Making the magic

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

It’s the writing process documented throughout the book.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

 

Soul-ache

Only time for a quick hug

Only Have Time for a Quick Hug. JackieCC BY

I recently learned of the UK’s Empathy Museum, which began in 2015. Their mission: To help us look at the world through other people’s eyes. To walk in their shoes.

Literally.

Part of the exhibit, “A Mile in My Shoes,” is an actual collection of shoes worn by a Syrian refugee, a war veteran, a neurosurgeon, and many others. A person can don the shoes and walk in them while listening to a recording of the original shoe-owner’s story.

Another project of the Museum is the Human Library – instead of checking out a book, you can borrow a human for a conversation. “A Living Book,” says the site.

The keys to empathy are story and dialogue. Experiencing what others have experienced.

The Museum was founded by – can you guess? – a writer.

A thousand things flood my mind as I read about the Museum. Although I know it well, the power of story to impact and transform the mind and the heart is driven home again, anew. To live for a moment inside of others, to see through their eyes, to feel the stab of their pain, their fear, their sorrow, their longing, their joy (for joy, too, is a stab; read C.S. Lewis and William Wordsworth) is to bleed away part of ourselves on their behalf. Empathy is a simultaneous forgetting and remembering of our own soul-aches, while standing in someone else’s shoes.

Shoes remain, as stories remain. People do not. I have long been haunted by the image of shoes lying around the wrecked stern of Titanic when it was discovered. Author Charles Pellegrino writes that it took months for scientists to realize that these pairs of shoes, still intact after seventy-three years on the ocean floor, were uniformly spaced about eighteen inches apart, with shoelaces still tied. There’s no other trace of the people at all – not even teeth. Only the shoes remain to mark where the bodies came to rest. Scientists are at a loss to explain exactly how leather and shoelaces endure when no other clothing or skeletal remains are to be found, yet the shoes are there, the final witnesses, the last word in the story of their wearers. (And one more secret of the utterly mysterious ocean).

It is also worth noting how the hardcore scientists, successful in their famous mission to find her, wept over the Titanic.

Empathy.

Soul-ache.

For the suffering of others.

It’s also important to note that the word origin of empathy is rooted in passion as well as in suffering, hence the photo at the top of this post. The little girl runs to hug the stuffed bear in a burst of feeling, then runs away too quickly for the camera. Her image is blurred, ghost-like; a reminder that life is fleeting. She will not be a child for long. She may or may not ever be in this place again to see this bear, but in this moment, she is spurred to action.

That’s what empathy does – the short walk in someone else’s shoes strikes our souls so that we come away changed, wanting to make changes. We are all islands in a common sea, wrote Anne Morrow Lindbergh, twenty years after the kidnapping and murder of her baby boy. The common sea – the human experience, with all of its sufferings, its horrors, its joys, its beauty. See – really see – the people around you. Hear them. Feel their soul-aches, even as you feel your own. That’s empathy. Read it, write it, speak it – and by all means, teach it. A little soul-ache goes a long way in making the world more livable.

For all of us.

Note: The idea of soul-ache came to me while reading Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.”

 

 

 

 

Come SWiRL with me

SWiRL

Our Literacy Lunch team’s T-shirt design

Q: What’s a fun way to engage families in English Language Arts activities with their children?

A: Have a Literacy Lunch!

Every year, families look forward to Literacy Lunch at our school. It’s one of our best-attended events.

Our theme this year, “Come SWiRL with Me,” centered on the facets or domains of language: Speak, Write, Read, Listen (we added the “i” to the SWRL acronym to make a real word), as speaking, writing, reading, and listening comprise the ELA standards and language skills needed across all disciplines.

So, grade levels came up with activities that encompassed all elements of SWRL. Some included poetry, in recognition of National Poetry Month.

 

Spring poems 1st

First graders wrote spring poems with families, to read aloud. Second graders wrote “I wish” poems.

Swirl poem 4th

Fourth graders composed “swirl” poems with families.

Book tasting 5th

Fifth graders treated parents to a “book tasting.”

Wax museum 3rd

Third grade’s wax museum: Meet Woodrow Wilson, Frederick Douglass, and Jackie Robinson. Visitors pressed a “button” to hear the historical figures speak. This was the culmination of a biography writing unit.

After the in-class activity, families went to the cafeteria:

SWiRL - Cafe

All ready for families to eat together – and to write on the tablecloth.

The children seemed to enjoy writing on the paper tablecloths at lunchtime the most – at the end of each lunch, tablecloths were covered with messages and small sketches. One carefully crayoned note from a first grader: “I love you.” Underneath, the neat printing of a parent: “I love you, too.”

Upon exiting, parents gave feedback: They were in awe of the artwork,  fascinated by the children’s ideas and their creative expression. One parent commented: “Public speaking is VERY IMPORTANT!” Another parent, after attending kindergarten’s renditions of reader’s theater, wrote: “I’ve seen so much improvement in my son’s writing and speaking.”

Perhaps most telling is this comment, one frequently echoed throughout our years of Literacy Lunches: “Thank you for this special time with my child.”

Speak, write, read, and listen well, for words are important.

So is time.

SWiRL table

Reflect: What message do you need to communicate to someone today? Make time.

 

Elegy written in the countryside

Tobacco barn

A friend tells the story of a visitor from England who, while riding through our rural North Carolina community, asked: “What are all those quaint, narrow houses in the fields?” My friend chuckled: “Those aren’t houses – they’re tobacco barns.” 

I thought: They’re really elegies written all across the countryside.

I love tobacco barns. Within a short radius of my home stands a grand one with a shiny tin roof, another crumbling in a timbered wood, and another housing two mules – seeing this makes me feel as if I’ve stepped back in time. So, with serious apologies to Thomas Gray, I attempt to pay homage to tobacco barns on this last day of National Poetry Month.

Along the winding roads, bereft, they stand
Beyond their use, and most beyond all care,
Just empty shells of creaking wood, unmanned;
Gone gold, within, leaves sweetness in the air.

The fires no longer burn, nor flues convey
The curing smoke, the farmer’s cash-crop dreams;
Those hands and hearts that worked all night and day
Lie spent, burned out, unremembered, it seems

But for the spectral structures standing yet,
Hand-hewn ghosts, whispering to passers-by:
“Press on, work hard before your sun shall set,
Live, love, build well.” – I hear the old barns sigh.

Reflect: What in your landscape, your neck of the woods, speaks to you? What does it say? Why? Listen – and write. 

 

 

Celebrate today

Dogwood

Dogwood. JenniferCC BY

The first day of April – glorious. A sky as blue as it ever gets, hardly a cloud to be seen. Dogwoods and redbuds, bare just days ago, flowering profusely. On the breeze, the scent of blossoms, almost like perfume – winter daphne, I think.

All marking the end of desolation. Nature composes a theme of renewal with color, fragrance, amber light and birdsong.

At the close of the day, I celebrate its beauty. I celebrate the inherent message of hope with the arrival of another spring. Even the news carries a rare inspirational story about a man opening his front door to find his dog, missing for four years, back home on the porch. He sat down and the dog put her head in his lap – what an emotional celebration that must have been.

Today is also the first day of National Poetry month. I have recently discovered a lost booklet of poems that I wrote as a teenager. All things considered, this particular poem struck me as one appropriately celebratory  – winter is over, spring has returned; a lost dog has returned home; my lost poems are found.

I wrote it when I was sixteen. Back then, I called it “Yesterdays.”

Yesterdays are gone

Leaving nothing but memories behind

And, if meant to be, a chance for tomorrow.

So weep no more

For what once was,

For it may be

Once again.

Celebrate today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forgotten

Forgotten

Forgotten Sounds Pt.II. Marco NurnbergerCC BY

Memory makes us. If we couldn’t recall the who, what, where, and when of our everyday lives, we wouldn’t be able to function. – “Memory Basics,” Psychology Today

This week, I remembered a poem I wrote as a teenager.

Some of the lines returned to me, complete and clear.

I couldn’t recall other lines at all.

I wrote the poem after a dream. In this dream, I was with a group of young people around my own age in a deserted beachy area with trees. We had reunited there on a hazy afternoon when the light is most golden, just as the sun begins to set, and with great joy, we began singing.

Except that I really did not know these people, this place, this song. In the dream I knew I was supposed to know all of these things, and I didn’t. I was meant to belong, to be a part, and I couldn’t. The sense of mounting sadness over the desperate attempt to remember the significance of these people and the words to the beautiful song so that I could join in was overwhelming.

The dream haunted me so that when I woke, I wrote the poem.

Remembering my poem for the first time in years, I wanted to reread it, to recapture the lines that were missing in my memory. I could envision the little stapled booklet I made, could actually recall other poems I wrote in it, word for word.

I couldn’t find it.

I searched everywhere I thought the booklet ought to be – I could not remember where I put it.

Things like this become compulsions for me. The more I searched without success, the more determined I became to find the missing poems.

At some point I realized the many layers of irony folded into this situation: I wrote a poem about forgetting something I could not remember in the first place, because I wanted to remember the experience; not remembering all the lines compelled me to read it again, and I forgot where I put it.

I began to think about what dementia patients must feel like.

But I kept looking, and yesterday, in a box of old notebooks, in a planner under some loose papers, I found it:

Forgotten Remembrance

My mind, it plays a melody

That it hasn’t ever heard

A voice sings in my memory

But remembers not a word

Faces I don’t recognize

Are singing this with me

Sadness streaming from my eyes

Such a haunting harmony

I hear the music chiming there

And then again it’s gone

Hidden in my mind somewhere

Chiming off and on

I ought to know this tune

These words I’ve sung before

I’ll try to learn them very soon

So I can sing them more

I can’t remember this refrain

I’ve forgotten it this far

My mind cries out to know this strain

And what the lyrics are

But all I know is sorrow

A deep and dark despair

I’ll cry and cry tomorrow

For what was never there.

At last. My mind can rest now.

I certainly can’t end on such a dark note, so today I pay tribute to the vital, mysterious power of memory, how it makes us who we are; to writing, which preserves who we are at various points in our lives and sets us free from whatever haunts or hurts us; and to the foresight of my young, rather gothic self for having grasped it.

 

slice-of-life_individual

 

 

 

 

 

All that you hold dear

Fawn in hands

A new idea is fragile, fleeting

capture it as soon as you can.

Find the meaning

what it makes you think

how it makes you feel.

Nurture it

as you nurture the artist within you

so the idea and the artist will grow.

Play with the words

the images will come.

Play with the images

the words will come.

Trust your inner writer

to find a way

of conveying that idea, that image

so that others think and see

and feel.

There’s power in that fledgling thought

in every feeling connected to

 all that you hold dear.

More power in sharing it

than in holding it tight, unspoken.

Let it breathe

let it live.

It wants to.

It is precious.

Even

priceless.

Inspired by my writing workshop with teachers yesterday on “creating the magic”  – first as a writer, then for your writers.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

Crossing the bay

cape-charles-beach

Chesapeake Bay, Eastern Shore, Virginia. Ken LundCC BY-SA

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
   Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
   Turns again home.

-Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Crossing the Bar”

I walked the little beach many times in the five years I lived in Cape Charles. With the ebb and flow of the tide, tiny periwinkle snails bury themselves in the sand. Gulls hovering overhead cry in their piercing, lonely voices. Storms churn the Chesapeake Bay, stirring its hidden contents so that afterward, treasures can be found on the shore – sand dollars, whole and unharmed, prizes to a beachcomber. I collected many.

I was alone on the beach the day I saw the old train coming to the end of the line at the harbor. I’d never seen it come through – Cape Charles is a tiny railroad town that almost didn’t survive the loss of the industry.

Where’s that train going? I wondered. Has it gotten on the wrong track? There’s nowhere to go – nothing but the bay ahead of it. Will it turn around, somehow? Or back up? 

Is it going over the edge, into the water? 

The train kept rolling forward, slowing to a stop at last.

I relaxed.

And the train began to float away from the land, as if by magic, as if it were Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, sprouting a flotation device.

It’s on a barge!

I watched, marveling, as the train sailed out into the bay, a majestic, most rare sight. I imagined visiting fishermen looking up from their bait and tackle to gawk as the train drifted by their boats.

There was something poetic about it, both grand and poignant, filled with awe and tasting of sadness. The gulls cried; a salt-tinged breeze caressed my face. I watched as the train grew smaller and smaller on the bay, until I could see it no more, and turned again home.

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