Threads

While National Mental Health Awareness Month (May) is still weeks away, the COVID-19 pandemic has called greater attention to the need for support. Youth.gov explains the purpose of the national focus: “Mental Health Month raises awareness of trauma and the impact it can have on the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of children, families, and communities.” 

I note that children are mentioned first. They are at the mercy of the grown-ups, and when the grown-ups in their lives are suffering, children suffer. They often don’t understand or have a framework for understanding, not for years to come, or maybe ever. To a child, your norm is your norm. You have little to no power of your own. Think of how long the Turpin children suffered, before one managed to escape and get help.

Last month, in the neighborhood of the school where I work, a little girl was found dead with her mother in an apparent murder-suicide. I didn’t know this child; she wasn’t one of our students. But I have mourned her, mourned for whatever she suffered in her short life, mourned that a mother, unable to cope with whatever lies in her untold story, would resort to taking the life of an estranged partner and then her child.

People speak of unbreakable bonds, of the ties that bind. Sometimes those threads are very, very fragile.

Some of the threads running through the background are beautiful and bright, even as the family portrait bleeds away from the canvas. 

Sometimes destruction doesn’t come all at once, but by a long, slow unraveling.

Threads 

This morning I trimmed the threads off of my patchwork writing journal.

As I balled them up to throw them away

I realized the tangle of color in my hand.

They spoke to me: Remember?

Oh yes, I used to see you all over the floor when I was a child.

Rolling lazily across the hardwoods when we walked by

or nestled in the frayed carpet of the living room.

Fragments of my mother’s handiwork

vestiges of the artist she was

crafter of clothes we wore

tailor for many more.

Who’d have believed that such a creator

could destroy so completely?

A family of threads, each one its own vibrant color

in seams ripped apart

scattered far and wide

drifting on

and on

and on.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 20, I am writing around a word beginning with letter t.

The poem has been sitting as a draft for exactly two years today while I pondered publishing. I wrote the original draft as a participant in professional development for literacy coaches, of all things. I can’t remember the prompt now, only that we were to share our poems with a colleague.

My colleague wept.

I share it for the children.

Snowball

Is there a childhood toy that stands out in your memory? For me, that’s Snowball.

He’s one of my first experiences with loss.

*******

Kindergarten. Show-and-Tell. It is my favorite part of the day and today I am especially excited: I’ve brought Snowball, my toy dog. He sleeps with me every night, he eats with me, he does everything with me except take a bath, because Mama says that will ruin him.

This is Snowball, I tell my friends, sitting in a circle on the rug for Show-and-Tell.

I hold him up.

Oooooos and aaaahhhhs, because Snowball is so beautiful. His yellow ears and tail are made of ‘real’ fur. One ear has a little bit of ketchup on it from falling into my plate while I was eating fries. His stuffed body is woolly white, which is why I’ve named him Snowball.

I tell my friends: I saw him on a shelf at the store and Grandma bought him.

They all want to hold him and stroke his silky ears.

When recess comes, I decide to take Snowball out to the playground.

We have a really tall sliding board on our playground. It’s red and silver, not so shiny.

We take turns. I hand Snowball to a friend and climb, climb, climb to the top of the slide. Whoosh! It’s almost too fast, but SO fun. I make sure to hold my feet high for sailing over the mud puddle at the bottom, that worn-out place made by many, many feet landing there.

An idea: Snowball should have a turn.

Hey, Snowball wants to slide! I say.

My friends hop up and down. Let him slide! Let him slide!

Susan E. is standing beside me. When I climb up and I let him go, you catch him for me, I tell her.

I will! says Susan E. She moves toward the bottom of the slide.

I walk around to the tall, tall ladder. You will LOVE this! I tell Snowball. I give him a squeeze.

I climb, climb, climb, hanging onto the rail with one hand, onto Snowball with the other.

At the landing, I call down to Susan E.:

Are you ready?

Yes! She leans over the puddle with her hands held out.

I’m gonna count to three and let him go!

Okay! Susan E. shouts up.

One

two

three…

here he comes!

I release him.

Snowball slides so fast, so much faster than me…bumpity-bump…

Susan! calls a friend from the sandbox.

Susan E. turns her head.

—Susan! I cry from the top of the slide.

But it’s too late.

NOOOOOO!

With a soft splash, Snowball lands in the mud puddle.

—SNOWBALL! I slide down like a crazy person, scrambling, clawing…

Susan E. stands there, frozen. Then I’m sorry! I’m sorry!

I lift Snowball out of the puddle. He’s soaked through. His woolly white body is gray-brown; dirty water drips from his beautiful silky ears. They’re flat against his head, silky no more.

Sobbing, I carry him back to the classroom. I wrap and wrap him in paper towels. I cry the whole walk home after school.

Mama, I think. Mama will fix him.

When I get home, I pull the wet paper towels off to show her Snowball’s mushy, muddy body.

Honey, I can’t fix him, she says. He is ruined.

ruined

ruined

ruined

—Can’t you just put him in the washer and dryer? I am crying so hard that I can hardly speak.

It is my fault.

my fault

my fault

She shakes her head. He’s not meant to be washed that way. He’d probably come apart.

She says we have to throw him away.

I beg, I cry, but Mama says there isn’t any choice. It has to be done.

I wrap Snowball back in the muddy paper towels. I hold him close one last time, shaking with terribleness. I am sorry, Snowball. I am so sorry. I will always love you.

I lay him in the trashcan.

I cry in my bed all night long. Snowball is not there, will never be there again, to comfort me.

*******

Is it childish that, five decades later, writing the memory, I still cry...

I once drew him for students during writing workshop, when they asked if I had a picture. Even the ketchup on his ear.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 19, I am writing around a word beginning with letter s.

Reading

With special thanks to Kim Johnson, who invited participants to write around “second grade pain” on Ethical ELA this week. She modeled with a form of poetry, the pantoum.

I knew right away what my poem would be about…

2nd Grade Trouble Pantoum

I’m in trouble for reading
My little heart bleeding
For I hid during math with a book
When Teacher came to look

My little heart bleeding
To numbers, conceding
When Teacher came to look
In my cloakroom nook

To numbers, conceding
Warrior Teacher, succeeding
In my cloakroom nook
Oh, treasured book, that the pillager took!

Warrior Teacher, succeeding
For I hid during math with a book
Oh, treasured book, that the pillager took!
I’m in trouble for reading.

*******

Note: A pantoum doesn’t have to rhyme, although mine does. It is a form comprised of repeating lines in this pattern:

  1. Begin by writing four original lines.
    1 2 3 4
  2. REPEAT lines 2 and 4 and expand ideas in lines 5 and 6:
    2 5 4 6
  3. REPEAT lines 5 and 6, expand ideas in lines 7 and 8:
    5 7 6 8
  4. FINALLY, repeat lines 1, 3, 7 and 8 in the following order:
    7 3 8 1

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 18, I am writing around a word beginning with letter r.

Also shared for Poetry Friday this week; many thanks to Linda at TeacherDance for hosting the Roundup!

Quiet

Since my recent post, Listen, I came across The Listening Path: The Creative Art of Paying Attention by Julia Cameron. Perhaps you recognize her name from The Artist’s Way.

In The Listening Path, Cameron includes a chapter entitled “Listening to Silence.” She introduces this chapter with a quote by Alfred Brendel: The word “listen” contains the same letters as the word “silent.”

She urges us to seek quiet:

I’m a person who craves quiet moments. My husband does not. He always, always has the TV running, even when he’s in another room; he has to have sound. I sometimes wonder if he fears quiet. I will stay up late at night or get up early in the morning to write in the silence before life awakens and begins stirring around me. When I was writing the poem “Listen” no one was home and the TV was off. I listened to the sea of my own mind, for what would surface. The house, cooling in late afternoon of a warm day, popped so loudly that I jumped—sounds were definitely “more pronounced.” And what does the house have to say? What does the silence itself have to say?

It occurs to me that quiet is one of the benefits of night. That is often the only time we are quiet. We know the brain repairs itself while we sleep. Does quiet not bring healing to the mind? Is quiet itself a form of repair, inherent in sleep? A release, for opening the gate to a “higher force”? Perhaps that is a fearsome thing. What might be heard?

One doctor I know said that dreams are the brain’s way of entertaining us while we sleep, but…tonight, as as I sit in the quiet, finishing this post before going to bed, I am thinking of a young boy who heard a voice in his dreams. He’d been kidnapped at sixteen and taken to a far country where he was a slave for six years. He learned the value of prayer in captivity, tending sheep. This night, the voice told him he’d go back to his homeland; his ship was ready. And it was. He escaped and found it, two hundred miles away in a place he’d never been before. He went home. Yet he’d eventually return to the land of his captors. He had work to do there. In Ireland.

His name, of course, was Patrick.

His day is hardly one associated with “quiet.” But in the spirit of one who listened…let us seek the quiet and what it offers; let us practice the art of paying attention; let us claim the calm and carry it with us, throughout the clamor, in all the work we have to do. Let us enter into quiet…and find our path.

Of special note in this regard: My grandfather’s middle name was—I promise I am not making this up—St. Patrick. I wrote about this a few years ago: My Grandfather, St. Patrick. In my lifetime, he was a quiet man. Not to be confused with the movie.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 17, I am writing around a word beginning with letter q.

Pot

Warning: I am sorry for what you are about to read. I was sorry I lived it, at the time.

When my grandparents moved “back home” to the rural countryside after Granddaddy’s retirement, they began converting a bedroom to a bathroom in the house where they raised three children in the 1940s and 50s. I was around six when this particular event occurred. I couldn’t imagine a house without a bathroom (or a phone, but that comes later). My dad told stories of growing up without a bathroom: everyone took turns bathing in a tub by the heater in the living room, behind a blanket hung from a string. So, up to this point, there was an outhouse in use; I have no memory of that, but…

As I said, apologies.

No

I will not go

But you said you had to

I do I MEAN I DID

but not anymore

It’s not good to hold it

I’m not holding it

although

Granddaddy is,

he sets it there on the floor

white enamel pot

with a pretty red rim

it even has 

a matching lid

We’ll go out, says Grandma

you just call us when you’re done,

so Granddaddy can take it outside
and dump it

No!

I don’t have to go!

We did this years ago

Daddy scowls,

stop crying

it’s not going to hurt you

just go

The pot sits waiting

No

I don’t even want to know

what happens after and

I’d rather bust with No. 2, so no

I
will
not 
go

Chamber pot. Marion Doss. CC BY-SA

The perfectly beautiful, modern bathroom was soon finished at my grandparents’ home, although they occasionally referred to the toilet as “the pot” throughout the remainder of their years. I can’t recall seeing the chamber pot ever again. Thank heaven.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 16, I am writing around a word beginning with letter p, which could really have gone in a number of directions here

Special thanks to Kim Johnson for the invitation to write a vivid childhood memory this week on Ethical ELA, inspiring this poem.

Opal

It looks like a glass teardrop there in my hands. I tip it this way and that, watching the tiny white pieces inside floating up and down in the clear liquid, catching the light and glowing with bits of colored fire. I’ve never seen anything so magical.

“Grannie, what IS this?” I breathe. I can see it’s a necklace. It has a little cap of silver leaves and a silver chain.

She understands. “A floating opal,” she replies, rummaging through her jewelry box.

I can’t look at anything else.

I wonder about the liquid. Is it water? From where? A magic spring bubbling up in a wizard’s garden? What if it isn’t water but tears cried by an enchanted princess and collected in the teardrop-shaped globe as a powerful talisman? Why is the opal in little pieces and how can there be such fiery red, blue, and green in its luminescent whiteness? Colored fire burning in water…is there a spell on this floating opal? What does it MEAN?

I don’t even realize how spellbound I am, or how long I would sit staring at this otherworldly object, until Grannie speaks, breaking the hypnosis:

“You can keep it, if you want.”

*******

I’ve loved opals ever since. Their beauty, their symbolism, their lore. They’re said to be stones of emotion, freedom, and independence; that certainly sounds like my Grannie, who had a fiery streak herself. It sounds like what she may have wished for me. Opals also have a mixed-bag reputation of misfortune and hope, and once it was believed that an opal wrapped in a bay leaf would render a person invisible; it was accordingly dubbed patronus furum, “patron of thieves,” says the International Gem Society.

Come to think of it, I never did ask Grannie how she came by this floating opal…not that she would have taken it. Surely not. But as freely as she gave it, I wonder: Might it have belonged to my Papa G’s first wife who died years before? A floating opal necklace like this dates to the 1940s…

No matter, really, as was it my grandmother’s to give thirty-something years later, and I was the receiver.

Recently I stumbled upon this story about opals I’d never heard before One more mesmerizing, mysterious thing… courtesy of the International Gem Society:

In a chapter of Sir Walter Scott’s 1829 gothic novel, Anne of Geierstein, we learn the unusual story of the enchanted and mysterious Lady Hermione.

The grandmother of the titular character, she appeared to possess magical powers. At times, she seemed more an indefatigable spirit — an ignis fatuus or will-o’-the-wisp — than human. She always wore in her hair a golden clasp with an opal that “amid the changing lights peculiar to that gem, displayed internally a slight tinge of red like a spark of fire.” This gem seemed to reflect her moods, showing “a twinkling and flashing gleam which seemed to be emitted by the gem itself” whenever she became animated or agitated, “as if it sympathized with the wearer’s emotions.”

On the day of her daughter’s christening, drops of holy water struck her opal, which “shot out a brilliant spark like a falling star, and became the instant afterwards lightless and colorless as a common pebble.” Hermione then collapsed. Two hours later, all that remained of her was a handful of gray ashes.

So. A grandmother, a granddaughter… named Anne.

Let me just say that Ann is my middle name.

I will not even address the name Hermione in this legend; I will just let Harry Potter fans savor that on a whole ‘nother level with me.

And let me also say that somehow, in the passing of the years, Grannie’s floating opal got misplaced. When one of my babies snapped the chain long ago, I put the teardrop pendant somewhere for safekeeping. I finally found it in a little heart-shaped velvet case inside a larger jewelry box.

The globe had separated from the silver-leaf cap. The liquid had dried up. All that remained were the little pieces of broken opal.

Tears welled in my eyes; I couldn’t help wondering if the opal stopped floating when my Grannie died.

But, if I ever write a fantasy someday, you can be sure a floating opal will play a significant role.

*******

Photo: Vintage floating opal necklace on Etsy.
Looks exactly like Grannie’s when I first saw it.

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 15, I am writing around a word beginning with letter o.

Needles

At the end of February, the COVID-19 vaccine was made available to teachers in my state.

My district went to work immediately, setting up sites and online registration.

The quickest appointment I could get was at a high school gym.

Upon entering, seeing the tables set all around the perimeter, I was struck with a sense of déjà vu, sort of.

Flashback to another school gym. For just a second, I was there in a long line of people. Standing with my mother, my little sister.

To be vaccinated against swine flu.

I’d nearly forgotten.

This COVID rollout was so different. For one thing, masks. Another, no long lines; still not safe. I stood six feet behind one person for a just few seconds in the hallway outside the gym before he was directed to enter. Slight pause, and I was permitted. Someone pointed me to a table across the room. After giving my name and getting my official paper, I was told to sit in one of the six or so well-spaced chairs in the center of the gym. I didn’t think to count how many immunization stations were set up around the walls, mostly because I didn’t have time; I sat for less than a minute before someone came over to point me to one of them. Quick review of my info, protocol of a few questions, and the deed was done. Barely felt it before the administrator tossed the syringe into the biohazard container and congratulated me. She gave me a little CDC card. Moderna. A jolt of cheer in the knowledge that this is the vaccine Dolly Parton funded; she got her shot that same day. A layer of comfort, somehow. I’d just written of Dolly and one of her songs two days before. It’s like being blood-sisters now. Kind of.

From the time I arrived to the time I left: less than ten minutes.

Couldn’t help remembering, as I walked out into the warm sunshine of an imminent spring, all the hours spent waiting in doctor’s offices as a child, getting an allergy shot in each arm every week, then every other week, then at home when my mother was eventually allowed to give them. How my mother’s health issues involved so many hospital stays and doctor’s visits that her friends dubbed her “Pins and Needles,” a double entendre on her vocation as a seamstress.

I walked on, considering my own shadow as it glided along the parking lot pavement, mulling how needles prick the arm only for an instant in the aim of protection and preservation and then are gone, whereas needles in the memory can provoke reactions and pain for a lifetime. I feel the swelling of many stories, there.

But just as I did when I was small, I waited the allotted time to be sure there was no reaction to the injection. Once upon a time, my dad waited with me; now it’s my husband driving my inoculated self home. He wants to drive me back for the last one.

In the end, it’s just a matter of doing what must be done, and going on.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 14, I am writing around a word beginning with letter n. Amazing, the number of associations and memories threading through one simple, sharp word.

March 13th

Friday the 13th of March, 2020, when school dismissed,
we had no idea we wouldn’t be returning.

Not to the building.

Not to life as we knew it.

Not to teaching as we knew it.

We left mountains of work undone behind us.

We faced mountains looming before us, the likes of which we’d never seen.

A mountain of my masks

In the maelstrom of so much change, we learned.

We learned we could.

We learned that some things, the important things,
never change.

Message from a student on my link

Saturday the 13th of March, 2021: Most of us have had our first vaccination and are getting the second.

We are preparing for all students to return to campus
on Monday,
except the children of parents who have opted
to keep them virtual until June.

Last March 13th, we thought it would only be for a week.
Maybe two.

It’s been exactly one year.

Today, March 13th, let us celebrate:

We did enough.

We had enough.

We were enough.

We are enough.

It is enough, knowing our why.

The children. Always our why.

Just sayin’. This was shared via text among my colleagues.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 13, I am writing around a word beginning with letter m. Just so happens to coincide with the anniversary.

Listen

We know that silence is for the soul,
replenishing what’s extracted
in the grind of daily living

that meditation calms the body
as well as the mind

but

do we realize silence
is a form of listening

a sacred gift, an offering
of ourselves to others, yes,
and also to ourselves

For I find myself

slipping into hidden cracks
of my existence
over and over

just to listen

Rooster crowing while it is yet dark
and all the day long
tinged with urgent longing
not altogether of this earth

Wind in the chimes, unseen fingers at play,
the invisible howling creature under the eaves
out of pain now, and at rest

Listen

birds

Children reading, hesitant, halting
a pump handle scraping until
—there now, there now, there’s the flow

The muted beat of drums, upstairs
my boy recording a song
both melody and harmony,
the rhythms of his heart
translated to keys and strings

same as I translate rhythms
of words to page

Listen

The timbre of voices long-loved
each like a blanket
for wrapping around
and resting within

Listen

Deep in angry torrents
born from undercurrents
surging over
razor-edged
ice-hot stones
of fear and pain
—there, the slashed heart cries
unassuaged
unabated

just love me

while in the sky

geese

House popping and cracking
yawning, stretching
settling back to sap-drenched dreams
of branches and green

much like me, holding a shell to my ear,
seeking the ocean
not necessarily one of this earth
but the sea-response
of my own brain,
echoing

resounding

reverberating

against my soul

Listen

may well be
the holiest of words.

*******

Photo: Listen. Rick and Brenda Beerhorst. CC BY

I enjoy that “Blessed are those who actually listen” photo. I also used it last November to accompany a pantoum poem: The sound of gratitude.

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approachOn Day 12, I am writing around a word beginning with letter l.

Also shared with the Poetry Friday gathering – many thanks to Heidi for hosting the Roundup.

Kiss

I taught him how.

When I was about fourteen.

He was so enthusiastic.

Of course, I had to lean over a bit.

It was hard for him to jump that high, with those short little legs.

“Kiss?” I would say.

And he would try. He’d jump for all he was worth, with joy.

He was my first dog. I named him Onyx. Onnie for short.
He and his brother Bagel (named for Barry Manilow’s dog) were born across the street from my childhood home.
Daddy said we could NOT have any of those puppies.

We got them anyway.
Onyx startled me the first time he jumped high enough to “kiss” me.
Then he learned the command. It was his favorite way of greeting.
It is his word.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approachOn Day 11, I am writing around a word beginning with letter k.