First, do no harm

land planarian

Land planarian. Pavel KirillovCC BY-SA

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

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

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

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

Granddaddy comes near, leans down. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, do no harm.

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

 

Between the moon and New York City

Harvest moon

Harvest moon. patrick pearceCC BY-NC-ND

I have to get to work early. Several teachers have asked for help, and I need to prepare. It’s sometimes all or nothing in the life of a literacy coach.

I rue the hour, but I quickly realize a perk.

A gift, even.

Against the pre-dawn October sky, the full moon is enormous. Breathtaking. As I drive the back country roads, it looms just ahead of me, darting in and out of trees as I round curves

Oh, the Harvest Moon! So beautiful, I think.

The moon is oddly big and bright. I knew it was full when I woke up, as the bedroom was bathed in ethereal, silvery light even with the blinds drawn. There’s something deeply magnetic in its intensity this morning, beyond its size. I shiver. The first autumn chill is in the air. It’s the time of year when strange things are afoot, stirring the dying leaves, whispering of time past.

Do you remember.

Something dormant wakes with a jolt, rushes back – the electricity of being young, on the cusp of a major life event, with the unknown stretching before me. I’m like a racehorse at the starting gate, quivering with anticipation, ready to break free, to run for all I’m worth.

I blink, and the overpowering moon transports me right back.

I am nineteen and I believe I can be an actress.

I really do.

After several years of high school plays and local theater productions, plus a year of college theater courses to my credit, I’ve decided I want more than the traditional education route. I’m chasing a dream: I’ve applied to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

They’ve scheduled my audition.

In a rather surreal haze, I catch a train in my Virginia hometown to meet my older cousin, Dan, in Washington, D.C., where he lives. The next morning, we hop on Amtrak to New York.

I’ve been to the Big Apple once before, with my high school drama club. The proximity and height of the buildings almost suffocated me: “There’s hardly any sky to see,” I told a classmate. I then learned why it’s nicknamed The City That Never Sleeps. All night long I heard traffic, voices, sirens.

This time I know what to expect.  This time I am pulsing with energy, ready for my moment – a racehorse pawing the ground at the gate.

This train isn’t moving fast enough.

Dan is wildly excited about my audition: “You’re the maverick of the family,” he tells me.

I look at his earnest green eyes. For a moment, I fear I’ll disappoint everyone. Our aunt, our mothers’ unmarried sister, has given me a framed picture of a harlequin holding a rose, sitting on a crescent moon amongst stars in the sky. This reminds me of you, she wrote on the back. Somewhere between the moon and New York City.

Lyrics to “Arthur’s Theme,” of course. The song by Christopher Cross, subtitled “Best That You Can Do”:

When you get caught between the Moon and New York City
I know it’s crazy, but it’s true
If you get caught between the Moon and New York City
The best that you can do,
The best that you can do is fall in love.

My spinster aunt means it as an encouragement for me to do my best, believing I’ll succeed on the stage. I understand this just as much as I understand I’m not about to be falling in love.  At nineteen I am decidedly jaded. I don’t want a boyfriend and have secretly sworn off relationships. Guys my around my age, I’ve learned, are not to be trusted. I do not have time to waste on them.

“What do you have to do for the audition?” Dan asks, as the ugly backsides of major East Coast cities zip by the train windows.

“A dramatic piece and a comedy piece,” I tell him. “For the dramatic, Alison’s monologue from Look Back in Anger, after she’s lost a baby. For the comedy piece I’ve spliced together Babe’s lines from Crimes in the Heart. Dark, Southern humor. Really hilarious.”

His eyes glow. “You have to perform these for me!”

Once we are settled in the city, I do. It’s my final rehearsal.

Dan is delighted. “You’re going to make it. I just know it.”

I’m not sure, but I think I detect tears in his vivid eyes.

The hour comes. After a short conversation with Academy officials, I step onto the empty stage. There’s no spotlight. It all feels quite ordinary.

I give the monologues all I’ve got, full rein to the electric charge coursing in my veins – the best that I can do.

The faces of the Academy people are inscrutable. They shake my hand:

“Thank you. We will inform you of our decision by letter within a few weeks.”

I stumble back into the shadows of Madison Avenue where I barely recognize my cousin.

“How did it go?”

“Okay, I think,” I tell him, and only then do I realize how violently I’m shaking.

“I am so proud of you!” His smile is magnificent as he wraps me in a bear hug.

Now we can roam the fabled streets at our leisure. It’s January and utterly freezing, but we don’t let that stop us from going to the top of the Empire State Building where our carefully-styled hair stands on end in the frigid gale. In a tiny restaurant, I have my first cappuccino – a frothy, cinnamon wonder. At a nondescript shop we buy teal scarves that are at least four feet wide and about eight feet long. We loop them around our necks multiple times.

Dan says, “Have you noticed how people are looking at us? They think we are somebody – they’re trying to figure out if we’re famous.”

He is right. I catch our reflection in the shopfront glass – we can pass for ’80s pop stars.

That bright image is a freeze-frame. The rest of my memory curls like fog around the edges of it.

Dan was also right about something else.

A couple of weeks later, I pulled an envelope bearing the Academy’s return address out of a stack from the mailbox. My hands shook so that I could hardly open it.

I cried.

I was on my way to New York City for real. To live, to make my way, to do what I loved best.

I didn’t have a dime to my name or any idea how I’d manage to find a place to live in New York, come August; all I knew was that in the meantime I needed to keep performing. I went to the next community theater audition, for Whose Life Is It Anyway? I walked through the door and instantly spotted, across the room, sitting in a chair, the handsomest man I’d ever seen. Black hair, brooding dark eyes, classic features – if we’d been living in the 1940s, this guy could double for Tyrone Power.

He looked up, saw me, and smiled.

If you get caught between the Moon and New York City
The best that you can do,
The best that you can do is fall in love.

I was going to New York.

I didn’t want a boyfriend.

We both got parts in the play.

This was the end of January.

In May, he gave me his mother’s diamond engagement ring.

We were married in August.

The Academy said I had a year, if I wanted, to enroll.

Within the year, my young husband told me he was called to the ministry.

If you get caught between the Moon and New York City . . . .

There are Things Meant to Be and Things Not Meant to Be, I hear myself whisper.

At least, I think that’s myself whispering.

I blink – and here I am, three decades and two grown boys later, still married to the same preacher man, driving to work, pondering how to help teachers and students, while a magical moon dips in and out of the trees. I am in rural North Carolina, a far cry from New York City. Never made it to Broadway, except as a member of the audience.

But, as Shakespeare wrote, All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances . . . .

I wonder what Dan would say now about my being the family maverick. He’s been gone for years. His exit came so early; he died at thirty-four.

I drive on under the Harvest Moon, noting how the darkness is no match for its spellbinding brightness. I am flooded with gratitude for all I’ve been given, realizing that the autumn of my life has not even begun.

Yes, Moon. I remember.

And so I play my part – the best that I can.

slice-of-life_individual

Mystical morning

Ocracoke surprise

The island dawn is one of nebulous grayness, the sun an oblique white disc shrouded in veils of clouds. Painted from a palette of pearl, silver, and slate, the sand, the sea, the sky are starkly monochromatic, like an old black-and-white-movie. The temperature is indeterminate, neither hot nor cold. The morning is not uninviting nor inviting; it simply is.

As I make my way past softly rolling dunes of long grass shivering and undulating in the wind, I think only of the ocean, the opportunity to savor its splendor in relative isolation, away from commercialism. I expect to see a die-hard beachcomber or two; surely this a shell-collector’s paradise.

I do not expect the tree.

There it is, up ahead in the sand, directly in front of the path where dunes give way to the shore, with the shimmering, empty Atlantic for a backdrop.

How curious. I’ve not seen a tree smack in the middle of a beach before.

Are there others? I scan the shoreline, as far as I can see, on the left and the right.

No.

This is the only tree.

Did it grow here, somehow? I investigate. I suspect not, as the sand is built up around the tree’s base, although I can’t discern human handprints. Or footprints. I don’t even know what kind of tree this is, although I saw numerous others like it lying in the Pamlico Sound on the Hatteras side of the ferry ride to Ocracoke. I should have asked the crew what kind of trees these are and why they lie so far out in the water. 

Driftwood, then. 

It stands here on the vacant beach with its thin, snaky branches twisting skyward. Shells dangle from some of the vine-like tips, reminiscent of castanets on fingers. Or earrings.

I am enchanted. I’ve a sense of standing in no-man’s land, except that someone has clearly been here. Maybe someones, plural. Mystery people were inspired to plant this bit of driftwood and to decorate it with what was near at hand. 

The tree is dead. Shells, for all their intricate beauty, are but skeletons. I marvel at the human heart, its great desire for creativity and play. At the ability of the inner artist to see that random pieces of things no longer living, broken things, can come together in such an unexpected way. Whimsy in the wind. The beach tree stands as a mystical reminder that all is not lost, that all has value, that there’s beauty beyond the brokenness if we are willing to rearrange the pieces. The extraordinary lies not beyond the ordinary, but within it. Not beyond us, but within us, within our very grasp, if we just reach.

The ocean sparkles despite the obscured sun, like the twinkling of an eye when someone’s just about to smile.

Ocracoke morning

Note: The title is a deliberate play on that of a previous post about my son’s trip to Iceland – both attempts at capturing the essence of place: Mythical morn.

slice-of-life_individual

Rare perspective

Ocracoke lighthouse inside

On my recent trip to Ocracoke Island for professional development, courtesy of the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT), my colleagues and I were treated to something unexpected and rare: A visit inside the Ocracoke lighthouse, which is closed to the general public.

The Ocracoke Light, as it is called, is the oldest and smallest of the Outer Banks lighthouses. So tiny, in fact, that the only person allowed up the spiral stairs is the bulb-changer. There’s just enough room for this maneuver at the top. The bulb is about the size of an average man’s pinky finger. It’s not the bulb, of course, that shines a steady light fourteen miles out into the Atlantic and the Pamlico Sound; the fourth-order Fresnel lens, historic in itself, magnifies the light.

The history is compelling, how the land was purchased for so little (two acres for $50 in 1822), and how this diminutive lighthouse originally operated by burning whale oil. Tiny yet powerful, standing on high ground, this lighthouse still guides ships safely through the inlet to other inner ports. I was also drawn by the graves nearby, almost obscured by a white picket fence and sheltering live oaks, just a stone’s throw from the lighthouse door. I wonder how many people ever notice this.

“Who were they?” I asked the NCCAT facilitator, an island native who had the key to let us inside the lighthouse. Imagine walking around with such a key in your pocket! “The people buried here – were they the original landowners?”

“Some,” was his answer, which set my mind surging so that it was hard to pay attention to the presentation. Who gets to be buried in such a captivating place, on a remote little rise overlooking the sea, at the foot of a lighthouse? What an incredible resting place.

It got me thinking about the human connection to place, to each other.

The original light could only shine about five miles out to sea – not always enough to save some of the ships. With the new lenses, really multifaceted prisms, the light shines almost three times farther. That it is a steady light seems significant to me – it does not blink or rotate at intervals, as other lighthouses do.

Perhaps because I am an educator, I connect this to teamwork, to the light we can shine individually only going so far, and how the strategically focused, combined efforts of colleagues goes so much farther in what we can do for students. There’s power in collaboration, in steadily striving for a common goal, in strengthening one another for the sake of those we are trying to help.

This doesn’t apply only to education. It applies to any organization – in fact, to humanity as a whole.

Which leads me to contemplate the rare perspective of being inside the Ocracoke Light – there’s a tiny bulb at the top with a mighty lens to magnify its illumination during the night, but I am here in the day, and I see natural light spilling in a tiny window.

That, to me, is inspiration. The natural light that shines through whatever little window into the human soul. Such light may leave periodically with the temporary darkness, while the light from the top of the lighthouse shines far for the benefit of others, but it always returns again, driving the darkness away.

We have only limited glimpses into the hearts and minds of others; we can hardly recognize our own, sometimes. There’s no real correlation between the light shining through a window to the inside of a lighthouse and its ability to shine a light at night – but for a human, there is.

Inspire. Be inspired. Appreciate your own rare perspective, and you’ll better see that of others.

A little light goes a long way – longer still, if we magnify that inside each other.

Ocracoke lighthouse

 

Abiding images

Last week I spent several days on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, studying writing with teaching colleagues from across the state.  This extraordinary opportunity was provided to us by the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching – heartfelt thanks to you, NCCAT, for your support of teachers, and for inspiration at a time when it is needed more than ever.

Ocracoke is, in the words of our faculty advisor, who’s native to the island, “a windy, sandy, watery place.” It’s also tiny and breathtakingly beautiful. One of our assignments was to capture abiding images from this idyllic locale in our writer’s notebooks.

Abiding images are symbols with deep personal meaning to us, often recurring, according to dream analysts. Abiding images are part of us, shaping our lives the way the wind and the water continuously shape this island. To poets and writers, abiding images come from a wellspring inside us – stories, dreams, conscious and unconscious memories – each as unique to us as our own fingerprints.

Our task was to walk in this brine-tinged breeze, under the moody sky, without speaking to one another. We were to walk alone, searching for the images that speak to us.

I prefer to think of it as being called by the images that wish to speak to us.

The long beach grass rippled like hair against the ground; the sea, shimmering and calm on the Pamlico Sound side, flowed ceaselessly from left to right like words across a page. Come, was the inherent, compelling invitation. Come. Listen to me. I have stories to tell.

I filled seven pages with abiding images and took pictures of a few.

There were the pink wildflowers, startlingly bright against the beach grass. Marsh pinks, they’re called. Sabatia stellaris. Our advisor said for anything to survive on the island, it must be hardy, yet here were these delicate flowers with perfect yellow stars in the center, as if painstakingly hand-painted by an artist. Incongruous. Surprising. Hopeful, somehow, for these flowers carry the mark of the heavens in their upturned faces.

I came across some shells by a small hole in the sand, out of which grew a thin, solitary blade of grass. No other grass stood anywhere near this one long, lonely strand, this one hair from this one follicle. There are secrets in the sand, the advisor told us. So much more goes on in it and below it than we really know. 

This curious wisp of grass shivers, nods.

I walk farther and discover the ivory-yellow skeleton of . . . something. I don’t have a frame of reference for it, other than knowing it’s a bone, something once alive. It worries me. I want to know what creature it was and why it’s here in such pristine condition, with no other marks in the sand near it in this isolated spot. How long has it been dead?

I learn later that it’s the skull – just the skull, although it’s the size of a chicken – of a red drum. North Carolina’s state fish.

I still don’t know why it was lying there all by itself.

The last of my abiding images is at the marina in front of the NCCAT building, which used to be the old U.S. Coast Guard lifesaving station. As I turn to go back inside, I encounter a rusted handle quite suddenly in the sand near the marina’s edge. It’s sticking upright, clearly attached to something buried there, and it’s obviously been around a long time. What’s THIS secret hidden in the sand? I don’t tug on the handle, although I want to; I imagine pulling it and a door coming forth from the sand to reveal an opening with stairs leading down to . . . anywhere. A bunker, a secret gathering place, another world, another time. Oh, the stories this strange handle evokes!

Perhaps I will write one of them yet.

For now, the images abide in my notebook and in my mind; they shape me, even as I shape my thoughts about them. I carry them with me while I leave a piece of my heart, perhaps a piece of my soul, behind with them.

We belong to one another. That’s what I think as the sun goes down over the Sound, as I hear boats over in the marina rocking as if they are waking from a long sleep, coming back to life.

We abide.

 

Sunset Pamlico Sound

Sunset on the Pamlico Sound.

In reading and in writing, our instructors told us, “Setting is everything. It drives the story, drives the characters’ actions.” 

Turtle meditation

It’s almost summer here in rural North Carolina, which means two things: tobacco is lush in the fields, and turtles are busily crossing the roads.

Which also means that turtles are frequently run over by inattentive drivers.

There by the roadside, these wounded creatures die. Sometimes they leave a trail of blood on the pavement where they dragged themselves to the other side. Any roadkill is disturbing to see, but something about the inner pinkness of the turtle showing through the broken shell pieces troubles me immensely.

Maybe it’s because the shell, perfectly designed to protect the turtle, failed to do so.

But turtle shells are not meant to withstand the weight of a vehicle.

The pinkness represents vulnerability to me; I automatically begin thinking of other vulnerabilities due to failures of structures meant to protect or to edify.

Brokenness occurs on many levels in societies. Governments fail to protect the people, businesses fail to protect employees, family members fail to protect one another.

As an educator, an instructional coach, I see how expectations grow greater all the time and how the weight rests heaviest on teachers. I worry about the cracks, the brokenness, the damage – for, you see, the children are the most vulnerable part, the part we cannot afford to lose.

Any alleviation of this weight, any solution to such brokenness, lies first with the drivers.

Whomever and wherever you are.

Pay attention.

Reflect: Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote: “All things great are wound up with all things little.” Consider the brokenness around you. Repairs and healing will not be complete in a day. Where’s a small place you can begin, in a small but positive way? Positive results only come from positive words, ideas, and actions – and awareness. 

slice-of-life_individual

In-between places

Gloomy forest

Gloomy forest. gorchakov.artemCC BY

I read the final page and close the cover. The idea of being separated from someone you love intensely, whether by distance, time, or circumstances, comes with a stab so sharp that it almost isn’t bearable.

Never mind that The Time Traveler’s Wife is fiction. The frequent separation of Claire and Henry, especially their final one, is crafted with this piercing truth, the longing for the “in-between” period to be over so that the characters can be together again. Sometimes the interim lasted for years.

While Claire and Henry usually had the advantage of knowing the duration of their separations thanks to his time traveling, the rest of us don’t get such clear glimpses of the future. We have to endure the various in-between stages of our lives, not knowing how long they’ll last, not being able to speed up time, not knowing the outcome, often having little or no control.  These in-between places are often laced with deep aching, a sadness and desperation at being apart from someone we  love. Existence is as flat and barren as a desert. The emptiness is huge, frightening; we want to rid ourselves of it before it consumes us. The scope of this in-between-ness is too much for us. The loss cannot be dealt with as a whole but only lived through in chunks  – a day, maybe just an hour, at a time.

There are in-between places other than those of relationships. The loss of a job, long illnesses, hardships, disasters – all can be dark places that sap our strength, sometimes with no foreseeable guarantees that all will end well. Living in these situations is like navigating a dark, unfamiliar forest. Not knowing which way is the shortest or best way out, we often go in pointless circles without realizing it.

I recall an in-between place that’s quite different. It’s remained in my mind since I was a child, on my first reading of The Magician’s Nephew.

It’s called The Wood Between the Worlds.

In the attempt to move from our current world to another by wearing magic rings, two children land in a sort of “connector” place. Here’s how C.S. Lewis describes it:

It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals and no wind. You could almost feel the trees growing . . . a pool every few yards as far as his eyes could reach. You could almost feel the trees drinking the water up with their roots. This wood was very much alive. When he tried to describe it afterwards Digory always said, “It was a rich place: as rich as plum-cake.” 

Digory discovers that he’s not frightened, excited, or curious. He’s forgetting why he’s there and what he knew of his own life, even his mother, who’s dying.

If anyone had asked him: “Where did you come from?” he would probably have said “I’ve always been here.” That was what it felt like – as if one had always been in that place and never been bored although nothing had ever happened. As he said long afterwards, “It’s not the sort of place where things happen. The trees go on growing, that’s all.”

Not the sort of place where things happen, but things go on growing around us while we are numb, sleepy. Who among us hasn’t experienced this?

Digory has an epiphany nevertheless – he tells his companion, Polly:

That’s why it’s so quiet and sleepy here. Nothing ever happens here. Like at home. It’s in the houses that people talk , and do things, and have meals. Nothing goes on in the in-between places, behind the walls and above the ceilings and under the floor, or in our own tunnel. But when you come out of our tunnel you may find yourself in any house. I think we can get out of this place into jolly well Anywhere!

Digory is right. The rest of the book deals with the results of his and Polly’s choices, both wise and foolish, but suffice it to say that they get out of The Wood Between the Worlds to witness the birth of a brand-new world.

Narnia.

Here’s another illustration, not out of fantasy.

My family once decided to travel from Raleigh, North Carolina to Boston by train. There was a problem with the train at the first segment of the trip – it had to be made by bus. Arriving at a different station, we boarded the train at last.

What we didn’t realize is that the train would stop at every major station on the East Coast even when no one was getting off or boarding. Long into the night we rode, stopping in deserted stations, sometimes for an hour or more. Bleary, exhausted, regretting our choice of transportation, we wondered how long this train would sit in this place where nothing was happening, and why.

I fell asleep.

The first light of dawn woke me. I looked through the train window at gray nothingness to see a shoreline slowly materializing. After having come through the unsightly backsides of major cities for most of the trip, this was unexpected. The sky turned pink, the sea rose-gold and sparkling, with the rising of the sun.

It was breathtaking, one of the most glorious sights I’ve ever seen.

After nineteen (eternal) hours on the train, we arrived in Boston.

The trip home was longer, as another train’s battery died and our train had to deliver a new one to them.

The point is that while the in-between places are static, and we often arrive in them for indeterminate stretches of time, they do serve a purpose. We can rage at the nothingness there, fervently railing at the passing of time, or sink into numb paralysis for the duration. Or we can see the in-between places as connectors, the temporary segue from one phase of our lives to another. Away from the energy, the hustle and bustle of life in this world, the in-between place may be one of needed rest, one of learning, reevaluating, recharging, restoring, until the path becomes clear and we can move on with living where the action is.

The next destination may not look like what we imagined.

It could, in fact, be far more glorious than we ever dared to hope.

Reflect: What in-between places have you experienced in life? What stories can you tell about enduring and getting through to the other side? If you are in an in-between place now – strength to you. It is temporary.  Reorient yourself; think, and begin preparing for what is waiting for you just ahead – be ready to meet it.

And write!

A time to break down, a time to build

Old hotel

Old hotel. PhillipCC BY-SA

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven . . . a time to break down, and a time to build up . . . . 

Ecclesiastes 3:1, 3b

Along the country byways where I live, there are lots of old houses and barns in various stages of falling down. There’s an odd elegance to the sway of a gray weatherboard structure still holding its own, somehow, after decades, maybe even a century, of standing. Eventually, the wood returns to the earth, and the earth, in time, takes it back into itself.

I don’t know why I love dilapidated houses and barns so much, beyond their elegiac grace. I do not know why I find pictures of abandoned structures like schools and churches so compelling. Eerie and haunting, too, but mostly intriguing. Perhaps it’s due to my love of story, my wanting to know who was there, when, and why the places were abandoned – where did all the people go? Is there no one left who cares any more?

I only know that there’s a time to break or tear down, just as there is a time to build.

This doesn’t just apply to old, unsafe buildings.

It might apply to us, as we age. With time our bodies break down, albeit slowly, as they are not meant to keep going forever. Sorry, I do not have a build parallel for this.

It might apply to systems, procedures, approaches that once worked and don’t anymore – a time to examine, evaluate, break down and build anew.

Which begs the question: When is it time to break down? To build?

When the structure is dangerous, apt to cause harm, can no longer be used for the purpose it was originally intended, needs far too many reinforcements, has limited or no more effect, the time has come to break it down.

It’s the inevitable, really.

If a purpose remains, and a structure is needed, it can be built fresh. Stronger, more durable, more appropriate, more effective, more creatively, sometimes even simpler than what was there before.

Take stock around you. What’s falling down? What needs to go? What needs to stay, be scrapped, be rebuilt altogether from the ground up? If it’s not working, why, and where should you begin?

And do you mean for what you build to last for a day, a year, or a lifetime? The planning and the vision make all the difference. The foundation is the most essential part.

Consider who you’re building for, and why.

You’ll find the way.

It may be time.

Mastering the monster

School bus

Bus #147. SebamirumCC BY

Life takes many unexpected twists and turns – a friend of mine says, “Life is one wild ride.” The mysterious is frequently interwoven with the breathtaking, the brightest moments often collide with the darkest, and the greatest desires of our hearts almost always involve epic challenges.

It took me the better part of two decades to finish college, for example.

I married at twenty, quitting college with a year and a half of coursework in general studies and theater arts. My boys were born. My husband completed two degrees needed for his work. I took a variety of jobs, all the while wanting to return to college myself, taking a class or two whenever and wherever I could. Sometimes I dusted off the old textbooks and plays, reread portions, dreamed of going on with my education.

When my younger son started kindergarten, I took a part-time reading remediation position that became full-time, until the program was cut after a couple of years.

“I’d like to keep you on, if you’re willing to take a teaching assistant job in first grade,” my principal told me. “Furthermore, there’s a distance education cohort beginning for paraprofessionals to get teaching degrees. You should pursue this – you’d be an excellent teacher.”

I pondered the prospect. A teacher. At the elementary level? I don’t know. High school English, maybe, but . . .

“It’s a consortium,” the principal went on. “If you’re a full-time teaching assistant, our county qualifies you to attend with financial aid. The books are even covered.”

Here it was, the long-awaited chance to finish school, only it didn’t look exactly like what I imagined.

The principal noted my hesitation. “It’s a perfect opportunity. What are you waiting for?”

Turns out that the program had K-12 reading certification built in.

That was the tipping point.

I love roller coasters. They climb and climb, gaining momentum, then – wooooosh. Hold on tight, as you don’t know what’s coming next – a pretty good metaphor for the wild ride of life. I applied to the program, got in. I loved my classes, my advisor, my instructors, my classmates. Returning to college was exhilarating.

Until.

“Of course, as a full-time teaching assistant in our county,” my principal said, “you’re required to get bus driver licensure.”

WHAT? 

I’m not overly fond of driving in the first place. The idea of maneuvering something as big as a bus, loaded with kids, being the only adult responsible . . .

“I’m not sure I can do it,” I said, going cold and clammy. My stomach lurched like it does after a sudden twist on a coaster, only worse.

The principal smiled. “Yes, you can. Look at it as something that gets you where you want to go.”

That’s what it came down to. If I wanted to finish school, to teach – which I now wanted to do more than anything, the ultimate situational irony – then I would have to face the big yellow monster.

My dad had driven a school bus when he was in high school. So had his sister. Back in their day, students were drivers. Daddy told stories about students tampering with the governor so the buses would go faster – I could envision the buses bumping down the country dirt roads, whipping around the bends in thick clouds of dust, kids bouncing wildly. He told the tales with glee; I listened in horror. While I darkly imagined Daddy’s great amusement on learning that I’d be driving a bus, if he’d lived to see it, this connection to him helped, if only the tiniest bit.

Look at it as something that gets you where you need to go.

I couldn’t let a bus stop me from finishing school or embarking on a whole new career that stretched out before me, glimmering and beckoning like the sea.

I signed up for the training.

The trainer started off with lots of stories, such as a driver once tipping a bus over by trying to avoid a squirrel, which is why we should never swerve if an animal runs in front of the bus.

I put my head down on the desk.

Then there was the first exam: Memorizing all the parts of the bus, how these parts are connected, what these parts do and why, what every light means. This was conducted by walking with the instructor, pointing everything out and giving an oral explanation. A written exam was also given.

I briefly considered failing these exams but my pride wouldn’t let me.

The training culminated in behind-the-wheel practice with the instructor, who asked: “Ever driven a Mercedes before?”

“No sir,” I answered.

He chuckled. “You’re about to now.”

I thought he was joking.

He wasn’t.

The bus I learned to drive on was made by Mercedes-Benz – who knew? It almost drove itself.

I managed to get this monstrous thing, this almost-airplane, through the narrow tree-lined streets of the nearby little old southern town without doing harm to anything until the instructor said: “All right, make a stop. Let these imaginary kids off the bus.”

I made the stop, opened the bus door. The flashing lights came on, the stop sign came out. I even counted imaginary heads.

For the first time, I thought: I’ve got this. It’s not so bad.

Then, as I closed the door to move on, the instructor said, “STOP!”

“What?!” I jumped a little in my seat. I stood on the brake.

“You just ran over a child,” said the instructor.

“I – what? How? I counted all the imaginary heads!”

“You didn’t check your mirrors. Kids can hide close to the bus and you’ll never see them if you don’t check all those mirrors. That’s why they’re there. Kids have been killed that way.”

I returned to work that afternoon in the deepest funk. A teacher assistant colleague greeted me: “Hey, how’d the training go?”

I sighed. “Not great. I ran over an imaginary child.”

My colleague grinned. “How did the imaginary parents take it?”

I laughed in spite of myself.

Still, I put myself on the prayer list at church. Seriously. The youth minister consoled me: “Look, when the time comes, God will give you driving grace.”

He was right.

The first time I had to drive, on my own, with real kids, it wasn’t a magnificent Mercedes bus but an old “cheese box,” as the kids say. I boarded with driving grace in my head and rosary beads in my pocket, given to me by a friend – and I’m not even Catholic.

I – and more importantly, the kids – lived to tell about it.

In fact, my driving the first-graders on their field trip to the movies (a trip of about three miles, consisting of three turns, one of which I took too close with a back wheel going over the curb, causing the bus to sway and the kids to scream), made their writing journals. When the teacher asked them to write about their favorite part of the trip, our entire class wrote various versions of this, with various spellings: “My favorite part of the field trip was when Mrs. Haley drove the bus.” On all the pages I was depicted at the wheel of the big yellow monster, my hair flying in the breeze for some reason, and smiling.

In the eyes of the kids, apparently, I was a great success.

I consider my mastery of the yellow monster my most dubious achievement, closely followed by my passing a college course on golf. No animals ever ran in front of me, all the kids got home, and other than the door handle rolling off one day and causing me to drive back to school with the stop sign out and all the lights flashing so that every car on both sides of the road pulled over, I am happy to report that I only had to drive a handful of times without incident until I finished the teaching degree and moved on, when I no longer had to drive a bus.

It did, indeed, get me where I needed to go.

Those obstacles that stand in the way of what we want, where we want to go – there’s no shortcut, no way over or around them. The only way is through, even when it doesn’t seem feasible, beneficial, or possible.

Whatever it is, whether it looms in front of you, in your past, or inside you, face your monster. Look it in the eye.

Then make up your mind to master it.

Grace be with you.