Season of shivers

September. Days growing notably shorter. Darker mornings. Sun blazing at midday, chorus of feverish buzzing from the treetops, cicadas singing loudest just before the last.

School. Children swathed in masks. Eating lunch all over the building for safe distancing. Even in a recessed section of hallway, sitting on the floor in portable blue plastic seats with built-in tabletops for food. A study in balance. Like seesaws. It takes coordination to stand up without losing what’s left of your lunch.

In the evenings, exhaustion. Everyone expresses it. Everyone. The nightly news drones on: Death and dying. Afghanistan. Hurricane destruction. Epic flooding. Rising COVID cases. Delta variant. And you might want to invest in warm clothing, Viewers. The Farmer’s Almanac predicts an unusually cold winter…it’s being called ‘the season of shivers‘…

Season of shivers. So poetic. I want to make something out of it, turn it around in my hand like a crystal, watch it sparkle in the light. I will hold onto it a while.

Isn’t it already a season of shivers. Church closed again, three weeks to date, as COVID struck a number of our members at once. Granddaughter in kindergarten for a week, now quarantined for two, following an exposure. Colleagues wanting to talk about intervention for students who were kindergarteners and first graders during the last year and a quarter, when instruction went virtual. A frantic clinging to norms when norms are gone. We can’t start with intervention. We must be about reinvention. Daunting.

Children. The most resilient of us all. I am sent to the cafeteria to supervise half of second grade while the other half is spread across the hallway and classrooms. Two to a table, facing the same direction. Cheerful. Chattery. They have to finish eating in time for me to clean all the tables before the next grade level arrives. I am the only staff member present. Normally there are two. Even office staff is pressed into service at lunch time, covering all locations. Skeleton crews, everywhere.

I manage it. The kids are in two lines, masked, lunch boxes in tow, awaiting their teachers. They watch me. They’re not sure what to make of me. They are quiet.

Beyond the propped cafeteria door, a balmy September afternoon. The swelling of cicada-rattles. Loud.

Do you hear that buzzing? I ask.

Nodding of masked heads. Like little bobbers on water.

Do you know which insect makes that sound?

Cockroaches! shouts a boy.

Crickets? offers a girl.

No. It’s a cicada.

They like the sound of the word. They say it aloud: Cicada.

I describe it. With my fingers: This big. Long wings. Hatches underground, climbs to top of trees. That buzzing is made by the males. It’s a love song. Doesn’t sound like a love song, does it?

Giggles. Shaking of heads.

They have questions, but their teachers have come. They must go.

Thank you for telling us about cicadas, says a girl, as her line begins snaking away.

At the door, the last boy stops, turns back: Where is that rattle, on the cicada?

In his belly, I say.

The boy nods. He runs along the sidewalk to catch up with his class.

I stand still in the shadowy silence, this momentary transition, listening to the miniature buzz-saw, helicopter-blade whirring of the cicada congregation. Loudest they’ve been all summer, just as it begins to die.

How well they must understand, cicadas, about the season of shivers.

Shiver. benjaflynn. CC BY 2.0

*******

When I began writing this post, I hadn’t planned on including cicadas. They crept in of their own accord. Because I love them, and their song, I let them stay. I often write of them. Cicadas represent, among other things, personal change and transformation.

Many thanks to the Two Writing Teachers community and the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge. Sharing our stories is also about personal change and transformation. We grow through it.

Last hurrah

Twenty-four hours ago I woke with the sun by the sea, rested and at peace with the world. I spent a few hours sitting at the ocean’s sandy altar beside my beloved sister-in-law, who’s like my own flesh and blood, speaking of the past, present, and future. Remembering loved ones lost. Cherishing new little ones, our children’s’ children. Hardly any other people were out and about; the beach seemed to be our own for these few sacred hours.

“Look! Dolphins!” my sister-in-law pointed. Out in the glimmering, watery distance, a distinctive leap…dolphins, navigators of the deep, ancient symbols of protection.

Just above the surface, gliding with astounding grace despite their unwieldy appearance, brown pelicans. Flocks of them. More than I’ve ever seen at one time before. Breaking their flight with dives and a mighty splash of white spray, catching fish and bobbing for a while in the waves.

Pelicans, a symbol for resourcefulness. And sacrifice. Legend has it that mother pelicans sacrifice themselves for their young, if need be. They wound themselves to feed their children with their own blood. They are social birds which hunt cooperatively—representing teamwork. Community.

Twenty-four hours ago, I sat breathing the same salt air as the pelicans, stood in the same sparkling waters as the dolphins.

Today I pack my bags, load my car, and return to school, masked. COVID rages on. Many unknowables lie ahead.

Yet I remain at peace. Diving, leaping, or gliding, I shall navigate as called for in the ebb and flow of moments. Children await, life awaits, time does not. The ocean remains. A reminder of constancy, of strength.

Here’s to the mighty plunge.

Low-flying pelicans. Tony Alter. CC-BY

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with thanks to Two Writing Teachers…strength and protection to all in this uplifting community of teacher-writers, seasoned navigators of life and story-sharing.

Shedding

Let me preface this post with a restated confession: I am not exactly a fan of snakes.

But they, like all of nature, have lessons to teach, if one is willing to learn.

I hope to always be teachable, so…

Early in the summer I found a snakeskin in my garage. Just a little one, but still.

A few weeks later, I found another.

This morning, I found a couple more.

So.

Snakes seem to have been vacationing in my garage. Let us think on that momentarily versus thinking that they’ve taken up permanent residence there.

Here is why I say this: The skins, I’m pretty sure, belong to smooth earth snakes. I’ve seen a couple over the past year or so, which is saying something: These are nonvenomous, shy, fossorial snakes that don’t like to be seen. The first one I saw was dead, lying across my sidewalk after a rainstorm. Pale gray body. I thought it was a worm until I saw the tell-tale scales. The second one was stretched out in my flowerbed mulch, black tongue flickering in and out “smelling” the air, trying to determine what I was. That’s it for my lifetime earth snake sightings. Two. They are uncommon, tiny creatures…just the size of these silvery skins left behind.

So they live in the ground around my home, harmless little things, going about their business of eating earthworms and itty bitty snails or whatever.

And coming into my garage to moult.

Which is nevertheless discomfiting. For me, anyway. Not for the bashful snakes.

I don’t especially want one to come all the way inside and hang out or anything.

But they do have me thinking (among many things) about shedding one’s skin. Metaphorically, that is. As in, what sorts of things I wrap around myself and cling to when I could be letting go and growing. Mindsets, habits, beliefs, assumptions, what have you. Which things actually nourish me, and which actually constrain me? Which are beneficial, and which are harmful? What do I need to shed and leave behind, to better move forward?

I suppose this thinking occurs because summer is waning. I return to work next week not knowing what the year ahead will look like, other than back to masked here in my district. I think about the possibility of a full return to virtual learning. It is more than a great many teachers can take. Yet… we got through last year. The children got through. There were good things in spite of the trials; there were surprises. Many from the children and most concerning ourselves. School of 2020-2021 took a toll on everyone. We had to shed quite a bit of familiarity and comfort to get things done. But we did it. We grew.

I don’t wish for a repeat any more than I wish for snakes to be summering in my garage. I cannot ignore the timing of COVID rearing its more-venomous-than-ever head again when we thought it was on its way out, just when we are on our way back into the schools. I now have a granddaughter starting kindergarten. Her little sister will be born this fall. There’s always a lot at stake when it comes to children—in the words of Herbert Hoover (ever how unpopular a president he was in his day): “Children are our most valuable resource.” There’s nothing more precious. They represent our tomorrows; they are the culmination of our yesterdays. We have to shed the fear of failing them. Not assuming the worst, or that “we can’t,” but doing daily, as only that given day dictates, what must be done for their care and nurture as well as for our own. We have to be… well, “as wise as serpents.” When it comes to plans, we have to hold on loosely, ever how painfully contrary it is to our nature.

This summer I had plans for household repairs and updates. That was before the dryer quit working. Followed by the air conditioning during the hottest week of the year (of course). Followed by turning on the water one morning and nothing coming out of the faucet; the pump died.

I did repairs, all right. Just not the ones I planned.

But I got through. I now have a new dryer and water pump. The AC unit didn’t have to be replaced, thank heaven. All is working well. Throughout this whole process I thought about adapting. I dried clothes out in the hot sun. I remembered how my grandparents never owned a dryer. I thought about that one window air conditioner they had (late in their lives) against a sweltering Carolina summer and no AC at all in the old Ford Galaxy 500; I once left a stack of 45 RPM records on its back deck under the windshield. They melted. They warped and ruffled like clam shells. I’ve never had to pump or draw water in my life, but I had plenty of bottled water and didn’t have to miss my morning coffee while waiting on the new pump.

So I attempt to bring the lesson of shed snakeskin to a point here: In the discomfort is growth. Newness lies ahead; it approaches incrementally as we scratch away at the constraints and setbacks of now. Endurance is possible. We certainly know this. Sometimes the thing that needs shedding most is our perspective…

Meanwhile, I go back to cleaning out my garage, another thing I hadn’t planned to do right now, but the snakeskins sparked it. Time to purge what needs to go and put up a shelf to keep everything else off the floor. I am working on it. Hot, tiresome, dusty work, but I can see my progress.

And it feels good.

Thanks to the snakes.

******

thanks also to the Two Writing Teachers community, where writing our way through is a way of life…courage and strength to all.

Preparing

She comes into the house, suitcase in tow, little face aglow at spending a couple of nights while her parents keep doctor’s appointments. She hugs them good-bye and before they’re halfway down the sidewalk, she grabs my hand:

“Franna, want to play with me?”

Isn’t there only one answer to this question?

“Of course! What do you want to play?”

“Family.”

Ah.

We head to “her” room, where I keep books and blocks and bears and dolls and even a couple of old baby blankets for wrapping them. She’s always the mom. I am always the oldest child. I have to help her hold, feed, and potty-train the toys…er, my siblings.

“First I need to unpack,” she announces.

“Okay,” I say, as she unzips her suitcase, navy-blue with pink and white unicorns. “So, tomorrow we find out if you’re having a brother or sister! Isn’t it exciting?”

She nods: “I want a sister.”

“I know you do…but a brother would be nice, too” (because her parents and I think the baby is a boy).

She nods again, pulling a couple of stuffed animals out of her suitcase. She sets them on the bed. “Mama told me to be happy if it’s a boy.”

I am about to speak but just then, I notice something…

She’s brought Allioop, the raggedy orange cat that belonged to my son when he was little. She’s dressed him in Curious George’s T-shirt. He leans against the pillow beside a woolly bear sporting a pastel nightcap.

Allioop and the bear are wearing diapers.

“Did you put these diapers on your toys?”

“Yes. I’m practicing for the baby. Watch…” She shows me how to remove and replace the diapers with their little Velcro tabs.

Strikes me as one of the greatest acts of love I’ve seen.

Preparing.

Her parents FaceTimed to tell us that the new baby is, in fact, a girl.
My granddaughter, who’s five, bounced up and down with joy:
“My wish came true!”
She later told my son that she can’t wait to teach her sister the word “photosynthesis.”

Dear Baby, what a wealth of love surrounds you, already.

*******

with thanks to the Two Writing Teachers community for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge.

Prosody of life: Revisiting awe

A Slice of Life doubling as a Spiritual Journey offering later this week, on the first Thursday of the month (thanks to Ruth for hosting). The SJT participants are revisiting the “one little word” each of us chose at the beginning of the year. At that time, I wasn’t in the frame of mind to choose a defining word for the year…but “awe” chose me, in spite of myself. Also practicing a bit for my poetry course this week; we are writing prose poems. Priming the pump, if you will…

Where am I now in relation to awe?

Perhaps more in tune to its vibrations each day…

Late in the evenings, a whipporwhill sings, three notes repeated over and over in the dark; yet it is the brightest of songs, summoning summer, beckoning life, new life in the making, love echoing from the treetops. Whipporwhills are seldom seen and their numbers are declining, yet the song illuminates the night, vibrant, rising and falling, going on and on, like rhythmic patterns of life itself…my granddaughter comes to visit with a book she’s reading, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and I say, “Oh, I love that book! It was my favorite when I was little,” except that I was ten when I first read it and she is five. Five. And she laughs when I tell her that I’ve dubbed her bedroom here in my house the “Spare Oom” in honor of the faun, Mr. Tumnus. She reads to me, her little voice rising and falling in all the right places; I marvel that she’s been in the world so short a time…I recall my son telling me how she stood on a box at the pulpit with him on Easter Sunday to read the Scriptures, the story of life overcoming death; images of trees crowd into my mind, for around this part of the country storms swept through as winter gave way to spring, snapping off the top-heavy crowns of young trees. Their crowns are still lying dead where they fell but on the broken tree trunks, new shoots are already growing tall, reaching their green arms skyward, waving in the breeze, new life from old, wholeness and healing springing from broken places… meanwhile, my son’s wife cradles her belly, just beginning to swell with my new grandchild; at the end of this this week we will get to see the pictures, and will learn if it’s a boy or a girl, and the naming process will be solidified…my younger son comes in from his work at the funeral home and speaks of birds, barn swallows with basket-like nests tucked at the tops of columns in the entryway, hatching brood after brood as the bereaved pass by to mourn beside the caskets of their loved ones awaiting burial, and how one of the funeral directors who lives alone in the apartment above likes to open the windows on pretty days to toss bread crumbs to the birds on the rooftop, taking pleasure in watching them eat…in it all I find a rhythm, a song, the prosody of life, awe flickering like flame in the shadows, whipporwhill, whipporwhill, whipporwhill…

Reading the old, old story

Skinny poem: Lunch in the school cafeteria during COVID-19

A Skinny Poem, on Day Twelve of National Poetry Month. For me this is an indelible image.

Lunch in the School Cafeteria During COVID-19

Unmasked, they sit, all facing the same direction to eat
children
separated
silent
staring
children
spectral
dystopian
automatons
children
all facing the same direction, they sit to eat, unmasked

*******

with thanks to Denise Krebs for the inspiration in #VerseLove on Ethical ELA.

How to write a Skinny Poem:

  • Write to a strong image, experience, emotion, event, a work of art….consider the image you want to write about and describe the situation in the first line.
  • Only lines 1 and 11 have multiple words. Lines 2-10 are each one word only
  • Line 2, 6, and 10 are each the same word.
  • Line 11 uses the same words as line 1, but it can be rearranged for your purposes.
  • You can also write multiple Skinnys for one longer poem.

Mirror poem: A small cup of light

Yesterday on Ethical ELA, host Kim Johnson invited poets to write mirror poems: “Find a poet whose work inspires you and write a mirror poem of your own by taking a root from a poet’s work and allowing it to breathe life into your own inspired creation.  This may be in the form of a borrowed line, a repeating line, a section or stanza, or an entire poem…”

There are a couple of breathtaking lines I love at the end of Billy Collins’ poem, “Tuesday, June 4th, 1991” – he is writing about dawn coming and “offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.”

For Day Eight of National Poetry Month, here’s my mirror of those last five words, in the form of a pantoum:

To My Granddaughter, Age 5
(with love from Franna)

a small cup of light
scooped from ocean waves
my sparkling little love
dancing through my days

scooped from ocean waves
my giggling water sprite
dancing though my days
now such a sleepy sight

my giggling water sprite
goodnight, goodnight
now such a sleepy sight
to me you are, you are

goodnight, goodnight
my sparkling little love
to me you are, you are
a small cup of light

*******

Special thanks to Kim for sharing my poem “Listen,” which she mirrored so beautifully. See both poems and the process here: Ethical ELA VerseLove 7/30: Mirror Poems.

Photo poem: The end of the world

with thanks to Margaret Simon who hosted Day Six of #verselove at Ethical ELA, inviting participants to write poems inspired by photos, around the them “A World Trying to Deal.” She included links to commemorative photographs taken during the pandemic shutdown.

I found my inspiration here: 2020 Photos: The Year in the COVID-19 Pandemic (WBUR News). If you scroll, you can find the sidewalk chalk drawing in the play area of an apartment building. Toys lie abandoned beside this chalked message in a child’s handwriting: “the end of the world.”

Here’s my poem, on Day Seven of National Poetry Month.

the end of the world 

blacktop oracle
scrawled in chalk
draped with a lifeless jump rope
attended by an ownerless bike
chalk left lying behind

the end of the world

is how it felt, Children

one year later
let us return
and prophesy
on how we can color it
new

Photo: Debra Sweet. CC BY

Abundance acrostic

The acrostic is an ancient poetic form, appearing in Scripture and as prayers in medieval literature. On Day Five of National Poetry Month, I use it to announce a family celebration…with a little wordplay…

Although I planned to resume writing of Easter’s
Bounty in the nest on the front door wreath,
Unprecedented number of little blue eggs—five!—
Now, instead, I ask you to picture my family
Doing a bun dance over the holiday,
At least in our hearts, at this
New-life announcement on
Cookies and a special T-shirt:
Expecting! —Exponential Easter joy!

First, the finch eggs in the nest on the front door.
The fifth egg appeared this morning.
We usually get three or four. Abundance!

Now for the cookies:
My daughter-in-law and granddaughter made them
to announce the special news to my husband and me
over Easter weekend
…aBUNdance!

My granddaughter’s face was radiant,
delivering those cookies at our family dinner.
In this photo she is crying on first hearing the news.
She threw herself into my son’s arms.
The desire of her little heart, granted; abundant joy.

—A-bun-dance, indeed!

Unique

She loves jokes. She just doesn’t get the delivery.

“Okay, okay,” I say. “You’re going to have to practice. Let me tell you a joke that will CRACK PEOPLE UP. My mother used to laugh every single time. It was the best joke.” (Really it is the only one I can remember at the moment).

Her blue eyes shine. She bounces. “Tell me!”

“First I have a question: Do you know what unique means?”

She looks puzzled. “I don’t think so.”

“It means one of a kind, a thing that is different from anything else in the world.”

“Oh, like very special.”

“Yes! Exactly! Unique means very special and not like anything else. So are you ready for this joke?”

She nods. “Ready!”

“Here goes… How do you catch a unique animal?”

She pretends to think, hand on chin. “I don’t know!”

You neek up on it. Get it?”

She looks blank.

“Like, you sneak up on it but instead of ‘sneak’ you say ‘neek’: You neek up on it…”

“Ohh, you take off the ‘s’ and… neek!” She dissolves in giggles.

We practice this over and over:

How do you catch a unique animal?

You neek up on it!

She belly laughs, every time.

When my son and his wife come to collect her, she runs to them with glee:

“Franna taught me a joke!”

“Great,” says my son, with absolutely NO enthusiasm. “She likes jokes, Mom; she doesn’t get how to tell them…”

“Ahem,” I warn. “She’s been working hard on this.”

I am sure I detect a tiny sigh, but my son says: “Okay, let’s hear it.”

“How do you catch a unique animal?” She can barely contain herself. Wait for it, wait for it…

Her parents look at each other and shrug.

“We don’t know. How do you catch a unique animal?” asks her mom.

YOU NEEK UP ON IT!”

They crack up, and the look on her face…priceless.

Little unique creature. You neek up on my heart, over and over and over again.

Kinda like that joke.

My son says: “She just keeps telling it over and over, Mom. We’ve heard it a million times. It was funny like the first two times, but…”

“It’s her joke. Let her enjoy it.”

She’s a masterpiece in the making, see. At age five, she’s read Charlotte’s Web. Independently, with some questions about how to pronounce some words…I wondered how much she understood, really, but then my daughter-in-law tells this story: They were baking the other day and my unique animal was rolling out her dough with extreme care.

“Oh, you’re doing a nice job,” said my daughter-in-law.

“Thank you,” said my granddaughter, sprinkling flour. “It’s my magnum opus.”

“Your… what?”

Magnum opus. It means ‘great work’.” And she patted away at the dough.

Great work…like mastery of that joke.

Dear, dear Charlotte… messages from one unique animal to another… magnum opus, indeed.

A unique moment with my unique granddaughter. We went to see the waterfall at the park. She’s holding my husband’s walking stick and wearing my “fancy” watch on her left arm, plus one of my sunhats. We pulled our masks away for the photo.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 21, I am writing around a word beginning with letter u.