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

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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.

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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

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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.

 

Song of invisibility

I sit straight up in bed. “Oh dear.”

My husband jumps: “What’s wrong?”

My brain can’t form thoughts yet. I was dreaming about . . . something. Whatever it was has already melted away.

He repeats: “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. I am – startled.”

My husband sighs, turns over, goes back to sleep.

I can’t. I lie there with my heart pounding.

I’ll write for a while, I decide.

The predawn house is dark but for a nightlight in the hallway. I creep around, wraith-like, to avoid waking the three sleeping dogs. Heading toward the kitchen, I hear it, loud and clear, as if it’s on the front porch, trying to find a way in:

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will . . . .

My favorite onomatopoetic sound in all the world. I’ve not heard a whippoorwill that close to the house before.

Is that what woke me? 

And then I start thinking about symbolism, so while my coffee brews, I look up whippoorwills on the laptop. Chilling stuff. Harbingers of death, disasters, impending trouble. Being visited by a talking Raven might be more desirable.

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will . . . .

Okay, it’s a captivating sound, more enchanting than haunting, I think, pouring cream in my coffee. I’ve loved the call of the whippoorwill since I first heard it, the summer after I moved to rural North Carolina. It dominates a warm country night, an energetic, compelling song rather than a plaintive one. It makes me want to stand still and listen for a long, long time. I continue my online reading, how the whippoorwill is referenced over and over in story, song, and poetry. Folks, it’s really a mating call. That bird isn’t going to be lonely for long.  

And then I read: A group of whip-poor-wills are called a “seek” or “invisibility” of whip-poor-wills.

My imagination takes flight. Those are magical words.

“Seek” implies “seeker,” someone on a quest, not to mention Quidditch. Few words have greater magical connections than “invisibility” – it’s a coveted power. Granted, in this context invisibility and seek define a homely, nocturnal bird that is rarely seen and which is simply  seeking a mate with its fervent night song, but still . . . could there be something more?

I’d awakened with a sense of imminent danger, bolting upright in bed. Oh dear, I’d said, just as I crossed the line between sleeping and waking (this a hypnopompic state; I looked it up just now).  While I cannot remember a dream-creature – or any shadow-people, for the true paranormal enthusiasts out there – attempting to do me harm, I do wake sometimes because of a dry, rubby cough, thanks to the flu earlier this year and my latent asthma. I wonder if irregular breathing is the root of this.

What an unromantic notion.

Whatever the reason:  Suppose the whippoorwill arrived at my house not as a portent of doom but as a protector, a preventive force. What if it knew to sing its song – because, let’s face it, that song is all about life and reproduction, not death – to wake me at the very moment before disaster struck? Exactly what, then, did it seek to drive away or undo – and why? What did my evaporated dream have to do with it?

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will . . . .

Ah, here are better words to describe the call: Ethereal. Otherworldly. 

A little bit of magic in the still of the night from the seek, the invisibility – although I always hear only one.

I sip my coffee, smiling at my flight of fancy.

Although it could be something more . . . .

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