Sun day

Here in the heart of North Carolina, epic snow and bitter temperatures haven’t been an issue.

We’ve had a different plague.

For nine dark days in a row, it’s rained.

Rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain

Small rivers flowing over roads and through parking lots. Yards turned to absolute bogs. Maybe we can raise a bumper crop of Venus flytraps.

The farmers say it’s good for the cows, that continuously pulling their feet up high from so much mud as they walk builds their muscles (is this true? The rain is beefing up the beef?).

Not so for humans. The utter gloom left us in a zombie-like stupor.

Gray day after gray day after gray day . . . .what did the sun even look like? Feel like?

Wait—I remember reading something like this. I first encountered it long, long ago. A story of bad enchantment. . .

“When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale, a children’s story” . . . Slowly and gravely, the Witch repeated, “There is no sun.” And they all said nothing. She repeated in a softer, deeper voice: “There is no sun.” After a pause, and after a struggle in their minds, all four of them said together: “You are right. There is no sun.” It was such a relief to give in and say it.

—C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair

How easy to forget there ever was a sun, succumbing to the mind-numbing sound of rain, rain rain, just as Prince Rilian, Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum fell under the spell cast by the strum, strum, strum of the Witch on her stringed instrument.

Until yesterday, that is, when I heard a sound other than falling water.

Just outside my bedroom window, birds were singing. Merrily.

Despite the pouring rain, on a morning with no sun, they sang with pure zest.

How it lifted my spirits. Surely the sun could not be far from returning. Surely the birds knew it, were proclaiming it ahead of time: This this this too will pass pass pass. This this too will pass pass pass, wait and see, wait and see . . .

Then, today, bit by bit, the grayness lifted. Yellow shafts of light suddenly spilled through the blinds; I ran right outside to revel in the brightness. Now, as the afternoon wanes, shimmering golden fingers are playing across my keyboard, my hands, the table, the walls. I think of a happy child, dancing, full of joie de vivre, joy of living.

Today just so happens to be Sunday.

And now I have a bit of song for you, little harbinger birds:

Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right.

—George Harrison

The tree I’d be

Cypress trees.jpg

Sunlit Cypress. Teresa PhillipsCC BY-SA

A few days ago,  I happened upon this captivating tweet:

I am well on the way to becoming a tree myself. I put down roots. I sigh when the wind blows. My sap rises in the spring and I turn towards the sun. Which tree would I be? Definitely a walnut tree.

-Roger Deakin, journal entry for April, quoted by writer Robert Macfarlane, Twitter, 04/04/2018

Macfarlane then asks: “Which tree would you be and why?”

—A cypress.

That was my immediate thought.

But why?

After all, one of my favorite scents is Fraser fir (the predominant Christmas tree in North Carolina). I vacuum the stubby needles at holiday’s end and try not to empty the canister for as long as possible, because the fir fragrance fills the air with every subsequent use. The trees of my childhood are dogwood, pine, live oak, magnolia, sweet gum. I have early memories of sun-dappled sidewalks covered with “helicopters”—one-winged seeds, or samaras—that spiral down from maple branches. I tossed the helicopters again and again, as high as I could, to watch them swirl like propellers. Crape myrtles lined my grandparent’s yard; I climbed their smooth trunks, sat in the crooks of their branches, countless times.

Why does cypress come to mind first, then?

Poets and writers, you know when an image appears so vividly that it holds some significance begging to be explored . . . .

For starters, my image is of Taxodium distichum, more commonly known as a bald cypress, or, my preferred name, a southern-cypress tree.

It’s rooted in the swamps of the southern United States, where my roots are. A tree at home in water, in rivers. I grew up in a place called Tidewater, entered the world in a hospital named for its proximity to water: Riverside.

My first recollection of the word cypress was my grandparents’ reference to a place on beyond where they lived, where the little dirt road curved past canals and thick woods that had grown to obscure stately houses: up Cypress Swamp, they’d say. Grandma’s best friend from first grade, who grew up to marry Grandma’s brother, was from Cypress Swamp. As a child, standing on the dirt road, looking through the treetops, if the sun was right, I could glimpse a bit of one old, abandoned house—a roof of cypress shingles.

The word sounded poetic to me even then: cypress. Like a whisper. Like something inviting. Maybe magical.

Although, through the ages, a cypress was usually associated with funerals and mourning. My affinity for the tree is clearly fused to my eastern North Carolina heritage, a reminder of the generations that have gone before me. My family tree, so to speak. It is ancient. Maybe nothing encapsulates that so well as this passage from Our State magazine, in which the author chronicles his boat journey on a river through a cypress forest:

 Many of the trees here must have witnessed those long-vanished species. They would have nodded over Native Americans in dugout canoes. They would already have been tall when the Lost Colony was lost, when the Mayflower sailed, when Attila the Hun was on the move. A few might have stood when Christ was born.

-T. Edward Nickens, “In Search of Methuselah,” Our State, June 8, 2016.

They live for so long, cypress trees, due to their ability to withstand storms; they thrive despite adverse growing conditions. Cypress wood is hard, strong, water-resistant—hence those shingles on the old country houses still standing as a forest  grows up around them. Those hand-hewn shingles sheltered the life therein. Like Noah’s ark, made of gopher wood from an unknown tree that some researchers speculate to be . . . cypress.

I cannot say the adversity, the storms, in my own life are any greater or worse than those weathered by other people I’ve known. I can only say that I’m still here. I view the cypress not as a funeral tree but one that preserves, celebrates, and affirms life; that, ultimately, is the whole reason why I write, why this blog exists at all.

On a fanciful note: Earlier I mentioned the word cypress sounding magical. When I was a child I loved the Chronicles of Narnia. I still do. In these books, C.S. Lewis borrowed from Greek mythology to depict dryads and hamadryads, the spirits of trees that took the form of young girls with their particular tree’s physical characteristics: a birch-girl dressed in silver, another with hair like long, willowy branches. Does a cypress call to me, then, because I am tall (5’8″ in bare feet)? That’s taller than the average American woman (5’4″) but not dramatically so. There must be something more, then, as to why the cypress chooses me, something unique to the tree and to me, other than our having southern roots in watery regions.

The knees.

In cypress forests, knobby projections stick up from the water. Theory has it that those “knees” help the tree breathe, enabling it to take in more oxygen. I don’t know how much truth lies in that theory, but I can tell you this: For my entire childhood I suffered from asthma and the only way I could sleep at night, the only way to breathe, was by curling up in a ball with my knees drawn up under me.

So, yes, my knees helped me breathe.

*******

In the old places

where the water stands still

they live on

holding all their stories

not evergreen

but ever-enduring

reassuring

reaffirming.

With every breath

drawn on their knees

they whisper,

“Remember.”

Real

and ethereal

—if I were a tree

a cypress

I’d be.

Cypress trees - pink

“When we are present in each moment, the past gently rolls up behind us and future slowly unravels before us.” echorooCC-BY

In-between places

Gloomy forest

Gloomy forest. gorchakov.artemCC BY

I read the final page and close the cover. The idea of being separated from someone you love intensely, whether by distance, time, or circumstances, comes with a stab so sharp that it almost isn’t bearable.

Never mind that The Time Traveler’s Wife is fiction. The frequent separation of Claire and Henry, especially their final one, is crafted with this piercing truth, the longing for the “in-between” period to be over so that the characters can be together again. Sometimes the interim lasted for years.

While Claire and Henry usually had the advantage of knowing the duration of their separations thanks to his time traveling, the rest of us don’t get such clear glimpses of the future. We have to endure the various in-between stages of our lives, not knowing how long they’ll last, not being able to speed up time, not knowing the outcome, often having little or no control.  These in-between places are often laced with deep aching, a sadness and desperation at being apart from someone we  love. Existence is as flat and barren as a desert. The emptiness is huge, frightening; we want to rid ourselves of it before it consumes us. The scope of this in-between-ness is too much for us. The loss cannot be dealt with as a whole but only lived through in chunks  – a day, maybe just an hour, at a time.

There are in-between places other than those of relationships. The loss of a job, long illnesses, hardships, disasters – all can be dark places that sap our strength, sometimes with no foreseeable guarantees that all will end well. Living in these situations is like navigating a dark, unfamiliar forest. Not knowing which way is the shortest or best way out, we often go in pointless circles without realizing it.

I recall an in-between place that’s quite different. It’s remained in my mind since I was a child, on my first reading of The Magician’s Nephew.

It’s called The Wood Between the Worlds.

In the attempt to move from our current world to another by wearing magic rings, two children land in a sort of “connector” place. Here’s how C.S. Lewis describes it:

It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals and no wind. You could almost feel the trees growing . . . a pool every few yards as far as his eyes could reach. You could almost feel the trees drinking the water up with their roots. This wood was very much alive. When he tried to describe it afterwards Digory always said, “It was a rich place: as rich as plum-cake.” 

Digory discovers that he’s not frightened, excited, or curious. He’s forgetting why he’s there and what he knew of his own life, even his mother, who’s dying.

If anyone had asked him: “Where did you come from?” he would probably have said “I’ve always been here.” That was what it felt like – as if one had always been in that place and never been bored although nothing had ever happened. As he said long afterwards, “It’s not the sort of place where things happen. The trees go on growing, that’s all.”

Not the sort of place where things happen, but things go on growing around us while we are numb, sleepy. Who among us hasn’t experienced this?

Digory has an epiphany nevertheless – he tells his companion, Polly:

That’s why it’s so quiet and sleepy here. Nothing ever happens here. Like at home. It’s in the houses that people talk , and do things, and have meals. Nothing goes on in the in-between places, behind the walls and above the ceilings and under the floor, or in our own tunnel. But when you come out of our tunnel you may find yourself in any house. I think we can get out of this place into jolly well Anywhere!

Digory is right. The rest of the book deals with the results of his and Polly’s choices, both wise and foolish, but suffice it to say that they get out of The Wood Between the Worlds to witness the birth of a brand-new world.

Narnia.

Here’s another illustration, not out of fantasy.

My family once decided to travel from Raleigh, North Carolina to Boston by train. There was a problem with the train at the first segment of the trip – it had to be made by bus. Arriving at a different station, we boarded the train at last.

What we didn’t realize is that the train would stop at every major station on the East Coast even when no one was getting off or boarding. Long into the night we rode, stopping in deserted stations, sometimes for an hour or more. Bleary, exhausted, regretting our choice of transportation, we wondered how long this train would sit in this place where nothing was happening, and why.

I fell asleep.

The first light of dawn woke me. I looked through the train window at gray nothingness to see a shoreline slowly materializing. After having come through the unsightly backsides of major cities for most of the trip, this was unexpected. The sky turned pink, the sea rose-gold and sparkling, with the rising of the sun.

It was breathtaking, one of the most glorious sights I’ve ever seen.

After nineteen (eternal) hours on the train, we arrived in Boston.

The trip home was longer, as another train’s battery died and our train had to deliver a new one to them.

The point is that while the in-between places are static, and we often arrive in them for indeterminate stretches of time, they do serve a purpose. We can rage at the nothingness there, fervently railing at the passing of time, or sink into numb paralysis for the duration. Or we can see the in-between places as connectors, the temporary segue from one phase of our lives to another. Away from the energy, the hustle and bustle of life in this world, the in-between place may be one of needed rest, one of learning, reevaluating, recharging, restoring, until the path becomes clear and we can move on with living where the action is.

The next destination may not look like what we imagined.

It could, in fact, be far more glorious than we ever dared to hope.

Reflect: What in-between places have you experienced in life? What stories can you tell about enduring and getting through to the other side? If you are in an in-between place now – strength to you. It is temporary.  Reorient yourself; think, and begin preparing for what is waiting for you just ahead – be ready to meet it.

And write!

Tripping the write fantastic

Fantasy

Fill your life with love. Dianne LacourciereCC BY-SA

Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable. – Carl Jung

Her teacher sent her to me, to confer about her writing.

Not because the student is struggling.

The student, a fifth-grader, had written twenty pages of complex plot and extraordinary dialogue that revealed character personality and motivation.

“It’s amazing,” explained my colleague. “Out of the blue, she’s just taken off. I thought you could give her some pointers – her story is really good.”

The student, delighted at the prospect, immediately sent her work to me via Google Docs. Here are things I am thinking about, her message stated. She’d made notes about characters, problems with the story line, where she wanted to go with certain parts.

For a moment I felt transported to the future, as if I were an agent or editor receiving book ideas from an established author.

I read the work, praising the strength of the writing on sticky notes: Powerful, believable dialogue! and Excellent descriptive detail – I can “see” this scene vividly.

I looked for a couple of major areas to improve – only a couple – and they had nothing to to with spelling, format, or conventions at this point. The pressing thing at the moment was keeping those rich ideas flowing and clarifying this young writer’s meaning in some spots.

The child, beaming, comes to confer with me at the appointed time.

I sit beside her at my table:

“Ok, I have to know what inspired you. Clearly anyone who writes this much and this well – this dialogue is better than what I’ve seen some adults write! – is very inspired.”

Giggles ensue. “Well, it started with the fantasy writing unit in class. I got this idea of a girl who went back in time to the days of slavery. I am bad at history” – more giggles – “but that time period interests me, especially since my teacher read Chains to the class. That book made me want to go back in time and rescue some of those people, so that is what my main character will do. And she will meet her great-great-great grandmother.”

“That,” I say reverently, “is a story a lot of people might like to read.”

She goes on to share additional ideas that she got from other books like Serafina and the Black Cloak. 

As she speaks, I mentally toast the power of the read-aloud and student-selected texts.

To the student, I say: “Let’s go over what you’ve done here.”

I explain that switching narrators and times is using multiple story lines – “very advanced,” I tell her.

She grins.

I show her places where she lost me: “This is called a plot hole. You know what’s in your head and what you mean to say, but you jumped too fast and lost your reader.”

She nods. “Yes, I see that now.” We discuss ways she might want to fix it.

Off she goes.

That night, the Google Doc returns with revisions and questions.

Today she appears in my room, announcing: “I rewrote the entire first chapter. I felt that readers needed to know a little more about my main character’s life and her family in order to get the rest of the story.”

“Ah,” I reply, “exposition and backstory. That will help your readers.”

We look at the changes together.

“What we have to watch now is your pacing. Don’t spend too long on the beginning or you’ll lose readers – they want to know where this is going, so you want to speed up the less important parts and slow down at the more important ones.”

“And watch for plot holes,” she laughs.

“Indeed,” I smile.

Her ideas come fast and furious, and before we know it, time is up. As she turns to leave, she asks: “When is the next time we can meet?”

My turn to laugh. “Ask your teacher.”

At the end of the day, I return to my room to find a folded paper on my table – a schedule for when she can confer with me every day through the rest of the year.

I think of J.K. Rowling, who said that the idea of a boy wizard fell into her head on a train ride, when she had nothing to write on.

I think of C.S. Lewis, how an image of a faun carrying Christmas presents in the snow popped into his mind.

I think of Suzanne Collins, who grew up on her father’s stories about the effects of war.

I think of my young writer’s inspiration, and how fantasy and fairy tales help us work through the problems of the real world.

I recall telling my young writer: “Stick with it. You will be a famous author one day. I’ll come to your book signings.”

Giggling, she’d replied: “And you will be my famous helper.”

I look at the little conferring schedule in her handwriting, and smile.

We are tripping the write fantastic, she and I.

 

slice-of-life_individual

 

My book bag

Bookbag

Everywhere I go, my customized book bag is a topic of conversation.

First of all, it’s literally a BOOK bag, sending the message “I’m a reader.”

Then people realize what the “book” is about. A play on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, my book bag bears the title “Magical Worlds and Where to Find Them.”

Opening a book, for me, is akin to Newt Scamander opening his suitcase – we step in and walk through magically expanded worlds. Whatever the book, it’s a passport to the minds and souls of other people, where I find myself reflected not always as a writer or thinker but as a fellow human being on the common, complex journey of life.

That’s the message I want to send to my young students, who are frequently in raptures over my book bag: Read. Expand your world, your mind.

My book bag actually sends more than one message:

Bookbag spine

It’s an homage to my favorite fantasy writers and the worlds they created, old and new.

Much is written and debated, perhaps, on the importance of reading fantasy. Here’s a favorite quote on the subject:

The problem with people who are afraid of imagination, of fantasy, is that their world becomes so narrow that I don’t see how they can imagine beyond what their senses can verify. We know from science that there are entire worlds that our senses can’t verify. 
-Katherine Paterson

The magic is a draw, certainly – in regard to Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, who wouldn’t want to experience singing stars and merfolk, a centaur, talking animals? Who wouldn’t want a chance to feel the tingle of the box of dust from the lost island of Atlantis and ride on the back of a huge owl? Truth is, the bigger, deeper exploration is not the mysteries of the magical world but the real workings of the human heart – we read fantasy to escape our world, to live in another for a time, and all the while we’re looking into a mirror. This is where our thinking truly broadens – in understanding self, then in pushing the parameters of possibility.

Dr. Seuss said:

Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.  

The lines between the fantasy stories we love best and the world we live in are much blurrier than we realize. It’s where the impossible and possible merge – who’s to say where all the boundaries really are?

Which is fun, sometimes even comforting, to think about.

So everywhere I go, I carry a little fantasy, a little magic, with me.

Via my book bag – a messenger bag, indeed.

Bookbag back

slice-of-life_individual

Morning snow

Snow

There was crisp, dry snow under his feet and more snow lying on the branches of the trees. Overhead there was a pale blue sky, the sort of sky one sees on a fine winter day in the morning. Straight ahead of him he saw between the tree trunks the sun, just rising, very red and clear. Everything was perfectly still, as if he were the only living creature in that country.

-C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Snow swirled down in the gray dawn yesterday, winter whispering farewell in its dying breath: I’m still here, but not for long. Just one more time . . . .

There’s a silence, a stillness, to Sunday mornings anyway, a sense of expectancy, an invitation to step away from the world.

Of course I think of Narnia. I always do when it snows.

I was ten years old, scouring the school library shelves for a book I hadn’t read yet, when I encountered a compelling title: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 

“Sounds interesting,” I thought, opening the cover, not realizing that it was a portal to another world that I’d never fully leave  – or want to leave. I fell in and never climbed all the way out again. Part of that pull is the longing C.S. Lewis infused into the Narnia Chronicles, the sense of “realness” that pervades the magic. Lewis poured what he loved into the stories, and they live because of it.

Having facilitated a writing workshop for teachers just the day before on “creating the magic” – writing about what matters to you, tapping into your heart, your dreams, your struggles, your memories, making your writing authentic so you can help students do the the same – I watched the snow, remembering Narnia.

Writing is the closest thing to magic that there is. As teachers we create the atmosphere for our writers. It’s one of excited expectancy, of energy, when young writers discover the power within them, learning how to harness words to impact readers. Writing, after all, is meant to be shared – it’s the connecting of human minds and hearts.

Which is why, for me, Narnia is never very far away.

Especially when it snows.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

 

 

Titanic relic

pier-54-april-2012

Pier 54,  April 21, 2012 – exactly one hundred years after the sinking of the Titanic.

Arriving by bus in New York City, the tour guide said, “This is Hudson River Park.”

Looking through the window, I saw a sign: Chelsea Piers.

Chelsea Piers – why does that sound so familiar?

The words buffered around my brain for a second or two, retrieving the information: Chelsea Piers is where the old old ocean liners docked. 

Pier 54 is where the Titanic survivors were delivered by the Carpathia – hey, that’s exactly a hundred years ago this week!

I scrambled for my phone and opened the camera.

I took the shot just as we passed.

There is no magnificent dock anymore, only a corroding steel arch standing like a neglected, tired sentinel as people go about their daily lives. It’s hard to imagine this unremarkable structure as a portal to luxury, to adventure, to the stuff dreams were made of over a century ago.

C.S. Lewis wrote in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in the chapter entitled “The Dark Island”:

“Do you hear what I say? This is where dreams  – dreams, do you understand – come to life, come real. Not daydreams: dreams.”

In other words, nightmares.

I tried to envision the crowd, the men in overcoats, the women in long dresses, everyone wearing hats, as the Titanic survivors disembarked on April 18, 1912. It was night. For a fleeting second, I could sense the darkness, the shattered dreams, the unspeakable horror of watching that massive, beautiful ship break apart in the icy sea, taking so many passengers with her to a deep, watery grave. The nightmare was real; it would never leave the survivors.

In an instant, the darkness vanished, my glimpse of long ago ended. I blinked in the broad daylight. As my bus sailed on, I studied the photo. A bright light shines in the very center of the arch, which once bore the words White Star. I cannot tell if my camera was poised just right to reflect a flash in the window, to be captured perfectly in the middle of that haunting remnant, or if it is a phenomenon of light from some other source; nevertheless it shines like the sun over this relic of ruin, like day following night, driving the nightmares, the ghosts, away, hallowing this entrance to another time.

slice-of-life_individual