Stream of social consciousness

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Ray of light. KumweniCC BY

Sunlight. Blinding. Hotter than I expect after a week ensconced deep in the techno-bowels of the hospital. The netherworld. A parallel universe of tiny details and proportions. I remember a book where characters forgot the sun, were told it didn’t exist, that it was something they’d imagined, but I can’t think about that now, I have to get my husband—so uncharacteristically frail and fragile—out of this blazing reality and into the doctor’s office.

—Just wait there by your side of the car, I am coming, I’m coming. . . . Hold my arm, take your time across the sidewalk. I know every step hurts. I’ve got the door. Lovely waiting room, isn’t it. Near-empty. Relief. Maybe the wait will not be long and we can go home. He can rest. Except that he can’t rest. Cardiac arrest isn’t as brutal as being resuscitated. There’s a painful price for being brought back to life . . . .

—Sit here. I’ll check in. Two women behind the counter, working on computers. The woman on the left reminds me of someone but the one on the right is asking a question. My husband. He was released from the hospital two days ago. We were told to follow up with his regular doctor within seven days, thanks for getting us in. This woman on the right nods her head. Her hair is very black, long, pulled back. Over her shoulder on the wall is a sketch of the Buddha with the words GOOD VIBES.  

Our chairs face the TV. El Paso. A woman seated across the room by the windows, sunlight streaming in around her, looks at us: When will it stop. 

The woman at the counter, on the left: It’s racism. Clear, emphatic voice. I know who she reminds me of, now. Queen Latifah. Yes. Same face and eyes, shoulder-length hair. Younger. Less celebrity-ish but exuding confidence. She continues: This country . . . .

The girl next to the woman in the waiting room shifts in her seat. Must be her daughter. Pretty girl, hair in a soft bob of loose curls. Poised. Hard to say how old. Sixteen, seventeen? They’re the only other people waiting. 

My husband:  It’s white guys committing these mass shootings . . . .

Woman across the room (nodding): Yeah, they’re not black. We just shoot each other.

Queen Latifah look-alike: People don’t realize I am half black and half white. My birth certificate says Caucasian. My son is a lot darker and we can tell you plenty of stories about the different ways we’re treated . . . people don’t always know they’re doing it.

Me: Implicit bias. It takes a lot to go that deep in yourself, to see it. 

Queen L look-alike: Exactly. It’s part of you, how you’re raised . . . .

The woman on the left with the Buddha over her shoulder on the wall hasn’t looked up nor said a word this whole time and I am thinking, in the end aren’t we all shades of each other, don’t we all bleed red, doesn’t it all flow from the same source if we trace it far enough back? My own largely Northwestern European  DNA carries a fragment of Nigeria from generations ago, a story I long to know. Human genetics shows we’re all descended from one woman in East Africa. Mitochondrial Eve. “The mother of all living.” Genesis 3:20.  My husband, a minister, is olive-skinned, a tiny percent Native American, although he’s awfully pale at present and the underside of both his arms is bruised solid black. We all bruise the same . . . .

The woman who reminds me of Queen L is speaking about needed changes and education, referencing a county nearby with a racist reputation; the woman across the rooms tells the story of her daughter’s car breaking down there, how her phone battery was dead, how she walked to a store at the crossroads and the white workers wouldn’t let her use their phones.

—What did you do? I ask the girl.

—I got back in the car and left it running, I charged my phone enough to call my mom, and I prayed.

—I prayed, too, chimed her mom, the whole way there. Not that county. Not that county.

I listen, heartsick. I do not say it but “that county” happens to be where my Grannie was raised. My Grannie, who took me to a store to buy a doll when I was really little. When I picked a black doll, she bought it for me. In the late 1960s. A white woman from “that county” . . . suddenly the girl’s mother smiles: But there are still good people everywhere. Thank God.

The front door opens. A man enters. He’s huge. Like an NFL player. Gripped in his big brown hand is a clear plastic jug of water; it gleams in a shaft of sunlight and I think Water of Life as another door from the medical side opens and a small man, black hair in a man bun, comes into the waiting area to greet him with a Spanish accent. They’re workers of some kind, dressed in similar gray shirts, khaki pants. They embrace each other and my mind is too weary anymore to wonder why, what the story is. I just marvel. This is how the world should be, like it is in this room, right now. Brotherly love, one human for another, kindred spirits. United in a common purpose. Heaven must be something like this.

As the men vanish (for I don’t notice how or where), the quiet woman on the left at the counter calls the lady and her daughter up. They’re finished with whatever it is for which they came. They’re free to go. The woman comes over to us on her way to the door: It is very nice meeting you. I wish you the best. My daughter, she’s going to college.

My husband reaches his hand, his bruised arm, out to her: It’s a pleasure.

She shakes his hand. There’s only one thing I know to do. I stand and hug the woman. Her embrace is warm, tight. Genuine. Her daughter stands by, smiling, so I hug her, too. She feels small in my arms. —All the best to you, too. One day I will see you on TV and you’ll be helping to fix all these things and I will remember that I saw you here.

Her smile widens. So radiant. —Maybe so.

I watch her go with a pang of hope, bright as the sunlight, when my husband’s name is called to check the progress of his repaired, restarted heart.

So much pain, yes.

Gonna be a long, long process.

But healing.

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.”

Power of three

The title of this post might have you wondering if it’s about a mnemonic aid or a literary device (also known as “Rule of Three”). Perhaps you envisioned triangles — the strongest geometrical shape in the context of civil engineering and architecture — or the algebraic exponent, as in “to the third power,” i.e., cubed.  Or maybe even the Trinity.

But today I am pondering the power of three as it relates to the human brain, words, and reading.

As inspired by a little person who’s been staying with me each day for a few weeks this summer.

She is three years old.

Her mom and my son, who’s a newcomer in their lives, read to her each night.

So each day, as she settles for a nap, I read to her from an assortment of books I keep in baskets here at home. Some of these I bought just for her. Most are from my personal collection at school, a few are old favorites of my sons, and a couple I salvaged from stacks discarded by teacher colleagues who considered them too outdated (a worthy topic for a later post . . .).

And each day, of her own volition, my new little girl picks the same three books: Curious George Goes to the Hospital, A Bad Case of Stripes, and Green Eggs and Ham.

That is the exact order in which she insists they be read each day.

I think of myriad things while reading this rather motley selection to my rapt little listener. Two of the books have been in print for over half a century. Their illustrations are simple. The the third has elaborate illustrations and a story that might be deemed too strange or “above” a preschooler’s interest and capability to understand. While she examines various books throughout the day, poring over pictures on many pages, it’s always these three books she clutches in her arms as she climbs into bed for nap. I am reminded, yet again, of the inestimable power of reading aloud, rereading, and familiarity. And of choice. 

I also think about the impact of language on a child’s developing brain. It just so happens that a book in the stack of my own summer reading is Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, in which the author (cochlear implant surgeon Dana Suskind) writes: “By the end of age three, the human brain, including its one hundred billion neurons, has completed about 85 percent of its physical growth, a significant part of the foundation for all thinking and learning. The development of that brain, science shows us, is absolutely related to the language development of the young child. This does not mean that the brain stops developing after three years, but it does emphasize that those years are critical” — because the neural pathways for language are being created  only in that window. As a literacy educator, I mull the importance of early phonemic awareness in conjunction with Suskind’s words: “It takes more than the ability to hear sounds for language to develop; it is learning that the sounds have meaning that is critical. And for that a child must live in a world rich with words and words and words.” (Suskind later emphasizes the quality of language in addition to the number of words spoken, the power of affirmations on a growing child’s development. And her first line of her first chapter is “Parent talk is probably the most valuable resource in our world.”)

All of this swirls in my own brain as I reread the same three books every day to this three-year-old entrusted to me, as we converse about her observations and questions:

“What is a tube?” she asks, during the fifth (sixth?) reading of Curious George’s hospital visit. “Like a hose in the garden, only a lot smaller so it can go down George’s throat. Very small,” I say. “Tiny,” she declares with authority, and we go on with our sixth (seventh?) reading of this book.

“What is broke?” — when, in A Bad Case of Stripes, Camilla “broke out in stars.” This is a bit harder to define. “Hmmm. Has your skin ever had a rash, or a lot of tiny spots on it?” She nods hesitantly, and I say, “Then your skin broke out, meaning it suddenly got spots or little bumps on it for a while.” I can tell by her solemn expression that this information is being processed. A minute later: “What is sob?” When I say it means to cry a lot, not just a little, the light of understanding flickers instantly in her wide blue eyes.

I continue this umpteenth reading of Stripes to the page where the old woman who will cure Camilla arrives, just after the visit from the Environmental Therapist who told her to “breathe deeply and become one” with her room. Camilla became one with her room, all right; she melted into the walls where two pictures became her eyes, a dresser morphed into her nose, and her bed turned into her mouth. Totally abstract. Transcendental. Out there. I read in my best kind-old-woman voice: “What we have here is a bad case of stripes. One of the worst I’ve ever seen!” 

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My listener giggles. “It’s not a bad case of stripes. It’s a bed case of stripes.”

A pun so profound that I am at a loss for words.

She’s three.

I make a mental note to tell her mom, who’s clearly laid a magnificent foundation long before now.

This perceptive child notices the letters down the side of the Stripes front cover. She attempts to sound them out, and I let her try for a minute before telling her the words are “Scholastic Bookshelf.” She points to the square between the words and asks, “Why is this one blank?” I am excited: Print concepts! Teachable moments! “That’s a space. They come between words. See, this is a word. Then a space; this is another word . . .” She picks it right up: “And this is a word, this is a word . . .”

Truth is, all moments are teachable moments.

Even though her eyes are growing heavy, she chimes in with the rhyming words in Green Eggs and Ham.  In fact, she takes over reciting portions without my help now, mimicking my expression and cadence, on all the right pages . . .

I leave her to her nap. I wonder if her dreams will be filled with monkeys, phantasmagorical color patterns, rhythms, rhymes, words, words, words. My husband is compelled to check on her after awhile. He whispers his report: “She’s sound asleep.” Obliviously recharging her power of three for the remainder of the day, and for a future brimming with potential.

To the power of infinity and beyond, one might say.

And I believe it.

Puttin’ on the dog (Henry writes)

My Dearest, Dearest Readers,

Heartfelt thanks to each of you for joining Me this week as I mark another year of being alive.

Yes—it is My birthday!

Or—ahem—at least it’s the annual day set aside for marking this monumental occasion, as I was projected to be approximately thirteen months old when I inherited the kingdom over which I currently rule. Thus saith the veterinarian to My Family when I was … er … adopted as a … (sigh) … foundling.

Which by no means affects My jurisdiction, mind you, nor My inalienable rights.

Speaking of which: As We share the same birth month, I felt that I could afford to be magnanimous to the United States of America by donning a bit of stars and stripes. I assure you that this is not an attempt to throw the nation a bone, as it were, nor to outshine any festivities:

Although I am looking quite glorious for five years of age, don’t you agree?

Let Me just say that while My Family is busy celebrating the paramount importance of My birth, I am truly and humbly grateful for every minute that I live. Indeed, I spend the whole of my existence, every minute of every day, asleep as well as awake, attempting to convey the indescribable magnitude of My love for them. I can scarcely keep it from bursting forth from My exceptionally big heart, with every single beat.

They are, after all, My People. Who dwell in My home.

Our relationship is one of complete mutuality (as long as I am patted and scratched for the length of time I deem to be appropriate, and as long as I am provided with delectable morsels at exceedingly regular intervals).

With proper obeisance shown Me (and ONLY Me), all remains peaceful here in Our tiny realm.

And so it is no wonder that an artist was inspired to capture My likeness on canvas, as befits one Who reigns supreme. I therefore give you this portrait in commemoration of My birthday, that you might henceforth hang it in your heart gallery alongside your own sovereign rulers:

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Henry Rollins Haley. 2019. His fifth year.

Always,

HRH*

*not His Royal Highness, although I can see how it would quite easily be inferred. This is America, remember? In the absence of a title—alas—I simply sign My monogram.

Off now to rest My aching toenails (how DO you Humans spend so much time on these atrocious devices??) and to locate Me a Person for snoozing against.

[Editor’s Note: For your convenience, Henry has archived all of his posts under the Henry Writes category. He says this will have to suffice until he has his own site, etc. ]

The bullet

 

Bullet

“Dodged” a bullet. John Spade

I don’t often get reader requests for posts here on my blog, but after sharing an exercise on writing about your past —”When you look back at your life, what do you see?”— a phrase about my childhood home stirred some curiosity and I promised to tell the story behind it.

So if you read Dust motes and asked about “Bullet in the living room rug, in the floor, if you know where to look,” today’s post is officially dedicated to you.

To recollect these details, I had to submerge a good while in Long Ago. When this event occurred I was around eight years old. That part’s blurry.

The rest, however, is all too vivid . . .

Mom lifts the curtain again but there’s only blackness beyond the picture window. I know by her sigh that the street is empty. No sign of Deb. She has never been this late before. She’s usually here before supper but tonight we had to go ahead and eat, hours ago. Baby Aimee—Deb’s baby—is fussy because she’s ready to go to bed and can’t settle. Mom holds her on one hip, says “Shhh, shhh, you’ll be going home to sleep soon.” Something icy glitters in my mother’s black eyes as she looks out of the window into the night.

Aimee’s eyes are almost as black as my mother’s. Big and round. They make me think of Looney Tunes characters when they’re sad, how their eyes go all huge and dark. Baby Aimee’s eyes always look like this, huge and dark, even when she’s standing in the playpen staring up at me in the daytime when I get home from school. She can stand without holding on now but isn’t really walking yet because she’s only one year old. She hangs onto my mother, her cheeks pink and watery, her big eyes shiny.

Mama,” she cries over and over. “Mama.” And she buries her face in my mother’s shoulder.

I am sorry for Aimee because she’s little and doesn’t understand things yet. I am starting to feel sorry for Mom because it’s not easy to take care of someone else’s baby while they work all day and then don’t show up and you don’t know why . . . 

“Mom! What if something has happened to  . . . “

She turns on me, her mouth a tight line under those icy-hot eyes. “Shh!” she nearly spits.

And I know, I know why.

Mom’s afraid.

Just then headlights shine through the window. Mom snatches back the curtain. Her body softens like a flower in a glass of water. 

“Thank God.” 

She squeezes past the playpen—it takes up the most of our living room floor spaceand goes to open the front door.

I hear Deb’s laughter before I see her.

Someone is with her.

They come in.

Deb is short with shoulder-length reddish hair and glasses. She dresses in what teachers at my school call “mod.” Sometimes short skirts and boots or chunky shoes, sometimes vests and bell-bottoms. Deb smiles a lot but tonight she can’t stop laughing about something. Even when she says to Mom, “I am sorry it’s so late, had some car trouble…this is Ab. My boyfriend.”

Ab, standing partly behind  Deb, is very tall. His face is thin and white, his hair black, curly, reaching past his shoulders. He’s wearing a long fur coat. I’ve never seen a man in a fur coat before. He nods to my mother when Deb introduces them but he says nothing. 

Mom looks at me, hard. “Go to bed now.”

I know this really means “I’ve got things to say that you don’t need to hear” and so I head down the hall without a word—

—BANG—

—a flash of light, the loudest sound, thunder in the house, like a car hitting it, shaking it, rattling the windows—

a scream, not sure whose, my mother’s or Deb’s—

baby screams—

I run the few steps back to the living room.

There’s a funny smell, something smoky.

Pieces of brown fur, hundreds of pieces, floating through the air. 

Deb’s crying now, her screaming baby in her arms. Ab’s face is whiter than before. I stand, frozen, as my mother demands the gun he has in his pocket, or the pocket he had a minute ago, before he blew it to smithereens.

HOW DARE YOU bring a gun into this house, around other people, around children! To stand here with your finger on the trigger…Give. It. To. Me. NOW.”

And Ab places the handgun in my mother’s open palm.

As her hand closes around it he hurries out of the door, away from her, back into the night.

*******

After Deb and Ab were gone—and after she vacuumed up all the fur—Mom ran her fingers over the rug. She found the hole and the bullet lodged in the hardwood floor beneath. For as long as we lived in that house, I could find the bullet, too.

The house still stands, so as far as I know, the bullet remains there to this day.

I can’t recall what became of Deb and her beautiful baby, Aimee, or how quickly after the bullet they quit coming to our house. I changed their names in case they’re still alive out there, somewhere. I wonder if they are. And what their stories are. And if I could stand knowing.

I really wonder about Ab.

All I know is that my mother kept his gun a long time. I’m not sure she ever gave it back. Or where in the house she hid it. Somewhere far away from children…

I think a lot about the darkness of that night, of a baby’s big, frightened eyes, of being completely at the mercy of others and their choices, not just sweet baby Aimee, long, long ago when I was still a child…but my mother, who didn’t drive, who babysat for many years to make ends meet, who accommodated other people’s schedules and whims, who was dependent on others to go anywhere or get anything she needed. Some might say powerless.

But they didn’t see her take a gun away from a strange man who towered over her, a man who, as far as I know, never darkened our door again.

I did.

The moment reverberates in my mind still. Lodged deep, so deep in my memory, lying there all this time, covered by layers and layers of stuff …

The power remains, if you know where to look.

 

Wishes

Author Matt de la Peña led the first day of my district’s Teacher Summer Writing Institute and graciously offered to sign books during our break.

Here’s the conversation I had with him as he autographed Carmela Full of Wishes for me:

“I noticed the recurrence of Carmela jingling her bracelets throughout the story. I wondered if it symbolized something in particular, in connection with her imaginings.”

“There’s no hidden meaning,” replies de la Peña. “Carmela jingles the bracelets to irritate her brother.”

I laugh. “Because that is what siblings do.”

He nods. “She removes the bracelets at the end as an act of kindness to him. Here—let me show you my favorite page in the book.”

He turns the book around for me, displaying Christian Robinson’s intricate artwork: a papel picado (cut tissue paper) rendering of a father kneeling, a little girl in his arms.

“The book is really about the importance of family being together.” De la Peña’s face is solemn. 

I run my fingers over the words. “Home . . . I am reminded of history, how slave marriages weren’t considered legal. Families were split apart and people didn’t care.”  I look back to de la Peña. “But family is the foundation of everything.”

Yes,” he says, his dark eyes sparking. “It is.”

This week in America, we observe Independence Day. We celebrate freedom.

It is a sanguine word. Bloodstained. By wars waged to win it, but also by the lifeblood of the people who call a nation “home.” In this freedom is also a consanguine word – for home is where the family is.

As de la Peña so poignantly conveys with Carmela’s mixed-status family. She’s a U.S. citizen, born in this country, wishing, waiting – dreaming – of the day her father will “finally be home.”

At the book’s close, as I look at the dandelion fluff in the wind, Carmela’s sky full of wishes, my mind sees white stars waving on a field of blue, fireworks showering a night sky. I recall that a hallmark celebration on the Fourth of July is family reunions.

And I don’t know why an old line of Kris Kristofferson’s insists on accompanying this vision: Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…

With artistic apologies, I can’t say that’s true in the context of nations and families and home … our hope and our humanity are still left to lose.

Five-card story

For three summers now, my district has offered a week-long Teacher Writing Institute, an invitation for K-12 teachers to deepen their identity as writers, hone their craft, and experiment with form. One of my great joys is co-facilitating this event.

I love to see how teachers rate themselves as writers and teachers of writing at the beginning, then, at weeks’ end, how much higher they rate themselves. They’ve written and shared a lot; confidence has spiked. Which is the whole rationale for the institute: Write first for yourself; grow so you can help the students grow.

Every year I stretch myself a little more with writing exercises and modeling for participants. I try new things.

This time it was Five Card Flickr.

Here’s how it works: Go the site and select Play a Round. Five random photos will appear. Choose one, and another round of five photos appears. Choose another, and keep going until you complete a sequence of five cards.

Then write the story represented by those cards.

When playing individually, you can share your story online with the 5cardflickr community if you like. At the Summer Writing Institute, we opted for selecting the photos as a group, with everyone writing their own version of the story in their notebooks.

Here are the photos we selected together during our round (all credited to bionicteaching ):

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One participant asked a question: “Should we write the story with scenes in the same sequence as the pictures, or can we switch it up?”

“I think that should be up to you, since we’re writing in notebooks,” I replied. “Just know the site won’t allow you to manipulate the order of the photos at the end of the online selection round.” (I had given it a try the day before).

And so, for about fifteen minutes, we wrote.

I wrote, too, as I do everything I ask students—or in this case, colleagues—to do.

Besides, I felt an idea bubbling . . .

Every day I pass by the brothers’ building. Hoarders, the neighbors said. Apartment full of junk to the ceiling. No one ever goes in and we’ve never seen them come out.

I used to stare up at that window but all I could ever see was a bit of lace curtain from a bygone era and the reflection of my own apartment building across the street. 

That was before the smell.

Before the police were called.

Before the medical examiner came and one of the brothers was wheeled out in a body bag.

Dead for a week, caught in his own booby-trap, rigged to keep intruders out.

The remaining brother, white-haired, frail, bedridden for who knows how long, was carted off to a hospital where he died in a matter of hours.

On the day the city sent people in hazmat suits to start cleaning out the apartment, a violent wind whipped through the streets, slapping against the crowd of us gathered on the sidewalk. The brothers’ neighbor, Mrs. Rosales, put her hands  in the air as their belongings were hauled out. A whole human skeleton, jars with alien things in fluid, a stuffed peacock with majestic tail feathers fully fanned . . . I couldn’t determine if Mrs. Rosales was shielding herself from the sight of it all or just bracing herself against the wind. Her scarf whipped out behind her like a red flag, waving.

Of all the objects I saw, the scarf is what I couldn’t get out of my mind that night. For a long time I watched from my apartment window on the top floor, as workers carted bulky things in the darkness, passing in front of floodlights across the street like shadows, like ghosts.

I tried to sleep and couldn’t.

All my life those old men had lived right across from me and I’d never seen them. Heard their dad been a doctor decades ago. Their mother, a socialite. How do people with such comfortable beginnings in life come to such bizarre endings? And who was left to truly mourn the brothers? Was mourning even appropriate, given their circumstances?

In the morning, as I walked to work past the brothers’ building as always, on the familiar, crumbling sidewalks I spotted something I’d never seen beforesome kind of petals. Pink and white, soft and delicate, as if they’d just fallen to the old gray stones where they lay.

Except that there are no such trees in this city.  There are, in fact, no trees at all anywhere nearby.

I stood rooted to the stones, lost in thought, mulling the presence of these petals, when a hand grabbed my arm.

I jumped—and relaxed.

Mrs. Rosales.

“Mamá told me long ago their mother had a tulip tree.” Her voice sounded strange, distant. I followed her gaze up to the window with the lace curtain, the one that reflected my building. Where the brothers were, and were no more.

I wanted to say Why are the petals here now? Where’d they come from? If they came off of that tulip tree long ago, they’d be dried, brown. . . these petals were fresh. They couldn’t have fallen out of the brothers’ things. . . could they?

But I couldn’t speak. I just watched Mrs. Rosales walking away after she patted my arm in parting, as she headed for some unknown destination, her scarf flapping behind her like a waving red flag. . . .

And when I looked back at the brothers’ building, my eyes fell on a rusted gate enclosing tiny old courtyard, tucked into a recess. Why I had I never noticed this before? I felt drawn—called—to go in, to see where the courtyard led. It had to be a secret entrance to the brothers’ apartment, surely.

But on the rusty gate sat a shiny new chain and padlock, gleaming in the morning sun.

I shall never enter, will never know the whys of the brothers, who went with all their stories locked inside of them. Forever.

*******

My inspiration: The Collyer Brothers, 1881-1947, who lived in a Harlem brownstone. I read about these two famous hoarders years ago. Over a hundred tons of trash was removed from their apartment after their deaths. Truth is far stranger, and more horrifying, than fiction: One brother had fallen ill and the other was caring for him, tunneling through the hoarded stuff, when his own booby-trap really did kill him. Without anyone to care for him, the sick brother died there, too. Nearly two weeks later.

At the writing institute, these five randomly-dealt cards on Flickr selected by my colleagues—beginning with the old window, the old brick building—immediately stirred the haunting memory sleeping in my mind. So much of writing is memory and the search for meaning. Once you start writing, you’re never sure what might come . . . what strange petals will drift through, what red flags might start waving, what gates will remain locked to you. . .  although hopefully not forever.

A story will find a way to be told.

Just open yourself, and write.

Dust motes

Dust motes

Dust. ZoiKorakiCC BY

Last week I had the pleasure of co-facilitating my district’s third annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute. K-12 teachers were invited to deepen their sense of identity as writers, hone their craft, and experiment with form. Guest author Matt de la Peña led us through a series of writing explorations on Day One.

Here’s how it went for me as de la Peña used this exchange from “Steady Hands at Seattle General,” a short story by Denis Johnson, as a springboard for capturing images: 

“What about your past?”
“What about it?”
“When you look back, what do you see?”
“Wrecked cars.”

What might those two words mean, de la Peña muses aloud for the benefit of participants. 

“Wrecked cars?” Might they be literal or figurative? 

He goes on: Choose two words to create an image describing your past—when you look back, what do you see? 

At first I wrote ‘Christmas trees’. When I look back, I see them. From my grandmother’s all-silver, 1960s tabletop tree to my real Fraser fir decked in Victorian decor. Christmas trees mean another year is ending. That life and perspectives change continuously. To me they symbolize more than tradition. They mark time. Eras. Celebrations. Losses. Our children grow up; grown-ups from our own childhood pass away . . . between chapters of the unfolding story of life stands a tree.

When I look back, I see it all.

Suddenly I don’t want to use those words, Christmas trees.

In that instant, two other words materialize: 

Dust motes. 

I do not know why.

Except that I can clearly see the image of my childhood living room, a shaft of light between the drawn curtains of the picture window, the dust floating there, tiny specks of gold— 

He’s speaking, de la Peña. Asking if any of us would share our two words.

After a moment, I volunteer. 

“Dust motes?” he questions.  “I’ve not heard this before. I’m curious—why?”

Well,” I say, thinking as I speak, “it’s the image that came to mind, a shaft of light with dust specks floating in it . . . maybe because as a child I spent much time to myself, reading, in the stillness, in silences . . . when I look back, that’s what I see. Dust motes being partly your own skin. Shed cells. Pieces of yourself floating in that light . . . “

His expression is unfathomable. 

He says: “That’s fascinating and eerie. It lends itself to something really creepy . . .”

I consider this a compliment. 

De la Peña shares a model, “What Jimmy Remembers” from Jimmy & Rita by Kim Addonizio (2012):

Girls in white stockings and checkered wool jumpers, round white collars, red bows at their throats. Birds in Saint Christopher’s schoolyard—hundreds of them, black, spread out across the lawn in late afternoon. The brick wall of the steel mill on Dye Street he could see from the living room window, his father in there working, his mother in a shiny black dress coming in at dawn after singing in some nightclub, waking him for school. Shivering and dressing over the heating vent in the front hall. Dark-blue blazer and black shoes. A puppy that died of distemper, put in a shopping bag and into a can in Bushler’s Alley. Cotton candy on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, the barkers calling Hey bub, Hey sonny, Buster, Skip, You. . .The black hearse carrying his father through the snow, a semicircle of metal folding chairs. The green faces in avocado leaves smiling down at him. God in the clouds. Who art in Heaven. His mother, ghost now: wearing a stolen mink, flipping a cigarette from a deck of Lucky’s. His father moving toward her with a match, cupping his palms around the flame.

—All images, fragments, this bit of microfiction.

“Now, using your two words as a title, take a few minutes to write what you remember from your past, but here’s the challenge: Don’t mention those two words in your scene,” says de la Peña. “Don’t worry about proper sentences. Just write . . . “

My pencil is already scratching away against the notebook paper: 

Hand-me-down corduroy Levi’s in baby blue, green, tan, cream. Ashtrays overflowing. Trips in aging Fords to buy discounted boxes of Salem menthols. Complimentary bubblegum cigarettes. A screen of smoke in the air mingled with chicken grease. Ivory Liquid suds in the sink, stiff, dry, stained with spaghetti sauce. Bathroom wall by the tub caving in where a soap dish used to be. The biting scent of Pine-Sol as it’s poured in the toilets, rolling white like smoke, clouding the water like creamer in coffee. Vaporizer in my bedroom, rattling, sputtering. The hallway, broom leaning against the wall, a gathered pile of gray lint.  Bullet in the living room rug, in the floor, if you know where to look. Books. Books. Books. Silences. Shafts of light through the picture window, beckoning from beyond. The wrought-iron lamppost by the concrete steps leading to and from the front door, the heavy, decadent fragrance of my mother’s gardenias in various stages of living and dying on the bushes there. Church carillon chiming, loud and clear, from several blocks away: Let me hide myself in Thee. The pungent whiff of crab from the factory, if the wind is just right. Salt. Salt. On my baked potato, tin foil too hot to touch, on my popcorn, on the wind. The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. All we are is dust in the wind. Words and words in my head and my heart, pouring onto stacks of pages that are always able to hold it all, and which never judge, which just absorb, and save.

There you have it. Dust motes. What I see when I look back, at least in part.

With apologies to Matt de la Peña, for while I didn’t use “motes” anywhere in my remembering, there was just no getting around “dust.” 

But also with deepest thanks to him for creating the conditions for this writing to occur.

Which is what good writing teachers do.

A work of heart

No way out

No way out. Jayt74CC BY-SA

This week I’m co-facilitating my district’s third annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute. The ever-gracious author Matt de la Peña spent the first day guiding us deeper into the craft. He prefaced one portion of the session with “Reading is the ultimate form of empathy”—reminding us writers to get out of the way and let characters be the stars of our stories. He began, oddly enough, with asking us to describe the media center learning space where we were gathered in three or four sentences.

I have loved libraries all of my life. I quickly wrote: Spacious, welcoming, a vast array of books on shelves. A spotless carpet of soft blue; effort is made to keep it neat. This is a place that invites silence, thought, reflection—a clean, well-lighted room.

All right, I confess that I borrowed that last phrase from Hemingway. But the room WAS well-lit . . .  and clean . . . 

Then de la Peña threw down the gauntlet: “We’re going to add an emotional layer. Now describe this room from the perspective of a struggling reader.”

I blinked.

I looked at that description I’d written, the words I’d used.

Welcoming. Invites.

Would I feel that way about this place if I didn’t love to read?

Already I felt something quite different as I slid into the character’s mind and shoes, as I looked through eyes so different from my own  . . . 

It’s huge and full of books and all I want is to be first in line so I can get to the Lego wall or the headphones — across this sea of blue carpet — I’ve got to run on water to get where I’m going or be drowned in books — I can swim in pictures but only for so long. Will I drift and drift forever? Just let me anchor myself to that Lego wall or those headphones, please . . .

—If reading is the ultimate form of empathy, then perhaps writing is the penultimate form. 

All I can say is, for the first time in my life, my need to escape books was necessary. Palpable, urgent.

Alarming.

And I was only imagining.

*******

More to share in subsequent posts, but deepest thanks to Matt de la Peña for his work of heart today — the exercise in empathy and emphasizing the value of emotional diversity in children’s books.

And for “recalibration moments.”  

Serpentina splendor

Chelydra serpentina, or common snapping turtle

The dogs raced along the backyard fence, barking and growling like fiends at something on the other side. My husband, upon going out to investigate, hollered with equal parts glee and shock: “Come see this! You won’t believe it!”

All I could think was It had better not be a snake.

No, but close.

Meet Serpentina.

The dinosaur turtle.

Okay, not really dinosaur, just the biggest snapping turtle I’ve ever seen. In my yard, in the clover. With algae growing on her shell.

And her head.

I am really at a loss for words to describe her. Monumental. In size, and in her likeness to stone.

And tell me this tail does not scream dinosaur to you:

My family gawked, marveled, shuddered until we could gawk, marvel, and shudder no more. We let our visitor be. I went inside the house and watched from the kitchen window. After a few short minutes, she began zipping—okay, not really zipping, but crawling a whole lot faster than I imagined a turtle could—along the outside of our backyard fence. Periodically she stopped, leaned up, put her front feet on the fence, and stretched her neck impossibly long (think brontosaurus). Down she dropped again to resume her steady clip.

She’s trying to get to the woods behind our backyard, I thought. The fence is blocking her.

Yet when I turned away from the window for a moment, she vanished without a trace.

I felt oddly bereft.

I mean, it’s not like she’s a snuggly sort of creature.

Several days later I read in a local news article that a record number of snapping turtles appeared in our area en masse, looking for places to lay their eggs.

Nesting, they were.

Old Serpentina—I don’t even know how old she is, she just looks like the ages, a fossil from the dawn of time—her sense of urgency was real.

Maybe that’s what sort of spoke to me, without words. Mother to mother. Living being to living being. In my recoiling was a stab of appreciation; my sense of wonder overruled my impression of fearsome. And somehow, in all of it, lurked a twinge of sadness for which I have no explanation whatsoever.

When Carol Varsalona extended a recent invitation and challenge to create digital inspirations for her #SpringSplendor gallery, I thought of Serpentina. She came along in spring, all right. She’s not what I had in mind at all. I had a beach sunrise in mind. A sprig of wisteria. Beautiful things.

But Serpentina has, you must admit, a splendor all her own.

So, my tribute:

Snapping turtle - Copy

Untoward grace

in algae carapace

seeking with care

a place

to lay new life.

 

—My best to you and your splendid babies, Serpentina.

I kind of hope I get to see them.