with thanks to Dr. Stefani Boutelier on Ethical ELA’s #VerseLove today. She writes of the way a title can change the interpretation of a poem, or how it might add layers of metaphor: “I invite you to write a poem where the title helps identify its content, theme, or purpose. The topic and form are up to you–the focus today is on the title.”
I will share my poem’s title at the end.
For Day Fifteen of National Poetry Month
The stories of time before my time I lived them through your telling felt them through your pounding heart breathed them with your young lungs until I wanted to run coughing from the reek of smoke the acrid taste of ash and I think of how you spent your years giving yourself to others despite the ghosts that surely clung as smoke clings to clothing and as I enter the doorway I can hardly breathe for the cloying scent of flowers and there you are on the table ready and waiting in your little box conveniently resting in a little white tote I dare not trust the handles I just wrap my arms around you and carry you against my heart like I did my babies only there’s no car seat needed now
still, I must keep you safe in your new lightness so I strap the seatbelt across us both pondering the measure of a man larger than life so reduced
but I’ve got you, I’ve got you cradled close see now, I’m driving you home sun and shadows flickering over us like old newsreels of liberation
Title: What Remains
Dedicated to my father-in-law, a World War II veteran.
Yesterday on Ethical ELA, host Kim Johnson invited poets to write mirror poems: “Find a poet whose work inspires you and write a mirror poem of your own by taking a root from a poet’s work and allowing it to breathe life into your own inspired creation. This may be in the form of a borrowed line, a repeating line, a section or stanza, or an entire poem…”
There are a couple of breathtaking lines I love at the end of Billy Collins’ poem, “Tuesday, June 4th, 1991” – he is writing about dawn coming and “offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.”
For Day Eight of National Poetry Month, here’s my mirror of those last five words, in the form of a pantoum:
To My Granddaughter, Age 5 (with love from Franna)
a small cup of light scooped from ocean waves my sparkling little love dancing through my days
scooped from ocean waves my giggling water sprite dancing though my days now such a sleepy sight
my giggling water sprite goodnight, goodnight now such a sleepy sight to me you are, you are
goodnight, goodnight my sparkling little love to me you are, you are a small cup of light
Next-to-the last day of March. Early morning. Still dark. Chilly.
I sit at my laptop, sipping coffee, catching up on my Slice of Life blog comments. The neighborhood rooster across the street crows for all he’s worth.
My husband comes into the kitchen: “Is she up yet?” he whispers.
He means our granddaughter. She spent the night. We stayed up way late watching Frozen II (again). We watched her dancing to the ending credits soundtrack, performing her own astoundingly artistic interpretation, cheeks pink, blue eyes glowing…followed by punchy laughter before the crashing.
“Not yet,” I whisper back. He retreats to his study to work on sermons.
Shortly, though, she here she comes, a gift of the dawn, Aurora’s child, barefoot in a blue flannel gown, cloaked in long, disheveled hair, ethereal smile of joy illuminating the semi-dark kitchen. Favorite lines of a Billy Collins poem come to life:
But tomorrow dawn will come the way I picture her,
barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor. She will look in at me with her thin arms extended, offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.
My radiant dawn-child climbs into my lap. I let her read my post about Dennis the dachshund and his toy moose. At five, she reads with exactly the right inflection in exactly the right places, decoding beyootiful without batting an eye.
“That rascally Dennis!” She laughs aloud.
My husband returns, his own face alight at sight of her. “There she is!” he exclaims. “I’ve been waiting for you, Sugar Magnolia.”
He sings the opening line of the Grateful Dead song:
Sugar Magnolia blossom’s blooming…
Just so happens that our granddaughter’s middle name is Magnolia. A nod to her Louisiana heritage. A native tree here in North Carolina, too.
I think how, less than two years ago, my husband wasdead, until EMS and CPR brought him back. I think of all he’d have missed…
What matters is that we’re here together now, today, in this moment. The Grateful Alive.
Sugar Magnolia, in one of Grandpa’s hats
When we are dressed for the day, she asks: “Can I pick out your earrings? And your necklace?”
She picks the magnolia. She and my son gave it to me for my birthday last year.
She hands me the necklace, watches me clasp it, smiles with satisfaction.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended, offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light…
Just beyond the bedroom door, from the windows in the foyer, birdsong.
I waited for them all of March, in vain. Then, here at the very end, within the space of these last twenty-four hours, a nearly-complete nest rests on my front door wreath. More on this tomorrow, when I write with the Spiritual Journey gathering on the first Thursday in April…for now all that needs to be said is that the finches always come to my door, every year except this last one. They vanished without warning, without a trace, during COVID-19. Now they’re back, making their home in the wreath.
The magnolia wreath.
Front door wreath and nest-in-progress
Magnolias, magnolias, everywhere…
They are tougher than they look. The oldest flowering plants on Earth. A symbol of love, longevity, perseverance, endurance.
It’s that word that captures me: Endurance.
It is the end of March.
We’ve endured the COVID pandemic for a whole year.
We’ve endured the reinvention of life as we knew it, school as we knew it, teaching as we knew it.
My family has endured distance, isolation, individual private battles…and we all get our second round of vaccinations over these next two days.
My husband has endured. He is alive.
My granddaughter has endured. She is the light of our days.
The finches have endured. They have returned to resume nesting.
This is my last post for the Slice of Life Story Challenge; for thirty-one consecutive days, I’ve endured. My writing has endured.
I wrote a lot of memoir in the Challenge, for memories endure. I wrote of a walled garden and roots and the need to get out of the comfort zone; I did that with some of my writing. I think now of my magnolia metaphor and look back at its deep roots in my childhood. Southern heritage. My grandmothers, steel magnolias (although they wouldn’t have thought it of themselves). Women who endured wars, deprivation, unspeakable losses. The stand over the landscape of my life like the old magnolia trees near their homes, their churches. They were the encompassing, protective shadows against the burning sun and sweltering heat, the solid coolness of the earth under my feet, where lie the curious, fuzzy seedpods of my existence, my remembering, my gratitude, my faith. From these branches waft the eternal fragrance of sacrificial love and forgiveness; nothing on God’s Earth smells as sweet.
One final curious image—it persists, so I have to figure out if and how it will fit here: When I was very small, I spent a lot of time with Grandma, Daddy’s mother. She and Granddaddy lived nearby in city apartments until he retired and they moved back home to the country when I was six. In this scene, I am around four, I think:
I am waiting in the hall for Grandma. She’s turning the lights out; we are getting ready to go. She calls my name from another room. I call back: “I am here.” My voice keeps bouncing, off the walls, off the stairs going down, down, down, into the darkness; we have to go through it before we can get to the door and the sidewalks and the sunlight outside.
“Grandma!” I cry. More bouncing voice, hollow, strange.
She’s there in an instant. “What’s the matter?”
“What is that sound?”
“Oh, honey, that’s just your echo.”
She calls out, “Hello”…her voice bounces, just like mine.
“Echoooo…” I call. Echooo-ooo-ooo, says the shadow of my voice, rolling down the stairwell.
And I am no longer scared, because now I know.
What does this have to do with magnolias?
Only that we are on our way to the park, where she would offer me bread to feed the ducks, which would come to eat from my hands, from my little extended arms…and where the magnolias still grow in abundance. The memory is a cup of light I carry with me, just as the echo of her voice remains, just as I find myself echoing her, for we are always echoes of the ones we love most. As blood circulates in our veins, so do remembered light and beloved voices, long past shadows and silence. These are things that endure.
Grandma’s homeplace was named for the dawn, by the way. She’s literally Aurora’s child.
But tomorrow dawn will come the way I picture her…
“Stand right there, honey. Let me get your picture by that tree,” I tell my granddaughter, on our first trip to the park.
It’s a different park. A different tree.
But still, and always, a magnolia.
Our Sugar Magnolia, by “her” tree.
With abiding gratitude to the community at Two Writing Teachers during the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, which concludes today. It was a joy to write alongside you every day in the month of March. Thank you for every cup of light you offered; I will savor the echo of your voicesfor many days to come.
This quote was in my planner for the month of March.
Since it is the month of the Slice of Life Writing Challenge, I thought of it in terms of writing, and of the mind—where writing lives.
I picture “comfort zone” as a little garden surrounded by a stone wall; there is no gate. There, in the coolness of the day, the grass remains lush and green; dew glints like diamonds in a sun that never rises nor sets. There is no twilight in this zone, nor any dawn. Time is irrelevant. The season is constant; perpetual spring. Flowers remain in bloom, lavender, pink, lacy white like a wedding gown, but they give off no spirit-stirring fragrance, and they never die. They just are. A little fountain bubbles quietly in the midst. In the distance, birdsong. The birds don’t come to visit this garden, though, beckoning as it is. They are living things which need living things. Nothing grows in the garden. It is not stagnant, only static.
This garden is a place where nothing ever happens; to attempt feeling, to imagine, to have any hope of creating, one must risk climbing the wall.
There is no guarantee of what lies on the other side…except that the ground is there to land on, and that the stars are overhead for guidance, and that the wind will not be controlled, it will blow where it will, and somewhere in it you learn what holds and what does not, like the stone walls, mossy, cool to the touch, henges of the human mind. That is the strangest zone of all. It has nothing to do with time, but with that small green thing that desires to grow, seeking cracks for tender tendrils to poke through…whether in or out. The little living thing simply reaches for the light.
And so we write. We scale the wall of the comfort zone where nothing beautiful grows… and discover unexpected light. Perhaps in the wonder of words, in the glory of ideas, in the power of story… and then we realize: Different gardens, different flowers, different wellsprings, perhaps…but underneath, the living root that connects us all, one to the other. It is deep. It is ancient.
Going more than a bit out of my comfort zone here: sharing Golden Shovel poems built from the planner quote. They still need a good bit of work. As we sometimes do. They are imperfect, unpolished. As we are. You can see the poems are mirror images of each other. For so are we, in the end…
The writerly zone, after all, cannot be the comfort zone.
It is a scaling of the wall. Of the mind, and also of the heart… for that is called trust.
Note that one definition of “mind” is the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought.
Sounds like a writer to me.
Before the Writing
A keen awareness of World comfort beckoning zone of reckoning is this defining one’s mind? A vast, inner expanse encompassing the beautiful, a safe place of keeping but does that matter if nothing leaps from yours to mine, or ever climbs over the stone walls where grows our vine of stories, inextricably there intertwined, and infinitely rooted.
After the Writing
World of awareness, keen, a beckoning comfort reckoning of zone, mind, one’s defining, this is the encompassing expanse, inner, vast, a safe, a beautiful keeping of place -if matter that does, but -or mine to yours, from leaps nothing where walls stone the over climbs, ever inextricably, stories of vine, our grows rooted, infinitely, and intertwined, there.
The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 26, I am writing around a word beginning with letter z.
Now that I’m over THIS wall…in which direction shall I go for the remaining five days?
At the end of February, the COVID-19 vaccine was made available to teachers in my state.
My district went to work immediately, setting up sites and online registration.
The quickest appointment I could get was at a high school gym.
Upon entering, seeing the tables set all around the perimeter, I was struck with a sense of déjà vu, sort of.
Flashback to another school gym. For just a second, I was there in a long line of people. Standing with my mother, my little sister.
To be vaccinated against swine flu.
I’d nearly forgotten.
This COVID rollout was so different. For one thing, masks. Another, no long lines; still not safe. I stood six feet behind one person for a just few seconds in the hallway outside the gym before he was directed to enter. Slight pause, and I was permitted. Someone pointed me to a table across the room. After giving my name and getting my official paper, I was told to sit in one of the six or so well-spaced chairs in the center of the gym. I didn’t think to count how many immunization stations were set up around the walls, mostly because I didn’t have time; I sat for less than a minute before someone came over to point me to one of them. Quick review of my info, protocol of a few questions, and the deed was done. Barely felt it before the administrator tossed the syringe into the biohazard container and congratulated me. She gave me a little CDC card. Moderna. A jolt of cheer in the knowledge that this is the vaccine Dolly Parton funded; she got her shot that same day. A layer of comfort, somehow. I’d just written of Dolly and one of her songs two days before. It’s like being blood-sisters now. Kind of.
From the time I arrived to the time I left: less than ten minutes.
Couldn’t help remembering, as I walked out into the warm sunshine of an imminent spring, all the hours spent waiting in doctor’s offices as a child, getting an allergy shot in each arm every week, then every other week, then at home when my mother was eventually allowed to give them. How my mother’s health issues involved so many hospital stays and doctor’s visits that her friends dubbed her “Pins and Needles,” a double entendre on her vocation as a seamstress.
I walked on, considering my own shadow as it glided along the parking lot pavement, mulling how needles prick the arm only for an instant in the aim of protection and preservation and then are gone, whereas needles in the memory can provoke reactions and pain for a lifetime. I feel the swelling of many stories, there.
But just as I did when I was small, I waited the allotted time to be sure there was no reaction to the injection. Once upon a time, my dad waited with me; now it’s my husband driving my inoculated self home. He wants to drive me back for the last one.
In the end, it’s just a matter of doing what must be done, and going on.
The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 14, I am writing around a word beginning with letter n. Amazing, the number of associations and memories threading through one simple, sharp word.
We know that silence is for the soul, replenishing what’s extracted in the grind of daily living
that meditation calms the body as well as the mind
do we realize silence is a form of listening
a sacred gift, an offering of ourselves to others, yes, and also to ourselves For I find myself slipping into hidden cracks of my existence over and over
just to listen
Rooster crowing while it is yet dark and all the daylong tinged with urgent longing not altogether of this earth
Wind in the chimes, unseen fingers at play, the invisible howlingcreature under the eaves out of pain now, and at rest
Children reading, hesitant, halting a pump handle scraping until —there now, there now, there’s the flow
The muted beat of drums, upstairs my boy recording a song both melody and harmony, the rhythms of his heart translated to keys and strings
same as I translate rhythms of words to page
Thetimbre of voices long-loved each like a blanket for wrapping around and resting within
Deep in angry torrents born from undercurrents surging over razor-edged ice-hot stones of fear and pain —there, the slashed heart cries unassuaged unabated
just love me
while in the sky
House popping and cracking yawning, stretching settling back to sap-drenched dreams of branches and green
much like me, holding a shell to my ear, seeking the ocean not necessarily one of this earth but the sea-response of my own brain, echoing
against my soul
may well be the holiest of words.
Photo: Listen. Rick and Brenda Beerhorst. CC BY
I enjoy that “Blessed are those who actually listen” photo. I also used it last November to accompany a pantoum poem: The sound of gratitude.
The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 12, I am writing around a word beginning with letter l.
Also shared with the Poetry Friday gathering – many thanks to Heidi for hosting the Roundup.
This post is in response to Ruth Ayres’ invitation to “write fast” on SOS – Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog.I hadn’t planned to post today. But then…well, Ruth wrote: “My blog writing is the writing I do for me. It’s the writing I do for fun. It’s the writing that is most unexpected. My blog writing is the writing I allow to trail out of my heart and curl into magic.“
And then, this sound…
This morning I heard it again. It stirred me from my luxurious Saturday-drowse. A loud cryyyy cryyy cryyy from the backyard, or very nearby. I threw off the blankets and ran out on the deck, promptly soaking my socks in the day-old rainwater.
I dreamt, once, that I was standing here exactly like this, looking up at the western sky, when an eagle flew by. Bald eagles do live around here. I have seen them on occasion and am convinced that an eagle’s (big, sloppy) nest is on the top of a water tower on the highway around the bend. In my dream, I was awed by the eagle and knew it portended something good.
But I know eagles don’t have the beautiful, poignant cryyy cryyy cryyy I am hearing on this early, pearl-sky morning. All other life seems to be slumbering but for this phantom bird, the lusty rooster across the street, and me. Day is just barely fading in.
It cries again, in the stillness. The air rings with its sharpness, with the curve and edge of it.
I know it’s a hawk. It has to be. I’ve seen several in recent weeks, since the turn of the year. I watched one gliding low overheard, never even flapping its wings, staying aloft as if by magic, following an icy spell in January when I went for a short walk in the thin winter sunlight that gilded the bare trees and glittered on the grass.
Returning to the warmth of the house, in my sodden socks, I make coffee and settle at my laptop to search.
Definitely not an eagle; that call is feeble in comparison to the one I heard.
Not a red-tailed hawk. A hair-raising, harrowing scream.
A red-shouldered hawk. Fluid, syllabic, downward inflection. Somewhere over in the smattering of pines between my neighbor’s house and mine, where I dreamed an eagle flew.
I’d rather hear this cry even if I cannot see the hawk. The sound scrapes against my heart.
Something to do with the aching aliveness of things, even if the hawk is a predator. If I want to focus on symbolism, there’s a lot: intuition, spirituality, power…
But now, now, as the rooster picks back up with his daylong rusty-bugle solo (that’s one vigorous creature), there’s a familiar cheep cheep warble at the front door, so happy and so loud that it seems almost to be in my house.
The finches! They made their annual nest in my door wreath last spring but didn’t lay eggs as in previous years, when I held my granddaughter up to see the nestlings. For some reason, they disappeared. And left me bereft. One more little layer of heartache in a deeply heartrending year. When I took the wreath down in the fall, I mourned over the perfect, unused nest.
I saved it. I couldn’t toss such artistry away.
I put my spring wreath up early. Like, at the end of January.
When I went to look for the chattering finches just now, I couldn’t see them any more than I could see that hawk this morning; I believe the little birds were sitting in the wreath, voicing (to me) their delight.
I wake after having slept without rest mind weary of turning, turning I throw off the heavy blanket of night of darkness to stand shivering on the chilly cusp
there is no sound just hush
and my heart grasps before my eyes glimpse the glimmering
before I know it I’ve thrown open the door to stand barefoot in the frost still nightgowned as birds glide high above round and round tracing infinity signs against rose-gold clouds in silence in ceremonial welcome of day
first light, ever bright parts the pink veils a sun so, so old yet so golden-new peeks through
and I think of beginnings not endings of possibility not inadequacy of movement not stasis
there are no words only the distant occasional rustle of feathered wings from on high
and in that
with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life invitation to write and to all who gather here to encourage one another on the writerly journey
Autumn. Hallowed season, full of color and oblique light, slanted and golden. Echoes from distant places wafting in chilly air, laced with spice and earthy riches, tasting like promise. Leaves falling like pages of a book turning, ending another chapter, moving to the next…
A time for contemplating life.
And what they have to say, about being alive.
I am drawn by research on ways that trees communicate with one another. Their intricate root system (scientists call it the “wood-wide web”), their pheromones, their electrical pulses… so much more is going on than what we humans can see or hear. Trees can warn each other of danger; they can nourish and heal each other.
I stumbled across a book I am going to need, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World, by forester Peter Wohlleben. Journalist Richard Grant writes of Wohlleben’s observations on the topic in “Do Trees Talk to Each Other?” (Smithsonian Magazine, March 2018):
Wise old mother trees feed their saplings with liquid sugar and warn the neighbors when danger approaches. Reckless youngsters take foolhardy risks with leaf-shedding, light-chasing and excessive drinking, and usually pay with their lives. Crown princes wait for the old monarchs to fall, so they can take their place in the full glory of sunlight. It’s all happening in the ultra-slow motion that is tree time, so that what we see is a freeze-frame of the action.
Wohlleben also discovered chlorophyll in a huge beech stump from a tree felled four to five centuries ago—meaning it is still alive. Grant writes: There was only one explanation. The surrounding beeches were keeping it alive, by pumping sugar to it through the network. “When beeches do this, they remind me of elephants,” he [Wohlleben] says. “They are reluctant to abandon their dead, especially when it’s a big, old, revered matriarch.”
I contemplate these words, considering the trees undergoing their autumnal change. Communicating with each other, communal to the end…
For some reason, lines of the old hymn, “Abide with Me,” come to mind: The darkness deepens…change and decay in all around I see…
What might the trees say?
Let us reserve our resources pool our energy by the still waters. By this reservoir we drink our fill after the darkness we shall be here, still.
They shed their fragile, light-capturing organs because it would require too much energy, would be too costly, to try to keep one’s leaves alive in winter’s dark, icy blasts. They cannot live if they don’t let go.
Shed your shoulds like leaves in woods Trees shorn of fragility preserve their ability to survive.
Hear should rustling: ‘Don’t forget’ like leaves curling with regret Spiraling, sigh by sigh piling inside, dead and dry cluttering today.
Beware should’s false measure robbing Now of its pleasure Shed those shoulds like autumn woods composting for tomorrow.
For me, in the autumn of my own existence, everything is bathed in oblique light, slanted and golden…I walk my wooded path, here and there scattering extensions of myself, posts and poems and words, stopping to gathering those of others, a communal communication that never ceases to amaze and which has everything to do with survival. Perhaps writing stems from a deep-seated need to renew, to live life anew, to make something new and beautiful from the jumbled pattern of our days, while they last.
In the great scheme of things, it’s a collective glory-story.
Can’t you hear each leaf whispering, as it falls:
with thanks to the nourishing, beauty-scattering Poetry Friday community and to Robyn Hood Black for hosting today’s Roundup.
The others will have their turn, soon. For now they wait in the wings and on the screens…
In a month when masks are normally worn for celebrating, they came masked for protection—of others.
Several of us stood as sentinels in the misty gray morning, waiting, also masked. Gloved, thermometers ready, when the first bus rolled up and its door opened to release three children.
Another bus carried only one.
But when the first child passed inspection and entered the building, the gathered staff cheered. Applauded. Like welcoming a hero home.
They are heroes.
These kindergarteners, these first, second, third graders in their colorful masks, quietly navigating the building, sitting socially-distanced (alone) at lunch… I suspect these images are etched deep in my brain for the remainder of my days.
I saw this verse on a StoryPeople print by Brian Andreas (1993):
When I die, she said, I’m coming back as a tree with deep roots & I’ll wave my leaves at the children every morning on their way to school & whisper tree songs at night in their dreams. Trees with deep roots know about the things that children need.
I think about how trees
help us breathe
cleanse the air
soften hard edifices
change with the seasons, yet remain constant
color the world
Tree leaves do whisper. Trees talk to each other (they do). They live in groups and look out for one another.
They carry the stories they live within them. You can read them, in their rings.
I cannot decide which is best, to be the tree with deep roots, waving my leaves at the children on the way to school, singing in their dreams…or to be the child, asleep, hearing the tree-song…
I stand, a sentinel in the gray silence of the empty bus loop, masked, gloved, thermometer in hand, watching bits of red and yellow and fiery orange swirling through the air as if stirred by an unseen hand… tree confetti, celebrating life, letting go in order to hold on through the coming winter, who knows how dark or cold, and I’m seized by the sudden desire to run into those dancing colors…
—I am bits of both.
Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the invitation to share on Slice of Life Tuesdays and for also knowing about the things that children need. They, too, carry their stories within them…