Write bravely

Today concludes the thirty-one-day Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers. Today I cross the finish line with many fellow Slicers, having written a post each day.

But the writing doesn’t end here.

Nor does the challenge …

That’s the thing. Now, more than ever before in our lives, is a time to write.

The photo above is of a pocket notebook a friend and mentor gave as a parting gift to all who attended her retirement celebration years ago. Her love of writing and advocacy for teachers as writers inspires me to this day. She also passed the torch of facilitating district writing workshop training to me … until this year, when it is no longer offered. But I carry the notebook with me everywhere I go, just to remind me …

Teachers, students, families, friends, citizens of the world, all … today I offer the same to you, in the ongoing composition of life: Write bravely.

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write your stories

share your glories

write bravely

write for healing

name the feeling

write bravely

write all your rages

fill all your pages

write bravely

write through your tears

conquer your fears

write bravely

write of the past

save it at last

write bravely

write of your sorrows

and your tomorrows

write bravely

write them for you

and for me, too

write bravely

write bravely

write bravely

Spittin’ image

Memoir is probably my favorite kind of writing.

It’s like small moments on steroids. When I write myself back into childhood, scenes, conversations, little forgotten details are pumped full of meaning, for I have the advantage of understanding so much more than I did then . . .

This event occurred when I was seven or eight. As I write, I think of how we don’t know all that children are experiencing or how they’re trying to navigate life. Families don’t make perfect portraits. There are so many reasons why.

We are our stories.

With that in mind I’ve opted to change family names here. It gives me the final shot of courage needed to share “Spittin’ Image.”

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We are going to visit my grandfather.

Not my Daddy’s daddy, my Sunday-afternoons-in-the park Granddaddy who bought me red rubber boots when I started school because all my kindergarten friends had them and I wanted them, too.  We are going to see my Mama’s daddy.  I don’t know him very well. He came to visit us once, sat in our living room chair with his hand stuck out so that when I ran by, not paying attention, not being careful, his cigarette burned me.

Mama says he lives in a hospital.

I don’t know why anyone would live in a hospital. I don’t want to go see him, don’t know why we have to go.

My mother gets snappy: “He’s your granddaddy—you’re going!”

My aunts are taking us because Mama doesn’t drive. She doesn’t know how.

“Last time I seen Daddy, he was looking better,” says Aunt Bobbie, who’s driving us in her maroon Ford LTD, a Marlboro sticking out from the first two fingers of her right hand on the steering wheel. I see her mouth in the rear-view mirror. There are little pucker lines around her lips. “I believe he’s eating good. Acted happy to see me, too.”

Aunt Imogene—Genie, I call her—is riding shotgun in front of me. She takes a long drag on her own cigarette. I slide over so I can see the thick white smoke pouring out of her mouth and how it all goes right up her nose, like a waterfall in reverse. It’s neat to watch. About ten minutes pass before she speaks; Genie never does anything fast.

“Waaaay-yelllll…” says Genie, stretching the word well into four or five syllables, “at least we know he’s taken care of at the Home.”

Beside me in the backseat, Mama puts a Salem Menthol in her mouth and flicks her lighter, inhales. She doesn’t do fancy stuff with her smoke. She is quiet.

She is often quiet.

The ride takes forever. Finally Aunt Bobbie says, “We’re here,” and we pull into a parking place bordered by pine trees.

Mama drops the butt to the ground and grinds it into the gravelly dirt with her sandal. This is my grandfather’s Home, I guess, but Mama told me it was a hospital, so I’m confused. When we go in there are many small rooms but no bright lights, no doctors in lab coats, no nurses wearing white dresses and little caps. There’s a lot of wood paneling. The Home makes me think of a really big cabin but the people here don’t look like campers. Some are in wheelchairs, some are standing. Some are in pajamas. Not all of them are old. They stare at us as we go by and I don’t like the feel of their eyes.

Aunt Bobbie leads the way, down a hall, around a corner. I peek in one room and see a man with long white hair lying in bed with his mouth open, but he’s not asleep.

I want to run out of here.

Genie says, “Waaaay-yelll, hey, Daddy.”

He’s sitting in an armchair in a little living room area, holding a lit cigarette in the first two fingers of his right hand. All of his fingers have yellow stains. His nails are brown and long, and the ashes on that cigarette are the longest I’ve ever seen; why don’t they fall?      

Genie hugs him. Aunt Bobbie hugs him. He says “Hey” to them in a high, raspy voice. He doesn’t have much hair. His face is long, kind of yellowish, kind of gray, with brown spots. His clothes have spots, too, except that they’re actually small holes. From dropping cigarettes. Or ashes.

Mama is hanging back but Aunt Bobbie pulls her over.

“Daddy, look who come to see you. Beverly Ann.”

“Hey Daddy,” says my mother, bending to hug him, then stepping back. “How are you doing?”

My grandfather looks at her, his daughter, my mother, and I can tell he doesn’t know her.

Next thing I know, she’s yanking on my arm.

“I brought your granddaughter to visit.” She tugs. “Come on, give your granddaddy a hug.”

I do not want to.  I don’t move. I just look at him.

Genie pokes me from behind.

“Go and see him,” say my aunts. “He’s your granddaddy.”

I already see him and he sees me. For a minute I look into his eyes—they are big, green like moss—and the emptiness there makes me think of a hole in the ground that has no bottom. Or the time Daddy was holding me when he opened the medicine cabinet and its mirror reflected into the mirror over the sink. Mirror, mirror, on the wall . . . it became a mirror, mirror, mirror hall, reflected mirrors going on and on and on, growing tinier and tinier, like a never-ending nothingness. I’m frightened of my grandfather’s eyes, frightened that he’s looking at me with them, that something about them makes me think of my mother.

Then they light up. He knows me! He holds out his hand—not the one with the cigarette, I have my eye on that one—and calls to me:

“Beverly Aaaannn…” he says, drawling like Genie does.

“No, Daddy,” says Aunt Bobbie, “this is Beverly Ann’s daughter. That,” she points to Mama, “is Beverly Ann.”

He keeps right on staring at me.

He doesn’t get it. He thinks I am my mother. When she was little.

I hug him because I have to, because the sisters, his daughters, are making me. His skin is cool and frog-like. When I pull away, he’s still looking at me.

 Am I supposed to love him? I don’t know him. And he doesn’t know me.

We don’t stay long. As soon as we’re outside, Genie bums a light off Mama, who’s shakily firing up another Salem. Genie sucks deep, does her dragon-smoke thing, nods at me.

“I’ve said it a thousand tiiiiiimes, you are your Mama’s child, that’s for sure. Spittin’ image.”

“Ain’t she though?” agrees Aunt Bobbie.

I walk beside Mama. The aunts move ahead of us. Hoping they won’t hear, I whisper: “Why did he think I’m you, Mama?”

“His mind’s not right. Never has been,” she says, taking a drag, looking off in the distance at nothing in particular. “I really wasn’t around him much. I was a little girl when he left home.”

“Why did he leave?”

She turns her eyes on me. Dark brown eyes, like mine, and for a second they have that bottomless look. She’s slow to answer but not in the way that Genie is slow to do things. She takes another long drag.

“Grannie sent him away because he tried to hurt her.”

“Were you sad?”

“No.” Then, softly: “I was scared of him.”

Aunt Bobbie cranks the maroon LTD; Genie is getting in the front passenger side. Mama looks back at the Home and I wonder what she’s thinking. As I reach for the door, I catch my reflection in the backseat window. I glimpse the pines and the cloudless blue sky behind me. Crows fly overhead, cawing loudly. Yes, I do look a lot like my Mama. Even I can see that.

I feel shaky, too. I lean in to look closely at my own eyes, hoping to God I never find them so empty.

Possumbilities

It was not a thing I expected to see while on a Chick-Fil-A lunch run.

But there it was, directly opposite the drive-through menu board for ordering: A possum in a tree.

First thoughts: What’s wrong with it? Why would a possum be out and about during the day?

Next thoughts: Where did it come from? Why is it here? Has the smell of food lured it? Did it somehow manage to cross the busy street? Or (I shuddered): Will it TRY to cross the busy street? What will become of it?

Then: I need a picture. I’ll have to write about this.

And so I left the drive-through with the possum’s image preserved in my phone. Before I pulled into traffic, I looked back at the tree one last time. The animal wasn’t there any more.

It’s hard, for a storyteller, to not know fate or destiny.

I wondered many things as I drove away: Will restaurant workers or patrons call Animal Control? What does Animal Control do in a case like this? Will some random person decide to shoot it, deciding it poses a safety hazard, or just for the sake of shooting it? I am not a big fan of opossums but I didn’t want harm to come to it. Maybe it was old, weak, confused, like a person wandering in a nursing home. Maybe it was a female with babies hidden in her pouch. One Sunday morning when I was coming home from church a possum darted in front of my car. “Dart” isn’t really accurate; it hobbled as fast as it could. A mother laden with knobbly pink and gray babies on her back. Four little faces with eyes looking right at me. I slowed; they skittered across the road to safety.

That time, anyway.

And so I remembered them as I drove farther from my drive-through possum, contemplating the whole gamut of what might happen to it. Then, thankfully, my fanciful side kicked in: It knew where the speaker was. Maybe the possum comes on a daily basis to place an order: “Twenty-piece nuggets, please. Don’t forget my ketchup.” With those little pink hands, it could probably peel the ketchup foil back for dipping. Maybe the famous renegade cows are initiating this possum for the next round of their advertising campaign to ‘Eat Mor Chikin‘. . .

Oh, I thought, children would really like that story! I wonder what THEY would write . . . ?

There was a time when I’d take the photo and my story right into classrooms, across grade levels, as a model for any kind of writing. Small moment narratives, opinion, informational (for I ended up researching why an opossum would be so visible during the day and guess what? It’s not out of the ordinary at all. I further learned that opossums have a natural resistance to rabies and snake venom. Imagine people shooting it out of the tree because they don’t know). As an intro I might ask students if they know that the opossum is the only marsupial native to the Americas and link it to the koalas and kangaroos in Australia; we might consider relief efforts and life preservation, for all life is connected.

I’d even use my possum for teaching poetry writing. My mind is playing, this very minute, with opposite and opossum and tree and see, with an atmosphere of fear, wishing for a safe place. . . and of course there’s the fabulous fun of writing fantasy. Perhaps this possum took Chik-Fil-A home to its family where the bigger possum kids are playing video games (it always appears in some students’ writing). Maybe the possum babies got their nuggets “to go,” eating them in their mother’s pouch, with the littlest one crying that it didn’t get a toy . . .

The possibilities—or, in this case, “possumbilities”—are endless.

Or were endless, in the days when we did those kinds of writing, in that way, before the advent of programs that “incorporate” writing via a series of formulaic steps with whole classes writing on the same thing for the same amount of prescribed time. When authentic process was valued above uniform product and the end results were all different, because students—humans—are all different. In the days when students asked questions they generated themselves, because they really wanted to know the answers, because the answers mattered to them. When mining their own experiences for meaning lit up their faces and exploring their own ideas illuminated their minds. When the most priceless gift of childhood, imagination, wasn’t constrained and when teachers were not conscripted to teaching writing this way (with some believing that it’s better because it’s “easier”).

—Not me.

I saw a possum in a tree.

And I wondered, knowing I’d write about it, to find out why I needed to write about it.

It’s not about knowing fate or destiny.

It’s all about seeing possibilities, great and small, without and within, following a thread of thinking, of feeling, of life, to see where it takes you.

In other words, not blindly driving through and missing possumbilities.

Your why

Last Friday at school our professional development centered on finding our whys. For we are not made of what we do; we’re made of why we do it.

In a YouTube video, comedian Michael Jr. puts it this way: “When you know your why, you have options on what your what can be.” To illustrate the difference between knowing what and knowing why, he calls on a member of the audience (a school music director by the name of E. Daryl Duff) to sing a few bars of “Amazing Grace.” Duff’s voice is resonant, beautiful. Michael Jr. then asks Duff to sing as if a couple of specific, tragic things had happened to him; the transformation is stunning. Duff sings in a higher key with a vibrato full of emotion and energy—see the “Know Your Why” video).

It’s a perfect example of how our power, our potential, lies in knowing why we do things.

So, my colleagues and I got to work on finding our whys. 

We were to map at least five peaks and valleys in our lives; if we needed help, we could use a memory prompt based on the work of Simon Sinek:

Our principal modeled the activity first (let us remember that good teaching and good writing have a primary rule in common: Show, don’t tell). The peaks and valleys didn’t necessarily have to be milestones in our lives, but experiences surrounded with much meaning or emotion, maybe turning points, times we gained knowledge that changed us. The more specific we could be in listing several significant life events or people that made an impact on us, the better we’d get to our why. 

Mulling the suggestions and the need for specificity, I chose these events, people, and moments that first came to mind as being beyond the norm:

Thinking of such experiences and writing them can be emotional, but sharing is where the emotion really kicks in.

Laughter. Tears. Reassuring hugs.

In pairs who were moderately comfortable with each other, but who didn’t know each other really well, we shared some of our peaks and valleys. We didn’t have to share everything we wrote, just the items we wanted to share. We told why we chose these points in our lives and what stood out about them. While one partner read, the other listened for connections or patterns in those life events, made notes, and then the roles switched.

We then shared what we discovered about one another.

In my case, my father’s sudden death (my lowest valley), reading “The Murder of Robbie Wayne, Age 6” in The Reader’s Digest when I was a young teen, my birthday party when my mother invited a boy who had bullied me, and a boy who did one of the greatest acts of kindness I’ve ever seen back when we were in 5th grade (I wrote about it: The Valentine) all connect to my present notions of fairness, doing what’s right, and being an advocate.  My having asthma as a child, my husband’s loss of an eye to disease two years ago, and my return to college to finish after a span of many years have a common theme of overcoming. The others—my husband’s ministry, my grandmother’s belief in me, my volunteering to do a play with elementary students when I was still in high school, my blog, the professional development I’ve led in writing, my boys’ individual accomplishments in music and leadership, and the high school teacher who saved the lead role in The Matchmaker for me to read in class—are tied to inspiration.

Synthesizing all of this leads to drafting a why statement comprised of our contribution and our impact:

To _____________________ [contribution] so that ___________________________ [impact].

Mine, at the moment, is this (still working to tighten it further):

To inspire others so that they know they can overcome obstacles and setbacks.

This is why I do what I do; some of the whats are literacy coaching, encouraging others to write, and writing this blog.

I wonder, now, how many colleagues—how many people in the world, actually—have their whys and whats aligned. Seems to me there’d be incredible frustration, anger, anxiety, depression, imbalance, and utter lack of fulfillment when whys and whats aren’t aligned, when people don’t recognize their contribution or see the impact they can make. I think of people in jobs that don’t match their whys and how such dissonance makes for misery.

In The Art of Coaching, Elena Aguilar writes of a teacher struggling with classroom management. The man couldn’t bring order because, when he was in school, he suffered being stereotyped and devalued by a teacher. Being the authority figure for his students felt like he was doing the same to them. He went into teaching because he had a genuine love for the kids, but his core beliefs, his why, the very essence of who he was, wouldn’t allow him to establish the needed structure.

He couldn’t change his why; he could only change his what. He ended up leaving the teaching profession.

“When you know your why, you have options on what your what can be.”

We are not what we do.

We are why we do it.

Knowing that, as Robert Frost might say, makes all the difference.