Revolutionary fiction, revisited

Storming of Redoubt No.10

Yorktown, Virginia: Storming of Redoubt No. 10. Eugène Lami. 

I can taste the brine of the river, mingled with gunpowder and wood smoke from the Redcoat campfires . . . I know this shoreline, could walk it in my sleep, but it’s so changed, now, with the batteries, the cannons, the trenches. I can’t carry a lantern for fear of Redcoats seeing me. All I have in my hands is the sack for filling with potatoes. I slide along the ground in the dark, nearing the bank where the cave is set in the earth just below . . . 

The students are gathered on the carpet near my feet, looking at my writing on the screen of an interactive whiteboard, their own papers lying in front of them. They’re considering revisions to the opening scene I wrote while they watched.

To be honest, I am having to review a lot about the last days of the Revolutionary War in order to write this little bit of fiction. I’m tasked with helping the kids write their own story set during the Revolution, as a means of making the history “come alive” for them. As I re-read my writing aloud to the class, I’m already not happy with the reason my main character, Hannah, is going for the evacuated townspeople’s potatoes stored in the cave. Her family is in hiding during the British occupation of Yorktown, they’re nursing three wounded Patriot soldiers, they’re running out of food.

Maybe I should add that Hannah’s mother needs the potatoes to make a poultice for one of those wounded solders. Yeah, that would be even better . . . .

I explain that the next scene I want to write is Hannah getting in the cave, hearing someone come, hiding in the potatoes, overhearing Cornwallis telling his next-in-command that they will escape George Washington’s troops via the river. She will have to figure out how to get word to the Continental Army. Or to the French Army . . .

A boy raises his hand: “I have an idea for your story.”

“Great!” I say. “Let’s hear it!”

“You could have Hannah get back to her family and her friends in hiding and the older boys could disguise themselves as British soldiers to get through their lines.”

“That’s an awesome suggestion, ” I say. “I just might use it! Here’s the thing, everyone: for everything your characters decide to do, there must be a clear, believable reason. It has to make sense in context of the story.”

It is now time to hear their ideas, as they begin to write their own stories.

A few are willing to share with the whole group:

A girl’s brother is supposed to join the Continental Army but he’s afraid and runs away; she decides to dress as a boy and takes his place in battle.

As a Patriot family leaves town, outrunning the British Army, they find a British baby separated from its mother. The mother comes looking for it —”So,” I say, as yet a little unclear on how such a baby (maybe from a Loyalist family?) should be there, lost—”you know they’re on opposite sides, right? Would either take time to politely give a baby back to the enemy?”

—Emphatic nodding of heads; it’s the baby’s mother . . . .

I am picking up on a couple of developing patterns here. One: These fourth-graders are writing from the perspective of main characters who are children. Heroic, rather resourceful children. Well, that’s what I am modeling for them. And, perhaps more importantly: The adults in these stories seem to make remarkably empathetic, kind choices.

Despite a revolution, a war.

Maybe those were more civilized times? When warfare was conducted with etiquette?

Then a girl says that her main characters are a brother and sister whose dad is off fighting under Washington and whose mom is thrown in prison on suspicion of witchcraft. Then the British Army burns their town; the children have to figure out how to stay on the run and survive . . . .

—Never mind about ‘more civilized times.’

As she speaks, I can’t help mulling the true atrocities of war. How Cornwallis’ desperate plan to escape with his troops by river included leaving their injured behind. How deserters told the allied French and American armies that, to preserve food, the British army slaughtered their horses and threw the bodies on the beach.

I shudder at the inhumanity of man, then my mind suddenly reels from the image of dead horses lying on that colonial shoreline to one of greater horror, schoolchildren in America today, lying slain . . . less than 250 years later, THIS is what we’ve become?

“Stop!” I say.

The class freezes. The little writers look at me, quizzically.

“Sorry.” I wonder if they notice the tremor in my voice. “We’re writing fiction, of course, but I just need to know one thing: Are the children are going to be all right?”

—Or what’s a country for?

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis. John Trumbull.

 

The prelude to this post: Revolutionary fiction

A healing presence

One of the kids in our Harry Potter club, a third grader, wanted to know:

“Mrs. Haley, if you could do any of the magic, what would it be?”

That’s an easy one.

“Healing,” I say.

The children think I mean “episkey,” the little mending of a broken nose or split lip (its name coming from Greek for ‘repair’).

But I mean the healing song.

The one without words, that puts the maimed, the mortally wounded, back together; the song that knits gaping wounds closed.

In the books, the strange song, invented by Professor Snape—perhaps the ultimate antihero—heals devastating physical wounds. They’re obvious; the injured people lie around bleeding profusely.

So many people walk around in the real world just as wounded, emotionally, spiritually, mentally.

Sometimes it is obvious.

Sometimes it is not.

I am not a magical character in a fantasy series nor a trained medical professional. I am no alchemist, apothecary, or angel. I cannot dispense healing.

But I write.

My words don’t grant healing, but maybe they can stir hope of it.

I can listen.

I don’t have a healing song, but I can have a hearing heart.

I can be still.

I can be a pocket of calm inside a world of clamor.

It’s not in my power to fix broken hearts, broken spirits, broken minds, broken families. If I could, I would have done so for many I’ve loved.

I can only be a presence, a voice, an encouragement to be strong in the broken places.

—Yes, healing.

—That is what I wish, children.

Image result for if you don't heal what cut you

 

 

 

Remnants

Some time ago, I came upon a giant Ziploc bag filled with disposable cameras and rolls of film I’d gathered and promptly forgot about.

I really need to take these to be developed, I told myself.

And I set them aside.

And life kept happening.

And time went by.

Until I wasn’t even sure anymore how old the film was and who’d taken pictures of what.

Last summer I finally found a shop that still does same-day printing on site (do you know how hard that is to find now?). I took my film—thirteen rolls.

When I returned for the pictures, I learned that some of the film had nothing on it. The rolls hadn’t been used or they’d been exposed and the images were lost.

Many of the pictures that did come out were weirdly double-exposed. Scenes of my children when they were little, superimposed over each other, over other people.

Ghostly. Tricks of light, of time.

In the shadows, my grandmother sits with her arm around my younger son. He was three.

Eighteen years ago.

Suddenly my father’s grinning right at me from the childhood room of my older son, who’s twelve and seated beside him on the foot of the bed, playing Nintendo 64.

Daddy’s been gone for sixteen years. Died the month after my youngest started kindergarten. But this photograph turned out clear and bright; Daddy looks happy.

Fragments of life, preserved here and there, telling our stories a piece at a time.

Kind of like Grandma’s quilt.

I left the photos and went to pull it from where it’s safely stored.

Grandma made a quilt for each of her five grandchildren. In mine many of the squares are leftover scraps of material from clothes that my mother and grandmothers wore. The brown-and-white swirled pattern was once a vest and slacks, the silky coral-and-pink floral fabric, a blouse—all made by my mother. These remnants were painstakingly stitched together by my grandmother. Random parts forming a pattern, making a whole.

This old film, this quilt. Tangible memories. Remainders, reminders, of long ago. Pieces of my life, of who I am.

Kind of like DNA.

One of the things I learned with ancestry testing is that everyone can trace their maternal haploid group, because everyone has an X chromosome from their mother. When I read the narrative of my female forebears’ migration thousands of years ago, surviving the Ice Age (for, clearly, some of them did), and who knows what else . . . it was nearly overwhelming. To think of each one going before, through the ages, on and on, all the way to my being here. That even now we are trace-able patterns of each other, a virtual, long-reaching quilt, connected, continually replicating and unfolding through time.

Not being male, however, means that I have no Y chromosome haploid history to trace. This knowledge left me bereft at first. I have no brothers, my father is gone, and with him his Y-history, which forms half of my own, the migratory story of which I cannot know. Like my old film, it is obscured forever.

Yet I carry remnants of them all within me, those ancestors, male and female. I am their remnant, a whole stitched from their infinite parts, the conveyor of their continuum, the next chapter of their narrative.

And so are my children, superimposed over us all.

Like layers of memory upon memory.

As life keeps happening.

As time goes on, and on, and on.

Good vibrations

Two of our three baby finches hatched 

I was expecting to find a hatched baby finch on Sunday.

Instead, I found two!

—I think.

I can really only tell it’s two because one egg of three is still there. Although I can kind of discern two different necks, one baby lying over the other.

I knew the eggs were due to hatch around Sunday, and all last week I wondered what the mother bird was experiencing. To begin with, she built—rebuilt, actually—her nest on top of the wreath on my front door, which means that any time we walk down the hallway or open any other doors in the house, she feels those vibrations. Is that a good thing, somehow? Is that a reason why finches like to build so close to humans, to feel those larger rhythms of life, perhaps trusting them to be benevolent and protective forces?

And I wondered—being a mom—if she could feel stirrings inside the eggs beneath her as she diligently kept them warm on these still-frosty nights and mornings. Eggshells are only so thick . . . Can she feel those tiny hearts beating under her, long before her chicks begin pecking their way out into the world?

So many good vibrations . . . .

Reminds me of the story behind the famous song. When he was young, Brian Wilson’s mother told him that dogs will bark at people who give off “bad vibrations.”

Inspired, Brian eventually composed the Beach Boys iconic masterpiece Good Vibrations.

Which leads me back to the naming of these three babies (in a previous post: Tiny trio).  Finches are singers, and my son is a Beach Boys aficionado, so . . . .

Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Brian and Dennis (the latter of which was apparently revved up and decided to hatch early—how fitting).

Their brother Carl is due to arrive tomorrow.

—Stay tuned!

“I’m pickin’ up good vibrations . . . “

‘You were my favorite memory’

BoJangles

New BoJangles at night. Mr. Blue MauMauCC BY

Spring arrives amid a flurry of wings, bird voices rising with the morning sun, daylight hours stretching perceptibly longer, the first warm breath of promise to come.

On such a day, two years ago, my youngest son’s lifelong friend died in an accident.

She was eighteen.

She was one of the prettiest children I’ve ever seen. Big, brown, doe-like eyes in a round cherub face. Musical, like my son. They grew up in children’s choirs at church, were in band together throughout high school. She played the flute. My son occasionally accompanied her and their other childhood friend on the piano during worship services. All three of them sang:

I’ve had many tears and sorrows

I’ve had questions for tomorrow

There’ve been times I didn’t know right from wrong

But in every situation

God gave blessed consolation

That my trials come to only make me strong.

Through it all,

Through it all . . . 

Their voices blended beautifully. Hers was high, clear, pure, almost ethereal.

I wrote to her, told her so. Said that she needed to sing more often.

Perhaps that note was in her things, still, when her mother began going through them after her death. I do not know.

But an essay she’d written in high school was there.

Its title: My Favorite Childhood Memory.

Her mother copied it, sent it to my son and their other friend—for she wrote of them.

I wondered, when I first learned of this essay, what the memory was. Maybe a birthday celebration, as they were all born in August of three successive years. Maybe working Vacation Bible School or Bible Sports Camp together as youth. Maybe it was the time they went shopping and bought two betta fish that my son named after gospel bass singers, or one of the summer beach trips they took, growing up. The three of them even went to the prom together, once.

My son let me read her essay.

She wrote of Sunday nights when the three of them would go with her family to BoJangles for supper, how they told hysterically funny stories, how she laughed and laughed. She said these were the best times of her childhood, that she would always remember them . . . .

She is gone. Her words, her love for her friends, remain:

You were my favorite childhood memory.

It seems almost like a thank-you letter, now.

My son says once in a while, when he’s out walking laps around the church, exercising his body, easing his mind and his soul—he can hear her singing.

It’s two years today, a Sunday. Tonight her family and friends will gather at BoJangles in her memory.

The book

I heard their whispers, and I shouldn’t have, because they were in line in the hallway. There are Rules, you know . . . .

Mrs. Haley!”

Mrs. Haley!”

Mrs. Haley!”

I looked around. There they were, not standing neatly in line but leaning out in varying degrees, trying to get my attention.

“What-? You all sound like a bunch of Parselmouths, hissing,” I said (Parselmouths being people who can speak snake language, for those of you not intimately familiar with Harry Potter, few though you may be).

Giggles.

And more whispers:

The books came! There’s one for you!”

“It’s wrapped”—

“Stop, you’re ruining the surprise!”

—I think somebody got elbowed, just then.

I taught a series of personal narrative lessons to this third grade class. I modeled my own narrative. They drafted theirs, conferred with their teacher, revised, conferred with me, revised.  They did every bit of the work, made their own artistic choices in both writing and illustrating, asked a lot of questions. At the last I coached each child through final edits.

Then their teacher compiled it all and sent it off for publication.

This week, the books arrived.

These writers couldn’t concentrate when I came to the classroom Thursday afternoon to talk about opinion writing. They wriggled and writhed like puppies at their seats.

Because a flat package, wrapped in bright jewel-tone paper, waited on the reading table.

The tag read Mrs. Haley.

“Soooo,” I said, “this is what all the excitement is about? Am I supposed to open this now?”

—They almost burst.

YES!”

YES!!”

YES!!!”

When I picked up the package, they gathered so close around me that I felt slightly claustrophobic. I had a fleeting sense of Gru in Despicable Me, being surrounded by  a sea of adoring Minions, countless giant eyes blinking in anticipation.

“Oh, wow—it turned out so well! It’s beautiful, everybody! I am so proud of you and your writing.”

They laughed, clapped, clamored, tried to tell me more stories about their stories . . . for they are, after all, authors.

I held the book to my heart, basking in the glow.

—They do not realize that they are the gift.

Revolutionary fiction

Cornwallis' Cave

Cornwallis’ Cave, Yorktown, VA

The class had been studying the American Revolution.

Their teacher wanted them to have a sense of being there. What better way than writing historical fiction?

—Would I come model for them, help them get started?

—Are you KIDDING?

Let the revolutionary zeitgeist begin!

I set the fourth-graders to researching daily life, clothing, furniture, chores during colonial times. The story cannot come to life without some period details.

Then we worked on understanding that big ideas of the historical event don’t change, although we can make up some characters who live through it.

—A hand, waving in the air: “Like the Titanic sinking was a real historical event. The captain and crew were real people. Jack and Rose in the movie were not.”

—Other child, aghast: “They weren’t real? I thought they were!”

—Me: “Um, no, they’re fictional. Made-up characters.”

Ahem. 

Back to the Revolution.

We move on to plot . . . who’s this story about, what does this character want to accomplish, and what’s getting in the way or putting the character in danger?

Then setting . . .

I did my own background research and decided to let the class choose which of two stories for me to write as a model.

“Okay, I’ve given this some thought, ” I tell them as they gather on the carpet at my feet. “A town right here in North Carolina was one of the first in the colonies to oppose the Stamp Act.  The British burned the town and it was never rebuilt. What if my main character was a child who had to leave quickly with the family? What if they saw their home destroyed?”

“Ooooo,” murmur the children, wide-eyed. A couple of them nod their heads. “That’s a good story. It’s sad. It could have happened.”

“Yes, and as a writer that’s part of your job, to make the readers feel like they are there, experiencing everything the characters do. This story probably will be sad. And frightening. Or, here’s your other choice. I actually grew up near Yorktown, Virginia, where Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington, ending the war. I visited Cornwallis’ cave countless times. Legend says Cornwallis hid from Washington’s troops in the cave but that’s not likely. What is true is that the cave was used to store potatoes! So, what if I have a character, a colonial child, who, for some reason, has to go into that cave for the potatoes when Lord Cornwallis comes to have a quick, private conversation with his next-in-command? What if the child hides, hears Cornwallis’ escape plan, waits until Cornwallis leaves, and somehow gets the message to General Washington—which is how the British get captured, and which forces the surrender?”

“Yes! Yes!” All the kids are nodding, bouncing on the floor. “The cave story! Write the cave story! The boy will be a the hero of the Revolution!”

—”Why can’t it be a girl?” asks a girl.

All faces turn her way.

In silence.

Well, women helped in the war effort . . . some were even spies . . . why CAN’T it be a girl?

“What if,” I say slowly, my gray matter spinning hard, “what if a boy was sent for those potatoes . . . by someone, we can figure that out later . . . and he just can’t do it, he’s too frightened? Or sick—or injured? What if he has a friend, a girl, who has to help him by doing it in his place, who hides in the cave, overhears Cornwallis’ secret escape plan, and she gets the message to George Washington?”

Heads are tilted, fingers cupping chins, eyes shining. They all look like future history professors.

Except for the girl who made the suggestion. She glows like Victory herself.

—Revolutionary, indeed.

*******

A couple of other scenarios the class discussed for their own writing:

What if colonists were hunting in the forest and found a wounded British soldier? What would they do?

What if British soldiers were marching through a field or by the shore when they find an colonial baby, all alone? What would they do?

—”Wait a second,” interrupts a boy. “How would they KNOW this is a colonist’s baby?”

“That is a great question,” I smile. “You are the writer. That is for you to figure out.”

Life imitates art

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“Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” -Oscar Wilde

When I saw my colleague’s handmade “Principles of Art” on the wall of the art classroom, I thought: Wait – couldn’t these be principles of life, too?

Inspiration struck; in fact, it dared me to try . . . so, here goes . . . .

How to Use Tools in Life

Pattern

Let us step away from repetition; save it for rhythm. Think instead of a template laid before us, with diagrams and guidelines, a model to be examined before cutting to fit who we are and are becoming, always making the necessary alterations as we go. 

Contrast

—isn’t easy, might be painful, but is necessary, for it makes elements that need to be seen stand out: the good, the bad, the ugly. It also makes better and best possible, for it is in differences that we find beauty, that we reach beyond realms that we know into those we don’t; this is how we grow. 

Emphasis

Find your focus. What’s WORTH emphasizing? Everything cannot have the same intensity or there’s no big picture, no real vision, and meaning is lost. 

Balance

—means stability. Not attempting too much or too little. Too much and we become oppressed, paralyzed, ineffective. Too little, and we become bored, listless, unproductive. Balance is achieved by planning for it, knowing that the work and the break from the work are essential, equivalent, and correlated gifts. 

Scale

—is about relationships. And perspective. It takes courage to see these as they are. Healthy relationships are in proportion. Unhealthy ones are not. A whole must relate to another whole, not to parts. The only person you can adjust is you. Use your power wisely.

Harmony

Finding common ground, honoring inherent sameness, coming to a pleasing agreement or resolution, is finding our place of belonging, one to another.

Rhythm (movement)

—begins with the beating of our hearts. Humanity is meant to to make music, sing, to dance, to run; rhythm is exciting, reminds us we are alive. It is not random. It is structured. It is anticipated. It is a recognizable, repeated pattern necessary for order and flow. It’s all about the right timing.  

Unity

—is about overall clarity and completeness. It occurs only when all individuals, all pieces, are in harmony with one another. Clutter and confusion are gone.

Variety

Ah, the spice of life . . . intricacies, complexities, diversity, the delight of the unexpected . . . all that transforms existence from an interesting experience to one breathtaking adventure. 

Double challenge: Re-read as 1) Tools for writing and again as 2) Tools for teaching.

 

What delighted you today?

Narnia

Narnia. Mark IrvineCC BY

The sky became bluer and bluer and now there were white clouds hurrying across it from time to time. In the wide glades there were primroses. A light breeze sprang up which scattered drops of moisture from the swaying branches and carried cool, delicious scents against the face of the travellers. The trees began to come fully alive. The larches and birches were covered with green, the laburnums with gold. Soon the beech trees had put forth their delicate, transparent leaves. As the travellers walked under them the light became green. A bee buzzed across their path. 

“This is no thaw,” said the Dwarf, suddenly stopping. This is spring . . .”

—”Aslan is Nearer,” The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

What delighted you today?

That it’s the first day of spring delights me.

The beautiful description of spring coming after a hundred years of winter (but never Christmas) in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe delights me.

That I remember first reading that passage at age ten delights me.

The painting of a child in a green forest clearing, reaching out to pet a deer that may be merely a statue, or might be real, or will become real at the touch of her hand, delights me.

—I’ve decided to notice things that delight me, every day.

As way of stopping to breathe in the daily grind, of pushing back the domineering world, of finding a moment of stillness, even seconds of stillness, to savor something I see, hear, taste, touch, smell—or simply sense within my soul.

Such as:

the three finch eggs in the nest on my front door

birdsong early in the morning

my youngest son asking when I’ll be home so we can go walking

my husband’s laughter

Henry the dog’s ecstasy at any sighting of me

finally writing something down after its wings have beating in my head or heart for ever so long

What delighted you today?

All around us are affirmations, if we open ourselves to receive them. The wondrous exists in close proximity, is even ours for the taking, if we remain aware. As grand as a bald eagle at the roadside, as pure as the light in a child’s eyes, as simple as a stranger passing by with a genuine smile and a “Hello! How are you today?”

What delighted you today?

Might even pay to keep a journal of delight, to read and re-read when most needed, to create a pocket of peace amid the clamor, to strike a spark in the dark.

Every day has its gifts, small and great, that await.

What delighted you today?

—And what delight will you be?

The lantern

Pa-Pa’s lantern

In the lamplight, the withered leaves collect at my feet 

and the wind begins to moan. 

—”Memory,” Andrew Lloyd Webber & Trevor Nunn

It is all I have of him.

I don’t recall ever seeing it until I returned home after my Grannie’s death, years ago. My father picked the dusty old lantern up from a box of her belongings: “This was Pa-Pa’s,” he said. “You don’t remember him.”

I bristled a little. “Yes I do, Daddy.”

He smiled, shook his head dismissively. He placed the lantern on the bookshelf by the front door.

“He had white hair,” I said. “And glasses.”

Daddy’s brow furrowed just a bit.

“And he wore a gray . . .  jumpsuit or something,” I continued. “And he was tall . . .”

Daddy chuckled. “No, he wasn’t! He was a short man, although he did wear a gray work suit. He was a mechanic.”

“Well, I was little. He looked tall to me.”

He looked at me strangely, then.

And told me I could have the lantern.

Pa-Pa was my step-grandfather. There are very few images of him in my mind. He and Grannie, my maternal grandmother, lived in the big house with the long stairs outside. My mother and father and I lived in the small white house right next door. One day Pa-Pa came over, sat in the floor with me, and taught me how to spin a rubber ball. Round and round it went, white and pink, blurring, round and round; I didn’t want it to stop. I must have amused him because he laughed a lot . . . when I recalled this to my mother, she said Yes, he thought a lot of you. He didn’t get along with his own family. 

When I first saw a model of the Earth rotating, it brought to mind Pa-Pa and that ball on the floor.

My memories of those days are fragmented, strange. In Grannie and Pa-Pa’s living room I saw a pair of bedroom slippers that still had feet in them. I screamed in terror and couldn’t make anyone understand me. Another time I was standing between the kitchen and the living room when something behind me exploded. I saw the flash, the fire, reflected in the picture window behind the sofa where the grown-ups were sitting. They came running —it turned out to be a pan of grease left on the stove, igniting. No one was hurt but, again, I was terrified.

Pa-Pa let me ride in his wheelbarrow, out past the blue snowball bushes (hydrangeas) in his yard.

—That’s about all.

I have no recollection of his vanishing.

I know now that his grown sons told my parents we couldn’t stay in the little house anymore; we had to find another place to live.

Much later I learned that Pa-Pa bought the little house after World War II, when a nearby Army camp was decommissioned and its buildings were sold for a song. He had it moved to its place beside his big house. When I was born and my parents weren’t happy with their apartment, Pa-Pa offered it to them.

That little house, the first home I remember, had been the Army hospital morgue.

Ghosts, ghosts, everywhere . . .

I wonder why he comes to mind this night, why I suddenly think about his lantern.

Perhaps because he died in March.

I didn’t know this, either, until I found his grave a few years ago.

I stood reading his headstone, shivering in the dusk, brown leaves swirling, rattling softly at my feet. The month, the year—I could hardly believe it, myself.

He died in March.

I would turn three in May.

But I remember you, Pa-Pa. I remember.

—Your old lantern still lights.