When I was death

Seems it’s time for some fun … here’s a memoir initially drafted and revised over several days in front of fifth graders, who chose the topic from several I gave them. Today I dust it off with an appreciation, greater than ever, for the power of improvisation …

*******

Mom hung up the phone. “That was Diane’s mom. There’s a costume party at church and Diane asked if you want to go.”

“YESSSSS!” I shouted.

“That’s what I just told them.”

I loved dressing up. I used to do it for book reports in my fifth-grade class. Once I was Aslan from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which was really fun, except that my tail kept falling off. How exciting to have another opportunity to be someone or something else! What will I be? Maybe I can talk Grannie into taking me shopping for a gypsy costume, or maybe a cowgirl …

“Here’s the thing,” Mom went on. “They’re coming to get you in about an hour.”        

“Oh, no!” I cried.  “I don’t have a costume! What will I wear?”

Mom smiled. “We can think of something.”

She had improvised before. When my sister and I were maybe six and eight, we went trick-or-treating dressed as a little old lady and a little old man. Mom found a flowery dress for my sister and suspenders for me. She drew wrinkles on our faces with a brown eye pencil, dusted our hair white with baby powder, and even sketched a little mustache above my lip. When I saw the photos later, I didn’t recognize us; I even asked, “Who are these short old people?”

Now Mom went down the hall to the linen closet. She came back to the kitchen with a white sheet.

“M-o-m-m-m,” I moaned, “that’s lame. I don’t want to be a ghost.”

“Who said anything about being a ghost?”

She somehow twisted the sheet around me until it looked like a long white robe. She pinned the part around my arms so that I had long, floppy sleeves. She followed me to the bathroom where I looked at myself in the mirror.

“What am I supposed to be?”

Mom said, “You figure it out.” 

She walked off and left me there.

“MOMMMMMM!”

I could not go to the party like this. I didn’t look like anyone or anything; I just looked silly. This was worse than being a ghost.

In the mirror, I contemplated my long brown hair, which came to my waist. What I could I do with it?

Suddenly I wanted to look really creepy. I grabbed Mom’s comb and hairspray. I teased my hair until it was wild and looked like I’d never combed it a day in my life. Kind of cool, but not enough. I fetched my watercolors from my room. Back at the bathroom I painted big, black circles around my eyes. Better, but I still didn’t feel finished yet.

Mom came back to check on me. “How’s it going?”

“Ok. I need something more. I don’t know what.”

Mom studied me for a minute, then disappeared from the bathroom. She returned with a bottle of white shoe polish. “This might do the trick!” She proceeded to sponge my arms, hands, face, and neck with the shoe polish. The thick white liquid dried fast and started cracking. My skin looked like old plaster beginning to flake off. It was awesome, like a zombie or something.

My sister came to investigate. “What in the world ARE you?”

“You better watch out,” I said in a raspy voice, holding my hands up like claws in the air. “I am DEATH.”

“Whatever.” My sister rolled her eyes. “All I can say is you look better than usual.”

“Get out of here!” I snapped.

Right then, the doorbell rang. I ran to throw it open: My friend Diane, of course, looking very beautiful in a fancy Snow White costume. She even had short black hair like Snow White with a red bow tied in it.

She stared at me for a minute. “What ARE you?”

“Death,” I replied. “Bye Mom!”

When we got to the fellowship hall at the church, I saw princesses, cowboys, astronauts, cheerleaders, football players, Superman, and a mummy. All night long these characters came up to me, asking, “What ARE you?”

“Death,” I said.

“Coooooool,” they all nodded, except for the mummy. He said, “That’s weird. Death is something that happens. It’s an event. Not a person. How can you be Death?”

“You’re a mummy,” I told him. “You figure it out.”

I had fun creeping people out with my wild hair and my crackly skin, which someone said looked “ancient.”

Then some grown-ups worried that the shoe polish might not wash off.

Uh-oh. I hadn’t even thought of that … had Mom? How long would I be stuck looking like this?

I was worrying about it near the end of the party when my name was announced for having the best costume. Unbelievable! No one but Diane knew that I had slapped this together at the last minute, without any kind of plan. You never know what you can do until you have to. Then I went bobbing for apples and not only did I win that contest, I set the record for the fastest time: one second! I held my breath, dunked my head in the freezing water, pinned the apple to the bottom of the tin tub so I could get my teeth in it, and came up with it so fast that my long hair flung cold water across the crowd, making all the costumed characters scream and laugh.

“Hey, Death, hey, Death,” they called, “your scary face just got washed away!”

I was just me again.

And secretly glad.

Photo: Ghost (cropped). TCtroi. CC BY-SA

For the love of reading

When our second grade team had quarterly planning, one of the subs didn’t show and I was summoned to cover the class for a while. I knew there would be sub plans.

But I brought three books with me anyway.

I gave a quick book talk and let the class choose which one to hear. The high vote-getter was A Deal’s a Deal, the story of two little rabbits swindling each other while trading toy cars. There’s a (delightfully disgusting) surprise ending, which is why I brought this book; it never fails to elicit big belly laughs and loud cries of EEEWWWWWW!

I wanted, in my few moments with these kids, for them to experience the joy of reading. I love to watch children’s faces while I read aloud; it is my favorite thing to do, next to writing with them.

A read-aloud, done well, is a theatrical performance. The kids hung on every word, they could feel the action building, they covered their faces, they howled and hollered EEEWWWWWWW!

—Perfect.

Then they went to work on the activities left for them.

I walked the room, well-aware that teachers are trying their best to adhere to a new curriculum that offer less individual reading and writing choices. I watched the children at their tasks. I watched the clock … and decided to set my timer.

“All right, you have a few minutes left to finish this work before my time with you is up. Let’s get it done, and I will read you the book that got the second-highest vote.”

In short order, the work was done, desks cleared, random things on the floor picked up. They gathered at my feet to hear The Adventures of Beekle, the Unimaginary Friend.

I first encountered this book in a summer writing institute for teachers. Our guest author, Matt de la Peña, used it as an example of perspective, asking what’s the story really about, who’s it really about. There was a good bit of debate, as I recall …

But I didn’t set it up this way with the kids.

I just read, letting the words and the illustrations work their magic.

Turned a page, heard the collective Oooohhhh.

Saw light playing on their faces, wonder in their eyes.

I savored them as they savored this book on friendship and imagination.

Whispering in my mind: You were my first friend, too. My oldest and my dearest, even now.

All too soon we reached the end of the book, if not the end of Beekle’s and his friend’s adventures. And here’s the interesting thing: the kids knew who the story was really about, what it was really about, something I’d watched grown-ups—teachers—struggle with.

As I prepared to leave, the children gravitated to the stuffed Beekle who’d been sitting off to the side by himself. He usually sits on my bookcase in my room, an outlier amid all my Harry Potter memorabilia. At the last minute I’d grabbed him and brought him along.

Seems he was here by design, waiting for every child in turn to embrace him, in the way that only children can.

Tale of two chocolates

Last night I was privileged to have guests, one of whom is a three-year-old girl.

While seated at the dinner table, my son’s Valentine stash on the counter caught her eye.

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing to a giant Hershey’s Kiss wrapped in red foil.

“Chocolate,” we told her.

“I want it!” she said.

“No, that’s too much chocolate,” said her mom.

Our little visitor looked at my husband (for support? For overruling authority?). She maintained solemn poise for a few seconds: “Mom says no.”

Then her mouth quivered and her blue eyes went watery.

Poor brave baby, I thought. Trying to accept ‘no’ is so hard.

Her mom got up and reached into the candy basket. “Wait, here’s a little one. You can have this little chocolate, okay?”

The watery eyes brightened: “A tiny one? I can have a tiny one?”

“Sure,” smiled her mom, handing over the regular-sized Kiss.

Small, chubby fingers nimbly divested this Kiss of its pink foil. But the child didn’t eat it. She studied it, then observed: “It’s a baby.”

The rest of us chuckled.

Our small visitor pointed back to the big Kiss and told my son: “I want to see it!”

“Okay,” he obliged. He got up from the table and fetched the giant chocolate.

“Open it! Open it!” demanded the girl, bouncing up and down in her chair.

Her mother looked hesitant as my son unwrapped it: “Just look—you’re not going to eat it, okay?”

As soon as the foil fell away, our little visitor’s face glowed. “It’s the mama!” She held the little Kiss up to the big Kiss: “Here’s your baby.” Wiggling the little Kiss, she said: “Hi, Mama! I missed you.”

As the rest of us dissolved in laughter, a grin spread across the child’s winsome face. She promptly ate the “baby” Kiss and went back to eating her dinner while my own thoughts enveloped me, momentarily drowning out the grown-up conversation.

The beauty, the lightning-quickness of a very small child’s mind, stirring, brimming, spilling over into a narrative with which she identifies, a defining of her world—a child, in fact, who hasn’t been verbal for very long. Easy to dismiss as a simple spur-of-the-moment burst of imagination, but in reality, it’s so much more. This is understanding at its finest, coming naturally through play, through story.

Oh, to bottle it . . . no. Never that. Oh, to open it, let it breathe, let it steep, becoming ever more potent each day, invincible against time and factors that will systematically dilute and evaporate it. Imagination, play, story, the core of who we are from our very beginning . . . the Mama Kiss.

—How we miss you.

Secret rendezvous

One morning, as I brush my teeth, out from behind the mirror comes a little spider.

It sits there on the wall as if watching me.

I am not a spider fan, generally.  But I don’t kill these little wanderers (sudden inspired quote: Not all those who wander are lost. Hmmm. Interesting point, Tolkien).

No, usually I capture the creatures and put them outside. If they’re small. I am getting someone else to deal with them if they’re large.

This spider is tiny.

And  . . . I don’t know . . . friendly. I  know exactly what my husband would say: What, you think it’s Charlotte, right? 

I just don’t have the heart to bother it. It’s not bothering me, so I let it be. Right there on the wall by the mirror. I finish getting ready for work, turn the bathroom light off, and call, “Bye, Spider. Have a good day.”

I think no more of it until the next morning when I am brushing my teeth, and out from behind the mirror comes my new friend.

We begin meeting this way every morning.

“There you are!” I say as my spider emerges later than normal one day. “Sleeping in? Have a late night?”

I swear if I can find a cup tiny enough, my spider would have coffee with me. I imagine it holding a miniscule newspaper. What our conversations would be:

What are you going to do today?

Oh, just stalk some prey. The usual.

Great. Get the gnats, will you? They’re on my last nerve. I don’t know where those things come from.

Sure thing.

Then comes the day the spider doesn’t show.

And the next.

And the one after that.

I begin to be sad. Seriously. Surely no one in my family has . . . no. I won’t think like that. I haven’t told any of them about my daily morning rendezvous. They can’t know, then, that I have a relationship with this spider, so. . . .

But no one has mentioned seeing a spider, so I don’t, either.

After another week, as I am dressing in the morning—lo and behold!—what should I see but my tiny friend there on the floor by the garden tub!

“Where have you BEEN?” I cry.

“What?” calls my husband from down the hall.

“Uh . . . never mind!” I call back.

I grab my phone and take a picture, because, well, that’s what you do with friends. You take pictures to remember them by.

I bend close. My spider comes nearer to me.

“Listen,” I say. “I missed you. I’m happy to see you’re well and all, but when I’m not here you really need to stay out of sight, okay? Other people just won’t understand.”

My spider takes this in. I can tell. I’ve looked him up and I know he’s a jumping spider and that they are very intelligent. They have cognitive abilities. They can be trained . . . after all, doesn’t he know where to find me each morning?

In other parts of the house, I hear my family bustling about, getting ready for school, for work.

“It’s not safe at the moment,” I tell my spider. “When everyone’s gone, you can come back out and do whatever it is you do during the day, but for now. . . .”

I slide a bit of paper towel under my spider.

He hangs on. Doesn’t protest.

I tuck him gently behind my fuzzy gray bedroom shoes.

“There,” I whisper. “That’ll do. Until later.”

I turn out the light.

“Bye, Spider. See you in the morning.”

I feel certain, from his sanctuary behind my bedroom shoe, that he’s waving a tiny leg.

 

Get words

Imagine what is over there

Imagine what is over there. Kenneth BarkerCC BY

Last night I met with a small group of teacher-writer-colleagues from my district.

We started our discussion by writing words that resonate with us.

-Quickly.

Mine are:

fierce    happenstance   reverence   awe   perceive  magic  hope   uplift   inspire               contemplate   possibility   believe

I don’t know why this was hard or why some of these words came to me (happenstance? Go figure. Must just be the sound of it. What other reason could there be?).

Then we had to pick the word that was most significant to us.

Mine is

      hope

for in every aspect of my life, I am hopeful. If I could impart one thing to others, it would be hope.

Hope is vital to the human spirit.

My colleagues and I talked about our work with students, other teachers, and our own writing. Where we’ve been, where we are now, where we want to go.

       uplift

               inspire

Going home, the lively discussion and energy circles round my mind. Something in there is trying to find a landing place.

                         contemplate

The “something” is tied somehow to student reactions . . . the ooooohhhh moment that’s such music to a teacher’s ears . . . like when a student connects a thing he/she loves to a book, or to writing . . . this week in fourth grade, it was me asking Why is opinion writing important? with a student responding You write about what you feel deep in your heart and another student saying Like music. I can write about why I love music. I want to write songs and me saying, Well, maybe you need to write your opinion piece AS a song.

—beat—

OOOOHHHH

       reverence

                             awe

And then I think, fierce is an odd word for me to pick yet it was the first one that came to mind. Why is that?

Fierce love like mother for child, fierce dedication to excellence, fierce desire for learning.  Maybe that’s why.

The something circling in my mind is materializing. I think it’s another word . . .

                                                    perceive

Not that word.

The word is—well, awfully simple:

Get.

Get?

Yes, get.

Get what?

Get them reading

Get them writing

Get them talking

Then get out of the way.

Oh, I get it.

My colleagues and I talked about that.

And

Get out of the box.

Because that’s where all the

          magic

happens.

We don’t make it happen.

They do

but only after we tear down the walls

of windowless boxes

so that they can see the glimmering horizon beckoning

and be free to

imagine

what is over there.

                       possibility

And that they can

get excited

get through

get there

if they only

      believe

And that comes only from the stirring the ocean within

Not by sea-spray on the wind without

never never by

                           happenstance

Calling The Roll

Old telephone

Vintage rotary dial desk telephone. Joe HauptCC BY-SA

Kindergarten is fun.

Most of the time.

We have two pet turtles. They are green with bright orange stripes on their necks. They fit right in our hands when we take them out of their tank to race on the floor.

One turtle crawls so fast. “Go, Speedy, go!” we shout, scrambling beside him on our knees.

The other turtle stays in one spot.

We try tapping his behind.

He won’t move.

“Oh, Slowpoke,” we sigh.

I love the turtles so much that Mama makes me a dress out of turtle fabric she found. It’s “navy blue,” she says, with white turtles all over it. She sews on a ruffled white collar trimmed in red and blue. It’s a little bit like a clown collar. 

I am so proud of my turtle dress. I wear it for Picture Day.

But that is not my favorite part of kindergarten.

And I do not know why it is called a garden — I don’t see a garden anywhere.

My favorite part is the rocking boat.

It is brown. It has two benches, so that two of us can sit on one side and two more on the other. We can rock it kind of like a seesaw.

“Row, row, row your boat,” we sing to each others’ faces, “gently down the stream . . . “

Our Teacher teaches us how to sing a Round.

It is SO MUCH FUN, singing the Round, rocking the boat, holding our toys we brought for Show and Tell.

In a box on the floor there are things we can put on — hats, costumes. 

I put on a wig so my hair can be long and not short with two cowlicks in the front.

I wonder why a cow would lick my hair and when I ever saw a real cow anyway. I do not remember this. But, during circle time, when The Teacher asks us one by one what we want to be when we grow up, I try to think of something different from everyone else. When my turn comes, I say, “A cowgirl.” 

Maybe my cowlicks made me think of it. Or maybe because I love boots (since they don’t have laces that need to be tied) and that job lets you wear them all the time.

I don’t know any cowgirls or cowboys, though. We live in the city.

The Teacher stares at me for a second. She doesn’t smile. She moves on to the next student — a boy who says “astronaut.” 

Anyway, I love my long hair when I put it on. If I can’t get anybody to rock the boat with me, I will rock it by myself, wearing my long hair. And sunglasses.

But then is the worst part of kindergarten.

“Class. It is time to take your seats. I am going to call The Roll.”

Our Teacher is very tall. Her voice is very . . .  unhappy. Someone has made her unhappy.

We all go to our seats without a sound.

What’s wrong? What have we done? I can’t figure it out.

She’s going to call The Roll.

Is The Roll like The Police?  What will The Roll do to us? 

Does The Roll wear a big shiny star like The Sheriff in cartoons? Does The Teacher have a secret phone somewhere on her desk, to call The Roll if we aren’t good?

Is this about the cowgirl thing? Maybe I should have said I want to be a Teacher. Like the other girls did.

I am scared.

I do not want her to call The Roll because of me so I stay very, very quiet.

*******

It took months, seriously, for me to understand what my stern, no-nonsense teacher was doing after she made this daily “calling The Roll” announcement. She never picked up a hidden phone to make a call. A shadowy figure wearing a law enforcement badge never materialized. After days and days of wondering why in the world she was just reading our names out loud, I finally figured it out.

Oh. THAT’S what calling The Roll means.

What a relief.

It’s my most vivid kindergarten memory. As much as I treasure the humor of my misconception now, it reiterates several important things to me, as an adult and an educator (for no, I never became a cowgirl, as I thought of that only in the spur of the moment, so to speak).

My takeaways from this trip back in time:

-We forget how literal young children are. How easily misconceptions occur. Someone once told me about hearing this line in Psalm 23 as a child: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.” It frightened her: Who is Shirley Goodness? Why are she and somebody named Mercy going to follow me around forever?  She kept looking back over her shoulder for them to show up. When my youngest son was little, he didn’t understand that “satisfied” was something good and fulfilling; he interpreted it as “sad-is-fied”: Why would anyone want to be sad? When someone asked him, “Are you satisfied?” he took it to mean Are you sad? and replied, “No, I’m fine.”

-Atmosphere is everything. We will never know what kids are thinking if they don’t feel comfortable asking questions, or if our body language, expression, and tone send the message that we’re unapproachable. Reliving the memory, I can now attach names to my five-year-old feelings: Confusion, apprehension, fear, inadequacy.  Remember, calling The Roll is my most vivid kindergarten recollection.

-Beware of what really causes harm. The sale of small pet turtles is illegal now because of salmonella. Multiple children sharing wigs or hats (IMAGINE!) is not permitted anymore because of lice (thankfully, we didn’t get them). Those changes were made for the safety of children, yet the turtles and the head coverings were a big part of the joy in our long-ago classroom. Of course we don’t want to breed disease and infestation; that would be unthinkable. But what about breeding — just as unintentionally — confusion, apprehension, fear, or the subliminal message that a child’s own thoughts, ideas, feelings, perspectives, experiences are not important? How damaging is that to young psyches? Should it be any less unthinkable?

-Time to imagine. The moments of play, of make-believe, kept the atmosphere in my kindergarten classroom from becoming one of complete compliance by encouraging some healthy free-spiritedness.  While academic expectations have changed dramatically for primary grades over the years, play, encouraging imagination, is still vital. I’ve never seen another wooden rocking boat and have forgotten what we actually called it. When my classmates and I were in it, we could be anything or anyone we wanted to be. We sailed out on a sea of our own making; we weren’t even in the classroom anymore.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily

Life is but a dream.

Extremely deep philosophy, there, when you think about it.

I’ve heard it said of late that children don’t have imaginations anymore, that they’re all into video games and devices, that they can’t entertain themselves.

Maybe. Maybe not.

What I do know to be true about children —then, now, and for all time — is that they are always trying to make sense of the world around them, because it’s all still new to them. Children are virtually covered with invisible antennae, receiving and interpreting volumes of sensory experiences, some of which they’re not able to fully process, just yet. The world’s a busy place; there’s so much to learn, far beyond the confines of the school day. Infinite seas of thought to sail, so many adventures to have.

Remember being that age, Teacher, Grown-Up? Remember the uncertainty?

It pays to slow down a bit now and then, for you are the seasoned Guide. Readjust the sails as needed, for the children, for yourself. Row gently down that stream, for your living cargo is priceless and reading every one of your signals, all along the way.

And may no one ever need to call The Roll on you.

Imagine

Central Park

On a Central Park pathway, near the Strawberry Fields memorial to John Lennon.

A group of fifth-graders sits in the hallway, making a poster about the human nervous system. I stop to admire their work:

“Wow, that’s a really vivid brain you have there.” It is, in fact, neatly colored with the brightest neon pink.

“Thanks,” grins one of the girls.

“We forgot the cerebellum, though,” says another.

“Yikes! That creates a problem for your diagram-person, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, with his balance and movement and stuff.”

One of the boys turns away from his work drawing . . . something. “Do you know who Albert Einstein is?”

Struggling to keep my face composed, I reply, “Yes, he’s my favorite scientist.”

“I was thinking how we only use about ten percent of our brains and as smart as Albert Einstein was, just imagine what he would have done if he could’ve used the other ninety percent.”

“Fascinating, isn’t it?” I muse. “For all of us. If we could use our whole brains, we might be something like superheroes.”

The kids nod sagely.

“So, here’s my favorite Einstein quote,” I tell the kids, who pause in their illustrating. Expectation is clearly written on each face. They truly want to know what this brilliant man had to say. “When a parent asked Einstein how to raise a child to be a great scientist, Einstein replied: If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

As their brains process this thought, the young faces look ethereal. Unblinking, gazing somewhere beyond the immediate surroundings, bathed in a light from an unseen source.

Especially the boy who mentioned Einstein.

“Whoaaaaa,” he finally says.

“Think on that a while. Later you can tell me what you believe it means.” With that, I leave the children to their work.

Imagine.

As I walk down the hallway,  my own brain is ajumble: Cerebellum. Balance. Einstein. Intelligence. Fairy tales . . . fiction. A conversation with an esteemed colleague at a recent meeting returns to mind.

I am glad to see greater focus on nonfiction writing, she’d said. After all, these children won’t be writing fiction in college.

It took my breath away.

Perhaps none of the kids we teach will grow up to get MFAs in creative writing— in other words, possibly earning a degree in composing fiction.

But some might. And are there really no more creative writing electives in college these days?

I understand the rationale behind the words, that in college students will primarily be writing research papers and essays. It’s important to put the foundation in place now, at the elementary level, for their future success.

But are all students going to college? Aren’t the standards college and career ready? In a day and age when innovation and creativity in the workplace are highly valued, think about the impact of understanding plot, subplots, character motivation, personality traits, overcoming obstacles to reach goals, ingenuity—all of which can be developed by reading fiction, surely, but writing fiction takes complex problem-solving and creativity to incomparable heights. So many seemingly random pieces must connect pretty perfectly to make a finished, meaningful, compelling whole—much like the beautiful leaf-and-gumball mandala I discovered on a pathway while walking through Central Park.

And what about sheer enjoyment? And poetry, and songs, and plays?

Or being LIFE ready?

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

Imagine what we could accomplish if we all wrote them. Make-believe stories, making mandalas with words. Maybe we’d tap into some of that unused part of our brains.

Because, heaven knows, we need balance to move forward effectively.

Take the pencil, find the neon pink.

If the cerebellum is missing, draw it in.

Letters

img_2699

It’s a neither-here-nor-there day in June, the middle of the year, not exactly warm but not really cool, either. The blinding noon sun makes for dark shade under the trees while an intermittent breeze stirs the new leaves, dappling the sidewalks with moving shadows. People come and go from assorted shops, crossing the cobblestone street. Their voices are muted, distant. I concentrate on guiding my husband’s steps over the uneven pavement. Still adjusting to having just one eye, he struggles with depth perception and will stumble, so he grabs hold of my arm. The restaurant where we’re headed for lunch is just ahead and I am fantasizing about the she-crab soup when I happen to glance to my left, and that’s when I notice something unusual.

There, nestled close to a house entrance, in the flickering light and shadows, is an old letter box.

I’ve walked here many times and haven’t seen it before.

It appears to be wrought iron, standing on a pedestal. Ornate. I can’t tell how old it is; probably a replica, fittingly weathered.

It captivates me completely.

I forget my soup, my husband; his hand slips away. I wonder what stories might surround this vintage mailbox.

I can almost see a woman in long skirts, shawl pulled tight in one hand, a poke bonnet enshrouding her face, a creamy parchment envelope clutched in her other hand. A letter to her husband, off in battle:

The garden is thriving. I’m putting up quarts of snap beans and pickles, and soon I’ll be about the fig and pear preserves. The cow is sickly, however. I don’t think she’s long to be with us. I pray that your cough is better than when you last wrote. I think of you every passing hour, marking them with determined delight, as each one that passes brings your return that much closer. Baby and I miss you desperately. You will not believe how she’s grown in your absence, or how like you she is, so full of confidence. It shines in her eyes, which are your eyes, always reminding me . . . .

Or maybe there’s a barefoot girl in a long white gown, loose hair rippling over her shoulders, sneaking from upstairs to leave a letter just before daylight, darting back inside before the roosters crow and before a young man on a horse clip-clops down the street. He dismounts, goes to the box, finds what he’s waiting for—a time and a place. She’ll be there. He folds the letter, tucks it inside his shirt pocket, against his pounding heart, just as he remembers he shouldn’t be seen here. In one swift motion, he’s astride the horse and down the cobblestone street, fog closing in after him.

Maybe there’s a portly, mustachioed man in an overcoat, golden watch chain glittering against his vest, retrieving a notification that all his investments are gone. He staggers back against the house, slides down, collapses in a heap on the sidewalk.

Or a black-haired boy in breeches mailing a scrawled envelope: Santa Claus, North Pole. He isn’t asking for anything for himself: Dear Santa, This year can you please bring my Christmas present early? It isn’t really for me. It’s for my Mama and Papa. My baby brother only lived three days and they’re so sad. I didn’t even get to play with him or teach him how to play ball or take him for a ride in the goat-cart. If you could, please, Santa, could you bring a new baby brother? Or even a sister? Or can you ask God to send one soon, so Mama will not cry anymore?

Or . . . .

“Are you coming or not? Why are you just standing there?” My husband has gone several paces without me and has had to come back.

“Oh!” I start, my reveries vanishing. “I, um, just wanted to take a picture of this old mailbox.” Out with my phone. Center, snap. Done.

“Okay. Let’s go. I’m starving,” I say.

But it’s not she-crab soup I’m now hungry for, or food at all. I am craving the character of people who knew how to persevere, who could not have imagined sending and receiving messages on devices within seconds and growing impatient even with that. People who didn’t have the entire world at their fingertips but who read the world in a different way, with a wisdom born of living close to nature. People who knew how to read one another, who knew what mattered most, who had to wait for it, who kept on living in the meantime lives that were far richer with much less.

For everything that is gained, I muse, how much is lost.

For a time, then, I leave the mailbox behind me, but it remains in my mind, an image even clearer than the one on my phone. It pulls at me like an ancient lodestone draws iron. Every time I pass by now I will have to look and make sure it’s still there. I need for it to be. I want to step into the silence, into the moving shadows, to discover what messages await me there, to marvel over whence they come.

slice-of-life_individual

Roadside treasure

Spock & Kirk

Star Trek Monthly Magazine Poster Book (cropped). Joe HauptCC BY-SA

The following is a narrative/memoir written several times with students in grades 3-5. I wrote a bare-bones version in front of students, then revised to model the vast difference of “showing, not telling” by adding detail and dialogue. “I can see it all happening!” the kids always exclaim, as the narrative comes to life. Yesterday’s eclipse brought this piece back to mind – the fascination with space, the many hours I spent watching and playing Star Trek when I was the age of these students. During the writing process, the kids ask countless questions. My favorite moment is when they realize what the story is really about.

I shake the device in my hand before I flip the lid and press the button to speak. “Do you read me, Spock?”

Nothing, not even static.

I pull the antenna out as far as it will go. I bang on the device a couple of times with my fist. I shout into it: “COME IN, SPOCK!”

My sister pokes her face from around the corner of our house. “This really ain’t logical!” she calls. She’s not even holding the device up to her mouth.

I sigh.

My sister is eight, I am ten, and we are tired of playing Star Trek. The batteries in the communicators we got for Christmas have quit working, and it’s no fun for Captain Kirk (me) and Mr. Spock (my sister) to keep yelling messages to each other across the yard, which has just one decent tree. There’s only so many pretend worlds we can explore when it all looks the same, with nowhere to hide from alien life forms.

My sister meets me at the street in front of the house. We leave our useless communicators behind in the grass and sit down on the curb as ourselves, not Kirk and Spock anymore.

“Let’s walk to the 7-Eleven and get a Slurpee,” says my sister. She likes the straws with the spoon on the end. She plays with them more than she drinks her Slurpee.

“I’m broke. I spent my last fifty cents on cinnamon Now-and-Laters and green apple bubble gum day before yesterday and it’s all gone already.” Our dad can’t stand green apple bubble gum. He says it stinks but I think it’s delicious, even though it turns my teeth and tongue green. “Do you have any money?”

“Nah, I thought you did,” says my sister, kicking at the grit beside the curb.

“Not anymore.”  I wish I had some green apple gum right now. I stretch my legs, which are getting long, out into the road. If a car comes, which isn’t all that often in our neighborhood, my sister and I will pull our legs up to our chests until it goes by.

I look down at the edge of the curb where it meets the street, at the little loose rocks lying there. I see a stubby twig and pick it up to write my name in the dust when I notice tiny chunks of pale blue-green glass. I wonder where these came from. Someone must have thrown a Coke bottle out of a car and shattered it.  I push the pieces around with the twig, inspecting them – they don’t look sharp. Time and weather, maybe, have smoothed away the roughest edges.

“What would you do if you had a million dollars?” asks my sister.

“I don’t know.” I pick up a bumpy chunk of the glass and roll it around in my hand; it sparkles in the sunlight. “Maybe I would have a horse and a big house. Maybe I would travel all over the world and be famous. What would you do?”

“I’d give some to poor people for their kids to have toys and bikes and then I would get me a bunch of dogs. What is that?”

I show her the bit of glass in my hand. I smile: “It’s an aquamarine. March’s birthstone. If you were born in March I would give it to you but since you weren’t, I will sell it for thousands of dollars.”

“Hey!” My sister is half amused and half irritated. “Look here—I got my own aquamarine!” She plucks up another bit from the curbside dust.

Suddenly we’re both on a wild treasure hunt, crawling along the curb so fast that we’re scraping our knees. We find bits of brown glass; we say it’s topaz. Green bits are emeralds, my birthstone. The clear ones are diamonds, of course. We can’t find any sapphires, my sister’s birthstone. We forget that this is trash, just pieces of bottles tossed out because someone else didn’t have the manners to put them in a trashcan. In no time we have amassed enough jewels for a princess, maybe two.

The sun shines warm on our backs and a couple of cars go by, slowing down, almost stopping, as they pass. Maybe the drivers are nervous about two girls crawling so close to the street or maybe they’re just trying to figure out what we are doing there in the dirt, but the quartz in the pavement winks at us, glinting like gold, and I know my sister and I are rich beyond compare. We are not afraid to pick our jewels out of the dirt, because dirt is just part of the world, and right now, we own the world.

Broken glass

Broken glass, curbside grass. Orin ZebestCC BY

slice-of-life_individual

The hallway

Hallway

Hallway. DSC_003. ColinCC-BY

A large part of my job involves helping teachers and students grow as writers. I often define writing workshop as an artist’s studio, a place with time to fall in love with the craft of writing.

As I consider my own writing experiences, the image of a hallway forms in my mind. I am actually in this hallway. I can see numerous doors, one of which stands partially open, and through it I can see a window, and beyond that, trees, bright in the golden light of afternoon, probably in late spring or early summer. The branches sway in a breeze, making the leaves dance and beckon, but there is no sound, not from this vantage point. I would have to go through the door and open the window, probably, to hear the rustling, the insects, the birds, to feel the sun’s warmth and taste the laziness of a free afternoon – if, in fact, the afternoon is lazy and free, as it seems to be from where I stand.

Other doors are closed, and knowing that I can open any of my choosing sends a compelling shiver through me – each door leads to a different place, experience, and story. They are all mine to explore, at my leisure. I will never know what’s behind the doors unless I go and open them. Some lead to the past – when I walk through, I can see my family, some of whom are gone now but alive and remarkably young in this place.  They don’t seem to mind at all when I come – in fact, they seem to welcome my visit the same as they always did. If I go farther, I see old friends, classmates, even people I didn’t know well but who are somehow connected to an idea, a moment in time when I learned something or realized that something mattered. My childhood dogs bounce up at the makeshift gate between the kitchen and the living room in their typical greeting; I smell cigarette smoke, the old Kirby vacuum cleaner, the old worn rug; fried chicken also lingers in the air. But I do not want to stay and wander like a ghost here in my childhood home. I can come back another time, anytime I like.

Behind other doors are chairs where I rocked my babies. Here I sit with their soft warmth in my arms, their fuzzy heads nestled against my neck. I feel them breathing, slow, easy, contented in their slumber. I can stay here a while and just be, just rocking, holding one boy for a long time and then the other. I can see them when they are a little older, one always chipper and friendly, the other absorbed in his own thoughts, spending hours lining up his Hot Wheels or taking things apart to put them back together. They are safe and well in this place, so I will leave them here, after I kiss their satin-soft cheeks once more and tell them that I will always love them.

Other doors, I suspect, lead to worlds that I can still create, both real and imagined. I can only see so far in the future; only some things are certain and I will alternately face them and embrace them as they come. I could linger far too long in the imagined worlds, just to see what will happen, to discover the secrets and the magic, knowing all is of it is at my command.

I am surprised by the door that opens straight into the natural world. I have discovered this about myself, that the workings of nature have a strong pull for me. Some of the discoveries are breathtaking, like the iridescence of a dragonfly’s body, the precise blue and orange painted pattern down a caterpillar’s back, the powerfully sweet fragrance of a gardenia, of honeysuckle, and the tiny war-plane drone of a hummingbird’s wings. Others discoveries are not nearly as pleasant – a horseshoe crab decaying on the beach, a tobacco worm (a non-native North Carolina neighbor recoils in horror – “Is that a dragon?“) crawling on my porch rail, a scar on the wood trim by the roof where lightning struck the house. Not pleasant, but fascinating all the same. I had no idea until I started writing that nature spoke so much to me – just now, as I capture these words, the sun bursts forth from behind the clouds beyond my bay window, shining on the laptop and my hands as I type, like a validation, an invocation.

Other doors lead to mysterious places like cemeteries, where time is irrelevant. I don’t know these people, but I look at the stones, the names, the dates; I read the poems on the older, eroding ones, and I want to know: Who were you? What were you like? What was your life like, what did you love, and how did you die? What’s your story?

The most curious thing of all about this silent hallway is that whichever door I open, in whatever order, wherever I go and however far or for however long, I find myself there. Myself as I was, as I am, as I will be.

I give myself a nod.

And I write.