Flavor of fall

Someone I love just gave me this “Brew” cup and infuser ball along with loose black tea leaves mingled with cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, milk chocolate curls, and calendula petals what’s not to love?
I am sipping liquid Autumn.

In my online writing voyage, I’ve just come to a new port of call—Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog.

Those words, stories and magic, are all the passport I need to disembark and discover…

Today’s open invitation is writing about a favorite fall food, or one loved as a child.

My mind goes immediately to the breakfast cereal Count Chocula. I look for it at the beginning of every autumn now, but, if I recall correctly, it used to be available all year round when I was a child. I could be wrong. At any rate, I hadn’t seen it in decades when, maybe three years ago, it reappeared on grocery shelves as if by magic—poof! Voilà! —catapulting me, wide-eyed, open-jawed, straight back into childhood, to age 8? 9? 10?, hunkered over the cereal bowl, immersed in a book (for one cannot eat a bowl of cereal without a book, right? Isn’t it some unwritten law?). I wouldn’t stop at one bowl, see. Usually it was two. Maybe even three… suddenly my father is walking through the kitchen again, scowling: “First ketchup! You use way more than you should. Now this. Nobody needs to eat this much cereal…I’m buying three gallons of milk a week! For only two kids!”

What would he say if he could see how many boxes of Count Chocula I have, at this very moment, squirreled away my cabinet? Yikes!

Once this prompt got me walking around in Long Ago, savoring my Count Chocula, I began tasting other things… my mother’s peanut butter cookies with Hershey’s kisses on top, slightly melted from the fresh-baked warmth. She made them when neighborhood kids gathered at our house to watch the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz on TV, in those pre-cable days. I think this was in fall… there was a chill outside. The grainy-crunch cookies with their soft-bottom chocolate caps, Dorothy, her comrades, her red ruby slippers (which I later went to see numerous times in the Smithsonian), dear Toto, Glinda in her iridescent bubble, the Emerald City, the music… all magic, all warmth… there’s no place like home in the living room with friends and family, taking a trip down the yellow brick road once a year.

I do not know why memory leads from that scene to school carnivals, the caramel apples and Crackerjacks that I did NOT like, the scent of hot buttery popcorn in the air, the delicious excitement of reaching my arm into a giant clown face with a cut-out mouth for a grab-bag full of little treasures…and onto Halloween, the shivery joy of putting on a costume and going out into the cold dark night with friends who looked funny, creepy, and spooky but never really scary, in a time and place where it was safe to go trick-or-treating from house to house to house…oh, and I never did like candy corn, although it’s pretty and fun to use as decorations, like for turkey beaks or tail feathers on tabletop arrangements at Thanksgiving.

—Thanksgiving.

My mother’s carrot cake.

Locally famous, the only carrot cake I’ve ever really liked. Everyone loved it. I have her recipe. I make it every Thanksgiving and again at Christmas. Her secret: carrots finely-grated to pulp and extra cinnamon.

—And there it is.

My favorite flavor of fall.

Cinnamon isn’t exactly a food in itself, but to me, it’s the essence of celebration in my mother’s cake, the aromatic allure of my new autumn spice latte tea, the crowning glory of hot apple cider, the thing behind my longing for pumpkin spice coffee at the first hint of coolness in the air, just as reds and golds begin tinging the leaves… interesting, isn’t it, this tree-connection. Cinnamon is, after all, bark. The dying of the leaves, the dying of the year, going out in a blaze of glory, cinnamon their royal embalming spice, rich, fragrant, preserving like memory, like immortality, like being a child at home, face pressed again the window soon to reflect candlelight, the holiness in holidays, flickering bright with hope and promise when the days grow short and dark…

My best-loved taste of fall.

Well, and Count Chocula.

—Yum.

*******

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

Wolf at the door

A friend sent me this photo after my recent pareidolia poem to a face in a cloud – pareidolia being the misperception of a stimulus as some familiar object, pattern, or meaning. It’s a normal phenomenon. The human brain’s visual system has a specialized mechanism for face recognition: the fusiform face area. We see, we interpret, we strive to make meaning, in more ways than we ever realize…

So: Do you see the wolf in this wood panel?

Imagine, then, seeing it in your house as a small child, every time you enter your bedroom… seems there could be a lesson here about our worst monsters existing only in our minds, but today the wolf has demanded a poem.

Far be it from me to argue…

Don’t really feel like playing
Not sure I should be saying
In case it hears me
Because it skeers me
That wolf beside my door.
Don’t want to go to bed
If a hundred times it’s said
It’s waiting in the dark there
To snarl and bite and bark there
That wolf beside my door.
What will it do as I go past?
Even if I try it super fast?
No one else knows why
I sit in the floor and cry
Except the wolf beside my door.
Please, I want to say,
Won’t you just go away?
If you will let me rest
I’ll do my very best
Oh Wolf—give me my door!
I hear his wild laughter
Ringing ever after
“Tell me, then, what for?
You’re not a child any more,”
Said the wolf who’s at my door.

With thanks to my friend for the photo and the idea, and to Two Writing Teachers for providing a word-playground for a Slice of Life to run and be free.

The Happy Napper

Once upon a time there was a little girl with crystal-blue eyes and a mischievous grin. On a June afternoon, when she was four-and-a-half, the little girl announced to her Franna:

“I can speak Unicorn.”

Now, this came as no surprise to Franna, who knew what magical creatures children are. She also knew that any adult playing a part in a child’s life is charged with sustaining bits of the magic, for that is the secret law of how the universe works… so, just as Franna was about to ask the little girl to please teach her how to speak Unicorn, too, a commercial came on TV.

“Look!exclaimed the little girl, pointing her tiny dear finger at the screen. “Happy Nappers!”

“Ah,” said Franna, nodding sagely.Those are … sleeping bags in the shape of animals? First they are pillows, and … you unsnap them to turn them into sleeping bags, then turn them back into pillows when you are done resting?”

“Yes,” answered the little girl in an imperious voice, her eyes glued to the images.

“How magical,” said Franna, scratching her head. She was on the verge of requesting Unicorn language lessons once again when the little girl drew herself up to her full height of forty-five inches and uttered the magic words:

“I. Wish. I. Had. One.”

She added a barely perceptible sigh—exactly the thing that sets the spell in motion.

Franna had no choice then, for it was the same spell she cast on her own grandfather when she was five, long, long ago. She wished for red rubber boots. The next time she came to see him, there they were, waiting for her. After all these years, Franna could still see his smile, could feel the rush of joy…

There was only one thing to do.

“Well, which Happy Napper do you like?” asked Franna.

“The pink unicorn,” announced the little girl.

Franna whipped out her handy smartphone to order the pink unicorn and … “Oh dear.”

“What is it?” asked the little girl.

I am trying to order the pink unicorn Happy Napper but it’s not available right now. This is called ‘on backorder.’ It means you have to wait a lot more days for it to get here…”

“Oh,” said the little girl, but not in a crestfallen way. She shrugged. “It will still come, right?”

“Yes, but some of the other Happy Nappers are ready to ship now. Like the white unicorn, if you want it instead …”

The little girl shook her head. “The pink one.”

So that was that. Franna ordered the pink unicorn Happy Napper which would take a month—an eternity!—to ship. And, quite unwittingly, she made a grave, grave error: She told the little girl that the pink unicorn shipping date was July 22.

On the morning of July 22, Franna’s son phoned to say: “Guess who woke up singing ‘Today is Happy Napper Day, Happy Napper Daaaay…'”

“Oh no!” cried Franna. “Today is just the SHIPPING day! And I haven’t had any updates!”

“I see …” said Franna’s son, and she did not envy him one bit, having to tell the little girl the Happy Napper really wasn’t due to materialize on that precise day.

And then… things got worse. Much worse. The unthinkable occurred.

A dreadful email arrived:

“Hello! We apologize, but due to overwhelming demand, your order is still on backorder … we expect additional inventory soon… you have the option to modify your order to a different character if you like…”

Feeling weary to her bones, and utterly unmagical, Franna called the little girl to explain: “Your pink unicorn Happy Napper is still backordered. It is not on the way yet. You can still change to a different animal …”

“Why is it taking so long?”

“Well, I guess the pink unicorn is really special and lots of kids wanted it. The Happy Napper people ran out of them and are having to make new ones. Supplies might be hard to get right now because of the coronavirus…”

And the little girl understood. Coronavirus meant she would not go back to preschool, not ever. Coronavirus kept her away from her friends. Coronavirus was a plague, a powerful enchantment that couldn’t be broken, only waited out. Tiny viruses topple mighty kingdoms…

Franna felt terribly sad and vowed not to mention the Happy Napper again.

The Happy Napper people must have known, for they sent Franna an e-book, which was some consolation, as the next most magical thing to a child is a book…and this one contained unicorns…

Then, one afternoon in late August, a mint-green box was delivered to Franna’s porch. She brought into the house and put it on the piano bench to await the coming of the little girl…

Several days later, here she came, strolling into Franna’s house with a joyous smile of greeting… when her crystal-blue eyes landed on the mint-green box…

It just so happened that the little girl could read quite well…

Those words on the box…

Her blue eyes widened. All the light in the universe converged there on her little face and shone forth as only this sacred magic can. She gasped:

“THE HAPPY NAPPER? It’s HERE??”

And so it was.

They opened the box, pulled out the silky-soft hot pink unicorn, and stretched it to its full blinding-rainbow length on the floor, whereupon the little girl climbed right in and made Franna zip it up to her chinny-chin-chin. The pink unicorn fit the little girl just right. The long wait was finally over, at last. And so Franna and the beloved little girl and her pink unicorn lived—can’t you guess?—happily nappily ever after.

One happy napper.

Once upon a time, Franna wished for a little girl.

*******

Magic moments of childhood never die: Here’s the story of the red rubber boots.

I’m the one who leaps

On Ethical ELA today, Margaret Simon shared the work of fellow Louisiana native and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Jericho Brown. For the Open Write challenge, Margaret encouraged writers to use an echo line, anaphora, in composing poetry, something Brown does so magnificently. You can read an excerpt of his work and many other moving poems on being “a marcher or a leaper” here.

I lifted a line of Brown’s from The Tradition: “I’m the one who leaps.” My poem is based on a long-ago story told by someone who mattered to me, so much …

I’m the One Who Leaps

I’m the one who leaps
not from here to there
but within.

I’m the one who leaps
not like the farm boy standing rooted
to the old front porch
listening to hounds on the hunt.
Baying, fever pitch, nearing, nearing
when in the clearing
bursts the fawn from the brush.
White spots still visible
here and there
on the body running, running
right toward the farm boy standing rooted
to the old front porch.

No time to think
No turning back
Hounds closing in
-the fawn cries, that final sound
a creature makes when it knows
it’s reached the end.

The boy stands rooted.
No time to think
he just does it
he just opens his arms.

No time to think
The fawn just sees,
sees and leaps …

The farm boy
who caught the fawn
on the old front porch
became a preacher
standing rooted
in the Word of God.

Be the one who leaps,
he told us children,
into the Father’s open arms.
You cannot save yourselves.

I sat rooted to the pew
hearing the hounds on the hunt,
seeing the fawn
and those open arms.

I’m the one who leaps
not from here to there
but within.

Photo: Running fawn. Cropped. USFWS Midwest Region. CC BY

For the love of reading

When our second grade team had quarterly planning, one of the subs didn’t show and I was summoned to cover the class for a while. I knew there would be sub plans.

But I brought three books with me anyway.

I gave a quick book talk and let the class choose which one to hear. The high vote-getter was A Deal’s a Deal, the story of two little rabbits swindling each other while trading toy cars. There’s a (delightfully disgusting) surprise ending, which is why I brought this book; it never fails to elicit big belly laughs and loud cries of EEEWWWWWW!

I wanted, in my few moments with these kids, for them to experience the joy of reading. I love to watch children’s faces while I read aloud; it is my favorite thing to do, next to writing with them.

A read-aloud, done well, is a theatrical performance. The kids hung on every word, they could feel the action building, they covered their faces, they howled and hollered EEEWWWWWWW!

—Perfect.

Then they went to work on the activities left for them.

I walked the room, well-aware that teachers are trying their best to adhere to a new curriculum that offer less individual reading and writing choices. I watched the children at their tasks. I watched the clock … and decided to set my timer.

“All right, you have a few minutes left to finish this work before my time with you is up. Let’s get it done, and I will read you the book that got the second-highest vote.”

In short order, the work was done, desks cleared, random things on the floor picked up. They gathered at my feet to hear The Adventures of Beekle, the Unimaginary Friend.

I first encountered this book in a summer writing institute for teachers. Our guest author, Matt de la Peña, used it as an example of perspective, asking what’s the story really about, who’s it really about. There was a good bit of debate, as I recall …

But I didn’t set it up this way with the kids.

I just read, letting the words and the illustrations work their magic.

Turned a page, heard the collective Oooohhhh.

Saw light playing on their faces, wonder in their eyes.

I savored them as they savored this book on friendship and imagination.

Whispering in my mind: You were my first friend, too. My oldest and my dearest, even now.

All too soon we reached the end of the book, if not the end of Beekle’s and his friend’s adventures. And here’s the interesting thing: the kids knew who the story was really about, what it was really about, something I’d watched grown-ups—teachers—struggle with.

As I prepared to leave, the children gravitated to the stuffed Beekle who’d been sitting off to the side by himself. He usually sits on my bookcase in my room, an outlier amid all my Harry Potter memorabilia. At the last minute I’d grabbed him and brought him along.

Seems he was here by design, waiting for every child in turn to embrace him, in the way that only children can.

Little girl blowing bubbles

Ever wish you could keep a small child safe and innocent forever? It’s a wish as ethereal as bubbles in the wind, drifting away like childhood itself. I took this photo last summer. It’s taken this long to figure out how to convey what I felt.

Little girl

blowing bubbles

in the sun

free of troubles

How they drift

on the breeze

turning, turning

as they please

Colors shimmer

ever bright

just a moment

in the light

Wave your wand

my temporary

iridescent

bubble fairy

All too soon

time shall pass

bubbles pop

in the grass

How I wish

things could stay

idyllic as

this summer day.

Sick Ada, part II


About a month ago I shared this idea for a story about a little girl who loves cicadas and who’s having a hard time dealing with her parents’ separation. The girl’s name is Ada and she becomes seriously ill . . . hence the title, “Sick Ada,” cicada . . .

The story’s been gestating for a while as there were so many things to flesh out: How old is Ada? Why are her parents separated? Who left, Mom or Dad? Why? What’s the deal with her cicada fascination? How does she get sick? Most of all: Where should the story begin?

I considered writing this scene first: Near the end of the story, Ada goes into the hospital, sick enough that her recovery hangs in the balance. It is winter, when cicadas don’t sing, but she hears the heater rattling in her hospital room and believes it to be cicadas. She decides she doesn’t mind dying as long she can hear them . . .

But I am not starting there, and Ada will not die because my friend Kathleen interceded, pleading for the little girl’s life.

Amid much encouragement and a few thinly-veiled threats (thanks, Friends!), here’s the first draft opening scene.

*******

The darkness began to change.

Strips of light glimmered between the blinds until a thin finger of sunshine pushed through, reaching across Ada’s rumpled bed to caress her cheek.

At its warm touch, she opened her eyes.

Morning.

Oh!

Ada sat straight up in bed.

It’s my birthday! I am nine.

She felt strangely old.

Sitting there in the grayness, Ada knew two certainties. Today the cicadas would start singing. They always started singing on her birthday; Daddy said it was their song of celebration for her coming into the world. He would sing to her, too, only this time it would be over the phone. He promised to call today. Next week when school was finally out, Mama would drive Ada to the airport, put her on a plane, and Daddy would be there to meet her when the plane landed. It would be her first flight.

Ada wondered if cicadas sang on the other side of the country.

The other certainty was that she wouldn’t get her biggest birthday wish of all, that Daddy would come home to stay.

*******

So, Friends, that’s how Ada’s story begins for now, rough as it is.

For the record: The cicada is an ancient symbol of change or transformation and the name “Ada” just so happens to mean “noble.”

Photo: Girl with cicada bug. Jose HernandezCC BY-SA

On cicada wings

Cicada wing. Kristine Paulus. CC BY

A hymn, of sorts, on hearing one of my favorite sounds for the last time this year—it echoes from idyllic childhood summers and the country roads of my ancestral homeplace. A strangely sacred sound, it always lifts my spirits and aches in my soul at the same time.

High in the oaks

against the bluest of skies

the rattling swells

as its season dies.

An oxymoron

this buzzing call

from amid the leaves

soon to fall.

This song of my childhood

lingering still

in the last of the light

before the chill.

Full force, the cicada sings

—doesn’t it know?—

summer’s gone on the wings

of a song long ago.

***

‘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.

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.