Happy St. Patrick’s

Happy St Pat's

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Hailey E. HerreraCC BY

Last year on this day, I wrote about being St. Patrick’s granddaughter.

My grandfather, born in 1906 in the far reaches of Beaufort County, North Carolina, was named Columbus St. Patrick. (Read the post if you like).

You’d think our family would be Catholic, celebrating this day with the best of them, but we aren’t and we don’t. What a mystery, his having that name. Legend has it that his grandfather came to America from Ireland, but records are sketchy. One of these days I’ll have my DNA tested by Ancestry.com to prove how green my blood really is (it’s metaphorical, Mr. Spock. Although being related to you would be . . . fascinating).

I love Irish things. My wedding band bears a Claddagh. Hearing an Irish tenor takes my breath, stirs my soul, fills me with an ache, a longing. Whenever I visit New York City, I have to stop by St. Patrick’s Cathedral; I could stay inside indefinitely, savoring the profound beauty, the grandeur, the reverent hush. It’s one of my all-time favorite places. I adored Frank McCourt and met him years ago when he came to speak at North Carolina State University—it was snowing that night. Magical. I have a shamrock growing in a pot on my kitchen table and I even had an Irish Setter once. His name was Dublin. I grew up eating Irish potatoes grown by my grandfather or from the potato sheds of his farming community; Granddaddy’s pronunciation was ishe (for years I thought he was saying ice) potatoes. I’d love to visit Ireland.

I thought, to commemorate this day, that I’d post a lovely quote from St. Patrick and reflect upon it, maybe in verse.

This, however, is the quote I found, and for the life of me (remember the Irish keen sense of humor), I can’t find another one to top it at present.

So, Happy St. Patrick’s Day, one and all—with a special nod to Harry Potter fans:

Do you suppose it’s true, that St. Patrick was a Parselmouth, and his Muggle friends never knew?

~David J. Beard (1947–2016), tweet, 2012 March 17th

saintpatrick

 

Twilight’s gleaming

Twilight Zone

Rod Serling – Twilight Zone Button. Tony AlterCC BY

“It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.” 

– Season One opening narration, The Twilight Zone television series (1959-1964)

What’s your Fourth of July tradition, fellow Americans?

For my family, it’s watching The Twilight Zone marathon on Syfy.

I have to ask myself: Why do I love this series? Why is it so addictive? After all, special effects have advanced light-years since these shows were filmed; some of the outer space/alien/futuristic costumes and settings are primitive, even laughable. Rod Serling, garbed in dress jacket and skinny tie, strolls out of inconspicuous places – other rooms in houses, offices, or even the woods – to comment on the rising action and the characters,  occasionally smoking a cigarette in true ’60s vogue.

Part of the fun is seeing famous people when they were heartrendingly young, when their stars were still on the rise: Carol Burnett, Telly Savalas, Elizabeth Montgomery, William Shatner (THE Captain Kirk, before the inception of Star Trek). There’s Burgess Meredith, the best of the best character actors, Mickey Rooney beautifully playing an angry drunk. The furniture and props in many episodes, some fashionably chic, some commonplace, are now vintage, nostalgic slices of a bygone era. Something must also be said for the show’s camera work, the strategic zooms, the compelling close-ups. In truth, between some captivating characterizations and the cinematography, there’s a great bit of artistry in The Twlight Zone.

But all that’s just part of it. What really draws the viewer, ultimately, is the story.

The Twilight Zone breaks the dimensions of time and space, to be sure – it takes us away from Earth, brings us to an Earth we don’t recognize, allows us to step into the past and sometimes into a future that isn’t future anymore (I just saw a calendar on the wall of a restaurant in  one futuristic episode: 1974. Geez.). Statues come to life;  a warm, vibrant grandmother is really a custom robot; dolls talk, wreaking havoc and destruction. People down on their luck find good fortune; people lose fortunes; people are at the mercy of forces greater than themselves; people possess supernatural powers that are often abused or taken advantage of by others.

The most haunting thing about The Twilight Zone isn’t the supernatural, however. It’s the journey within, the recognition of the worst parts of ourselves. Selfishness and greed are common themes, with catastrophic consequences – not that the Zone is didactic. In the spirit of the best short stories, with O. Henry-esque twists at the end, The Twilight Zone follows the dark convolutions of the human psyche. Endings are intriguing, but not always happy.

My favorite episode is “A Stop at Willoughby.” A man is locked into a job he hates by a demanding, socialite wife; a hardcore boss berates him for his ineptitude and lack of drive. He’s miserable; he can’t please anyone, least of all himself. On the train commute between home and work, he falls asleep and dreams of a stop that isn’t on the line – a back-in-time place, where women carry parasols and children go fishing and men ride penny-farthing bicycles (the ones with the huge front wheel). The vision of this place, Willoughby, is so real and inviting that the man thinks about getting off there in his dream.  He wakes to the ongoing pressures of his life, but yearns more and more for the slower, contented pace of Willoughby. His wife mocks him for wanting to be Huckleberry Finn, then turns her back on him just as he caves from the pressures at work. On the train, he dreams of Willoughby once more, and this time he gets off, where the townspeople greet him cheerfully by name, as if they’ve always known him, as if he belongs there.

The story doesn’t quite end here; there’s a final scene with a big final twist, but I would be the ultimate spoiler if I told it here. The episode – all the episodes – are meant to be experiences for the viewer. Here’s part of the closing narration: “Willoughby? Whatever it is, it comes with sunlight and serenity and is part of The Twilight Zone.”

Perhaps that’s the pull of the Zone – that beyond the darkness, horror, oppression, bad choices, fears, the worst of humanity, there lies something better, that’s worth the pain of overcoming. Where morbid fascinations, bystander mentalities, selfish desires and regrets melt away. A place of healing, of peace, of freedom – where the best of humanity thrives, has a voice that’s heard. It’s not a place to be merely maintained, but is always being actively created.

What does that sound like to you? What would a Magic 8-Ball say?

Utopia? Very doubtful.

America? Most likely.

The Twilight Zone? Yes definitely.

So celebrate.

Cherish. Savor. Digest. Mull.

Not just food, but your tradition, your story. Yours as well as others’.

And see beyond.

 

Tripping the write fantastic

Fantasy

Fill your life with love. Dianne LacourciereCC BY-SA

Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable. – Carl Jung

Her teacher sent her to me, to confer about her writing.

Not because the student is struggling.

The student, a fifth-grader, had written twenty pages of complex plot and extraordinary dialogue that revealed character personality and motivation.

“It’s amazing,” explained my colleague. “Out of the blue, she’s just taken off. I thought you could give her some pointers – her story is really good.”

The student, delighted at the prospect, immediately sent her work to me via Google Docs. Here are things I am thinking about, her message stated. She’d made notes about characters, problems with the story line, where she wanted to go with certain parts.

For a moment I felt transported to the future, as if I were an agent or editor receiving book ideas from an established author.

I read the work, praising the strength of the writing on sticky notes: Powerful, believable dialogue! and Excellent descriptive detail – I can “see” this scene vividly.

I looked for a couple of major areas to improve – only a couple – and they had nothing to to with spelling, format, or conventions at this point. The pressing thing at the moment was keeping those rich ideas flowing and clarifying this young writer’s meaning in some spots.

The child, beaming, comes to confer with me at the appointed time.

I sit beside her at my table:

“Ok, I have to know what inspired you. Clearly anyone who writes this much and this well – this dialogue is better than what I’ve seen some adults write! – is very inspired.”

Giggles ensue. “Well, it started with the fantasy writing unit in class. I got this idea of a girl who went back in time to the days of slavery. I am bad at history” – more giggles – “but that time period interests me, especially since my teacher read Chains to the class. That book made me want to go back in time and rescue some of those people, so that is what my main character will do. And she will meet her great-great-great grandmother.”

“That,” I say reverently, “is a story a lot of people might like to read.”

She goes on to share additional ideas that she got from other books like Serafina and the Black Cloak. 

As she speaks, I mentally toast the power of the read-aloud and student-selected texts.

To the student, I say: “Let’s go over what you’ve done here.”

I explain that switching narrators and times is using multiple story lines – “very advanced,” I tell her.

She grins.

I show her places where she lost me: “This is called a plot hole. You know what’s in your head and what you mean to say, but you jumped too fast and lost your reader.”

She nods. “Yes, I see that now.” We discuss ways she might want to fix it.

Off she goes.

That night, the Google Doc returns with revisions and questions.

Today she appears in my room, announcing: “I rewrote the entire first chapter. I felt that readers needed to know a little more about my main character’s life and her family in order to get the rest of the story.”

“Ah,” I reply, “exposition and backstory. That will help your readers.”

We look at the changes together.

“What we have to watch now is your pacing. Don’t spend too long on the beginning or you’ll lose readers – they want to know where this is going, so you want to speed up the less important parts and slow down at the more important ones.”

“And watch for plot holes,” she laughs.

“Indeed,” I smile.

Her ideas come fast and furious, and before we know it, time is up. As she turns to leave, she asks: “When is the next time we can meet?”

My turn to laugh. “Ask your teacher.”

At the end of the day, I return to my room to find a folded paper on my table – a schedule for when she can confer with me every day through the rest of the year.

I think of J.K. Rowling, who said that the idea of a boy wizard fell into her head on a train ride, when she had nothing to write on.

I think of C.S. Lewis, how an image of a faun carrying Christmas presents in the snow popped into his mind.

I think of Suzanne Collins, who grew up on her father’s stories about the effects of war.

I think of my young writer’s inspiration, and how fantasy and fairy tales help us work through the problems of the real world.

I recall telling my young writer: “Stick with it. You will be a famous author one day. I’ll come to your book signings.”

Giggling, she’d replied: “And you will be my famous helper.”

I look at the little conferring schedule in her handwriting, and smile.

We are tripping the write fantastic, she and I.

 

slice-of-life_individual

 

My book bag

Bookbag

Everywhere I go, my customized book bag is a topic of conversation.

First of all, it’s literally a BOOK bag, sending the message “I’m a reader.”

Then people realize what the “book” is about. A play on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, my book bag bears the title “Magical Worlds and Where to Find Them.”

Opening a book, for me, is akin to Newt Scamander opening his suitcase – we step in and walk through magically expanded worlds. Whatever the book, it’s a passport to the minds and souls of other people, where I find myself reflected not always as a writer or thinker but as a fellow human being on the common, complex journey of life.

That’s the message I want to send to my young students, who are frequently in raptures over my book bag: Read. Expand your world, your mind.

My book bag actually sends more than one message:

Bookbag spine

It’s an homage to my favorite fantasy writers and the worlds they created, old and new.

Much is written and debated, perhaps, on the importance of reading fantasy. Here’s a favorite quote on the subject:

The problem with people who are afraid of imagination, of fantasy, is that their world becomes so narrow that I don’t see how they can imagine beyond what their senses can verify. We know from science that there are entire worlds that our senses can’t verify. 
-Katherine Paterson

The magic is a draw, certainly – in regard to Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, who wouldn’t want to experience singing stars and merfolk, a centaur, talking animals? Who wouldn’t want a chance to feel the tingle of the box of dust from the lost island of Atlantis and ride on the back of a huge owl? Truth is, the bigger, deeper exploration is not the mysteries of the magical world but the real workings of the human heart – we read fantasy to escape our world, to live in another for a time, and all the while we’re looking into a mirror. This is where our thinking truly broadens – in understanding self, then in pushing the parameters of possibility.

Dr. Seuss said:

Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.  

The lines between the fantasy stories we love best and the world we live in are much blurrier than we realize. It’s where the impossible and possible merge – who’s to say where all the boundaries really are?

Which is fun, sometimes even comforting, to think about.

So everywhere I go, I carry a little fantasy, a little magic, with me.

Via my book bag – a messenger bag, indeed.

Bookbag back

slice-of-life_individual

Lighting the way

Lumos

Yesterday a fifth-grader caught me in the hallway:

“Mrs. Haley, do you have a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in your room?”

 “I have two copies. Ask your teacher if you can walk with me to get one.”

He did. As we walked, I said, “The Chamber of Secrets is a great book. I enjoyed it more than The Sorcerer’s Stone.”

“Yeah, I haven’t read Chamber of Secrets. I saw the movie and my favorite part is when Harry gets the cloak of invisibility and finds that mirror where he sees his family.”

“Ah, the Mirror of Erised … I just read that aloud to two classes at another school last week while they were studying fantasy.”

In that chapter, Harry receives the cloak of invisibility at Christmas with an anonymous note explaining that it had belonged to his father; he is admonished to “use it well.” He sneaks around Hogwarts, hidden by the cloak, and ends up in a remote, off-limits part of the building in what appears to be a storage room. He finds a large, ornate mirror. Erised backwards is desire – looking in the Mirror of Erised shows a person the deepest desires of his or her heart. Harry’s family is dead; he desperately wishes he could have known them. He is transfixed by their images in the mirror – they wave at him, and his mother wipes away her tears as she smiles at Harry.

I think, as I rummage through my basket of Potter books, Fascinating how it’s the humanity that draws us, more than the magic. 

“Here you, go,” I say to the student. “The Chamber of Secrets.”

His face lights up when I place it in his hands. “Thanks, Mrs. Haley!”

“Read it well,” I call after him, as he walks away, flipping pages.

I look around my room, my own chamber decorated with Potter memorabilia that draws children from across grade levels. They love to drop by to show me their owl collections, to ask if I’ve read The Cursed Child, to share anything Harry Potter that they’ve recently acquired. The Harry Potter club meets here twice a month, students from third through fifth grades, and we talk so much more about what motivates the characters than the magic they employ.

My Lumos glass box gleams in the corner by the doorway. I think of all the times that teachers might wish we had magic wands to show us everything the kids need, to fix all that needs fixing. I recall J.K. Rowling’s quote from her 2008 Harvard speech, now connected to her Lumos charity on behalf of children:

“We do not need magic to transform the world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already.”

It’s apparent whenever I read with the kids, whenever the Potter club meets and someone has an epiphany about a character, whenever I walk into a classroom to write with students and teachers. The essence of teaching, of reading, of writing more than anything else, is the connection of human minds and hearts. It’s all part of same story, the triumph of the human spirit. Teach it, read it, write it well – tap into all you’ve known, all you’ve loved, all you’re wrestling with, and watch their faces.

It’s all inside you. Light the way.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

 

 

 

My Patronus

As a headmistress and co-founder of my school’s Harry Potter Club, I was recently admonished to take the Pottermore Patronus quiz, as all other Patronus quizzes are essentially heresy. I approached the task with a bit of trepidation, having heard of people attaining aardvarks and the like.

For the non-Potterite: The Patronus charm produces a silvery animal guardian, usually representative of the individual casting it.

Being a fantasy fan since childhood, and considering my headmistress role, it was necessary: I plunged into the virtual dark forest to seek my symbolic protector. On the site, ghostly words appear in groups of three amongst the trees; the seeker chooses one and is moved onto the next set. At one point in this quest, when I paused too long, the words evaporated with a reprimand: “You are too slow. This game requires quick reflexes.” Silently chiding myself for overthinking simple word choices, certain that this blunder would land me with an armadillo or caterpillar, I picked up my pace. At last, in the ominous forest, a silvery shape materialized.

A white mare.

Beautiful and powerful, my white mare galloped through the forest, luminous against the darkness. Enchanting.

My next quest, naturally, was looking up the symbolism.

From various sites, the synthesis is that a white horse represents wisdom, power, loyalty, heroism, nobility, victory – encouraging, yes, but also inversely raising an intrinsic, lofty bar: am I worthy of the white mare? Do I deserve her? Never mind the fact that I gained her by playing a game with an end product based solely on word choices, not short answers or soul-searching responses. The writer in me delves deep into the metaphorical.

I already knew that white horses can symbolize death or the end of the world. They are considered psychopomps, creatures that guide human spirits on their journey from Earth to the afterlife.

As I pondered these connections, my Patronus suddenly conjured up road trips with my father and sister. Three hours is an eternity to young children cooped in a car, so to pass the time, Daddy taught us a game he played as a child:

“When we go by any horses, if they’re on your side of the street, you get a point for each horse. If you have a white horse on your side, it’s worth ten points, because you don’t see many of those.”

My sister and I instantly glued our faces to our respective windows, for we’d been by these random pastures before. We’d often seen horses grazing, strolling, sometimes galloping. I was sure – I just knew – I’d get a white horse. Maybe more than one!

“The thing is,” Daddy continued, “if we pass a graveyard, and it’s on your side of the street, you lose all your horses.”

So we played the game. My sister and I gained horses with glee, then lost them with loud groans, without realizing that one of us would win on the journey to the destination and the other would win on the return trip.

Daddy drove on in peace, smiling to himself.

How many horses I won and lost, I’m not sure, nor do I recall how many were white, only that they were there by the wayside on a long, tiresome journey. Those white horses are obscured by time now, very dim, but still real, ever more priceless, in my misty memory.

Enchanting, indeed, that one should reappear as my guardian after so many years, and that I should have gained it in a game venue that didn’t exist when I was a child.

Daddy, I think, would be pleased. Perhaps he is, from his place on the other side.

Reflect: What creature might symbolize you, and why? I’ve often played a game with students, challenging them to think of an animal that begins with the first letter of their first names (I’ve always chosen fawn in these scenarios – perhaps I should change it to foal?). No two can be the same, so each student ends up with a unique animal and has to think of ways the animal might represent them or their lives. Think – and write.