Secret rendezvous

One morning, as I brush my teeth, out from behind the mirror comes a little spider.

It sits there on the wall as if watching me.

I am not a spider fan, generally.  But I don’t kill these little wanderers (sudden inspired quote: Not all those who wander are lost. Hmmm. Interesting point, Tolkien).

No, usually I capture the creatures and put them outside. If they’re small. I am getting someone else to deal with them if they’re large.

This spider is tiny.

And  . . . I don’t know . . . friendly. I  know exactly what my husband would say: What, you think it’s Charlotte, right? 

I just don’t have the heart to bother it. It’s not bothering me, so I let it be. Right there on the wall by the mirror. I finish getting ready for work, turn the bathroom light off, and call, “Bye, Spider. Have a good day.”

I think no more of it until the next morning when I am brushing my teeth, and out from behind the mirror comes my new friend.

We begin meeting this way every morning.

“There you are!” I say as my spider emerges later than normal one day. “Sleeping in? Have a late night?”

I swear if I can find a cup tiny enough, my spider would have coffee with me. I imagine it holding a miniscule newspaper. What our conversations would be:

What are you going to do today?

Oh, just stalk some prey. The usual.

Great. Get the gnats, will you? They’re on my last nerve. I don’t know where those things come from.

Sure thing.

Then comes the day the spider doesn’t show.

And the next.

And the one after that.

I begin to be sad. Seriously. Surely no one in my family has . . . no. I won’t think like that. I haven’t told any of them about my daily morning rendezvous. They can’t know, then, that I have a relationship with this spider, so. . . .

But no one has mentioned seeing a spider, so I don’t, either.

After another week, as I am dressing in the morning—lo and behold!—what should I see but my tiny friend there on the floor by the garden tub!

“Where have you BEEN?” I cry.

“What?” calls my husband from down the hall.

“Uh . . . never mind!” I call back.

I grab my phone and take a picture, because, well, that’s what you do with friends. You take pictures to remember them by.

I bend close. My spider comes nearer to me.

“Listen,” I say. “I missed you. I’m happy to see you’re well and all, but when I’m not here you really need to stay out of sight, okay? Other people just won’t understand.”

My spider takes this in. I can tell. I’ve looked him up and I know he’s a jumping spider and that they are very intelligent. They have cognitive abilities. They can be trained . . . after all, doesn’t he know where to find me each morning?

In other parts of the house, I hear my family bustling about, getting ready for school, for work.

“It’s not safe at the moment,” I tell my spider. “When everyone’s gone, you can come back out and do whatever it is you do during the day, but for now. . . .”

I slide a bit of paper towel under my spider.

He hangs on. Doesn’t protest.

I tuck him gently behind my fuzzy gray bedroom shoes.

“There,” I whisper. “That’ll do. Until later.”

I turn out the light.

“Bye, Spider. See you in the morning.”

I feel certain, from his sanctuary behind my bedroom shoe, that he’s waving a tiny leg.

 

Seven errors

img_4471

Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite writers.

In Outliers there’s a chapter entitled “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes” in which Gladwell states: “The typical accident involves seven consecutive human errors.”

He’s writing of Korean Air, which had a disproportionately high number of plane crashes before the airline “turned itself around.”

Gladwell says that the seven errors are the result of a lack of communication and teamwork, not a lack of technical skill or flying knowledge. One or two errors doesn’t lead to disaster; the trouble is that they keep happening, and this compounding causes the crashes.

I am thinking that making seven consecutive human errors can lead to other kinds of accidents.

Such as the one I had last week.

A quick setting of the stage: My school participated in a county-wide book drive for students who don’t have books at home. We collected 1500 books. I had to count and store the books until they could be delivered to the drop-off location; a colleague helped me in this effort. We used a lot of boxes, as overfilling would make them too heavy to lift. The only place to store so many boxes was under a stairwell, where they waited, sealed and ready, for a member of the PTA  board who graciously offered to pick them up for us.

Now, I test the theory: Were there seven consecutive errors in communication and teamwork that led to my accident? Here’s what happened:

  1. The PTA person never gave me a time for picking up the books.
  2. Another person volunteered to help pick up books. I wasn’t told this.
  3. When the person I wasn’t told about showed up, the receptionist sent the custodial staff to move the boxes of books from the stairwell. I wasn’t told this, either.
  4. I went to investigate why the boxes were being moved. The custodial staff said they didn’t know this person who had arrived for the books.
  5. The person turned out to be a very helpful parent, but, having to unravel what was going on, and not expecting the books to go that day, I couldn’t remember where I put the form with the book count. This parent needed to take it to the people at the drop-off. Where was that form?
  6. My colleague said she taped it to one of the boxes. But which box? It had to be found. Simply making a duplicate form could result in an incorrect, doubled amount at the drop-off.
  7. I rushed into the stairwell, under the staircase. I moved box after box. When I couldn’t find the form, preoccupied with where it might be, and with the parent already there to get the books, I stood up in a hurry—and bashed the top of my skull against the bottom of the staircase.

Hard enough to knock me down.

Hard enough for my teeth to smash together.

Hard enough to chip a crown.

I say an accident involves seven consecutive human errors in communication and teamwork, all right.

The aftermath: My mouth hurt the most at the time. When I finally checked the top of my head, I couldn’t even find a tender place where it struck the staircase. No concussion. No bleeding at all. And the crown was replaced by a gracious dentist who was willing to take me, a complete stranger, as an immediate emergency case.

I’m fine.

The missing form?

It was on my table the whole time, right where I left it.

The birthday

Birthday fairies

Birthday Party – Fairies Watch Over Us. Alicia ChenauxCC BY-SA

I recently wrote about a professional development activity at my school —”finding your why”— based on the work of Simon Sinek. The principal led staff in recording life moments that left us changed, somehow. These peaks and valleys don’t have as much to do with who we are and what we do, but why.

Here’s one of my childhood valleys, and how it shapes my why even now.

The setting is my birthday. I believe I was turning ten (double digits), or maybe it was twelve (the last birthday before becoming a teenager); it’s odd that I can’t remember, because I didn’t have many birthday parties. I don’t know exactly why my mother decided to throw this one, but it seems turning ten or twelve is right.

I just remember . . . well, here, see for yourself:

More and more people cram into our small living room. Extended family members, some kids from the neighborhood, a couple of friends from school and church. Mom has balloons up, has put out party hats and noisemakers. A stack of  presents in brightly-wrapped paper grows larger. I haven’t received this many presents for my birthday before. 

I don’t even know what to do with myself, what to say to everyone. What are they going to do besides eat cake and watch me open presents? Is this going to be any  fun for them? I grow more uncomfortable each minute. When the doorbell rings, I run to open it, to have something to do.

And there he stands.

I can’t believe it.

What are YOU doing here?” I shout. 

My party guests turn to see what’s going on.

He looks down at me with those glittering, snake-green eyes. He’s not smiling. “Your mother invited me.”

“MOM!” 

Oh, she’s right here beside me.

“Come on in,” she says to the meanest boy in the neighborhood. 

I can’t stand him.

He’s awful. 

He’s maybe thirteen, lives next door with his dad, and when I’ve been outside playing with my sister or other neighbor kids, he’s made fun of me, called me names. He threw my bike once, took a ball and wouldn’t give it back. He acts like he hates me and I’ve never done anything to him; I try not to get near him.

AND HERE HE IS AT MY PARTY.

AND SHE DIDN’T ASK ME.

 “Mom!” I suddenly quit caring that everyone else is watching. I stomp my foot.”Why’d you invite him? I don’t want him here! It’s not fair!”

The boy looks like he really doesn’t want to be here, either.

Go! Just go! I want to scream. My heart pounds hard.

My mother looks at me. A long, dark look, her brown eyes nearly black. Her face is tight.

He’s here because I want him to be. You. Will. Be. NICE.”

She ushers him into the crowd of guests, introduces him.

I am stunned.

I almost can’t enjoy the cake, the presents, or any of it, partly because of him, but mostly because of her.

She didn’t tell me, then, in front of our family and friends, that his mother had left his father, that he was having a hard time living with his dad.

I saw a hateful bully; she saw an angry, hurting boy. Who probably felt unwanted before this party.

I saw injustice; she saw a chance for grace. And redemption.

I saw myself; she saw another.

When I saw this boy again, he didn’t call me a name. He didn’t try to terrorize me. He greeted me, not in an especially friendly way, but at least with some decency.

He never mistreated me again.

I think of “Sleeping Beauty,” the only story I remember my mother reading to me when I was little. How the fairies came to bestow their gifts on the newborn Princess Aurora, how an uninvited evil fairy, angry, shows up to curse the baby to an early death, how the last fairy intervenes and lessens the curse.

My mother intervened to lessen the curse.

For him. For me.

This one tiny episode is among my life’s greatest in seeing the story behind injustice, a deep lesson in empathy, in forgiveness, in choosing to take the high road even when you’re hurt. That what’s fair is not always what’s right, and that what’s right isn’t always fair.

A valley that shapes my why, even now.

And maybe this memory calls me to write it for another reason. Maybe because, in real life, good people, like good fairies, go wrong sometimes, and it helps to remember them the way they were.

Before the greater valleys to come, before the brokenness.

That’s what this birthday party has become to me now—a fragment of the good, to keep.

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” 

-Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

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.

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

 

Parodial school

School

School. vazovskyCC BY-SA

Our people made that choice, the choice to go to Sameness. Before my time, before the previous time, back and back and back. We relinquished color when we relinquished sunshine and did away with difference. We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others.

– Lois Lowry, The Giver

 

They come to us just as they are.

That’s a good thing. Educators are to value student diversity, to see it as a gift in the classroom community – in fact, a teacher can be evaluated on this.

For children, we know, are not standardized.

They are living portfolios of experiences, abilities, thoughts, feelings, perspectives. They are unfinished stories, works in progress, masterpieces in the making.

Some know several languages. That’s diversity – a gift.

This doesn’t always show on a fluency assessment.

Some are born storytellers, song composers on the fly, wordsmiths extraordinaire, but only when speaking – not always when reading or writing.

Data points can’t capture innate artistry.

Some are engaged in tough battles, have greater mountains to climb – these kids aren’t from houses covered with vines who will go everywhere in two straight lines – yet there’s a nobility within them, born of courage, of gaining hard-won ground, more so than any knight of legendary lore.

Many of these are innovators. Because they have to be. The bulk of their energy goes not into conforming, but into coping.

Their diversity might blow the top off the charts while their test scores might lie at the other end of the spectrum. Growth is difficult to measure in a constant state of change.

So, one cannot, in the same breath, value diversity and mandate standardization. To celebrate Not-Sameness, yet to penalize schools and teachers for not attaining Sameness – what words are there for this dichotomy?

Paradox? Oxymoron? Mixed messages?

Bizarro World?

Parodial school.

That students have a right to a quality education is an unequivocal point. That the absence of order and structure invites chaos is understood. Conformity, however, doesn’t beget excellence; inspiration does.

This is the hinge on which the entire portal hangs.

For what is true for students is also true for teachers.

As a non-traditional age undergraduate, I encountered The Giver for the first time as assigned reading in a course. I subsequently wrote an essay on its imagery that the professor believed could be entered in the university’s research and creative achievement competition. At this event, I walked hallways lined with exhibitions from the medical and engineering fields, until a university official greeted me: “Ah yes, you’re representing the Humanities Department.”

“No sir,” I replied, shaking his proffered hand. “I’m representing Education.”

His expression was clearly perplexed. “We hardly ever get anyone from Education here.”

This, at a celebration of research and creative achievement.

My question remains: Why, in the unlimited universe, not?

The answer, I suspect, is that teachers don’t realize they have that power.

We must, in turn, keep a wise perspective of the things over which we’re gaining control and those we are relinquishing – squelching – in the process.

In the hearts of students as well as in their teachers’. 

 

Harry Potter and the Banned Books

Anthropologists, historians of religion, and professors of literature will all tell you that the rule in traditional cultures, and even in cultures such as ours, is that story, in whatever form, is meant to instruct and change us.

-John Granger, Looking for God in Harry Potter

The Harry Potter series celebrates its twentieth birthday this year. It’s been appearing on banned book lists for as long, regularly condemned for promoting witchcraft and satanism. I knew of the controversy long before I read the series – to be honest, I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in a fifth-grade classroom for the first time about fifteen years ago, read the first couple of pages, and wasn’t especially gripped either way. Not until Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was about to be released did I take the real plunge. I had attended a conference with a group of children’s lit MFA candidates, who described the coming of the final book and their anticipation of it with eyes gleaming like those of beatified saints:

“I ordered it and when it’s delivered, I am going to lock myself in the bedroom – I told my family not to bother me, I am going to be reading this book, and I need to be left alone.”

I swear I saw tears shimmering in their wide eyes.

So, with a just month to go before the release date, I read all six preceding books, even went to Barnes and Noble to get my own copy of Deathly Hallows at midnight on the release date.

In short: The books are magical, all right, but not in the sense of spells, wands, sorcery. These appear in the books but aren’t the real draw, are not what the books are really about. The draw – the thing that puts the gleam in the diehard fan’s eye – is caring about the characters, the needing to know what’s going to happen to them. The age-old theme of good versus evil, making choices to preserve life or to destroy it. The big umbrella from which the stories hang is love – think of why Voldemort really cannot win in the end.

What we take away from the Potter books is that as long as as there is love, there’s hope. A young boy with a lot of hard knocks in his early life is willing to sacrifice himself to save others. He’s successful, and because he is, in his not-exactly-perfect-hero example, we know we can be, too. After all, he’s just a child.

The books don’t entice children to practice magic; they entice readers to be their better selves, to strive, to overcome darkness within and without.

I was an avid reader ever since I can remember. Every summer when I stayed with my grandmother in the far, coastal reaches of North Carolina, she took me to the tiny, dusty county library. I checked out stacks of books, more than I could carry by myself – Grandma had to help. One year I saw a title that compelled me. I had heard about the movie,  that people at my church said it was really bad; I knew people were afraid of it. Naturally, it piqued my interest. I put the book in my stack and, wonder of wonders, Grandma didn’t notice, or I surely wouldn’t have been allowed to have it.

That book was The Exorcist.

It was well beyond my developmental level, to say the least, and it was the first cover I opened when I got back to Grandma’s house. After maybe four minutes of attempting to decode words with multisyllabic chunking, before I even knew that was a real strategy, I was horrified by the images I could and did glean. I closed the cover and hid the book from my sight, fervently wishing I could just leave it outside until the return trip to the library.

I was maybe ten years old.

What I learned at that young age is that you have to be your own judge.

This is something that Harry does exceedingly well.

Every book that we read changes us; we take away some learning, some new thinking, some depth of emotion. Agreeing or disagreeing with the content, our given tastes in that regard, are not primary considerations – our freedom to decide is. We must be careful of what we are advocating – for, if a book containing stories of magic, sorcery, and evil acts should be banned, then that includes the Bible itself.

 

 

 

Almost

It’s always there,

the ghost of Almost.

What might have been

but was not.

What should be

and isn’t.

Almost – ever how illusory, how ethereal

all but ephemeral –

is a penumbra bleeding from yesterday

into today,

a pulsing presence,

a ponderous weight,

despite its nonexistence.

A walking shadow,

the thief of Now

and its fullness,

the vacuum of Tomorrow

and all its possibility.

Inversion,

implosion.

Just images

without substance,

yet the mass of the universe

compacted

into one knot of aching.

That is the price

of living

with the pretty picture, 

the insatiably hungry, ever-gnawing

all-consuming 

ghost of Almost.

When the notion of Almost first came to me recently, it was about romantic relationships that didn’t work out.  Witnessing the death of the dream, how it takes its toll on the ones who wanted, and tried, to make it work. Broken promises, shattered hopes. It’s easy to cling to the idea of What Might Have Been, when it has been yanked away, leaving a gaping hole in a painful reality.

Then Almost beckoned me with its wispy finger: “Come in — come in, and get to know me better!”

(Before I go any further: Yes, I am borrowing that quote – thank you, Charles Dickens and the Ghost of Christmas Present, and yes, I borrowed “walking shadow.” Honestly, Mr. Shakespeare, it walked in of its own accord).

The ghost of Almost encompasses dysfunction, too. It’s the emissary of unraveling families, friendships. Within Almost are many shades of loss, of varying depths and proportions, all of which can overshadow daily life.

The game almost won.

The job almost attained.

The money almost saved.

The addict almost cured.

The temper almost controlled.

Almosts can go on and on.

Inevitably followed by “I should have … I should have …”

We have some choice, some power in some of those Almosts; in others, none at all. We cannot think for others,  cannot control their actions, decisions, feelings – only our own. Whether the ghost of Almost materializes because we throw the door wide open for it, or it arrives, unbidden, unwelcome, unwanted, through the choices of others, it wants to destroy What Can Still Be.

If we let it.

The only exorcism: See your Almost for what it really is. And release it, for it stays only if you keep hanging on to it. Decide that it will not devour your now, or your tomorrow, any longer. Seek the healing path over the haunted one.

A priceless quote from a friend of mine: “Don’t should on yourself.” No more dwelling on on what you should have done or what should have been. Move forward, one deliberate step at a time, one moment at a time, in wisdom  – for beyond Almost’s shadow, the sun still shines.

Be ready to walk in it.

 

 

I loved you at your darkest

At your darkest

August. Days of sweltering, snaky heat. Yet he donned a black tuxedo with a black-and-silver striped ascot and got to the church on time. 

In a back room, her bouquet of pink roses dripped on the front of her white gown, creating panic amongst the bridesmaids, but it didn’t stain. 

The morning’s thunderstorm cleared and the sun was shining for all it was worth when the ceremony began at 1:00. 

At 1:10 the preacher pronounced them husband and wife.

When they left the church hand-in-hand, the summer day was blinding – they shielded their eyes and made a run for it.

We’ve been running ever since, really.

For over three decades now. (I was a child bride. Well, sorta.)

As we mark another anniversary this week, I consider one of my favorite gifts from him, a bracelet he bought a couple of summers ago. We were at the beach for a few days, trying to get away from the daily demands, the stresses and strains – a lot was going on in life at the time. We went into a shop, and I saw it –  a band with a metal plate reading I loved you at your darkest.

It pierced my heart, those words. The incredible forgiving, trusting, reliable power of them. The surety.

“Do you like it?” he asked.

I nodded, for I didn’t trust my voice at the moment.

And so he bought it. I wore it out into the brilliant August afternoon, holding tight to his hand.

We’ve come through many darknesses – losses of people we loved, various setbacks, our own inner dark sides. Seeing each other at our worst.

But we’ve also seen the best in each other.

Growing older means acknowledging that there are darknesses yet to come – watching his mother’s decline with dementia is a daily reminder. We will not always be as we were, as we are now. Our summer is brief.

Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, wrote Robert Browning.

It’s the togetherness, the commitment, the laughter at silly stuff, the embrace in the hardest moments, that drive the darkness away. The sacrifices. The faith that the sun will rise again tomorrow, and with it, hope. Abiding gratitude for every day.

It’s never the darkness that we carry with us anyway. It’s the knowledge that we walked through it together, to come out on the other side. Our minds, our hearts hold to what is good, what is bright. It propels us onward. Makes the entire journey worthwhile.

Especially when the journey almost wasn’t.

On the evening of our first date, I called to tell him I couldn’t go. I had a raging fever; I was being admitted to the hospital for tests.

“I am sorry,” I said into the phone, tears stinging my eyes. “Please don’t give up on me.”

“I won’t ever give up on you,” said his voice, strong and sure.

He never has.

I loved you at your darkest.

I did, I do, I always will.

Thank you.

 

Trapped

Hummingbird

Ruby-throated hummingbird tongue. Pete MarkhamCC BY-SA

I hear it as soon as I step into the garage – a small flapping sound. I stop, trying to locate it – there’s also an accompanying sort of squeak. Mouse-like. I brace myself – I’ve found mice in here before, as well as a small copperhead snake that fortunately got away from me faster than I could get away from it. But mice and snakes don’t make flapping noises. This is the sound of little wings beating.

Desperately.

In a corner, beneath a window, I find the source. A hummingbird. It’s clearly in trouble. Not until I pick it up – almost weightless, just a quivering sensation in the palm of my hand – can I see why.  A bit of cobweb is stuck to its wings and wrapped in its feet. The hummingbird must have flown into it or picked an unfortunate place to perch. Once in the sticky thread, it was rendered helpless, unable to fly or free itself. How it got inside the garage is another question. 

This bird, utterly tiny, trembles in my hand. Its iridescent jewel-tone feathers glimmer like soap bubbles in the sun. I see its heart beating rather than actually feeling it. The bird’s eyes are bright, alert. How long has it been trapped like this? How much energy has it spent trying to rid itself of this confining cobweb?  The sound of its wings beating furiously and its cries of distress are testimony to the fierceness with which it tried.

“It’s all right, it’s all right,” I say in my most soothing voice, although I know my presence alone must be terrifying. “Be still, now.”

I pull the gossamer thread from the tiny, clenched toes, from around the wings where it’s loosely draped. The wings beat now with renewed zeal, as with vibrant hope or celebration. The hummingbird is suddenly airborne. I don’t even see it happen, it’s so quick. I run to the garage door, fling it open, and my little bird zips through like a miniscule fighter plane on a mission, into the wild blue yonder.

I watch it go, and my spirit soars with it.

I remembered the hummingbird this morning, when I heard softer wings beating in my garage, this time a big yellow-and-black butterfly (Eastern Tiger Swallowtail), trying to get out of a window. I caught him, too, and set him free outside.

It triggered the hummingbird memory, and got me thinking about being trapped. How hard it is to free ourselves of those things that hold us back, how they stick to us like a cobweb to a hummingbird’s wings. Past experiences, loss, failures, our own choices or choices of others, pain, regret – they feel more like chains. Burdens that keep us from living fully, maybe even from trusting life again, as that sometimes feels huge and potentially dangerous.

I think of things we desperately want to accomplish and the hindrances, the things that bind us, keeping us from moving toward those goals. The hummingbird fought to be free, in order to live – that was its goal, staying alive.

Surely it’s the teacher in me that suddenly thinks of Frederick Douglass. Reading his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave  for the first time in college, I was struck by his desperate desire to read and write. As a child he befriended little white boys in his community to get them, bit by bit, to teach him how to read – in a time when it was forbidden to do so. Douglass fought hard and long to stay alive, to have a better life than the one prescribed for him; with the help of others along the way, he escaped the bonds of illiteracy and slavery. A brilliant man of words and influence.

All of this comes to me, on hearing wings beating in distress. Matthew Arnold wrote of Percy Bysshe Shelley: “A beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” We do not have to remain trapped, ineffectual. Our better selves, our better angels, would recognize those of others when their beating wings, their beating hearts, are caught in a void. It’s within our sphere of influence, within the parameters of our power, to help find the way out; in so doing, our own do not beat in vain.