In late February, we had our only snow this winter.
I woke in the morning to find the sun shining through the crape myrtle I planted when we first moved here. Ice crystals glittered on the tree limbs like a thousand prisms—tiny, brilliant rainbow lights. I took a picture. When I looked at the image, the word that came to mind was holy.
Maybe it was the brightness of the sun. The reaching ray of light. The purity of snow. The hush, the stillness. Just a sense of divine glory, of peace.
And then I noticed where that sunbeam ended.
Oh, how I recalled, in that instant, first reading Where the Red Fern Grows whenI was around ten years old. It tore my heart out. I wept for weeks. A dog story, of course. And hardship, love, and sacrifice. Wilson Rawls wrote:
I had heard the old Indian legend about the red fern. How a little Indian boy and girl were lost in a blizzard and had frozen to death. In the spring, when they were found, a beautiful red fern had grown up between their two bodies. The story went on to say that only an angel could plant the seeds of a red fern, and that they never died; where one grew, that spot was sacred.
That’s when the boy, Billy, finds a red fern growing between the graves of his two dogs.
Look where my sunbeam ends.
Directly over the grave of my family’s little dachshund, Nik, who was with us for sixteen years. That’s his memorial statue rising up from the snow.
I saw his shirt from across the crowded cafeteria:
Writing my OWN story.
I hadn’t seen him before, didn’t know him, but I had to go over and say: “That’s the most awesome shirt! Do you like to write?”
He smiled and nodded, eyes bright and cheerful: “Yes!”
We had a short conversation about reading and writing. He was new to our school. After this initial encounter he was quick to come ask questions if he wasn’t sure about how we do things here, always greeting me with an earnest face and slightly self-conscious smile.
He wasn’t with us long. On his last days, he asked if he could stay after lunch and clean all of the tables as his grade level headed to recess. He wiped every table meticulously, then straightened all of the cardboard trays in the serving line for the classes to follow.
It was something he could control. A positive and productive outlet.
I never got to write with him.
I thought about students over the years and what I learned about their lives from their writing. A girl whose family slept in their car on the journey north to visit relatives for the holidays; how she woke in the morning, shivering, to find frost coating the windows. A teenager whose vivid third-person narrative about a child born in another country, who survives abuse to find a new life and family in America . . . it switches to first person at the end as he rejoices and reveals he was that child. A first-grader who wanted to write about her dog, how the police shot and killed it. Unnerved, I told her teacher, in hopes that this was just a disturbing fabrication. It wasn’t. The child saw it happen.
For all the story-loving writer that I am, I know writing is not a magic cure for the pain and scars of life. It is, however, a real coping mechanism, a positive and productive outlet, a way of seeing and dealing with and finding hope to overcome. Even in the youngest of us, many of whom already know that life doesn’t follow a neat formula, that it seldom follows a clear and sensible series of steps. I often think about what passes for “writing” in schools; it can’t always be a neat response to a text or a prompt. If we are truly to equip children with tools for life, it begins with a real response to their lives in this world. We owe them, for as long as we have them, a place to feel safe, to be loved, a way of having some control in the face of change, to find their own power despite their powerlessness.To write their own lives, even as life is unfolding.
To have hope on the journey as it takes so many twists and turns.
Time is of the essence; we don’t know for how long or short a time they’ll be in our sphere of influence. Good-byes can come without warning.
And so I quickly gathered the best tools I had at my disposal: pencils, notebooks, a couple of favorite books from my shelf. It was my way of saying Godspeed, child. Write your OWN story. Believe. Attend to your heart. Here’s a piece of mine to carry with you.
Edward knew what it was like to say over and over again the names of those you had left behind. He knew what it was like to miss someone. And so he listened. And in his listening, his heart opened wide and then wider still.
You must be filled with expectancy. You must be awash in hope. You must wonder who will love you, whom you will love next.
—excerpts, Kate DiCamillo, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
I love the two old mules who live down the road and around the bend from me.
They do not know this, of course. They don’t know me at all.
They do not know how they stir my soul when I drive by their pasture, or how the sight of them makes me feel like I just might be, for a few seconds, back in time. They are a brief glimpse of rural life as it was in the 1930s. Or 1920s. Or even long before. They are remnants of a time when man lived closer to the earth and life was hard but somehow better. The mules are reminders of my grandfather; I’ve rhapsodized about that before, having been a little girl who grew up in the city longing for the countryside that my grandfather loved and the past that he lived. All because of the stories. Granddaddy said, “Nobody had any money but everybody looked after each other and we were happy.”
So, I see these old mules several times a week and they never fail to lift my spirits. They fill me with an inexplicable sense of peace and well-being.
One day in the last few weeks when I drove by the pasture, anticipating this little stab of joy that the mules always impart, one of them was lying down on its side.
In all the years I’ve lived here, I have never seen one of the mules lying down.
The next time I drove by, the mule was still lying there in the same place. Completely on its side, motionless, while the other mule grazed close by.
I didn’t like it. Something was wrong.
On the third day when I passed by, that mule was in the very same spot and position.
I started to cry.
It had to be dead. What other reason could there be?
And where was the farmer? Didn’t he KNOW his mule was lying out there? Why would he leave it to die like this?
I came home and told my husband, sniffling: “I think one of those old mules is dead.”
“It’s been lying on its side in the very same spot for three days. It hasn’t moved at all.”
“Hmmm,” my husband mulled. “Did you see any buzzards?”
“Uh, no . . . .”
“All right then. The mule’s not dead.”
His nonchalance irritated me.
And the next day when I drove by the pasture — lo and behold! — the mule was standing!
I drove by several times, rejoicing.
—It is possible that the mules now know my car, even if they don’t know me.
And it occurred to me that I might be developing an obsession so I ceased mule-stalking for a couple of days.
But I asked a friend: “You know those mules who live just up from you? What’s wrong with one of them? I’ve seen it lying down so much I thought it had died. Except that there were no buzzards.”
Yes, my friend knows the mules and the farmer. Yes, that mule is not well and the farmer is quite aware. He’s had these mules for thirty years, since they were three years old. They are sisters, named Penny and Annie. The farmer knows Annie is suffering; she’s old and she now has sores from lying on her side so much. The farmer told my friend that he ought to put her down . . . except that when he does, her sister Penny will grieve herself to death. They have never been apart.
And my soul is stirred, my heart wrenches anew at this love story within a love story within a love story.
I brace myself every time I drive around the familiar bend, as the fencing and the red roof of the dilapidated barn come into view, not knowing what I’ll see. Maybe on a day when the sky is its bluest blue and the grass is its greenest green, Annie will go peacefully. It’s autumn now; as I draw near I see the shadows of the trees dappling the grass, waving to and fro, and little yellow leaves wafting through the air, catching the sunlight like glittering specks of gold. Maybe it will be a day like today. I suddenly worry about the coming frosts and Annie lying out there in the open instead of being warm and safe in the barn with Penny.
I reach the pasture. I slow down.
Annie’s lying on her side.
I come to a stop.
Penny quits grazing, lifts her head, looks at me.
Then Annie raises up to sit and look at me.
We watch each other for a minute.
I wonder what they think.
I can’t stay here in the road, so I drive on.
That was yesterday.
Today, today . . . when I rounded the bend early in the morning . . . they were both lying down.
Sisters to the end.
I will not want to drive this way anymore when the pasture stands empty, but for this moment, the mules live, they love, and their little pasture is a hallowed place.
More so than ever.
I think again of my favorite Shakespearean sonnet, about autumn, about dying, about the coming of night and being consumed by that which once nourished, about loving well that which you must leave . . . if mules had funeral services and if I officiated, that would be my eulogy.
Ah, Penny and Annie, you can’t know that when you go, you’ll take a little part of me with you.
Maybe it’s illogical.
I only know it’s true.
For I love you two old mules who live down the road and around the bend from me.
Author Matt de la Peña led the first day of my district’s Teacher Summer Writing Institute and graciously offered to sign books during our break.
Here’s the conversation I had with him as he autographed Carmela Full of Wishes for me:
“I noticed the recurrence of Carmela jingling her bracelets throughout the story. I wondered if it symbolized something in particular, in connection with her imaginings.”
“There’s no hidden meaning,” replies de la Peña. “Carmela jingles the bracelets to irritate her brother.”
I laugh. “Because that is what siblings do.”
He nods. “She removes the bracelets at the end as an act of kindness to him. Here—let me show you my favorite page in the book.”
He turns the book around for me, displaying Christian Robinson’s intricate artwork: a papel picado (cut tissue paper) rendering of a father kneeling, a little girl in his arms.
“The book is really about the importance of family being together.” De la Peña’s face is solemn.
I run my fingers over the words. “Home . . . I am reminded of history, how slave marriages weren’t considered legal. Families were split apart and people didn’t care.” I look back to de la Peña. “But family is the foundation of everything.”
“Yes,” he says, his dark eyes sparking. “It is.”
This week in America, we observe Independence Day. We celebrate freedom.
It is a sanguine word. Bloodstained. By wars waged to win it, but also by the lifeblood of the people who call a nation “home.” In this freedom is also a consanguine word – for home is where the family is.
As de la Peña so poignantly conveys with Carmela’s mixed-status family. She’s a U.S. citizen, born in this country, wishing, waiting – dreaming – of the day her father will “finally be home.”
At the book’s close, as I look at the dandelion fluff in the wind, Carmela’s sky full of wishes, my mind sees white stars waving on a field of blue, fireworks showering a night sky. I recall that a hallmark celebration on the Fourth of July is family reunions.
And I don’t know why an old line of Kris Kristofferson’s insists on accompanying this vision: Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…
With artistic apologies, I can’t say that’s true in the context of nations and families and home … our hope and our humanity are still left to lose.
I went to see the movie Tolkien this weekend. My thoughts, while sitting in the darkened cinema, watching it play:
Story is magic.
Reading aloud is magic.
Words are magic.
All are part of writing magic.
Whatever critics may say of the movie, however accurate it may or may not be in depicting the early life of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, as a writer, I loved it. For me it beautifully captured the way a writer’s mind works.
When young John Ronald sat by the fireplace, utterly captivated by his mother’s reading and enactment of a dragon, I could relate to how the book and her voice spurred images to life in his mind. How flickering shadows on the walls, thrown by a candle carousel, took on the shapes of mythological beings, how story played in his brain as vividly as this movie played in mine. I understood how these images stayed with him long after his mother died, after he landed as an orphan in a boarding house, even how they grew nearer, larger, clearer on the battlefields of the first World War while he succumbed to trench fever. I admired the artistry of the shadowy images recurring onscreen as part of Tolkien’s memory, recognizing: That is exactly what images DO. Once they spring to mind, they are THERE. They lurk, they submerge, they resurface. They’re never gone; they settle and swirl about again, waiting, waiting, waiting always, for the solidity of a page.
I loved how the movie emphasized the young Tolkien’s passion for words, particularly in a romantically-charged scene with Edith Bratt, who would become his wife. Tolkien speaks of the beauty of the phrase “cellar door.” He is enraptured by the sound of it. Edith tells him that it is not the sound of a word that gives it beauty, but its meaning—what the word stands for, all that it connotes. This is reiterated in a scene with Tolkien and Joseph Wright, Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford, on the mightiness of ships, buildings, civilizations, history, all summed up in a three-letter word: oak. Connotations, connections, deep, deep roots, power . . . in language, in phrasing, in a single word . . . is this not an ancient alchemy that writers come to know?
And, at the same time, how captivating is the story of an orphaned boy making it to Oxford, himself becoming a renowned professor of philology (the study of the structure and historical development of language, if ever you’re a contestant on Jeopardy!). It’s the story of a man overcoming circumstances and being a genius, the roots of which run back to Tolkien’s childhood, to the Latin his mother taught him, to the stories his mother read aloud to him.
—Story. The apogee of language, of words. The ultimate form for which language and words exist. The creative force, perhaps, that calls them, drives them . . .
In the final scene of the movie, Professor Tolkien sits at a desk before an empty page and begins to write a now-famous line. I’ve read his own account of this: he was grading examinations, mind-numbing, “soul-destroying” work, when he discovered a blank page in an examination booklet. Without knowing why, he wrote on it: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. This instantly reminded me of J.K. Rowling, how the idea of Harry Potter just “fell into her head” as she was riding a train. The genesis, the magical conception, of story; it does not exist, but then, inexplicably, in the blinking of an eye, it does, and the world is changed by it. The Tolkien Society relates that after the professor wrote that line out of nowhere, he then needed to know: What was a Hobbit? Why did it live in a hole? To find out, Tolkien began to tell the story to his children . . . and thus, eventually, was born the archetype of all modern fantasy.
The old that is strong does not wither. Deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes, a fire shall be woken. A light from the shadows shall spring . . . yes. It seems to me that in these words of his lies proof that old stories Tolkien began learning as a child remained strong in him; they didn’t wither. They sparked in him an unquenchable fire. Those roots of his love for language, quests, myth, survived the freeze of profound loss. His memories, experiences, the images from his childhood onward, all are the shadows, the ashes, from which his own stories spring.
It is a time for families to come share in the love of reading, writing, and learning in classrooms, followed by a meal together in our cafeteria.
Literacy Lunch has sometimes been a vehicle for explaining English Language Arts curriculum, and shifts in standards, to parents. Mostly it’s a time for students and their families to collaborate on literacy activities. We’ve had poetry slams, writing cafés, and a “Step Write Up” carnival. We’ve invited families to SWiRL (speak, write, read, listen) and we’ve gone “wild” about reading (with the school decorated like a rainforest).
Even though it’s hosted in the middle of the day, Literacy Lunch remains one of our school’s best-attended events. Three days are designated: One for kindergarten and first grade, one for second and third, one for fourth and fifth. Some families come all three days to spend time with their children in different grade levels.
The comment we receive most often from parents: Thank you for this time with my child.
It tugs on the heartstrings, for a parent to tell you this.
When it came time to think of a theme for Literacy Lunch this year, part of my mind kept latching onto the idea of celebrating families themselves. They are, after all, the fabric of our school community, the thing that makes it unique. They are our greatest resource.
Then, in February, Two Writing Teachers ran a blog series on “Teaching Writing with a Social Justice Lens.” Co-author Kelsey Corter penned “A School Can Be the Change”, a breathtaking post on identity, culture, heritage, power, action, and the vital importance of honoring each other by sharing our stories. It was based on her school’s work and the book Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension by Sara K. Ahmed.
I read these introductory lines of Kelsey’s over and over:
More than something we do, school can be the place where literacy is a way of living; a means for understanding the world and our place in it, that which shapes perceptions and molds identities.
The words turned round and round in my head:
Where literacy is a way of living
Literacy . . . living
“Well, that’s it,” I announced to my colleagues. “That’s my vote for the theme of this year’s Literacy Lunch.”
For, in truth, while the children are growing as readers and writers, their stories, all of our stories, are unfolding each day that we live; our families are a fundamental part of that. Every one is unique, every one valuable.
And so it was agreed upon, and the children got to work on Living Literacy: Celebrating Me in Pictures and Words.
It began with them tracing their hands to make flowers, one for each homeroom—a whole garden of beautiful, diverse flowers.
In our lobby and cafeteria, every homeroom was represented by a flower made from students’ traced and decorated hands. Many students artistically conveyed their personal interests – such as hobbies or a favorite book, like Amal Unbound, seen here. Some students across grade levels decorated their hands with flags from their native countries.
Teachers and grade levels planned identity-related activities for students to share with families:
Student bios with 3D photos hang from the ceiling of a first-grade classroom.
Many families helped compose student name acronyms.
In an “All About Me” book, a first grader describes herself.
A kindergarten class asked parents, teachers, and peers for words to describe students. They created camera snapshot posters for a “Picture Me Successful” display (“Drinks a lot of water” may be my favorite descriptor of all! Talk about being observers!).
In third grade, students made booklets of various types of poems and collaborated with families in writing some.
One first grade class published a book of their animal research, with a back section recounting highlights of their year together. These books were presented to families at Literacy Lunch.
Even our tabletop flowers in the lobby and cafeteria were handmade by students.
Second grade families collaborating on “I Am From” poems.
Fourth grade families collaborated on a “Books are windows and mirrors” activity – analyzing book characters, seeing others, seeing self.
Fourth grade’s hallway display: “My ideas can change the world.”
Fifth graders show families how to create name/identity word clouds in new Chromebooks.
This photo, to me, captures the “Living Literacy” theme almost more than others: Parents recording second graders as they perform a song and dance demonstrating their learning from the study of butterfly life cycles (they also integrated math and visual art). I look at this and I think: WE are living literacy.
At tables in the cafeteria, families were encouraged to write notes to each other.
We write when it’s meaningful to us (I hope Mommy is okay, too).
A few notes of feedback from parents
They came. They celebrated. Another Literacy Lunch has drawn to its close – this seemed to be the best note on which to end.
Many thanks to my colleagues for this annual collaborative effort.
To our families: THANK YOU for coming, for sharing, for being a vital part of the story we live each day. Be happy. Hug. Have fun. Inspire. Love. Sing.
And thank you, Two Writing Teachers, for the ever-flowing wellspring of inspiration, from which I drew the idea for this year’s theme.
“Jerusalem” donkeys live in a pasture near my home. They are so named for the cross formed by black stripes across their shoulders and down their backs. The donkey is a symbol of peace, for they are peaceable creatures, although farmers know they will protect livestock by driving away coyotes.
The donkey currently plays a significant role around the world with the observance of Palm Sunday and Holy Week. The Gospels of Matthew and John both proclaim the fulfilling of Zechariah’s prophecy that the Messiah would come to Jerusalem humbly, riding the foal, or colt, of a donkey. In Mark and Luke, Jesus directs his disciples to a colt “on which no one has yet sat.” Only Matthew records that the unbroken colt doesn’t come on this mission alone: Its mother walks alongside as it carries Jesus through the shouting crowds in the streets of Jerusalem.
It is the image of the mother walking beside her colt—her child—as a calming presence amid chaos, as a needed coach in fulfilling the sacred duty, that suddenly pierced my heart and inspired today’s post.
The sky became bluer and bluer and now there were white clouds hurrying across it from time to time. In the wide glades there were primroses. A light breeze sprang up which scattered drops of moisture from the swaying branches and carried cool, delicious scents against the face of the travellers. The trees began to come fully alive. The larches and birches were covered with green, the laburnums with gold. Soon the beech trees had put forth their delicate, transparent leaves. As the travellers walked under them the light became green. A bee buzzed across their path.
“This is no thaw,” said the Dwarf, suddenly stopping. This is spring . . .”
—”Aslan is Nearer,” The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
What delighted you today?
That it’s the first day of spring delights me.
The beautiful description of spring coming after a hundred years of winter (but never Christmas) in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe delights me.
That I remember first reading that passage at age ten delights me.
The painting of a child in a green forest clearing, reaching out to pet a deer that may be merely a statue, or might be real, or will become real at the touch of her hand, delights me.
—I’ve decided to notice things that delight me, every day.
As way of stopping to breathe in the daily grind, of pushing back the domineering world, of finding a moment of stillness, even seconds of stillness, to savor something I see, hear, taste, touch, smell—or simply sense within my soul.
the three finch eggs in the nest on my front door
birdsong early in the morning
my youngest son asking when I’ll be home so we can go walking
my husband’s laughter
Henry the dog’s ecstasy at any sighting of me
finally writing something down after its wings have beating in my head or heart for ever so long
What delighted you today?
All around us are affirmations, if we open ourselves to receive them. The wondrous exists in close proximity, is even ours for the taking, if we remain aware. As grand as a bald eagle at the roadside, as pure as the light in a child’s eyes, as simple as a stranger passing by with a genuine smile and a “Hello! How are you today?”
What delighted you today?
Might even pay to keep a journal of delight, to read and re-read when most needed, to create a pocket of peace amid the clamor, to strike a spark in the dark.
Every day has its gifts, small and great, that await.
Omne trium perfectum: “Everything that comes in threes is perfect”
Little bird up in a tree
Looked down and sang a song to me.
—”Little Bird,” Dennis Wilson, Stephen Kalinich, Brian Wilson
The house finch nesting in the wreath on our front door is incubating three lovely blue eggs.
My son (Cadillac Man) and I are walking, doing laps in the churchyard on a sunny afternoon, talking about names for baby birds (see what happens when new life generates in your realm; if you’re human, you take nonsensical ownership).
“It’s too obvious, but I almost can’t resist calling them Atticus, Jem, and Scout,” I chuckle. “I mean, they’re FINCHES.”
“Yeah, you’re right—it’s too obvious,” says Cadillac Man.
I think I hear a small sigh.
“Hmm. Well, there’s Harry, Hermione, and Ron . . . ” I offer.
Cadillac Man’s face remains immobile. I can’t see his eyes behind his sunglasses. He says nothing.
I can see that literary names are a no go, which is a shame, with “the rule of three” and all that. Cadillac Man does not think from a repository of words and phrases gleaned over time from books like I do. He thinks in music. He always has.
We walk a little way in silence; we’re keeping a pretty good pace. Then Cadillac Man proceeds to tell me new things he’s learning in his continuous (borderline obsessive) research on his musical passion, the Beach Boys: “Dennis didn’t get credit for how much musical talent he really had . . . .”
—I have an inspiration. Cadillac Man will love this. When he pauses, I say:
“We can name the baby birds after the Wilsons. Since’s there’s three of them.”
He grins. “Well, these little birds are singers.”
Brian is due to hatch next Sunday. Dennis and Carl should follow on Monday and Tuesday.
Even if they’re female, it will be fun, fun, fun . . . .