Expectations

As a literacy coach and intervention team facilitator, I am tasked with communicating expectations of my administration and the district to my colleagues. It’s a tricky position (correction: these are tricky positions. Plural. Sometimes I feel like Bartholomew Cubbins, wearing 500 hats). At present, my fellow educators are, in the wake of COVID, undergoing state-mandated Science of Reading training while adjusting to new curriculum and new leadership. It all comes with new expectations.

Truth be told, however, many of these expectations aren’t new: Problem-solving as a professional community, finding what we need as educators to give the students what they need. Bridging gaps. Collaborative planning. Collective responsibility. None of these are new; they just feel new if they’ve not been done effectively before…the bottom line being the determination of this is what the kids really need; how do we make it happen?

It’s formidable challenge, in a time where there are many needs, and when educational philosophies, beliefs, and mindsets clash. I recently wrote about endurance (from a spiritual point of view). This new school year follows one of extreme exhaustion. We will not endure without leaning on one another. We will not build our strength in isolation. We will not succeed without stamina. Or vision. Where there is no vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18). Grappling with expectations is, well, expected. Everything, everything, everything rests on one of two beliefs: it can be done or it can’t.

I believe it can.

Yesterday my granddaughter visited. The hummingbird feeder rings I ordered for us had just arrived. Perfect timing. We took them out of the package, washed them, made a tiny batch of sugar water, and filled them. Off to the yard we trotted to stand with our arms resting on the fence near one of my two feeders where a handful of hummingbirds compete for their nectar throughout the day.

You can see for yourself, in the photo, my granddaughter thinking I don’t know about this…yet there’s a layer of hope and fear in her expression: Will the hummingbirds actually come drink from my ring? Will I be scared?

After a while: How long is this going to take?

The secret, my love, is patience and persistence. If it doesn’t work the first time, we will try again, and again. Hummingbirds have come to drink from the rings of other people in other places; they will eventually do so with us. Keep trying. Believe. I will stand with you until it does.

Oh, right.

I started off talking about teaching, didn’t I.

Expression of uncertain expectation. After she left, I went out again when the hummers were more active. A couple of them hovered nearby, considering me and my outstretched, ringed hand (hummingbirds are highly intelligent and curious). If they come to me…they will come to my granddaughter. I will see if can make it happen for her.

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with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge

What the sea teaches

“The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and, greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.”

—Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift From the Sea

Lindbergh’s words come back to me as I contemplate the frenzy of living and the pull of making the most of every moment, especially on vacation (how often do we say we need a vacation after returning from our vacation?). Life is not always a matter of doing, of endlessly digging for treasure…but carving out time just to be and to see what treasures may come. For they will. And we will be far less likely to miss them.

Lingering

with thanks to Ruth for the inspiration at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog:
“Invite the reader to linger and feel unexpected emotions.”

There was a time, before COVID, when we lingered. Not endured, not withdrew, not withstood…lingering did not mean an unshakeable cough, unshakeable fear, unshakeable uncertainty.

We lingered because we wanted to make the moments stretch and last. With purpose, holding onto goldenness before it melted away in lengthening shadows, desiring just to be, to savor, to breathe, without words for naming the why, unaware except in the deepest part of subconscious self that everything is temporal. Everything is always imperceptibly changing. We change, the people and creatures we love change. They leave us, in one way or another. In certain moments before the leaving, be it theirs or our own, we linger, suspending the faint ticking of the clock on the wall of our existence.

Tonight, I lingered.

I discovered that winter lingers even on the cusp of July. Not like the witch’s enchanted Narnia (“Always winter but never Christmas; think of that”). My granddaughter wanted to watch a Christmas movie. Why not? And so we did. The hour was already late but in summer bedtimes do not matter as much (for her, anyway. I fight the good fight). Winter scenes rolled across the screen before us…an era long past, row houses standing dark in the evening, nightfall coming early, deserted streets coated in ice…for a few seconds, I was in that place, feeling the bitter bite of frigid air, the crunching under my feet, the barrenness settling into my bones. I remembered being a child in winter, walking outside, wondering at the stillness, the delicious desolation. Winter has a scent, a taste. A cleanness. A sharpness, unlike the crispness of fall. Both bracing and tiring. A paradox. Winter is halflight, chiaroscuro in gray, white, blue, and black. The stars shine crystal-bright in winter, nearer than ever.

—all this in a few seconds watching a Christmas movie on a lazy, balmy night, the last of June, when rabbits are sneaking from the woods into my yard to nibble their fill of fresh clover.

My granddaughter remained wide-eyed throughout the movie while I lapsed in and out of dreams. Then with the going-to-bed ritual of my reading her a story, she just so happened to choose a book in which the word lingering appears on the last page…

That is the magical way of that word.

Both beckoning and reminding.

For memories linger far longer than moments…

A winter night. Mourner. CC BY 2.0.

Imagination

When you are six
and visiting your Franna
you always check the candy dish

today you would find
miniature Reese’s Cups

and when you are tired
of playing Connect Four

you and your Franna
might build a tower
out of the checkers
in an ABABAB pattern

and you might fashion
a tiny crown
out of the gold Reese’s foil
and turn the licked-clean
ridged brown candy paper
into hair
that you place on top
of the checker tower

The Tall Queen,
you would say,
just as she falls
and splatters her checker parts
across the table

The Tall Queen
has fallen in battle!

you would exclaim

(methinks that may
be the influence
of your reading
Narnia books)

but at any rate,
a Shorter Queen seems to do
especially when you ask your Franna
for eyes and a mouth
and she gives you labels
and pens
so you can make them yourself

and in answer to your question:
No, I do not think her crown looks
too much like a Viking hat
although surely the Vikings
had queens,
just saying

(to me she looks like she stepped
right out of Wonderland)

but above all
I think the whole moral
of the story here
is that everything which enters
your realm
when you are six
has a purpose
and is
never wasted

A poem of body and song

On the last day of National Poetry Month, Sarah J. Donovan, creator of Ethical ELA, invites teacher-poets to celebrate thirty days of writing for VerseLove. In studying a collection of poems dealing with struggle and celebration about what we are told and believe about ourselves, Sarah says: “I thought a lot about how our bodies hold and shape so much of who we are.” Today we write to own that we are writers and poets, considering figurative body language, other voices that have influenced us, and our own song.

For me, writing calls from sacred places, inherently requiring, as an act of creation, sacred spaces.

As such, writing, poetry in particular, takes on a life of its own. It starts as one thing and becomes another. This may be more than one poem. I am just letting it be.

Polyhymnia at the Core

And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been.
—C.S. Lewis, “How the Adventure Ended,” The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
 
The ghost
of my father
and grandfather
are here 
in the shape
of my face
something of them
about my cheekbones
my mouth
a certain turning

My grandmother
is in my bones
those are her arms
in the mirror
fixing my hair

no denying
my mother’s eyes

the Spirit sighs

I imagine Polyhymnia
nearby
(if I can choose
my Muse)
in long cloak and veil
finger to her lips
bright eyes glimmering
silken rustlings
as she leans
whispering, 
always whispering

it is with great love
that she raises
the lion’s claw
piercing every knobby layer
of my being
peeling away
until all that remains
at my tender core
is wordless song
singing there
all along

you are alive
alive alive alive
in the listening
in the remembering
in the faces
in the sacred spaces
where you have been brought
to learn
the unforced rhythms
of grace

now find your words
and be

Polyhymnia. Joseph Fagnani, 1869.

Polyhymnia’s name means “many praises.” She is the Muse of sacred poetry, hymns, and meditation.

The lion’s claw in my poem is an allusion to the referenced chapter in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where Aslan peels away the enchanted dragon skin from Eustace, restoring him to his true—and transformed—self.

“Learn the unforced rhythms of grace” is from the paraphrase of Matthew 11:28-30 in The Message.

For love of all creatures

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

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

I have to ask myself why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snow magic

Holidays over
first day back to school
we heard it might snow
what we get
is gale force winds
diagonal rain
and utter darkness
(oh, those kids waiting at bus stops…)
which is why so many don’t come
there are just four kids in one room,
six in another,
and so on
not to mention that at home
the power went out
before I could get ready
hardly an enchanting winter morn
except for candles…

when I finally arrive at work
my family texts
it is pouring snow here,
pouring
but when I look through the windows
don’t see any of it
not any
just cold cold rain
collecting in huge puddles
on this dark dark day
until
I pass a teacher in the hallway
leaning out of the glass door,
scouring the iron-gray sky
are you looking for snow?
oh yes, if it starts,
I am bringing my class
out here in the hall
to read Snowmen at Night


just then, we see
the first flakes of white…

all over the building
children run to the windows
for every little bit of magic
they can find

or perhaps it’s more a matter
of letting the magic find you

or maybe even
a determination to
make the magic
yourself

for it is in yourself
just as it is
in every single
falling crystal

and most certainly
in books.

Detail of a magical mask design a colleague made and happened to give me today.
You will have caught the book connections in the first two photos; can you catch the last?

Pencil wizard

Once upon a time, I said that writing is the closest thing there is to magic.

Here is why.

Magic is not, well, magic. It is a lot of work (or why would Hogwarts exist? Just saying).

Writing is a lot of work.

Work (a lot of it) makes the magic happen.

Here is a true story of magic moments at the end of this dystopian school year (know that I am suppressing the urge to compare virtual learning to disapparating, i.e., teleporting from place to place, or essentially vanishing). After end-of-grade testing—I said dystopian, right? What does the State expect this data to look like?—a fourth-grade teacher sent me a note:

One of my students has been writing a story in his free time. He wants to read it to the class. He knows it needs some work and I am wondering if you have any time to help him? He’s not usually motivated to write…

I made time. I would shift heaven and earth for this.

He came to my room wearing a giant grin, clutching his pencil and notebook. I recognized the cover—it’s a notebook our district distributes to teachers. His teacher must have given it to him especially for his story, for in grades 2-5, our district doesn’t use writing workshop any more (and that, Dear Readers, is a whole ‘nother tragedy for the telling on another day).

“Come in, come in!” I said. “Have a seat here beside me and read me your story.”

Without giving too much away (for the story is his): It’s a fantasy, a battle between humans and wizards, the protagonist a young wizard with power to make living things grow. The student read it all aloud and then we went back to make some changes for clarity and flow, with my asking:

“What exactly do you mean here, when…”

“What is it you are trying to tell the reader? What do you want readers to think or feel here?”

“Think of an action to add here, so readers or your audience can better see what’s happening in their minds, like we do when we watch a movie. What are you seeing here in your own mind? That’s what you need to get across.”

“What’s a better word choice here, to make the meaning clear?”

While the boy thought and elaborated aloud, I began typing the story. As I read the lines back to him, his face glowed: “Perfect! That’s amazing!”

“That is the power of revision,” I told him. “When you start writing, it’s all about getting your ideas down. When you go back to make the meaning clear, by adding these kinds of details and taking out what you don’t need, that’s where all the magic happens.”

“We’ve made a lot of changes,” the boy observed, “but it’s SO much better.”

And yet the story remained the story he wanted to write.

We’d changed city to town, people to townspeople. He made the stylistic choice to capitalize Humans. We’d added transitional phrases to keep the readers from falling out of the story. We added gestures for the young wizard when he makes vines grow (“I need to see how the wizard does this,” I explained). The student vetoed my suggestion to go ahead and incorporate “earthbending power” (a phrase borrowed from video games): “I am not ready to tell readers yet about earthbending power,” he stated. —Such a tone of authority!

“All right then! You’re the author. Save it for when the time is right in the story. Just make a note here to add earthbending power later.”

And then the word tome… “Is tome the word you want here, where you say the wizard found a tome in the laundry?”

“Yes. It’s a big book of spells.”

I blinked. “Indeed! That’s impressive. Just make sure your readers know what you mean here, that they can see and understand what you mean by tome.” It became an ancient tome of spells, hidden in a robe in the laundry, that the young wizard began to read “without realizing the power he now carried”—those are the student’s own words, not mine.

And thus I spent the last days of school this year watching the love of writing take root and flourish in the heart of a child…magical, indeed, in a year where so much felt anything but, even in some of my own writing of late.

As I write this morning, sunlight streaming in my window like all the glories of summer on the cusp, I recall my final words to this child as he carried his typed version away in a bright yellow folder: “Keep writing!”

In my mind’s narrative, I add: Young word-wizard, with earthbending power.

For that is the magic of writing.

May he cultivate it all of his life.

Imagine. Indy Sidhu. CC BY

with my thanks always to Two Writing Teachers, a community dedicated to the craft, power, and love of writing, for all Humans.

Facing fears poem

National Poetry Month has ended, and I miss it. While I may not be posting every day for a while, I continue to write.

The last prompt on Ethical ELA’s #VerseLove was on fear. Articulating it, facing it…perhaps conquering it.

This got me thinking how facing a thing for what it really is = the first step in conquering. There’s a lot of extreme anxiety in the world today. A lot of hatred. Sometimes we just don’t see things for what they are…including our own thoughts.

And so this poem was born.

Courage, peace, and wellness to you, Friends. Whatever it is…you can overcome.

My Fear Haiku

I once read a book
where people’s eyes turned inward.
They died from seeing

what’s inside their minds.
I trembled to take a look
at what lurks in mine.

Now I remember
what Granddaddy once told me
regarding black snakes:

don’t ever kill them.
See, black snakes eat rats and mice;
they’re good. We need them.

I think fear’s like that
snaking along, with purpose
something quite useful

so I never try
to kill it. Let it consume
the uglier parts

of my thoughts, and go its way
leaving me with a clean peace
and a better mind

so that all I fear,
in the end, is forgetting
memories of love.

Path of peace. The view after turning off the highway to visit my grandparents. The house is my grandmother’s homeplace, where she and her eight siblings were born in the early 1900s. Just ahead, around the bend on the left, stood my grandparents’ home where my dad and his sisters grew up in the 1940s-50s, and where I spent many childhood summers.

My safest haven on Earth. Snakes and all.

Love, life lessons, legacy, and memories live on.