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.

Incapacitated

The initial predictions were utter destruction by an epic monster.

Having suffered extensive damage from hurricanes in years past, central North Carolina fortified itself against Florence. I collected a small mountain of dry goods and canned vegetables—”hurricane stash”—that probably could have fed my family of four for two weeks without electricity. Since we’re on a well, we don’t have water when the power goes out; I  even purchased powdered milk to mix with bottled water, for our cereal. Bottled water . . . that took several trips across three days. By 6:30 in the mornings, restocked grocery shelves were again picked clean. I finally scored a 36-count pack of Aquafina and turned to maneuver away from the throng in that aisle when a man, loading his own cart, said, “Here, you better take another.” He hefted a pack of water off the shelf and stacked it on top of the one in my cart. This gesture by a stranger stirred my heart.

At home, the dogs had plenty of food, we had batteries, all the laundry was done, one of the bathtubs was filled with water, the cars with gas. Our porch rocking chairs and the grill were secured in the shed. The television news ran nonstop. My family watched the slow, drawn-out approach of the monster, and although the sun was still shining, school was canceled in anticipation of the onslaught. My mind continually scrolled for every possible preparation. I even boiled the remainder of our eggs so they’d be usable if the power went out for days, as happened in the past.

I planned for everything.

Except my back going out.

It started on the day before Florence was to make landfall and grew steadily worse. I attributed it, at first, to the barometric pressure; I’d heard several people mention headaches and backaches. By the time the wind and rain arrived, however, the grip of pain was too intense for me to sit or walk anymore. Dosed with ibuprofen, I spent the duration of the storm — five days, all told— lying in bed with pillows under my knees.

Unable to do anything.

Except re-read the entire Harry Potter series.

Escapism at its best.

Different things strike me on each reading. This time, as the wind raged on the other side of the walls, as sideways rain whipped in voluminous sheets, slapping the windows with fury, as the encroaching darkness forced me to switch on my phone flashlight in order to see the words on the pages—Lumos!— I lay there contemplating the nobility of the characters, the way they banded together, helped one another, in the face of their own destructive, epic monster. How they found unrealized courage despite ever-increasing darkness. As I lay reading, immersed in Harry’s world,  I caught distant snatches of the news from my own: on the TV in the living room, where my husband and sons tracked Florence’s path, meteorologists warned people that if their houses flooded to not seek refuge in their attics, because there’s no exit. Rescue personnel are not equipped to cut through houses to save people. Meaning that it’s safer to climb on the roof of one’s house than to be trapped.

For a second, everything went still: How could I do that? If it flooded here—never say never—how could I possibly climb to the roof? I can’t even move!

And then I read the words of Mad-Eye Moody to Harry as Harry was about to compete in the Tri-Wizard Tournament: Play to your strengths. 

Harry doesn’t think he has any strengths—this is Book Four, he’s just fourteen —and he has no idea that the Tournament was designed solely to destroy him. Moody growls: Think now. What are you best at?

Lying flat on my back, at the mercy of my own body, helpless against the forces of nature, imagining a flood . . . what strength would I have, just now?

I thought of elderly people in this storm. Then of my Grannie, years ago, when her house caught fire in the dead of night on New Year’s Eve; how, after just having heart bypass surgery in the days when it was a new thing, she climbed out of her upstairs bedroom window onto the porch roof and survived.

Play to your strengths.

In Grannie’s case it was pure grit. As for me . . . well, a streak of that same determination and strong will (Grannie-grit) runs in my own veins, but I think my strength is rooted in something greater. If had to choose what’s deepest within me to tap, it’s hope.

I recently heard hope defined as not wishing, but knowing, trusting. No matter how severe the pain, I know I’d be able to climb to safety. Somehow. I trust my family would help me. Even in my weakened state, I’d find and give the last of my strength to help them, too. A strength that would come exactly when it was needed, not before.

On and on I read. Of Harry’s overcoming, of his concern for others, his willingness to give his own life in order to save them, even those he didn’t know personally . . . .

The darkness, the storms bring out the best in humanity, reminding us that we are, above all, here to help each other. Not to destroy.

—I will write about Severus Snape another day.

And storms, ever how violent, do not last forever.

It didn’t flood here, although our yard remained a bog for a while.

Now we have a plague of bloodthirsty mosquitoes to battle.

And my back pain has diminished, bit by bit, day by day. It remains a twinge, still causing me to be mindful. Strange thing, that. Being rendered powerless during the storm, unable to do anything but read. And endure.

But, in the end, powerless all depends on one’s own perspective. Reading is another great strength of mine, is it not? Didn’t it get me through the storm and the pain? That’s hardly powerless. Not to mention that in my tiny neighborhood, in the heart of a rural area where we frequently lose the power for no apparent reason at all . . . the lights blinked but never went out.

Just like hope.

 

A fine mess

After being away on vacation all last week, my first order of business on returning home was to check on the four baby house finches that hatched in the wreath on my front door. I’d been chronicling their development daily, so I knew many changes would occur in my absence.

Here is what I discovered:

1) The babies are now well-feathered; their skin-head mohawks have become mere wisps upon their downy crowns.

2) Two of the babies can fly. They sailed out of the nest this morning as I approached. The other two stayed put, their bright little eyes regarding me with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension.

3) Their nest is one spectacular conglomeration of droppings.

To be fair, the droppings are only around the rim; the mother collects them there. What a job, building a wall of excrement. Worse than diapers. When I first wrote of the perfect, flower-graced nest, the pale blue eggs, the hatching of the tiny pink nestlings, I concentrated on the beauty and wonder of life. I pointed out that the collective noun for a group of finches is a charm.

And charmed I was.

There is nothing charming about that nest now.

The fledglings themselves, of course, are enchanting. They’ll soon be gone, the circle of life will go on, and all that will remain of these magical moments is a monumental mess.

But that’s the story of life. It’s messy. It can’t be comprised solely of breathtaking beauty and newness; if it were, we could not recognize these moments for what they are. They’d lose their value. Only when contrasted with ugliness, hardships, and pain can we see and cherish the beautiful when it comes. We inevitably deal with messes, some that occur naturally, some created by others, some of our own making. Therein lie all the stories . . .

Which makes me think of writing. This nest is a tangible (although I do not wish to touch it) reminder of these commonalities:

-Life is messy.

-Writing is messy.

-Thinking is messy.

-Teaching is messy.

To do any of these well, we have to be willing to accept and even embrace the messiness. We must certainly persevere through it to arrive at the beautiful. It takes courage, stamina, and a lot of hard work, to write well, to think well, to teach well, to live well.

The strength to do so, I believe, lies in believing that the beautiful will come. It’s all a matter of trust, of faith. And pressing on.

Although I was appalled by the quantity of accumulated—um, bird-doo—around the nest, I was also amazed that two of my four little finches could fly. Last night they couldn’t; today they can. Tomorrow the others might.

This is a message to me about readiness.

Everyone arrives as a writer, a thinker, a teacher, a good practitioner of life, in their own time. Lots of messes will be made along the way. Sorting this out is what grows us. One by one, as children, as adults, as long as we live, we are continually growing the necessary wings to fly beyond where we are. And it’s truly a collective, collaborative growth; we are to nudge each other when needed, but not too hard, too soon. We’re not to hold back, to hold one another back, simply because we cannot see all that lies ahead and for fear of navigating the unknown. Knowledge comes by trying. By experiencing. By taking risks. There’s an implicit difference between throwing caution to the wind and taking a leap of faith, that being potential self-destruction versus healthy maturation. These finches know. As the day wears on, I watch the two fledglings that can fly going back and forth from the eaves to the nest, coaching their other two siblings on how to do it. See see see, I hear them cheeping. A bit at a time, a bit at a time. At any moment, those last two are going to get up on that nasty, messy rim and let go.

In more ways than one . . . .

So you make a mess. So what? So you’re alive and growing.

Tomorrow you stretch your newest feathers and find you can move on.

To where the beautiful awaits.

Artifact

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Sometimes I think about the writing process more than I do about what to write. Like the origin of ideas, how the barest glimmering can turn into something substantial and take unforeseen shapes altogether during the writing. A breath of a thing becomes a breathing thing—for inspiration means to breathe in, to breathe life into. When I start writing my glimmer or breath of an idea, as it grows, shifts, and takes on a life of its own, it draws other things to it. When people say, “I don’t know how you manage to see these connections and string them together this way,” all I can say in response is, in the end, all things are connected. If you follow the glimmering threads far enough . . . .

Such was the case in my summer writing workshop for teachers. My co-facilitator asked fellow teacher-writers to bring a personal history artifact, something that holds a story about who we are or about a significant time in our lives.

My “default” artifact is a locket that belonged to my grandmother; her uncle gave it to her in 1930 when she was fifteen. She gave it to me when I was fifteen.

But I’ve already written about that: The locket.

I had trouble choosing another artifact. Why should it be so hard? We’re surrounded by pieces of our personal histories in every room in our homes, in our workplaces, even in our cars, sometimes . . . .

A thought hovered: There’s the cross necklace Daddy gave me at Grannie’s funeral. 

Nearly twenty years old, it still glitters like new, and there’s plenty of symbolism and story wrapped around it, for my father didn’t often give gifts, nor was he expressively religious except for a keen interest in eschatology. That he should give the necklace to me on that occasion (Grannie wasn’t his mother but his mother-in-law) is especially poignant.

I ought to write about that . . . yet, I hesitated.

I know! All those pictures I just had developed—if anything’s personal history, that is! Some years ago I’d gathered all my used rolls of camera film, placed them in a giant Ziploc bag, and promptly forgot about them. I’d finally remembered and had the photos developed (do you know how hard it is now to find a local place that will do this with same or next day service?). In these images, many loved ones who are gone smile at me afresh from decades past. Layer upon layer of stories to tell . . . .

Yes, this is an unusual sort of artifact . . . I definitely need to write about this.

The thing—the idea—certainly had a breath, a glimmer.

But it didn’t seem to be quite ready. I got the feeling that it didn’t want to be written about just yet.

I decided to take both, Daddy’s cross necklace and the old newly-printed photos, and as I prepared to leave the house that morning, another image glimmered in my mind. Rather brightly.

A sand dollar.

I have a few that I found years ago, and while I find them beautiful and compelling, I didn’t really think a sand dollar would be an artifact especially representative of my personal history. But . . . as the glimmering was suddenly there and I’ve learned not to question but to trust . . . I fetched the largest sand dollar, packed it carefully in a box with tissue paper, and took it with me to the workshop.

Guess which artifact I ended up writing about.

Of course.

I found this sand dollar on the beach when walking in the last weeks before my first son was born. There’d been a storm. The sand was still damp, the beach littered with seaweed and shell debris. The sand dollar, however, was whole, which is rare—they’re fragile and I’d never found any here before.

I don’t know why it drew me, just this morning, as a special artifact. It wasn’t something given to me, like Grandma’s locket or Daddy’s cross.

But maybe it was given, from beyond . . . .

I’ve just now recalled that, when I was born, my grandfather gave me twenty silver dollars. He did the same for all of the successive grandchildren. Sand dollar, silver dollar. Wealth of the sea, wealth of the earth. Gifts. Celebration. The coming of children, the next generation, the endowment of hopes and good wishes of those who’ve walked before. Like my younger self on the beach, I am walking the path of generations, I am the bridge between the past and the future. The sand dollar I have in my hand is really a skeleton. It was once a living creature. It’s symbolic of faith and strength despite its fragility and it comes from the ocean, which symbolizes life, continuity . . . .

It occurs to me now that the sand dollar is connected to the other artifacts I considered writing about, Daddy’s cross necklace, given to me unexpectedly at Grannie’s funeral, and the pictures from the old film I just found and had printed. All together they say: These are your life-pieces that endure; you will endure. Oh and I almost forgot that I just had my DNA tested. When I got the results, I marveled at the migratory history of my ancient ancestors, the story of their survival. I hadn’t expected the rush of profound gratitude to all of them for living, that I might be here now. I am here, whole, because they were here. I carry pieces of them within me. 

I found this sand dollar, the skeleton of a living thing, on the beach while walking after a storm, while carrying my firstborn. I walk the path of generations.

We go on.

My co-facilitator’s voice gently broke the hush in the room, we teacher-writers having been immersed in our thoughts, our words, recording on paper:

“Now, how can your artifact drive your teaching of writing?”

I wrote:

My sand dollar can drive my teaching of writing in so many ways. It’s a metaphor for writing:

-Just start walking. Like I did on the beach. Just start writing,

-Until you’re walking, you don’t know what you’ll find.

You’ll have surprises. Rare things will come, if you keep at it.

These gifts are waiting, meant just for you.

I looked at the sand dollar and I know, if it could look back at me, it would have winked.

New life

Baby robins

Baby robins. DanCC BY

Easter morning.

I have a new spring wreath for the front of the house. I should have put it out before now. What’s taken me so long?  

I step out onto the wide front porch, wreath in hand. It’s chilly out here. A light fog hovers;  I shiver in the pre-dawn grayness. The smell and taste of salt from the Bay hangs heavy in the air. I will hurry, as there’s lots to do to be ready for the sunrise service down on the beach. Waking, feeding, and dressing a toddler takes time. Maybe I will wait until after the service to show him his Easter basket . . . 

The old wreath on the front of the house is in terrible shape. I’m ashamed of how it looks, that I’ve left it up for too long. It’s a grapevine with flowers and greenery at the bottom center, behind two white stuffed geese wearing blue bows around their necks. Except that the geese are gray now, speckled, mottled by the elements, and the blue ribbon is faded almost to colorlessness. 

I reach for the old wreath and something dark flies out, startling me so that I drop the new wreath onto the porch floorboards.

A bird. 

I notice, then, the rim of a nest tucked into the wreath’s artificial greenery, behind the stuffed geese. The dry grass of the nest blends in with the bits of fake Spanish moss.

And I hear squeaks.

Standing on my tiptoes to peer into the nest, I see four baby birds. They’re still mostly pink skin, with just the beginnings of dark, downy fuzz. Their wide yellow beaks open.

Mama, feed us. 

I stand, hardly daring to breathe, watching, awed by this new life. How fragile it is. What a precarious place for it to be, for this wreath is attached to the house by just one nail. If it doesn’t hold . . . I cannot bear to think of it.

I retrieve the dropped wreath and step slowly, carefully away. Mama Bird is somewhere nearby, fussing and fretting over the safety of her babies. I will leave them in peace.   

As place my hand on the handle of the old door, I think about this big old house, how long it’s been standing, the storms it’s weathered in a place where storms tend to be more violent due to the proximity to the sea. That it’s a strong shelter, a parsonage provided free to my husband, our little boy, and me. I am going to worry about those baby birds on the front of this house, but I have to believe that the sheltering grace will extend to them, cover them, as it has done for me. 

The sun is just beginning to pierce the fog as I take one last look, as Mama flies back to her own, and Papa Bird shows himself for the first time, landing on the white porch rail by the column, his head cocked, watching me. In the pink light of a new day, I think of the old words: “Behold, I make all things new.”

Doesn’t matter how old, faded, ruined, broken . . . new life begins in the most unexpected ways, in the shabbiest of circumstances. 

Easter morning.

I wipe my tears. I go back inside, new wreath in hand, to my own new life.

Believe

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A writer is first a receiver, open to messages all the time, always watching and listening. A message or image can come at any moment; the writer’s job then becomes How do I interpret this? What meaning shall I attach? How will I shape this notion, this idea, this sense of something, into words to relay it?

The greatest challenge is capturing that first fleeting message before it’s lost; I heard an author say once that “a new idea is fragile thing.”

Sometimes a writer recognizes that an idea is hovering close and just hasn’t landed yet. Some ideas flutter and dart about like hummingbirds for a while. For me this is like Yeah, I know you’re there, Idea, whatever you are. I feel you darting in and out. One of these days I’m going to get ahold of you but right now I am tired of the chase.

So it was on a day that I visited the hair salon. One of my favorite things there is the complimentary coffee bar for clients. As the iCoffee machine whirred and glowed with blue light, illuminating the cup (so mesmerizing), I reached for a napkin.

The napkins here are always pretty, often seasonal. A lot of thought on someone’s part clearly goes into the napkin choices, no detail being too small or insignificant in creating a pleasant experience.

This napkin was a message.

You saw it yourself, at the top of this post—that’s a picture of the napkin.

Coffee momentarily forgotten, I stood there thinking, I’ll write about this. Somehow . . . 

Yesterday I told someone: “When an image comes to you, Writer, use it!”

Today I return to the napkin, thinking. I finally decide to Google the phrase printed on it, suspecting that it’s connected to an author out there somewhere.

Aha. The quote seems to have come from Patrick Overton’s book of poems entitled The leaning tree: 

“When you come to the edge of all of the light you’ve known, and are about to step off into the darkness of the unknown; faith is knowing one of two things will happen. You’ll have something solid to stand on, or you’ll be taught how to fly.”

The idea is so near now that I can feel its wings beating against my soul

Believe. Believe. Believe.

Like the beating of a heart.

I wonder what word would remain if the napkin were tossed outside, trampled on, battered by wind and rain. What the last surviving word would be.

Maybe faith.

Maybe believing.

Maybe fly.

For the napkin in my hand is ephemeral, meant to be thrown away.

Faith, believing, and fly — hear the wings, feel the breeze stirred by their rustling? — are eternal.

Oh, wait—there’s one tiny word there on the napkin, there on the butterfly—how could I have almost missed it?

Blessed.

Thank You, I whisper at last.

And I write.

To love that well

Drema Gaye Spencer

Drema Gaye Spencer. Her first name means “reverie,” or dream. Her middle name, “merry, lighthearted.” Her surname is Old English for “guardian,” “object of awe,” “dispenser of provisions.”

She stands on the precipice between childhood and womanhood, facing the camera directly, her hooded eyes steady and confident. She does not know it yet, but she will be like the mountains framing her background, where she and her seven siblings loved to run, calling to each other across the distance, teasing, playing jokes, laughing with wild abandon at their own mischievous humor. As intense pressure, heat, and time formed the ancient Appalachian coalfields, so the course of her life would forge an internal fuel, the deep, burning drive to keep going under the weight of crushing adversity.

It’s the early 1940s. World War II is in full swing; her three brothers have enlisted in the Navy. The family has survived the Great Depression in the place it struck the hardest, where the economy has always been precarious. When she arrived with the January snows of 1926, her coal miner father hadn’t had steady work in a year due to frequent safety shutdowns; the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health Safety and Training references nearly 700 fatalities for 1925.

She’s just a teenager with a head full of dreams for the future.

Maybe she could teach English literature and composition—What fun that would be! Maybe I’ll even visit England one day.

Innately musical, singing harmony with her sisters in church, she also harbors aspirations for the stage. She knows she has true dramatic and comic talent, which, along with her natural beauty, lands her roles in high school plays. Her blue eyes sparkle: Well, I AM a good actress. Very good. Eventually, of course, I’ll get married and have children. I do want children . . . Sometimes she can almost see their little faces, these someday-children. I hope one’s a boy with brown eyes.

So she looks at the camera and smiles, the mountain beneath her feet, her childhood behind her and her whole future lying ahead.

But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

-William Butler Yeats

The reality is that just a few years after this photo was made, she married a man who would be killed in a mining accident, leaving her with a toddler and a baby at twenty-three.

Several years afterward, she married a widower, an Army man with two older children. Eventually they had a boy and a girl together.

Her boy with brown eyes.

When her husband completed tours of duty in Korea and Vietnam, she cared for the six children by herself.

When the brown-eyed boy was four, he developed acute bronchitis, necessitating an emergency tracheotomy. His temperature spiked to 107 after surgery. The nurses packed the child in ice. The hospital doctors told her that her little son might not make it. She sent for his father, away at Army summer camp; a police escort was dispatched to meet him at the airport. As the boy drifted in and out of consciousness, she sat by his oxygen tent, praying, weeping.

The boy survived.

She wrote him a letter on the inside back cover of a book of Bible stories.

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

She could never speak of the ordeal without tears.

Staggering losses were yet to come.

When the brown-eyed boy was twelve and his sister nine, and all the others grown and on their own, her Army man died suddenly, instantly, with a heart attack.

Widowed twice—each time with a boy and girl at home to care for.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

-I Corinthians 13:7

When her sobbing son asked, “Who’s going to take care of us now?” she wrapped him in her arms.

“God will. And I will.”

And she did.

Survival ran in her veins like coal beds through the Appalachians. She dug deep within herself, tapping into the hardy DNA passed down by her ancestors, into the wellspring of her faith, into the fierce love for her children, and carried on. When her son was consumed with fear of something happening to her, she said:

“I have prayed and prayed that nothing will happen to me until you’re grown. And I am convinced that God will allow it.”

For the next ten years, she poured herself into her children and her home.

Still she laughed. Still she sang. She called her brothers and sisters, who still teased each other with jokes old and new. She gardened. She arranged flowers. She organized a women’s political group, taught Sunday School, went to her son’s basketball games all through high school.

She managed, and managed well.

When her son said he found the girl he wanted to marry, she gave him her blessing and the diamond engagement ring that his father, the Army man, had given her.

The brown-eyed boy—now the man—gave the ring to me on my twentieth birthday, long, long ago.

For the boy who lived (apologies, J.K. Rowling) is my husband; the woman in the photograph is my mother-in-law.

When I came to know her, I first admired her elegant, impeccably-kept house, which she was forever redecorating. And the food, the food, oh, the food! Her table always looked like something from Southern Living, down to the coordinating linen napkins and rings. Her iced tea was always blissfully sweet and there must always, always be lemon slices with it. I came to appreciate her ever-present wit, her spunky humor, her fashionable attire. Being well-put together was a priority to her. I browsed her bookcases on every visit, knowing she’d have a new bestseller for me to devour. I was instantly at home in her home.

When she was sixty years old, a third man proposed to her. She hesitated. “I’ve buried two husbands. I don’t want to bury a third.”

But he was a good man; she took a chance on him. For the next three decades, they celebrated the coming of grandchildren and the first great-grandchildren.

Three years ago, she was widowed for the third time.

There were no children at home to care for now.

She was, for the first time in her nine decades, alone.

With housekeeping being too much for her, it was time to go to the home of one of the children or to assisted living.

And her genes, or her Appalachian roots, or the rising dementia—or all three—kicked into overdrive.

She would not go.

The house had become her whole identity. It was where she’d provided for the last of her children. It symbolized her strength, her ability to survive. This was her mountain; she would not be moved. She dug in her heels. Deep.

Until the stroke.

After surgery, when her family was allowed to see her in intensive care, she greeted us with a smile. “I can’t believe I’ve had a stroke! Can you believe it?” she said, as if she were sitting in the den at home, making everyday conversation, even as the nurses watched her monitors. Blue eyes sparkling as bright as ever, she reached out her warm hand to grasp mine. “Hey, you’ve got a birthday coming up. We’ll have to celebrate.”

I held her hand, marveling.

She rebounded for a short while, working hard at her rehab, thinking she could go back home. She couldn’t. She went into a nursing home instead, for, as the weeks wore on, her strength waned.

So did her mind.

The one thing that waxed bright and hot was her fighting spirit. She grew more determined to go home, even as she grew weaker, less hungry, more and more tired.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

-Dylan Thomas

She raged. She burned within like a coal seam fire, until her energy was spent at last.

Lying in her nursing home bed, she stood on the mountains again, seeing her brothers and sisters in the distance. She called their names over and over—only the ones who’d already died. She carried on conversations with them.

“I can’t go on up,” she told these siblings that the rest of us couldn’t see. “Not just yet.”

She knew us, called us by name when we last gathered with her, at Thanksgiving. Within the hour, she couldn’t recall who we were, or why we were there.

Still she sang.

There is coming a day, when no heartaches shall come

No more clouds in the sky

No more tears to dim the eye

All is peace forevermore

On that happy golden shore

What a day, glorious day, that will be . . . .

“My throat hurts,” she said. “I can’t sing any more.”

“It’s okay,” said her children. “You don’t have to.”

They moistened her lips and mouth with water.

And still she sang.

If we never meet again this side of heaven

I will meet you on that beautiful shore.

And then she sang no more.

She rested a while, then, with her eyes closed, turned her face toward her brown-eyed son, my husband.

“Where do you live?” she asked.

“North Carolina,” he replied, smiling through his tears.

“Oh, my son lives there,” she said.

“Yes. I am your son.”

She opened her eyes the tiniest slit. “Well. You’re all grown up.”

It was the last thing she said to him.

I have prayed and prayed that nothing will happen to me until you’re grown. And I am convinced that God will allow it.

A few days later, my husband, his younger sister, and my son, the youngest grandchild, sat by her bedside all morning, watching her labored breaths. Finally they told her, “We’re going to go eat lunch, Mom, but we’ll be right back.”

The minute they finished eating, the nurses called. “The time is near.”

They came. They took her hands.

She took two labored breaths, and was gone.

She’d waited for them to have their lunch. To the very last, making sure her children had what they needed.

She never taught school.

She was never an actress of renown.

She never made it to England.

She lived one of the most extraordinary lives I’ve ever known.

The diamond on my finger shines as bright as it ever did; I can only hope that a portion of her strength, her courage, her wisdom has passed on to me along with it.

I look at her teenage photo, contemplating all that she will endure.

All that she did endure, and need endure no more.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
-Shakespeare, Sonnet 73

She loved as deep, as far, as long as she possibly could, with every ounce of her being. That is what I will remember most, her fierce, fierce love. It burns on, and on, and on, bright and warm, forevermore.

The song

Grandma's organ

I love Granddaddy’s and Grandma’s apartment. The walls are knotty pine and the floors are made of a different wood; they shine under Grandma’s braided rugs.  There’s a booth curving around a table in one corner. It makes me think of the ice cream shop where we sometimes go for milkshakes. This booth is where Granddaddy, Grandma and I eat supper. Sometimes we have jelly doughnuts or apple turnovers for dessert; Grandma is very fond of apple turnovers and so I am I. There’s an odd, glass-less window between the bedroom and the “front room,” as Grandma calls it. I call it the living room. Grandma has curtains on this weird window and I can remember, dimly, my aunt holding me in her arms on one side as Grandma pulled the curtains apart on the other, crying “PEEK-A-BOO!” We all dissolved with laughter. A fancy ashtray with a curved handle that’s either a ram or a goat – some horned, leaping  animal – stands on a tall, thin pedestal beside my grandfather’s worn leather recliner, but no one ever smokes here.

Many wonders exist in this cozy place, but one of the prettiest is Grandma’s organ.

It’s made of polished wood, with curved legs. It stands gracefully against the front room wall, under shelves of family mementos and photographs.

Grandma knows how to play it. She has a piano down home in the country, but it was too big to bring to the apartment. When Granddaddy went to work at the shipyard during the War, my grandmother had to leave her piano behind. So, he bought her this organ one Christmas. 

He knew how much she loved to play.

One afternoon she says, “I will teach you.”

I am nervous and excited at the same time – I have never touched this organ.

Grandma opens the top. She lowers the little stand that holds a book. She has a booklet of hymns and one of Christmas songs; she places the Christmas book on the stand.

“Watch and listen,” she says, her blue eyes soft and bright. “This is my favorite.”

She plays “Silent Night.”

She sings, and I know the song. I sing some of the words with her:

Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.

“Now it’s your turn,” she says.”See these numbers? That’s what you play with your right hand. These circles with letters are the chords – you play the buttons with your left hand.”

She takes my hands in her own. 

5,6,5,3 – Si – i -lent night

5,6,5,3 – ho – o -ly night

She puts my fingers on the right keys, pressing the white “C” major button until we switch – gracious! – to “G” and “F.”

I am very slow – it seems a lot to do at one time.

But Grandma guides me, and soon I have played a song.

A whole song.

“Now try it on your own,” she says.

I labor. My keys and my chords are not exactly in sync, but I play. I am playing the song by myself!

Grandma sings behind me. Her voice carries me on.

She hugs me when I finish; I smell her Avon Cachet cream, light and clean.

Her eyes glisten with tears, but she’s smiling.

It was the first of many lessons I’d learn from my grandmother. In those days before I started school, I thought the white major buttons sounded like a wedding; all the minor and diminished buttons sounded like something in haunted houses.

Pretty much the theme music of life – celebrations and dark, mysterious moments. Sometimes I would play the buttons by themselves, listening to the happiness and strangeness of the chords.

I made my own stories out of these sounds.

I realized, decades later, the legacy my grandmother left me: There was always a song of hope and faith in the heart to carry me through the darkest times. That being a wife and mother often meant sacrifice. She was the quintessential teacher, without being formally trained – my foray into the music she loved followed the perfect I do, we do, you do pattern.  She guided my fingers on the keys, my feet on the path, my heart on the things that matter most.

Above all, she believed in me.

There’s no greater gift to a child.

When I was in the sixth grade, I was invited to attend a summer program for gifted students in writing, drama, and photography.

My father couldn’t afford the fee.

Grandma paid it. “Children need to have a chance to do things that matter to them,” she said, with a startling ferocity.

Much later I learned that she wanted to take piano lessons when she was in her early teens and that her family couldn’t afford them during the Depression. A young minister’s wife, however, taught my grandmother how to play.

In everything I do, she’s still there behind me, singing, urging me on, never far away. She is gone, yet she isn’t; her song sings in my soul, in time with the beating of my heart. I am who I am because of her.

Today my youngest son – a college student and music minister – plays her piano and sings the old songs. Her organ stands in my foyer – the first thing that people see when they come to my home.

Her legacy lives, from generation to generation.

I often think how thrilled she’d be to hear my boy’s beautiful playing and singing. “Oh, how my Grandma would love to hear this,” I tell him.

Even as I say the words, I know she knows.