Reclamation

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

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

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

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

Reclamation.

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

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

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

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

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

But I’ve started.

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

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

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

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

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

Let the reclamation begin.

Photo: Reclamation. Derrick Mercer. CC BY-SA

From ashes of auld lang syne

 

embers

New Year’s Eve. The wind gusts in the night beyond the bedroom window. I sit at my scarred old vanity, watching a tiny hand-me-down television. I am fifteen, this room is my inner sanctum, so I am surprised when Daddy brings me a slice of frozen pizza that Mom heated up for a late snack. “Something to munch on while we wait for midnight,” he says, and departs. My heart is stirred by this gesture. I don’t know why. I can’t even say if it’s a pang of happiness or sadness.  I take a tentative bite of the pizza and resume watching the movie Come Back, Little Sheba. I am safe and warm, the pizza is unexpectedly tasty, yet I shiver. The desolation of the characters and their story pierces me. How could things be so wrong? Would Sheba—a missing dog—ever come back home?

The wind moans under the eaves; I can’t stop this seeping inner chill.

Midnight arrives. I should say something to my parents.

I go down the hall to the living room, where they are turning off the big TV. “Happy New Year,” I say. 

They are stretching, yawning: “Happy New Year, Sugar. Good night.”

We head for our beds.

The ringing of the phone wakes me from a deep sleep.

I sit straight up. A phone call at this time of night—morning, rather—can’t be good news.

I wait in the dark, pulling the blankets around me, as my father’s footsteps hurry down the hardwood hallway to the kitchen. He answers the phone, hurries back down the hall to get my mother.

I hear her crying.

Heart pounding, halfway not wanting to know but also realizing I’ll have to face whatever it is sooner or later, I get up and go to the kitchen.

Mom is hanging up the phone, tears streaming.

“Grannie’s house caught fire. They all got out but the house is gone.”

I am suddenly weak. I need to sit down. I do, right there on the kitchen floor.

How did this happen? I want to know but can’t bring myself to ask.

My grandparents have been sent to the hospital for monitoring; within a couple of hours, my aunt arrives to stay with us. She is weeping, nearly incoherent, her clothes reeking of smoke. A charred, overpowering smell. 

The smoke woke me up, she sobs. Thank God for the phone in the bedroom. She tells us that when she picked it up to dial 911—the brand-new emergency number—the receiver was almost too hot to  touch. Coughing, knowing she had to get out, she opened her bedroom window and crawled through to the porch roof. There she found Grannie and Papa G. Within minutes, the fire trucks arrived, ladders went up, and my family was ushered to safety. As she speaks, I see hoses dousing orange flames that illuminate the icy black night.

Jenny was still in there, sobs my aunt.

Her beloved Siamese cat, twelve years old.

Three firemen held me back, she says, choking on her words, and I envision how hard my aunt fought to go back for Jenny. She’s a sizable woman; it probably took everything those three firemen had to restrain her until the fire was out and they could search. 

My aunt, middle-aged, unmarried, never having had children, dissolves in anguish: They found her body under my bedroom window.

Jenny, she sobs over and over in my mother’s arms. I am sorry, Jenny.

I am now as cold as ice, shaking uncontrollably.

—Come back, little Sheba.

*******

The question we all had: How did the fire start?

It was an old two-story house, drafty, with a curious assortment of doors and rooms. A chimney stood in the wall between the living room and Papa G’s little dressing room on the ground floor. As that New Year’s Eve was excessively cold and windy, my grandparents burned logs in the living room fireplace. They extinguished the fire before they went to bed but the wind gusted hot embers back down the chimney with enough force to blow the old plate off the wall at its back. The embers landed on the dressing room rug, directly under the room where my grandparents lay sleeping.

On that long-ago New Year’s Day, extended family gathered to survey the damage. Wooden doors on the ground floor were burnt completely through their middles but still held onto their glass knobs, like ravaged ladies saving their diamonds at all costs. The pantry where I stood so often as a young child, opening all of Grannie’s stopper spice bottles to smell the contents—cloves were my favorite—was destroyed by soot and water. The avocado-green telephone in the kitchen had melted down the wall like something out of a Dali painting. 

That phone, more than anything, sent my fifteen-year-old mind reeling. The horror of that much heat. That much danger, the near escape. The ruin of it all, the losses. Jenny. There would be no going back. No coming back.

The old house, the old year, a portion of my childhood lay in ashes. 

But my predecessors were survivors. They left a legacy of rising above, of carrying on. They knew, well before that night, how to bring something new from the old, something beautiful out of desolation. To my astonishment, the house was restored and refurbished more elegantly than before; my grandparents and my aunt lived there for many more years. 

We don’t go back, no. We can’t.

But we go on. 

It’s a long time since I was fifteen, straddling the transition from childhood to adulthood, coping with the temporal nature of life and its losses, but I believe that New Year’s fire marked the true beginning of my resilience, faith, courage, and, when needed, my fighting spirit. My inheritance. It’s carried me through every year since, even this last, in the greatest crisis of my adult life. Once again, my family survives, only this time I’m the older generation. We recoup, we go on to whatever this new year holds for us.

Perhaps it’s overcoming that sparks the memory. 

It’s auld lang syne, my dears, auld lang syne, beyond the darkest night, the ashes of what was. And not forgotten.

I rise and walk into the new carrying you with me, always.

Photo: Embers. Brian Douglass. CC BY

A word for 2019

A friend gave me a treasure box of gifts for Christmas.

One of the items in it was this gilded 2019 planner.

I already have a (rather large) daily planner for mapping out my workdays—I write in pencil because, as I accommodate the teachers I support, the course of each day shifts constantly, and I make lots of notes. Part of living the coachly life. I’ve learned to embrace it.

So I look at this beautiful planner and think: How shall I use it?

I could give it away, except that don’t want to, it was given to me with love, and I have come to understand that things come to us for a reason. There’s a purpose for this little planner.

I look at it, shimmery and new, just like the year itself, lying before me.

Beckoning, almost.

I will use it for something personal, then.

Maybe for my writing. To map out a timeline, to hold myself accountable for completing things. Or perhaps as a bit of a notebook, recording new thoughts and ideas before they get away, before I have the chance to play with them and flesh them out. I could capture images until I have time to explore why they struck me and what they mean. I frequently use the notes app in my phone for this but the planner has more “space” for movement, for expression. Not to mention sketching. I could carry it with me, keep it by my bedside.

Or I might even be able to use the planner as a sort of manuscript style sheet. For I’ve lots of things that need to be written, rewritten, or simply finished.

However I slice it, then, the planner invites me to plan.

And to write.

And there’s my word for 2019.

It’s something I already do, that already defines me, so it seems superfluous, but it’s the word, the action, that calls to me most. With the greatest sense of urgency, tinged with excitement.

—WRITE.

Here’s to your own unique adventure as the golden cover of 2019 opens.

Take it, live it, to the next level.

Treasures await.

And one of them is your story.

New

New

The new year sparks contemplation of the word new.  

So the year is new, but what else? Monday still follows Sunday, January still follows December. The days roll into each other without any notable variance. Today looks almost exactly like yesterday; it’s still winter, still below freezing, and my dogs still do not want to stay outside more than the necessary few minutes. The holidays are ending and work is resuming, as they always do. None of this is new.

As I sought to apply new to something today—since the usual and very regular passing of time really should not count—I got the mental image of the word new on a dictionary page. This led me to do something paradoxical: I moved a chair over to one of my bookcases, pulled down a heavy volume, blew off the dust (alas!), and snapped the above photo of the definition in The New Century Dictionary. 

I say paradoxical because that dictionary, despite its title, is hardly new. It was published in 1952. The original copyright is 1927.

The dictionary and the definition are old indeed. I know there are better, far more concise definitions of new in online dictionaries now.

Why, then, turn to something so old to examine the meaning of new?

Well, first of all, I needed an image for this post and that’s the one that came to mind.

And I love old books, old things in general. Any vintage artifact holds great appeal to me, mostly because of the invisible layers of story wrapped around it. I never tire of stories of long ago. I am endlessly fascinated by how people survived and how resourceful they were, often with so little.

In fact, resourceful was nearly my chosen word for 2018, because of this definition on Dictionary.com:

able to deal skillfully and promptly with new situations, difficulties, etc.

And this one, at LearnersDictionary.com:

able to deal well with new or difficult situations and to find solutions to problems.

Resourceful seemed well-suited to my role as educator, instructional coach, and for life as a whole, really.

Then I realized that the thing that stood out to me in both of these definitions of the worthy word resourceful, aside from its emphasis on excellent problem-solving, is that one word, new. Coping with new and difficult situations.

Suddenly resourceful, for all its allure, was overshadowed. Do you remember the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy explained the demise of the Wicked Witch of the West? “Please sir, we’ve done what you told us. We brought you the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West. We melted her!” To which the Wizard replies (one of my favorite lines): “Oh, you liquidated her, eh? Very resourceful!” But remember Dorothy’s intent: When she threw that bucket of water on the Witch she was saving the Scarecrow, who was on fire. She didn’t mean to melt the Witch, or even think Hmmm, what would happen if I doused the Witch with water?

Resourceful, yes—in saving the Scarecrow. Dorothy’s use of the water was intentional. It implies thinking and quick action to solve a problem. Resourceful in her mission of getting rid of the Witch? No. That was a stroke of amazing luck.

I really wanted to write this post about being resourceful for my fellow educators who often work with so little, in adverse situations, to encourage all of us to be more mindful, intentional, and creative with what we have to reach intended outcomes, when it occurred to me that something else is needed before any of this can happen.

Something different from anything preceding, something only lately or now seen,  encountered, experienced, or used for the first time . . .

Something new, in the face of the same old same old.

If you look back at the photo for this post, you’ll see the morning light spilling across the old dictionary page, illuminating the word new.

And that’s exactly what is needed. Not new things or resources themselves, but light. Seeing things, situations, people in a new light.

My wish for students is that they see their learning in a new light, with excitement, with inspiration. For that to occur, their teachers, my colleagues and I, must see our work with new excitement and inspiration, pushing past layers of compliance, of going through the motions, of saying We can’t, because . . . .

Think of variations of new: renew, anew. Newness is generated. It is created. It starts with really seeing, then taking a step, even just one, out of the comfort zone, to see what will happen, what might actually change. For the better.

Whoever you are, whatever you do, new starts within you and moves outward. One ray of light, one spark at a time . . . keep it up, and there’s no telling how far the light will travel, and how much more will become new. We can’t change people (ever tried?). We can’t always change situations. Some old things will remain, and sometimes that’s good, for every new thing that comes along isn’t. But we can have new perspective, new vision, new vigor, new approaches. All of these are within our own power. A true and valuable new is both possible and attainable, if we aspire to it. If we dare.

That is my prayer for this new year, that we make it truly new.