Teacher-poet-friend Margaret Simon posts a weekly image on her blog along with an invitation to write: “This Photo Wants to Be a Poem.”
Yesterday’s photo, shot by Margaret’s friend Jen, featured a dew-studded spiderweb framing the sun. A compelling call to compose … leading to my first attempt at a non-rhyming loop poem:
Sunrise feels like hope Hope for a new day Day of repairing damage done Done to one another Another day to try Try starting afresh Afresh with distilling dew Dew droplets, sacred diamonds Diamonds glittering in the light Light illuminating the torn web Web of our intricate interconnectedness.
May we all be found working on our corner of the web—and in the corners of our own hearts.
Thank you, Margaret and Jen, for inspiration to weave.
New day. Opening window blinds to a flood of sunlight. Glimpse of pines, grass grown tall overnight (how??), weathered wooden deck railing, old white rocking chair, large cement pots draped in long ivy vines, new tendrils waving, geraniums blazing green and red, interspersed with spiky brown starbursts—oh, time to deadhead.
Within moments, scissors in hand, reaching for exposed bones of skeletal blooms, crisping, decaying, red petals shriveled, let loose, bled away, spent…
—Oh! Hello. Didn’t know you were here, Dragonfly.
Swapping the scissors for the phone-camera…
How close will you let me get?
You’re small. Maybe two-and-a-half inches. Not like the first dragonflies I ever encountered in my grandmother’s yard when I was a child. Enormous things, terrifying… “They won’t hurt you! They eat mosquitoes”… good thing I didn’t know the old Scandinavian folktales then, how dragonflies come to weigh people’s souls, doling punishment on the bad, stitching children’s eyes closed for telling lies. Instead I learned to see the beautiful in the strange. Living sticks of metallic blue, iridescent gleams against the sunlit grass, darting any which way, impossibly. Air acrobats. —You’re very still. Not blue but yellow with bold black stripes. Clinging to a deadhead. Wonder why. Can’t cut the dying bloom away, not while you’re on it, Dragonfly. Won’t disturb you.
Returning later: You’re still present, resting on a green leaf.
Why should this feel so reassuring?
Maybe because the symbolism of a dragonfly is usually positive. You’re said to be bringers of light, restoring joy when it’s waning. Just as those bright geranium blooms are waning. Many new buds are already evident. Growth from within. The ability to change, transform, adapt—that is what we humans say about you dragonflies, as you begin life submerged in water (most of your lives being lived there) yet you eventually take to the air and learn to fly. By then the time remaining to you is short. Seems you make the most of it. Maybe you are harbingers of the soul. Not in judgment, but in self-realization, mental and emotional maturity, acceptance. A call to wisdom. A recurring word for me, of late.
Whatever motif lies written in iridescent ink on dragonfly wings, my grandmother knew it was good: You eat mosquitoes. You will not hurt me. You’re helpers. Protectors.
Sitting so still, amid decay juxtaposed with new growth… an inexplicable stab of delight, vibrant little messenger from nature, oblivious of your mission, perhaps, of nudging, not judging, human souls toward our own betterment … oh, and do you know? Could you know? In human lore… geraniums represent unexpected meetings.
A friend who knows of my strange love for the loud, jarring buzz of cicadas presented me with this card for my birthday. Fashioned from repurposed material, these snippets, chosen with artistic precision and care, strike deep…
Sing loud & proud
your soul is joyful loving and wants to sing
The world’s loudest cicada is the Brevisana brevis, a cicada found in Africa that reaches 106.7 decibels
Earth itself has a sound, an incessant hum caused by pounding ocean waves measured at a frequency 10,000 times lower than what humans can hear
Speak up out
For now is the time of cicadas; some of them, sleeping underground for seventeen years, are due to rise.
Yesterday, when the sun was brightest, I walked and walked the path around the graveyard of a country church, listening for the first strains.
Seems they are late. I wonder why.
I thought about their wings, how the sectional lines running through the lower portion of these long, diaphanous structures form the letter W or P. It is said that these are omens for War or Peace.
Unless Nature is a prophet.
Whatever pattern lies in the veins of their wings, or however it’s perceived, the cicada’s song is always one of life. Of survival. It is individual. It is collective. It is precious.
Most people call it cacophony, a harsh, deafening, discordant noise … not hearing the song for what it is. Not recognizing it the way cicadas do. We are not cicadas.
Yet there’s something of us, of all living things, in the sound. A song not heard with ears but with the heart, that ceaseless hum of our own brief journey from the womb to the ground. A song of earth, ocean, dust of the stars, for we are repurposed atoms of these; we carry them all, and each other, within us. Can we even hear our own song, any more than we can know our own heart, for what it really is? How can we even think we know someone else’s?
Until it becomes a collective cry of the heart.
Speak up out
your soul is joyful loving and wants to sing
even in sorrow, loss, grief, despair
even in fear, rage, hurt
especially in overcoming, healing,
rising, at long last
to greet the season of change.
Today, Two Writing Teachers shared words from Toni Morrison: This is precisely the time when artists go to work.There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore the pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.
Like that of Jordan Kim, who created this cicada collage. Her mission: To inspire others to honor our connection to the natural world and to each other.
Let it be our repurposed song, fashioned from the fragments of our hearts. Let it be positive. Let the Earth ring with it.
More of it each day. Driving the darkness away with its gentle appearing, rousing bright-eyed birds earlier and earlier, which respond in uninhibited chirps, songs, chatter. New day new day new day day day …
It’s a beautiful time to be alive. To be reborn. To mark having been born.
“What do you want for your birthday?” asked my husband.
“New rocking chairs.”
I’d been thinking on it.
The old chairs on the front porch are cracked, broken, portions held in place with wood glue. Time for them to go. Time for new ones. I want to sit outside in the light, in the breeze, even though it remains oddly chilly, to hear the birds, to see Papa Finch alight on the roof. I hear him before I see him; I wonder what his loud twitter means but I always answer, “Hi Finch!” Then there he is, tiny brown creature with his chest faintly dusted red, sitting high above the garage against the cloudless blue sky, looking directly at me. The porch is part of his domain. Sometimes from inside the house I hear his loud chirp; looking through the window, I find him sitting on the white porch rail. I suspect he’s eyeing the front door wreath for his bride’s nest. Although I took the wreath down for the winter, I’d left the old nest from last year attached. With the coming of March, and with great care, I put the faded, bird-loved wreath back in hopes that the nest would be reused. It hasn’t. So I removed it to make way for new.
Like my rocking chairs.
When my granddaughter visits now, it’s only on the front steps for a while, until the coronavirus social distancing expires. She comes with eyes full of spring light, as blue as the sky above my finch, who never fails to join our gathering and to add his voice to the conversation.
“That’s a loud bird!” says my granddaughter, age four.
“He is. Look, there he is, on the roof. Hi, Finch!”
And in these bright little moments, I revel in the poetry of life, that this bird (I wonder if he was one of the previous hatchlings from my wreath? ) should be a mainstay. Especially as my granddaughter’s name is Scout. Yes, from To Kill a Mockingbird. Whose last name was … Finch.
I want sturdy chairs on the porch, for resting. As a place to quiet my mind with the greenness of the grass in the yard and over where the path leads round the pond through greener trees. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul … To share with my granddaughter as she grows, to have coffee with my husband who almost didn’t live to see another spring. To celebrate living, being, enduring. To converse with generations of finches who’ve chosen to make my home theirs. To know, as evening falls, and I must go in, that I savored the gifts of that day to their fullest, their deepest.
My husband bought the chairs.
“We’ll put the old ones on the back deck,” he told me.
I wanted to say Why, they’re held together with glue, they’ll last maybe three days out there with no shelter, let’s just throw them away. But I didn’t. He wants to keep them, for some reason …
Truth is, the old chairs look kind of nice on the back deck by the flowerpots. For ever how long they last out there.
It was the rocker nearest the kitchen that made me realize.
Thump thump. Thump thump.
Dennis the dachshund woke from his sleep in a patch of sun-stripes at the back door. Ears perked.
“What is that?” I asked him from my chair at the kitchen table, where I was typing on the laptop.
Rising, looking through the window.
The rocker, rocking all by itself.
Thump thump. Thump thump.
The other rocker opposite sat motionless.
The wind, I thought.
Second thought: Why this rocker and not the other?
Third thought: Is the wind — or something — IN that chair?
It reminded me that I’ve always wanted to write a collection of ghost stories. An incongruous thought on such a bright, gold-green day.
How have I missed it?
For all the weeks—months—of the wind’s extended gusting and moaning under the eaves, unlike I’ve ever heard it before, I failed to notice it had stopped. All through the COVID crisis it’s been a grieved entity, swirling around my house in desperation, haunting my spirit with its voice, agitating the tall pines.
It’s still here, as my rocking chair can attest. But subdued.
Perhaps the wind has decided to sit a spell and rest. Perhaps the rocker was an invitation.
I am not sure we are friendly, yet, the wind and I, but I will offer it hospitality as long as it’s a benevolent guest. Is it taking up residence here, like the finches?
Perhaps I will take my coffee out there one afternoon and ask—begging the wind’s pardon, of course—why it cried so long and so hard.
But as I have no wish to stir anything up, maybe I’ll just let the wind rock to its heart’s content, in peace.
When our second grade team had quarterly planning, one of the subs didn’t show and I was summoned to cover the class for a while. I knew there would be sub plans.
But I brought three books with me anyway.
I gave a quick book talk and let the class choose which one to hear. The high vote-getter was A Deal’s a Deal, the story of two little rabbits swindling each other while trading toy cars. There’s a (delightfully disgusting) surprise ending, which is why I brought this book; it never fails to elicit big belly laughs and loud cries of EEEWWWWWW!
I wanted, in my few moments with these kids, for them to experience the joy of reading. I love to watch children’s faces while I read aloud; it is my favorite thing to do, next to writing with them.
A read-aloud, done well, is a theatrical performance. The kids hung on every word, they could feel the action building, they covered their faces, they howled and hollered EEEWWWWWWW!
Then they went to work on the activities left for them.
I walked the room, well-aware that teachers are trying their best to adhere to a new curriculum that offer less individual reading and writing choices. I watched the children at their tasks. I watched the clock … and decided to set my timer.
“All right, you have a few minutes left to finish this work before my time with you is up. Let’s get it done, and I will read you the book that got the second-highest vote.”
In short order, the work was done, desks cleared, random things on the floor picked up. They gathered at my feet to hear The Adventures of Beekle, the Unimaginary Friend.
I first encountered this book in a summer writing institute for teachers. Our guest author, Matt de la Peña, used it as an example of perspective, asking what’s the story really about, who’s it really about. There was a good bit of debate, as I recall …
But I didn’t set it up this way with the kids.
I just read, letting the words and the illustrations work their magic.
Turned a page, heard the collective Oooohhhh.
Saw light playing on their faces, wonder in their eyes.
I savored them as they savored this book on friendship and imagination.
Whispering in my mind: You were my first friend, too. My oldest and my dearest, even now.
All too soon we reached the end of the book, if not the end of Beekle’s and his friend’s adventures. And here’s the interesting thing: the kids knew who the story was really about, what it was really about, something I’d watched grown-ups—teachers—struggle with.
As I prepared to leave, the children gravitated to the stuffed Beekle who’d been sitting off to the side by himself. He usually sits on my bookcase in my room, an outlier amid all my Harry Potter memorabilia. At the last minute I’d grabbed him and brought him along.
Seems he was here by design, waiting for every child in turn to embrace him, in the way that only children can.
Today’s post serves a dual purpose: My daily Slice of Life Story Challenge and Spiritual Journey Thursday, organized by my friend Margaret Simon on the first Thursday of the month. Thank you, Margaret, for the invitation to host.
I chose to write around the theme of “balance.”
Not necessarily what you may think…
It’s almost here.
Spring. The equinox.
A balance of light and dark in the world, or “equal night.”
My thinking radiates in a number of metaphorical directions here but I’ll begin with the moment I was at school grappling with a new data reporting system that I have to teach to colleagues. I logged in and discovered this message: Alternate Data Entry for Dark Period.
It has the sound of a span in history, like it belongs in the Holocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period, the current one in which we live, geologically speaking (“current” meaning over 11, 000 years old, for the record). As if it can be marked in time like the Ice Age or at least the Dark Ages.
All it means, apparently, is the time when the data reporting system is shut down to be updated. It’s tech housecleaning. During the Dark Period, no additional data entry can occur, until everything is verified and balanced.
The words stuck with me, though.
Many would say we are living in a Dark Period now. It’s an era of strife, vitriol, backlash. An age of ever-increasing concerns over mental health. Over health in general—the coronavirus.
And at the heart of the darkness is fear.
A. Roger Ekirch writes in At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past: “Night was man’s first necessary evil, our oldest and most haunting terror. Amid the gathering darkness and cold, our prehistoric forebears must have felt profound fear … that one morning the sun might fail to return.” He goes on to say that many psychologists believe that our early ancestors feared not the dark itself but harm befalling them in the dark (for it was an unlit world at night) and over time night became synonymous with danger.
Fear leads to anger and anxiety. In the dark, things don’t look as they should; they’re distorted.
What’s the balance?
Now we’re back to the equinox, metaphorically.
Light. Day. The assurance that there’s still good working in the world, undoing harm. Think of the destruction of Australia and the human involvement in deliberately setting bushfires. Then think of soldiers in the Australian army, lined up in rows, cuddling and nursing koalas when off duty. Then apply it to people suffering around our globe …
We are our own greatest enemy and helpmeet. We all hang in the balance of these: despair and hope, destruction and edification, hurt and healing.
In The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Patricia A. McKillip describes a monstrous creature like “a dark mist” who embodies “the fear men die of.” The novel is about learning how to live and love in a different world.
That would mean overcoming the dark, the fear.
Incidentally, in a strange balance, the current virus causing so much alarm shares its name with the crown of the sun.
And, speaking of the sun, here’s the secret of the equinox, why it’s not really equal: There’s actually more day than night.
More light. Literally.
And figuratively, it has nothing to do with moving around the sun and everything to do with moving the human heart.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How can there be so much light.
Note: After publishing this post, I learned that the big orange cat has a name: Sunshine.
A Latin word that sort of rolls around the throat and off the tongue.
As well it should roll, since it literally means course, derived from curricle, a horse-drawn chariot for racing, and currere, to run.
So, perhaps that’s why there are pacing guides . . .
Moving on . . .
Suffice it to say that I’ve spent a good deal deal of time lately thinking about and discussing curriculum with teachers. At this point, I could launch into an exhaustive albeit incomplete analysis of types of curriculum (new facets develop almost daily), but it’s that’s not my purpose here. Having spent all of last Friday co-facilitating professional development for my colleagues on core instruction, I will reference my state’s definition of curriculum:
“The materials, instructional programs, texts, lessons and mapping (for academics and behavior/social-emotional functioning) delivered to all students. These should be evidence-based, aligned with student needs, provide clear mapping towards meeting standards, take into account student skill deficits, and align with school resources. The chosen curriculum should be evaluated often for effectiveness but with a keen eye first on implementation fidelity. In other words, before abandoning a program, the team should ensure it was implemented as it was designed because this is a common cause of poor outcomes” (NC MTSS Implementation Guide, “Defining Core”).
—There you have it, friends. That’s the course.
The running of this course is what concerns me.
Consider those phrases: aligned with student needs and taking into account student skill deficits. A course of study, a prescribed curriculum, doesn’t always, and isn’t able, of itself, to take into account student needs and deficits. The curriculum is a thing. A long and winding road that’s sometimes treacherous to navigate, for the thoughts, ideas, ideologies, theories, experience, assumptions, and intents of curriculum designers (and adopters) are not always clear or evident to the minds of those who are trying to discern them while simultaneously attempting to plot the course for a class of diverse learners. We see the what for the arduous path it is. We can sometimes see, even appreciate, the why. We struggle most with the how. The how too easily becomes an effort to run this course at all costs, to finish well, to plow on full-strength to the best of one’s ability in order to cover the necessary ground, i.e., all the standards and objectives as laid out. And the greatest how of all: How to run this race well when so many students are nowhere near the starting gate in regard to meeting standards, or proficiency?
Years ago a mentor told me we must stop thinking via the deficit model. We must see the whole child, meaning that we must acknowledge students’ strengths and focus on what they can do vs. what they can’t. I believe in the truth of this; I just know that it’s hard to hang onto in the throes of the daily race while rattling bumpity-bump down a formidable and rigorous course. Last Friday my teaching colleagues spent a lot of time thinking about children who aren’t “making it” in core instruction. Teachers considered why, then why again, then why again . . . coming to the conclusion that while there are curriculum tights to adhere to, for all kids to have the chance to be successful, there must also be curriculum tweaks. Collective decisions made with professional judgment. A concentrated meeting of the minds, a gleaning and sharing of experience and expertise, not for any other children but the very ones in front of us . . . .
That brings us to instruction, the real how. That’s why we HAVE professional development, to continue reaching for strategies, better ways of supporting students in getting from where they are to where they need to be. It doesn’t come prepackaged. It comes by knowing the children. In growing pedagogical know-how. In creativity. In thinking a great deal more out of the box when the box clearly doesn’t fit. In collaboration, through collective decisions made with professional judgment, with respect to the professionals that teachers are. The true art of teaching means tapping into the very core of humanity, in fostering atmospheres and experiences in which all learners will grow. . . and that undoes our analogy, doesn’t it? For if curriculum is the running of the race, who, then, is the charioteer? Who are the horses, running for all they’re worth? What, pray tell, is the chariot? Is education itself merely a marathon, a twisting and turning through obstacle courses laden with increasingly higher hurdles to clear, a jumping through hoops that progressively constrict?
When I was completing my teaching degree I lamented the high volume of work for little meaningful benefit or lasting takeaways. My advisor sighed: “I might as well tell you that education courses are basically tests of endurance.”
That is not what education should be. For students, for teachers, for anyone.
I’d rather think of the course as Life. The student as the charioteer. The student’s teachers over the years as the chariot engineers and artisans, continually building, tightening, tweaking, balancing, and adding their own unique embellishments to the vehicle that will carry that student forward through the future. The horses are named Knowledge, Wisdom, and Preparation; they are always hungry, always wanting to be fed so that they can keep driving on. The horse leading them all is called Inspiration . . .
But of course education, nor curriculum, is really about racing. Right?
“Thank you for pointing out the importance of professional wisdom,” said one of the teachers leaving the core instruction session last week, “and for honoring all the things we’re already doing. It was so uplifting.”
We’ve been off and running so hard for so long but now, oh yes, maybe now, we are getting somewhere.