A passing prayer

Heard today that a friend and former colleague passed away.

We worked together for a few short years as paraprofessionals, until I switched schools to complete student teaching, the final step in my university degree. It was an unexpected door that opened later in life for me.

My colleague encouraged me. She was an interesting, eclectic person who celebrated individuality and embraced life even as she absorbed some of its severest blows. I remember one sunny conversation we had about the word “eviscerated” — the gleam in her steely blue eyes never dimmed, whether burning with impassioned convictions or shining with compassionate discernment. She loved to laugh, to comfort, to speak of spiritual things.

One day she surprised me with a handmade card bearing a mysterious drawing on the front: “This is my prayer for you,” she said with a smile and those unwavering, bright eyes.

I kept it all these years, long after we lost touch. Long after I heard that her compromised, declining health rendered her unable to work.

I found the card again this week during my incessant pandemic purge. With the TV in the background broadcasting the rise of coronavirus deaths at a local nursing home, I reread the card, marveled anew at its artistry and sentiment, thought of her, wondered what became of her.

Today I learned she’s numbered among those dead.

—How many messages do we miss in life, because we aren’t “still” enough to receive them. How many moments do we miss because we don’t make time. How many gifts go unacknowledged because we can’t see them while looking through the lens of unfairness.

My friend didn’t miss. She understood. Far better than most.

She reminded me once, long ago.

She reminds me, still.

It’s a choice.

Just now, seize the day
Offer your own gifts in return
You’ll find joy for the taking

Seize Heaven now, joyful old friend.

Rest in sweet peace.

Bocelli: Amazing grace

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.

Photo: Andrea Bocelli. laurentius87. CC BY-SA. Edited with Cartoona Sketch.

Write bravely

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.

*******

write your stories

share your glories

write bravely

write for healing

name the feeling

write bravely

write all your rages

fill all your pages

write bravely

write through your tears

conquer your fears

write bravely

write of the past

save it at last

write bravely

write of your sorrows

and your tomorrows

write bravely

write them for you

and for me, too

write bravely

write bravely

write bravely

Self-care offering

During the month-long Slice of Life Story Challenge on Two Writing Teachers, fellow Slicer Leigh Anne Eck decided to host a virtual Spring Fling party. The price of attending: Three of your best self-care tips for enduring this time of sequestering (my word of choice, as I am already weary of “social distance” and “quarantine,” even “shelter in place”… more on that later …).

Thanks for the invitation, Leigh Anne! Here’s my tripartite offering.

Self-Care Tip One: Remember, revisit, relive.

Think back on the happy moments of your life. Maybe in childhood. Maybe connected to a place you love. A person you love. The moments don’t have to be major ones like weddings and personal victories; they can be simple, really happy moments. A time you felt safe, secure, at peace; it may be laced with laughter or wonder. Then go back. Recall the setting—the lighting, the season, details of the surroundings, smells, objects, who was there, motions, words, thoughts, and why you felt happy. If you stay there a while, the scene will fade in clearer and clearer. Write it. Write your memory. Bring it out of the attic of your mind. Dust it off. Let it breathe. Write it in present tense, because you are actually there, living it; the moment is now.

Self-Care Tip Two: Write a letter of gratitude.

Think of someone who’s been a guiding influence or great inspiration in your life. Maybe someone who believed in you when you needed it most, or someone who’s encouraged you. Write a letter to this person to say “thank you” for impacting your life for the better. It could be a person who’s been part of your life for a long time, or one who appeared for a short but important while. Tell this person why you’re so grateful for what he or she has given you. Then … call this person and read the letter. Or send it in written form. And, if your person should happen not to be living now: Light a candle this evening and read your letter aloud. Or find a favorite place outside to read your letter aloud; maybe take a gratitude walk at your favorite time of day and read it aloud.

Variation: This could even be a letter to a favorite pet. Or to God.

Self-Care Tip Three: Abide.

I can’t take long walks at present because of a broken foot, but when it’s healed, I’ll resume walking around the churchyard with my youngest son. Many times we talked and I got to hear the innermost workings of his mind and heart. Other times we walked in silence, and I absorbed the images around me. The gardenias budding and the waft of their sweet perfume (impressions come with images). The sparkle of quartz in the little rocks scattered along the pavement, the tiny wild violet growing in a crack. The long limbs of the weeping willow, whispering and dancing in the breeze, the setting sun turning the white steeple to fiery rose-gold … you get the picture.

Just walk. Abide in nature, in silence. Take a notebook to capture what it shows you. Write what you see. These are abiding images. Listen to their whisperings, stirrings, songs. Write (and sketch or photograph) what comes to you, and abide.

Bonus Hostess Gift: Leigh Anne, I’d have brought the precious request of your heart—toilet paper—but as you know, alas, “there’s not a square to spare.” Instead I bring the board games of my childhood: Parcheesi, Monopoly, Life, Chinese Checkers, Backgammon/Acey-deucey, as well as Yahtzee and jacks … jacks! Do kids know what jacks are anymore? Give me a while and I’ll remember all those cool tricks I once knew…

Enjoy this rare time with your families, my friends.

Take good care.

Writing your own story

I saw his shirt from across the crowded cafeteria:

Writing my OWN story.

I hadn’t seen him before, didn’t know him, but I had to go over and say: “That’s the most awesome shirt! Do you like to write?”

He smiled and nodded, eyes bright and cheerful: “Yes!”

We had a short conversation about reading and writing. He was new to our school. After this initial encounter he was quick to come ask questions if he wasn’t sure about how we do things here, always greeting me with an earnest face and slightly self-conscious smile.

He wasn’t with us long. On his last days, he asked if he could stay after lunch and clean all of the tables as his grade level headed to recess. He wiped every table meticulously, then straightened all of the cardboard trays in the serving line for the classes to follow.

I understood.

It was something he could control. A positive and productive outlet.

I never got to write with him.

I thought about students over the years and what I learned about their lives from their writing. A girl whose family slept in their car on the journey north to visit relatives for the holidays; how she woke in the morning, shivering, to find frost coating the windows. A teenager whose vivid third-person narrative about a child born in another country, who survives abuse to find a new life and family in America . . . it switches to first person at the end as he rejoices and reveals he was that child. A first-grader who wanted to write about her dog, how the police shot and killed it. Unnerved, I told her teacher, in hopes that this was just a disturbing fabrication. It wasn’t. The child saw it happen.

For all the story-loving writer that I am, I know writing is not a magic cure for the pain and scars of life. It is, however, a real coping mechanism, a positive and productive outlet, a way of seeing and dealing with and finding hope to overcome. Even in the youngest of us, many of whom already know that life doesn’t follow a neat formula, that it seldom follows a clear and sensible series of steps. I often think about what passes for “writing” in schools; it can’t always be a neat response to a text or a prompt. If we are truly to equip children with tools for life, it begins with a real response to their lives in this world. We owe them, for as long as we have them, a place to feel safe, to be loved, a way of having some control in the face of change, to find their own power despite their powerlessness.To write their own lives, even as life is unfolding.

To have hope on the journey as it takes so many twists and turns.

Time is of the essence; we don’t know for how long or short a time they’ll be in our sphere of influence. Good-byes can come without warning.

And so I quickly gathered the best tools I had at my disposal: pencils, notebooks, a couple of favorite books from my shelf. It was my way of saying Godspeed, child. Write your OWN story. Believe. Attend to your heart. Here’s a piece of mine to carry with you.

Edward knew what it was like to say over and over again the names of those you had left behind. He knew what it was like to miss someone. And so he listened. And in his listening, his heart opened wide and then wider still.

You must be filled with expectancy. You must be awash in hope. You must wonder who will love you, whom you will love next.

—excerpts, Kate DiCamillo, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Circle of light

Good fairy

The Fairy Queen. Shayariel TeardropCC-BY

I have a colleague, mentor, and friend who retired a few years ago but who remains tirelessly dedicated to supporting teachers as writers. I was about to describe her here as a small, lively lady but those words don’t do her justice; she’s a vivacious dynamo. Her bright blue eyes always sparkling with energy, she’s mission-minded, a visionary, able to discern and speak hard truths with grace, even humor.

This past summer, as we co-facilitated a teacher-writer institute in our district, my friend was constantly thinking of ways to empower our attendees: “You know, if we need additional assistance, she would be wonderful; she knows so much about teaching young writers,” or “We need to think about a way to get them to share their experiences as writers; more teachers need to hear this!”

Listening to her one afternoon, as she made more suggestions on how colleagues could maximize their strengths, an image formed in my mind: My friend garbed as a fairy, walking a twisting path through an ominous, dark forest, wand held aloft, casting a welcoming light, seeing the good that’s hidden, calling it to her.

“You’re like a good fairy,” I told her, “the way you see people and empower them to find and use their gifts. It’s amazing how you’re always drawing more people into your warm circle of light, no matter how dark the path might get.”

“Oooh, I love that!” laughed my friend. “With a frog on my shoulder!”

“You know I will have to write about this,” I warned.

“Okay, just don’t forget the frog,” she said, eyes twinkling, moving on to a table to give feedback to a teacher who was just beginning to see herself as a writer. I watched as tears flowed down that teacher’s radiant face.

I thought about how I wouldn’t have been here at this institute, wouldn’t have had numerous opportunities as a literacy coach and writer if it hadn’t been for this friend who tapped me almost immediately for the work. Nearly from our first encounter, she encouraged me to use my voice, to seize moments, to inspire others, to keep pressing on, and, above all, to WRITE.

How thankful I am for her circle of light, that she drew me into it. Greater than any candle, torch, or wand, the light of inspiration passes from one to another as we march onward in the journey of life, with its inevitable twists, unexpected turns, obstacles, and darkness. Sometimes we cannot see further than our own immediate, wavering circle of light. That’s when it’s most important to look ahead, to recognize those going before us like beacons, vibrantly carrying on. Whatever comes, my friend will always be there, shining bright, holding her light as high as she can to make the circle larger . . . her little frog riding on her shoulder.

 

Write me

Write me

Write me. Menno Abbink. CC-BY

As I stood at a checkout counter this weekend, the young lady ringing up my purchase eyed my #WhyIWrite T-shirt.

“So, you’re a writer?” she smiled, scanning my items.

Someone asks me this every time I wear the shirt in public. The interest always surprises me.

And, in spite of blogging for two years, having an untold number of stories in various stages of completion since I was six, and continuously capturing ideas in notebooks for more things to explore through writing, I still pause when asked this question. Funny how hard it is to own I am a writer. 

After a slight beat, I gave the young lady my short answer: “Yes. And I teach writing.”

Although she kept smiling, a shadow crossed her beautifully made-up face. “I struggled with writing in high school,” she said. “I speak well” —unmistakable pride glimmered in her dark eyes— “but I can’t write as well as I speak.”

There was something almost apologetic in her self-assessment. A trace of shame over this perceived shortcoming.

I hear this in people’s voices every time they tell me that they’re “not good writers.”

Some of them are teachers.

And I mourn, because, somewhere along the way, others have made them believe this.

“How often did you see the writing process modeled?” I asked the cashier, already knowing the answer. “Did you see examples of what the teachers wanted you to do, to make it concrete? Did you get feedback from the teachers during the writing of your essays, to help you improve your writing?”

She shook her head. “Oh, no. We were just told ‘Here’s the assignment, here’s when it’s due.’ ”

She completed my transaction. A long line of people waited behind me; I couldn’t ask this affable, well-spoken cashier if she’d ever enjoyed writing, or tried it for fun, just to see what she could do. I couldn’t say: You think you’re not a writer, but that is not the end of your story. 

I left the store knowing that I’ll have to return for a follow-up conversation in which I will say these things and encourage her to write. Maybe I’ll even take her a journal. I have several lovely ones waiting to be used.

My checkout conversation reiterates to me, yet again, that students struggle with writing because teachers struggle with teaching it. Writing is labor-intensive. It’s time-consuming. Teacher education programs often offer very little in the way of solid writing pedagogy, and unless teachers have access to professional development that provides them with the “how” and “why”—positive writing experiences of their own—the struggle goes on. Systems, administrators, and teachers battle over a clear vision of what quality writing instruction is, what the authentic writing process is versus any program, and why effective writing instruction matters (that’s another whole post in itself). I know educators who confess to “not being good” at teaching writing. Some happen to be in positions where they are advocating for the removal of writing workshop in schools.

In truth, it all begins with So, you’re a writer?

For the answer to that question must be yes before one is equipped to be a teacher of writing.

As for me, I’d start a grassroots SAVE EDUCATION THROUGH WRITING movement if I could.

In the meantime, I content myself with helping whomever I can, whenever I can, to grow themselves as writers.

The timing of my checkout encounter happens to be uncanny; I was, in fact, preparing to co-facilitate my district’s second annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute, which starts today.

In a few hours, I’ll meet the participants, elementary through high school cross-curricular educators who are willing to give up seven hours a day for an entire week during their vacation, ultimately to benefit the students they serve. Part of our institute rationale reads:

Everyone has the capacity to write, writing can be taught, and teachers can help students become better writers.

Writing grows out of many different purposes. 

Participants will be invited to be writers and engage in creative struggle.

We become experts at teaching writing by writing.

We will coach one another as we want our students to be coached on their writing journeys.

I know great things lie in store for the teachers who are coming. Not because of anything I or my co-facilitators say or do, but because of what lies within these teachers, these writers. I anticipate my own surprises— about the craft, about myself—because it always happens when I work at writing. The wellspring never runs dry. Never. Whenever writing is involved, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected. And to let it pour.

However these teachers may feel about writing, they’re already illustrating an important truth before Day One is up and running: This is not the end of the story.

It’s a beginning.

New pages await, expectantly, beckoning:

Write me.

You can do it.

And so can that cashier . . . .

*****

See Stone speaks for words of wisdom on teaching, literacy, reading, and the power of writing as shared by author Nic Stone on Day 1 of the Teacher Summer Writing Institute.

March (writing) madness

slice-of-life_individual

I’ve just noticed how much the Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life badge resembles a basketball.

I find this coincidence captivating, as today kicks off a special season of challenge for both: a month-long daily writing commitment and March Madness.

Bracket predictions are not my thing, but writing is, so I am fondly dubbing these thirty-one days March Writing Madness.

Truthfully, it’s almost madness for me to write a blog post every single day in March. A quality post, that is. I can’t share something until I feel I’ve hammered it into the best possible shape, and in a normal week, that comes to just a post or two. This daily venture is daunting. It’s expensive. I know what the Slice of Life commitment is going to cost me in time and energy. Sacrifices will be required.

But, oh, the payoff . . .

First things first: I started Lit Bits and Pieces in March 2016 as a means of stretching myself as a writer. As much as I enjoy teaching writing and coaching teachers of writing, I recognized the hypocrisy of encouraging others to write consistently if I wasn’t doing so myself. I needed to walk the walk . . . and so this blog was born. I set only two goals in the beginning: To write about whatever comes to mind and to make it uplifting to readers.

In the two years since, the blog has become a life-library for me.

I’ve relived childhood moments; I’ve explored the mysterious; I’ve turned events and things around in my mind, finding connections and analyzing meanings; I’ve tinkered with poetry, flirted with fiction, and captured precious, priceless experiences with students, colleagues, family members, and friends.

I knew when I signed up for last year’s Slice of Life Challenge—my first—that I would be pushing myself even harder, further, as writer. That was expected, desired.

The unexpected, greater payoff: My fellow Slicers. People whose powerful words kept my momentum going when I was almost out of steam, who valued what I wrote, who encouraged me to a degree that I can’t adequately convey. People to whom I owe a debt of gratitude and the honor of encouraging in return . . .

What a difference a month and a writing community make.

While the March Madness basketball tournament is about eliminating the competition (hence those NCAA bracketeers), the Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Story Challenge is about cheering each other on to the very end, so that all are victorious.

Today, as I take my place in the line-up, I celebrate you, Slicers, extraordinary individuals that you are, every one of you a champion, in this arena where the joy you get is also the joy you give.

That’s the buzzer, friends . . . time to write like mad.

 

This too shall pass

This Too Shall Pass

This too shall pass – Notting Hill. Florencia LewisCC BY

Once upon a time, long ago, I drove to work in tears. I couldn’t see a way out of a certain situation. Worry had consumed my thoughts for days. Like a moth desperately fluttering at a light but never landing, so it circled round and round my brain. Like the Grinch, I’d puzzled until my puzzler was sore, arriving at no logical resolution. The weight just grew heavier and heavier.

A sudden movement on my right startled me – a white pickup truck zipping by. That’s not the passing lane. I scowled at it, then nearly ran off the road in astonishment.

The bed of the truck had a tall, wooden rack on top, and on the slats was a white sign meticulously painted with black, Old English letters:

This Too Shall Pass.

I blinked, looked again. Yes, it was real. And it was literally passing me.

I looked around, half afraid I’d see these same words on barns and road signs like something out of The Twilight Zone, in which case I’d have to consider getting help with my state of mind.

But no – This Too Shall Pass was only on that white sign, on that white pickup, passing in the wrong lane to my right.

It was there for a few seconds, then on it went, out of sight.

As did the weight I carried. It melted away in the wake of that truck. I couldn’t see the future, but I understood this momentary trouble was just that, momentary. It would pass.

And so it did.

Whatever it was.

I said it was long ago.

I cannot even remember what I was so worried about.

At all.

But that truck is vivid in my memory. I can see those Old English letters, still.

I like to think that the driver painted them because he had a great sense of humor about his edgy driving. It’s too good, really . . . .

Except that I never saw the driver, nor have I seen that truck since. I hoped that I would – I watched for it on the roads for a long time after, but it’s the kind of thing that happens only once.

Once being enough to get the message.

This Too Shall Pass.

It always does.

 

The Writing Spa

Welcome to the Writing Spa.

Please put your things down and help yourself to salt scrub – wash your hands and refresh.

Or have some aromatherapy lotion.

Listen to the soft music, the sound of the ocean with the occasional distant gull.

That fragrance in the air? That’s a pillow mist. It’s called Peaceful.

Yes, it does smell very spa-esque, doesn’t it?

Today we will write. It’s so important that teachers of writing write themselves, with and for students.

Today you write for you.

You have a choice of stations: Refresh, Evoke, Escape. Start wherever you like. If there’s time, we will get to all three; if not, certainly two.

Let me explain.

The Refresh sign bears the Isak Dinesen quote: “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.” Which salt water form grabs you first? Close your eyes and envision a scene where this salt water form played a significant role. Where were you? Who was with you? Get back into the moment – show, don’t tell.

Here’s an example, a time when tears played a healing role in my life ….

The sign at the Evoke station reads: “Nature speaks and wafts her perfumes. Capture it.” This is meant to connect us to the natural world with sounds and scents that lift our spirits and make our hearts rise. Write about any sound or any scent that does this for you, and why it has this effect. Who or what is associated with it?

I chose sound. I wrote about cicadas in the summer and what this evokes for me. I will share ….

The last station is Escape. There’s a place you long to return to – why? Who or what is connected to that place? Capture it in detail so the reader goes there with you. Share the reason for its specialness to you.

Here’s one of my special places. I only went there once ….

The teachers write. Some have tears in their eyes; some stop to look into the distance, far beyond the walls of the room, to different places, conjuring different images in each of their minds. The music is soothing. We are breathing in Peaceful. When it’s time to stop, those who wish to share their writing do so with one another; those who’d  rather not share are willing listeners, ready to give positive responses on the strength of the writing. There are more tears. There are also smiles, even a small eruption of laughter at the humor in someone’s writing.

We rotate and repeat.

For reflection, they write a takeaway for themselves and one for their classrooms. They write on white paper. 

Ball up your white paper. This is the Invigoration piece of the spa – we will now have a snowball fight! Have at it!

Much laughter ensures as teachers throw “snowballs” at one another. We stop; they choose a snowball and open it up to read to a partner. No one knows who wrote what and reflections that strike chords are shared with the group. We go another round. 

I hope you enjoyed your Writing Spa, everyone. However you view yourself as a writer, the goal for today is that you found writing a pleasurable experience. Writing must be pleasurable for teachers to be pleasurable for students. We create the atmosphere for writing in our rooms. Think of ways you might adapt what we’ve done here for your kids – pay it forward.

On your way out, by the door, there’s a basket of chocolate – help yourself to Chocolate Therapy. 

Go forth in writing wellness.

*******

I did two variations of the Writing Spa, one with teachers at my school last December and one on Monday with teachers attending the North Carolina Reading Association Conference. Improving writing instruction has been a major focus at my school for a couple of years, the most frequently-requested area of support. The spa was born from a synthesis of ideas: Teachers, however they feel about writing, need to have enjoyable experiences with it; professional development needs to lift teachers’ spirits; writing is about going deep, tapping the power that lies within us.

You are welcome, if you like, to read my sound and place pieces shared for Evoke and Escape.

I’m still working on my salt water piece.

(I finished itBaby’s breath)

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer