takes complex problem-solving and creativity to incomparable heights. So many seemingly random pieces must connect pretty perfectly to make a finished, meaningful, compelling whole—much like the beautiful leaf-and-gumball mandala I discovered on a pathway while walking through Central Park.

And what about sheer enjoyment? And poetry, and songs, and plays?

Or being LIFE ready?

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

Imagine what we could accomplish if we all wrote them. Make-believe stories, making mandalas with words. Maybe we’d tap into some of that unused part of our brains.

Because, heaven knows, we need balance to move forward effectively.

Take the pencil, find the neon pink.

If the cerebellum is missing, draw it in.

To love that well

Drema Gaye Spencer

Drema Gaye Spencer. Her first name means “reverie,” or dream. Her middle name, “merry, lighthearted.” Her surname is Old English for “guardian,” “object of awe,” “dispenser of provisions.”

She stands on the precipice between childhood and womanhood, facing the camera directly, her hooded eyes steady and confident. She does not know it yet, but she will be like the mountains framing her background, where she and her seven siblings loved to run, calling to each other across the distance, teasing, playing jokes, laughing with wild abandon at their own mischievous humor. As intense pressure, heat, and time formed the ancient Appalachian coalfields, so the course of her life would forge an internal fuel, the deep, burning drive to keep going under the weight of crushing adversity.

It’s the early 1940s. World War II is in full swing; her three brothers have enlisted in the Navy. The family has survived the Great Depression in the place it struck the hardest, where the economy has always been precarious. When she arrived with the January snows of 1926, her coal miner father hadn’t had steady work in a year due to frequent safety shutdowns; the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health Safety and Training references nearly 700 fatalities for 1925.

She’s just a teenager with a head full of dreams for the future.

Maybe she could teach English literature and composition—What fun that would be! Maybe I’ll even visit England one day.

Innately musical, singing harmony with her sisters in church, she also harbors aspirations for the stage. She knows she has true dramatic and comic talent, which, along with her natural beauty, lands her roles in high school plays. Her blue eyes sparkle: Well, I AM a good actress. Very good. Eventually, of course, I’ll get married and have children. I do want children . . . Sometimes she can almost see their little faces, these someday-children. I hope one’s a boy with brown eyes.

So she looks at the camera and smiles, the mountain beneath her feet, her childhood behind her and her whole future lying ahead.

But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

-William Butler Yeats

The reality is that just a few years after this photo was made, she married a man who would be killed in a mining accident, leaving her with a toddler and a baby at twenty-three.

Several years afterward, she married a widower, an Army man with two older children. Eventually they had a boy and a girl together.

Her boy with brown eyes.

When her husband completed tours of duty in Korea and Vietnam, she cared for the six children by herself.

When the brown-eyed boy was four, he developed acute bronchitis, necessitating an emergency tracheotomy. His temperature spiked to 107 after surgery. The nurses packed the child in ice. The hospital doctors told her that her little son might not make it. She sent for his father, away at Army summer camp; a police escort was dispatched to meet him at the airport. As the boy drifted in and out of consciousness, she sat by his oxygen tent, praying, weeping.

The boy survived.

She wrote him a letter on the inside back cover of a book of Bible stories.

4:00 a.m. In hospital.

Dearest . . .

When you are well and safe at home again, I’ll read you this little note I’ve written to you during the hours I sat by your bed and watched you sleep so soundly . . . Mommy and Daddy have been so scared . . . We love you so much, our little son . . . Little angels have been all around your bed since you have been sick and Jesus sent them to watch over you and keep you . . . soon all the suffering and fright you have had will pass from your little mind but Mommy will always remember and thank God for giving you back to me.

Your Mother

She could never speak of the ordeal without tears.

Staggering losses were yet to come.

When the brown-eyed boy was twelve and his sister nine, and all the others grown and on their own, her Army man died suddenly, instantly, with a heart attack.

Widowed twice—each time with a boy and girl at home to care for.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

-I Corinthians 13:7

When her sobbing son asked, “Who’s going to take care of us now?” she wrapped him in her arms.

“God will. And I will.”

And she did.

Survival ran in her veins like coal beds through the Appalachians. She dug deep within herself, tapping into the hardy DNA passed down by her ancestors, into the wellspring of her faith, into the fierce love for her children, and carried on. When her son was consumed with fear of something happening to her, she said:

“I have prayed and prayed that nothing will happen to me until you’re grown. And I am convinced that God will allow it.”

For the next ten years, she poured herself into her children and her home.

Still she laughed. Still she sang. She called her brothers and sisters, who still teased each other with jokes old and new. She gardened. She arranged flowers. She organized a women’s political group, taught Sunday School, went to her son’s basketball games all through high school.

She managed, and managed well.

When her son said he found the girl he wanted to marry, she gave him her blessing and the diamond engagement ring that his father, the Army man, had given her.

The brown-eyed boy—now the man—gave the ring to me on my twentieth birthday, long, long ago.

For the boy who lived (apologies, J.K. Rowling) is my husband; the woman in the photograph is my mother-in-law.

When I came to know her, I first admired her elegant, impeccably-kept house, which she was forever redecorating. And the food, the food, oh, the food! Her table always looked like something from Southern Living, down to the coordinating linen napkins and rings. Her iced tea was always blissfully sweet and there must always, always be lemon slices with it. I came to appreciate her ever-present wit, her spunky humor, her fashionable attire. Being well-put together was a priority to her. I browsed her bookcases on every visit, knowing she’d have a new bestseller for me to devour. I was instantly at home in her home.

When she was sixty years old, a third man proposed to her. She hesitated. “I’ve buried two husbands. I don’t want to bury a third.”

But he was a good man; she took a chance on him. For the next three decades, they celebrated the coming of grandchildren and the first great-grandchildren.

Three years ago, she was widowed for the third time.

There were no children at home to care for now.

She was, for the first time in her nine decades, alone.

With housekeeping being too much for her, it was time to go to the home of one of the children or to assisted living.

And her genes, or her Appalachian roots, or the rising dementia—or all three—kicked into overdrive.

She would not go.

The house had become her whole identity. It was where she’d provided for the last of her children. It symbolized her strength, her ability to survive. This was her mountain; she would not be moved. She dug in her heels. Deep.

Until the stroke.

After surgery, when her family was allowed to see her in intensive care, she greeted us with a smile. “I can’t believe I’ve had a stroke! Can you believe it?” she said, as if she were sitting in the den at home, making everyday conversation, even as the nurses watched her monitors. Blue eyes sparkling as bright as ever, she reached out her warm hand to grasp mine. “Hey, you’ve got a birthday coming up. We’ll have to celebrate.”

I held her hand, marveling.

She rebounded for a short while, working hard at her rehab, thinking she could go back home. She couldn’t. She went into a nursing home instead, for, as the weeks wore on, her strength waned.

So did her mind.

The one thing that waxed bright and hot was her fighting spirit. She grew more determined to go home, even as she grew weaker, less hungry, more and more tired.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

-Dylan Thomas

She raged. She burned within like a coal seam fire, until her energy was spent at last.

Lying in her nursing home bed, she stood on the mountains again, seeing her brothers and sisters in the distance. She called their names over and over—only the ones who’d already died. She carried on conversations with them.

“I can’t go on up,” she told these siblings that the rest of us couldn’t see. “Not just yet.”

She knew us, called us by name when we last gathered with her, at Thanksgiving. Within the hour, she couldn’t recall who we were, or why we were there.

Still she sang.

There is coming a day, when no heartaches shall come

No more clouds in the sky

No more tears to dim the eye

All is peace forevermore

On that happy golden shore

What a day, glorious day, that will be . . . .

“My throat hurts,” she said. “I can’t sing any more.”

“It’s okay,” said her children. “You don’t have to.”

They moistened her lips and mouth with water.

And still she sang.

If we never meet again this side of heaven

I will meet you on that beautiful shore.

And then she sang no more.

She rested a while, then, with her eyes closed, turned her face toward her brown-eyed son, my husband.

“Where do you live?” she asked.

“North Carolina,” he replied, smiling through his tears.

“Oh, my son lives there,” she said.

“Yes. I am your son.”

She opened her eyes the tiniest slit. “Well. You’re all grown up.”

It was the last thing she said to him.

I have prayed and prayed that nothing will happen to me until you’re grown. And I am convinced that God will allow it.

A few days later, my husband, his younger sister, and my son, the youngest grandchild, sat by her bedside all morning, watching her labored breaths. Finally they told her, “We’re going to go eat lunch, Mom, but we’ll be right back.”

The minute they finished eating, the nurses called. “The time is near.”

They came. They took her hands.

She took two labored breaths, and was gone.

She’d waited for them to have their lunch. To the very last, making sure her children had what they needed.

She never taught school.

She was never an actress of renown.

She never made it to England.

She lived one of the most extraordinary lives I’ve ever known.

The diamond on my finger shines as bright as it ever did; I can only hope that a portion of her strength, her courage, her wisdom has passed on to me along with it.

I look at her teenage photo, contemplating all that she will endure.

All that she did endure, and need endure no more.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
-Shakespeare, Sonnet 73

She loved as deep, as far, as long as she possibly could, with every ounce of her being. That is what I will remember most, her fierce, fierce love. It burns on, and on, and on, bright and warm, forevermore.

First, do no harm

land planarian

Land planarian. Pavel KirillovCC BY-SA

Granddaddy and I are walking around “the horn.” I am puzzling over why he calls this path “the horn.” When he says it, I know he means the journey from his house down the gravel road past the formidable, fairy-tale-dark woods with a tiny cemetery in the clearing, past unpainted houses in various stages of falling down, to the narrow paved highway and on around to the other side of this gravel road where, in a tiny screened-porch house, an old widow woman dips snuff, on past Grandma’s homeplace where her disabled brother lives alone and grows sunflowers that loom over my head, always turning their faces toward the sun, which is now obscured. It rained earlier in the day, breaking the blazing summer heat. The thirsty ground drank its fill; the rest of the blessed rain hangs invisible in the air, as heavy and warm as bathwater, and drips amongst the trees, where the birds are chattering against a background of crickets who think it’s night again, along with cicadas buzzing in such numbers that the earth vibrates with the sound. Granddaddy and I are on the last leg of “the horn,” passing his garden, a steaming, lush, leafy paradise that looks to me like an artist painted it with watercolors. We walk by the ditch bank where his scuppernong vines drape the trellis he built, past the line of pink crape myrtles curving along the edge of the yard, back to the sidewalk in front of the house where we started.

Granddaddy stops to get the newspaper from the box and I go on ahead— 

“Granddaddy!” I shout, for he’s hard of hearing, although Grandma says he hears what he wants to. “What is this?”

There on the damp sidewalk, headed toward the house, are three long worms, side by side. They are tan like earthworms, but many times longer than any earthworm I’ve ever seen. Maybe a foot long. Their skinny bodies undulate like snakes; they glide over the cement holding up their big, almost-triangular heads. 

Granddaddy comes near, leans down. 

I don’t know,” he says after a moment. “I ain’t never seen anything like them before.”

I’m stunned. Granddaddy has farmed all of his life, except for the years he worked at the shipyard. He knows everything about the outdoor world, has told many stories of the things he’s seen, like a fully-formed tree growing underground when he had to dig a well once. If he doesn’t know what these worms are, they are strange indeed.

I look up at his pleasant, wrinkled face, shielded by his ever-present cap. His crinkly blue eyes are thoughtful. I wonder if he’ll kill these alien creatures, chop them up with the hoe like he does the copperhead who dares enter his realm.

But he pats my back: “Let’s get on in the house, hear.” 

And so we do. I don’t see where these three hammer-headed worms go, and I never see them or anything like them again.

The worms resurfaced in my memory recently; I’d almost forgotten them. If the Internet had been around at the time, Granddaddy and I could have learned within seconds that these were land planarians—toxic predatory monsters that destroy the ecology of a garden by feeding solely on earthworms, the great garden benefactors that aerate the soil and add rich nutrients. Planarians aren’t native to the United States; they hail from Asia, so a remaining part of the puzzle is how they ended up in the far reaches of rural, coastal North Carolina.

This story isn’t really about the planarians, however. It’s about my grandfather, infinitely wise despite having quit school in the third grade to work on the family farm. A man who used the phrase “the horn” which I have just now learned is a mathematical synonym for a cornicular angle, which, yes, describes the country path we walked (new question: How did he know?).  My grandfather saw something he’d never seen before, these three worms. He analyzed them carefully. He let them live, not knowing they could do harm to his garden. Which ended up being the best choice, for if he’d smashed them or chopped them up, every piece would have grown into a new planarian. He would have thereby ensured the destruction of his garden and its bounty, which benefited his whole family. He would have, essentially, spread the poison.

The lesson I take away from this long-ago surreal encounter is First, do no harm. In pretty much any situation. Analyze. Evaluate. Proceed with caution and discernment. Consider long-range ramifications; if they cannot be known at the moment, forbear. Poison is often invisible; be wary of tapping into it, spreading it.

Point to ponder: What are the planarians of your own life and work? What threatens to destroy what’s valuable? To answer that, you must define the garden, the earthworm, and their relationship. I speak as an educator. As a wise old farmer’s granddaughter. For me, metaphorically, the garden is not humanity itself, but something which springs forth from the human spirit—organic, beautiful, beneficial. In a sense, teaching (or writing, as I clearly do that also; think about your own work and how it applies here) is about being the earthworm, aerating the growing ground, devoting yourself to developing the richness and nutrients needed for the collective good of those who follow, that they might also produce that which is beautiful and beneficial. Harm comes in the form of anything that would limit, stunt, or destroy this exploratory, creative, thriving growth process. Planarians attack and destroy their own kind for their own benefit. We don’t always know them when we first see them, for they resemble that which is good.  Not everything has a noticeably triangular head. Watch, analyze, evaluate, discern over time. Avoid blindly buying into the toxicity, the very thing that counteracts and defeats all your best efforts, and multiplying it.

First, do no harm.

To the children

writing in notebook

Writing. VassilisCC BY-SA

Dear Children,

I am thankful for you.

For your uniqueness, for your existence, for the lens through which only you can see the world.

I am thankful for your courage, your stories.

That you feel free enough to write about what you know, what you’ve lived, endured, and overcome in your young lives.

That you have the strength to share your early taste of loss—of pets, of parents, of siblings, of homes.

That you escaped abusive homes for ones where you could thrive.

That you left another country for mine—for ours.

That you learned from watching the failures and mistakes of others close to you.

That you learned to forgive others and even yourself.

That you learned to persevere, that you accomplished what you set your mind to because you kept trying.

That you faced your fears and came safely through.

I am thankful for what you teach me each day about listening, seeing, discerning, wondering.

I am thankful for the reminder that curiosity and questioning are natural, that creating something from whatever happens to be lying nearby is a hallmark of the human soul.

I am thankful for the beauty you bring to the world.

I thank you for daring to pour your hearts onto the page, for laboring at it, and for your truth.

I thank you for the unparalleled honor of reading your words, for the moments of laughing with you, crying with you, and standing in awe of you. For the privilege of helping you capture your ideas and communicate them clearly, of seeing you realize the power of your own voices. Of simply being on the receiving end of the important messages you have within you.

If I have inspired any of you, know that I am inspired a hundredfold in return.

Keep writing, Children, and I will do the same, for we owe it to ourselves and to each other—we need to read our stories as much as we need to write them.

I carry you and your stories, your abiding images, with me always.

Always believe in yourself, for I believe in you. In who you are now, in who you will become.

With love and profound gratitude,

your writing teacher

*******

Inspired by students I’ve taught and others whose work I’ve read.

Thanksgiving challenge: To whom are you deeply grateful, and why? Write this person a letter expressing your gratitude. If  your person is still living, read your letter aloud to them face to face or by phone. If your person is no longer living, read it aloud in a place that’s meaningful to you. Celebrate what this person has added to your life. Celebrate the power of writing and the transformative power of gratitude. 

slice-of-life_individual

Letters

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It’s a neither-here-nor-there day in June, the middle of the year, not exactly warm but not really cool, either. The blinding noon sun makes for dark shade under the trees while an intermittent breeze stirs the new leaves, dappling the sidewalks with moving shadows. People come and go from assorted shops, crossing the cobblestone street. Their voices are muted, distant. I concentrate on guiding my husband’s steps over the uneven pavement. Still adjusting to having just one eye, he struggles with depth perception and will stumble, so he grabs hold of my arm. The restaurant where we’re headed for lunch is just ahead and I am fantasizing about the she-crab soup when I happen to glance to my left, and that’s when I notice something unusual.

There, nestled close to a house entrance, in the flickering light and shadows, is an old letter box.

I’ve walked here many times and haven’t seen it before.

It appears to be wrought iron, standing on a pedestal. Ornate. I can’t tell how old it is; probably a replica, fittingly weathered.

It captivates me completely.

I forget my soup, my husband; his hand slips away. I wonder what stories might surround this vintage mailbox.

I can almost see a woman in long skirts, shawl pulled tight in one hand, a poke bonnet enshrouding her face, a creamy parchment envelope clutched in her other hand. A letter to her husband, off in battle:

The garden is thriving. I’m putting up quarts of snap beans and pickles, and soon I’ll be about the fig and pear preserves. The cow is sickly, however. I don’t think she’s long to be with us. I pray that your cough is better than when you last wrote. I think of you every passing hour, marking them with determined delight, as each one that passes brings your return that much closer. Baby and I miss you desperately. You will not believe how she’s grown in your absence, or how like you she is, so full of confidence. It shines in her eyes, which are your eyes, always reminding me . . . .

Or maybe there’s a barefoot girl in a long white gown, loose hair rippling over her shoulders, sneaking from upstairs to leave a letter just before daylight, darting back inside before the roosters crow and before a young man on a horse clip-clops down the street. He dismounts, goes to the box, finds what he’s waiting for—a time and a place. She’ll be there. He folds the letter, tucks it inside his shirt pocket, against his pounding heart, just as he remembers he shouldn’t be seen here. In one swift motion, he’s astride the horse and down the cobblestone street, fog closing in after him.

Maybe there’s a portly, mustachioed man in an overcoat, golden watch chain glittering against his vest, retrieving a notification that all his investments are gone. He staggers back against the house, slides down, collapses in a heap on the sidewalk.

Or a black-haired boy in breeches mailing a scrawled envelope: Santa Claus, North Pole. He isn’t asking for anything for himself: Dear Santa, This year can you please bring my Christmas present early? It isn’t really for me. It’s for my Mama and Papa. My baby brother only lived three days and they’re so sad. I didn’t even get to play with him or teach him how to play ball or take him for a ride in the goat-cart. If you could, please, Santa, could you bring a new baby brother? Or even a sister? Or can you ask God to send one soon, so Mama will not cry anymore?

Or . . . .

“Are you coming or not? Why are you just standing there?” My husband has gone several paces without me and has had to come back.

“Oh!” I start, my reveries vanishing. “I, um, just wanted to take a picture of this old mailbox.” Out with my phone. Center, snap. Done.

“Okay. Let’s go. I’m starving,” I say.

But it’s not she-crab soup I’m now hungry for, or food at all. I am craving the character of people who knew how to persevere, who could not have imagined sending and receiving messages on devices within seconds and growing impatient even with that. People who didn’t have the entire world at their fingertips but who read the world in a different way, with a wisdom born of living close to nature. People who knew how to read one another, who knew what mattered most, who had to wait for it, who kept on living in the meantime lives that were far richer with much less.

For everything that is gained, I muse, how much is lost.

For a time, then, I leave the mailbox behind me, but it remains in my mind, an image even clearer than the one on my phone. It pulls at me like an ancient lodestone draws iron. Every time I pass by now I will have to look and make sure it’s still there. I need for it to be. I want to step into the silence, into the moving shadows, to discover what messages await me there, to marvel over whence they come.

slice-of-life_individual

Making the magic

The thing I love most about the newly-released Harry Potter: A Journey Through a History of Magic isn’t the astonishing wealth of research, the fascinating museum artifacts, or the breathtaking artistry of Jim Kay.  It’s not the topic of magic, explored through the ages.

It’s the writing process documented throughout the book.

From handwritten drafts in composition notebooks to typed manuscripts marked with ongoing revisions, this photographic journey of J.K. Rowling’s creation of the series is a treasure trove for writers and teachers of writing. The message is clear: Making the magic is a lot of hard work.

 

Rowling’s draft of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in Harry Potter: A Journey Through a History of Magic.

Rowling shares how her ideas began, how they grew, and how immersion in the process caused more ideas to develop:

When I’m planning I often have multiple ideas popping up at the same time, so I’m attempting to catch the best ones as they fly by and preserve them on paper. My notebooks are full of arrows and triple asterisks instructing me to move forward four pages, past the ideas I jotted down 20 minutes ago, to continue the thread of the story (113).

Catching ideas “as they fly by.” I am reminded of Elizabeth Gilbert’s words in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, recounting what poet Ruth Stone shared with her:

When she was a child growing up on  a farm in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields when she would sometimes hear a poem coming toward her—hear it rushing across the landscape at her, like a galloping horse. . . she would “run like hell” toward the house, hoping to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough to catch it. That way, when the poem reached her and passed through her, she would be able to grab it and take dictation, letting the words pour forth onto the page. Sometimes, however, she was too slow, and she couldn’t get to the pencil and paper in time. At those instances, she could feel the poem rushing right through her body and out the other side. It would be in her for a moment, seeking a response, and then it would be gone before she could grasp it . . . But sometimes, she would nearly miss the poem, but not quite. She would just barely catch it, she explained, “by the tail.” Like grabbing a tiger. Then she would almost physically pull the poem back into her with one hand, even as she was taking dictation with the other. In these instances, the poem would appear on the page from the last word to the first—backward, but otherwise intact (65).

It’s one of the reasons why I say writing is the closest thing to magic that there is.

Note that Rowling and Stone were both working as the ideas flew. Physical activity stimulates thought, gets the creative juices flowing, sets the welcome mat out for the ideas, opens oneself as the conduit. The ideas don’t come if you merely sit and wait for them. Get busy. Start writing or walking (the preferred activity of E.B. White and C.S. Lewis).  Just do.

And have those notebooks nearby—be ready to capture the ideas as soon as they start flying.

The real alchemy begins as soon as the ideas are on the page. There’s an art and a science to transforming raw, base material into something of value, in purifying and perfecting the work. We know these as revision and editing. Rowling’s drafts are priceless examples of the writing process to share with would-be writers. Even Ron, Hermione, and Harry would attest to the fact that making magic does not come easy—it’s the result of continuous practice, of constantly honing the craft.

Speaking of which: It just so happens that I was in a bookstore cafe on a Saturday afternoon, collaborating with colleagues on a district presentation about the writing process and growing writers, when guest services announced:

“Listen up, Harry Potter fans! You’ll want to come by and get a copy of A Journey Through a History of Magic, released just yesterday. . .”

My colleagues looked at me knowingly. Of course I went straight for the counter, never suspecting that a powerful tool was about to land in my hands.

Just another illustration of being immersed in work when the magic comes seeking.

Reformation

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Martin-Luther. Awaya LegendsCC BY-SA

On this day, 500 years ago, Martin Luther hung his list of protests against corrupt practices on the door of the Wittenburg Castle church, igniting the Reformation that would change the course of human history.

Reform. The idea is like a diamond glittering in the dirt. Not change for the sake of change, but for the sake of those who are suffering, oppressed, under excessive pressure.

I can’t help but think of public education today – the pressure on teachers, on students. The need for large-scale reform is too widely known to be a point of dispute. The trouble with attacking any huge, knotty problem is figuring out where to begin, then where to go next, without re-tangling what’s just been untangled.

What are the oppressive practices that need to go for true education reformation? It varies, depending on who’s asked and what personal or professional interests are at stake. Luther wrote ninety-five theses; I’ll spare readers and list my top five, although they’re not anything new:

  1. Standardized testing. Everyone knows – don’t they? – that scores do not accurately reflect a person or that person’s potential. It’s a data point at a fixed moment in time, not for all time. How many students come through the system believing they are failures because they didn’t measure up? How many teachers and schools work hard, only to be considered the same? In a country historically admired the world over for creativity and innovation, giving and living the test is the best we can do?
  2. Teaching reading and writing as separate entities – often sacrificing writing for the sake of reading. It’s a dichotomy that sends the subliminal, counterproductive message that understanding others is more important than understanding self, which is what authentic writing does for people. If we want the world to be a better place, it begins with understanding why we think and feel the way we do. Empathy and compassion are born from this. Write.
  3. Cutting the arts. The test alone proves that people are diverse learners, and the great emphasis on improving reading scores already limits student self-expression. Students who have trouble focusing are often extraordinary actors and dancers; they bring powerful interpretations to scenes, can read and create brilliant choreography. Some students, considered struggling learners, are constantly composing songs in their heads and can sing with startling expression, emphasizing all the right phrases. My son, who showed an affinity for music early in life, asks: “Why aren’t kids given a chance to experiment and explore in ways they really enjoy? Why aren’t their talents or their strengths maximized?” He endured his education. Today he has a job in the music field.
  4. Teacher education and professional development as we know it. Sigh. That’s what we typically do, isn’t it? Better, deeper preparation for the diverse learners and the demands of the field is critical. Ongoing professional learning needs to be practical, designed specifically for the needs of the children AND the teachers. If we speak of deficits and gaps – how about creativity deficits and vision gaps? If the hallmark of a great teacher is getting students to love learning, shouldn’t we first love ours? How about some inspiration? It’s a pretty big motivator (wouldn’t you say, Martin Luther?).
  5. Whatever the expectations, the requirements, the new layers of things that come along as purported magic bullets that will save everything, hold these two things utterly sacred every single day: The read-aloud and time for students to generate writing that means something to them. These are proven to lift the level of thinking – authentically, organically – which will never come through compliance alone.

What are your theses for true education reform? Today, in the spirit of Martin Luther, be bold. Speak your mind through the power of the written word.

And if you teach, teach on.

 

 

Belonging

Goose in flight

Canada Goose in flight. Richard HurdCC BY

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – 

over and over announcing your place 

in the family of things.

-from “Wild Geese,” Mary Oliver

During a summer workshop, I read Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” and was charged with interpreting what it mean to me in a quick write.

I wrote:

No regrets. Life goes on. Heading home again – from wherever you are. This is a poem of belonging, of recognizing that we all have despairs, losses, soul-aches. We have to keep living, keep trusting life, keep reaching for it, because it reaches for us. Life calls to us as the geese call to one another. Reform – fly in formation. Geese mate for life – they keep going on. They know their places. We must know ours, must find ours, must believe in ours, even if we have never seen it, recognized it, known it existed at all – we have a place of belonging, for all things are connected with meaning, and have meaning. Home may not be home in the sense we know it. Home may be somewhere else – but we all have the homing device inside us. We must keep flying, trusting.  

I put that particular notebook away. I didn’t think about my interpretation again until I prepared to facilitate a recent “writing studio” workshop for teachers, touching on the power of poetry, abiding images, the interconnection of body, mind, heart, and spirit. I got the notebook out and took it with me. Not until I read my words aloud, months after the writing, did this realization come to mind – one so obvious that I can’t believe it didn’t come before.

My father loved Canada geese. I didn’t know this until the last years of his life and even now I do not know why he was so fond of them. On our last Christmas, I gave him two Canada geese lawn ornaments for his front yard (his yard was a great source of pride to him, as I wrote in Fresh-cut grass).  Daddy was delighted; his face lit up at the sight of the goose statues. He set them on the lawn in the shade of the maple tree, where they stood, elegant and life-like, until his sudden, too-soon death.

Many things are a painful blur about those days, but on the re-reading of my interpretation of “Wild Geese,” a stark image returned to me: Walking behind my father’s uniformed, white-gloved pallbearers through the veteran’s cemetery, past a wide field to my right where, standing at attention, was flock of Canada geese, silently watching my father’s casket go by.

Not that they were paying homage, as much as my fanciful imagination would have me believe. The geese were likely keeping wary eyes on this odd processional of invaders so near their space.

Geese, I know, represent fidelity, valor, protection, navigation – returning home – among other things. I treasure their presence and their symbolism at my father’s funeral.

For, with my father gone, there would be no heading to my childhood home again. It marked the end of that family of things.

But I was grown, with children of my own. I had another home, another place of belonging.  Life goes on, I’d written after reading of Oliver’s wild geese. This is a poem of belonging, of recognizing that we all have despairs, losses, soul-aches.

It occurs to me now that Oliver’s poem is about identity.

Whatever our losses, our lot in life, there is a place of belonging. A place of protection, nourishment, growth, and being. However harsh life may be, this place calls to us. It’s up to us to hear and respond.

Home may not be home in the sense we know it. Home may be somewhere else – but we all have the homing device inside us. 

So the question is: What is that home, that place of belonging, where it is safe to be who you truly are? For some, it’s family. Or one’s life’s work. Or a community of faith, believing in an eternal home yet to come.

Others also find it in a group of like-minded people – artists, writers.

I find my place in all of these.

Wife, mother. Teacher, coach. Christian.

Writer.

Each my identity, each my gift.

Over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

Listen. Know who you are. Where you’ve come from, where you’re going. Come into your place in the family of things.

My father’s house was in the city; my home now is in the country. Early in the morning, as the sun rises over the vast field at the end of my lane, geese fly, calling to one another in their discordant, raspy voices. I can hear them long before I see them. They fade in louder and louder as they come near. If I stand outside as they fly over, I hear the silken sweep of their wings.  I can hear them, calling and calling, even when they’re gone, when I see them no more.

The family of things – it is there, always, even if we cannot see it, even when we see it no more.

So is the belonging. Wherever else I find my place, I’m still a daughter, a granddaughter, the living remnant of a family of things.

From my teacher-place, I reflect on how we must create a sense of belonging for the students, encouraging and guiding them to find their places in the family of things.

The world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever has gone before: Trust. Recognize. Reach. Open your wings, stretch them as far as they’ll go.

Fly on.

Geese in field
Kanadagås / Canada Goose. Stefan BerndtssonCC BY

 

Why I Write 2017

The Light is On

The Light is on. Susanne NilssonCC BY-SA

Write the things which thou hast seen and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter.

Revelation 1:19

I write to celebrate the strange adventure of life.

I write to relive moments too precious to forget.

I write to light the way for the children, so that they will find their own writing paths.

I write to clear the clutter in my mind, to ease the ache in my soul – and to encourage others to do the same.

I write to set my imagination free, to create worlds, to discover what happens there.

I write because characters pop into my head and need a place to be.

I write because mental images materialize, insisting that they have meanings, and that their meanings matter.

I write because I am a warrior. I will defend what I believe.

I write because I believe writing is a transcendent, transformative force.

I write to celebrate having loved and been loved

because love and words never die.

I write because words are in my life’s blood, always flowing, arranging, rearranging, singing a story

that really has

no end.

*******

 Another celebration: This is the 100th post on Lit Bits and Pieces.

This too shall pass

This Too Shall Pass

This too shall pass – Notting Hill. Florencia LewisCC BY

Once upon a time, long ago, I drove to work in tears. I couldn’t see a way out of a certain situation. Worry had consumed my thoughts for days. Like a moth desperately fluttering at a light but never landing, so it circled round and round my brain. Like the Grinch, I’d puzzled until my puzzler was sore, arriving at no logical resolution. The weight just grew heavier and heavier.

A sudden movement on my right startled me – a white pickup truck zipping by. That’s not the passing lane. I scowled at it, then nearly ran off the road in astonishment.

The bed of the truck had a tall, wooden rack on top, and on the slats was a white sign meticulously painted with black, Old English letters:

This Too Shall Pass.

I blinked, looked again. Yes, it was real. And it was literally passing me.

I looked around, half afraid I’d see these same words on barns and road signs like something out of The Twilight Zone, in which case I’d have to consider getting help with my state of mind.

But no – This Too Shall Pass was only on that white sign, on that white pickup, passing in the wrong lane to my right.

It was there for a few seconds, then on it went, out of sight.

As did the weight I carried. It melted away in the wake of that truck. I couldn’t see the future, but I understood this momentary trouble was just that, momentary. It would pass.

And so it did.

Whatever it was.

I said it was long ago.

I cannot even remember what I was so worried about.

At all.

But that truck is vivid in my memory. I can see those Old English letters, still.

I like to think that the driver painted them because he had a great sense of humor about his edgy driving. It’s too good, really . . . .

Except that I never saw the driver, nor have I seen that truck since. I hoped that I would – I watched for it on the roads for a long time after, but it’s the kind of thing that happens only once.

Once being enough to get the message.

This Too Shall Pass.

It always does.