Dust motes

Dust motes

Dust. ZoiKorakiCC BY

Last week I had the pleasure of co-facilitating my district’s third annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute. K-12 teachers were invited to deepen their sense of identity as writers, hone their craft, and experiment with form. Guest author Matt de la Peña led us through a series of writing explorations on Day One.

Here’s how it went for me as de la Peña used this exchange from “Steady Hands at Seattle General,” a short story by Denis Johnson, as a springboard for capturing images: 

“What about your past?”
“What about it?”
“When you look back, what do you see?”
“Wrecked cars.”

What might those two words mean, de la Peña muses aloud for the benefit of participants. 

“Wrecked cars?” Might they be literal or figurative? 

He goes on: Choose two words to create an image describing your past—when you look back, what do you see? 

At first I wrote ‘Christmas trees’. When I look back, I see them. From my grandmother’s all-silver, 1960s tabletop tree to my real Fraser fir decked in Victorian decor. Christmas trees mean another year is ending. That life and perspectives change continuously. To me they symbolize more than tradition. They mark time. Eras. Celebrations. Losses. Our children grow up; grown-ups from our own childhood pass away . . . between chapters of the unfolding story of life stands a tree.

When I look back, I see it all.

Suddenly I don’t want to use those words, Christmas trees.

In that instant, two other words materialize: 

Dust motes. 

I do not know why.

Except that I can clearly see the image of my childhood living room, a shaft of light between the drawn curtains of the picture window, the dust floating there, tiny specks of gold— 

He’s speaking, de la Peña. Asking if any of us would share our two words.

After a moment, I volunteer. 

“Dust motes?” he questions.  “I’ve not heard this before. I’m curious—why?”

Well,” I say, thinking as I speak, “it’s the image that came to mind, a shaft of light with dust specks floating in it . . . maybe because as a child I spent much time to myself, reading, in the stillness, in silences . . . when I look back, that’s what I see. Dust motes being partly your own skin. Shed cells. Pieces of yourself floating in that light . . . “

His expression is unfathomable. 

He says: “That’s fascinating and eerie. It lends itself to something really creepy . . .”

I consider this a compliment. 

De la Peña shares a model, “What Jimmy Remembers” from Jimmy & Rita by Kim Addonizio (2012):

Girls in white stockings and checkered wool jumpers, round white collars, red bows at their throats. Birds in Saint Christopher’s schoolyard—hundreds of them, black, spread out across the lawn in late afternoon. The brick wall of the steel mill on Dye Street he could see from the living room window, his father in there working, his mother in a shiny black dress coming in at dawn after singing in some nightclub, waking him for school. Shivering and dressing over the heating vent in the front hall. Dark-blue blazer and black shoes. A puppy that died of distemper, put in a shopping bag and into a can in Bushler’s Alley. Cotton candy on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, the barkers calling Hey bub, Hey sonny, Buster, Skip, You. . .The black hearse carrying his father through the snow, a semicircle of metal folding chairs. The green faces in avocado leaves smiling down at him. God in the clouds. Who art in Heaven. His mother, ghost now: wearing a stolen mink, flipping a cigarette from a deck of Lucky’s. His father moving toward her with a match, cupping his palms around the flame.

—All images, fragments, this bit of microfiction.

“Now, using your two words as a title, take a few minutes to write what you remember from your past, but here’s the challenge: Don’t mention those two words in your scene,” says de la Peña. “Don’t worry about proper sentences. Just write . . . “

My pencil is already scratching away against the notebook paper: 

Hand-me-down corduroy Levi’s in baby blue, green, tan, cream. Ashtrays overflowing. Trips in aging Fords to buy discounted boxes of Salem menthols. Complimentary bubblegum cigarettes. A screen of smoke in the air mingled with chicken grease. Ivory Liquid suds in the sink, stiff, dry, stained with spaghetti sauce. Bathroom wall by the tub caving in where a soap dish used to be. The biting scent of Pine-Sol as it’s poured in the toilets, rolling white like smoke, clouding the water like creamer in coffee. Vaporizer in my bedroom, rattling, sputtering. The hallway, broom leaning against the wall, a gathered pile of gray lint.  Bullet in the living room rug, in the floor, if you know where to look. Books. Books. Books. Silences. Shafts of light through the picture window, beckoning from beyond. The wrought-iron lamppost by the concrete steps leading to and from the front door, the heavy, decadent fragrance of my mother’s gardenias in various stages of living and dying on the bushes there. Church carillon chiming, loud and clear, from several blocks away: Let me hide myself in Thee. The pungent whiff of crab from the factory, if the wind is just right. Salt. Salt. On my baked potato, tin foil too hot to touch, on my popcorn, on the wind. The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. All we are is dust in the wind. Words and words in my head and my heart, pouring onto stacks of pages that are always able to hold it all, and which never judge, which just absorb, and save.

There you have it. Dust motes. What I see when I look back, at least in part.

With apologies to Matt de la Peña, for while I didn’t use “motes” anywhere in my remembering, there was just no getting around “dust.” 

But also with deepest thanks to him for creating the conditions for this writing to occur.

Which is what good writing teachers do.

Important things

On Day One of school, I had a conversation about informational writing with a third-grade class.

I asked them if they know what informational writing is.

They said, “Writing that helps people learn things. Important things.”

I read excerpts of three different texts aloud to them, and then I asked:

“Why is informational writing important?”

They said:

“We learn about our world and why things work like they do” (after reading about the sun).

“We learn about friendship. We learn about relationships. We think about why we need each other” (wait—we’re in what grade? That’s right, third. Those are their exact words after a page of Owen and Mzee: The Language of Friendship. If you don’t know it: An orphaned baby hippo is brought to a park to share the habitat of a grouchy, 130-year old tortoise and . . . well, you need to read it).

“We learn about history. We learn from the past. Like why things like wars happen and what to do different, so they don’t happen again. We learn things that can save our lives” (after a page of a book about the Titanic, a topic that never, ever fails to captivate third-graders).

I basked in the glow of their words, their thoughts, their voices. Eight years on the planet and they already know so much.

My task: To channel this knowledge and energy into their own informational writing as they study the craft.

I asked one last question: “So, what do you think about informational writing?”

A general “It’s so interesting!”

Day One.

We’re off and running.

 

Fatherlove

Corgi

“Waiting …” jmcmichaelCC BY-SA

When I write personal narrative, memoir, and even realistic fiction across elementary grade levels, I usually give students choices of topic for the writing I’ll model. Many times they’ve chosen for me to write about my dad not wanting any pets when I was growing up, despite my desperate begging for them.

Students rejoice when I overcome my dad to get a dog or a cat.

One of the things I haven’t fully explored with the children is why my dad didn’t want pets. Truth is, it took years for me to fully understand . . . 

That’s where I’m going today.  

To set the stage, here’s a modeled excerpt, the scene when my mom, my sister and I have brought not one but TWO puppies home from our neighbors’ house across the street. It’s getting time for my father to arrive from work, and he has no idea we have these puppies:

“Will he make us take them back?” my sister whimpers. She has her puppy, Bagel, wrapped in a pink doll blanket. She cradles him in her arms like a baby.

“I don’t know,” says Mom. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

She sort of sticks her chin out when she says that.

The three of us sit in the living room, waiting, and when I hear the car door slam, I jump. I hold my puppy, Onyx, so close I can smell his puppy breath.

He’s home! What will he say? Will he yell?

I can hear his work shoes coming up the steps. I watch the doorknob turning . . .

Here he is, in his blue uniform with the white hard hat on his head, his big, gray lunchbox in his hand. He looks at us.

He sees the puppies.

He wrinkles up his face: “What in the . . . ”

“Surprise, Daddy!” yells my sister, holding Bagel up high in the air. “We got you some puppies!”

Suffice it to say the man knew when he was outnumbered. And defeated.

Bagel, the collie-colored, long-haired dachshund mix, was still with us when I got married.

As was Moriah, my black cat: 

Free kittens.

Take one.

The sign stood on a chair beside a disheveled guy leaning against the wall at the college bookstore entrance. This guy—another student, I guess—held a cardboard box in his arms. Kittens! I hurried over to look inside.

Only one dark, little shape huddled in the box.

“Is that the last kitten you have?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied. “No one wants her because of her tail.”

“What’s wrong with her tail?”

The guy scooped the kitten up and showed me her backside. She didn’t really have a tail, just a stump.

“What happened to her?” I wanted to know.

“She was born this way. The only one in the litter like this.”

The tiny black kitten looked up at me with her big yellow eyes.

She meowed.

She rode on my shoulder as I drove home wondering exactly how to approach Daddy.

“Please,” I said, clasping her close to my heart, where she purred against me. “No one else wanted her. I’ll keep her in my room.”

You’re allergic to cats!” he thundered. “Find somewhere for her to go!”

I didn’t, and once again, my poor father was defeated.

Moriah developed an endearing habit of running up the leg of my jeans and my shirt to my shoulder, where she liked to ride while I walked around. 

 One day, my father roared from the bathroom: “FRRAAAANNCESSSS!”

My whole first name. 

Yeah.

Had to be something really bad.

I flew down the hall to find him hunched over the bathroom sink. He’d been shaving. White cream all over his face.

When he shaved, he never wore a shirt.

Moriah, watching him, had decided his shoulder looked inviting.

She ran up his leg and his bare back to his shoulder, where she was now hanging precariously by her nails. Embedded in Daddy’s pink skin.

GET-THIS-CAT-OFF-OF-ME!” shouted Daddy. His blue eyes, reflected in the mirror, blazed at me. (Note: He actually said a few  more words than this. I’ve chosen to censor.)

I extracted my cat and we hid for days, until Daddy’s scratches healed.

Two years later, when I was about to be married, the apartment where I’d be living had a no-pet policy. I couldn’t take Moriah.

The night before the wedding, I handed her collar to my dad. “She’s yours now, Daddy.”

Here’s the crazy part: He looked pleased. He kind of half-smiled. 

Weeks afterward, my mother told me on the phone: “Your dad buys turkey at the deli for Moriah. He tears it up in tiny pieces and puts it in a dish for her.”

“He—WHAT?” 

He did it for Moriah until she was gone. Then he said, “That’s it. The last of the pets.” 

Until my mother brought home a little Shih Tzu. She named her Bridget.

Daddy grumbled for months, but was soon buying deli tidbits for Bridget, too. 

When I was expecting my first baby, I came home for a visit, and Daddy told me this story: “When you were born, your mom and I had a cat. A big, orange tabby named Tiger. He kept getting in the crib with you and we worried you’d suffocate. I ended up having to take him to the pound. It was terrible. I swore I’d never do that again.”

I looked at his face, this face that had frowned about pets all these years, saw the pain-shadow cross over it.

All this time, I thought he was just being hardhearted. 

One night, Mom called. “Bridget died today,” she said.

“Oh no. Are you okay?'”

“I’m all right. Your dad buried her underneath his camellia bush.”

A pause. Then:

“He cried like a baby. I’ve never seen him sob like that before.”

My throat wrenches. Tears burn like fire.

Oh, Daddy. Daddy. I’m sorry for everything.

And there was one more dog to come, yet another that my mother brought home without warning. A Corgi.

Daddy sighed, complained, vented for weeks on end.

He named her Foxy.

He taught her tricks, played with her every day after work. Foxy knew when to expect him; she sat on the back of the sofa, watching through the picture window, waiting for him to come home.

Maybe it’s a case of saving the best for last, for, out of them all, Daddy loved Foxy best.

He never had to give her up, suffer her loss. 

She suffered his. 

For weeks on end, she sat at the picture window, watching for him. Sighing, whining. Day after day after day, waiting, forever waiting, for him to come home . . . 

Fatherlove.   

Shine

born-to-shine

 

This is the cover of my mentor text notebook, housing the writing I’ve done with and for children across grade levels.

I believe that every child is a writer, because every child has a story. Every child has feelings and ideas. The writing teacher simply shows how to tap into these feelings and ideas, to give voice to them, to organize them, so that the mind and heart of the writer impacts readers.

Writing is about the human experience: We are all born to shine.

We shine through our fears, our losses.

We shine beyond the choices we make and the choices of others, beyond the things done to us and the things we have done.

We shine no less in our failures than in our successes; in fact, in learning and pressing on, we shine the brighter.

We shine in knowing what to hold onto and what to let go.

We shine when we harness anger before it burns away all that’s of value within us.

We shine by leaving footprints of hope for others to follow, for the human heart runs empty on despair.

We are ALL born to shine. Whether or not we do is up to us.

Reflect:  In the book The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip, 1974, a mysterious creature had the power to turn people’s eyes around to see inside their minds; they died from what they saw there. Writer, know thyself. Look deep within. You will be surprised by what you discover – the beautiful and the not. Write – and shine.