An ancient alchemy

One day at dismissal while I was monitoring the hallway, i.e., preventing a stampede, a fifth-grade girl approached me:

Mrs. Haley, I have been working on a story. I was wondering if you could give me some tips?

Of course! Is this an assignment for class?

No, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while…

Even better. Have you written any of this story yet?

Yes, a little, but I’m stuck. C. told me how you helped him last year and he said youre the one to ask…

And so it was arranged that the student would come to meet me in the morning, story in hand.

She brought a friend. Another fifth-grade girl.

I began to sense that this was either a business conference or a council of wizards… maybe both.

The student read her story (a fantasy) and explained that she needed help with where to go next.

We discussed the strengths of her introduction and how to create a hook. The friend’s eyes glistened.

I asked several questions about the characters and their problem-solving adventure (i.e., plot). The story-writer answered aloud, expanding her own thinking. When I made a suggestion or two, both girls’ faces took on an otherworldly light.

Most of all, my young apprentices (I really didn’t say ‘my young apprentices’ — I only thought it as I spoke), if you’re going to have magic in this story, you have to stick to the rules you put in place or you’ll lose your readers. Does that make sense?

Oh yes, said the friend, nodding sagely. It still has to be believable.

And off they went, leaving me marveling in their wake about codes and spells and the power of one’s own mind to imagine the unimaginable, of idea-dust drifting through the atmosphere to settle upon whomever it chooses for bringing forth the story that wants to be told.

For, in a time and place when writing workshop is out of vogue and crafting responses to texts is essentially all the writing the present educational Powers That Be can imagine, what could be more magical than a child desiring to write a story for the sheer pleasure of it?

Nothing, I think. Nothing. It’s an ancient alchemy.

Go forth, young crafters.

Your stories await.

So do I.

So do we all.

John Steinbeck on Storytelling. Jill Clardy. CC BY-SA 2.0

*******

Special thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge…supporting student writers starts with supporting teacher writers.

For love of Narnia

Discovering people who love Narnia is the closest thing there is to actually waking up and discovering you’re in Narnia. From the time I was ten I felt the same longing of those fictional English schoolchildren who found their way in though several different portals between that magical world and this one, that constant desire to return, to see Aslan again…

So when my children were born, I set about imparting a love of Narnia (and books) in their hearts.

My oldest loves books to this day. Narnia, however, never seemed to hold the same Deeper Magic for him that it does for me.`

Until recently.

He began reading the series to his five-year-old daughter last year and Narnia pulled him in. All the way in.

That is what Narnia does.

He would text me at different points on his adventure, the same adventures I’ve had over and over all my life. The snow. The lamppost. The thaw. Talking Beasts. Dr. Cornelius. Bree the Horse. Boarding the Dawn Treader. Meeting Reepicheep. The royal line of kings. Falling in love with Aslan, over and over and over again…

At the beginning of The Last Battle, this text: It’s heartbreaking.

Later: I got to the part where Cair Paravel has fallen and Tirian says Narnia is no more…am weeping…

Later still: Just finished The Last Battle. It broke me.

I learned from my little granddaughter, who whispered in my ear: “He cried so much that I told Mama we should be really nice to him. His eyes were all red.”

My boy, my boy. Once Narnia gets a hold of you, it never lets go. It’s in your blood, forever and ever.

Trust me.

It is but the beginning.

For Christmas he gave me this necklace with Lucy and Mr. Tumnus
in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Paper dragon haiku

Discouraging week
somewhat less than magical
suddenly transformed

by the appearance
of a tiny green dragon
and its paper tree

enchantment handmade
and proudly given by a
sweet student, to me

Created by a fourth-grader, the fantastic little beast lives on my bookcase now

A bit of whimsy

Who wouldn’t love a seahorse pen?
Hippocampus reigns in hand and brains!
Iridescent eyes awaiting
My planner for updating
See the daily reminder here…
You are made of magic.

This really is my seahorse pen and planner. Just sayin’.

Dedicated to my blogger-friends at SOS—Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog
in light of the challenge to capture a bit of whimsy

Snow magic

Holidays over
first day back to school
we heard it might snow
what we get
is gale force winds
diagonal rain
and utter darkness
(oh, those kids waiting at bus stops…)
which is why so many don’t come
there are just four kids in one room,
six in another,
and so on
not to mention that at home
the power went out
before I could get ready
hardly an enchanting winter morn
except for candles…

when I finally arrive at work
my family texts
it is pouring snow here,
pouring
but when I look through the windows
don’t see any of it
not any
just cold cold rain
collecting in huge puddles
on this dark dark day
until
I pass a teacher in the hallway
leaning out of the glass door,
scouring the iron-gray sky
are you looking for snow?
oh yes, if it starts,
I am bringing my class
out here in the hall
to read Snowmen at Night


just then, we see
the first flakes of white…

all over the building
children run to the windows
for every little bit of magic
they can find

or perhaps it’s more a matter
of letting the magic find you

or maybe even
a determination to
make the magic
yourself

for it is in yourself
just as it is
in every single
falling crystal

and most certainly
in books.

Detail of a magical mask design a colleague made and happened to give me today.
You will have caught the book connections in the first two photos; can you catch the last?

Opal

It looks like a glass teardrop there in my hands. I tip it this way and that, watching the tiny white pieces inside floating up and down in the clear liquid, catching the light and glowing with bits of colored fire. I’ve never seen anything so magical.

“Grannie, what IS this?” I breathe. I can see it’s a necklace. It has a little cap of silver leaves and a silver chain.

She understands. “A floating opal,” she replies, rummaging through her jewelry box.

I can’t look at anything else.

I wonder about the liquid. Is it water? From where? A magic spring bubbling up in a wizard’s garden? What if it isn’t water but tears cried by an enchanted princess and collected in the teardrop-shaped globe as a powerful talisman? Why is the opal in little pieces and how can there be such fiery red, blue, and green in its luminescent whiteness? Colored fire burning in water…is there a spell on this floating opal? What does it MEAN?

I don’t even realize how spellbound I am, or how long I would sit staring at this otherworldly object, until Grannie speaks, breaking the hypnosis:

“You can keep it, if you want.”

*******

I’ve loved opals ever since. Their beauty, their symbolism, their lore. They’re said to be stones of emotion, freedom, and independence; that certainly sounds like my Grannie, who had a fiery streak herself. It sounds like what she may have wished for me. Opals also have a mixed-bag reputation of misfortune and hope, and once it was believed that an opal wrapped in a bay leaf would render a person invisible; it was accordingly dubbed patronus furum, “patron of thieves,” says the International Gem Society.

Come to think of it, I never did ask Grannie how she came by this floating opal…not that she would have taken it. Surely not. But as freely as she gave it, I wonder: Might it have belonged to my Papa G’s first wife who died years before? A floating opal necklace like this dates to the 1940s…

No matter, really, as was it my grandmother’s to give thirty-something years later, and I was the receiver.

Recently I stumbled upon this story about opals I’d never heard before One more mesmerizing, mysterious thing… courtesy of the International Gem Society:

In a chapter of Sir Walter Scott’s 1829 gothic novel, Anne of Geierstein, we learn the unusual story of the enchanted and mysterious Lady Hermione.

The grandmother of the titular character, she appeared to possess magical powers. At times, she seemed more an indefatigable spirit — an ignis fatuus or will-o’-the-wisp — than human. She always wore in her hair a golden clasp with an opal that “amid the changing lights peculiar to that gem, displayed internally a slight tinge of red like a spark of fire.” This gem seemed to reflect her moods, showing “a twinkling and flashing gleam which seemed to be emitted by the gem itself” whenever she became animated or agitated, “as if it sympathized with the wearer’s emotions.”

On the day of her daughter’s christening, drops of holy water struck her opal, which “shot out a brilliant spark like a falling star, and became the instant afterwards lightless and colorless as a common pebble.” Hermione then collapsed. Two hours later, all that remained of her was a handful of gray ashes.

So. A grandmother, a granddaughter… named Anne.

Let me just say that Ann is my middle name.

I will not even address the name Hermione in this legend; I will just let Harry Potter fans savor that on a whole ‘nother level with me.

And let me also say that somehow, in the passing of the years, Grannie’s floating opal got misplaced. When one of my babies snapped the chain long ago, I put the teardrop pendant somewhere for safekeeping. I finally found it in a little heart-shaped velvet case inside a larger jewelry box.

The globe had separated from the silver-leaf cap. The liquid had dried up. All that remained were the little pieces of broken opal.

Tears welled in my eyes; I couldn’t help wondering if the opal stopped floating when my Grannie died.

But, if I ever write a fantasy someday, you can be sure a floating opal will play a significant role.

*******

Photo: Vintage floating opal necklace on Etsy.
Looks exactly like Grannie’s when I first saw it.

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 15, I am writing around a word beginning with letter o.

The umbrella

—Franna, I need a Frozen umbrella.

—You do?

—My friend had a Little Mermaid one but I want a Frozen one.

—I see. Was this your friend in preschool?

—Yes. Before coronavirus.

—Well. We will have to look for a Frozen umbrella, then. To keep you safe and dry when it rains…

She picked it out. It just so happened to come with a little rain jacket.

The week before torrential rains in this long, long hurricane season, in this long, long year.

When I was about her age, my grandmother gave me a ceramic ornament—two children in yellow rain slickers and galoshes hunkered under a big gray umbrella. If I held the base and twisted the top, it played a tune… I knew the lyrics, and sang…

Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head
But that doesn’t mean my eyes will soon be turning red
Crying’s not for me
‘Cause I’m never gonna stop the rain by complaining
Because I’m free
Nothing’s worrying me

And so the seasons turn, turn, turn, many times over, and here she stands in the autumn of this dreary year, excited for the rain, making her own special brand of magic under a celestial, bright-aqua canopy of love, wonder, and song… I once read that the umbrella is a symbol for power and dignity.

I would say yes, and in this case, absolute joy.

In which I bask.

My heart sings on.

Flavor of fall

Someone I love just gave me this “Brew” cup and infuser ball along with loose black tea leaves mingled with cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, milk chocolate curls, and calendula petals what’s not to love?
I am sipping liquid Autumn.

In my online writing voyage, I’ve just come to a new port of call—Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog.

Those words, stories and magic, are all the passport I need to disembark and discover…

Today’s open invitation is writing about a favorite fall food, or one loved as a child.

My mind goes immediately to the breakfast cereal Count Chocula. I look for it at the beginning of every autumn now, but, if I recall correctly, it used to be available all year round when I was a child. I could be wrong. At any rate, I hadn’t seen it in decades when, maybe three years ago, it reappeared on grocery shelves as if by magic—poof! Voilà! —catapulting me, wide-eyed, open-jawed, straight back into childhood, to age 8? 9? 10?, hunkered over the cereal bowl, immersed in a book (for one cannot eat a bowl of cereal without a book, right? Isn’t it some unwritten law?). I wouldn’t stop at one bowl, see. Usually it was two. Maybe even three… suddenly my father is walking through the kitchen again, scowling: “First ketchup! You use way more than you should. Now this. Nobody needs to eat this much cereal…I’m buying three gallons of milk a week! For only two kids!”

What would he say if he could see how many boxes of Count Chocula I have, at this very moment, squirreled away my cabinet? Yikes!

Once this prompt got me walking around in Long Ago, savoring my Count Chocula, I began tasting other things… my mother’s peanut butter cookies with Hershey’s kisses on top, slightly melted from the fresh-baked warmth. She made them when neighborhood kids gathered at our house to watch the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz on TV, in those pre-cable days. I think this was in fall… there was a chill outside. The grainy-crunch cookies with their soft-bottom chocolate caps, Dorothy, her comrades, her red ruby slippers (which I later went to see numerous times in the Smithsonian), dear Toto, Glinda in her iridescent bubble, the Emerald City, the music… all magic, all warmth… there’s no place like home in the living room with friends and family, taking a trip down the yellow brick road once a year.

I do not know why memory leads from that scene to school carnivals, the caramel apples and Crackerjacks that I did NOT like, the scent of hot buttery popcorn in the air, the delicious excitement of reaching my arm into a giant clown face with a cut-out mouth for a grab-bag full of little treasures…and onto Halloween, the shivery joy of putting on a costume and going out into the cold dark night with friends who looked funny, creepy, and spooky but never really scary, in a time and place where it was safe to go trick-or-treating from house to house to house…oh, and I never did like candy corn, although it’s pretty and fun to use as decorations, like for turkey beaks or tail feathers on tabletop arrangements at Thanksgiving.

—Thanksgiving.

My mother’s carrot cake.

Locally famous, the only carrot cake I’ve ever really liked. Everyone loved it. I have her recipe. I make it every Thanksgiving and again at Christmas. Her secret: carrots finely-grated to pulp and extra cinnamon.

—And there it is.

My favorite flavor of fall.

Cinnamon isn’t exactly a food in itself, but to me, it’s the essence of celebration in my mother’s cake, the aromatic allure of my new autumn spice latte tea, the crowning glory of hot apple cider, the thing behind my longing for pumpkin spice coffee at the first hint of coolness in the air, just as reds and golds begin tinging the leaves… interesting, isn’t it, this tree-connection. Cinnamon is, after all, bark. The dying of the leaves, the dying of the year, going out in a blaze of glory, cinnamon their royal embalming spice, rich, fragrant, preserving like memory, like immortality, like being a child at home, face pressed again the window soon to reflect candlelight, the holiness in holidays, flickering bright with hope and promise when the days grow short and dark…

My best-loved taste of fall.

Well, and Count Chocula.

—Yum.

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I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

The Happy Napper

Once upon a time there was a little girl with crystal-blue eyes and a mischievous grin. On a June afternoon, when she was four-and-a-half, the little girl announced to her Franna:

“I can speak Unicorn.”

Now, this came as no surprise to Franna, who knew what magical creatures children are. She also knew that any adult playing a part in a child’s life is charged with sustaining bits of the magic, for that is the secret law of how the universe works… so, just as Franna was about to ask the little girl to please teach her how to speak Unicorn, too, a commercial came on TV.

“Look!exclaimed the little girl, pointing her tiny dear finger at the screen. “Happy Nappers!”

“Ah,” said Franna, nodding sagely.Those are … sleeping bags in the shape of animals? First they are pillows, and … you unsnap them to turn them into sleeping bags, then turn them back into pillows when you are done resting?”

“Yes,” answered the little girl in an imperious voice, her eyes glued to the images.

“How magical,” said Franna, scratching her head. She was on the verge of requesting Unicorn language lessons once again when the little girl drew herself up to her full height of forty-five inches and uttered the magic words:

“I. Wish. I. Had. One.”

She added a barely perceptible sigh—exactly the thing that sets the spell in motion.

Franna had no choice then, for it was the same spell she cast on her own grandfather when she was five, long, long ago. She wished for red rubber boots. The next time she came to see him, there they were, waiting for her. After all these years, Franna could still see his smile, could feel the rush of joy…

There was only one thing to do.

“Well, which Happy Napper do you like?” asked Franna.

“The pink unicorn,” announced the little girl.

Franna whipped out her handy smartphone to order the pink unicorn and … “Oh dear.”

“What is it?” asked the little girl.

I am trying to order the pink unicorn Happy Napper but it’s not available right now. This is called ‘on backorder.’ It means you have to wait a lot more days for it to get here…”

“Oh,” said the little girl, but not in a crestfallen way. She shrugged. “It will still come, right?”

“Yes, but some of the other Happy Nappers are ready to ship now. Like the white unicorn, if you want it instead …”

The little girl shook her head. “The pink one.”

So that was that. Franna ordered the pink unicorn Happy Napper which would take a month—an eternity!—to ship. And, quite unwittingly, she made a grave, grave error: She told the little girl that the pink unicorn shipping date was July 22.

On the morning of July 22, Franna’s son phoned to say: “Guess who woke up singing ‘Today is Happy Napper Day, Happy Napper Daaaay…'”

“Oh no!” cried Franna. “Today is just the SHIPPING day! And I haven’t had any updates!”

“I see …” said Franna’s son, and she did not envy him one bit, having to tell the little girl the Happy Napper really wasn’t due to materialize on that precise day.

And then… things got worse. Much worse. The unthinkable occurred.

A dreadful email arrived:

“Hello! We apologize, but due to overwhelming demand, your order is still on backorder … we expect additional inventory soon… you have the option to modify your order to a different character if you like…”

Feeling weary to her bones, and utterly unmagical, Franna called the little girl to explain: “Your pink unicorn Happy Napper is still backordered. It is not on the way yet. You can still change to a different animal …”

“Why is it taking so long?”

“Well, I guess the pink unicorn is really special and lots of kids wanted it. The Happy Napper people ran out of them and are having to make new ones. Supplies might be hard to get right now because of the coronavirus…”

And the little girl understood. Coronavirus meant she would not go back to preschool, not ever. Coronavirus kept her away from her friends. Coronavirus was a plague, a powerful enchantment that couldn’t be broken, only waited out. Tiny viruses topple mighty kingdoms…

Franna felt terribly sad and vowed not to mention the Happy Napper again.

The Happy Napper people must have known, for they sent Franna an e-book, which was some consolation, as the next most magical thing to a child is a book…and this one contained unicorns…

Then, one afternoon in late August, a mint-green box was delivered to Franna’s porch. She brought into the house and put it on the piano bench to await the coming of the little girl…

Several days later, here she came, strolling into Franna’s house with a joyous smile of greeting… when her crystal-blue eyes landed on the mint-green box…

It just so happened that the little girl could read quite well…

Those words on the box…

Her blue eyes widened. All the light in the universe converged there on her little face and shone forth as only this sacred magic can. She gasped:

“THE HAPPY NAPPER? It’s HERE??”

And so it was.

They opened the box, pulled out the silky-soft hot pink unicorn, and stretched it to its full blinding-rainbow length on the floor, whereupon the little girl climbed right in and made Franna zip it up to her chinny-chin-chin. The pink unicorn fit the little girl just right. The long wait was finally over, at last. And so Franna and the beloved little girl and her pink unicorn lived—can’t you guess?—happily nappily ever after.

One happy napper.

Once upon a time, Franna wished for a little girl.

*******

Magic moments of childhood never die: Here’s the story of the red rubber boots.

Making the magic

The thing I love most about the newly-released Harry Potter: A Journey Through a History of Magic isn’t the astonishing wealth of research, the fascinating museum artifacts, or the breathtaking artistry of Jim Kay.  It’s not the topic of magic, explored through the ages.

It’s the writing process documented throughout the book.

From handwritten drafts in composition notebooks to typed manuscripts marked with ongoing revisions, this photographic journey of J.K. Rowling’s creation of the series is a treasure trove for writers and teachers of writing. The message is clear: Making the magic is a lot of hard work.

 

Rowling’s draft of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in Harry Potter: A Journey Through a History of Magic.

Rowling shares how her ideas began, how they grew, and how immersion in the process caused more ideas to develop:

When I’m planning I often have multiple ideas popping up at the same time, so I’m attempting to catch the best ones as they fly by and preserve them on paper. My notebooks are full of arrows and triple asterisks instructing me to move forward four pages, past the ideas I jotted down 20 minutes ago, to continue the thread of the story (113).

Catching ideas “as they fly by.” I am reminded of Elizabeth Gilbert’s words in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, recounting what poet Ruth Stone shared with her:

When she was a child growing up on  a farm in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields when she would sometimes hear a poem coming toward her—hear it rushing across the landscape at her, like a galloping horse. . . she would “run like hell” toward the house, hoping to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough to catch it. That way, when the poem reached her and passed through her, she would be able to grab it and take dictation, letting the words pour forth onto the page. Sometimes, however, she was too slow, and she couldn’t get to the pencil and paper in time. At those instances, she could feel the poem rushing right through her body and out the other side. It would be in her for a moment, seeking a response, and then it would be gone before she could grasp it . . . But sometimes, she would nearly miss the poem, but not quite. She would just barely catch it, she explained, “by the tail.” Like grabbing a tiger. Then she would almost physically pull the poem back into her with one hand, even as she was taking dictation with the other. In these instances, the poem would appear on the page from the last word to the first—backward, but otherwise intact (65).

It’s one of the reasons why I say writing is the closest thing to magic that there is.

Note that Rowling and Stone were both working as the ideas flew. Physical activity stimulates thought, gets the creative juices flowing, sets the welcome mat out for the ideas, opens oneself as the conduit. The ideas don’t come if you merely sit and wait for them. Get busy. Start writing or walking (the preferred activity of E.B. White and C.S. Lewis).  Just do.

And have those notebooks nearby—be ready to capture the ideas as soon as they start flying.

The real alchemy begins as soon as the ideas are on the page. There’s an art and a science to transforming raw, base material into something of value, in purifying and perfecting the work. We know these as revision and editing. Rowling’s drafts are priceless examples of the writing process to share with would-be writers. Even Ron, Hermione, and Harry would attest to the fact that making magic does not come easy—it’s the result of continuous practice, of constantly honing the craft.

Speaking of which: It just so happens that I was in a bookstore cafe on a Saturday afternoon, collaborating with colleagues on a district presentation about the writing process and growing writers, when guest services announced:

“Listen up, Harry Potter fans! You’ll want to come by and get a copy of A Journey Through a History of Magic, released just yesterday. . .”

My colleagues looked at me knowingly. Of course I went straight for the counter, never suspecting that a powerful tool was about to land in my hands.

Just another illustration of being immersed in work when the magic comes seeking.