Today is going to be long ago


Beyond the sundown is tomorrow’s wisdom, today is going to be long, long ago.  -Thomas Hornsby Ferril 

Daddy paid the bill and we left the doctor’s office. My arms burned and ached from the allergy injections. We’d waited a long time for the injections, despite having an appointment every week on my father’s day off. We’d waited a long time after the shots, one in each arm, too, in case of a severe reaction. The day itself was shot now. As we crossed the parking lot to get in the car, I thought: Nothing ever changes. We come, I get the shots, my arms hurt for another two days. I still can’t sleep a whole night through because of asthma attacks. Balling up with my knees under my chest, my head on two pillows, helps me breathe sometimes. I can take in air but I have to push it out. My chest rattles. The wheezing comes most often at night. It’s worse in spring and fall – every Easter and Thankgiving, my parents say. Each night Daddy pours more water in the vaporizer in my room, refills the little metal tray in the lid with Vick’s menthol. The contraption steams and sputters for the duration of the night, but the only effect I can see is the loosening of the tape holding my posters on the walls of my bedroom – posters I bought at the book fair, one of a tabby kitten dangling from a limb, captioned “Hang on, Baby, Friday’s coming!” and a red poster of a sunset, with “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us” – until my posters fall down.  Every day I try to stick them back on the moist walls. I am tired. I can’t rest at night, I can’t rest after school because the kids Mom babysits at home want me to play and there’s nowhere to go, no getting away from them. 

I walk in silence by my father, across the ugly gray concrete parking lot, my arms burning, knowing those kids will be at the house when I get home. It’s the same, day after day, night after night, forever. Nothing ever changes. 

I don’t know how I can keep going on. 

I was only ten years old. 

I didn’t know to attach words to my feelings – boredom, depression, in a rut, despair.  I never communicated the heaviness of my thoughts to anyone at the time – I have always been quiet by nature. Since I couldn’t run in P.E., because it triggered my asthma in the days before inhalers, I spent more and more time reading and writing. 

This was my salvation. My escape. The way out of the daily sameness, the beginning of overcoming, of strength. I described the color and the hot, cinnamon taste of Benadryl in my fifth-grade memoir – the teacher responded, “What clear, great detail!” That was the first time a teacher praised my writing – here, unexpectedly, was something I could be good at, something to work toward. 

It happened slowly.  I don’t remember the exact turn of events, or the length of time it took, only that the moment of long-ago despair was just that – a moment. Things did change. Eventually I got injections in one arm when doctors decided to combine the serums; then the shots stopped altogether. Unless I am around cigarette smoke or cats, I am not troubled by asthma anymore (though doctors warn me one is never “cured”). My mom didn’t babysit the pesky kids forever; I could find my “space” again. I have never had serious bouts of depression, despite the fact that it runs in my family. 

Looking back now, I can see where that long-ago darkness might have been the beginning of a very different story. I was fortunate. I endured. I found my way through with words and pages. Decisions for my health were made with more and more wisdom. 

I remain today, whole and strong, and grateful, because of it. 

Every word, every decision, every moment – wisdom matters. 

If tomorrow is to be. 

Trapped

Hummingbird

Ruby-throated hummingbird tongue. Pete MarkhamCC BY-SA

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

Desperately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

 

 

 

 

Mythical morn

Iceland beach

Sea stacks (Reynisdrangar) and black sand beach,  Vík í Mýrdal, Iceland

The breaking of the wave cannot explain the whole sea. – Vladimir Nabokov

My older son toured Iceland this week, capturing his own abiding images of the exotic landscape.

We struggled to find adequate words for encapsulating the stunning scenery.

Desolate. Windswept. Wistful. These drifted in and out of my thoughts when viewing the photos, although they were a shade off, a tad too dark, didn’t have the exact right feel, weren’t sufficient. Uncaptured words, like elusive, shadowy birds, circled round my mind, never quite touching down.

It’s like being on another planet, my son texted.

Ethereal, I texted back, almost happy with that word, as it’s one I love and it almost fit.

It’s mythical. 

My son nailed it.

He was, after all, the one there taking it all in.

Land of legend and lore, glaciers and volcanoes, sharp contrasts and starkness, sparse, picturesque villages, moody skies and morning mists, Iceland is mythical. Not in the sense of Avalon and Atlantis, for one can actually stand at the volcano’s edge or scoop up handfuls of the black sand at the beach, really tiny pebbles of basalt. The whipping wind, the rocky coast, the crashing waves – the Vikings would recognize these still.

It looks like something out of Tolkien or the Chronicles of Narnia, said my son.

Experiencing Iceland vicariously, I did what I always do when I wonder about things – I looked them up (until this moment, I hadn’t thought that looking things up might count as a hobby; I am saying it’s mine, the next time I’m asked). There in the Internet’s vast sea of words, the facts have as magnetic a pull as the legends.

On the southern tip of Iceland, where my son stood on the black sand looking out at the craggy basalt sea stacks, the ocean is unimpeded all the way to Antarctica – there is no land mass in between. Hence the Atlantic rollers – long, powerful waves – can attack this shore with ferocity. I envision the sea drawing itself back as far as it wants, like a pitcher winding up for a fastball. Treacherous, even deadly (local legend features sea trolls and shipwrecks), there’s yet something lyrical, spiritual, about the wild freedom of the ocean at this point on the globe.

The Earth is mostly water; we are mostly water. 71% of Earth is covered by water; there’s 73% water in the human brain and heart. The ocean’s inspirational pull on us may be that simple – like recognizing like. We see the beauty and the power of the sea and something stirs deep within us – humans have waxed poetic about the ocean from time immemorial.

The thing that draws me most about this particular spot, the fascinating black beach at the village of Vik on the southernmost tip of Iceland, is knowing the ocean is unhindered here, from the shore at the uppermost part of the world to the lowest. The vast freedom, the power. The creative force. It draws me as a writer, as a teacher, as a human. That we are capable of great destruction is an understatement – but that’s not where I am going. From our entry into the world to our exit, there’s not a time we aren’t hindered by obstacles, both physical or metaphysical, taking their tolls on our bodies, minds, hearts, spirits. It’s astonishing how we are inspired to carry on, unfathomable how the smallest of things can be the source of willing ourselves onward – we flow over, around, through what would hold us back, finding peace despite what looms, ever how great, in our paths. As with the ocean, humankind has waxed pretty eloquently, deeply, about trouble, trials and pain. It’s a shared experience; none of us is unmarked. The difference is how we make our way, individually.

To be truly unleashed and still live seems an impossibility, so I ponder the power of unhindered inspiration – the indomitable force that would be. What heights, what depths, what creativity. Ultimate constructive power, unlimited possibility.

If such energy were harnessable . . . well, that’s the stuff superheroes and sagas are made of.

I tap into it as much as I am able, and let it flow on – one grateful conduit of ideas, images, and meaning, in my little part of the boundless, surging sea.

Iceland waterfall

Skógafoss, a waterfall in southern Iceland at the former coastline.

Note: Prior to writing this post, I had been toying with a piece about an enchanting encounter on a beach much closer to home. The titles of these posts are deliberate plays on one another, attempts at capturing the essence of place: Mystical morning.

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.” 

The hallway

Hallway

Hallway. DSC_003. ColinCC-BY

A large part of my job involves helping teachers and students grow as writers. I often define writing workshop as an artist’s studio, a place with time to fall in love with the craft of writing.

As I consider my own writing experiences, the image of a hallway forms in my mind. I am actually in this hallway. I can see numerous doors, one of which stands partially open, and through it I can see a window, and beyond that, trees, bright in the golden light of afternoon, probably in late spring or early summer. The branches sway in a breeze, making the leaves dance and beckon, but there is no sound, not from this vantage point. I would have to go through the door and open the window, probably, to hear the rustling, the insects, the birds, to feel the sun’s warmth and taste the laziness of a free afternoon – if, in fact, the afternoon is lazy and free, as it seems to be from where I stand.

Other doors are closed, and knowing that I can open any of my choosing sends a compelling shiver through me – each door leads to a different place, experience, and story. They are all mine to explore, at my leisure. I will never know what’s behind the doors unless I go and open them. Some lead to the past – when I walk through, I can see my family, some of whom are gone now but alive and remarkably young in this place.  They don’t seem to mind at all when I come – in fact, they seem to welcome my visit the same as they always did. If I go farther, I see old friends, classmates, even people I didn’t know well but who are somehow connected to an idea, a moment in time when I learned something or realized that something mattered. My childhood dogs bounce up at the makeshift gate between the kitchen and the living room in their typical greeting; I smell cigarette smoke, the old Kirby vacuum cleaner, the old worn rug; fried chicken also lingers in the air. But I do not want to stay and wander like a ghost here in my childhood home. I can come back another time, anytime I like.

Behind other doors are chairs where I rocked my babies. Here I sit with their soft warmth in my arms, their fuzzy heads nestled against my neck. I feel them breathing, slow, easy, contented in their slumber. I can stay here a while and just be, just rocking, holding one boy for a long time and then the other. I can see them when they are a little older, one always chipper and friendly, the other absorbed in his own thoughts, spending hours lining up his Hot Wheels or taking things apart to put them back together. They are safe and well in this place, so I will leave them here, after I kiss their satin-soft cheeks once more and tell them that I will always love them.

Other doors, I suspect, lead to worlds that I can still create, both real and imagined. I can only see so far in the future; only some things are certain and I will alternately face them and embrace them as they come. I could linger far too long in the imagined worlds, just to see what will happen, to discover the secrets and the magic, knowing all is of it is at my command.

I am surprised by the door that opens straight into the natural world. I have discovered this about myself, that the workings of nature have a strong pull for me. Some of the discoveries are breathtaking, like the iridescence of a dragonfly’s body, the precise blue and orange painted pattern down a caterpillar’s back, the powerfully sweet fragrance of a gardenia, of honeysuckle, and the tiny war-plane drone of a hummingbird’s wings. Others discoveries are not nearly as pleasant – a horseshoe crab decaying on the beach, a tobacco worm (a non-native North Carolina neighbor recoils in horror – “Is that a dragon?“) crawling on my porch rail, a scar on the wood trim by the roof where lightning struck the house. Not pleasant, but fascinating all the same. I had no idea until I started writing that nature spoke so much to me – just now, as I capture these words, the sun bursts forth from behind the clouds beyond my bay window, shining on the laptop and my hands as I type, like a validation, an invocation.

Other doors lead to mysterious places like cemeteries, where time is irrelevant. I don’t know these people, but I look at the stones, the names, the dates; I read the poems on the older, eroding ones, and I want to know: Who were you? What were you like? What was your life like, what did you love, and how did you die? What’s your story?

The most curious thing of all about this silent hallway is that whichever door I open, in whatever order, wherever I go and however far or for however long, I find myself there. Myself as I was, as I am, as I will be.

I give myself a nod.

And I write.

 

Tripping the write fantastic

Fantasy

Fill your life with love. Dianne LacourciereCC BY-SA

Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable. – Carl Jung

Her teacher sent her to me, to confer about her writing.

Not because the student is struggling.

The student, a fifth-grader, had written twenty pages of complex plot and extraordinary dialogue that revealed character personality and motivation.

“It’s amazing,” explained my colleague. “Out of the blue, she’s just taken off. I thought you could give her some pointers – her story is really good.”

The student, delighted at the prospect, immediately sent her work to me via Google Docs. Here are things I am thinking about, her message stated. She’d made notes about characters, problems with the story line, where she wanted to go with certain parts.

For a moment I felt transported to the future, as if I were an agent or editor receiving book ideas from an established author.

I read the work, praising the strength of the writing on sticky notes: Powerful, believable dialogue! and Excellent descriptive detail – I can “see” this scene vividly.

I looked for a couple of major areas to improve – only a couple – and they had nothing to to with spelling, format, or conventions at this point. The pressing thing at the moment was keeping those rich ideas flowing and clarifying this young writer’s meaning in some spots.

The child, beaming, comes to confer with me at the appointed time.

I sit beside her at my table:

“Ok, I have to know what inspired you. Clearly anyone who writes this much and this well – this dialogue is better than what I’ve seen some adults write! – is very inspired.”

Giggles ensue. “Well, it started with the fantasy writing unit in class. I got this idea of a girl who went back in time to the days of slavery. I am bad at history” – more giggles – “but that time period interests me, especially since my teacher read Chains to the class. That book made me want to go back in time and rescue some of those people, so that is what my main character will do. And she will meet her great-great-great grandmother.”

“That,” I say reverently, “is a story a lot of people might like to read.”

She goes on to share additional ideas that she got from other books like Serafina and the Black Cloak. 

As she speaks, I mentally toast the power of the read-aloud and student-selected texts.

To the student, I say: “Let’s go over what you’ve done here.”

I explain that switching narrators and times is using multiple story lines – “very advanced,” I tell her.

She grins.

I show her places where she lost me: “This is called a plot hole. You know what’s in your head and what you mean to say, but you jumped too fast and lost your reader.”

She nods. “Yes, I see that now.” We discuss ways she might want to fix it.

Off she goes.

That night, the Google Doc returns with revisions and questions.

Today she appears in my room, announcing: “I rewrote the entire first chapter. I felt that readers needed to know a little more about my main character’s life and her family in order to get the rest of the story.”

“Ah,” I reply, “exposition and backstory. That will help your readers.”

We look at the changes together.

“What we have to watch now is your pacing. Don’t spend too long on the beginning or you’ll lose readers – they want to know where this is going, so you want to speed up the less important parts and slow down at the more important ones.”

“And watch for plot holes,” she laughs.

“Indeed,” I smile.

Her ideas come fast and furious, and before we know it, time is up. As she turns to leave, she asks: “When is the next time we can meet?”

My turn to laugh. “Ask your teacher.”

At the end of the day, I return to my room to find a folded paper on my table – a schedule for when she can confer with me every day through the rest of the year.

I think of J.K. Rowling, who said that the idea of a boy wizard fell into her head on a train ride, when she had nothing to write on.

I think of C.S. Lewis, how an image of a faun carrying Christmas presents in the snow popped into his mind.

I think of Suzanne Collins, who grew up on her father’s stories about the effects of war.

I think of my young writer’s inspiration, and how fantasy and fairy tales help us work through the problems of the real world.

I recall telling my young writer: “Stick with it. You will be a famous author one day. I’ll come to your book signings.”

Giggling, she’d replied: “And you will be my famous helper.”

I look at the little conferring schedule in her handwriting, and smile.

We are tripping the write fantastic, she and I.

 

slice-of-life_individual

 

The brain and story

 

Ghosts in hall

Ghosts in the hall. Rachel TitirigaCC BY

My mother-in-law had a stroke one week ago today.

At ninety-one, she came through emergency surgery astoundingly well. In ICU, she was happy to see her children and grandchildren, called them all by name, told everyone how shocked she was that she’d had a stroke. As I greeted her, she held out her hand to me and said, “Hey, you’ve got a birthday this weekend.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, in wonder.

“I haven’t forgotten,” she said, holding tight to my hand.

In the hospital and rehab, she has remained lucid, talking about books, authors, politics, and traveling she wants to do.

So when she occasionally asks, “Hey, little boy, what are you doing over there?” when no little boy is present, or “Who’s that standing behind you?” when no one is, the family gets anxious.

The physician explained: “It’s her brain at work – partly because of the area affected by the stroke and partly due to her declining vision. When she doesn’t immediately understand what she sees or what’s happening, her brain supplies the story, to make sense of it.”

I hung on every word, thinking: The power of story is profound. It’s more than reading or writing. It’s who we are, how we are wired. 

Both Scientific American and Big Think explain: “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” Our ability to solve problems, the scientists say, is tied to our understanding of story: “Perhaps story patterns can be considered another higher layer of language.”

Fascinating, isn’t it, that story is where science and the humanities meet.

Story is the essence of being human. It’s how we make sense of the world and our place in it. Story is how we attempt to understand who we are, and how we stretch the boundaries of possibility and our humanity, by imagining more: “What if . . . .”

As an educator, the visit with my mother-in-law could not have been a more striking reminder that story is critical to student learning and growth. It’s not so much the types of texts that students read, but their interpretations, their stories, about the texts that matter – and that for students truly to be critical thinkers and problem-solvers, they must go beyond synthesizing and responding to what others have written. They must look within and generate their own stories. To not do so is to hamper human nature, to not meet an intrinsically human need – and to starve the human brain.

slice-of-life_individual

 

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.

 

The escape artist

Yellow parakeet

Yellow parakeet. IMG_3172. lobo325CC BY

Yesterday’s post, Just the Right Word, was about writing realistic fiction with a third grade class. I modeled taking an event from one’s one life – a slice of life – to create a work of fiction. As a child, I had a yellow parakeet that frequently escaped his cage (the part about the window in this story is true!). “The Escape Artist” was composed over the course of several days with the class making suggestions during the process, some of which strengthened the story profoundly.

Enjoy. 

Tweety Bird sat inside his cage on his swing, rocking back and forth. He lifted one yellow wing, preened it, fluffed all of his yellow feathers, and went back to swinging.

As if he didn’t know Jake was watching.

“You don’t fool me, Bird.”

Tweety blinked his purple eyes at Jake and kept on swinging.

“Jake,” Mom called from the kitchen, “Did you get the mail for me like I asked you to?”

“No, ma’am,” Jake replied. “I’ll go now.”

As Jake left the living room, he turned back toward the birdcage. He shook his finger at Tweety:

“You better stay put. I’m going to figure out how you keep escaping from your cage.”

With that, he walked through the front door.

As soon as the door closed behind Jake, Tommy popped up from behind the sofa. He was wearing his Batman costume, mask, cape, and all.

Tommy looked to the left.

He looked to the right.

Tommy snuck very Ninja-like over to the cage.

“Don’t worry, Robin,” Tommy whispered to Tweety Bird. “I’m here!”

Tweety Bird chirped happily.

Tommy reached for the door of the cage just as the front door opened and Jake walked back into the living room.

“The mail truck is on its way down the street … HEY! TOMMY! WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING!”

Tommy twirled around and hurtled himself in one motion over the top of the sofa. He crashed onto the floor on the other side.

“Uggghhhh,” came Tommy’s voice from behind the sofa.

Jake stomped over to the couch. “You little dirtbag! You’ve been letting Tweety out this whole time and I thought he was doing it all by himself. Some mystery!”

“Acckkk…” groaned Tommy. “I think I hurt myself.”

“I don’t care!”

“And I haven’t been letting him out ALL the time. Sometimes Robin gets out by himself,” said Tommy, beginning to cry.

Mom, with her radar-hearing for crying, came into the living room from the kitchen.

“What’s going on in here?” she demanded, with her hands on her hips.

Tommy wailed louder. “I’m HHHUUUUURRRRT!”

Mom stepped over to Jake. “What did you do to your brother?”

“I didn’t do anything to him!” shouted Jake. “I caught him trying to let Tweety out of the cage! He’s been doing it all along!”

“Tommy, is this true?” Mom asked the sofa. “Have you been letting Tweety out of his cage?”

Loud sniffles echoed behind the sofa. “Maybe once or twice … and he’s not Tweety, he’s Robin!”

“He’s Tweety, you bonehead!” Jake rolled his eyes.

“Jake!” Mom snapped. “You used to like make-believe, too. Besides, Tweety – or Robin – has gotten out of the cage when you boys are not home, so it’s not always Tommy letting him out.”

Mom shoved the sofa over and pulled Tommy out from behind it. “Come on, let’s go have some cookies and milk, Batman. You too, Jake.”

Just as they turned toward the kitchen, a scratching sound came from the birdcage.

They turned back.

Right before their eyes, Tweety, clinging to the bars on the front of the cage, used his beak to lift the cage door so that it fell open.

Tweety looked to the left.

He looked to the right.

And he flew out of the cage!

“Fly, Robin, fly!” screamed Tommy, jumping up and down, his Batman cape flapping.

“Jake!” cried Mom. “Go grab a dishtowel! We have to catch Tweety!”

Jake ran for the towel. He came back and threw it at Tweety, who was squawking madly and flying back across the room in confusion. The towel landed on Mom’s head.

Tommy ripped off his cape – Jake could hear the Velcro – and swiped at Tweety, who was now flying rather low. Tommy missed. Feathers floated through the air as Tweety flew high again.

Jake stared as Tweety flew as hard as he could across the living room, right toward the huge picture window with a view of the trees in the front yard.

Oh no, Jake thought, he doesn’t know that’s a window! He thinks he will escape to the outside!

Just then, Tweety smacked into the window with a sickening SPLAT. He slid down the glass and landed on the floor.

“NO!” shouted Jake!

“Tweety!” cried Mom.

“ROBIN!” screamed Tommy.

All three of them rushed over to Tweety’s crumpled yellow body.

Tweety’s eyes were closed.

He’s broken his neck, thought Jake. Hot tears stung his eyes.

Then he noticed that Tweety had opened one purple eye.

“Robin, you’re all right!” shouted Tommy, jumping up and down.

“Shhh, let’s be calm and quiet,” said Mom. Very carefully, she picked Tweety up.

Tweety promptly bit her hand as hard as he could with his beak.

“OUCH! Quick, Tommy, give me your cape!”

Tommy handed Mom his Batman cape. Mom covered Tweety, head and all, and wrapped the cape into a tiny bundle.

“Ok, escape artist, back to your cage you go,” she said, and she carried him over, put the bundle inside the cage, and shook gently until Tweety stepped out. She shut the cage door.

Tweety looked at them with his purple eyes. He lifted a wing, preened it, then climbed up the bars on the side of the cage to hop on his swing, like nothing at all had happened.

“I’ll have to get one of my ponytail holders from the bathroom to keep the cage door tied shut from now on,” said Mom. “We must keep Tweety safe.”

Tommy looked through the bars at Tweety. “Sorry, Robin,” he said. “It’s better this way.”

Tweety chirped. He swung back and forth on his swing.

Jake sighed. “At least he’s all right.” He looked at his little brother.

“You know, Tommy,” he said, “I have a Batman flashlight that I used for the Bat signal, if you want it.”

“Awesome!” said Tommy. “I can shine it on the wall behind the cage. I can still play with Robin.”

With that Tweety chirped loudly, flapped his wings several times, then held them out like a bat, just for a second, before he settled back to swinging.

Tommy and Jake stared at Tweety with their mouths hanging open.

“That’s one tricky bird,” Mom smiled. “You never know what he might be up to next.”

Tweety blinked his purple eyes and kept on swinging.

As if he didn’t know all three humans were watching.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer