Free

Helen and Annie

Helen Keller taking a speech lesson from Annie Sullivan. 1890s. City of Boston ArchivesCC-BY

Every renaissance comes to the world with a cry, the cry of the human spirit to be free.

—Anne Sullivan

Today I am thinking of the twelve Thai boys trapped in the flooded cave with their soccer coach for over two weeks. They’re almost all rescued now; the world holds its collective breath for the news that the final boy is free, as well as the coach, to be saved last.

They wrote letters, the boys. To their parents, telling them not to worry, that they love them.

Parents wrote letters to the boys . . . telling them not to worry, that they love them.

The letters are now a celebration of life. Of freedom. Of overcoming those long, unimaginable days in the depths of the cave, at the mercy of an unpredictable sea, of hunger, of separation, of darkness.

Words of hope . . . for, as Alexander Pope wrote long ago: Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

Words of survival. I think of Anne Sullivan’s words on “the cry of the human spirit to be free” and how, as a teacher, despite the magnitude of the task, that it was uncharted territory, she reached into the depths of Helen Keller’s dark, silent, anguished world to give her a voice, to set her free.

Helen’s own words: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”

A freelance writer recently told me: “I teach writing to prisoners in North Carolina. It’s a powerful thing to see, someone with no voice suddenly having a voice. Despite all the restrictions, if you can write, you are free.”

The cry of the human spirit.

That is, above all, why we write.

For ourselves, for one another, for freedom, for hope.

For life.

Help

Help

“Help.” James JohnstoneCC BY

As I entered the darkened cinema auditorium, an attendant handed me a pack of tissues.

Foreshadowing at its best.

The tears come at various points throughout the viewing of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—the lovingly documented life and work of Fred Rogers.

Mr. Rogers operated from a profound wellspring of love and empathy for children. At the outset of the movie, he’s young, seated at a piano. The film is black-and-white. With his hands on the keys, Mr. Rogers speaks of modulations: “It’s fairly easy to go from, say, a C to an F,” he says, playing each chord. “But to go from an F to an F-sharp,” he models, “you must navigate all sorts of things.” He saw the new medium of communication, television, as a means of helping children navigate the modulations of life. Fears. Changes. Questions. Emotions. A country at war. Hatred. Not understanding. Divorce. Illness. Death.

I watched and listened with the ears of an educator and the heart of a writer. This is my work, too, I thought, only my medium is paper and pencil. 

Then, after having helped generations of children through the modulations of life, came 9/11.

Mr. Rogers, then retired, was asked to help, his voice, his presence, once again a ray of light, this time cutting through incomprehensible darkness. In the documentary, the sorrow is etched on his face. He spoke of being tikkun olam, “repairers of creation.”

With his words I saw the world in all its brokenness, violence, despair . . . and thought, It begins with the world inside us. Repair begins there, within each of us, before we can work on the world without.

I thought of children I’ve known through the years, finding their voices through writing, facing their fears, overcoming them, gaining strength and courage. Children who have suffered loss and grappled with it in their own words. I’ve read the haunting account of a child being tortured in another country and celebrating his new life in the United States. I thought it was fiction until the third-person changed to first near the narrative’s end; the teenager was writing about himself. A second-grader whose mother was remarrying and her fear: “Will my stepfather like me?” A fifth-grader lashing out at her mother in the very first line of her memoir over how many times they’d had to move, and how it hard it was to have any friends.

And with the words that came from within, anger eventually melted to forgiveness, fears pointed toward hope, insecurities gave way to confidence and validation. With the writing, the stories became those of enduring, of overcoming, of celebration.

Repairing within.

I thought about how some educators look at writing only as a means of retelling what you know from what you’ve read, or a standard to be delivered, assessed, and crossed off a list. No time for this “touchy-feely” kind of  thing . . . yet the one thing that best helps children understand themselves, the world around them, and their place in it, is writing. Freedom versus constriction. Discovering potential, seeing possibilities, problem-solving. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Why is the goal “college and career ready?” How about life ready?

For the modulations don’t end in childhood, do they, Grown-Up.

Mr. Rogers spoke of his own childhood and what his mother told him whenever there was a catastrophe, or news of tragedy, on the air; she said “Look for the helpers. There will always be helpers, even if on the sidelines . . . because if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

Look for the helpers. Repairers of the world.

Then be the hope.

And . . . write.

Kilroy

He flew back to me from long, long ago.

My memory of him is dim, fleeting. I can only see partial scenes, the way a migraine sufferer is unable to look directly at objects because of a big gray spot but can see things around the periphery.

In a summer writing session last week, my co-facilitator challenged participants with quick-writing a bird story—for “everyone has a bird story.”

I have quite a few, some of which I’ve already written.

I looked at the page, waiting, my thoughts circling like birds themselves, tiny dark things against a whiteness, when suddenly there he was, crisp and clear, his black feet gripping the black perch, his crested blue head tilted, white face gleaming, a bright, black-rimmed eye regarding me with curiosity.

Oh, I breathed in my mind, I’ve been wanting to write about you! I’d almost forgotten.

He blinked, ruffling his beautiful blue, black-striped feathers. He watched me expectantly.

Kilroy.

*******

Aunt Jack’s house is different from anyone else’s. It’s full of stuff but not messy. I feel a strangeness here. Maybe it’s the animals. A big, speckled brown bird with a white ring around its neck and long tail feathers stands on a hunk of wood. “A pheasant,” Grandma explains. Aunt Jack is her youngest sister. The deer heads mounted high on the wall watch me with their big, soft eyes. I am scared of the bear head and its disconnected feet with sharp claws up there. On a shelf stands some small cat creature, the color of sand with brown spots. I think its mouth is open and its teeth are showing but I look away and hurry past.

I’m in a zoo of dead animals. Stuffed. Someone killed them all.

I do not know who or why.

Aunt Jack is small with a white, heart-shaped face, always smiling. She has brown hair almost to her shoulders and brown eyes as big and soft as the deer. She’s always moving, even when she’s sitting. I like to listen to her talk; her voice is like music, her words quick notes skimming through the air like stones tossed over water, or sunlight flickering through tree leaves on a summer afternoon. As much movement in her light voice as in her slight body.   

She’s always happy to see me, hugs me, says my name in her pretty, musical voice, and I remember how I have the same name as her father. Because it’s also Grandma’s middle name. It’s a special thing. 

I follow Grandma and Aunt Jack from room to room. When we go back through the living room, I see him.

On a tall, black perch, in front of the backside of the sofa.

A blue bird with a white chest and black stripes on his body.

I think he’s stuffed, too.

But his crested blue head tilts; a bright, black-rimmed eye regards me with curiosity.

“Oh!” I say, coming to a dead stop.

Aunt Jack laughs. I think of wind chimes.

That’s Kilroy. He won’t bother you, honey.”

“He’s your pet?”

Yes. I found him on the sand by the river when he was just a baby, so I brought him home.” 

Kilroy blinks, ruffling his beautiful blue and black-striped feathers. He watches me expectantly.

I take a step closer. I have never seen a bird that wasn’t in a cage inside a house before.

A living one, that is.

“Hi, Kilroy,” I call in my friendliest voice.

—Squawk! 

I jump. He sounds like Grandma’s screen door opening.

Grandma and Aunt Jack just laugh.

Kilroy smiles.

I swear.

*******

I don’t know how long Aunt Jack had him, or how many times I saw him. He was free to fly around the house, and I don’t remember any droppings. If I remember correctly, he stole shiny things like pens, rings, and coins, and hid them, sometimes behind the refrigerator, and he liked to crack nuts open and eat them.

I try to imagine my great-aunt walking on the sandy riverbank by her home, discovering the fledgling, carrying him to the house, feeding him by hand. Kilroy was devoted to Aunt Jack. The most enchanting part of their story is how he’d wake her in the mornings by walking on her chest.

Aunt Jack couldn’t have children. I can only guess how much she loved Kilroy, the living spot of color and joy amongst all those dead, unblinking creatures.

The grayness overcomes my memory here; only a little bit’s left around the edges. I can’t recall if Kilroy was allowed to fly in and out of the kitchen window. Maybe. But I’m not sure. It’s too far away, too dim. The memory, like gossamer, disintegrates when I try to touch it.

What I do know is that one day he flew out of the window and never returned, although Aunt Jack went out, calling and calling for him.

And that she still felt his little bird feet walking on her chest every morning, long after he was gone.

Blue jay feather

Blue jay feather. Robert NunallyCC BY

My last remaining aunt tells me that Aunt Jack did leave a window open enough for Kilroy to come and go as he pleased. He’d peck on the window when he wanted her to open it. When Aunt Jack was outside, he’d fly to sit on her shoulder. Remembering Kilroy piqued my interest in blue jays; I had to look them up. They can live twenty-six years in captivity and usually around seven in the wild. And they aren’t really blue. The color is produced by their feather structure scattering light— if a feather is crushed, the structure is ruined and the blue disappears. The feather is dark brown or black. Blue jay feathers, then, are illusions of light. 

No illusions, however, about blue jays symbolizing energy and vitality—Kilroy embodied it, in all his blue glory. As did Aunt Jack herself.  

 As for the dead creatures: The stuffed bear and wildcat are apparently from another early memory that’s merged with this one over time, but my last aunt says there were definitely stuffed birds on Aunt Jack’s mantel. I opt to leave the bear and the cat in the story with apologies to Aunt Jack, who’d be delighted, I think, that she and Kilroy are still remembered.

Stone speaks

img_4963

Author Nic Stone shares her passion and insight with teachers.

I scribbled notes as fast as I could while Nic Stone spoke to the gathering of teachers yesterday.

Stone is the author of the young adult novel Dear Martin. She’s straightforward, funny, warm, and passionate about reading and writing. The teachers are K-12 cross-curricular educators from across my district who’ve chosen to attend our second annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute—an entire week dedicated to growing as writers and teachers of writing. As a co-facilitator of this event, I sat in the back of the room for the panoramic view: The writing guru, seated comfortably on a tabletop, delivering her wisdom to the crowd who eagerly awaited.

Here are my favorite words of Stone:

“Literacy is about collaboration. Reading and writing are collaborative efforts. We have to be able to talk to each other.”

“I wanted to write from an early age but it took me until age twenty-eight to really try . . .  finding your voice is validating yourself and what you think and feel . . . READ what makes you think and feel.”

“Write for yourself first.”

“The beauty of writing is that it is always in your head.”

“You don’t have to write every day, but you have to develop the habit of writing.”

“Writing is solitary. Storytelling is collaborative.”

“Schools with the highest reading and writing successes are those where students have freedom to choose what they want to read and write about. Kids see each other doing it.”

“These are conversations you should be having in your buildings: Why do standards exist? What does it mean to be literate?”

“That you keep on doing the work without answers . . . that shows your amazing strength.”

“There’s no room for being wrong in American schools. Kids need to know it’s okay to fumble; it’s how they learn  . . . they need a soft place to land.”

“Reading and writing can unpack fears.”

“There’s no better way to help students find their power, their agency, their validity as human beings, than in the beauty of books, in words, in writing.”

“The thing about research is how one thing leads you to another. Everything connects. Reading and writing are all about connecting. Our connecting to the world around us, our connecting to each other.”

“Emphasize the fun in research.”

“For authentic writing, voice is more important than grammar. Let students drop commas, play with punctuation, write run-ons, fragments . . . tell them they have to know the rules before they’re allowed to break them.”

“All first drafts are garbage. They’re supposed to be.”

“Do yourself and the kids a favor: Don’t grade first drafts. Assign a date to have students finish them. They’ll have a sense of accomplishment in just finishing. Then after a couple of days, have them go back and revise.”

“I finish writing a draft before I revise, or I’d never finish.”

“Do what’s best for you to get your work on the page . . . it’s just not in the first draft.”

“Your writing doesn’t have to be be good to get an agent. It has to be good to get an editor.

“Always be working on something else. Always.”

“I’m amazed at the compassion I’ve developed just from writing books.”

“Writing is my life. I can’t not do it.”

Stone opened and closed our time together with three-minute timed free writes; the closing prompt: Now that this mess is over, I feel . . . 

My final lines in response, in my journal: I feel validated in so many ways, as teacher, writer, human spirit.

For all of these connect.

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Kindred spirits: My co-facilitators and I with Nic Stone.

*******

See my post Write me for more background on the Summer Teacher Writing Institute and the value of teachers as writers.

Good-bye, mighty Nik

Nikolaus, 2004. Age 2. 

Dear Nikolaus,

I write to celebrate you and your long, long life.

To thank you for the joy you brought and the love you gave for so many years.

To ask your forgiveness.

When you first came to our family, we were elated.

April 2002. Age 3 months.

You see, we’d been looking for a little dog because we had a little boy who wanted one so badly. Big dogs frightened him.

But you were perfect.

April 2002. Nikolaus age 3 months. Cadillac Man age 4.

And so you grew up together.

You weren’t always easy, but you were always, always loved. Despite the countless accidents in the house and that time you snuck a chicken strip off of little Cadillac Man’s plate and ran for all you were worth with your booty. Not to mention how you figured out a way to climb on top of the furniture to get the boys’ Valentine and Easter chocolate. And ate it all, leaving only the wrappers behind. More than once. How did you do it and not get sick?

We began to think, all things considered, that you might be immortal. After all, you outlasted legions of other pets. The boys began to joke about you plotting the demise of every other dog, for they came and went throughout the years, but you remained. No one questioned your alpha status. Not even the dogs seven times your size, when you took their rawhides and their pillows for your own. They just sat, blinking in respectful disbelief, at your Napoleonic powers.

There’s so much to say, for we shared so much together. I am thankful for my special place in your little heart. How, when you were young and strong, you’d jump up on the couch to curl up beside me or to crawl in my lap. For the hours I spent working on the computer and you were snuggled behind me, between my back and the chair. I loved you and your deep, abiding warmth, always near, just being. Just together.

How the boys loved you. How they laughed as we tried to teach you to roll over, to sit and beg, the two tricks you’d pull off multiple times in succession just to get one treat.

How much comfort you gave them when they were hurting, from boyhood to manhood. They held you in their arms, but you, well—you were holding their hearts all along.

January 2017. Cadillac Man, age 19, celebrating Nik’s 15th birthday with a car ride.

Time is no friend, is it, old sweet Nik. Not when it takes your youth so that you can’t jump anymore but have to be picked up and carried. Not when it turns your face and paws so white. Not when it takes your sight, your hearing, even your ability to understand exactly where you are and what’s going on.

Here’s what I marvel over: That you tried to run through the grass like always, even when you couldn’t see. That you could still find me in bathroom getting ready for work each morning. That you never forgot where your treats were, or that you should get one after coming in from outside, even when it had to be broken into small pieces for you to chew. I knew you could only find them by smell; that’s why I put your broken-up treats on the kitchen rug, so you wouldn’t push them all across the floor trying to get them into your mouth.

I marvel over your ever-voracious appetite, how you ran for your bowl every morning, even if we had to guide you just a bit.

And I worried when you started losing weight.

May 2018. Age 16. 

The vet said your blood work was amazing for a dog of your age; never saw the like. Said your heart was strong. Said things like cancer can make a dog lose weight despite plenty of food, and it wouldn’t show in the blood. Gave you the pain medicine which made you sleep but also tore your bowels up so that we couldn’t give it to you anymore.

And still you rallied, although every day you got thinner and thinner.

Cadillac Man watched you staggering and falling in the yard.

Mom, he looks like a skeleton. He’s just going in circles. 

Mom, it may be time.

Mom, I just got on the scales with him. He’s under seven pounds.

Three weeks before, you were about nine pounds.

When you were a young dog, you were nearly twenty pounds.

On Saturday, when I gave you your last bath, I could see every vertebra on your back, could feel every knob on your tiny tail. For the first time in your life, you sat in the bathwater, too weak to stand.

When we wrapped you in your “Happiness is a Dachshund” blanket to take you to another vet, I didn’t know it was going to be good-bye.

I didn’t.

I thought maybe another medication would help. Or another suggestion. You’d made it so far, so well, until then. The regular vet said your heart was strong, so . . .

The new vet said:

I can’t fix the blindness.

I can’t fix the deafness.

I can’t fix the severe cognitive impairment.

You can run tests to see why he’s losing the weight, but it would only be for academic purposes. Just to know. He’s a very old, weak dog.

Cadillac Man looked at me, holding you in his arms:

Mom, there’s hardly anything left of him.

How to let you go like this, when you’d been so utterly trusting and loving your entire life?

You looked at me with your tired, cloudy eyes, and I wasn’t sure what you were seeing. Maybe me. Maybe not.

I couldn’t know how much pain you felt; you never complained. You just kept going, for it’s all you knew to do.

I loved you. I struggled then, I struggle now with the decision, but I believe the boy—the man—who loved you best knew what was best.

And so we stroked your sweet head when you breathed your last—one tiny sigh, of contentment, of resignation, of release—utterly, utterly peaceful.

And I take comfort where I can find it. When I read about euthanizing suffering pets, when I talk to others who’ve been there, I don’t question the logic. Of course no one wants to watch their beloved endure prolonged suffering. When I think of your ravaged little body, I know you couldn’t bear much more. Your determination, your will, was astounding. That’s where I struggle. That’s why I write. It’s a matter of the spirit, see.

I write to celebrate our long run together. Sixteen years.

I write to thank you for your unconditional love, and to tell you that mine is just as unconditional. I love you still, even now that you’re gone.

I write to thank you for the joy you brought to two young boys for so long. You’re indelibly written on their hearts, as long as they live.

I write to say I’m sorry. For all the times I lost my patience, for the times I could have made more time, for being part of that last, anguishing decision. But if you were going to go, I was going to be there with you, all the way.

And I ask your forgiveness, because the weight is so hard to carry. But old age and sickness are hard to carry, too, aren’t they.

For something so little, you are so mighty, Nik.

I imagine you always will be.

Eating life

My friends and I spoke recently of family members in various stages of dementia and failing health.

Our declining ones hallucinate. They see children who aren’t there and can relate what the children are doing: running down the hall, making a mess with cereal, simply standing there in the room. They speak of loved ones long dead, as if they are well and visit regularly. Time is a viscous fluid in the brain of someone nearing the end of life; it is often hard to discern if the person is speaking of events that occurred yesterday, today, or fifty years ago.

Sometimes the visions are unnerving.

My father would visit Grannie, my mother’s mother, in the hospital. He’d help feed her. One day during their conversation, Grannie casually told my father: “I see Earline over there.”

My mother’s sister, who died of cancer years before. She never married and lived at home with Grannie.

Daddy, taken aback, asked, “Where is she?”

Grannie pointed. “Over there against the wall. Under the clock.”

There was a clock, in fact. High on the bare hospital wall.

Daddy said, “But . . . ”

Grannie cut him off. Looked him right in the eye: “I know she’s dead.”

Never one to tolerate fancies, my father asked, “Well, what does she look like?”

Grannie hesistated. Maybe grasping for words. “Kind of grave-y.”

A mere observation, without emotion or alarm. She may as well have been commenting on the weather or the hospital food.

I told this story when the topic came up with my friends, as we commiserated on watching our aged loved ones endure these haunting effects.

“It’s so strange,” said one friend, who has two relatives suffering with dementia. “Neither of them ever liked to eat eggs. Never in their whole lives. Now that’s all they ask for – Can you bring me some scrambled eggs? Run on over to IHOP and get me some eggs.”

I tried to recall if my grandmothers and mother-in-law made this request. But they’d all liked eggs; it wouldn’t have been unusual.

While my friends talked, I kept thinking There’s something to this egg thing.

It’s true that the tastes of dementia patients can change, that they sometimes develop cravings for things they never liked before. The answer could be that simple; eggs are a simple food.

They’re considered brain food. How interesting that a person succumbing to dementia should begin to crave them. Numerous articles on foods good for the brain reference choline, a nutrient found in egg yolks, that helps improve memory, brain cell communication, and even fetal brain development. Eggs are protein, the building block of the brain, the building block of life itself.

This is where I leap from the physical, the scientific, to the metaphysical. All around the world, since ancient times, the egg symbolizes life. In some belief systems, life-energy. An object small enough to hold in your hand, the egg represents the universe, health, nature awakening, new life about to emerge, immortality.

And hope.

They may sense it, they may not, those whose brains are slowly giving way. Perhaps it is the final rallying cry of the brain alone, this impulse to eat eggs, in an effort to hold on, to carry on.

Can you please bring me some eggs? 

Eating health, even as it ebbs away.

Eating hope.

They are eating life.

Divine appointment

Cardinal

Cardinal Singing Along. Don and Janet BeasleyCC BY-SA

Broom in hand, I descend the brick steps where moss has newly sprung. The sidewalk needs sweeping and I’ve only a minute. Must get to school early, to prepare for the day; the minutiae of all that has to be done circles round and round my mind. 

But I have to do this first. Oddly. Sweeping the sidewalk is not part of my morning routine. 

Hurry. Hurry.

All is still but for the light chatter of a few birds, waking. The sound of early spring. The sound of April. Of a new day. I pause, listening. How cheerful, how happy their bird voices are, even if to them it’s just regular conversation. My spirit eases, just hearing them. I note that the light is unusual. Against random trees and shrubs, the dawn gleams amber in patches. Everything else is a backdrop in half light. There’s an edge to it all, a starkness. The sky is moody. Altocumulus clouds, dark in their middles, gleaming around their rims, are gathered in bands or waves; this is what scientists call a mackerel sky, I think. Strange light.

—Time. Be aware.

Right, I must hurry.

Just as I put broom to concrete, I see it.

Over in the neighbor’s yard, in the shadows under the bushy, unpruned crape myrtle. 

The brightest spot of color I’ve ever seen. Red. Rosy, electric red, brighter than any neon light, as vivid as fire, glowing, but not burning. Just being. I blink. How does such a color even exist in nature? It has to be a cardinal but I can’t see the rest of him, just his plump breast. A half-memory from childhood stirs in my mind, of pretending I had a pet cardinal and spraying pine-scented air freshener throughout the house to create his forest, where he could fly freely— but for all my attraction to the male cardinal’s plumage, I’ve never seen it to the intensity and brilliance as right now in this capricious light.

I want to see him better but I dare not move. 

I think I’ve quit breathing.

Could I, maybe, get a picture? If I’m stealthy, can I make it into the house and back with my phone? 

I have to try. I have to capture this image.

I watch him as I ease toward the house. He moves a little, hopping in the dappled grass.

As soon as I reach the steps, out of his field of vision, I race through the front door to the kitchen, grab my phone, turn, shoot back through the door, take the steps without making a sound, stop, and creep to where I can see the crape myrtle.

He’s still there! I can’t believe it!

An astounding spot of color, radiating an otherworldly light.

Holy.

I aim my phone and zoom in . . . 

On the screen I see the thin myrtle branches up close. The grass, the shadows, the sunlit patches. —Where’s my bird?

I look away from the phone back to the scene, to get my bearings . . . don’t know how I could have missed, I aimed right where he was standing . . . .

Gone.

He is gone.

In the second between my sighting him and my lifting the phone, he vanished. Without a sound or any perceptible movement. He was and then he was not. Just like that.

Nowhere to be seen at all.

I stand frozen, phone in hands, an inexplicable feeling sweeping through me. 

The moment passed and nothing remains of it. Stunning, that spot of fiery color like no other, in the shadows under that tree. One glimpse of glory. He was so beautiful and I never even saw all of him. Even if I do see him again—and I’ll try, at this same time tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after—it will never happen again, not just like this. The clouds will not be the same. The position of the sun will be slightly different. It can never be again exactly as it was. 

I so wanted to capture his image, the holiness of it, to keep it forever, and I could not.

But I hold it in my mind. I cling to every breathtaking detail. 

I write it before it leaves me, wondering at the tears burning behind my eyes over this one bird, this one moment, why it should be so significant, to make me feel so much.

I was just there, unexpectedly, and so was he.

For one shining moment, we just were.

Blowin’ in the wind

Yesterday, while outside with my old dachshund, Nikolaus, I saw this old dandelion.

It stood trembling in the soft spring breeze, holding its seeds tight under its parachute sphere, and I thought Any second now they’ll be blowing in the wind.

Which reminded me of the song.

When I was a child my parents had a stack of record albums, and in it was Peter, Paul and Mary’s In the Wind. Only now do I wonder which of them purchased it, for my young father and mother seemed more representative of the fifties than the sixties. No beads and long hair or tie-dye. Daddy wore a crew-cut all of his adult life. My parents were . . . just parents. Pretty mainstream. I don’t know how old I was when I first heard the album, but as a child I played it over and over on the old stereo, a huge, bench-like piece of furniture on four legs that took up half the length of the living room wall.

Bob Dylan’s “Blowing’ in the Wind” was one of my favorites, mostly because Peter, Paul, and Mary’s harmony was as haunting as his lyrics. But it wasn’t the song I loved most on the album.

That was “Stewball.”

It’s about a racehorse, the underdog, and how a man laments betting all of his money on “the gray mare” and “the bay,” how he wishes that he’d bet on Stewball, who somehow managed to win the race.

The ballad’s content is mournful—Oh, the hoot owl she hollered, and the turtledove moaned, I’m a poor boy in trouble, I’m a long way from home—but the instrumentals jingle along, almost incongruous with the words. Perhaps not as incongruous as me, less than ten years old, swinging as hard as I can, round and round on a tire swing that Granddaddy hung from a pecan tree in the yard of my father’s childhood home, singing at the top of my lungs: Oh, Stewball was a racehorse, and I wish he were mine, he never drank water, he always drank wine . . . .

So long ago.

Funny how songs can weave their way through chapters of our lives, as they do through movies. There are stories to be told about the poor choices of adults, and the consequences, with “Stewball” playing in the background.

Nik the dachshund makes his way back to me, staggering in the grass. At sixteen he’s unsteady on his feet and blind; he plows into the old dandelion. Instantaneously the perfect white sphere dissolves, the seeds go airborne.

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Maybe it’s answers I seek.

Maybe they’re seeking me.

I do not know.

But I do know that ideas are everywhere, blowing in the wind; I sense them and I know they’ll land, somewhere, sometime, that they’ll take root and grow. If I write them, they’ll spawn more and more ideas.

I gather Nik in my arms, careful of his old, fragile bones, and go back inside the house, humming.

 

 

Like Superman

Superman

Superman. Ian HarveyCC BY-SA

I’m seated at the old computer table, listening to second-graders read. Poetry conferences, we’re having. Revisions and final edits before their teacher sends everything off to publish a class book of poems.

“Is it my turn? It is it my turn?” he keeps asking me, from his seat in the middle of the room.

Actually, he’s not on my list of students that his teacher asked me to meet with. So I say, “Not yet. Not yet.”

He manages, somehow, to sneak between his classmates. I look up from notes I’m making to find his impish face beaming up at me. His tiny body wriggles in the chair beside me.

“My turn!” he insists.

I call across the room to his teacher, who’s also conferring with students: “May I PLEASE work with our friend here?”

“Yes, sure!” she answers. “I’m about to meet with him, but if you want to  . . .”

If I want to?

How can I say no?

“Okay, YOUR TURN! Read your poem to me,” I tell my exuberant conferee.

Grinning, he shoves his paper over to me.

There’s nothing on it. Not even his name.

“What, you haven’t written anything yet?”

He shakes his head. He’s still smiling. “No! But my English is bigger!”

He remembers.

At the beginning of the year, I assessed his reading. Just as I was about to console him on his having missed all of the words, he patted my arm and said, “You have big English. Me”— he patted his chest— “little English.”

His perception of everything around him is astonishing.  Whether he has all the words for it or not.

I’ve noticed, in the hallways, that he doesn’t greet me as Haley! anymore. Now it’s Hi, Mrs. Haley. That when I say How are you? he says, I’m good.

“Yes,” I say, “your English is a LOT bigger. That’s for sure. Now, this poem. What do you want to write about?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“Well, what do you like?”

His face lights up. The response is immediate: “BASEBALL!”

“Okay, so, what do you want to say about baseball?”

I take the paper and pencil.

“I like baseball,” he says.

“Perfect.” I write down the words. “That’s your first line. What else?”

“I like hitting the ball with the bat.” He acts this out. He’s a boy full of endless energy.

“Great. That’s your second line.” I write it down. “What else can you say about playing baseball?”

He thinks, gets excited, garbles his words. Something about running . . .

“Wait, slow down. Did you say running?”

He nods, bouncing in the chair. “I run like SUPERMAN!”

Superman . . . 

The first time I saw him, over a year ago, when he came to the United States, to our school, he had no English at all. Unused to a school setting, he frequently had outbursts because he couldn’t communicate his wants, his needs, his questions, his feelings, anything.

He was a frustrated, forlorn soul.

Wearing a Superman shirt.

My first words to him were, “Hey, you’re Superman.”

I pointed to the on his little shirt.

He didn’t understand, but he smiled.

Now, he understands.

Within five minutes, the poem is written. I point to every word, reading to him, then he points to every word, reading back to me. I watch him bounce away to his desk to copy the poem over in his own handwriting.

So you run like Superman when you play baseball.

Maybe you really mean that you fly

because you do

because you ARE Superman.

We shall stand marveling in your wake

it’s a bird, it’s a plane

it’s you.

Supersonic.

*******

For an earlier encounter with my little friend, read Big English

For the record, poetry is an excellent way to help English language learners—really, any student—write more. Poems can be brief with less emphasis on conventions. Energy can go freely into capturing images, ideas, emotions, and building vocabulary.

Relics

Mom's empty room

Mom’s empty room. The_DoodlerCC BY_SA

So many stories 

in every room

in every thing.

A lifetime packed

tight in every closet

in every drawer

for even in the time

of abundance 

the memory of deprivation

remained.

A lifetime of love

recorded in cards and letters

all saved 

even poems 

I don’t remember writing.

The photos of my children

so carefully preserved

growing up all over again

here in my hands.

Their father captured 

as a  little boy

in black and white

long ago.

His own father in uniform

smiling, alive

his olive-green dress hats

sealed in a bag 

on a shelf 

deep in her closet.

The ghost of holidays past

pulled from the attic 

with childhood toys

long forgotten.

Tarnished silver in the kitchen

and a fine layer of dust

on the crystal. 

Cookies in a jar

grown stale 

maybe in hopes of

grandchildren coming.

Things with no explanation

only wonder 

as to what they are

and what they’re for. 

So many stories

in rooms once beautiful

in every thing crammed

holding on, holding on

in the hidden places.

A lifetime packed

with living

and loving.

Decades of

acquiring

prospering

overcoming

remembering

all dismantled 

and disposed of

in the space of

a single afternoon.