Mystery prompts…

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, Exploring mysteries, here’s a list of questions that have magically appeared in my supposed-to-be-empty WordPress blog posts this month:

What is one thing that you would change about myself?

What are five things you’re good at?

Do you have a favorite place you’ve visited? Where is it?

What big events have taken place in your life over the last year?

What could you do less of?

Have you ever performed on stage or given a speech?

Tell about your first day at something—school, work, as a parent, etc.

What skills or lessons have you learned recently?

Is your life today where you pictured it a year ago?

All you writer-friends out there know the power of a good prompt for overcoming writer’s block, for reaching far and deep, tapping into memory and emotion. Writing itself is a release. It is healing. Perhaps even preventive medicine. Writing is a unique means of expression, of thinking, of creativity, of craftsmanship. It is a singular key for unlocking many mysteries, the greatest of all being yourself.

When gifts are offered, take them…they’re meant for your benefit, enjoyment, edification. The WordPress elves at work behind the scenes here clearly know this. These prompts are likely meant to be answered one by one (I have written to two: one thing I would change about myself and what skills I’ve learned recently) but today I wonder if I could tie them all into one reflection. For better or worse, here goes…

It is said that change is constant. I am constantly changing, growing older, a little slower. I would not change this. It is the price of having been alive a while. I’m willing to pay it. What one thing would I change about myself? My answer now would be different than it would have been years ago. I might have chosen something superficial, having to do with my appearance. Now I am much more concerned with my spirit. How do I narrow what I’d change to just one thing? I should choose to be more gracious, patient, forgiving, even loving…but as I write, the word listen blankets everything else that comes to mind. I would listen to others more. Not with my ears. With my soul. To hear what lies behind their words, their actions. Words are a thing I’m good with, usually. Were I to comprise a list of five things I’m good at, words are linked to at least half of it: I’m good at reading, writing (so I’m told…I do love it and work at it), imagining, wondering, and drinking coffee. In a way these are the five pillars of my daily life, the things I enjoy most, next to time spent with my family. When my boys were small my grandmothers told me that I was a good mother. Their simple proclamation, a revelation of their great esteem for motherhood, felt like the bestowment of a royal title. My boys have the final say, however. Children know all their parents’ flaws, eventually. What matters is that they know how much they are loved and that they learn to love. It is the beginning of belonging. It is why, when asked if I have a favorite place, I’m always going to talk about my grandparents’ home deep in the countryside, along an old dirt road (it’s gravel now). I haven’t been since the house has been torn down and a new one built for a young family. While I dread going because of that, another part of me desperately longs to go…to walk the old road once more, to remember being a child, hearing my grandmother’s old, old stories and my grandfather’s raspy, warm I love you when he offered his clean-shaven cheek to me for a goodnight kiss… again, listen. I imagine sensing them near even if all I hear is the breeze rustling the Spanish moss which wasn’t there, hanging there from the treetops, when I was a child. Once upon a time, though, there were little bridges along the road, due to the many canals…I don’t know what became of those bridges. But the tiny church at the crossroads remains, where my grandparents are buried with generations of my ancestors. One day soon, I must go. I carry them all and their stories with me… I am their story, the continuation of it, as my granddaughters are mine. They are the greatest event of my life in the last three years, one coming into our family at age three and the other born just over a year ago. They are the big event of my every day. I can almost hear Grandma chuckling…now you understand. Listen, listen. Carve time away from the clamor of the world to be still…to minimize distractions, to be fully present when another human is speaking to me, especially my young ones, especially my quiet son with the musical gifts and beautiful singing voice. So many layers there. Listen. I need to be less concerned with work; it is my livelihood, not my life. The family is my life. My pastor-husband, my pastor-son and his girls, The Boy and his music and funeral ministry, all our dogs, the church, the faith, the Lord God, Giver of all good gifts, including life, are my life. How perfect are His ways. Long ago when I was performing in plays and traveling to audition for acting school in New York, I could not have dreamed it would lead me to where I am now, that at nineteen I’d meet the man I’d marry through community theater. The title of that play: Whose Life Is It Anyway? Not just mine. Ours. It was ordained. I had an inkling of it, that first day after we were married, when we stood in the crashing ocean waves and I held onto my new gold wedding band for dear life, for fear of losing it. I knew salt isn’t good for jewelry. I just couldn’t bring myself to remove the ring. New beginnings are so fragile at first. As are new ideas. All these years into our journey, we still look for the new even within the old: we are going to learn how to use that Dobsonian telescope I got us for Christmas. We shall soon be wandering among the stars, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, all extending their glittering invitation every cold, cold night. I just learned I wasn’t using the finderscope properly. How poetic. Metaphorical. That’s what writing is for me… a finderscope. Through it I see the memories, the gratitude, the loves of my life…the light from years past, still meeting me right where I am today; I would not change a thing about that.

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with thanks to WordPress for the magical prompts and to Two Writing Teachers for the story-sharing place.

Happy holidays to all.

Why I Write—2022

Every year for National Day on Writing, I reflect on why I write.

It’s like looking at a diamond ring in a semi-darkened room. Different facets catch the light, scattering sparks of brilliant color, red to orange, green to blue. Writing, for me, is an inner fire. A living fire. It is in my blood the way that farming was in my grandfather’s blood, that music is in my son’s, that crafting was in my mother’s, that a love of children was in my grandmother’s. I see different facets even in these comparisons. Farming is about sustenance. Cultivating the earth, harnessing resources to make it produce—this is what earth is designed to do. Music is expression, form, response, sounds in time, even color. It can be endlessly repeated and replicated; it is the unique and universal language of humankind. Crafting…it takes skill to make a new, useful thing from pieces placed exactly right, sewing them together so that the seams don’t detract. My mother was given a hand-me-down sectional sofa covered with pink scratchy fabric (it was 1970s horrible). She studied it, measured it, bought earth-tone floral fabric and cording and systematically created a custom slipcover that lasted for years. The love of children…does this not tie all of the above? Creating, nurturing, producing, expressing, a contribution to the future.

Writing is all of this.

One can make the argument that all these things are learned, and so they are. But that doesn’t account for the compulsion to do them even when there is no need. Granddaddy gardened into his nineties when he didn’t have to produce his own food anymore, when all he could manage was two small rows in the old dog pen after the dog was dead and gone. He carried a chair to sit on and rest between the kneeling to weed. My son hears all the instruments, all the harmonies, in a song; he spends hours recording a song over and over with different instruments, singing the different vocals, until it all comes together like he wants it…simply for the joy of accomplishing it. My mother received little income from the clothes she made for people; she crocheted countless baby blankets as gifts. She made flop-eared stuffed bunnies with changeable clothes, for the whimsical fun of it, never making a dime. Craftsmanship is beauty unto itself. Like art. Like music. My grandmother’s face shone like the sun at sight of children. I was one of her greatest beneficiaries, my life indelibly shaped, still being shaped, by her love. I might also mention it was Grandma who sparked my love of reading and writing long before I could do either.

Writing, in the end, has much to do with story. At least for me. The story of having lived and loved. The story of seeking the beautiful. The story of gratitude for finding it, in all of life’s brilliant facets and sparks, even in the shadows. There would not be shadows if there were no light. It is there, always there, for the capturing.

And so I write.

Necklace given to me by my father. Years later, it still shines.

Slices of life recycled

If the writer
observes the world
then the artist
recreates it
and the poet
preserves it all

Knowing yesterday was a milestone anniversary of my father’s death, a friend created this digital image as a gift. She took lines from one of my blog posts, Fresh-cut grass, written in his memory: Grass, though cut, always heals itself and grows again, and you are always present in that sweet scent. She used pictures in my posts to make the grass…here in these blades are slices of my first Christmas, the cross necklace my father gave me, a portion of his Air Force uniform, and a lamppost like the one that stood in the yard of my childhood home; my father used say that when he turned onto the street he could see the light of home shining straight ahead.

I’m in awe of the gift and its artistry.

A metaphor for life itself.

My father’s presence remains in the scent of fresh-cut grass. Here is Sunday’s poem, marking the twentieth year of his passing: September, When Grass Was Green.

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with thanks to E. Johnson for the digital masterpiece and to Two Writing Teachers for the original impetus to start a blog for capturing Slices of Life. I began by writing each Tuesday in April 2016, then every day each March, then for Spiritual Journeys on the first Thursday of each month, and on occasion for other writing communities like SOS— Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog…and every day thus far in the year 2022.

If you are reading…thank you.

We are our stories. Let us write them and live them well. And bring healing to one another.

Filling the bucket

Bucket of Sunshine. gfpeck. CC BY-ND 2.0.

Dandelions represent the return of life, the rebirth of growth and green after a harsh winter, and a display of abundant strength and power.  – Lena Struwe, Director of the Chrysler Herbarium

At my school this year, every staff member is writing notes of encouragement and gratitude for each other. We are calling this “filling each other’s bucket” – everyone has a colorful designated bag for receiving the written messages.

I couldn’t think of better symbolism than this bucket of dandelions. Or the quote.

All too often, we never realize the collective abundant strength and power we have.

It is in the giving that we begin to experience it.

Light reading

A friend who knows my affinity for the natural world gave me The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times. It’s written as a conversation between Jane Goodall and her interviewer, Douglas Abrams. When I say it’s part of my current “light reading” I don’t mean easy (although it is) or frivolous (for it is not).

I mean light as in candleglow dancing on the walls of a dark room.

I’ve not gotten far yet but here are some lines that draw me in the first couple of chapters—flickerings of my own credo:

Hope is a survival trait.

The naturalist looks for the wonder of nature – she listens to the voice of nature and learns from it as she tries to understand it.

Hope does not deny all the difficulty and all the danger that exists, but is not stopped by them. There’s a lot of darkness, but our actions create the light.

And this from an Inuit elder, on confronting and healing our grief, which can manifest itself in the body as physical pain: Make space for grief…find awe and joy in every day.

—these, I believe. They are often the very reason why I write.

Recipe for Survival

Hold onto hope, and it will hold you
Open the ears, eyes, arms of your spirit
Perceive the call of awe, all around
Embrace it. Let the healing begin.

Of the ages

It is said that
the Information Age
is ending
giving way to
the Experience Age
loosely defined
as moving from
accumulation
(our digital output
is greater
than our capacity
to store it
anyway)
to immersion
in the story:
‘Live every moment
of your life
to the fullest,
with as much
sensory detail
as possible!’

(a shift
reminiscent of
the writing rule
‘show, don’t tell’
although in truth
it takes both
to bring a story
to life
and in thinking
of narratives
I pause to consider
this thing called
the unreliable narrator)

then, this week,
I stumbled across
this phrase:
We live in the age of rage

I contemplate the why of it
as my brain follows threads
inextricably, impossibly knotted
through a psychological tapestry
of distortion
information here
experience there
narrative everywhere
(as I once heard a father
tell his child:
It’s your lie.
Tell it like you want to.)

people do tell it
and sell it
and buy it
like they want to

often, it seems,
without an eye
turned toward the age
to come
being too blinded
by continual bombardment
in the now

the Experience Age
I wonder if it might be
more aptly called
the Age of Escape
fleeting as it is

these are the things
I think about
when I sit to write
in the stillness
of early morning
before the sunrise
before the stirring of the birds
nature’s continuity
offering sacred respite
from the Age of Rage
where the broken road
inevitably sends one
teetering on the edge
if not over into
the abyss
of despair

Hope. Martin Gommel. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

An ancient alchemy

One day at dismissal while I was monitoring the hallway, i.e., preventing a stampede, a fifth-grade girl approached me:

Mrs. Haley, I have been working on a story. I was wondering if you could give me some tips?

Of course! Is this an assignment for class?

No, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while…

Even better. Have you written any of this story yet?

Yes, a little, but I’m stuck. C. told me how you helped him last year and he said youre the one to ask…

And so it was arranged that the student would come to meet me in the morning, story in hand.

She brought a friend. Another fifth-grade girl.

I began to sense that this was either a business conference or a council of wizards… maybe both.

The student read her story (a fantasy) and explained that she needed help with where to go next.

We discussed the strengths of her introduction and how to create a hook. The friend’s eyes glistened.

I asked several questions about the characters and their problem-solving adventure (i.e., plot). The story-writer answered aloud, expanding her own thinking. When I made a suggestion or two, both girls’ faces took on an otherworldly light.

Most of all, my young apprentices (I really didn’t say ‘my young apprentices’ — I only thought it as I spoke), if you’re going to have magic in this story, you have to stick to the rules you put in place or you’ll lose your readers. Does that make sense?

Oh yes, said the friend, nodding sagely. It still has to be believable.

And off they went, leaving me marveling in their wake about codes and spells and the power of one’s own mind to imagine the unimaginable, of idea-dust drifting through the atmosphere to settle upon whomever it chooses for bringing forth the story that wants to be told.

For, in a time and place when writing workshop is out of vogue and crafting responses to texts is essentially all the writing the present educational Powers That Be can imagine, what could be more magical than a child desiring to write a story for the sheer pleasure of it?

Nothing, I think. Nothing. It’s an ancient alchemy.

Go forth, young crafters.

Your stories await.

So do I.

So do we all.

John Steinbeck on Storytelling. Jill Clardy. CC BY-SA 2.0

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Special thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge…supporting student writers starts with supporting teacher writers.

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

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