Traction

Summer.

It brings to mind vacation. Travel. Beaches, ocean, sand. Rest. Living, loving, luxuriating . . .

Until the sands of life shift suddenly.

As they did it this summer when my husband landed in the hospital twice for a collective nineteen days and two heart surgeries. Existence as we knew it changed in an instant; just as we felt we’d gained a foothold, the sands shifted again. There was no time to think of the sun or even a chance to see it deep in the fluorescent-lit maze of tiled corridors and rooms. No taste of salt on the ocean breeze—oh, and salt is taboo from now on. Savoring life converged to a pinpoint, a prayer, many prayers, for staying alive, every day an uncharted vista with its own unfamiliar seas and long, long shores of loose, uncertain sands.

But he is home at last, convalescing. I grapple with new regimens—dressing wounds left by chest tubes, administering medications, a different diet, slow, slow walks in the driveway. Extra doses of patience. New priorities. The word traction comes to mind. We are on solid ground. We are moving forward, bit by little bit.

Perhaps that particular word returns to mind from childhood. My mother suffered with several health issues, one being injury and surgeries on her back. Her convalescence involved sitting in a chair beside a bedroom door with a rope-like contraption thrown over the door itself and a cup in the dangling loop for her chin. Each day she was to tighten this rope and sit in the chair for a given amount of time to stretch and align her spine. It was called traction.

I love words, their shades and nuances, so once traction got hung in my mind I kept spinning it to see its colors and facets. Traction as a foothold, as aligning, as momentum. Grabbing hold, finding a place of solidity, setting things in motion, in the right direction. I can say that my adventure this summer gave me new spiritual depth and traction.

And when I wrap myself in such metaphor I tend to see what else this blanket enfolds . . . school. I have missed the beginning of school, and while I wonder how I’ll gain traction with so many new programs and systems I’m expected to learn and teach this year, my mind doesn’t linger there. Perhaps it should. But perhaps not. I think of the children and the growth they’re supposed to make. They never will if all the sands keep shifting, if things are not aligned or set in motion in the right direction.

The lesson of my summer was restarting. My husband’s heart was restarted twice. Once during CPR which fractured his sternum and once after bypass grafts. The surgeon repaired his heart and his fractures. Healing is underway. We have new priorities. Life is restarted, with new traction. Why should it be any different for our schools, for our children? It is time to restart, to find a place of traction in shifting systems, opinions, policies, and priorities, and do what needs to be done for their sakes. Too much is at stake. It took a medical team—several, in fact— to save my husband this summer. And so it will be a collective effort to meet the needs of children on their educational journey. We shall seek and find solid ground. We shall move forward together, bit by little bit.

To me the story is the same, no matter how you slice it or apply it. This is life. It all begins and ends with the heart. Start where you have landed and find your traction.

4:00 a.m. In hospital.

Dearest…

Long, long ago, your mother sat by your hospital bed, not knowing if you would live or die. Acute bronchitis, emergency tracheotomy, impossibly high fever… I can almost envision your little four-year-old self inside the oxygen tent, packed in ice to get your temperature down, and your mother in the chair, wiping her tears as she wrote you a note. Her beautiful penmanship remains vivid on the inside cover of the Bible story book she bought for you:

4:00 a.m. In hospital.

Dearest . . .

When you are well and safe at home again, I’ll read you this little note I’ve written to you during the hours I sat by your bed and watched you sleep so soundly . . . Mommy and Daddy have been so scared . . . We love you so much, our little son . . . Little angels have been all around your bed since you have been sick and Jesus sent them to watch over you and keep you . . . soon all the suffering and fright you have had will pass from your little mind but Mommy will always remember and thank God for giving you back to me.

Your Mother

*******

Five decades later, Dearest, I sit by your hospital bed, typing this note in my phone. When you are well and safe at home again I will tell you how the EMS responders were angels sent to save you, how the doctors repaired your heart, how the nurses watched over you and kept you safe, how – for the second time in your life – your body was chilled in an effort to save your brain. The boys and I have been here with you the whole time. At last you woke and knew us … we will always remember what the doctors said, that everything, everything aligned for you.

At 4:00 a.m. in the hospital – today and every hour of every day hereafter – we thank God for giving you back to us.

❤️ Your Wife

Update 8/6: After a week in the hospital, five days of which were in cardiac ICU, he is home. Weak, sore, struggling with memory, and amazed by his own story. We tell it to him over and over again.

Medical professionals continue to describe the actions of EMS responders – who administered CPR for twenty minutes with defibrillators – as “heroic.”

Trust is a reflex

Trust is a reflex

when eyes can’t see

when a presence passes over

and mouths open

anticipating sustenance.

Trust is a reflex

when others draw near

when in their shadow

minds open

to positive intentions.

Trust is a reflex 

perhaps, more than a choice

that the proximity of others

portends benevolence

not harm.

Trust is a reflex

a silent cry of the heart

believing that somehow

someone is near enough 

to hear.

‘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.

In the name of St. Patrick

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City, on my most recent visit in 2016

I was sixteen years old the first time I went to New York City—that’s the same age, according to his own writing, that St. Patrick was kidnapped in Britain and carried to slavery in Ireland.

I didn’t know this fact at the time. I arrived in the city that long-ago day with my high school drama club, excited that his cathedral was one of our designated destinations.

Raised in the Baptist church, I had only a rudimentary understanding of the canonization of saints. A shadowy working knowledge in which St. Patrick loomed very large, for a personal reason:

My grandfather, born in rural North Carolina in 1906, was named Columbus St. Patrick.

Why remains a mystery to this day.

Of course there were stories of Irish heritage. Granddaddy maintained that his paternal grandfather came to America from Ireland with his brothers, but the timeline is knotty, the facts obscure, the story too piecemeal to be reconstructed. He dimly remembered his grandfather talking about carving a dugout, a small boat made from a hollow log, in Dublin.

That’s the only tiny jewel of Irish family lore I have, besides my grandfather’s middle name.

Oh, and the surname of my other grandfather, whom I barely knew: Riley.

Just this year, my family took the DNA ancestry plunge. I learned that a good bit of my blood really does run green.

I like to think it was calling to me when I first entered the cathedral, tears inexplicably welling in my eyes. It had to be more than the curiosity of Granddaddy’s name being St. Patrick, although I was mindful of it at the moment.

Maybe my emotion rose in response to the breathtaking splendor, the deep hush, the sense of pure awe . . . and something utterly unnameable. I would later learn that this profound monument to God, named for His missionary saint, was built in part by contributions of poor Irish immigrants, thousands of them. Wealthy citizens donated, too. The cathedral website states:  “St. Patrick’s Cathedral proves the maxim that no generation builds a cathedral. It is, rather, a kind of ongoing conversation linking generations past, present and future.”

—An ongoing conversation linking generations past, present, and future.

A conversation of love. Of extreme sacrifice. Of perseverance. Of devotion. Of faith.

Of blessing. Now and for all time.

The pillars of my life, built on foundations laid by my grandfather.

Until we meet again, Columbus St. Patrick, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

*******

 

Previous posts about my grandfather:

Red rubber boots

A long time ago, in a Galaxie far, far away

My grandfather, St. Patrick with my favorite photo of him, circa 1924-25

First do no harm – on nature and wisdom

What is literacy – for reading isn’t always about words

Happy place

A slice of long ago – 1937 and plowing with mules

Holy

It is dark, I cannot see.

—Wait a bit, there will be

light.

I  don’t see You, but I’ll trust.

—I made your eyes, they will adjust;

I gave you sight.

So much I see, that should not be.

Be still and leave this all to Me;

it will be right.

 I fear most to see inside of me.

Fear not. Even there I’ll be

to drive away your night.

No darkness is too great for Me.

This I know. It sets me free.

Toward Your light my soul

takes flight.

A slice of long ago

My mule neighbors

All my life, I wanted to live in the country.

I was the child of streets, sidewalks, bridges, overpasses, a city that set its watch by military bases and the shipyard. 

I am now the sound of roosters crowing before daybreak, geese honking and flying in their “V” against an egg-colored sky, glassy ponds with their rising morning mist, cotton fields, tobacco barns, donkeys, goats, horses, and the occasional peacock.

To be precise: I live on a tiny neighborhood cul-de-sac, not a farm, although fields and rural life surround me.

Just beyond the woods in front of my home is a pasture, and in that pasture live two mules.

The first time I drove down that road and saw them, I nearly wept.

I halfway expected my grandfather as a young man to walk out of the weathered, tin-roofed barn and hitch them to a plow.

See, I am also the child of stories about the old days and the old ways. In the summers I left the bustling city behind for a few weeks to stay with my grandparents in their rural community, where generations of my ancestors lived and died. Every word that Granddaddy and Grandma spoke, every memory they relived in response to my thousand questions, still lives in my soul. 

Because of the stories I sometimes recognize a thing as familiar when I haven’t it seen before.

So it was that my first sight of these mules took me to a time long before my own. For just a minute, I felt like I was there. 

And, in a way, I was.

In 1937.

*******

He was up with the dawn, at the back of the field plowing with those mules. I stood on the porch and waved my apron at him, but he wasn’t looking.

I was alone in the house—a two-story house painted white, we didn’t own it, we were tenant farmers—because his mama had gotten mad with us and moved out. My sisters and my own mama thought there’d be plenty of time before the baby came. I guess I thought so, too.

I shivered in the chilly morning, the beginning of October, but the days still got pretty warm. Such a beautiful time of year, everything so crisp and bright, the sky so blue. We’d only been married for ten months. I had a lot to learn, being just twenty-one, but I was proud of what we had and I kept everything looking so nice. I didn’t think of what we didn’t have because no one had much of anything . . . .

All I could think about in that moment on that morning is that I suddenly needed help and no one knew.

“Lump!” I yelled, as hard as I could, to get his attention.

He was fighting those mules—I don’t know how he always managed to find the orneriest mules on Earth!—and he couldn’t hear me.

Right about then is when my water broke. The warm fluid ran down my legs, past the hem of my dress, into my shoes. I’ve never been so frightened; I sat down on the porch steps and started to pray:

Help me, God. I don’t know what to do! Please send help, somehow.

That’s when Belle, our little bluetick hound, came out from under the porch and sat beside me. She started licking the fluid off my legs like she knew what was happening and I am sure she did. Animals know things. I put my arms around her and cried and cried.

“Bless you, old Belle, for trying to help me,” I told her.

“Bless you.”

******

Of course my grandfather looked up from the mules to see her there. He went for the doctor, who arrived in plenty of time.

That is how my father came into the world.

Grandma said Granddaddy was so, so proud of his boy: “Never saw his face shine quite like that before, when the doctor called him in from the front room and put his son in his arms. Your newborn Daddy looked exactly like him.”

Made up for those ornery mules, I suppose. I don’t know of any other part they played in this story, but it is enough. For me, mules are forever icons of my young grandfather and his farmer-sharecropper life.

Standing like silent sentinels in the background as one generation passes to another.

Oh yes, I’ve loved the country all my life, and maybe even before. 

Living here means that long ago is never far away.

*******

Note: Everyone “down home” called my grandfather by his nickname, Lump, short for Columbus. When my father saw me for the first time, he said, with more than a little concern: “My land—she looks just like Daddy.”

Getting to the heart of writing workshop

I wasn’t sure how the day would go.

There were a lot of strikes against it before it even started.

Normally when I facilitate writing workshop training for teachers they’ve specifically signed up for it. They want to be there. This year, due to an oversight somewhere at the district level, the workshops weren’t scheduled. At the last minute, this workshop training was added as Day Two of Balanced Literacy (as Day One focused only on reading).

Meaning that teachers who signed up learned that they had two whole-day sessions to attend instead of one.

How would they feel about that?

Normally the overview of writing workshop alone is spread across three afternoons. Now I had to condense it all into one day.

Nothing like prioritizing content . . .

And, with the adoption of a new curriculum, writing workshop—and balanced literacy—won’t be offered to K-5 teachers any more. Just to K-2.

I felt I’d landed in no man’s land on some dismal shore, ineffectively beating back the waves of despair crashing all about me.

But I chose to keep my footing on a solid foundation, to hang onto all that I value about writing and teaching writing. The lifeline. Not just for me, but for the children, for their teachers.

This has to be worth their while, I sighed to myself.

And I got to work revising the training.

The day of reckoning comes. I start with who we are and why we’re here, rolling right into the what of writing workshop: Create the conditions for good writing to occur (credit Donald Graves). Understanding that writing workshop is not a program, is not about a product, but is a time set aside to fall in love with the craft (my definition) and to learn the real writing process.

Then we go deeper, into the why of writing. It’s at the very core of being human.

I read aloud to my participants:

Five-year-old Paul writes. Children want to write before they want to read. They are more fascinated by their own marks than by the marks of others. Young children leave their messages on refrigerators, wallpaper, moist windowpanes, sidewalks, and even on paper. 

Six-year-old Paul doesn’t write. He has gone to school to learn to read. Now that he is in school, the message is, “Read and listen; writing and expression can wait.” Paul may wait a lifetime. The odds are that he will never be truly encouraged to express himself in writing.

Paul will wait and wait to write because a higher premium is placed on his ability to receive messages than on his ability to send them. Individual expression, particularly personal messages in writing, will not be valued as highly as the accurate repetition pf the ideas of others, expressed in their writing. Since Paul will write so little, by the time he graduates from high school he will think of himself as a poor writer and will have a lowered sense of self-esteem as a learner. He will have lost an important means of thinking and will not have developed his ability to read critically.

-Donald Graves, Children Want to Write

I notice, as I read this, how heads begin to nod in acknowledgment . . .

Next we read portions of two articles with quotes from people in the business world. How young would-be employees have a hard time organizing their thoughts and articulating them, and that, when possible, employers should hire the better writer, because writers understand how people work, have better interpersonal skills . . .

We read these even though the participants of this training are K-2 teachers. 

Because this is where all the writing begins. 

Here, with them.

Then I read a bit from Colleen Cruz in The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, how a boy, Robert, discovers what his personal essay is really about. This is in a chapter entitled “I’m Finding Some Student Writing Repetitive and Boring.” Cruz writes: “Kids, and some adult writers, have a subconscious need to write about particular topics, but they don’t understand why.” Robert had chosen the topic ‘Christmas is my favorite holiday.’ His reasons are food, presents, and videos. While conferring with Cruz, Robert finally says that watching videos is the most important  thing about the holiday because his family had recorded every Christmas; he goes deeper and deeper into the meaning, until: “Since my dad died, Christmas is the only time I get to see him. My mom can’t stand to watch all the videos at any other time. But on Christmas she lets us watch them, and it’s like we’re all together again.”

The why of teaching writing: We owe it to the children to find their stories, to tell them.

It begins with our finding and telling our own.

Here’s where I carve out time to write in this workshop training. We lift lines from our writing to create an interactive poem; we brainstorm for more writing with heart maps (credit Georgia Heard).

At this point, I have to gently ask the teachers to stop writing.

For we’ve reached the how of writing workshop, beginning with minilessons. The vehicle for teaching standards and process, for modeling, for creating that atmosphere, those conditions, for good writing to occur. Opening the windows for student ideas to flow. Choice, voice. Meaning and mattering.

And it’s time for lunch. I tell the teachers that when they return, we’ll spend the rest of the afternoon on the backbone of writing workshop: Conferring. It merits its own what, why, and how. Academic feedback in the effort to reach a goal, growth versus grades, meeting each child, each writer, individually . . . .

As they exit, the teachers seem happy. They leave sticky notes with their “gots” and “wants” on a chart. Personally I celebrate that the “gots,” pictured at the top of this post, far outnumber the “wants.”

Their notes revive my spirits. I’ve a sense of standing on a shore just as the sun breaks through the clouds. I feel the warmth of it. I can almost hear distant gulls, or something, calling and calling, wild and free; I can taste promise like salt in the breeze.

We’re not even done; we’ve only just begun.

I believe it’s gonna be a great day, after all.

*******

-Bits of the teachers’ final reflections at the end of the day.

The star

The first Christmas that we were married, my husband and I bought a star tree topper at a drugstore.

That was over thirty years ago.

The star was silver then.

Eventually I sprayed it gold so it would better match ornaments on the tree.

Every year I have to reinforce it with hot glue and duct tape. And every year I say it’s time for this old star to go.

But it still shines.

And I can’t find another tree topper I like better.

It’s older than our children. It’s presided over Christmas for their entire lives.

It’s outlasted the gingerbread ornament that my youngest made in preschool. The sweet ornament crumbled after a decade or so—ashes to ashes, dust to dust, gingerbread to cinnamon and cloves. Spice of life, formless and void, fragrant fragments in my hand when just the Christmas before, it was whole.

The star shone on when other lights went out, one by one. Lights in my life, not those of man-made strings on the tree. This star glowed above me as I decorated, year after passing year, listening to a particularly poignant version of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring that pierced my soul. The haunting chords stirred an almost unbearable sense of loss. Of time, of people, of the inevitability of it all. For a moment, though, under that star, somewhere in the music, in the light, in the season, those who loved me were near again. Not visible, not tangible, yet present, perceptible. Very near.

It stands within its own circle, this star. I think of all that might symbolize. The circle of life. May the circle be unbroken. A wedding band, a halo, a covenant. Wholeness, holiness.

It is fragile.

It is old.

But the star hangs on. It still shines.

With Christmas grace.

Not another hand turkey

Last week ended with a professional development session. One of those “compliance” types for which it’s hard to muster enthusiasm. I’ve led professional development under some tough circumstances—like, for an entire staff on the last day before winter break, when snowflakes began billowing on the other side of the window—so I know how hard it can be. I attempt to make whatever PD I do as inspirational and practical as I can for teachers (in the case of the snowfall, it was “Bye! Vacation starts now!”).

But this time, I was an attendee. The whole week had been out of whack between the holiday on Monday and my battling a minor illness. I was happy to see the end arrive despite some trepidation about this PD session.

Especially when we participants were asked to draw hand turkeys.

For real? I sighed. Is this in any way productive? 

I couldn’t recall the last time I did this. In my early elementary years, surely.  I tried to remember helping my own children trace their little hands in autumns past.

But I complied. I penciled the outline of my hand onto white paper.

We attendees were then told to write “something we’re proud of” on each of the four so-called tail feathers. These things could be personal, professional, or both.

Well, this was kinda different. The four things came to me pretty quickly:

My blog. It was born as a way of making myself write regularly, evidence of “walking the walk” as a teacher-writer. I can’t stand before colleagues and profess my love of writing or testify to its impact if I’m not doing it on a regular basis. That’s how the blog started; it soon became a keeping-place of memories and reflections, a patchwork quilt of my life now and long ago. Not to mention that it threw the doors wide open for meeting other teacher-writer and reader friends who’ve enriched my days immeasurably. That I’ve sustained it for nearly three years feels like a true achievement.

Coaching. My daily work. I collaborate with K-5 teachers on English Language Arts instruction.There’s a different ebb and flow to it each year.  The work can be like riding a train and watching the landscape zip by at an alarming rate. It’s sometimes like trying to irrigate monotonous, barren deserts. There’s a lot of new expectations of my teaching colleagues this year, new curriculum, newly-tweaked standards (again). With new and greater demands on top of all the old ones, it’s easy for a teacher to feel constrained, paralyzed. Every time I can help simplify, problem-solve, or streamline the work of classroom teachers, I feel like the “flow” gets better for them and for their students. We ALL grow.

My sons. I am so proud of who they are and where they are in life. Both of them are working on seminary degrees, one in music, the other in graduate divinity studies. One knew his path from early childhood, the other took the long way round, but both have chosen paths of service. On this note, my heart becomes too full for words. . . .

The Facebook devotional.  I don’t have a Facebook account (preferring Twitter) but my husband does. He’s had it for years and has never written a post. Last week, out of the blue, he said: “I need your help.” He’s a pastor. For three decades now he’s tirelessly served churches and communities. He’s married people, buried them, held their hands during their darkest times, laughed and rejoiced with them in the better ones. And ministry is changing; social media is a way to reach out . . . so, enter me.  Would I help him craft a short devotional post each day? It’s a small thing, really, but if the words help someone, or give them hope . . . then to me it’s a way of giving back. See, November marks three years since my husband was diagnosed with ocular melanoma. He lost his eye, but he’s alive. He’s here. Cancer-free. Every day is a celebration. There’s always, always, always something to be thankful for . . . yes, I’ll help him share it each day.

I suppose the professional development presenters may have wondered why I kept working on my hand turkey throughout the entire session. They may have thought I’d tuned them out. I hadn’t. I was listening. What they had to say was actually quite helpful. I processed it all as I added more and more detail to my turkey—let’s hope the facilitators thought I was sketchnoting. One thing just kept leading to another until I realized that the words on the tail feathers represented more than things I was simply proud of. This is the work of my hands, I mused, as I wrote and drew with one hand inside the outline of the other. Each thing I’ve listed is an opportunity, a piece of life’s work given to me.

—Gifts. 

Pride wasn’t the appropriate sentiment. Not even close.

I draped my turkey in a banner bearing the word “Gratitude.”

Isn’t that where the personal and professional roads should converge, anyway? Or the point of origin from which they radiate?

It is for me.

It is from this crossroads of gratitude that I wish you professional and personal joy, in all the work of your hands.

Happy Thanksgiving.