Of the earth

Midway through lunch, the din in the cafeteria is too much. The new boy brings his tray to where I’m standing:

Can I sit here at this table?”

It’s an empty table, save for my phone, closed laptop, electronic entry key, all the things I carried with me because I didn’t have time to put them in my room before this daily duty.

I consider his brown eyes, looking up at me. Pleading.

I consider his boisterous classmates and the seat he left behind.

“Are you moving yourself here because you feel it’s a safer place for you to be right now?” I ask.

He nods.

“All right. That seems like a good choice.”

His face breaks into a grin. He sits.

And the questions start: What kind of phone is that? Do you have a dog? Do you like Doritos? What kind do you like best? What’s your favorite color? Where are you from? How old are you, twenty-nine? Forty? Older?

How old are YOU? Eight? Did you move over just here to ask me all these questions?

He just smiles and takes a swig of his strawberry milk.

Then:

“Mrs. Haley, what’s your favorite snake?”

“What? My favorite SNAKE, did you say? Yikes—I don’t …”

Of course I am about to say I don’t like any snake whatsoever, but something in his expression stops me. “Um, do you like snakes?”

He nods. “I like pythons.”

Heavens. I refrain from telling him about a man I saw on the news this week. He happened to find a boa constrictor in his couch and had no idea how it got there or from whence it came.

He’s watching my face. A keen observer, this child. He’s waiting for my response.

I could say I like green snakes, but I don’t. I could say I like black snakes because my granddaddy said they eat rats and mice, so don’t ever kill a black snake. I think about the copperheads Granddaddy killed on the dirt road where his barefoot grandchildren ran in the summertime. I think about the coiled baby water moccasin I found in front of the kitchen cabinets when my first son was just three, and I how I was about to pick it up, thinking it was an odd piece of rope . . . until I almost touched it. And saw its eyes. Or that time I was cleaning the attic and discovered a complete shed snakeskin; I nearly knocked a whole new exit in my ceiling, trying to scramble out of there . . .

I DO NOT LIKE SNAKES.

But this boy with the strawberry mustache is waiting. His eyes are shining.

And then I recall a little creature lying across my sidewalk a couple of weeks ago. So little that I thought it to be a large worm at first; it was the same pale tan. I noted a faint pattern of scales on it. Could it be a snake? I looked it up. It was. “Smooth earth snake.” They are shy; they live mostly in the dirt around trees and bushes. I’d just had all the old bushes around my house pulled up. Apparently this little fossorial serpent was disturbed, or even damaged, as the equipment pulled away deep, tangled roots. For whatever reason, it crawled out in the open only to die there on the sidewalk. Who knows, maybe it was just trying to get to safety.

—Poor little snake. The only one I’ve ever mourned.

I look at the boy. He’s new here. He’s been uprooted.

Perhaps he did come to this table for safety, after all.

Even as I begin to speak, I think of earth and geosmin, the organic element in soil that humans can smell to something like the trillionth degree (we can detect one tablespoon in three Olympic-size swimming pools) and why that should be, unless it’s because we were meant to live close to the earth, that we came from the earth, and to the earth we will return. A curious kinship with that little snake. With all living things.

“My favorite snake is the earth snake. It’s very small. Have you heard of it?”

He wants to see a picture, so I do a search on my phone just as it’s time for classes to clean up and go outside for recess. To run, to play, to breathe the fresh air, to enjoy being children . . . how well I remember.

The silence in the cafeteria now is too much.

Photo: Smooth Earthsnake. Cygnus921. CC-BY

Reclamation

I love the stillness of the morning, before the dawn, which is presently hours away. I love the silence, the holy hush preceding the coming of the sun. My family, even the new puppy, slumbers on. If I have a word for these moments, it’s expectancy. If I were to step outside now I might hear footsteps in the pine straw beneath trees that border my back fence; I will not yet be able to see which creature is moving there in the dark. A white-tailed deer, perhaps, or a squirrel, which makes an astonishing amount of noise in the straw, much more more than larger creatures. Two mornings ago, in the first light, I glimpsed a huge gray rabbit running to and fro just beyond the fence. And if I wait long enough, I’ll hear my neighbor’s rooster crow. Any time now. He doesn’t wait for actual light that I can see. He’ll proclaim the new day, the continuum of daily living, before it’s set in motion. He’ll stir the goats in various pens throughout the neighborhood (not to be expected in a little subdivision—whatever happened to restrictive covenants?) and their loud chorus of wild baas will back up the rooster’s solo.

It’s life waking up again, claiming the day for its own.

On this new day, of this new year, this new decade, I think about life. The trouble with life, I once read, is that it’s so daily. Not merely being alive but trying to accomplish all that must be (or that we think must be) accomplished in this day, this week, this month … last year I learned a lesson about life on hiatus. When the life of someone you love hangs in the balance, all your best-laid plans disintegrate. Poof.

Moving forward becomes an act of will, a revised determination to do what you can, what’s most important, for that given day. Recovering ground, inch by precious inch.

Reclamation.

Whether life is suspended, or stagnant, or spinning out of control, we still have choices. Maybe it’s resting more. Writing more. Reading more, singing more. Praying more. Maybe it’s seeking help. Maybe it’s restoring relationships, or releasing them. Or creating something beautiful, meaningful. What we want to do and what we’re actually able to do in a day, a week, a month, a year, may be vastly different, but reclamation doesn’t happen all at once. It happens in determined, consistent bits by bits. It is deliberate and intentional.

Once I wished for something like parallel lives, a cloning of sorts, with one of me staying home to write all day, one of me getting everything done in the house the way I want it, and another me going to work. I am exacting of myself; I do a thing, I want to do it well, and so I am easily paralyzed by my own standards.

I think of the sea, rolling on and on, its billows and rhythms, its continuity, its fluidity. I contemplate its healing properties, how it is designed to cleanse itself. I look at the photo I included at the top of this post, how, writes the photographer, the cemetery “is being reclaimed by the forest as alders, birch, spruce, fir and a couple apple trees crowd out the dozen or so headstones that stand here.” It’s in Newfoundland and that symbolism strikes right at my writer-heart, new found land.

That’s what reclamation is. Taking back solid ground, or creating new land, from what would submerge it, overtake it. Inch by precious inch, bit by bit. Yesterday I heard a sportscaster speak of Ron Rivera’s move from the Carolina Panthers to the Washington Redskins: “Coach Rivera has been part of a reclamation project before.” It took him four years to take the failing Panthers to the Super Bowl. He’s already begun the work for the Redskins, before he ever gets there … like my rooster here, calling to the dawn before it appears.

It’s hard daily work, reclamation. Progress is slow to see for a time.

But I’ve started.

I pulled the weeds out of the planters on my back deck and planted pansies, a bright bit of welcome on these cold mornings when I take the new puppy out. The puppy is himself an act of reclamation, an affirmation of love my family has always had for dogs (which, I’ve said before, have souls; purer than my own, there in those eyes). He marks a moving forward.

One step at a time, I’ll reclaim the house by many little needed repairs and coats of paint. Patience, endurance …

My writing, my writing. How many stories lay unfinished? Not begun? If I can learn to live nonlinear, to live as fluid as the sea, then anywhere is an entry point. Whenever, wherever, just plunge. The time necessary for writing will come if I just begin the reclamation.

Work. I write this paragraph not only for myself, but for other educators and instructional coaches struggling for clarity and a foothold in an ever-changing, shifting field: Beware the great chasm between theory and application, between programs that are packaged as “the magic bullet” and cost a pretty penny but fail to deliver. Be aware of the great gulf between data that’s visible and the stories of human children, not so visible. Push back all that encroaches on growing the children, that which would inhibit their love of learning. Reclaim that for them. Know them and their families and their stories. Know your colleagues and their stories. Write together, all of you; in this day of restorative practices and social-emotional wellness, why are people not writing more in such settings? We reclaim the very heart of our humanity when we share our stories.

—It is light now. A new day is here; I hear life stirring all around. Forget those restrictive covenants.

Let the reclamation begin.

Photo: Reclamation. Derrick Mercer. CC BY-SA

Joy

Yesterday I noted this reflection on social media: “All I did in 2019 was survive it.”

Why did I think of the pool of Bethesda and the legend of the angel “troubling the waters“? Was it the sense of just enduring? The lack of hope?

The words stirred my soul on multiple levels.

I can relate to surviving. In 2019, my husband almost didn’t. There is no control in the valley of the shadow of death, only submission. Each long, dark day must be endured; my boys and I waited for the ray of hope.

And the healing came.

It was a year of survival, of change, of pain and loss, of life being altered. But then, joy: On the heels of his father’s recovery, our oldest married, went into the ministry, became a father. This Christmas, our family is bigger. This Christmas, we have so much more life to celebrate. This Christmas, inside the typical clamor, is a deep pocket of stillness. It is like the branches of our tree, frosted silver, catching the light, glimmering with tiny iridescent fire.

We survived, but more importantly, we live. We love. There’s always more love to give, another ray of light just ahead in the darkness, another healing after the troubling of the waters.

Life and hope renewed. Is that not the message of Christmas?

On that note . . . those of you who know this blog will know that 2019 was the first year we were “dogless” for a while.

That aching void is now filled.

I shall leave you with wishes for a holiday in your heart every day that you live and three pounds of sheer joy.

Merry Christmas, loves.

Welcome home, Dennis

So this is Christmas

My boy Cadillac Man and his Dennis nestled all snug in their bed

Sick Ada, part II


About a month ago I shared this idea for a story about a little girl who loves cicadas and who’s having a hard time dealing with her parents’ separation. The girl’s name is Ada and she becomes seriously ill . . . hence the title, “Sick Ada,” cicada . . .

The story’s been gestating for a while as there were so many things to flesh out: How old is Ada? Why are her parents separated? Who left, Mom or Dad? Why? What’s the deal with her cicada fascination? How does she get sick? Most of all: Where should the story begin?

I considered writing this scene first: Near the end of the story, Ada goes into the hospital, sick enough that her recovery hangs in the balance. It is winter, when cicadas don’t sing, but she hears the heater rattling in her hospital room and believes it to be cicadas. She decides she doesn’t mind dying as long she can hear them . . .

But I am not starting there, and Ada will not die because my friend Kathleen interceded, pleading for the little girl’s life.

Amid much encouragement and a few thinly-veiled threats (thanks, Friends!), here’s the first draft opening scene.

*******

The darkness began to change.

Strips of light glimmered between the blinds until a thin finger of sunshine pushed through, reaching across Ada’s rumpled bed to caress her cheek.

At its warm touch, she opened her eyes.

Morning.

Oh!

Ada sat straight up in bed.

It’s my birthday! I am nine.

She felt strangely old.

Sitting there in the grayness, Ada knew two certainties. Today the cicadas would start singing. They always started singing on her birthday; Daddy said it was their song of celebration for her coming into the world. He would sing to her, too, only this time it would be over the phone. He promised to call today. Next week when school was finally out, Mama would drive Ada to the airport, put her on a plane, and Daddy would be there to meet her when the plane landed. It would be her first flight.

Ada wondered if cicadas sang on the other side of the country.

The other certainty was that she wouldn’t get her biggest birthday wish of all, that Daddy would come home to stay.

*******

So, Friends, that’s how Ada’s story begins for now, rough as it is.

For the record: The cicada is an ancient symbol of change or transformation and the name “Ada” just so happens to mean “noble.”

Photo: Girl with cicada bug. Jose HernandezCC BY-SA

Writing your own story

I saw his shirt from across the crowded cafeteria:

Writing my OWN story.

I hadn’t seen him before, didn’t know him, but I had to go over and say: “That’s the most awesome shirt! Do you like to write?”

He smiled and nodded, eyes bright and cheerful: “Yes!”

We had a short conversation about reading and writing. He was new to our school. After this initial encounter he was quick to come ask questions if he wasn’t sure about how we do things here, always greeting me with an earnest face and slightly self-conscious smile.

He wasn’t with us long. On his last days, he asked if he could stay after lunch and clean all of the tables as his grade level headed to recess. He wiped every table meticulously, then straightened all of the cardboard trays in the serving line for the classes to follow.

I understood.

It was something he could control. A positive and productive outlet.

I never got to write with him.

I thought about students over the years and what I learned about their lives from their writing. A girl whose family slept in their car on the journey north to visit relatives for the holidays; how she woke in the morning, shivering, to find frost coating the windows. A teenager whose vivid third-person narrative about a child born in another country, who survives abuse to find a new life and family in America . . . it switches to first person at the end as he rejoices and reveals he was that child. A first-grader who wanted to write about her dog, how the police shot and killed it. Unnerved, I told her teacher, in hopes that this was just a disturbing fabrication. It wasn’t. The child saw it happen.

For all the story-loving writer that I am, I know writing is not a magic cure for the pain and scars of life. It is, however, a real coping mechanism, a positive and productive outlet, a way of seeing and dealing with and finding hope to overcome. Even in the youngest of us, many of whom already know that life doesn’t follow a neat formula, that it seldom follows a clear and sensible series of steps. I often think about what passes for “writing” in schools; it can’t always be a neat response to a text or a prompt. If we are truly to equip children with tools for life, it begins with a real response to their lives in this world. We owe them, for as long as we have them, a place to feel safe, to be loved, a way of having some control in the face of change, to find their own power despite their powerlessness.To write their own lives, even as life is unfolding.

To have hope on the journey as it takes so many twists and turns.

Time is of the essence; we don’t know for how long or short a time they’ll be in our sphere of influence. Good-byes can come without warning.

And so I quickly gathered the best tools I had at my disposal: pencils, notebooks, a couple of favorite books from my shelf. It was my way of saying Godspeed, child. Write your OWN story. Believe. Attend to your heart. Here’s a piece of mine to carry with you.

Edward knew what it was like to say over and over again the names of those you had left behind. He knew what it was like to miss someone. And so he listened. And in his listening, his heart opened wide and then wider still.

You must be filled with expectancy. You must be awash in hope. You must wonder who will love you, whom you will love next.

—excerpts, Kate DiCamillo, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Holidays, holy days

Holidays.

Holy days.

The words roll round my mind as I drive to work, noting how the rising sun gilds the trees in all their fall colors against a deep charcoal sky. The sharp glory of it is beyond my power to describe. It’s beautiful. Haunting. Fierce. How can there be such detailed color and brilliance when the sky is so strangely dark? If a storm is brewing, why is the light so golden-bright? And where exactly is it coming from? The sun itself is hidden.

I cannot quite capture how I feel. It’s more than one thing. Awe. Reverence. Curiosity. A bit of foreboding.

Mostly gratitude for having been here to see it.

Holy day.

Holiday.

I am thinking a lot about the interplay of light and dark this holiday week.

And the fierce beauty of life.

My husband is here after a massive heart attack this summer. His surgeon said that his blockages were such that when the last artery went down that day, he had no reserve; he made a “medically inexplicable recovery.” This coming only three years after my husband lost an eye to ocular melanoma.

Light and dark, dark and light.

He lives to see our son get married the day after Thanksgiving. Not just to see it, but to officiate. After all the years of praying for the boy to go into the ministry and the boy saying, no, Dad, that’s not for me.

He ordained our son into the ministry three weeks ago.

Never say never.

Today the boy took the last of his things out of our house to finish setting up his new home. He’s gone, but not too far away.

He took his dog.

Henry.

The last dog.

In two years, we’ve lost three: Nikolaus the dachshund to old age. Banjo the yellow Lab that I raised from age seven weeks to a new home because my husband can no longer manage a 90-pound dog after bypass surgery. And now Henry, the best of the best, the rescue dog whose sole mission in life is to extract and exude as much love as possible.

I am now dogless for the first time in almost two decades. On every one of those days I could always count on a happy greeting, an ever-faithful warmth, some commiseration or comic relief. No tail thumping tonight, no snuffling, whiskered nose in my hand, no nails scrambling on the floor in exuberance for a pat, a treat.

How strange is it that my son moves out and I write about missing the dog.

And another thing: I recently wrote about the two old mules around the corner, how one of them was sick. I often saw it lying on its side in the pasture as the other mule grazed nearby. The farmer didn’t want to put his ailing mule down, knowing that the other mule would grieve, as they had never been apart. He finally had to. When I rode by the following week, I saw the remaining mule standing bereft in the pasture. My friend who lives on an adjoining farm said the mule hadn’t eaten since its sister died. I dared not drive that way for a few days afterward, fearing what I’d see, or not see. But this week I braved it. I drove past the pasture. There was the mule, grazing, which made me happy. As I watched, a big orange tabby cat came strolling across the pasture to sit by the mule. It looked right in my direction, swishing its tail.

A once-in-a-lifetime photo shoot that I couldn’t stop and capture.

And then today as I went by . . . the cat was still there. In all these years of loving those old mules from afar, I have never seen any other creature in the pasture. That cat is there keeping that mule company. It was sent. I am sure of it.

What is life but a bizarre balancing act, a series of give and take, comings and goings, losses and comforts, laced with love, fierce in itself. A mosaic of light and color, a stark silhouette against a backdrop of darkest gray.

Holy days.

Holidays.

Every day is one to be celebrated.

Tonight I go to sleep in my dogless house, beside my husband who’s still here. We have one more son sleeping upstairs. Although there’s an ache, there’s not emptiness. I am grateful for that big orange cat who’s out in the pasture with the old mule left behind. I am grateful to see the glory and drama of autumn with the promise of celebrations to come. I am deeply grateful my oldest has found his calling at the same time great love has entered his life; on the day after Thanksgiving, he becomes a husband and a father all at once. It just so happens that his wedding day is the second anniversary of his grandmother’s passing; how she’d rejoice for him.

Light and dark, dark and light.

Oh, and on the wedding night, I get to bring home a little girl, officially my granddaughter; she and I will have our own celebration with Bride’s Cake ice cream and peppermint bark Oreos and probably the movie Frozen.

I put the Christmas tree up early, just for her.

Holidays.

Holy days.

How can there be so much light.

********

Note: After publishing this post, I learned that the big orange cat has a name: Sunshine.

Waiting

We put the cookies in the oven

and we wait.

Good things take a while.

Don’t they.

Like Christmas and growing up.

Like wedding days

and having children.

Like heart-dreams coming true.

Like you.

It took a long time.

I had to wait.

My little boy had to grow up

and finally find your Mom.

It took a while

didn’t it

for you to get your dad.

Know what he told me?

“Mom, you’re getting a little girl

at last.”

So much of life is waiting, waiting,

it’s true

like my long ago-dream

of you.

So many books to read

and stories to share

and songs to sing

and places to go

and just to be

you and me.

So we put the cookies in the oven

and oh, we can hardly wait.

Why I Write 2019

The National Day on Writing invites me to examine my writing history: Why DO I write, really? And why do I love it?

I don’t know exactly when the desire began, only that it manifested itself early in life.

It had nothing to do with the hateful formation of letters on paper. My handwriting was never pretty. Even now my letters aren’t uniform; I scrawl my thoughts onto a page lightning-fast, before they escape me.

That’s what writing is. Thoughts. Ideas. The attempt to capture and convey images, emotions, sensations.

It has everything to do with words.

I fell in love with words long ago on my grandmother’s lap as she read book after book to me, the prosody of her voice like the waves of the ocean rolling on and on and on. Endless, musical, alive. Her voice buoys me to this day. I hear it still; she is never far away.

At age six I gathered paper and a pencil, sat at the coffee table in my living room, and wrote a story that I’d heard many times. No one said Do This. The compulsion came from within. The writing was for me and no one else. It simply needed to be done and I wanted to do it. So there I sat, laboriously printing my ugly letters, making words to what I believed was the most beautiful story in the world.

I wrote because, in the days before the Internet and cellphones, Grandma wrote letters (with perfect penmanship) in which she included books of stamps so that I could mail letters back to her.

In my adolescence she gave me a diary with a lock and key (two keys, actually, in case one got lost). I flooded those pages with the secrets of my young soul, such as the angry suspicion that my parents had adopted me, whereas my sister was their real child, and: One day I want to write a book. I hope it will be published!

And so I wrote.

One teacher, then another and another, strategically placed throughout my education, said Keep writing. Here’s what you do well. Here’s a thing that can make your writing even better. They asked me to read my work to my classmates, who said Keep writing. Oh, and will you help us?

Throughout my teens poetry called to me. It said: You hear my music. Show me. Come, dance. Don’t think about perfect steps. Just listen and follow what you hear.

—That’s pretty much how I write everything now.

And the books, the books, the books . . . who and what would I be if I had not loved reading so? All genres, all my life. New words, new information, new ways of thinking, new things to explore and imagine. New motivation to write with the same power as the writers who stir something my very core, as our cores are clearly made of the same stuff.

So, to this day, I write. Because I love story, real or imagined. I write with and for children who have their own stories to tell. I write to cope with people and situations that I cannot change and to remember all that’s good in my life. I write my celebrations and my losses. I write not to wage war on the world but to find peace in myself, where finding peace with others begins. I write to forgive myself and others. Not with words that destroy, but those that build, that create, that go on in the belief that the chapter to come will be better than the one before. Even when pain is woven through it, so is joy. Because that’s life. And love. And writing. I want to store it all it before the hippocampi in my brain (I envision these as two seahorses, yes) stop recording my memories and before the ideas evaporate and the words don’t come any more.

Until then, on a sea of words, the rhythm of life rises, falls, and calls: You hear my music. Show me. Come, dance. Don’t think about perfect steps. Just listen and follow what you hear.

And so I do, with a heart full of gratitude.

That is why I write.

Homecoming

I live in the country, where I hear a rooster crowing every new morning, where mists rise like swirling specters from glassy-surfaced ponds reflecting the pinkening sky. Where geese fly over my house so low sometimes that I hear the rustling of their wings as they call to one another in that rusty honk honk honk.

I think together together together. Home home home.

On Sundays I drive past fields, dilapidated tobacco barns, fences, pastures, goats, ponies, donkeys, horses, chickens, and peacocks that like to stroll along the roadside as if they own this pastoral kingdom. Around the bend are mules, cows, woods. Eventually I reach a clearing. The church, nestled between the fellowship hall and the graveyard. Gathering places. The place of worship connects the place of eating and celebrating life with the place of the dead, remembered and still very much loved.

This Sunday, the fellowship hall was crammed with tables laden with casseroles, salad, friend chicken, ham, deviled eggs, cakes, pies. This Sunday, family, friends, and former church members returned to celebrate their ties to the church. This Sunday, I rejoined the choir for the first time in many weeks, singing a song of gratitude to God.

This Sunday, my husband — the pastor — returned to church after four heart bypasses, four stents, two hospitalizations for nineteen days, two heart attacks, one cardiac arrest and one resuscitation. Thinner, slower, easily tired but gaining strength with each passing day, he came for Homecoming. To honor the life and legacy of the church. To celebrate his life being given back to him. To his ministry. To thank our oldest son, who filled the pulpit and even conducted a funeral in his father’s absence.

And to tell the church that this boy, who was seven when we came to serve here, who was baptized here, who grew up, left home, and returned to go to seminary in his father’s footsteps, has just been called as pastor of another church on the other side of the county. That this boy, now a man, is simultaneously getting married and becoming the father of three-year-old girl. She looks up at him with adoration, a big bow in her hair, so excited that they’ll all be able to live together. Their first home will be a parsonage.

Together together together. Home home home.

As his father returns, our son leaves to build his own life and legacy. To establish his own home. I think, as people cry and smile and hug, that for every homecoming is a homegoing.

Home. It is tied to place, yes, often in the context of where one grew up; but home is ultimately about love, about belonging. I heard an educator speak about his childhood. He and his brother were abandoned by their parents, spent their lives moving from one foster home to another. At seventeen, just as he was about to exit the system, his last foster parents adopted him. He went to college and one day, on coming home, realized that “success isn’t about leaving home, getting a good job, making a lot of money.” He understood, as his adoptive mother opened the door and threw her arms around him, that success is about living and loving well. It is about caring and helping and trusting and sacrificing. It is about family, about belonging. About carving out home.

I look at my son, standing tall and strong beside his worn, weeping father at the altar in the sanctuary, as an invisible torch is passed. The benediction. It pierces me, but not like an ending. It feels like a beginning.

Home. It doesn’t begin with physical place. It’s not external. It begins with finding home within yourself, with who you are, with the love you have to give as well as that you receive. It is about believing. Then it becomes the story of belonging, of rising to meet life each new day.

Together together together.

—Godspeed on your journey home, son.

On his father’s shoulders

On the shifting of seasons

Outside

in the blaze of summer

the barest hint of change

In the crescendo of cicada song

a whisper of waning

Almost imperceptibly

the shift begins

Inside

climate controlled

time suspended

Isolation

but not desolation

as inevitably, in life,

the shift begins

I walk the hospital floor

thinking that cicadas don’t know

Or do they?

Their song throbs loudest

in the summer sun that remains

This same sun that

casts shadows

where I must walk

also casts unexpected rainbows

at my feet.