On community

The recent blog series by Two Writing Teachers, Seen, Valued, Heard: Writing to Establish Community, brought to mind a piece I wrote on community two years ago—long before the current pandemic, the transition to remote learning, and our vastly-intensified struggle for social justice. We are all reminded, many times over, that for a communityever how large, small, or microcosmicto flourish, it is imperative that every member sees, values, and hears one another.

What IS community, really? So much more than we tend to think. Philosopher David Spangler wrote: Some people think they are in community, but they are only in proximity. True community requires commitment and openness. It is a willingness to extend yourself to encounter and know the other.” The words of priest Henri Nouwen: “Community is first of all a quality of the heart the question, therefore, is not ‘How can we make community?’ but, ‘How can we develop and nurture giving hearts?‘” And this line from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who died in a concentration camp, strikes me deeply: “The first service one owes to others in a community involves listening to them.”

As an educator, as a human being, I continue to reflect on “community.” Here’s my composition from 2018, followed by a double acrostic composed this morning.

When I think of the word community, I first envision a neighborhood where people are bound to one another by a sense of civic responsibility. A grouping of people or houses does not a community make; a true community develops from like-mindedness about the good of the whole. Protecting one another, helping one another in times of need, maybe beautifying the area . . . on a deeper level, think of these variations of community: Commune, communion. These words have a spiritual color to them. They imply an even greater like-mindedness and focus. Definitions of the verb commune include a passionate, intense, or intimate discussion, the exchange of thoughts and feelings; to commune, or for there to be communion, people gather together out of a desire to share, tap into, or celebrate something profoundly meaningful to all. Such a rapport implies that partakers are there not just to get but to give.

So it is for a community of writers. A grouping of people with pencils, papers, and laptops, within the classroom or without, does not a community of writers make. To write is to put pieces of one’s soul on a page; this, in the scheme of human undertakings, is an unparalleled act of courage. A writing community, then, is a gathering of the courageous in a place where it is safe to share the pieces of one’s soul on the collective pages, with the responsibility to hear, value, and honor one another, and even to help each other beautify the arrangement of words for greatest effect. The writing community is vital to the writer, for, ever how old or young, writers sharpen one another, encourage one another, celebrate one another, and grow together in an atmosphere of commitment, accountability, expectancy, sometimes breathless awe, and glorious release.

Above all, let us not fail to see that hidden word in “community”: unity.

Connected by the arc
Of our humanity, we are more than able to
Make one from
Many, to create a vital spectrum
Upholding both me and you.
Numinous, luminous, an
Iridescent inscribing of graffiti
To us, from us, in ink of heart-bent light
You and I define our sky.

The view of my neighborhood, taken from my driveway last week, between thunderstorms.

Blanketgeist

One recent morning, dark and dreary, as I pondered, weak and weary, after binge-watching vintage noir films (as if one needs more psychological drama on top of taking one’s husband for another ER visit due to his sky-high blood pressure and pains in his still-healing heart, rising pandemic numbers and escalating real-life horrors televised nonstop on the news, hurricane-spawned thunderstorms, demon-possessed Internet connectivity, and Election Year), I’d had enough couch-cocooned passivity. I tossed my safe warm blanket aside. I got up, showered, dressed, fixed my hair and makeup even if I wasn’t going to see another person but my husband and son, who’d taken his dad to pick up new prescriptions. I would face the day and whatever it held, head-on.

Having pulled myself together, feeling quite in command for the first time in a while, strolling back through the living room, picking up random bits of fluff from Dennis the dachshund’s destruction of yet another furred squeaky toy (why do we keep buying these), I noted one of my guys sitting on the couch.

Huh. Could’ve sworn they’d already gone to the pharmacy... barely glancing, bent on my fluff-retrieval mission, I said, “Hey, didn’t know you were—”

Whoever it was, sitting there on the couch, wasn’t.

There were no feet on the rug.

No legs, either.

It was the blanket. Sitting on the couch, right where I tossed it.

Now, this is when it either really pays, or really, really, really doesn’t pay to be a reader/writer/film noir binge-watcher.

Because, voilà! A STORY.

And because, Heaven help me, I know too many, truth is stranger than fiction, brains can’t always process what eyes are seeing, I overdosed on ghost stories and tabloids like National Enquirer and Weekly World News as a youngster, watched too many Twilight Zone marathons as an adult, it’s my fault I’m this wired from excessive cups of coffee, that my mind short-circuits with what and why and how, as in: How could the blanket land exactly like that and look so like a person? Albeit a kind of smallish one? Unless… unless it happens to be covering something heretofore invisible… and how long might it have been sitting here without my knowing?

But it’s only the blanket, right?

I check the driveway. Yeah, my guys are gone. No one’s here. Just me and Dennis, who saw me cleaning up his toy-wreckage and promptly took off for the bedroom to hide under the bed.

I eye this blanket. I walk around it.

All those times I told students to think what if? comes back to haunt me… What if the blanket has taken on a life of its own, after I cocooned myself in it for so long? What if my melancholy has taken form, substance, become a Thing, made manifest by the blanket? What if I’m just, like, finally losing it (would that be so terrible)?

—POP—

I almost come entirely out of my hide to leave it lying beside me as yet another separate Thing. I was beside myself …

It’s just the house popping, does it all the time, you’d think I’d be used to it by now (why is it SO LOUD, it sounds deliberate … what if someone is living in the attic? has been living there for ages and I haven’t known? … don’t be ridiculous, the floor up there is incomplete, no one has fallen through the ceiling… yet…).

Well.

The blanket isn’t moving.

It’s just sitting. Rather benignly.

I decide to take a few photos (proof, you know. In case of… whatever).

That’s what I said I was ready to face, right? The day and whatever it held? Head-on?

Be careful what you wish for…

So silly. Absurd. Over it.

Time to reveal what is and isn’t real. I reach for the edge of the blanket and

—is that faint chuckling I hear?

Learning decay wordplay

Today on the Ethical ELA blog, teacher-librarian-poet Linda Mitchell kicks off a five-day Open Write invitation by using lists for composing poetry (read her beautiful “Wishing Well Price List” poem and other inspiring offerings here).

Now, I am a notorious list-maker, so much so that my husband once asked: “What are you writing now?”

To which I replied, absently, while hunched over a scrap of paper: “A list.”

“ANOTHER list? For what?”

I hesitated to confess, but I did, in a decidedly small voice … “A list of lists I have to make.”

So. If I am going to base a poem on one of my myriad lists, I must choose quickly or I’ll never begin.

The first thing I turned to in my scrawly notebook idea-keeper was a list of rhyming words based on the phrase “learning decay.” I heard a fellow educator use it recently, expressing concern for children returning to school in the fall after having been out for five months (or longer) due to COVID-19. That idea has been sitting dormant … maybe waiting for just this moment, this prompt, as a lens to lend focus. What can I make of this list? What would help prevent “learning decay” for kids? For ANYONE? For me the answer is always twofold: Read. Write. Always.

One last thing: Kids need to know that writing is more than an assignment and generally hateful chore. They can do it anywhere, anytime, about anything. There are no limits, only endless discoveries. A notebook is a gateway for making sense of the world and discovering what you think and feel … a safe haven, a springboard, a sounding board, a lifeline, a reliquary for housing fragile new ideas, precious fragments of self. It can be on paper. On a screen. It can be a recording. A drawing. Any means of capturing thoughts, impressions, expressions. I use multiple mediums, myself. You’re reading one now. To me, moments spent writing are never wasted; growth is inevitable.

Here’s my rather rapid-fire poem based on “learning decay” and the list of rhyming words in my notebook:


Learning decay?
No, not today.
Strive to allay.
So invite play:
a word ballet,
a thought bouquet.
True soul portray,
not self-betray.
Notebook away,
the cost defray –
Recoup the day.

The bottle

Today I have a literal “found poem.” Meaning not one derived from another’s work but as in finding it while going through folders from previous school years and unearthing poetry I’d modeled for students on writing around an object. I remember taking three objects with special meaning to me so the kids could choose which I’d write about.

They chose the bottle.

Which I found after my grandfather’s death, visiting the farm where he was born. It was the second and last time I walked this piece of land. The first time, my grandfather, grown old and frail, walked with me. Ten acres of fields bordered by trees is all that remains, but he showed me where the house once stood, and the barns, and the henhouse … all gone without a trace now.

Except for some long-buried treasures.

In the old days, farm families had a trash pile. What wasn’t burned away with fire, or washed away by ages of wind and weather, or destroyed by perpetual tractors and harrows, might be swallowed by the earth until the earth is ready to give it back.

I wasn’t expecting such a gift the day I walked alone, mourning my grandfather.

So, I told the students, as I prepared to draft, when you write about an object you might also consider the feeling the object triggers in you. For me, with this bottle, it’s wonder. I want to incorporate a sense of wonder in this poem.

And so I wrote for them, and they enjoyed making artistic suggestions (they wanted it to rhyme):

Granddaddy is gone
And I walk his old farm
How he loved this place
This wide-open space
Nothing now to see
Where barns and house used to be
Just an empty field
After harvest’s yield
Cold breeze blows
Through my heart, it goes
When I spot in a bit of grass
Sunlight glistening on—glass?
I momentarily forget my hurt
As I dig it from the dirt
—a bottle, imagine that
No telling how long it sat
Buried deep in this ground
As the as the years circled round
Whose hand touched it last
In that long ago past?
Clear glass, heavy, yet small
Cracked but unbroken, all in all
What unseen secrets must it hold
This bottle of stories untold

It holds untold stories, all right. I’ve not determined exactly what tincture this old bottle actually held. The faintest embossed image of a root, almost worn away, remains on the front. A health tonic, likely. I know my grandfather had a sister who died of diphtheria at age three, in 1907. I doubt the bottle is that old but I have visions of my great-grandmother nursing her ailing children and tossing that empty bottle onto the trash heap…

Sparking me to attempt a didactic cinquain:

Bottle
Antiquated, weather-worn
Eroding, cracking, enduring
Poured out for healing
Elixir

Or maybe a double reversed etheree:

Empty of that for which you were fashioned
vessel of life-blood for veins long ceased
drawn from roots to nourish my own
cold glass clasped in hands now still

spooned in mouths now silent
elixir fully
poured out, consumed
every drop

gone
cast off
forgotten
swallowed by earth
kept year after year
without ceremony
lying silent, eroding
enduring seasons, weathering
cracking but enduring, determined
to remain clear with your story obscured.

—oh, little bottle.

How I wish you could speak.

Write bravely

Today concludes the thirty-one-day Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers. Today I cross the finish line with many fellow Slicers, having written a post each day.

But the writing doesn’t end here.

Nor does the challenge …

That’s the thing. Now, more than ever before in our lives, is a time to write.

The photo above is of a pocket notebook a friend and mentor gave as a parting gift to all who attended her retirement celebration years ago. Her love of writing and advocacy for teachers as writers inspires me to this day. She also passed the torch of facilitating district writing workshop training to me … until this year, when it is no longer offered. But I carry the notebook with me everywhere I go, just to remind me …

Teachers, students, families, friends, citizens of the world, all … today I offer the same to you, in the ongoing composition of life: Write bravely.

*******

write your stories

share your glories

write bravely

write for healing

name the feeling

write bravely

write all your rages

fill all your pages

write bravely

write through your tears

conquer your fears

write bravely

write of the past

save it at last

write bravely

write of your sorrows

and your tomorrows

write bravely

write them for you

and for me, too

write bravely

write bravely

write bravely

Global heart map

Yesterday I read about LitWorld’s Global Heart Map Project.

I’ve created heart maps before with students, for staff development, and for workshops on teachers as writers. I have, and love, Georgia Heard’s book: Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Writing.

But this global project literally caught my heart.

In the words of LitWorld: “Heart Maps allow us to connect with each other by sharing the ideas and feelings that define us in the most elemental of ways —and in these uncertain times, that connection is more important than ever.

Their call is for submissions of heart maps as a means of inspiring hope and strength around the world. For me, at the moment, it’s about the collective story of humanity, uniting now in time of great need. This is something children of all ages can do to express their fears, concerns, gratitude, and love. And, with distance learning in full force by necessity, I cannot think of a better way for teachers and students to connect, combine, and contribute to the world.

The directions on the site about how to submit are simple, as is the invitation to create the heart map: “Inside the heart, draw or write about the ideas, the feelings, and the things that are most important to you at this time.”

And so I did.

Up until now, I’ve only written words on my heart maps. This global one, in these times, seemed to call for something more … so I drew what’s in my heart today.

I’ll supply you with a key, in case.

In the center of my heart: Faith. I have never been more grateful for it. This is where my map begins.

At the bottom of the map: Hope, as the rising sun; I see everything else in its light.

The rays of Hope are shining on a clouded world. If you look closely, all around the rim of the world are the words The Earth is upside down. The Earth is upside down … the compass directions of N and W are there but the map must be turned upside down to see them as they should be.

On the left, Friends, above it, Family, and between them, Books; this wasn’t intentional but it occurs to me that books ARE my friends and my family, too … there’s clearly some subconscious stuff coming to the surface here…

Beneath Books: The American flag. My country, ’tis of thee, my home sweet home … how my concern increases daily for your well-being … for our well-being … Old Glory touches Faith. Behind the flag is is a chain; on each link, a tiny letter, spelling Technology. How grateful I am to be living in a time when isolation is only physical and that technology exists to keep us connected to one another.

Looming rather large at the top through the middle: A rose. It developed of its own accord out of the swirls around Family. I found myself just drawing it out. Why should a rose appear here in my heart map? What does it mean? Maybe it’s again representing my country; the rose is the national flower of the United States. And of course a rose stands for love. I think it may be a memorial flower, for those who’ve already died in the ravage of COVID-19. Most interesting to me … the words sub rosa, “under the rose,” mean secrecy and confidentiality … if you look, you’ll see the bottom of my rose is connected to Writing. I don’t know why I connected the rose to Writing. I just knew the rose should spring from the end of the word. I don’t know the secret yet. I’ll probably have to write to find out. Even further sub rosa are tiny music notes; at the edge of the upside down world, in light of Hope, a song remains in my heart.

Beside the pencil for Writing is a teardrop for losses and sacrifices made in this pandemic, and a caduceus representing the medical profession, fighting hard on behalf of us all.

Note that entire upper right corner is cracking. My heart breaks for Italy today; their losses, the horror. It’s staggering. That’s the Italian flag there behind the praying hands, encircled with the word PRAY repeated over and over: PRAY PRAY PRAY for the tide to turn in Italy …

Oh, World.

Today you are my heart.

Self-care offering

During the month-long Slice of Life Story Challenge on Two Writing Teachers, fellow Slicer Leigh Anne Eck decided to host a virtual Spring Fling party. The price of attending: Three of your best self-care tips for enduring this time of sequestering (my word of choice, as I am already weary of “social distance” and “quarantine,” even “shelter in place”… more on that later …).

Thanks for the invitation, Leigh Anne! Here’s my tripartite offering.

Self-Care Tip One: Remember, revisit, relive.

Think back on the happy moments of your life. Maybe in childhood. Maybe connected to a place you love. A person you love. The moments don’t have to be major ones like weddings and personal victories; they can be simple, really happy moments. A time you felt safe, secure, at peace; it may be laced with laughter or wonder. Then go back. Recall the setting—the lighting, the season, details of the surroundings, smells, objects, who was there, motions, words, thoughts, and why you felt happy. If you stay there a while, the scene will fade in clearer and clearer. Write it. Write your memory. Bring it out of the attic of your mind. Dust it off. Let it breathe. Write it in present tense, because you are actually there, living it; the moment is now.

Self-Care Tip Two: Write a letter of gratitude.

Think of someone who’s been a guiding influence or great inspiration in your life. Maybe someone who believed in you when you needed it most, or someone who’s encouraged you. Write a letter to this person to say “thank you” for impacting your life for the better. It could be a person who’s been part of your life for a long time, or one who appeared for a short but important while. Tell this person why you’re so grateful for what he or she has given you. Then … call this person and read the letter. Or send it in written form. And, if your person should happen not to be living now: Light a candle this evening and read your letter aloud. Or find a favorite place outside to read your letter aloud; maybe take a gratitude walk at your favorite time of day and read it aloud.

Variation: This could even be a letter to a favorite pet. Or to God.

Self-Care Tip Three: Abide.

I can’t take long walks at present because of a broken foot, but when it’s healed, I’ll resume walking around the churchyard with my youngest son. Many times we talked and I got to hear the innermost workings of his mind and heart. Other times we walked in silence, and I absorbed the images around me. The gardenias budding and the waft of their sweet perfume (impressions come with images). The sparkle of quartz in the little rocks scattered along the pavement, the tiny wild violet growing in a crack. The long limbs of the weeping willow, whispering and dancing in the breeze, the setting sun turning the white steeple to fiery rose-gold … you get the picture.

Just walk. Abide in nature, in silence. Take a notebook to capture what it shows you. Write what you see. These are abiding images. Listen to their whisperings, stirrings, songs. Write (and sketch or photograph) what comes to you, and abide.

Bonus Hostess Gift: Leigh Anne, I’d have brought the precious request of your heart—toilet paper—but as you know, alas, “there’s not a square to spare.” Instead I bring the board games of my childhood: Parcheesi, Monopoly, Life, Chinese Checkers, Backgammon/Acey-deucey, as well as Yahtzee and jacks … jacks! Do kids know what jacks are anymore? Give me a while and I’ll remember all those cool tricks I once knew…

Enjoy this rare time with your families, my friends.

Take good care.

Read like a hero

The coming of spring at my school means it’s time for Literacy Lunch, an annual event where families are invited to take part in literacy-related activities in class followed by lunch in the cafeteria with their children. It’s one of our best-attended events. We do it over three days; parents with multiple children typically come on all three. The comment they make most often: “Thank you so much for this time at school with my child.”

It won’t happen this school year.

Our theme was to be Read Like a Hero! Our committee, entitled Reading Incentive People, otherwise known as the RIP, brainstormed and came up with suggestions to use with families. Note the emphasis on writing to be read aloud and art, which can also be “read”:

The “hero in me” digital word cloud (student photo with digital word cloud of student’s character traits)

Any reading/writing about community heroes OR superheroes

-“What makes a hero” activities, such as artistic representations of adjectives that describe a hero, with discussion

Character development (create a hero; use heart maps? ) Note: I’ve done this when teaching fantasy writing—we used heart maps to create villains!

Research and present living/historical heroes (tie to social justice?) Consider having kids present as a wax museum! Note: We’ve done a wax museum before, with students holding a “button” on one hand for families to press and hear them read as their character, in costume. EVERYONE loved this.

With heroes OR superheroes: Consider comic strips, saving the world, or any activity incorporating beginning, middle, and end

Onomatopoeia art/action word art for heroes/superheroes

Handprint heroes, real or superhero, with written stories to be read aloud

Create masks representing heroes, with corresponding poetry, story, or play writing, to be read/performed

Create action figures, with story writing; what about a short action film?

Opinion writing about the superpower students would want and why, to be read aloud

Favorite hero/superhero costumes welcome, so students can truly “read like heroes”

THE POINT: Creatively celebrating the joy of reading and the value of it—hence, being a reading hero.

I share this now for several reasons.

First being that our theme was set in motion before COVID-19 hit; we’d be gearing up for it at school now.

Secondly: I wonder if choices of heroes would be different, if kids and families would now choose to research, represent, or write and read about doctors, nurses, government officials (Andrew Cuomo, anyone? And I’m not even in New York!) How about those who are providing childcare for medical professionals and food to those in need? Maybe strangers who share their stash of toilet paper? People making and distributing hand sanitizer for free? The concept of hero, in just a few weeks’ time, is suddenly redefined.

And as for comic strips … how many might feature a specially-created superhero to defeat the monster COVID-19, also known as CoronaVirus? How many fictional doctors or kids in a lab might create an antidote?

Imagine a student creating and reading that aloud.

One day, my school will hold our Read Like a Hero event on campus—I already have the shirt (the lead photo). I am wearing it as I write this. One day, we’ll all enjoy gathering to celebrate literacy, learning, and lunch together—when we’ve defeated the tiny viral archenemy currently terrorizing us.

Until then … here’s to reading and being the hero of living one day at time.

A hero is someone who, in spite of weakness, doubt, or not always knowing the answers, goes ahead and overcomes anyway.

—Christopher Reeve

When I was death

Seems it’s time for some fun … here’s a memoir initially drafted and revised over several days in front of fifth graders, who chose the topic from several I gave them. Today I dust it off with an appreciation, greater than ever, for the power of improvisation …

*******

Mom hung up the phone. “That was Diane’s mom. There’s a costume party at church and Diane asked if you want to go.”

“YESSSSS!” I shouted.

“That’s what I just told them.”

I loved dressing up. I used to do it for book reports in my fifth-grade class. Once I was Aslan from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which was really fun, except that my tail kept falling off. How exciting to have another opportunity to be someone or something else! What will I be? Maybe I can talk Grannie into taking me shopping for a gypsy costume, or maybe a cowgirl …

“Here’s the thing,” Mom went on. “They’re coming to get you in about an hour.”        

“Oh, no!” I cried.  “I don’t have a costume! What will I wear?”

Mom smiled. “We can think of something.”

She had improvised before. When my sister and I were maybe six and eight, we went trick-or-treating dressed as a little old lady and a little old man. Mom found a flowery dress for my sister and suspenders for me. She drew wrinkles on our faces with a brown eye pencil, dusted our hair white with baby powder, and even sketched a little mustache above my lip. When I saw the photos later, I didn’t recognize us; I even asked, “Who are these short old people?”

Now Mom went down the hall to the linen closet. She came back to the kitchen with a white sheet.

“M-o-m-m-m,” I moaned, “that’s lame. I don’t want to be a ghost.”

“Who said anything about being a ghost?”

She somehow twisted the sheet around me until it looked like a long white robe. She pinned the part around my arms so that I had long, floppy sleeves. She followed me to the bathroom where I looked at myself in the mirror.

“What am I supposed to be?”

Mom said, “You figure it out.” 

She walked off and left me there.

“MOMMMMMM!”

I could not go to the party like this. I didn’t look like anyone or anything; I just looked silly. This was worse than being a ghost.

In the mirror, I contemplated my long brown hair, which came to my waist. What I could I do with it?

Suddenly I wanted to look really creepy. I grabbed Mom’s comb and hairspray. I teased my hair until it was wild and looked like I’d never combed it a day in my life. Kind of cool, but not enough. I fetched my watercolors from my room. Back at the bathroom I painted big, black circles around my eyes. Better, but I still didn’t feel finished yet.

Mom came back to check on me. “How’s it going?”

“Ok. I need something more. I don’t know what.”

Mom studied me for a minute, then disappeared from the bathroom. She returned with a bottle of white shoe polish. “This might do the trick!” She proceeded to sponge my arms, hands, face, and neck with the shoe polish. The thick white liquid dried fast and started cracking. My skin looked like old plaster beginning to flake off. It was awesome, like a zombie or something.

My sister came to investigate. “What in the world ARE you?”

“You better watch out,” I said in a raspy voice, holding my hands up like claws in the air. “I am DEATH.”

“Whatever.” My sister rolled her eyes. “All I can say is you look better than usual.”

“Get out of here!” I snapped.

Right then, the doorbell rang. I ran to throw it open: My friend Diane, of course, looking very beautiful in a fancy Snow White costume. She even had short black hair like Snow White with a red bow tied in it.

She stared at me for a minute. “What ARE you?”

“Death,” I replied. “Bye Mom!”

When we got to the fellowship hall at the church, I saw princesses, cowboys, astronauts, cheerleaders, football players, Superman, and a mummy. All night long these characters came up to me, asking, “What ARE you?”

“Death,” I said.

“Coooooool,” they all nodded, except for the mummy. He said, “That’s weird. Death is something that happens. It’s an event. Not a person. How can you be Death?”

“You’re a mummy,” I told him. “You figure it out.”

I had fun creeping people out with my wild hair and my crackly skin, which someone said looked “ancient.”

Then some grown-ups worried that the shoe polish might not wash off.

Uh-oh. I hadn’t even thought of that … had Mom? How long would I be stuck looking like this?

I was worrying about it near the end of the party when my name was announced for having the best costume. Unbelievable! No one but Diane knew that I had slapped this together at the last minute, without any kind of plan. You never know what you can do until you have to. Then I went bobbing for apples and not only did I win that contest, I set the record for the fastest time: one second! I held my breath, dunked my head in the freezing water, pinned the apple to the bottom of the tin tub so I could get my teeth in it, and came up with it so fast that my long hair flung cold water across the crowd, making all the costumed characters scream and laugh.

“Hey, Death, hey, Death,” they called, “your scary face just got washed away!”

I was just me again.

And secretly glad.

Photo: Ghost (cropped). TCtroi. CC BY-SA

The kitten’s song

My favorite teaching moments are those when classroom teachers have invited me in to model the writing process. This occurs a lot less than it used to, as writing workshop in my district has been replaced by a curriculum with embedded writing. I’ve been remembering those moments lately. I miss walking in with a list of ideas for students to choose from. I miss drafting and revising in front of them while they ask questions and make suggestions regarding artistic or stylistic choices. I miss hearing the flood of their own ideas, their own experiences … and sharing mine with them through writing. Perhaps that’s what led me to go back and reread those mentor texts.

The writing of this one was, to me, the most memorable. I wrote it over several days for a fifth-grade class studying memoir. I explained that one way to make memoir come alive is to pick a moment of strong emotion and pull the readers in so that they feel it, too. I asked if they wanted me to write about a moment from my life when I was happy, sad, embarrassed, angry, or afraid.

They were tough. They said: “A time when you were sad. Make us cry.”

Okay …

They chose, from the topics I gave them, ‘the sick kitten.’

And so I walked back into my memory, and wrote.

Here’s “The Kitten’s Song,” with a bit more polish at every writing (for revision is never really over, is it).

*******

Free kittens – take one.

I saw the sign propped on a chair at the entrance of my college cafeteria. A disheveled guy—another student, I guessed—stood there holding a cardboard box. I hurried over to look inside:

One dark little ball of fur.

“Is that the last kitten you have?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “No one wants her because of her tail.”

“What’s wrong with her tail?”

The guy scooped up the kitten and showed me her backside. She didn’t really have a tail. Just a stump.

“What happened to her?”

“She was born this way. The only one in the litter like this.”

The tiny black creature sat looking up at me with big yellow eyes. She meowed.

Poor little unwanted baby.

There was, of course, only one thing to do:

“I’ll take her!”

I named her Moriah after a magical black cat in a wizard story, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.

When she was nine months old, Moriah had seven kittens. Some were solid black, like her; the others had gray and white stripes. The three boys had long tails but the four girls had stumps like their mother.

All of the kittens were beautiful to me. The day after they were born, my mother and I were admiring them when we realized something was wrong.

In the bed I’d made out of a low box lined with a soft blanket, Moriah lay nursing her babies. The smallest kitten, the runt, had been pushed away by her bigger brothers and sisters. This tiny ball of gray and white fuzz rested at the side of the box by herself. When I picked her up, I saw a big open sore where her tail was supposed to be.

“Mom!” I cried, showing her the raw place. “Look at this! What happened?” A horrible thought entered my mind. “Do you think something did this to her? Did Moriah —would Moriah — bite her kitten’s tail off?”

Mom shook her head. “Gracious, no. I think the kitten was just born like this and we didn’t notice until now. Looks like her tail never finished forming. Could be spina bifida. It happens to human babies sometimes, when their spines don’t seal all the way. It’s probably because of Moriah’s tail defect, as she’s passed on to her daughters.”

“Will it it heal?”

“It might. We’ll have to keep an eye on it.”

“Poor little thing,” I mourned, stroking the kitten’s head with one finger.

I tried to help. I put the kitten in the pile of her brothers and sisters so she could get to the milk. They still pushed her away. I moved the biggest kitten, who loudly complained, and put the runt kitten in his place, but she didn’t try to nurse.

“What are we going to do, Mom? If she doesn’t get any milk, she’ll die.”

Mom said, “Bring her to the kitchen. I’ll get a medicine dropper.”

I came to the kitchen and sat at the table, holding the kitten. She weighed no more than an egg, just a soft warm spot in my hand. Her day-old eyes were still closed. Mom washed the medicine dropper we used when we had earaches, then she took some milk from the refrigerator and warmed it in a pan on the stove.

The kitten purred in my hand, a pleasant little vibration, and I suddenly felt that she needed a name.

If I name her, maybe she’ll get well and strong.

I was trying to think of a name when Mom handed me the dropper filled with milk.

“Feed your baby,” she said.

The dropper seemed too big for the kitten. When she opened her pink mouth, my heart leaped with hope, but she only made a cry, the tiniest cry I have ever heard in my life, so small that it was hardly a sound at all.

“Mom, I can’t do it.” By now my hands were shaking.

“Give her to me,” said Mom.

My mom could fix anything. Once she rewired our oven all by herself. She made a lot of our clothes and took in sewing for other people. She could mark patterns on fabric, cut it to precision, and every piece turned out exactly right. As I watched that tiny gray-and-white kitten in my mother’s capable hand, I was sure Mom could get her to take the milk.

I remembered a song then, from a movie I watched with Mom when I was little. The movie was her favorite, The Sound of Music, and this the song I loved best:

 Edelweiss, edelweiss,

every morning you greet me.

Small and white, clean and bright

You look happy to me.

Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow,

bloom and grow forever …

It’s about a little flower that grows on the Alps of Austria where the movie is set, but for me, in that moment, the kitten became Edelweiss. It was a perfect fit. As Mom tried to get the kitten to drink from the dropper, I sang the song over and over in my mind like a prayer:

Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow,

bloom and grow forever …

The milk only ran down the sides of the kitten’s face. When I looked at Mom, her mouth was set in a straight line. A tear rolled down her cheeks like the beads of milk on the kitten’s.

After a minute, my mother said, “She’s already gone.”

“NOOOOO!” I wailed. “Keep trying!”

“It wasn’t meant to be, honey. She was too sick.”

We held her for a moment and cried.

I wrapped Edelweiss in one of Daddy’s white handkerchiefs and buried her in the backyard. I found a nice rock in the yard with a flat surface and painted a little white flower on it. I put it on the grave and cried there a long time, for Edelweiss, for everything that has to die. Moriah came to sit on the ground beside me, a warmth at my side, purring deep and strong. She looked up at me with winking yellow eyes and all I can imagine is that she was saying Thank you.


Many years later, I wonder about that rock, if still sits in its special place, if the sun and rain have erased my painted flower. In my memory, the kitten named Edelweiss hasn’t faded. She stirs whenever I start thinking life’s not fair. I remember how she purred. You look happy to me … I don’t know if that is strange or not. I just know that Edelweiss, who only lived a day, is somehow part of me, always.

Whenever I hear her song, I remember.

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Photo: Kittens 001. Bryan Price. CC BY-SA