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.
While National Mental Health Awareness Month (May) is still weeks away, the COVID-19 pandemic has called greater attention to the need for support. Youth.gov explains the purpose of the national focus: “Mental Health Month raises awareness of trauma and the impact it can have on the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of children, families, and communities.”
I note that children are mentioned first. They are at the mercy of the grown-ups, and when the grown-ups in their lives are suffering, children suffer. They often don’t understand or have a framework for understanding, not for years to come, or maybe ever. To a child, your norm is your norm. You have little to no power of your own. Think of how long the Turpin children suffered, before one managed to escape and get help.
Last month, in the neighborhood of the school where I work, a little girl was found dead with her mother in an apparent murder-suicide. I didn’t know this child; she wasn’t one of our students. But I have mourned her, mourned for whatever she suffered in her short life, mourned that a mother, unable to cope with whatever lies in her untold story, would resort to taking the life of an estranged partner and then her child.
People speak of unbreakable bonds, of the ties that bind. Sometimes those threads are very, very fragile.
Some of the threads running through the background are beautiful and bright, even as the family portrait bleeds away from the canvas.
Sometimes destruction doesn’t come all at once, but by a long, slow unraveling.
This morning I trimmed the threads off of my patchwork writing journal.
As I balled them up to throw them away
I realized the tangle of color in my hand.
They spoke to me: Remember?
Oh yes, I used to see you all over the floor when I was a child.
Rolling lazily across the hardwoods when we walked by
or nestled in the frayed carpet of the living room.
Fragments of my mother’s handiwork
vestiges of the artist she was
crafter of clothes we wore
tailor for many more.
Who’d have believed that such a creator
could destroy so completely?
A family of threads, each one its own vibrant color
in seams ripped apart
scattered far and wide
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 20, I am writing around a word beginning with letter t.
The poem has been sitting as a draft for exactly two years today while I pondered publishing. I wrote the original draft as a participant in professional development for literacy coaches, of all things. I can’t remember the prompt now, only that we were to share our poems with a colleague.
Not just the baking of them as a means of COVID-coping productivity, but as an expression of the times.
My daughter-in-law—artist, baker, craftsperson extraordinaire—created these cookies a few weeks ago. She and my son delivered them with my granddaughter via a front porch social-distance visit:
My ebullient four-year-old granddaughter belly-laughed on presenting these whimsical delights: “TOILET TISSUE COOKIES!!!!!”
“And face masks and soap!” I exclaimed.
“They’re too pretty to eat!” said my husband.
But we did. Every crumb. With joy.
I thought about the joy with which these cookies were infused, how ingesting them was an antidote to the virus zeitgeist. What you put into a thing is what you get out of it …
Yesterday my son and his family made another delivery:
“Ooooohhhhh,” my husband and I breathed in unison.
As we admired the astonishing artistry, I noted a shift in the cookie symbolism: Not just physical survival, as in the previous batch, but spiritual (coffee counts as both, right?). The fleur-de-lis, emblem of our daughter-in-law’s Louisiana roots, long associated with Christianity and the church, an icon from antiquity for royalty and protection. Choosing to believe, as the stages of isolation drag on, that the uncertain future can, and will, be beautiful. “Unbridled hope for tomorrow” … such trust. Such zest for life.
And a pencil.
Truth is, we write our tomorrows by our choices today … and nothing represents spiritual survival to me more than writing.
I call it: “The pencil is mine.”
“I want this one,” said my husband, picking up the fleur-de-lis. How he misses going to church, being with the flock he pastors. A shepherd pining for restoration, preservation.
Last night a concert by tenor Andrea Bocelli was televised. He wanted to offer a message of hope to the world; his own country has been ravaged by COVID-19. And so he was recorded with only an organist on Easter Sunday in the Duomo di Milan, resplendent and empty … when he walked outside, alone, to sing “Amazing Grace” on the cathedral porch, the screen displayed the empty streets of major cities around the world.
Listening, watching, I thought this is one of the most abiding images of our time.
A golden shovel today, in honor of Bocelli, his gift, the wounded world-in-waiting, the healing power of music, prayer, and hope:
How amazing this lone figure of grace standing on the church steps singing of how prayer and hope turn bitter times sweet while in the deserted streets his angel-voice is the only sound.
Once upon a time, a terrible enchantment swept across the land like a howling, raging wind. It forced people into their homes so lives could be spared. It kept children from being with their friends and grandparents so the evil sickness would not spread. Many heroes waged a mighty battle with a tiny germ at great cost to the whole kingdom. Meanwhile, the people waited … and waited … and waited … and longed, with all their hearts, to be together again. They missed each other fiercely but they knew the waiting was an act of true love, and that love, eventually, conquers all …
I would love to hold you close Sometime soon Only when it’s safe again Let this virus go, let it go All will be well in Time It is so long, so hard On the heart, being apart Now
Soon the spell will be Over and we Can be In the same bright kingdom together Again Let this virus go, let it go Don’t come back any more It’s funny how Some distance makes everything seem like Time is frozen Although, little queen of my heart, we are one day Nearer to overthrowing this Corona-nation separation to resume our happily Ever after
Original photo with text: L. Haley. Edited with Cartoona Watercolor.
Today concludes the thirty-one-day Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers. Today I cross the finish line with many fellow Slicers, having written a post each day.
But the writing doesn’t end here.
Nor does the challenge …
That’s the thing. Now, more than ever before in our lives, is a time to write.
The photo above is of a pocket notebook a friend and mentor gave as a parting gift to all who attended her retirement celebration years ago. Her love of writing and advocacy for teachers as writers inspires me to this day. She also passed the torch of facilitating district writing workshop training to me … until this year, when it is no longer offered. But I carry the notebook with me everywhere I go, just to remind me …
Teachers, students, families, friends, citizens of the world, all … today I offer the same to you, in the ongoing composition of life: Write bravely.
Seems like a couple of weeks into stay-at-home orders and physical separation is an ideal time for some puppy therapy.
So I brought you a tiny puppy to hold awhile. In your heart, anyway, if not in your hands.
You’ll want to know the story, I suspect …
Last December, my son and I went to pick up his new puppy.
We wanted a mini dachshund, as we had one for sixteen years, from the time my boy was four until he was almost twenty-one. Dachshunds love to snuggle. They’re full of affection and whimsy. And mischief … and stubbornness … but their devotion outweighs all else.
When we got to the breeders, as paperwork was being completed, I noticed a movement under some blankets in one of the kennels.
“Oh, something’s in there!” I remarked. “It looked empty except for the blankets.”
“Yes,” said the breeder-lady. “A mother and her baby. She only had one, born yesterday.”
And then the lady did the unthinkable.
She reached under the blankets, scooped the newborn out, and placed it in my hands.
I could hardly breathe.
Tiny. So fragile. So beautifully formed, utterly perfect in every way. The sheen of its gorgeous coat, solid chocolate. Teeny little ears. Nails so miniscule they could barely be seen … awe isn’t adequate for the suspended moment of wonder at this bit of life in my hands.
The puppy’s mother, a long-haired red dapple, hovered at my feet, her big brown eyes fixed on me as I held her baby.
“Here, ” I said to my son, “hold it for just a second and we’ll give it back to its mother. She’s anxious.”
I placed the puppy in my son’s hands and took took a picture with my phone. With a fingertip, I stroked its satiny head, just once.
“It’s so beautiful,” whispered my son. Very carefully, he slid the tiny creature back into the breeder-lady’s hands and she deftly returned it to its blanketed kennel.
The mother darted in. She went right to work on her baby, licking away all of our human smell from its fur.
I don’t know why I wanted to cry just then.
Maybe it was the mother’s impeccable care of her one baby. We’d worried her, made extra work for her. The puppy squirmed against its bath but quickly settled back to blissful neonate-sleep.
Perhaps it was the fragility of new life that twisted my heart, its precariousness and preciousness, the struggle of being alive and helpless and dependent. Or the convicting knowledge that the human touch is not always a kind or good thing. Or maybe the pang was simply because life is beautiful and because I love dogs.
“Okay, you’re set,” smiled the breeder-lady, handing us the paperwork. “He’s all yours.”
No, of course not the tiny day-old chocolate puppy. That was just a gift of the moment. The breeders hadn’t yet determined if it was a boy or a girl. I did fantasize about returning in two months to get it, however, and what I’d name it … right now, as I write this post while watching Citizen Kane, I am considering “Rosebud” …
I just felt you might need a moment with the tiniest puppy I ever held.
THIS is what we went for, and what we carried home:
He’s like a furry worry stone … while holding him and rubbing him (he now rolls over for belly rubs, his favorite) it’s impossible to feel sad or worried or anything but peace and gladness to be alive.
So I give him to you for a minute, to hold with your eyes. And maybe with your heart. He’ll steal it—trust me.
A friend wanted to know if my family would like some face masks.
She is making them.
She sent us pictures of the fabric—she has bolts of it—for us to choose the prints.
Yesterday she and her husband pulled up in our driveway to drop off the masks. My husband and I went out to meet our friends, offering our thanks only in words, no hand-grasps or hugs … a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing … a few weeks back, we were all sitting around the dining room table here in the house, laughing and telling stories after a lasagna dinner. It seems long ago.
When will we be able to do so comfortably, again?
When I look at these masks, I see all that they represent. Shields in time of trouble. A friend channeling inertia into something productive, a practical means of battling an unseen enemy. Self-care spreading out like a blanket to cover others. Homemade love. Colorful patterns against the dark backdrop of our days.
These masks are artifacts of our times. Symbols of our story as we live it. And nothing connects humanity as much as story.
As I walked out to the driveway to receive these gifts, my grandmother’s voice echoed from across the years:
You won’t believe it, but where these woods are now used to be houses and farms, up and down this little road … when the Spanish flu came, it hit all but a couple of them … twelve people died in one week … Mama made pots of soup and Papa would carry it to their doors. He wouldn’t go in, of course …
Grandma wouldn’t have had living memory of this. When the influenza pandemic began in January 1918, she was only two. But she knew the stories. If my own memory serves me correctly, as I walked the tiny country cemeteries surrounding her homeplace, listening to her narratives of the people resting there—for she knew all their stories, and how they were connected— there was an unexpected commonality.
A death year. 1917.
That was before the Spanish flu.
Grandma nodded. There was a sickness before: They called it hemorrhagic fever. People would bruise and bleed from their noses and ears and eyes … a lot of people who tried to take care of the sick caught it and died, too …
She was hardly more than a baby then, a girl born and raised in a hard place in hard times, but here she stood, by the weather-worn stones under a cloudless blue sky, telling the stories seven decades later.
Because of story, these events are lodged in my memory a hundred years after they happened.
My father was Grandma’s first child, born during the Great Depression. Flour companies made their sacks with patterns and bright colors so people could make clothes out of them … look at my handmade face masks and tell me they aren’t reminiscent. A second child, my aunt, arrived with the war. Granddaddy moved the family from North Carolina to Virginia; he found work in the shipyard, where production increased to the point of cranking out ships in less than a third of the time it normally took. How can one not compare that to the scramble for mass production of ventilators today …
Grandma said: It was so hot that summer. I was miserable, being pregnant. I’d sit by the upstairs window and watch the iceman delivering blocks of ice to grocers … companies stopped making refrigerators … everything went into the war effort. I just cried. I’d have given anything for some of that ice … then we had ration cards and could only get certain things at certain times … once my sister Jack and her husband pooled their gas ration cards with ours and we all went on a trip to Massachusetts … it was so beautiful and so cool there …
I look at these masks and that is what I see.
The story of overcoming. Of determination. Of resourcefulness in time of scarcity. Of finding a means to be a good neighbor, a good friend, a real and present help in time of need, even if from a safe distance. Sharing so that everyone has enough. Acts of service, gifts of love. Sacrifice.
The road is long With many a winding turn That leads us to who knows where Who knows where …
—”He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” B. Scott/B. Russell
I think this may be my favorite picture of you. For several reasons. I like to see you in such a peaceful setting, walking that country path beside lush green fields, under the blue summer sky. You were walking with a friend, so you weren’t alone. You told me that her puppy followed you—I still can’t believe that’s just a puppy; he’s massive!—and he got tired, so you picked him up and carried him the rest of the way.
That is why I love the photo so much. It captures the essence of who you are.
Quietly bearing your burdens, no matter how heavy. There have been many in these past few years. Ever how burdened you were, ever how twisted and dark the pathbecame, you kept on walking.
No one knows better than I what a long, long road it’s been, from the day you started college to now. Graduation being canceled, just when the end is in sight, feels like a coup de grâce.
It all started off on such a high note, didn’t it? Getting that phone call two weeks after you finished high school, a church looking for a music director. Your childhood dream. I still have your kindergarten “All About Me” book with the prompt ‘When I grow up, I want to be’ … where you drew yourself as a choir director in crayon.You attained it at seventeen, before your formal training even began.
That summer was glorious and brief.
That fall you started college and almost instantly the shadows came.
Your father‘s diagnosis of ocular melanoma, the loss of his eye, the weeks waiting for pathology to reveal no cancer cells had spread.Despite your new job and your courseload, you stepped up to help him readjust.
On the heels of his healing came Ma-Ma’s stroke, the beginning of her slow decline over the rest of that year. She knew how much you loved her. She treasured every minute with you; she savored every long phone call you made from the time you were little. She couldn’t keep from crying whenever you played the piano and sang—remember how she organized for you to come play at her nursing home, near the last?I will never forget her wet, shining face. She was inordinately proud of you. She loved you fiercely.
How grateful I am that you and your dad were there, holding her hands, when she died.
And so you bore her loss on top of an unexpected one.
I know you’re marking the date. Three years ago today, the accident that took your friend. Your little childhood playmate who sang with you in preschool choir, your high school band mate, the organizer of the Sunday-nights-at-Bojangles gatherings. As I write, I hear her pure, high voice echoing in the church to your harmony and piano accompaniment. Her going left all of us reeling—a swift, severe, deep cut to the heart, a knotty scar we’ll bear forever. And yet you play on. You still sing. You stand by her family in their remembrances, your presence the only comfort that’s in your power to give. She would be graduating, too, this spring … but no one is graduating this spring …
It’s one of the hardest things in life, losing people, and not only to death. People will come and go because they choose to, no matter how much we wish they’d stay. You endured this, too, with uncommon grace, never lashing out, just walking on with your invisible pain. I knew it was there. I could feel the weight of it.
Seems we were due a respite, and if there was one, it was those few weeks of vacation last summer before your dad’s heart attack. You and I had just come home from walking when the officer arrived in the driveway to say your dad’s truck had run off the road and hit a tree, it might have been a medical event, maybe a seizure, no, he wasn’t sure what condition your father was in, EMS was working on him when he left, and did we have a way to get to the hospital? With your big brother too distraught to drive, you did it. Calmly, carefully, you drove us to the emergency room where the nurse met us at the door. You were beside me when she ushered us to the little room where the doctor met us to say your father had been resuscitated and was being prepped for heart surgery.
You were there with me that first night of sleeping on the waiting room chairs, not knowing what tomorrow would bring. You were there with me throughout that long week of his hospitalization, until your dad came home, battered, bruised, trying to recover his memory. You got his prescriptions so that I wouldn’t have to leave him … and when I took him back to the ER with chest pains a couple of weeks later, you met us there. Another hospital stay. Another heart surgery. Two more weeks of sleeping in the hospital. Do you remember the surreality of it all? How we felt like it would never end, like we were caught in the web of the wrong story, a movie with a terrible plot twist we didn’t see coming? How could this be?
Somehow you managed to keep your studies up, only leaving for your classes and your church services, making the music and leading the worship for others.
So here we are, at last. Your dad, recovered and restored … able to drive me back and forth to work with my broken foot … until this tiny pathogen bent on world domination closed the schools. Here you are, completing your final weeks of college online, being denied the walk to receive the reward of all your labors …it is unthinkable.
I think about the whole of your young adult life. How your road has been so long, with many a winding turn, through many a dark shadow. I watched how you went around, through, or over every obstacle on this arduous journey. You’ve endured what might have caused others to quit college, others who might have actually enjoyed their studies; I know you never loved the “game” of school and that for you it’s been a test of endurance, in itself. But the end is in sight—despite a pandemic. A plague. Who’d have ever believed, in our time …
You have come this far, bearing every heavy load. You’ve carried on. Often you, the baby of the family, carried the rest of us. You’ve fought internal battles for your own wellness more than anyone else knows; in this spiritual war, you’ve earned a Medal of Honor for exceptional valor. I know it and God knows it, Son. I stand in awe of your heart, full of love and mercy, so self-sacrificial, so willing to lighten others’ burdens as your own grew heavier. Like carrying a giant puppy during a long walk on a hot summer’s day, because it got tired.
That is why I love this picture. It is your story.
There are no words for how much I love you.
Keep walking, Son. Carry on.You are strong.
I am stronger because of you. Soon my foot will be well enough to walk with you again.
When we come through this present ominous shadow, college will be over, we’ll find ourselves in a whole new chapter in our lives, and we’ll celebrate all of it. Just a little farther along … I know that in your quiet way, you’ve already made your peace with it. I can almost hear you singing:
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun And I say it’s all right...
I’ve created heart maps before with students, for staff development, and for workshops on teachers as writers. I have, and love, Georgia Heard’s book: Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Writing.
But this global project literally caught my heart.
In the words of LitWorld: “Heart Maps allow us to connect with each other by sharing the ideas and feelings that define us in the most elemental of ways —and in these uncertain times, that connection is more important than ever.“
Their call is for submissions of heart maps as a means of inspiring hope and strength around the world. For me, at the moment, it’s about the collective story of humanity, uniting now in time of great need. This is something children of all ages can do to express their fears, concerns, gratitude, and love. And, with distance learning in full force by necessity, I cannot think of a better way for teachers and students to connect, combine, and contribute to the world.
The directions on the site about how to submit are simple, as is the invitation to create the heart map: “Inside the heart, draw or write about the ideas, the feelings, and the things that are most important to you at this time.”
And so I did.
Up until now, I’ve only written words on my heart maps. This global one, in these times, seemed to call for something more … so I drew what’s in my heart today.
I’ll supply you with a key, in case.
In the center of my heart: Faith. I have never been more grateful for it. This is where my map begins.
At the bottom of the map: Hope, as the rising sun; I see everything else in its light.
The rays of Hope are shining on a clouded world. If you look closely, all around the rim of the world are the words The Earth is upside down. The Earth is upside down … the compass directions of N and W are there but the map must be turned upside down to see them as they should be.
On the left, Friends, above it, Family, and between them, Books; this wasn’t intentional but it occurs to me that books ARE my friends and my family, too … there’s clearly some subconscious stuff coming to the surface here…
Beneath Books: The American flag. My country, ’tis of thee, my home sweet home … how my concern increases daily for your well-being … for our well-being … Old Glory touches Faith. Behind the flag is is a chain; on each link, a tiny letter, spelling Technology. How grateful I am to be living in a time when isolation is only physical and that technology exists to keep us connected to one another.
Looming rather large at the top through the middle: A rose. It developed of its own accord out of the swirls around Family. I found myself just drawing it out. Why should a rose appear here in my heart map? What does it mean? Maybe it’s again representing my country; the rose is the national flower of the United States. And of course a rose stands for love. I think it may be a memorial flower, for those who’ve already died in the ravage of COVID-19. Most interesting to me … the words sub rosa, “under the rose,” mean secrecy and confidentiality … if you look, you’ll see the bottom of my rose is connected to Writing. I don’t know why I connected the rose to Writing. I just knew the rose should spring from the end of the word. I don’t know the secret yet. I’ll probably have to write to find out. Even further sub rosa are tiny music notes; at the edge of the upside down world, in light of Hope, a song remains in my heart.
Beside the pencil for Writing is a teardrop for losses and sacrifices made in this pandemic, and a caduceus representing the medical profession, fighting hard on behalf of us all.
Note that entire upper right corner is cracking. My heart breaks for Italy today; their losses, the horror. It’s staggering. That’s the Italian flag there behind the praying hands, encircled with the word PRAY repeated over and over: PRAY PRAY PRAY for the tide to turn in Italy …