Essence experiment

My kindred-spirit-blogger-teacher-writer friend Lainie Levin had a fun post this week on a favorite exercise with young student writers: playing with suffixes added to your name, then coming up with a definition of the essence of you. Lainie calls this “nounifying yourself.” Here’s her suggested suffix list:

-itude
-ness
-ility
-age
-dom

-ity
-ship
-sion
-ance/ence

-al
-ation
-iety
-ment

Naturally I had to accept her invitation to compose (read more about her process and see fun student examples in her lively post, Word Play – thank you for this, Lainie!)

Frandom

The quality of maintaining a quiet inner realm despite the world’s clamor, where one’s thoughts are free to be one’s own; typically achieved through experiences with reading, writing, nature, and awe.

A drawing of me by my granddaughter last year: Franna in her Frandom?

‘How to be’ poem

Today on Ethical ELA Sheri Vasinda invites teacher-poets to compose “How to be” poems for VerseLove, in honor of National Poetry Month. The idea is to choose a topic, research it, list facts, and write a poem incorporating those facts in a Do/Do Not format. Sheri says students love this. Imagine their awe at seeing facts take on poetic form…and the power they find in it.

I’ve written of seahorses before; they fascinate me for many reasons. As a writer, the seahorse remains one of my favorite symbols.

How To Be a Seahorse

Don’t worry about being the slowest swimmer
in the sea;
just anchor your prehensile tail to long grasses
so that strong currents
don’t drown you

Don’t worry about your posture
being different from other fish;
let them be horizontal
you stay upright

Don’t worry about having no teeth
and no stomach
and no etiquette;
rejoice that your loud lip-smacking vacuum
enables you to eat constantly
so you can stay alive

Don’t worry about not having scales;
wear your bony armor
with befitting chivalry

Don’t worry how other fish do it;
you find someone
you blush, you flush bright colors
you court for a few days
prim and proper
keeping apart at night
meeting again just after dawn
—ye who are males, step up
sacrifice your own time and energy
on behalf of your beloved
by carrying the babies for her
(even if there ARE 2000 of them)
-out of all the universe
you be Dad Extraordinaire

and commit
for life

Never mind—if you do—
that your scientific name means
“horse sea monster”
—just wonder, if only you can,
little Hippocampus
why your very likeness
is embedded deep
in the temporal lobe
of the human brain
as the central storehouse
for emotion
for learning
for the vast, rolling sea
of human memory.

You can’t worry about that, Seahorse.
Just keep rolling your eyes
in every direction
independently of each other
and swim
(if ever so slowly)
onward

*******

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

Shoe poem

For VerseLove on Ethical ELA today, Andy Schoenborn invites teacher-poets to write “tumble down poetry” about shoes:

“For the small spaces they occupy, poems can cause writers to freeze. To break a poem free, try writing a paragraph or two of prose and, then, watch a poem tumble down with this process… today let’s write about shoes. Please take three minutes and write in prose about a pair of shoes that you’ll never forget… Once your paragraph is written, look for naturally occurring repetition, alliteration, striking images, and moments of emphasis fit for enjambments. Then play with the structure and form as a poem ‘tumbles down’ the page.”

It’s amazing, when you stop to think about it, how many shoe stories we have… this memory from long ago quickly overshadowed all others for me today.

Shoe Story

Fifth grade
studying mythology

the teacher says:
Now you will write
your own myth

sometimes myths
are about inventions
or journeys
or transformations

what can I write
about any of these?

I think
I sigh
I look
around the room

rainslapped windows
there was a time when
my parents would have made me
pull galoshes over my shoes

I hate hate hate my shoes
saddle oxfords
— I call them sadlocks
black and white
or in my case, 
black and gray
needing polish
again

everyone else
wears Hush Puppies
suede desert boots

Be grateful
for what you have
I’ve been told
by various grownups
in my life

(who do not have to wear
sadlocks)

I wonder
who ever invented
these stupid stupid shoes

I wonder when shoes
were invented

—wait—

a picture forms in my mind
a boy, living in a village
by the sea
where the sand is soft
where no one needs shoes…

I grab my pencil

I write him into being

this boy who had to save
his village by climbing
the mountain
where sharp rocks cut his feet
where he made shoes
from big leaves, tied
with strips of bark

on his return to the village
everyone started wearing shoes
in honor of their hero,
Shoeani.

Saddle oxfords. MBK (Marjie). CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Ancient shoes. Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints. CC BY 2.0.

Write more

I started this blog in March of 2016 because I knew I needed to write more. At the time I was leading writing workshop training for elementary teachers and teaching writing lessons across grade levels; I would go on to co-design workshops for teachers as writers. Although I’ve loved the craft all my life, I wasn’t always an active writer; if I was going to encourage others to write, that needed to change. One must walk the walk… I came across the Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Story Challenge too late that year, but I’ve been participating every year thereafter. I didn’t stop writing with the daily March challenge. I kept going on SOLSC Tuesdays. I found other online groups and wrote with them, too… and I kept going when my district moved away from the writing workshop model and stopped providing opportunities for teacher-writers. I kept on going when life took sharp turns. I kept writing because memories started flowing and I didn’t want to turn them off. I kept writing as a means of choosing hope over despair and because I kept coming across interesting things to try. I began recording ideas and dreams in notebooks, all the time thinking about what I might write next…for there’s so much more to write. So many more stories to tell. I love every minute, even when the writing is hardest. I have learned that just beyond that concrete wall is a garden of plenty, if I can just find the hidden door…

I don’t think I would have kept going if I hadn’t been part of a writing community that uplifts, encourages, and inspires one another.

You are the key.

I owe a debt of gratitude to all at Two Writing Teachers.

Fellow Slicers… don’t quit now.

Write more.

When you need a challenge
write more
When challenges are too much
write more
When you need silence
write more

When silence is too much
write more
When you need to know yourself
write more
When knowing yourself is too much
write more

When you need to remember
write more
When remembering is too much
write more
When your heart is full
write more
When your heart is empty
write more

When you are grateful
write more
for you cannot be too grateful
When you are out of ideas
write more
and more ideas will come

When endings come
write more
and find beginnings

My pencil pouch

*******

Thus concludes the daily Slice of Life Story Writing Challenge with Two Writing Teachers. Thank you for thirty-one days of joy.

Tomorrow is the first day of National Poetry Month; I’ll write more in VerseLove at Ethical ELA.

Ingredient poem

Thanks to John Noreen who hosted yesterday’s Ethical ELA Open Write with the invitation to pay homage to food that comforts and sustains us. John focused on process; he suggested that we “create the way we cook.” He says when he cooks, he takes a central ingredient and gets going, improvising along the way.

Sounds like a metaphor for writing to me…

Daily Writing Staple

An idea forms
inside my brain
like an egg forms
within a bird


one moment
nothing
and the next
the shell
of something


I feel new presence
of fragile life
within

or at least
the provisional sac
of nourishment
for building and 
sustaining life
as it forms

deep inside
living membrane

until it should hatch
and eventually fly
on wings of its own


or

like my breakfast egg
boiled for long enough
at the right temperature
the idea solidifies
and gives life
to me

one simple ingredient
containing a whole world
of possibility

and I almost never settle
for just one.

*******

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

Z is for… zapple

Breakfast duty at school… I see raised hands.

I go over.

I am expecting one of the following:

I can’t open my milk.
I can’t open this [bag of apple slices].
Can I have a paper towel? I spilled my ____.
Can I have a cup of water/a spoon/a fork/ another biscuit?

I have my responses ready:

Have you tried?
Have you tried?
How did this happen?

Put on your mask and go get it (x3)… and sorry, you only get one.

This is what happens, however, when I get to the little girl sitting with her sister and cousin:

Child: Look, my apple has a z on it.

Me: A z?

[Child holds up apple slice. Peel has been nibbled so that, yes, a sort of letter z remains]

Me: Wow, that IS a z. I guess you could say z is for apple. No—zapple!

[Child giggles]

Child: Yeah, I can eat it and have magic powers. [waggles fingers in air like a magician. Of sorts]

Older Sister [in spite of herself]: Yeah, you can go ZAP! [performs a ZAP with an air wand]

Even Older Cousin [even more in spite of herself]: Or, you could ZOOM.

Me: Ooo, yes! After eating the zapple, you could zap and zoom down the hall to discover a zebra peeking out of a room…

[offstage light shines on the faces of all three children]

Me [seizing the moment]: That would make a great story, wouldn’t it?

Even Older Cousin [with a determined nod]: I’m gonna start typing it on my Chromebook as soon as I get to class…

I leave them talking excitedly about What Happens Next.

Zapples clearly are magical.

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Zapple… er, Slice of LIFE Story Challenge every day in the month of March. This is my sixth year participating.

Dear Writing poem

Shortly after NBA champion Kobe Bryant died, I watched his film, Dear Basketball, for the first time. I was profoundly moved by his passion for the game and by his gratitude for it. I composed a post afterward, Dear Writing. Today on Ethical ELA’s Open Write, Susan Ahlbrand invites us to write a letter to something we are passionate about, in poetic form.

Here is my first attempt at reworking my letter into an epistolary poem…

Dear Writing,

It is time to tell you
how much you mean to me
for it is more 
than ever before.

Let me begin
at the beginning
when you first materialized.
I was, what, about six years old? 
I wonder now whether I discovered you
or you discovered me
sitting there at the coffee table 
in the living room, 
wide-ruled paper in front of me,
a fat pencil in my hand. 
All I know is that it began with story. 
A pull 
a beckoning
a desire 
to get what was swirling inside me 
onto pages. 
By some great alchemy
my blocky letters
erratic spelling
rudimentary sentences 
ceased to be merely themselves; 
combined, they became something
distinctly Other. 
And there you were.
Almost a living, breathing presence. 

I didn’t know then
that you’d come to stay
that as I grew
you would grow with me. 
That you would, in fact, 
grow me, 
always pulling me to more.
To think more
explore more
discover more
strive more
play more. 
To be more.

Do you remember the diary
Grandma gave me for Christmas 
when I was ten or eleven? 
The front cover adorned
with an illustration of a little girl
trimmed in pink
complete with brass lock and tiny key. 
Do you remember this entry: 
I wrote a story and 
I hope it will be published…
whatever happened to that diary—? 
To that story? 
They’re lost in time. 
No matter. 
I can see that page in my mind to this day
—is it you that keeps this memory alive?

People began to notice our relationship
early on, didn’t they.
Teachers said we were a good thing
and offered tips 
on how we could be stronger. 
Friends and family told me 
to stick with you: 
Please keep writing. 
I owe them all 
for how they shaped
you and me.

Where would I have been without you 
in my teenage years? 
In the early days 
of my marriage? 
Those were the poetry years
the journal years
when you let me glimpse 
the beautiful inside the uncertain
when you compelled me 
to pour out my heart. 
You were bigger than 
my anguish
my anger
my fear. 
You channeled it all, 
absorbed it all. 
Ever how circuitous the path
how violent the storm
how steep the mountain
how dark the night
how deep the pain
you were there
leading me 
to safety
to calm. 

Even now, I reach for you
and you are there. 
Like the ocean
you bring forth 
unexpected treasures
and healing. 
When my emotions 
and energy are spent
washed clean away, 
you reveal over and over 
one thing 
that always remains: 
Hope.

For there’s always more 
to the story
to the ones that I create
to the ones that I live. 
I think that’s perhaps 
the most important lesson 
you’ve taught me: 
This chapter of life is ending.
A new one is about to begin. 
Embrace it. 
This is but one
of your extraordinary powers. 

Then there is
your amazing ability 
to mine my memory…

With you I am any age I ever was. 
I sit on my grandfather’s lap once more. 
He walks with me, holds my hand. 
I hear his voice. 
I am in Grandma’s kitchen
while steam fogs the windows
I am in her arms 
as she rocks me and sings: 
Jesus loves me, this I know
I see my father’s blue eyes
I hear my mother’s laughter 
and the whir of her sewing machine 
late into the night. 
With you my children are still little
my husband is young
black-haired
healthy
whole
and out on the court 
shooting hoops. 
And every dog I ever loved 
comes bounding back to me 
in absolute joy
all my shortcomings
forgiven.

With you, I relive it all. 
The parts I am proud of 
and the parts I’m not
the moments I cherish 
and the ones I survived. 
With you, they all become 
a celebration
of living,
of learning.

I learned long ago 
that I can harness your power 
to attack 
but you showed me 
that this doesn’t bring me peace.
You taught me, instead, 
to defend. 
Not as a warrior 
with drawn sword
but as a careful guardian
of my own mind and heart. 
Not by destroying
but by edifying. 
You enable me to walk 
in another’s shoes 
and see through another’s eyes
to understand that fighting 
doesn’t move the hearts of others
but story does. 

There’s something
of the divine about you.
Marvel of marvels
how a spark 
in the human brain 
becomes a thought 
and a thought
becomes substance 
because of you. 
Like something from nothing. 
Ex nihilo. 
It’s how God created, 
speaking the world into existence. 
With words. 
Without limits.
Anything is possible.
Believe. 

I believe there’s a sacredness 
behind the human spirit’s desperate craving 
to create
to express
to be heard…

which brings me back 
to six years old
at the table
pencil in my hand.

You will outlive me. 
You are my record.
You are what I leave behind.

Let it be the best of me.

Know that you’re an inextricable part
of who I am, 
one of my life’s greatest gifts. 
Meant to be given. 

And so I give you away.

I am grateful beyond words.

I love you.
Fran

One of my many writing notebooks

I want to be the kind of writer…

with thanks to SOS-Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog for the inspiration

I want to be the kind of writer who seizes every moment, carpe momentum, for the meaning it contains, for the uniqueness it brings, for the virtue of its existence and my existence within it, for these are fleeting: my presence of mind and my presence here. I want to the the kind of writer who lets the tap of memory flow full force, who drinks long, deep drafts in thirsty gratitude for every image that lives in the sea of my brain, inside the little seahorse itself. Precious hippocampus, my writer-symbol. I want to be the kind of writer who feeds it, keeps it strong, leaves floodgates open for all that rides the currents of memory, all that rises to the surface, all that washes up like flotsam and jetsam from long ago, even if but random bits of objects or recalled treasure like moments with those I loved and who loved me, still very much alive and real in the iridescent foam bubbling at the edges. I want to be the kind of writer who doesn’t attempt to pin a fragile new idea to the page but who stops to acknowledge it when it appears, makes note of it, gives it room to breathe, to unfurl its wings, for the thing has something to reveal. Yes, I will write to it, write around it, capture it; but softly, without force. Ideas are living things. They are to be nurtured and examined, not hammered and dissected (even in the name of research). I want to be the kind of writer who honors the organic and spiritual nature of the craft and the transcendent power of story in the human heart. It is a matter of mattering. I want to be the kind of writer who spins crystals of my memory, thought, sensation, perception, emotion, and imagination into stories of substance that matter to readers, that maybe add layers of meaning to their moments, too…the way that writers have done, still do, for me. I hear the echo of their words daily as I go about the moments of my living; the writers, the writing, the words, ever-present, tickling the hippocampus, anchoring in my soul, forever bubbling, forming and reforming, spawning yet more ideas. I want to be the kind of writer always reaching for what’s beyond my grasp, always discovering, always inviting awe, always listening, always and infinitely grateful to have been alive.

Carpe momentum.

I am working on it.

The seahorse is a favorite writer-symbol for me, sharing the same name with the part of the brain regulating memory and emotion: hippocampus. Photo: E. Johnson

Spiritual self-care

It is not what I expected in a meeting at the end of another long workday.

A series of self-care surveys.

Not so much the physical, psychological, and emotional ones.

The spiritual one…

There’s my word – awe!

‘Other’, for me: Write about all these things.

Which I do.

And my spirit sings.

Magnetic metaphorica

Writing leads me
on so many journeys

today it was
to the center of the Earth

it all started with
using “compass”
as a metaphor
which led me to wonder
what really makes a compass work
why the needle points
to magnetic north

which led me to
the magnetic field

and crystals in the Earth’s core

and to the discovery
that these crystals
are a type of snow

(iron snow,
but still)

snowing there
in the molten middle
of our planet

and now I’m swimming
in metaphor
the compass nearly forgotten

because in my mind
I see it snowing in Earth’s core
and I know
it doesn’t look
anything like what scientists
are guessing at

and that’s okay
because I started
with only a compass
not even a tangible one

and I found myself
pulled into fiery living snow
hidden from human eyes
and I felt the flapping
of a majestic blanket
as it rippled far
into the heavens

making the auroras dance
to its rhythms
trailing their long veils of light

-where was I?

Oh, right, the compass.

The journey, the journey.
It’s why I write.

NASA’s THEMIS Sees Auroras Move to the Rhythm of Earth’s Magnetic Field.
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. CC BY-NC 2.0