The eagle

Eagle

Bald Eagle. sally9258CC-BY

After a recent outpatient procedure, as I secretly celebrated waking up from anesthesia and not dying, my  husband drove me home down the back country roads. Through the passenger window I idly watched winter-brown grass, trees, and old gray outbuildings zipping by, noted a small clearing with a tiny pond nestled in wood-strewn ground, an eagle sitting by the wayside—

wait

We said it simultaneously, my husband and I: “THAT’S AN EAGLE!”

Just a quick impression, sitting majestically, facing us, huge, white head gleaming atop the dark body, not ten feet away . . . .

We were past it as soon as the sight registered on our brains.

“Go back! Go back!” I pleaded, grabbing my phone, opening the camera.

sssskkkkrrrrttt! of a turn-around at a dirt driveway, and we were back in a flash.

It watched us, unmoving, as we neared, but when we slowed, the eagle grew suspicious. It took off. Within a millisecond, into the bare, gnarled oaks.

“No! Wait! Wait!” I cried, snapping as fast as I could.

We rolled a little farther, but the only good shot I got was of its back, soaring away.

Gone. I missed the moment. Failed to capture my encounter with the wondrous. I have never been that close to an eagle in the wild. I’ve hardly seen any free ones at all, in fact. I’ve heard them calling in their high, haunting, piercing voices, have seen one perched on top of a streetlamp, but never anything like this.

I grieved my loss: It would have made such a great blog post, too.

I got home, got into bed.

Couldn’t rest.

The image of the eagle wouldn’t leave my thoughts. It stayed, motionless, watching me. Cocked its head, affixed me with its eye, its penetrating gaze.

—Why wouldn’t you stay so still just a little while ago?

It ruffled its feathers. Kept right on staring at me.

So I looked it up.

There are few things I love better than symbolism, and few are better-known than the eagle: The national bird, on the Great Seal of the United States. Revered icon of ancient times, civilizations, people. Mascot to numerous sports teams—even that of the school where I work.

But this is what got me about the eagle:

It is a symbol of healing.

It is a symbol of transition, some element of life or creative endeavor, about to take flight.

—Dare I see it as a sign that all shall be well, that some new venture, personal or professional, lies just ahead?

It was just an eagle sitting by the wayside, as eagles surely do, somewhere, every day.

Only this time I happened to see it. In the blinking of an eye.

It blinked.

I blinked back at it.

So, I told it, you wouldn’t stay put for a real picture, but now you linger as a mental one. If you’re going to hang around portending something, then let it be my creativity and insight taking flight. Let it be about thing I love to do most—let my writing be courageous and free, with clarity of vision. Let it fly, let it fly, on and on, higher and higher.

Only then did the image fade; only then did I rest.

I fell asleep.

And woke in the morning, renewed, resolute.

No more missed moments. There aren’t moments to lose.

—I’m ready for whatever lies ahead. Lead on, eagle.  

My best shot

Happy blog birthday

Cake & two candles

Matching candles. Ray_LACCC BY

My blog, Lit Bits and Pieces, is two years old today.

I celebrate with a little recap.

My first post, Seeing past the surface, combines a bit of memoir with teaching struggling readers. When I was a child visiting my grandmother in the summer, she took me crabbing. This activity takes a little more finesse than one realizes . . . as does helping readers make meaning of their reading.

The post with the most views is Deeper than data. It opens with a conversation during a meeting at school, where a child’s reading data is projected and I, as the literacy coach, am expected to make a pronouncement on what all this data means and what to do for the child. I say I can’t answer these things until I listen to that child read first. This post is about seeing the children behind the data points.

The post with the most likes occurred just a few days ago: Blanket. I wrote it when I was too tired to write, and I am still sitting in amazement at the response.

A post frequently mentioned to me, that seems to strike a deep chord in others, is Fresh-cut grass. As long as I live, the fragrance of cut grass will remind me of my father and evoke my childhood.

I can’t say I have a favorite post, really.  It’s akin to saying which of your children is your favorite.  I think a couple of my best are To love that well, a tribute to my mother-in-law’s life on her passing, and What child is this, remembering a former student killed in an accident. I ponder the importance of college and career ready versus life ready. Especially when a life lasts only eleven years.

One of the great joys of writing is turning back time to relive moments too precious to live just once. Here I am as a child with my Granddaddy: Red rubber boots. I walk the old paths with Granddaddy again many times in these posts.

I started this blog for a couple of reasons: to stretch myself as a writer and to walk the walk as a writing teacher and coach. If I’m going to be encouraging students and teachers to write, I’d best be writing myself. And, as Dr. Mary Howard says of her Facebook posts, that they’re her “writing playground,” so this blog is my my own writing playground. I didn’t want it to be all about education; I want to write about whatever comes to my heart and mind at given moments.

Here I simply ponder the meaning behind experiences, images, and ideas. I strive to capture what I find as best I can. If you come away feeling uplifted, then I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do.

I celebrate two years of writing Lit Bits and Pieces. I celebrate life.

I celebrate you.

Thank you for reading.

Hearts

Still tripping the write fantastic

 

Pencil sky

Pencil sky. Ricky BCC BY

She settles into the armchair at the front corner of the classroom. The students, gathered on the carpet at her feet, lean in. There’s an air of anticipation, of expectancy, an unusual sort of hush for fourth grade.

She pushes her new glasses back up on her nose. Pale winter sunlight streams from the window over her shoulder onto the large binder in her lap.

She opens it, finds the page she wants, and commences to read.

She’s not a professor, a lecturer, or even a teacher. The chair almost dwarfs her, having been designed for an adult, not a pixielike middle schooler.

She’s a former student coming back to share her writing.

The fourth graders listen. They laugh. They hardly move a muscle until she finishes the chapter, when they applaud.

She grins self-consciously, but clearly pleased.

Hands go up in the air. The questions begin:

How much of this story have you written?

Just a few chapters, but I have other stories I am working on, too.

Where do you get your ideas?

Mostly from books I read or stories I hear. I start thinking, what if there was a character who had an experience a  little different from this, like, what if a character from our time could go back to a time long ago, to a setting from the historical novels I read. Stuff like that. Sometimes ideas just come; I don’t know from where.

What’s your favorite thing about writing? Why do you like to do it?

I can make anything happen in stories I write. It’s a lot of work but it’s so much fun!

How did you get so much detail in your story?

I have to look a lot of stuff up. Sometimes I don’t know what things are called or what things were like if I am writing about long ago. Or, if I decide to write about an earthquake or anything I haven’t, you know, experienced myself, I have to know what it it would be like to live through it, so I look stuff up all the time.

The questions go on and on. She answers them all patiently, honestly, with a grace and wisdom far beyond her years.

Do you want to publish a book one day?

Yes, I really want to.

She looks right at me and smiles.

Just two years ago, she was a shy fourth grader who didn’t call attention to herself. In fifth grade, between her teacher’s read alouds and writer’s workshop, somewhere betwixt historical fiction and fantasy units, the writing bug bit hard, prompting her teacher to send this child to me for extended writing lessons in every moment we could manage.

These sessions were the highlight of many a day—what a gift it is to work with a student so passionate about writing when writing is the very thing you love most yourself. Together we tripped the write fantastic, so to speak, with me listening to her story (multiple chapters with multiple revisions), asking her to clarify portions, to add detail to others, and to fill in the “holes” that leave readers behind, where the writer’s mind leaps ahead too much.

Then fifth grade was over and she was gone.

At the elementary Fall Open House, however, I happened to look up just as she came barreling toward me from across the media center, face all aglow, her mother and younger brother in tow.

Her mother’s comment: “She’ll stay up all night writing in her bed with a flashlight, long after I tell her it’s time to go to sleep.”

But Mom’s face glowed, too, with unmistakable pride.

Now our young writer returns again, by her own choosing, to share her sheer love of the craft, to pay it forward. Watching her from the back of the classroom, I am flooded with an incomparable warmth, an inner light that a thousand years cannot extinguish. She will go on to create more worlds of her own and to people them. She will conceive more problems for her characters, how they’ll cope and eventually overcome; such will be extracted from, and parlayed back into, her real life, her own future. She’s already learned the value of a driving question and how to research for answers—a true self-guided learner, a critical, creative thinker. She’s exploring ideas, generating new ones, playing with language, writing with voice for an intended impact on readers, and inspiring others to do the same.

And she’s just eleven years old.

All this world, and those springing from her mind, from her pencil, lie ahead of her; I can hardly wait to see how far they’ll take her, how far she’ll go.

Still tripping the write fantastic. What an absolute thrill.

May it always be so.

*******

For more about this student’s initial falling-in-love-with-writing experience, read Tripping the write fantastic.

 

Beacon

Kerosene lantern

Kerosene lantern. hare 🙂CC BY-SA

In reflecting on my reading and writing life, I am most thankful that my tastes cover a pretty wide spectrum. As a child I devoured everything from Dr. Seuss to Highlights, from cereal boxes to Funk and Wagnalls Medical Encyclopedias (yes, really), from fiction series to biographies, from Reader’s Digest to dictionaries, as I marveled over the many meanings a single word can have. 

None of these were required reading in school.

All of this is what I chose to read, was compelled to read, from an insatiable hunger for the experiences, the ideas, the information, the emotions, the beautiful and the stark way of stringing words together, long before I thought about how hard authors work on hammering those words and phrases into something with just the right impact on readers.

Now, as a writer, my tastes run the gamut as well.

With Lit Bits and Pieces, I am usually reflecting on or exploring meanings of every-day experiences. Creative nonfiction, mostly.

Today I am sharing a short piece of fiction – for, truthfully, fiction is forever beckoning me with a capricious and winsome smile.

This was inspired by a personal challenge, a house I once lived in, and being told a long time ago that when she was a little girl, my maternal grandmother sometimes assisted her midwife mother.

-Enjoy.

Beacon

The captain’s wife was going to die.

Lily and her mother couldn’t save her.

They tried.

Vestal administered tinctures she’d made from leaves and bark as six-year-old Lily rubbed Miss Rebekah’s swollen belly, repeating over and over in her mind like a mantra: Little baby, please get borned . . . your Mama’s trying so hard.

Lily’s arms ached. The odors of sweat, blood, and tincture hung heavy in the close room. Miss Rebekah had chosen the highest, hottest point in the house and she couldn’t be moved now. Lily breathed through her mouth instead of her nose to avoid the metallic taste of blood and salt on her tongue. She kept kneading: Little baby, please, PLEASE get borned . . . .

The hours wore on; the sky darkened and thunder rolled in from the Atlantic.

Storms frightened Lily. Vestal said she mustn’t let it show. “When you live by the ocean, Lily dear, storms are always violent. Become accustomed to it. This is where thunderstorms are born, child.”

The wind moaned like a ghost under the eaves; rain slapped against the windowpanes. Lightning burst and sizzled a split second before the thunderclap shook the house. Lily jumped but she didn’t cry out. She sat trembling while Vestal calmly lit the kerosene lamp on the dresser.

Rebekah, sinking deeper in the feather bed, whispered, “Miss Vestal, would you move that lamp over to the window, please, so Captain Turner can find his way home.”

Captain Turner was at sea. Lily knew he wasn’t due back any time soon. Even if he was, he’d never see this lamp through the storm.

Vestal hesitated.

“Please.” Miss Rebekah’s whisper was barely audible, more air than voice.

Vestal carried the lamp to the sill of the window overlooking the widow’s walk. Beyond her mother’s silhouette, Lily could see the surf illuminated by lightning, billowing, foaming, crashing. Lily thought about the women at the marketplace who dressed only in black, murmuring to one another that this Carolina coast was treacherous even without storms.

Women who had watched for ships that never returned.

Rebekah groaned. Vestal flew back to her. The groan was so deep and prolonged that Lily’s courage finally collapsed. She cowered with her hands over her ears while Rebekah, just nineteen, married less than a year, made one last, valiant push before her life ebbed away. Lily knew it was all over when Miss Rebekah lay silent, her pinched face turned slightly toward the window where the lamplight flickered, then stood still.

Vestal gasped: “Lily!”

Lily scrambled to the foot of the bed. There in her mother’s hands was a tiny, motionless body. In all the births she’d witnessed, Lily had never seen anything like this.

The baby had no face.

“Oh, Mama, what’s wrong with it?”

“She’s a caulbearer! All my life I’ve heard of this! Cauls bring good luck, Lily, and healing powers. Whoever owns one will never drown. We must save it for her Papa.”

Lily watched as Vestal gently peeled the membrane, intact, from the baby’s face. Sweet-smelling fluid trickled from beneath the caul. When the veil lifted and she faced the world at last, the baby shuddered, reddened, flailed at the air; she drew a rasping, croup-like breath, then gave a mighty squall, startling Lily.

Vestal beamed.

Almost instantly, there was another sound: heavy boots pounding up the wooden stairs. Captain Turner burst into the chamber, rivulets of rain and seawater running from his hat and cloak, so out of breath he couldn’t speak. He simply sank to his knees on the floor in the circle of light cast by Rebekah’s lamp.

Lily was little, but she believed in miracles, believed that she was witnessing how many, right now? She eyed that lamp, glowing so serenely through the gloom. She knelt by the struggling captain. With a tentative hand, she dared to pat his arm:

“Welcome home, Captain. Everyone’s made safe harbor now. I think maybe you should call this baby Stormy, sir.”

As if in agreement, the flame in the lamp flared and danced.

******

Note: My original version of “Beacon” ended up placing in a flash fiction competition sponsored by Women on Writing – just one of the ways I’ve tried to push and challenge myself as a writer. Here’s their pretty fun response: The Muffin/Women on Writing Interview.

Just the right word

Ninja

Happy Go Lucky 393. D-KarissaCC BY

In the midst of writing realistic fiction with third grade, I am stuck on a word.

We are studying how using events from our own lives can bring fiction to life. I once had a yellow parakeet that kept opening the door of its cage to fly around the house. This is the basis for the piece I’m modeling for the students. My story concerns two brothers that the students have named –  it opens like this:

Tweety Bird sat inside his cage on his swing, rocking back and forth. He lifted one yellow wing, preened it, fluffed all of his yellow feathers, and went back to swinging.

As if he didn’t know Jake was watching.

“You don’t fool me, Bird.”

Tweety blinked his purple eyes at Jake and kept on swinging. 

“Jake,” Mom called from the kitchen, “did you get the mail for me like I asked you to?” 

“No, ma’am,” Jake replied. “I’ll go now.”

As Jake left the living room, he turned back toward the birdcage. He shook his finger at Tweety:

“You better stay put. I am going to figure out how you keep escaping from your cage.”

With that, he walked through the front door.

As soon as the door closed behind Jake, Tommy popped up from behind the sofa, wearing his Batman costume, mask, cape, and all.

Tommy looked to the left.

He looked to the right.

Tommy snuck very bat-like over to the cage.

The problem with that last sentence isn’t snuck vs. sneaked, alas. That’s a discussion for another day; snuck is acceptable and I like the sound of it here better than sneaked.

No, the trouble is with another word.

“I am having a problem with the word bat-like, ladies and gentlemen. Tommy can’t sneak bat-like over to the cage because, well, bats don’t sneak. The word doesn’t work here. I’m trying to think of a better word, but I’m stuck.”

Like a wave, expressions of deep thought sweep over the sea of little faces, replacing that of delight over the Batman image. Little brows furrow. These third-graders frequently seem like forty-year-olds; we were discussing once how drivers do not pay enough attention and this is why car accidents occur. One student sighed: “People these days . . . .”

“Maybe you could try cat-like,” suggests a student.

“True – cats sneak a lot. That’s much better, but I am not sure I want to mix cat and bat here. I mean, having Tommy as Batman sneaking like a cat? What do you think?”

Heads tilt. “Yeah, it’s not quite right,” agrees another student.

A hand goes up: “How about with stealth?”

All the heads turn toward this student.

I blink.

“Wow, that’s pretty impressive. What a great word. I could say Tommy snuck with stealth over to the cage. What do you think?”

Faces are contemplative. Another student: “What about Tommy snuck stealthily over to the cage?”

It’s not really grabbing any of us – I can see the doubt on their faces.

Stealthily is an amazing word. Here’s the thing. I want a word that really helps paint the picture in the reader’s mind, that really captures the movement Tommy is making so that the image is clear to the reader. It needs to be connected to a noun, something else that sneaks, something better than a cat.”

A boy’s face lights up: “I know – a Ninja!”

It’s magic, the way all the faces light up. “Yes!”

“That’s perfect!” I cross out bat-like and write Ninja-like:

Tommy snuck Ninja-like over to the cage.

“Can you see the action in your mind, exactly how Tommy is moving toward the cage?”

Heads nod vigorously. A couple of the kids strike Ninja poses.

“I have to thank you all for your help, because I never would have thought of using Ninja. It’s just the right word.”

The students, looking like young sages, get back to work on their own writing. The hum of their brains is nearly audible.

They make another artistic suggestion later on, as my modeled story progresses:

Right before their eyes, Tweety, clinging to the bars on the front of the cage, used his beak to lift the cage door so that it fell open.

Tweety looked to the left.

He looked to the right.

And he flew out of the cage!

“Go, Tweety, go!” screamed Tommy, jumping up and down so that his Batman cape flapped.

A hand: “Mrs. Haley, if Tommy is pretending to be Batman, he could pretend that Tweety is Robin. He should say Fly, Robin, fly!

“Yessssssss!” says the class in unison.

That suggestion changes the shape of the entire story, for it provides the motivation for Tommy, as Batman, to let Tweety out of the cage in the earlier scene.

“You, ladies and gentlemen, are extraordinary writers!” I am as excited as they are with this new layer in the narrative.

With knowing smiles, they bend back over their own pages, pencils in hands.

********

Here’s the Tweety tale in its entirety, should you want to read it: The Escape Artist

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

Lighting the way

Lumos

Yesterday a fifth-grader caught me in the hallway:

“Mrs. Haley, do you have a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in your room?”

 “I have two copies. Ask your teacher if you can walk with me to get one.”

He did. As we walked, I said, “The Chamber of Secrets is a great book. I enjoyed it more than The Sorcerer’s Stone.”

“Yeah, I haven’t read Chamber of Secrets. I saw the movie and my favorite part is when Harry gets the cloak of invisibility and finds that mirror where he sees his family.”

“Ah, the Mirror of Erised … I just read that aloud to two classes at another school last week while they were studying fantasy.”

In that chapter, Harry receives the cloak of invisibility at Christmas with an anonymous note explaining that it had belonged to his father; he is admonished to “use it well.” He sneaks around Hogwarts, hidden by the cloak, and ends up in a remote, off-limits part of the building in what appears to be a storage room. He finds a large, ornate mirror. Erised backwards is desire – looking in the Mirror of Erised shows a person the deepest desires of his or her heart. Harry’s family is dead; he desperately wishes he could have known them. He is transfixed by their images in the mirror – they wave at him, and his mother wipes away her tears as she smiles at Harry.

I think, as I rummage through my basket of Potter books, Fascinating how it’s the humanity that draws us, more than the magic. 

“Here you, go,” I say to the student. “The Chamber of Secrets.”

His face lights up when I place it in his hands. “Thanks, Mrs. Haley!”

“Read it well,” I call after him, as he walks away, flipping pages.

I look around my room, my own chamber decorated with Potter memorabilia that draws children from across grade levels. They love to drop by to show me their owl collections, to ask if I’ve read The Cursed Child, to share anything Harry Potter that they’ve recently acquired. The Harry Potter club meets here twice a month, students from third through fifth grades, and we talk so much more about what motivates the characters than the magic they employ.

My Lumos glass box gleams in the corner by the doorway. I think of all the times that teachers might wish we had magic wands to show us everything the kids need, to fix all that needs fixing. I recall J.K. Rowling’s quote from her 2008 Harvard speech, now connected to her Lumos charity on behalf of children:

“We do not need magic to transform the world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already.”

It’s apparent whenever I read with the kids, whenever the Potter club meets and someone has an epiphany about a character, whenever I walk into a classroom to write with students and teachers. The essence of teaching, of reading, of writing more than anything else, is the connection of human minds and hearts. It’s all part of same story, the triumph of the human spirit. Teach it, read it, write it well – tap into all you’ve known, all you’ve loved, all you’re wrestling with, and watch their faces.

It’s all inside you. Light the way.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

 

 

 

Why I write 2016

writing

I write because it’s the closest thing there is to magic.

From words spring worlds.

Worlds of understanding, perception, knowledge – of humanity and of myself. I write to explore the world without and within, the real and the fantastic, the important and the insignificant, the extraordinary and most certainly the ordinary. Where there are ideas and images, there are words – lanterns for encircling thoughts, illuminating objects and scenes, mystically shining from one mind to another.

I write because the narrative voice in my head is continuously composing, often drowning out other important things.

The power of story compelled me to write when I was six years old, sitting at the living room coffee table with a pack of wide ruled paper and a fat pencil. A few years later, a teacher said, “What vivid descriptions! Keep writing.” Every year thereafter, a teacher strategically appeared to give a refining bit of feedback: “Wonderful writing. Here’s a way you can make it even better … and keep writing!”

I kept writing, even when my dad grumbled, “Why are you wasting so much notebook paper?”

Today, I write with children. I witness their discovery of their own voices, their courage in putting pieces of their souls on a page. I share in the excitement of their creations, in every little triumph over challenge. I work to empower teachers as writers, for the empowerment of student writers, that all might tap into the magic.

And I keep writing.

I write to wrap a cloak of immortality around everything I have loved – what was, what is, what will be.

I write to scatter the ashes of all my yesterdays, to walk in the light of all my tomorrows.

I write to celebrate having lived.

In honor of National Day on Writing, October 20.

Reflect: Why do you write? What have you wanted to write, but haven’t yet? Carve out a pocket of time today and begin. Tomorrow, repeat.

 

What lies within

 

scuppernongs

They aren’t beautiful, scuppernong grapes. Their unassuming greenish-bronze skins are flecked as if with age spots. Hardly inviting.

If you have never tasted one, you have not fully lived.

Yes, the seeds are a nuisance, difficult to manage in polite company, as one must spit them somewhere.

But put one in your mouth, gently split its remarkably thick skin open with your teeth … oh! The burst of richness is almost breathtaking. Embryonic wine, a touch of dying summer, a whisper of sweet things to come, something of all Christmases and bit of Heaven is encased in that homely little orb. No other taste on Earth compares. When I first studied mythology, I wondered if ambrosia, the food of the gods, was actually scuppernongs.

I first encountered scuppernongs as a young child. I can see the vines towering over my head, the flickering sunshine and shadow of wide leaves, the poles my grandfather erected, his straw hat, the plaid pattern of his sleeve as his big wrinkled hand reached up to pick the grapes for me. No words; just richness. Just joy.

A lot of things are like scuppernongs – unappealing on the outside, messy and more work than seems necessary. Teaching is like that. Writing is like that. Living is like that. Get beyond that first impression; it’s misleading. Press on to the heart of it. What you find there will take your breath away.

Reflect: When has the appearance of a thing, an experience, deceived you? What surprise was waiting for you within?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So we beat on

fitzgerald-grave

In the summer of 2013, my older son and I embarked on what we now call The Dead Writers Tour. The Great Gatsby film, newly released, was creating a resurgence of interest in the novel and F. Scott Fitzgerald himself. My son had just completed his second year teaching high school social studies, his favorite portion of which is the Jazz Age; he had even begun coordinating his history lessons with the English classes’ reading of Gatsby and teaching his students how to dance the Charleston.

Perhaps it was our shared loved of literature and writing, or the joy of the whole summer lying before us, teachers on the loose, that beckoned us like the green light beckoned Jay Gatsby. Perhaps the movie was the impetus for adventure, capturing the zeitgeist and ending, as the novel does,  with my son’s favorite literary quote:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Fitting, indeed, for a young history teacher who was born by a bay (albeit one in Virginia, not New York).

“You know, Mom,” said my son, as we left the cinema, “That quote is on Fitzgerald’s grave.”

“Is it, now,” I mused. “As much as you love it, you ought to go take a picture and put it up in your classroom.”

The light in his eyes was instantaneous. Out came the phone to research the grave’s location: Rockville, Maryland. How far is that from home in North Carolina? A quick check in Apple Maps: Right at four hours.

“That’s a day trip,” I said. “I’ll come with you. It will be our summer celebration kick-off.”

So, on a mid-June morning, we left long before daylight. We ate breakfast while it was still dark, chattering about our teaching accomplishments that year and our dreams about writing, lamenting the constraints of time in the daily grind of making a living. The hours passed quickly, despite the epic traffic snafu of D.C. Once on the other side, however, we sailed right into Rockville.

The cemetery is at a Catholic church in the midst of bustling city streets. After navigating such noise and chaos, I was not expecting utter silence on entering the graveyard. It was like a cosmic mute button was suddenly pressed, or that I had passed through a portal from one world to another. The city receded at once; all I could hear was a faint shivering of tree leaves overhead in the breeze, oddly cool for June, and the occasional flap of little American flags, remnants of Memorial Day, at the graves of veterans.

How incredibly peaceful, I thought.

“There it is,” whispered my son, pointing.

Fitzgerald was easy to find; his grave was the most adorned. As we approached, a brown rabbit hopped out of our path to a more remote patch of sun-dappled grass where it could nibble, undisturbed. At at the foot of his grave a flag commemorated Fitzgerald’s World War I service. On the headstone, the author’s full name signifies an even deeper connection to the flag: his famous cousin wrote the lyrics to the “Star-Spangled Banner.” I reveled in having my own first name in common with these writers and Fitzgerald’s daughter, buried nearby. A pot of daisies had been placed by the headstone, a nod to the love of Jay Gatsby’s life. Most interesting of all is that Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, who was at least part of the inspiration for the character of Daisy, is buried with him in the same grave.

Any student of F. Scott Fitzgerald knows his struggles, that he was always teetering on the brink of financial ruin, that he and Zelda lived a frenzied life, that both of their deaths were sudden and tragic, him with a heart attack in his forties and her a few years after, in a fire at the mental hospital where she was a patient. Fitzgerald never knew The Great Gatsby would become the beloved American icon that it is.

We stood there in the stillness, my son and I, drinking in the sight, lost in our own thoughts. After a bit, we took the pictures.

One or the other of us sighed. I am not sure which.

“What do you want to do now?” asked my son.

I looked up at the sky. The day was golden, still young; we had time, perhaps, for another adventure.

“You know,” I grinned, “Baltimore is only forty-five minutes farther. Poe is buried there.”

My son chuckled. He took one last look at the final Gatsby lines etched on the weathered granite slab. “All right, Mom. Let’s go.”

So we beat on.

Reflect: What literary works or quotes strike a deep chord in you? Why?

-Happy Birthday this week, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Making it real

 

4790195477_6dc88e3c93_b

Image: Porch front. Liz West CC BY

Many of the second graders were bent over their desks, writing. Others were rereading their work with pencils in hand, like diminutive journalists editing reports in a newsroom. A few more looked off into space, thinking, before returning to the pages lying before them.

One of the joys of my role as literacy coach is getting to write with students and teachers across grade levels. The previous day I had come to model realistic fiction writing for this class, focusing on how to bring the stories to life with detail and dialogue:

“When I write realistic fiction, ladies and gentlemen, I often use what has happened in my own life. That’s why you were sad when my main character’s favorite toy got ruined – you felt what she felt, because it was something that had happened to me. I could give a lot of descriptive detail because I really lived it. That’s why you laughed at the conversation between my characters, because those were real conversations I had when I was that age. I just let my characters say those things. If you want to bring your realistic fiction to life, try using some things you have really seen, said, done, or felt.”

The children decided individually whether dialogue or more detail in setting was the thing they most needed to work on, and today I was back to see how it was going. One by one, I knelt beside them to hear revisions they’d made. I noted excited twitches as I approached – these kids knew their work was better.

I paused by a desk where a girl was absorbed in writing. I remembered her piece from the day before, in which she described a porch where two little girls were having a conversation. When she’d read it aloud, I could envision the girls sitting together on the porch, but the dialogue didn’t seem to be about anything in particular. “Try to think of what might matter to these girls,” I had advised. “Are they happy about something? Worried? Think about what matters to you and see if you can help your characters have a meaningful conversation that a reader would want to read.”

Now I knelt beside her. “Do you want to read your writing to me, or keep working?”

“I want to read it to you.”

She did. As I listened, a line from Emily Dickinson’s letter to a publisher sprang to mind, asking if her verse “was alive”: Should you think it breathed – and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude . . .

“What a major improvement in dialogue! This part, here, where your main character tells her friend that she’s excited about getting a stepfather to do things with, but is also a little afraid – that’s the best line in your story. This is where it really comes to life. It’s great writing.”

She looked up at me, eyes big and solemn. “I did what you said. That’s how I feel. My mom is getting married again.” And she bent back over her writing, drawn like a duck to water or a swallow to the air, a compulsion I fully recognized, for when we write, we are putting pieces of our souls on the page. Facing our fears, meeting ourselves where we are, daring to hope, finding a safe haven, maybe to heal. Even in the second grade.

Very real, indeed.

Reflect: What truth will you write about today?