The homecoming

Last summer, a pair of finches made a nest on the wreath on my front door. I watched their family develop, day by day: Four eggs, four baby birds, four fledglings taught how to fly by their parents, and then they were gone.

I suffered empty nest syndrome. Literally.

I took wreath down for the winter and saved the little nest, because I didn’t have the heart to destroy a thing so beautifully made by tiny creatures that don’t have hands.

A Christmas wreath hung on the door until I finally got around to removing it in late January (well, it was festive; it brightened the winter-bleak days).

And I re-hung the “finch wreath,” which is clearly for springtime, but . . . I confess . . . I was hoping . . . .

And along mid-February—might it have been Valentine’s Day? Really?—I heard them.

The tell-tale cheerful chirps, the sweetest bird music, right outside my door.

My heart sang, too: You’re back, you’re back! Welcome home! 

They built a new nest and then . . . nothing.

For weeks, nothing.

I began to worry, which makes no sense, because these tiny birds are much more adept at survival than I am. My worry was mostly selfish, I realized. I wanted the birds here, didn’t want them to change their minds, find another place. I wanted to hear their happy voices every morning, wanted the joy they unknowingly impart, wanted to see new life happen again.

Every day, I checked. The perfect little nest was barren. No finches in sight or within hearing.

The temperatures dropped below freezing again. Just as I began to fear that some fate had befallen my finch friends, I wondered: Is it possible that they knew another freeze was coming? That they built the nest as planned, right on schedule, but that they can hold off laying eggs until the cold spell passes? Can that happen?

Then, early yesterday morning, a chorus of chirpy cheer outside my door!

I had to go see . . .

I have an egg!

Today at the exact same time will be another egg, tomorrow, maybe another, and soon I’ll know how big my little finch family will be.

But for now I just reflect, with reverential awe, on how the first egg came with the first bit of welcome warmth on the first day of the week.

My birds are back home, safe in their sanctuary, on Sunday morning.

And I sing for joy.

Keep it alive

It is the place

where ideas are born

some as ghosts

some fully formed

It is the place

where voices echo, echo

real or imagined

they ebb and they flow

It is a place of seeing

yet layered in veils

lift them one by one

as mystery entails

It is a place of sensing

both self and Other

alive within, without

—feel the shiver, the shudder

It was striving to be

long before we had words

for we are knitted of story

given voice, to be heard

So nurture it well

let it breathe, let it grow

keep the magic alive, for

you’re meant to write it,

you know.

Henry writes on injustice

Henry maintains his own category, “Henry Writes,” on Lit Bits and Pieces.

Dear, dear Readers (if you are still out there, and haven’t abandoned Me, yet),

I write today out of great offense, so great that I can no longer keep silent.

Never did I see such a thing coming.

Never could I imagine a thing so, so—demeaning, so insulting.

I am, in fact, still in a state of utter disbelief.

I am not even sure I can bring Myself to voice it. My toenail trembles so against the keys as I type this that I continually have to backspace to correct My errors (if only My forepaws had the span and flexibility of People’s! What I could accomplish if I could use more than one toe at a time!).

I have been told [—shudder!—] that I am . . . I am . . .

overweight.

[Heavy sigh].

So said the veterinarian immediately upon entering the exam room at my last check-up. The very first words out of her mouth: “How much are you feeding him? He’s going to have to drop some pounds.”

She didn’t even pet Me first, and I have such gloriously silky fur.

My dignity is not merely in shreds. It is entirely evaporated. Gone. Nonexistent.

Poof.

It didn’t really matter what was done to Me after that, as I couldn’t care, so deep was My hurt. I figured My People would surely console Me with a TREAT when we got home, as I work hard to bring out their generous nature and their sympathy. If I am especially winsome, I can usually finagle two TREATS out of them.

But a most egregious fate awaited Me.

My breakfast and dinner were DRASTICALLY REDUCED and I got no TREATS for days! Then, at last, when I saw I was about to receive a TREAT, I momentarily lost My cool (quite striking) head and threw Myself into near-convulsions of ecstasy . . .

Abject disappointment.

Readers, it was the size of a gnat. No, a flea.  

This couldn’t possibly be a treat, this barely-existent bit of almost-air.

“Here you go, Boy,” said My She, “it’s just five calories! You can even have another!”

If you aren’t aware, Readers, two times nothing is still nothing.

I am, after all, a strapping, stunning creature in the absolute prime of My life; I give away all the joy and love My being can muster; I do not deserve this treatment.

All because a veterinarian questioned My weight.

I question the validity of that framed diploma in her office.

I will leave it to you, My dear, dear Readers—is this not the most appalling picture of injustice you’ve ever seen?

img_1544-2

 

The gift

I remember what you wrote but I came to find the book anyway, to read the inscription again.

I hold it in my hands and think about you for a long, long time.

You were the baby who was always smiling, the cheeriest toddler, until I had to launder your blanket. Then you leaned your head against the washer and cried.

You were the little boy in preschool who sat beside classmates on the playground when others overlooked them, excluded them. From the start you noticed the outcast, offered comfort, pulled for the underdog.

You were:

The middle-schooler who won an essay contest for writing about the person you most admire, Pa-Pa. You listened to his stories of service in World War II over and over.

The winner of the Principal’s Leadership Award at the end of your senior year.

The college student who started teaching the men’s Sunday School class at church.

The young man who returned to high school, where your Leadership Award still hangs in the front office, to teach Social Studies. Remember how, when you were setting up your classroom, you cleaned out a cabinet and found your old history exams in that stack of papers?

The teacher who taught your students to dance the Charleston—and who taught your own brother in AP U.S. History (your Dad and I weren’t kidding when we said, “Don’t even THINK about calling us in for parent-teacher conferences”).

The soccer coach who built the program and took the team to the State playoffs for the first and only time. 

An inspiration to so many kids. Their parents still tell your father and me.

—I remember it all.

Teachers don’t make a lot of money; you took an extra job at night.

I remember the call. You’d been taken to the hospital. You’d been assaulted. Emergency surgery, jaw wired shut, liquid diet for six weeks. Having to carry wire cutters if you should vomit, or you’d suffocate.

How you chose to visit that young man in prison, forgave him, became his friend.

How you adopted a rescue dog, reached a crossroads in your life, came back home, quit teaching, enrolled in seminary.

Almost immediately followed by your meeting the loveliest young woman and her little girl.

I think about all these things as setting sunlight spills through the blinds onto this book in my hands, illuminating the words you wrote to me that Christmas, years ago:

It is the first book I read that made me want to change the world.

You may not think so, but you’ve been changing the world since the day you first entered it, baby boy. One word, one breath, one heartbeat at time.

I’m quite sure you always will.

Maybe we should have named you Atticus.  

No matter, for things have a way of working out as they’re meant to. I watch you with your new loved ones. I marvel at the gift of it all, the sheer poetry of life writing itself a day at a time, in the most curious of rhythms—like how pages of a book that stirred your heart long ago should come to us, living and breathing.

In a young mom who loves the same book.

And in a little girl named Scout, crawling into your lap for a story.

Dichotomies

Dichotomy
Dichotomy #3 by Abdulaziz al Loghani. Brett JordanCC BY

Our greatest national resource is the minds of our children.

—Walt Disney

When they are hungry

who would give them rocks

When they cry for a spark

who would spew water

When they strive to see

who would deploy smoke and mirrors

When they would fly

who would clip their wings

When they desire to go further up, further in

who would confine, constrain

When they crave autonomy

who would demand automatons

When their differences resemble a separate peace

who would distill a disparate piece

When the lengths they must travel are not equidistant

who would mistake equality for equity 

When they carry fragile fragments of hope within

who would build a diehard dystopia without

When they begin to perceive diversity as a gift

who would wrap it in sameness

When they aren’t the same

who would construct uniform boxes

When they would breathe

who would affix a lid

When the scraping of the adze and the hammering cease

who will hear the sound of fingernails

from inside

the casket of our dichotomies? 

 

Note: If you read “they” as children, try reading with “they” as teachers.

*******

Literary allusions: Matthew 7:9-10 and Luke 11:11-12; The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis; A Separate Peace, John Knowles; Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell; The Giver, Lois Lowry; To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee; As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner.

Salt and the stagecoach

Stagecoach

Western Stagecoach 08. Robin HallCC BY

The third graders were having a hard time.

“We’re writing pourquoi tales in this unit,” explained their teacher, “which have to be based on the students’ research of frogs. We practiced writing one together and now they have to write their own, but they keep coming up with stuff that doesn’t quite work. I’ll end up with twenty stories about ‘Why Frogs Have Eyes’ or something.”

She sighed.

So, as extra practice,  I agreed to come help the children write pourquoi stories on topics of their choosing. I modeled writing one of my own composition, “Why People Wear Shoes,” incorporating their artistic contributions along the way (my main character meets a talking owl and the kids said it needed to be huge so that my character could ride on its back, which greatly enhanced the story).

Then we brainstormed ideas that they might write about:

Why there are stars

Why there are oceans

Why the ocean is salty

Why zebras have stripes

Why there are colors (challenging!)

Or anything else in the universe that might make a sensible pourquoi.

“Remember,” I told them, as they settled on their ideas and started to write, “you can have fun with this. You can make animals can talk, you can make mysterious things happen, but your stories have to clearly explain why or how something is the way it is.”

When I returned the next day, the teacher said, “You’ve got to hear this!” She asked a boy to read his draft to the class. A quiet boy who hadn’t seemed especially interested in writing.

I sat down and listened. He’d chosen “Why the Ocean Water is Salty.” A man working in the mountains delivered salt to people in a stagecoach. Thieves threw a stick of dynamite into it, which frightened the horses. They drove over a cliff into the sea, where the dynamite went off, dispersing “billions of salt” throughout the water.

Oh, and the driver survives, retires, and decides he’ll just fish and hunt for the rest of his life.

He finished reading. His classmates applauded enthusiastically.

Must have been a full minute before I thought to close my gaping mouth.

“Amazing!” I finally managed to say. “What made you think of a stagecoach?”

“Well, first I wrote that the man was breaking up rocks on the mountain and hit one accidentally with his foot. It rolled down a cliff and knocked other rocks in, but then I thought, that doesn’t make sense. Rocks won’t make the ocean salty. So I thought about a stagecoach with salt in it. Then I needed something to explode in the water . . .”

—Makes perfect sense to me.

The moral of the story:

We can show them the stagecoach

but if we never let them load it as they please, 

they’ll drive only so far.

Set the wheels in motion,

hand over the reins,

jump out of the way.

See what astonishing routes they take.

Happy place

Sitting in the surgical room, waiting for a minor outpatient procedure, I try to redirect my sense of dread by listening to the nurses chatting:

“The knees, they’re the most unforgiving body part.”

“How about the uterus? The uterus is a vindictive organ. You mess with it and it’s going to fight back.”

Immediately I am looking all over the room for something to write with: The uterus is a vindictive organ –! That’s got to be one of the best lines I’ve heard in my entire life. Profound and very possibly inarguable . . . .

But pens apparently aren’t needed in the surgical room, as I can’t see one anywhere, and even if I did, I can’t get to it, I’m hooked to an IV, and besides, here comes a nurse, still talking: “The liver, now, it has a great sense of humor, but the uterus has absolutely none. —How ya doin’?”

She’s addressing me. “Oh!” I say, still etching the dialogue into my brain in a desperate attempt to preserve it. “I’m, um, good.”

—What does she mean, the liver has a great sense of humor? Because it’s able to regenerate? Or is there some other reason? What can that possibly be?

“So, you know you’ll get propofol, right, and this will all be over in a jif,” she says cheerily, busying herself with the tubes and such.

—Propofol. Isn’t that what killed Michael Jackson?

I am just about to ask when the anesthesiologist comes in and says, “All right, let’s do this.”

I want to say, Hang on a second, I really need to know about the liver’s sense of humor, when the anesthesiologist says in a low, silken voice:

“Do you have a happy place?”

I so know what THIS is. Get me talking about something happy so I’ll go under peacefully. A completely obvious ploy.

I don’t want to be put under, I don’t want to talk about my happy place, I want to know about the liver’s sense of humor before I wear myself out wondering about it.

But the moment’s upon me and suddenly this question about my happy place makes me want to cry.

See, I think my happy place is a little like Heaven, and if I start talking about it—will I wake up?

No need to fight. Just embrace it, says my own voice in my own head. At least, I think it’s my own voice.

So I say, “Yes, I have one.”

“Tell me about it,” says the silken voice, as warm as a blanket.

I sigh. “My grandparents’ home.”

“Where’s that?” asks the liver-humor nurse.

“In Beaufort County, out in the country. Some people say at the end of the world.”

“Why were you happy there?” coos the anesthesiologist.

“Well, because they were there. My grandparents. I always wanted to be with them.”

And they always wanted me, I think, but I don’t say it aloud. I can see them, faintly, as I speak. Standing out in the yard, watching for my arrival. One or the other or both, every time they knew I was coming. Watching, waiting.

“What was it like there?”

I’m not sure who asked this.

I can see it as I speak, as if through a window in my mind. The blue sky, the trees. Grandma’s azaleas, the camellia bush, the orchard, Granddaddy’s garden, the old hen house. I am not sleepy, yet. Maybe I can fight this, a bit . . .

“I grew up in the city and in the summers I’d go stay with my grandparents. I loved the country. It was a little paradise . . .”

It was love personified, love-infused, love written in the veins of every leaf, in every blade of grass, in the black earth itself that gave back so abundantly of what was given,  love echoing in every birdsong, in the vibration of every cicada, love painted on the iridescent bodies of dragonflies in a place more alive than any other I have ever known.

“Time to wake up, now,” says a gentle voice in my ear.

Grandma? Is it morning, already?

I’m so sleepy, still.

“Here you go. It’s all over, and everything is fine. You did great.”

It’s the liver-humor nurse.

I’m dressed, wheeled out to the car, buckled in beside my husband who’s driving, and well on my way home before I realize:

I STILL don’t know why the liver has a great sense of humor.

The gazebo

Gazebo at Night. Lori L. StalteriCC-BY

At first he thought he never wanted to see it again, the little gazebo on campus.

How perfect it was when he last saw it.

He couldn’t have orchestrated things better than they’d played out: the June sunlight just beginning to wane after dinner, shining in a deep, golden slant through the magnolias, the fragrance of the last blooms heavy in the air.

And her.

At last, and again, for they’d broken upon once. This time he knew it was meant to be. Side by side they sat, and he gave her the ring.

She started to cry.

“Will you marry me?”

She wiped her tears, laughed, hugged him. “Yes!”

Perfect. That one afternoon, in the whole of his life, was perfect.

In two weeks she was gone.

Not ready, she told him. They were too young.

That’s it then, he told her. Not now, not ever.  

His friends consoled him: “You ARE too young. Just enjoy life before you worry about getting tied down.”

Trouble was, he didn’t know how.

For days, all he wanted to do was sleep. He slept the rest of the summer away. He ate his way through autumn into the winter until he decided (while standing on the scales) that enough was enough.

He started walking, counting his calories. He lost seventy pounds.

He reconnected with old friends.

One asked, “Whatever happened, exactly?”

He told her all of it, just as they were driving past the campus. On the spur of the moment, he said, “I’ll even show you the gazebo where I gave her the ring.”

It was getting dark. He parked the car. They got out, walked the magnolia path. Lights in the lampposts flickered on. It was chilly; he hadn’t thought to wear a coat but he hadn’t planned on strolling to the gazebo tonight, or any night. He shivered as they stepped into the clearing . . .

The gazebo wasn’t there.

For a minute he thought he was dreaming. He looked every which way—yes, this is where it was. This is where it stood.

It’s gone!”

“Gone? How could it be gone?” asked his friend. “Are you sure this is the right place? That you haven’t made a mistake?”

“I made a mistake here, all right, but it wasn’t forgetting where the gazebo is. Was. I even used to ride my bike past it when I was little. Right here.” He scratched his head. “This is like something out of the Twilight Zone.”

His friend laughed. “Well, it’s twilight anyway. And maybe that gazebo didn’t disappear. Maybe it never existed at all, and maybe you never made that mistake because it’s been erased. It just never was.”

To this day, he hasn’t asked anyone who might know what happened to the gazebo, because, as far as he’s concerned, his friend is right.

Although he still occasionally checks, when he happens to think of it, which is less and less often.

It’s not there.

As if it never was.

*******

(True story)

Beautiful child

At a recent meeting of educators, I heard a woman speak of her child’s transition to a new school. The child came home bubbling with excitement on Day One:

“Mom, my teacher looks like me!”

This is the first time her child ever had a teacher of the same race, the woman said. In fact, she went on to say, with quick finger quotes for emphasis, her child was “the only ‘beautiful’ child in the class last year.”

I understood what she meant: Her child was the only one of their race in that classroom.

I’m a mom. I know the protective, fiery love for one’s own, above all else. A proverb comes to mind: “There’s only one beautiful child in the world and every mother has it.” This mom didn’t say there’d been a problem at the previous school but as an educator I know that a sense of belonging and identity are vital to learning. I know that every school and classroom should strive to value, support, empower, and celebrate each child (as well as the adults). For that is how children learn to value, support, empower, and celebrate each other. That’s humanity at its best.

Which is why, as a human being hearing these words from another, a mother and educator, I came away with one heavy, lingering question:

Aren’t ALL children beautiful?

Rabbit reverie

I saw the first one of the season just about a week ago, while driving along a back road on the blackest of nights. Through an infernal, eternal, cold Carolina rain, my headlight beams caught a flash of brown, a glimpse of white cottontail zigzagging like lightning off to the right.

—Rabbit.

—Spring is near.

The cheery thought sent me into a rabbit reverie.

My husband used to tell our boys when they were small that fog was really the rabbits making soup.  I immediately envisioned hundreds of tiny cast-iron pots over miniature campfires out in the woods, with rabbits meticulously stirring and stirring the steaming contents—Where’d you get this fanciful idea? I asked. My husband smiled: It’s what my father used to tell me. To this day, our sons, grown men,  look outside on a foggy day and nod sagely: “Rabbits making soup again.”

Baby rabbits hung out on our porch during the spring I was expecting the second of the two boys. The older one, seven turning eight, sat at the windows of his baby brother’s nursery-in-progress to watch them up close: Look, Mom, look! There they are! Easter bunnies!

I decorated the nursery with a Peter Rabbit theme.

The first good animal drawing that I ever did, that my first-grade classmates sincerely complimented, was of a rabbit. I didn’t tell them I’d traced it, as that seemed a totally insignificant point at the time.

I recalled my father mentioning the local radio station of his 1940s childhood, WRRF. He said it stood for We Run Rabbits Fast.

Life runs faster than rabbits, doesn’t it, Daddy. Too, too fast.

With that, all my rabbit thoughts left me as rapidly as they came.

Until I promptly stumbled upon this garden photo with two baby bunnies nestled in a head of—cabbage?

So that’s what this is about. I am clearly dealing with a motif.

Okay, Bunnies, I acknowledge you, your contribution to my life, your secret culinary arts, your near-omnipresence in children’s literature, your real and mystical connections to springtime, even your voracity.

I’m grateful for you.

I’m also thankful that I don’t have a garden for you to destroy, just saying.

And I am really, really sorry that I carried around that rabbit’s foot (dyed aqua) when I was nine. It wasn’t lucky anyway; that’s the year I broke my arm . . .

Seems I’ve long since redeemed myself, little friends.