September 1st

Morning glory

Morning glory. Toshiyuki IMAICC BY-SA

 In the half-light

the barest fog

wisps about the trees

silhouetted against

a colorless sky.

The stars have gone.

Stillness but not silence

just the faintest thrum

of summer symphony

by insects of the night.

The last long encore.

Cool expectant breath

of the dawn

before day is fully awake

like the rooster nearby

with his rusty, lusty cry.

Circadian rhythm. All is well, is well.

I stand

under the haloed half-moon

drinking in the glory

of life

 even in its transitions.

Even in

farewell, farewell, farewell.

Important things

On Day One of school, I had a conversation about informational writing with a third-grade class.

I asked them if they know what informational writing is.

They said, “Writing that helps people learn things. Important things.”

I read excerpts of three different texts aloud to them, and then I asked:

“Why is informational writing important?”

They said:

“We learn about our world and why things work like they do” (after reading about the sun).

“We learn about friendship. We learn about relationships. We think about why we need each other” (wait—we’re in what grade? That’s right, third. Those are their exact words after a page of Owen and Mzee: The Language of Friendship. If you don’t know it: An orphaned baby hippo is brought to a park to share the habitat of a grouchy, 130-year old tortoise and . . . well, you need to read it).

“We learn about history. We learn from the past. Like why things like wars happen and what to do different, so they don’t happen again. We learn things that can save our lives” (after a page of a book about the Titanic, a topic that never, ever fails to captivate third-graders).

I basked in the glow of their words, their thoughts, their voices. Eight years on the planet and they already know so much.

My task: To channel this knowledge and energy into their own informational writing as they study the craft.

I asked one last question: “So, what do you think about informational writing?”

A general “It’s so interesting!”

Day One.

We’re off and running.

 

What is literacy?

Museum of the Navy

Quarterman shipfitter looks at blueprints, 1943. Museum of the U.S. Navy

“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another and empowers them to achieve things they never thought possible. Communication and connection are the basis of who we are and how we live together and interact with the world.” 

International Literacy Association, 2018

On the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. In the face of changes in staff, in curriculum, in differing perspectives on literacy instruction.

I am defined by literacy. I’ve loved reading and writing all my life. My professional work is literacy: As a coach, I collaborate with teacher colleagues across grade levels on how to best teach English Language Arts in ways that meet the needs of all students.

When it comes to defining literacy, I rely on the International Literacy Association, for no two dictionaries, and hardly any two people, seem to have the same idea of it. Some believe it’s just reading and writing. But it’s so much more . . . .

In the ILA definition several things jump out at me, beginning with

the ability to interpret

in any context

I think of my grandfather.

Over a hundred years ago, my grandfather left school to work on his family’s little North Carolina farm. He married during the Great Depression. When tenant farming, sharecropping, and other odd jobs like painting houses weren’t enough for him to “make a go of it,” Granddaddy rode with men from his hometown to Newport News, Virginia, in hopes of landing steady work at the shipyard.

Granddaddy became a shipwright, responsible for helping build the keels of ships, less than a year before Pearl Harbor;  when America entered World War II, production continued around the clock with the invention of a new thing: aircraft carriers.

He made his living; he took care of his own. He retired from the shipyard when I was five. He and Grandma moved back home and there I spent my childhood summers.

In the evenings he sat in his recliner while Grandma and I sat on the living room floor. She spread the newspaper out on the carpet, handed me the “funnies” section, and then she read the rest of the paper in a loud, clear voice to Granddaddy—his years around industrial equipment in the Yard had made him hard of hearing.

I eventually asked:

Why do you read the paper to Granddaddy? Why doesn’t he just read it?

He can’t, Dear. 

Why? Is something wrong with his eyes?

No, no. He just never learned to read, not much, really. He quit school in the fourth grade to help on his family’s farm, you see . . . .

I was stunned. This was the first time I’d known of anyone who couldn’t read.

It hurt my heart for him.

But I later learned that he could read intricate blueprints and build to those precise measurements. That’s what he did at the shipyard all those years.

It’s something I can’t do.

 the ability to identify, understand, interpret

using visual

materials across disciplines

and in any context

My grandfather was always a farmer first; he read the days, the seasons, the weather.

He read nature. When he and I came across strange worms gliding over his front sidewalk, he couldn’t identify them but instinctively knew to leave them alone. Decades later I researched them (land planarians) and learned that if he’d tried to crush or chop them up, every piece would have replicated and they would have destroyed the good earthworms that kept his garden so abundant and healthy.

Signs, symbols, meanings, he understood. Not in or from books, but from life. He possessed visual-spatial acuity. Keen intuition. He read the times in which he lived, comprehended that the way of life he and the generations before him had known was passing forever. He reached for better things. He worked hard. He collaborated with a lot of different people. The shipyard management eventually asked him to be a supervisor, and that’s where his courage ran out. It required regular paperwork. He declined the position.

My heart ached again, deeply, on learning that.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another

and empowers them to achieve things

they never thought possible.

That belief is behind everything I do with teachers and students.

The greatest man I’ve ever known indirectly taught me, years ago, that reading and writing are the keys to opening doors of possibility and opportunity. He also taught me that literacy is so much more, long before this digital age.

We have to be able to read words and ascertain their meaning, but our survival depends on more. We must be able to read the times, read people, read what we see, what we are creating. And make sense of it. We must interpret. That’s the entire, inherent value of reading and writing in the first place.

We must communicate well with one another, recognizing that each of us possesses different strengths, all of which are valuable to helping each other. Communication is the keel on which all good relationships are built. We must speak, but we must listen more, absorb more, understand more.

Communication and connection are the basis of who we are

and how we live together

and interact with the world.

My grandfather survived—his family survived—because of his clarity of vision and sense of purpose.  He knew he lived through unique times. In his last years he preserved his life experiences for future generations not by penning a memoir but by recording his stories on a set of audiotapes. I don’t think he ever knew just how unique, how extraordinary, he was. In my mind I see him now—thick white hair, plaid shirt, gray pants with a black belt, black shoes, his big, wrinkled, work-worn hands folded in his lap, leaning back in his recliner listening to my grandmother reading. In addition to the nightly newspaper, she read the Bible through to him each year.

And so, on the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. I think of the constant adaptation of teachers to the times and the changing tides of literacy instruction; of students, each of whom has strengths and gifts that may not be obvious at first. I think of their futures and know that clarity of vision and a sense of purpose are vital to their learning and well-being. To all of our well-being. I think of my grandfather reading complex blueprints and going forth to build something previously unknown in a vastly changing world. I think about life literacy as well as literacy for life. How we live together and interact with the world.

For, in truth, we are building the world.

*******

Here’s the story of Granddaddy and I encountering those unknown worms long ago: First do no harm.

A fine mess

After being away on vacation all last week, my first order of business on returning home was to check on the four baby house finches that hatched in the wreath on my front door. I’d been chronicling their development daily, so I knew many changes would occur in my absence.

Here is what I discovered:

1) The babies are now well-feathered; their skin-head mohawks have become mere wisps upon their downy crowns.

2) Two of the babies can fly. They sailed out of the nest this morning as I approached. The other two stayed put, their bright little eyes regarding me with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension.

3) Their nest is one spectacular conglomeration of droppings.

To be fair, the droppings are only around the rim; the mother collects them there. What a job, building a wall of excrement. Worse than diapers. When I first wrote of the perfect, flower-graced nest, the pale blue eggs, the hatching of the tiny pink nestlings, I concentrated on the beauty and wonder of life. I pointed out that the collective noun for a group of finches is a charm.

And charmed I was.

There is nothing charming about that nest now.

The fledglings themselves, of course, are enchanting. They’ll soon be gone, the circle of life will go on, and all that will remain of these magical moments is a monumental mess.

But that’s the story of life. It’s messy. It can’t be comprised solely of breathtaking beauty and newness; if it were, we could not recognize these moments for what they are. They’d lose their value. Only when contrasted with ugliness, hardships, and pain can we see and cherish the beautiful when it comes. We inevitably deal with messes, some that occur naturally, some created by others, some of our own making. Therein lie all the stories . . .

Which makes me think of writing. This nest is a tangible (although I do not wish to touch it) reminder of these commonalities:

-Life is messy.

-Writing is messy.

-Thinking is messy.

-Teaching is messy.

To do any of these well, we have to be willing to accept and even embrace the messiness. We must certainly persevere through it to arrive at the beautiful. It takes courage, stamina, and a lot of hard work, to write well, to think well, to teach well, to live well.

The strength to do so, I believe, lies in believing that the beautiful will come. It’s all a matter of trust, of faith. And pressing on.

Although I was appalled by the quantity of accumulated—um, bird-doo—around the nest, I was also amazed that two of my four little finches could fly. Last night they couldn’t; today they can. Tomorrow the others might.

This is a message to me about readiness.

Everyone arrives as a writer, a thinker, a teacher, a good practitioner of life, in their own time. Lots of messes will be made along the way. Sorting this out is what grows us. One by one, as children, as adults, as long as we live, we are continually growing the necessary wings to fly beyond where we are. And it’s truly a collective, collaborative growth; we are to nudge each other when needed, but not too hard, too soon. We’re not to hold back, to hold one another back, simply because we cannot see all that lies ahead and for fear of navigating the unknown. Knowledge comes by trying. By experiencing. By taking risks. There’s an implicit difference between throwing caution to the wind and taking a leap of faith, that being potential self-destruction versus healthy maturation. These finches know. As the day wears on, I watch the two fledglings that can fly going back and forth from the eaves to the nest, coaching their other two siblings on how to do it. See see see, I hear them cheeping. A bit at a time, a bit at a time. At any moment, those last two are going to get up on that nasty, messy rim and let go.

In more ways than one . . . .

So you make a mess. So what? So you’re alive and growing.

Tomorrow you stretch your newest feathers and find you can move on.

To where the beautiful awaits.

Bear with the writer

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On the cusp of his twenty-first birthday, my younger son, Cadillac Man, is finally giving me some gift requests. Let me clarify for readers new to my blog: His code name here is Cadillac Man because of his lifelong love of the car. Earlier this year he inherited his grandparents’ 1989 blue (the official color is “Light Sapphire”) deVille.

I might also have dubbed him Music Man for his other abiding passion.

I’ve written about his love of music developing long before he started school, how he can listen to songs and immediately replicate them on the piano. He gets interested in an instrument and teaches himself how to play it. He’s studying music and voice in college, the only degree he ever considered: “It’s either this or I’m not going to college.”

He does not, nor ever did, love academics. He’s intelligent, well-spoken, witty, dutiful, kind, generous of heart . . . and managed to get through his educational career reading and writing as little as possible.

So imagine my joy at his birthday requests:

“Mom, can you get me Brian Wilson’s memoir for my birthday?”

A BOOK!

“Done!” I responded with glee. Cadillac Man has been researching—of his own accord—the history of The Beach Boys and their music; he has immense respect for Brian Wilson and his musical inventiveness, particularly with complex chord progressions. He shares things he’s learned every day and I revel in his allowing me entrée to this part of his world.

He relates how, when he was little, going to sleep in his bed at night, he could hear his older brother in the next room playing CDs of The Beach Boys.

“It was the vocal harmony that drew me,” he says. “That was the beginning of it all.”

Cadillac Man was hired as a church music director at age seventeen. He plans and leads every aspect, coaching instrumentalists, vocalists, and choirs.

“I think in music,” my son tells me as we walk together in the evenings, both of us having decided we need this exercise. “I hear a melody in my mind and I can hear different instruments coming in at different spots. Sometimes it’s so loud and clear that I’m not even aware of other things around me.”

I am riveted, for I understand this: I think in a loud narrative voice with the same effect. Words, words, words, always words, turning round and round, shifting, recombining . . .

Cadillac Man is still speaking: “Can you also get me some blank music notebooks for my birthday? I’ve tried using computer programs but they’re glitchy. I’ve lost stuff. I need to be able to actually write what I am thinking.”

Notebooks. For writing music. For writing in the way that he thinks, for capturing what comes to him inside of his own head . . . this is what writers do. I think of the brain research about the movement of writing generating more thought.

Yet he doesn’t think of himself as a writer. Not in the way he knows me to be a writer, or in the way he was expected to write in school. He’ll own that he’s a reader, as much as he looks up information. But never a writer.

This is about to change; I sense it just as I can sense a change in the seasons by the first subtle difference in the temperature, or a shift in the sunlight, or a by scent carried on the breeze. The portending of something significant taking shape.

I look at many notebooks online, thinking, What will he like best? Plain? What color? This one with a treble clef or this one with piano keys? 

I finally have to ask: “Which of these music notebooks do you like?”

My serious-minded, turning-twenty-one-year-old examines the options.

“I like the one with the bears on it,” he says at last.

So whimsical. Who’d have thought.

And so the gifts arrive, waiting to be given on the big day, a celebration of this milestone in my son’s life, not just in chronology, but in the pursuit of his joy and passion. A celebration of the gift he is and the gift that he has.

Involving writing. Not the way, honestly, that I usually think of it . . . but in the way that he thinks. In his own profound way.

How my heart sings.

To every parent and teacher who’s struggled, labored, wept, despaired over that child who doesn’t want to write . . . do not give up.

Bear with your writer. There’s a way. Talk, but listen more. Banging on the door will never get you in, but the way that the child thinks will. What the child cares about will.

Meet the child at that portal and when it’s ready to open . . . it will.

Here’s to the blank pages and all our stories, all our songs, to come.

*******

Cadillac Man’s surprise gift: Tickets to the Brian Wilson Pet Sounds concert this fall. Brian said of his career: “I wanted to write joyful music to make people happy” and that “music is God’s voice.”

I celebrate how this wove itself into a little boy’s dreams, long ago.

Charmed

 

The door to my home is now charmed.

By a family of finches.

I’ve been researching house finches since a pair of them persevered in rebuilding a nest on the wreath adorning my front door, where the mother laid four tiny blue eggs (see last week’s post, Sanctuary). I discovered in my reading that the word for a group of finches is a charm.

A word of delight, enchantment, magic . . . very much what I feel as I step into my bird sanctuary to check on the babies. The last egg hatched early this morning. The mother removed the eggshells after each hatching so now there’s just four pink things with tufts of gray-white feathers huddling close to one another, so tiny that they’d all fit easily in the palm of my hand with room to spare.

I think: They’re so fragile. Yet so hardy. 

A paradox describing life itself.

With every glimpse of the hatchlings I am filled with the glory of being alive. That they are alive, changing every single moment. That I am alive to see them. My door is their sanctuary; they are my miracle. That this is the ordinary course of things does not make it any less so; we will never have a sense of the miraculous if we cease to look for it.

I wonder what the babies will think of me, this formidable being who briefly appears and disappears by the rim of their dwelling. I do not want them to be afraid. I can offer my bird family nothing but the safety and shelter of my porch roof, but, truth is, the mother and father chose the place and it had nothing to do with me. The mother flies to a nearby pine when she sees me coming, so I limit my visits to once a day for a few seconds. I get my fix of awe and get out of the way.

Honoring the life that came into my sphere.

There are so many directions I might take this post, as a mother, as a teacher, as a literacy coach, as a writer. I will let it rest on the level of human being: Honor the lives that come your way. How you do so is the shape and artistry of your own life. It is what we’re meant to do, every bit as much as the mother finch was meant to design her beautiful, dandelion-laced nest for the lives it now holds.

I am grateful for my tiny charm of finches, profoundly grateful for life itself.

Charmed, indeed, in so many ways.

Incidentally, charm comes from the Latin carmen, meaning “song” and “verse.” The babies are silent right now but in a few days they’ll be peeping, eventually singing. Finches are songbirds. All in all, I cannot think of a better word to collectively describe these little creatures.

Although I intentionally didn’t mention before that the other word for a group of finches is a trembling.

Again so perfect.

Not for describing the finches, however. For describing me as I stand in the quiet of my porch sanctuary viewing the new pink life, holding my breath, a wordless song swelling in my heart, trembling at the minuteness and magnitude of it all.

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As the last egg was hatching

 

 

The garden

“It’s finished,” said Cadillac Man, as we laid the headstone commemorating his little companion of sixteen years.

He’d chosen this spot months ago as he watched his beloved dog wasting away, day by day. And so we laid Nik to rest here in the shade of the crape myrtle our family planted when we first moved to our home. Nik was a year old then. Cadillac Man was five, soon to finish kindergarten; he’s entering his last year of college now.

The tree in its fullness marks the passing of time. It was young when my boy with black curls and his little red dachshund were young. I think of myrtle being an ancient funeral flower, how it represents love and faithfulness . . . never mind that a crape myrtle isn’t a true myrtle. The name association is enough; the symbolism perfect. As the pink blossoms collect here by Nik’s likeness, I recollect the bright spot of happiness he was throughout my son’s childhood, throughout the life of my family.

The statue is my doing. Cadillac Man drove me on a four-hour round trip to get it. “It’s just like him!” he exclaimed when he saw it.

Yes. For the garden is not here for remembering that Nik’s no longer with us after so many years, whenever we see it through the kitchen windows or as we pass by on our daily comings and goings. It is not for mourning, or to assuage our pain.

It’s here to celebrate the gift of his life—a garden of gratitude.

It is complete.

*******

And so, it would seem, the Nik stories are complete.

The Nik collection:

Good-bye, mighty Nik

Cadillac Man shares his writing!

Dogged determination

Sanctuary

Stained glass birds

Stained-glass birds. Jesse RadonskiCC BY

Elizabeth, Elspeth, Betsy, and Bess

They all went together to seek a bird’s nest.

They found a bird’s nest with five eggs in,

They all took one and left four in.

—Mother Goose

It’s the summer of birds.

They became a recurring motif in my summer writing workshop. 2018 is actually The Year of the Bird, marking the 100th anniversary of major bird protection laws. I’ve discovered that I’ve written enough bird stories to give them their own category for this blog. I am reading a stunning, lyrical book recently recommended to me, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. I recalled the friendly little parrot I saw at a store a while back, and thought—for maybe seven seconds—about how nice it would be to have another pet bird.

And so they came. As if summoned.

House finches, they are. A pair built a nest in my lantern porch light fixture. I would not let my family turn on that light at night for fear of burning the birds. A brood hatched, grew quickly, and was gone; here’s a fledgling tarrying behind on the last day:

 

Once the nest was empty, our younger son, Cadillac Man, removed it and my husband had the house power washed (a thing well past due).

A day later, I heard a commotion on the front porch.

Birds. Very loud ones.

The front window blinds were up; I could see a male finch, a soft dusting of red on his breast, hopping to and fro along the white railing like an Olympic gymnast on a balance beam (forgive the mixing of genders here but that is what he looked like). He paused to stare right back at me. A speckled brown female flew to him, then instantly away again. Two or three more finches skittered nearby. The collective chatter seemed highly agitated—consternation is the word that came to mind.

It’s the nest, I thought. They’ve come back and it’s gone.

They had to be the same mother and father. I wondered if the others were part of their newly-grown brood. Or a support group. Some sort of council?  They seemed to be consulting over the vanished nest. Maybe problem-solving? Collaborating? Making decisions?

For two days, the lively bird debate continued.

Then it died down.

And a piece of pine straw appeared in the bottom of the lantern.

From the window I saw both male and female bringing more pieces, saw the male drop his on the porch floor, fly down to retrieve it, and hover like a hummingbird to work it into place.

My older son, The Historian, passing through the hallway, stopped beside me to watch: “It’s amazing how they know to do this.”

“What’s going on?” his father called from the living room.

“The birds are building another nest in the porch light,” I told him.

“Oh, no they’re not,” he said. “We just had the house washed. The porch was disgusting.”

He went to the kitchen, rummaged in a drawer. He went to the porch, pulled out the three pieces of pine straw.

And put aluminum foil in the lantern:

It sent the finches into a frenzy. For another day, the loud bird-chatter resumed. I found a bit of foil on the porch floor; had one of them tried to tug the stuff loose?

And I worried about the birds cutting themselves on the aluminum, about time elapsing when they clearly needed their nest. The female must be getting ready to lay more eggs, or why all this fuss?

What would they do?

The next day when I opened the front door to go get the mail, I heard a rush of wings and I knew.

The wreath on the door.

Sure enough, on the top of the wreath lay a few long grasses.

I chose to keep this a secret for several days, until:

“All right, you guys,” I announced to my menfolk, “we now have a nest on our wreath with an egg in it. No opening the front door until these birds are gone.”

I may have also mentioned, nonchalantly, that it is illegal in the United States to remove a nest containing eggs.

And then I worried even more: Is the wreath secure enough? How many more eggs will there be? Will they—will the babies—be safe?

The nest made me want to cry. At the perfection of it, at the dried dandelions laced through it like deliberate decoration, an artist’s touch. I wanted to cry at the determination of these birds to live on my porch, how they persevered in rebuilding their home from scratch. They do not know that they built on the door of my home as well as on my heart, where there’s an especially tender spot these days for little creatures and their well-being. I still mourn a small dog, grown old and frail, that I could not save. A rawness in my soul that has yet to grow new skin.

While these birds do not really need me, they spark a sense of ownership and protection. They’re in my realm now, in my sphere of influence.

All I can give them is sanctuary.

I remember how, when I was a child riding in the backseat of a car watching the cityscape give way to fields and forests, a little green sign appeared:

BIRD SANCTUARY

I puzzled over this: Where’s the bird church?

It took some time to understand that birds can’t be hunted here, that sanctuary means safe place. 

A place to be, grow, flourish, and fly. Something every living thing needs.

Sanctuary was the word I chose to describe the writing workshop just a month ago. The workshop that had the bird motif running through it. A safe place to think, explore, write, share.

So now, every morning, when the sun is new, when shadows are sharp on the ground, while the dew is still sparkling on the grass, I walk from the garage door to visit the sanctuary. Mama Finch sees me coming as soon as I round the corner; she flies out of the nest, bobbing through the air without a sound. There’s a reverent silence, a holy hush, in sanctuaries, you know. She waits on the rooftop while I quickly admire her handiwork. I go before she’s troubled. I’ve learned from these visits that she lays her eggs between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m.

As soon as my husband and I returned from a trip to the beach, he asked: “Have you checked on your eggs?”

“Yes,” I said, smiling at his words. My eggs.

I have four.

*******

Stay tuned for the hatching announcement.

While writing this post I could not help thinking how “sanctuary” applies to teaching and instructional coaching. As with the house finches—which are symbolic of joy, happiness, optimism, variety, diversity, high energy, creativity, celebration, honoring resources, and enjoying the journey—a safe place to be, grow, flourish, and fly comes through concentrated, collaborative effort. Right now my finches are singing. A song, perhaps, that all of humanity still needs to hear.

Artifact

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Sometimes I think about the writing process more than I do about what to write. Like the origin of ideas, how the barest glimmering can turn into something substantial and take unforeseen shapes altogether during the writing. A breath of a thing becomes a breathing thing—for inspiration means to breathe in, to breathe life into. When I start writing my glimmer or breath of an idea, as it grows, shifts, and takes on a life of its own, it draws other things to it. When people say, “I don’t know how you manage to see these connections and string them together this way,” all I can say in response is, in the end, all things are connected. If you follow the glimmering threads far enough . . . .

Such was the case in my summer writing workshop for teachers. My co-facilitator asked fellow teacher-writers to bring a personal history artifact, something that holds a story about who we are or about a significant time in our lives.

My “default” artifact is a locket that belonged to my grandmother; her uncle gave it to her in 1930 when she was fifteen. She gave it to me when I was fifteen.

But I’ve already written about that: The locket.

I had trouble choosing another artifact. Why should it be so hard? We’re surrounded by pieces of our personal histories in every room in our homes, in our workplaces, even in our cars, sometimes . . . .

A thought hovered: There’s the cross necklace Daddy gave me at Grannie’s funeral. 

Nearly twenty years old, it still glitters like new, and there’s plenty of symbolism and story wrapped around it, for my father didn’t often give gifts, nor was he expressively religious except for a keen interest in eschatology. That he should give the necklace to me on that occasion (Grannie wasn’t his mother but his mother-in-law) is especially poignant.

I ought to write about that . . . yet, I hesitated.

I know! All those pictures I just had developed—if anything’s personal history, that is! Some years ago I’d gathered all my used rolls of camera film, placed them in a giant Ziploc bag, and promptly forgot about them. I’d finally remembered and had the photos developed (do you know how hard it is now to find a local place that will do this with same or next day service?). In these images, many loved ones who are gone smile at me afresh from decades past. Layer upon layer of stories to tell . . . .

Yes, this is an unusual sort of artifact . . . I definitely need to write about this.

The thing—the idea—certainly had a breath, a glimmer.

But it didn’t seem to be quite ready. I got the feeling that it didn’t want to be written about just yet.

I decided to take both, Daddy’s cross necklace and the old newly-printed photos, and as I prepared to leave the house that morning, another image glimmered in my mind. Rather brightly.

A sand dollar.

I have a few that I found years ago, and while I find them beautiful and compelling, I didn’t really think a sand dollar would be an artifact especially representative of my personal history. But . . . as the glimmering was suddenly there and I’ve learned not to question but to trust . . . I fetched the largest sand dollar, packed it carefully in a box with tissue paper, and took it with me to the workshop.

Guess which artifact I ended up writing about.

Of course.

I found this sand dollar on the beach when walking in the last weeks before my first son was born. There’d been a storm. The sand was still damp, the beach littered with seaweed and shell debris. The sand dollar, however, was whole, which is rare—they’re fragile and I’d never found any here before.

I don’t know why it drew me, just this morning, as a special artifact. It wasn’t something given to me, like Grandma’s locket or Daddy’s cross.

But maybe it was given, from beyond . . . .

I’ve just now recalled that, when I was born, my grandfather gave me twenty silver dollars. He did the same for all of the successive grandchildren. Sand dollar, silver dollar. Wealth of the sea, wealth of the earth. Gifts. Celebration. The coming of children, the next generation, the endowment of hopes and good wishes of those who’ve walked before. Like my younger self on the beach, I am walking the path of generations, I am the bridge between the past and the future. The sand dollar I have in my hand is really a skeleton. It was once a living creature. It’s symbolic of faith and strength despite its fragility and it comes from the ocean, which symbolizes life, continuity . . . .

It occurs to me now that the sand dollar is connected to the other artifacts I considered writing about, Daddy’s cross necklace, given to me unexpectedly at Grannie’s funeral, and the pictures from the old film I just found and had printed. All together they say: These are your life-pieces that endure; you will endure. Oh and I almost forgot that I just had my DNA tested. When I got the results, I marveled at the migratory history of my ancient ancestors, the story of their survival. I hadn’t expected the rush of profound gratitude to all of them for living, that I might be here now. I am here, whole, because they were here. I carry pieces of them within me. 

I found this sand dollar, the skeleton of a living thing, on the beach while walking after a storm, while carrying my firstborn. I walk the path of generations.

We go on.

My co-facilitator’s voice gently broke the hush in the room, we teacher-writers having been immersed in our thoughts, our words, recording on paper:

“Now, how can your artifact drive your teaching of writing?”

I wrote:

My sand dollar can drive my teaching of writing in so many ways. It’s a metaphor for writing:

-Just start walking. Like I did on the beach. Just start writing,

-Until you’re walking, you don’t know what you’ll find.

You’ll have surprises. Rare things will come, if you keep at it.

These gifts are waiting, meant just for you.

I looked at the sand dollar and I know, if it could look back at me, it would have winked.

Enriched

Coyote pups

Four Coyote Pups by Den. Colorado. nature 80020CC BY

As sixth grade ended, my teacher recommended me for a summer enrichment camp.

“You’ll love it,” she said. “Every day for two weeks, you’ll get to study drama, writing, and photography.”

I desperately wanted to go.

When I brought the paperwork home to my dad, he frowned.

“I don’t think so,” he told me.

“But, Daddy, it’s a special thing. You have to be invited by your teacher and I get to study drama and writing. It’s going to be so much fun. I can even ride the summer school bus to get there every day—please, Daddy?”

“It costs, you know.” He sounded tired.

The attendance fee, I think, was twenty-five dollars. Maybe thirty. It didn’t seem like a lot to me, but I knew Daddy worried about bills. My mother had ongoing medical expenses; my sister and I took weekly allergy shots. I knew not to bother Daddy when he sat at the table with the checkbook—I wouldn’t go near the kitchen at all, for then he wore a worse frown than the one he was wearing now.

No point in pressing him. I went to my bedroom, shut the door, and cried.

Later that day, or maybe the next, Grandma called. After chatting awhile with my father about news, how our all of our relatives were in their little North Carolina hometown and how everybody was there in Virginia, she asked to talk to me.

Daddy handed me the phone. It had a long cord—really long. From its wall mount, the phone cord reached the floor. It would stretch from the kitchen down the hall to my room, where I could sit on my bed and talk in private.

“Hi, Grandma.”

“Hello, Dear,” she said, the warmth of it like June sunlight bursting through a break in the clouds.  “I just wanted to hear your voice.”

My tears welled again. “I miss you.”

“Is something the matter?”

I told her all about the camp, about Daddy saying no because of the cost.

“How much is it?”

I told her.

“I’ll pay for it,” she said, uncharacteristically crisp. I could almost see the lift of her chin, the flash in her blue eyes. “I believe children should have the chance to do some things they really want to do.”

“Thank you,” I sniffled into the phone.

“Let me talk to your Daddy.”

And so it was that I went to the summer camp on the benevolence of my greatest advocate, Grandma.

Riding the bus with high school kids having to attend summer school in order to pass their grades was an adventure unto itself, but beyond that, camp was a laboratory of creativity.

I encountered pantomime for the first time, communicating story with the body, without words. I wasn’t especially good at it but some of my fellow campers—aged eleven, twelve, thirteen—were astonishing. One boy mimed being closed in by a shrinking box so well that the box was virtually visible. I watched, holding my breath, enthralled.

The drama teachers grouped us into fours, gave the groups four words, and challenged us with writing cohesive skits with these four words embedded in dialogue. My group’s words were—to the best of my memory—lion, clock, heart, flies. We were timed on the writing of the skit and the rehearsal of it, including the creation of minimalist props out of construction paper. My group, with me as scribe, wrote a farcical story of a doctor having to treat a patient who was attacked by a lion and who got away by throwing a clock at it, to which the Groucho Marx-esque doctor remarks: “My, how time flies!”

We entitled it “Dr. Heartbeat, Dr. Heartbeat” after a TV series that none of us really knew much about except that it seemed weird and therefore perfect: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. 

We performed last for our fellow campers, to a standing ovation and teachers wiping their tears at our over-the-top slapstick antics. Yours Truly played the hapless doctor.

We studied fairy tales; we wrote and illustrated our own, to be “published” in laminated books we could keep. I wrote “The Littlest Mermaid,” having long been captivated by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Ages before Disney brought us red-headed Ariel, my pink-haired mermaid battled jealous bullies. When I wrote The other mermaids hated her, the writing teacher said, “Hate is a strong, terrible word. Do you think it belongs in a story for children?”

I revised: The other mermaids didn’t like her. 

Ever since, I’ve thought about the power of one word, and when is right or not right to use it. And audience. And whether children should be shielded from the word hate, and when are fairy tales just for children?

In photography class, we campers built cameras from shoe boxes, learning about light leaks and timed exposures. I was able to produce a picture of a basset hound (they don’t move a lot) and my classmate sitting in a tree. The teacher explained that we were “photojournalists”—we’d write about the process of building and using our cameras, what worked, what didn’t, and why. He then encouraged us to write stories about the images we took and developed.

For a final writing adventure, the writing teachers invited us to look through a stack of glossy, full-page photographs. I chose two: One of a single coyote standing in a canyon, the other of four little coyote pups. I was taken by the animals’ beauty and the warm, reddish colors of the rocks.

Trouble was, I knew nothing of coyotes beyond the Road Runner cartoons. The animals in these photos were unexpectedly magnificent.

Thus began my first real foray into research. It began with place: Where do coyotes live? I needed to know. At home that night, I cracked open a dusty encyclopedia from the bottom shelf of the living room bookcase. After poring over the coyote entry, I chose Pueblo, Colorado, for my coyotes’ home. And having learned, somberly, that man is the coyotes’ worst enemy, I had an idea for a plot: Survival. After the mother or the father coyote is shot, the mate takes the pups on a journey to a new home. I also encountered the word ravenous for the first time . . . and when my teachers asked me to read my story for the gathering of families at the program on the last day of camp, I mispronounced it, saying that the coyotes ate ra-VEEN-yus-ly. “I wish I’d heard you read it aloud first,” a teacher apologized. “It’s RA-ven-ous-ly.”

Alas. Reader’s vocabulary.

It was decades and decades ago, but the richness of the camp is with me still: Every day an adventure, with something to discover, to explore, to synthesize into something new; an extension of myself, what I love, who I am. A wealth of learning compounded with interest, over time.

That Grandma made possible, because she believed it was important, even necessary. I later learned how much she wanted to take piano lessons as a child and her family couldn’t afford it. A charitable young preacher’s wife eventually taught her how to play.

And, ever the angel wielding the sword on my behalf, Grandma was willing to take a piercing in return; she sent me to the camp even though she knew it would shorten the time I’d spent at her house that summer.

Because, for some investments, the payoff is incalculable. Grandma understood this.

And even then I understood that I was, in so many ways, enriched beyond measure.