Out of balance: a lesson

At a kindergarten soccer game this weekend, I noted how the coaches let the kids keep kicking the ball even when it goes out of bounds. This is probably because the ball is so often out of bounds; the kids might never get sustained playing time otherwise.

At one point, the ball rolled over to where my family was sitting. A little boy—the littlest, in fact—came running after his teammates, yelling: “Out of balance! Out of balance!”

We spectators giggled amongst ourselves: “Out of balance. So cute.”

The tiny guy stopped to look at us in all earnestness: “Out of balance means the ball is not on the court.” And he took off across the field after his kindergarten teammates, who’d managed to get the ball back in bounds, momentarily.

As we wiped the mirth streaming from our eyes, I thought about something a former mentor told me years ago about accepting approximations. It’s clear this little boy knows what he’s talking about. The ball was beyond the boundaries of the playing field. Never mind there wasn’t actually a court…basketball has a court, tennis has a court…he is learning. He’s in kindergarten. He will soon learn the word is bounds and that soccer is played on a field.

Certainly he will need to know the right terminology. But for now, let him develop some stamina and skills. Let him learn to be a team player. Let him love the game.

Truth is, in order to grow, sometimes things need to be kicked out of balance.

Soccer. Ashelia. CC BY-NC 2.0.

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with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge

Story love

My family loves to tell stories.

Mostly on each other.

At every gathering, my husband and our two sons continually try to one-up each other with their own versions of stories, all of which are calculated for maximum comic effect followed by boisterous laughter.

My granddaughter Scout, age six, is used to this now. She smiles, shakes her head, sometimes smacks her forehead with her palm, and sighs: “C’mon, Franna, let’s play.” She doesn’t have to ask me twice…

Micah, five months old as of today, is just beginning to take notice of conversations by shifting her gaze from speaker to speaker. She’s probably wondering the baby version of These are my people??

It so happened at a recent family gathering that as I was telling a funny story about Grandpa, I noticed little Micah, sitting with her dad on the couch, watching me with rapt attention.

I paused. “Goodness,” I said, “look how Micah is listening!”

“Oh yes,” said my daughter-in-law, “she loves a story.”

I had a sense, then, of something meaningful in the making. Something of great significance. Something being recorded deep in Micah’s baby brain, before she even has words for it, long before images and moments become archivable memories. She may not understand quite yet that I am Franna, her grandmother; she hasn’t yet learned words and attached meanings; but she could tell by the cadence of my voice that I was communicating something. She watched me intently, absorbing it.

It made me mindful.

It also reminded me of her dad’s little brother, who, before birth, stopped moving around whenever the piano was played at church. He’d kick back up afterward. He’s listening to the music, I told his dad at the time.

And he was. He’s our musician-mortician son. He’s loved music all of his life and can play anything he wants on the piano and guitar. Without sheet music. The patterns and chords are all in his brain.

Which brings me back to his baby niece, who bears a strong resemblance to him in many ways, especially in this serious manner of absorbing of things.

Micah loves music, too; we’ll see how that plays out…

What I know for certain is that, at five months, she loves story before she knows what story is.

I predict she’ll be the greatest storyteller of us all.

Micah with her preacher dad, my oldest son, while he works

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with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March

The learning fire

cold cold classroom
how can anyone learn
teacher, wrapped in a blanket
kids wearing their coats

the teacher lights a fire
as good teachers always do
in some way or another
even if this one gives no warmth

it calms them, she says,
just the sound of it
popping and sparking—
like magic, the children get to work

the fire blazes, there on the screen
bright and merry, not consuming
—if not brought by Prometheus himself,
certainly sent through his Board

Lulling the learning: A Promethean Board casts its calming spell
in a cold classroom while the heat is repaired.

Learning decay wordplay

Today on the Ethical ELA blog, teacher-librarian-poet Linda Mitchell kicks off a five-day Open Write invitation by using lists for composing poetry (read her beautiful “Wishing Well Price List” poem and other inspiring offerings here).

Now, I am a notorious list-maker, so much so that my husband once asked: “What are you writing now?”

To which I replied, absently, while hunched over a scrap of paper: “A list.”

“ANOTHER list? For what?”

I hesitated to confess, but I did, in a decidedly small voice … “A list of lists I have to make.”

So. If I am going to base a poem on one of my myriad lists, I must choose quickly or I’ll never begin.

The first thing I turned to in my scrawly notebook idea-keeper was a list of rhyming words based on the phrase “learning decay.” I heard a fellow educator use it recently, expressing concern for children returning to school in the fall after having been out for five months (or longer) due to COVID-19. That idea has been sitting dormant … maybe waiting for just this moment, this prompt, as a lens to lend focus. What can I make of this list? What would help prevent “learning decay” for kids? For ANYONE? For me the answer is always twofold: Read. Write. Always.

One last thing: Kids need to know that writing is more than an assignment and generally hateful chore. They can do it anywhere, anytime, about anything. There are no limits, only endless discoveries. A notebook is a gateway for making sense of the world and discovering what you think and feel … a safe haven, a springboard, a sounding board, a lifeline, a reliquary for housing fragile new ideas, precious fragments of self. It can be on paper. On a screen. It can be a recording. A drawing. Any means of capturing thoughts, impressions, expressions. I use multiple mediums, myself. You’re reading one now. To me, moments spent writing are never wasted; growth is inevitable.

Here’s my rather rapid-fire poem based on “learning decay” and the list of rhyming words in my notebook:


Learning decay?
No, not today.
Strive to allay.
So invite play:
a word ballet,
a thought bouquet.
True soul portray,
not self-betray.
Notebook away,
the cost defray –
Recoup the day.

Finding the fortune

Can’t recall when my family last had Chinese take-out. Don’t remember ever seeing this “fortune,” much less saving it.

Found it while doing extensive spring cleaning, otherwise known as pandemic purge. A bit of ephemeral prophecy, biding its time, waiting for the right moment to resurface:

We are made to persist. That’s how we find out who we are.

That is all for today.

Child’s play

My granddaughter, age four, has a touch of cold. She told her dad (my son): “I think I have a little bit of coronavirus.” Yesterday she told the family that that her new Barbie bakery had to close down because “people in her town got coronavirus.”

Her understanding of such stark realities pierces my heart. Her comments also take me back to something I learned in my final high school English class, where I sat horror-struck, riveted, as my teacher painted a verbal image of London in the bubonic plague (which also originated in China):

This was the second and worst wave … people were superstitious about a catastrophic event occuring in 1666, with the Biblical symbolism of three sixes together, but the plague struck the year before, 1665 … spread by fleas on black rats … First you must understand the condition of London at the time. The characteristic fog was mingled with black smoke from factories and the coal-fires of a terribly overcrowded city. There was no sanitation; people dumped their waste from windows—that’s where the phrase “Gardy-loo!” originated, from the French “garde a l’eau!”—”watch out for the water!” It’s what people shouted to warn those walking on the street below, so they could jump out of the way when the buckets and chamber pots were dumped. Raw sewage ran in the streets … human and animal … just imagine what was on people’s shoes, on the hems of ladies’ long dresses … and during the plague, bodies also lay in the streets, where people fell dead… this sparked the children to invent a new game: Ring-Around-the-Rosie …

—What?

Ring-Around-the Rosie? It’s a silly, giddy game. How many times had I played it as a child, with neighborhood kids or schoolmates, trying to pull each other around the circle of our joined hands faster and faster, until we deliberately made ourselves fall?

“Ring-Around-the-Rosie” was originally “Ring a ring of roses,” funeral wreaths for the dead. “Pocket full of posie” was a reference to the nosegays people carried when they had to walk in the streets—flowers held to the nose to counteract the stench, or a handkerchief doused with cologne, if they were wealthy enough to have it. “Ashes, ashes”—at the time, it was “rashes, rashes,” indicating the discoloration of the skin from bursting lymph nodes, or “buboes,” hence the name “bubonic plague.” And “we all fall down” … that’s self-explanatory. It’s what the children saw…

That’s an indelible image: Children joining hands in the streets, chanting, whirling around faster and faster— laughing—against that ghastly backdrop. It’s how they interpreted and internalized events, how they coped with their world—through play.

The game remains with us centuries afterward. In our time, it’s indicative of the carefree joy of childhood; the darkness is long forgotten.

That’s what play does: defeats the demons, diminishes fear, turns the dark into light. It’s the way children communicate their learning about the world. It’s release, acceptance, solace, safety. It’s the bright, creationary force in a child’s domain: play is within the child’s control when nothing else is.

Its value, inestimable.

Barbie’s bakery will re-open, I am sure, for our businesses will. Our times are grim at present, but we know what causes disease to spread. We understand (most of us, let’s hope) that for now we have to keep our physical distance, for our greater good. We know the value of hygiene. We shall have to join hands—figuratively— in many different ways; we shall be pulled, and strained, but as long as we don’t succumb to panic, and if we submit to wisdom, we shall not fall.

And our children?

They’ll keep on playing.

And watching.

“We should respect with humility the bright holiness of childhood.”

-Janusz Korczak

Photo: “Circle of Peace” bronze sculpture by Gary Lee Price (children playing Ring-Around-the-Rosie). Blake Bolinger. CC BY.

Coaching metaphor

During recent professional development sessions on “Coaching the Coach” at Ocracoke Island, the facilitator charged participants with finding a metaphor for coaching.

We were to take a photo. We would write to it.

There were no other parameters.

Ocracoke is a tiny place full of narrow, twisting roads, quaintness, legend, and mystery. It has around a thousand inhabitants. In tourist season one has to drive with extreme care as the streets become clogged with pedestrians, horses, bicyclists, golf carts, and cats (the island has a rampant feral cat population). The word island might as well be a synonym for enchantment or mystical; a sense of these hang in the air along with the salt. Sort of like expectancy.

When I first saw the grove of trees—predominantly live oaks—on the corner lot of a house converted to a bookstore, I thought: What a restful place. It has its own particular allure. While there are larger live oaks, individual, ancient giants, elsewhere on the island, these smaller trees grow together, toward one another. I read somewhere that live oaks focus their energy on growing out, not up; perhaps this is especially important in a place where ocean winds continually carve the landscape. These trees survive hurricanes. They flourish in salty places.

The early May afternoon was hot; the sun blazed overhead. I noted the profuse shade under the trees. They stand leaning inward, reaching to one another, as if intentionally collaborating to benefit all who enter their realm of existence. No one tree stands out. It’s a joint effort. I walked into their proffered coolness, this respite, this shelter, envisioning how their roots are deeply intertwined, that they draw collective strength in their mutuality. They are anchored together. That’s part of how they endure. A foundation from which to grow, branch out, and sustain their own lives and others’.

There is more, there is always more, to a metaphor, for it knows no parameters, either. It can keep on going and going, changing shape, developing new layers in new light. It’s supposed to, just like learning. Like life. I just choose to stop here.

For now.

Coaches, teachers

gathered

in rapport, mirrored

growing together

toward one another

is strength

and refuge.

For all.

Reliquary

A little copper box. On its lid, two seahorses free-floating in a bed of tiny, shimmering beads.

When I saw it in the island’s gift shop showcase, it spoke to me:

I was made for you.

But what ARE you? I wondered. A curiously small trinket box? 

Then I saw the inconspicuous card in the shadowy showcase corner—as if it had just materialized.

—Reliquary.

That is when I knew.

“Ahem—can I please see this little box?” I called to the shopkeeper. Once the enchanting object left the glass case it would never go back.

The shopkeeper, an older lady with shoulder-length sandy hair, a friendly face, and a bohemian air, chattered happily as she withdrew the box and placed it in my open palm. One of a kind. Handmade by an artist. A reliquary.

A work of art, I thought, tilting the box in my hand. The beads in the lid shifted like grains of sand; the seahorses drifted over their pearly sea. Meant to hold relics. Something special. Something holy.

I had no idea exactly what. 

I only knew it was mine as soon as I saw it.

Or that maybe I belonged to it.

First of all, the seahorses. A symbol I love, one I’ve adopted as my writerly motif. Hippocampus. There are two in the reliquary lid; there are two in the human brain. They help new memories form. They are tied to learning and emotion.

A glimmering of blue against rolling quicksilver . . . I begin to see, to understand, a little.

Whatever stirs in my brain, in my heart, finds its way onto a page. My notebooks are reliquaries. My blog is a reliquary. They hold my learning—they often reveal my learning to me—as I write. They hold my emotions, my memories, bits and pieces of my existence. My relics. Words.

On a metaphorical level, that is what the box represents. My writer-soul, poured out, made visible, received in a keeping-place.

On a physical level, the box is quite real, tangible, and empty, waiting to hold something worthy. It will come. I will know it when it does. For now my reliquary sits on my dresser. Whenever I pass by, the hippocampi in my brain flutter at the sight of the hippocampi on the lid. For in the vast currents of living, of thought, grains gather one by one to form something solid. Somewhere in the waiting lies an invitation, expectancy, a sudden discovering. A work of art, ever and always developing—because, in truth, we are all reliquaries.

 

Dichotomies

Dichotomy
Dichotomy #3 by Abdulaziz al Loghani. Brett JordanCC BY

Our greatest national resource is the minds of our children.

—Walt Disney

When they are hungry

who would give them rocks

When they cry for a spark

who would spew water

When they strive to see

who would deploy smoke and mirrors

When they would fly

who would clip their wings

When they desire to go further up, further in

who would confine, constrain

When they crave autonomy

who would demand automatons

When their differences resemble a separate peace

who would distill a disparate piece

When the lengths they must travel are not equidistant

who would mistake equality for equity 

When they carry fragile fragments of hope within

who would build a diehard dystopia without

When they begin to perceive diversity as a gift

who would wrap it in sameness

When they aren’t the same

who would construct uniform boxes

When they would breathe

who would affix a lid

When the scraping of the adze and the hammering cease

who will hear the sound of fingernails

from inside

the casket of our dichotomies? 

 

Note: If you read “they” as children, try reading with “they” as teachers.

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Literary allusions: Matthew 7:9-10 and Luke 11:11-12; The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis; A Separate Peace, John Knowles; Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell; The Giver, Lois Lowry; To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee; As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner.

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.