Friday the 13th of March, 2020, when school dismissed, we had no idea we wouldn’t be returning.
Not to the building.
Not to life as we knew it.
Not to teaching as we knew it.
We left mountains of work undone behind us.
We faced mountains looming before us, the likes of which we’d never seen.
A mountain of my masks
In the maelstrom of so much change, we learned.
We learned we could.
We learned that some things, the important things, never change.
Message from a student on my link
Saturday the 13th of March, 2021: Most of us have had our first vaccination and are getting the second.
We are preparing for all students to return to campus on Monday, except the children of parents who have opted to keep them virtual until June.
Last March 13th, we thought it would only be for a week. Maybe two.
It’s been exactly one year.
Today, March 13th, let us celebrate:
We did enough.
We had enough.
We were enough.
We are enough.
It is enough, knowing our why.
The children. Always our why.
Just sayin’. This was shared via text among my colleagues.
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 13, I am writing around a word beginning with letter m. Just so happens to coincide with the anniversary.
Woke in the wee hours to total darkness, power loss, Hurricane Isaias smacking the house, tearing at the roof. Isaias is purely physical. He has no voice, unlike the ghost-wind that moaned and mourned for weeks under our eaves with the advent of spring and COVID-19.
Yet somewhere in the darkness, despite the raging gusts, little frogs kept up a cheery chorus.
Not much to do but stay in bed and wait it out.
And fall back asleep. And dream…
I am driving a car that belongs to my father, I think. Except that it doesn’t look like any car he ever owned. Nice little SUV, dark gray. I am coming home from visiting my grandparents in the country. I reach the quaint part of the city where they lived when I was little, before my grandfather retired. I’ve always loved this place… but I realize just now that I can’t turn the car. The steering wheel is gone. How have I managed to come so far without it? The car begins to spin and slide; I’ve lost control of it, I fear it’s going to be hit, but somehow I get it to a safe parking spot by a curb. I will have to backtrack and find that missing steering wheel—how could I have lost it? How is that even possible?
I go (on foot? in the same steerless car?) all the way back to my grandparents’ home. They’re out in the yard, very busy loading and unloading big objects (equipment? furniture?)on some kind of truck. Grandma’s face is serious. She doesn’t have time to talk to me [should have been a major clue that I was dreaming, as this never happened in reality]. When I tell her why I’m back she just says the steering wheel is over there (she points) in the road. Seems I lost it on the very start of my journey home…
I go to reclaim the steering wheel only discover two things: This is a rather large steering mechanism but the actual wheel isn’t there… and the little old road is freshly-tarred and paved. It’s never been paved. It’s supposed to be gravel. Sure, it looks nice, stretching out smooth and black, but why would anyone pave these tiny, meandering back roads where so few people live? This is a lot of work and expense that isn’t really ‘better’, I say to myself. With mounting sadness, I run a short dash on this new pavement to see that my grandmother’s home place—a small, white house with a porch and a tin roof, where Grandma and her seven siblings were born over a hundred years ago—is gone. An expanse of green grass is all there is to see…
And then I wake.
Loving symbolism as I do, I know the dream connects to having little or no control in life. We’re living through a pandemic. A hurricane rages. I work in a school and the return next week will be drastically different. Life plows on despite the loss of the familiar. Nothing looks or feels or works quite like it used to. We travel a strange road interspersed with shadows of the real and surreal. The world, and our existence, have been altered in myriad ways. But… to be without power is not the same as being powerless…
As I write, Isaias has moved on. There is no damage here, no trace of him whatsoever now. I could revel in this glorious day, the azure sky with occasional cottony clouds drifting by, the unidentifiable bird with long wings soaring high, cicadas resuming their buzzing in the still-standing trees from which they were not shaken…that sound being one that connects me more than anything to safety and my grandparents’ home in the eastern North Carolina countryside. I could employ here my one word for the year, reclamation… reclaiming the day, reclaiming life, even my strange dream-attempt at reclaiming that lost steering wheel in a vehicle that wasn’t mine…
But the power came back on and the TV is full of destruction in the northeastern regions of my state. Homes destroyed by tornadoes spawned by Isaias. People dead and missing (some were children, who’ve since been accounted for).
And I think instead that the road to reclamation is so hard, so strange, so littered with precious, scattered fragments of life, obstructed by such mountains to move. We can control so little.
When we find we are unable to steer, perhaps that is when we are being driven most toward one another. Reclamation, then, lies in our responsiveness. In our willingness.
So does, perhaps, our redemption.
Photo: The road back to Stevenage. Peter O’Connor. CCBY-SA
One of the best books I’ve read in recent years is The Overstory, Richard Powers’ novel of the American chestnut blight that wiped out almost all of those beautiful trees by the end of the 1930s. Powers wraps stories of people’s lives around that core like concentric rings. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction on April 15, 2019, a year ago yesterday. Author Robert Macfarlane’s enthusiastic praise of the book led me to read it and to plunge deep into the secretive, endlessly fascinating world of trees. They communicate with one another. They have memory. Maybe they are whispering their secrets to us … This week Macfarlane shared an article on Twitter about the social distance practice of some trees, the phenomenon known as crown or canopy shyness, their treetops (“overstory”) not touching in order to survive in the competition for resources like sunlight. That was the clarion call to me: Write something. About trees and how they do this. But what? How? Then I stumbled across a different article about the Fibonacci sequence of trees, oaks in particular: as their branches grow, five branches to two spirals, a pattern is formed. Could I combine these ideas, somehow?
Doesn’t poetry always make a way?
A Fibonacci poem on the social distance practices of trees:
Trees keep distance: crown shyness, their overstory, shared but not touching each other.
So far I’ve managed to write a poem a day for National Poetry Month, a feat I’ve never attempted before. All my life I’ve loved rhythm, rhyme, and free verse, but the great fun has been experimenting with form. This is my second completed blitz … how apropos is that name for the times …
Stay at home Stay on track Track the days Track your steps Steps in faith Steps to a better you You should know You aren’t alone Alone in all the world Alone at last Last night Last time Time stands still Time on our hands Hands sanitized Hands not held Held a puppy Held in the heart Heart grows fonder Heart of the matter Matter of fact Matter constitutes the universe Universe pays attention Universe giving gifts Gifts to guide you along the way Gifts of words Words are power Words are magic Magic portals Magic moments Moments too few Moments too short Short on time Short of breath Breath of fresh air Breath on the mirror Mirror image Mirror glass Glass half empty Glass half full Full of sound and fury Full of hope Hope against hope Hope springs eternal Eternal God Eternal love Love like there’s no tomorrow Love your neighbor Neighbor Tomorrow
In case you’re curious: Here’s my first blitz, Signs of Sun.
Just some fleeting impressions while sweeping my porch …the beauty of the day in such stark contrast to what’s happening in the world …
While sweeping the porch this April day
there’s children at distant play
cool breeze blowing
like nothing’s wrong
as if only rebirth
sweeps the Earth
not humanity hurled
A spring reception
of such deception.
Beautiful day, you’re almost cruel
playing such an April fool.
If you were here with me you could see these pansies quivering despite the brightness of the morning. The name of this colorful, dark-eyed flower comes from French penser, “to think.” Pansies symbolize contemplation and remembrance.
Mourning doves are said to symbolize providence, grace, peace, safety, renewal, and moving forward. Their low-pitched song sounds sad or comforting, depending on the listener. I dedicate this lament to the dove outside my kitchen window, whose plaintive murmur I hear in the dark, just before sunrise.
I’ve created heart maps before with students, for staff development, and for workshops on teachers as writers. I have, and love, Georgia Heard’s book: Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Writing.
But this global project literally caught my heart.
In the words of LitWorld: “Heart Maps allow us to connect with each other by sharing the ideas and feelings that define us in the most elemental of ways —and in these uncertain times, that connection is more important than ever.“
Their call is for submissions of heart maps as a means of inspiring hope and strength around the world. For me, at the moment, it’s about the collective story of humanity, uniting now in time of great need. This is something children of all ages can do to express their fears, concerns, gratitude, and love. And, with distance learning in full force by necessity, I cannot think of a better way for teachers and students to connect, combine, and contribute to the world.
The directions on the site about how to submit are simple, as is the invitation to create the heart map: “Inside the heart, draw or write about the ideas, the feelings, and the things that are most important to you at this time.”
And so I did.
Up until now, I’ve only written words on my heart maps. This global one, in these times, seemed to call for something more … so I drew what’s in my heart today.
I’ll supply you with a key, in case.
In the center of my heart: Faith. I have never been more grateful for it. This is where my map begins.
At the bottom of the map: Hope, as the rising sun; I see everything else in its light.
The rays of Hope are shining on a clouded world. If you look closely, all around the rim of the world are the words The Earth is upside down. The Earth is upside down … the compass directions of N and W are there but the map must be turned upside down to see them as they should be.
On the left, Friends, above it, Family, and between them, Books; this wasn’t intentional but it occurs to me that books ARE my friends and my family, too … there’s clearly some subconscious stuff coming to the surface here…
Beneath Books: The American flag. My country, ’tis of thee, my home sweet home … how my concern increases daily for your well-being … for our well-being … Old Glory touches Faith. Behind the flag is is a chain; on each link, a tiny letter, spelling Technology. How grateful I am to be living in a time when isolation is only physical and that technology exists to keep us connected to one another.
Looming rather large at the top through the middle: A rose. It developed of its own accord out of the swirls around Family. I found myself just drawing it out. Why should a rose appear here in my heart map? What does it mean? Maybe it’s again representing my country; the rose is the national flower of the United States. And of course a rose stands for love. I think it may be a memorial flower, for those who’ve already died in the ravage of COVID-19. Most interesting to me … the words sub rosa, “under the rose,” mean secrecy and confidentiality … if you look, you’ll see the bottom of my rose is connected to Writing. I don’t know why I connected the rose to Writing. I just knew the rose should spring from the end of the word. I don’t know the secret yet. I’ll probably have to write to find out. Even further sub rosa are tiny music notes; at the edge of the upside down world, in light of Hope, a song remains in my heart.
Beside the pencil for Writing is a teardrop for losses and sacrifices made in this pandemic, and a caduceus representing the medical profession, fighting hard on behalf of us all.
Note that entire upper right corner is cracking. My heart breaks for Italy today; their losses, the horror. It’s staggering. That’s the Italian flag there behind the praying hands, encircled with the word PRAY repeated over and over: PRAY PRAY PRAY for the tide to turn in Italy …
My granddaughter, age four, has a touch of cold. She told her dad (my son): “I think I have a little bit of coronavirus.” Yesterday she told the family that that her new Barbie bakery had to close down because “people in her town got coronavirus.”
Her understanding of such stark realities pierces my heart. Her comments also take me back to something I learned in my final high school English class, where I sat horror-struck, riveted, as my teacher painted a verbal image of London in the bubonic plague (which also originated in China):
This was the second and worst wave … people were superstitious about a catastrophic event occuring in 1666, with the Biblical symbolism of three sixes together, but the plague struck the year before, 1665 … spread by fleas on black rats … First you must understand the condition of London at the time. The characteristic fog was mingled with black smoke from factories and the coal-fires of a terribly overcrowded city. There was no sanitation; people dumped their waste from windows—that’s where the phrase “Gardy-loo!” originated, from the French “garde a l’eau!”—”watch out for the water!” It’s what people shouted to warn those walking on the street below, so they could jump out of the way when the buckets and chamber pots were dumped. Raw sewage ran in the streets … human and animal … just imagine what was on people’s shoes, on the hems of ladies’ long dresses … and during the plague, bodies also lay in the streets, where people fell dead… this sparked the children to invent a new game: Ring-Around-the-Rosie …
Ring-Around-the Rosie? It’s a silly, giddy game. How many times had I played it as a child, with neighborhood kids or schoolmates, trying to pull each other around the circle of our joined hands faster and faster, until we deliberately made ourselves fall?
“Ring-Around-the-Rosie” was originally “Ring a ring of roses,” funeral wreaths for the dead. “Pocket full of posie”was a reference to the nosegays people carried when they had to walk in the streets—flowers held to the nose to counteract the stench, or a handkerchief doused with cologne, if they were wealthy enough to have it. “Ashes, ashes”—at the time, it was “rashes, rashes,” indicating the discoloration of the skin from bursting lymph nodes, or “buboes,” hence the name “bubonic plague.” And “we all fall down” … that’s self-explanatory. It’s what the children saw…
That’s an indelible image: Children joining hands in the streets, chanting, whirling around faster and faster— laughing—against that ghastly backdrop. It’s how they interpreted and internalized events, how they coped with their world—through play.
The game remains with us centuries afterward. In our time, it’s indicative of the carefree joy of childhood; the darkness is long forgotten.
That’s what play does: defeats the demons, diminishes fear, turns the dark into light. It’s the way children communicate their learning about the world. It’s release, acceptance, solace, safety. It’s the bright, creationary force in a child’s domain: play is within the child’s control when nothing else is.
Its value, inestimable.
Barbie’s bakery will re-open, I am sure, for our businesses will. Our times are grim at present, but we know what causes disease to spread. We understand (most of us, let’s hope) that for now we have to keep our physical distance, for our greater good. We know the value of hygiene. We shall have to join hands—figuratively— in many different ways; we shall be pulled, and strained, but as long as we don’t succumb to panic, and if we submit to wisdom, we shall not fall.
And our children?
They’ll keep on playing.
“We should respect with humility the bright holiness of childhood.”
Photo: “Circle of Peace” bronze sculpture by Gary Lee Price (children playing Ring-Around-the-Rosie). Blake Bolinger.CC BY.