Getting to the heart of writing workshop

I wasn’t sure how the day would go.

There were a lot of strikes against it before it even started.

Normally when I facilitate writing workshop training for teachers they’ve specifically signed up for it. They want to be there. This year, due to an oversight somewhere at the district level, the workshops weren’t scheduled. At the last minute, this workshop training was added as Day Two of Balanced Literacy (as Day One focused only on reading).

Meaning that teachers who signed up learned that they had two whole-day sessions to attend instead of one.

How would they feel about that?

Normally the overview of writing workshop alone is spread across three afternoons. Now I had to condense it all into one day.

Nothing like prioritizing content . . .

And, with the adoption of a new curriculum, writing workshop—and balanced literacy—won’t be offered to K-5 teachers any more. Just to K-2.

I felt I’d landed in no man’s land on some dismal shore, ineffectively beating back the waves of despair crashing all about me.

But I chose to keep my footing on a solid foundation, to hang onto all that I value about writing and teaching writing. The lifeline. Not just for me, but for the children, for their teachers.

This has to be worth their while, I sighed to myself.

And I got to work revising the training.

The day of reckoning comes. I start with who we are and why we’re here, rolling right into the what of writing workshop: Create the conditions for good writing to occur (credit Donald Graves). Understanding that writing workshop is not a program, is not about a product, but is a time set aside to fall in love with the craft (my definition) and to learn the real writing process.

Then we go deeper, into the why of writing. It’s at the very core of being human.

I read aloud to my participants:

Five-year-old Paul writes. Children want to write before they want to read. They are more fascinated by their own marks than by the marks of others. Young children leave their messages on refrigerators, wallpaper, moist windowpanes, sidewalks, and even on paper. 

Six-year-old Paul doesn’t write. He has gone to school to learn to read. Now that he is in school, the message is, “Read and listen; writing and expression can wait.” Paul may wait a lifetime. The odds are that he will never be truly encouraged to express himself in writing.

Paul will wait and wait to write because a higher premium is placed on his ability to receive messages than on his ability to send them. Individual expression, particularly personal messages in writing, will not be valued as highly as the accurate repetition pf the ideas of others, expressed in their writing. Since Paul will write so little, by the time he graduates from high school he will think of himself as a poor writer and will have a lowered sense of self-esteem as a learner. He will have lost an important means of thinking and will not have developed his ability to read critically.

-Donald Graves, Children Want to Write

I notice, as I read this, how heads begin to nod in acknowledgment . . .

Next we read portions of two articles with quotes from people in the business world. How young would-be employees have a hard time organizing their thoughts and articulating them, and that, when possible, employers should hire the better writer, because writers understand how people work, have better interpersonal skills . . .

We read these even though the participants of this training are K-2 teachers. 

Because this is where all the writing begins. 

Here, with them.

Then I read a bit from Colleen Cruz in The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, how a boy, Robert, discovers what his personal essay is really about. This is in a chapter entitled “I’m Finding Some Student Writing Repetitive and Boring.” Cruz writes: “Kids, and some adult writers, have a subconscious need to write about particular topics, but they don’t understand why.” Robert had chosen the topic ‘Christmas is my favorite holiday.’ His reasons are food, presents, and videos. While conferring with Cruz, Robert finally says that watching videos is the most important  thing about the holiday because his family had recorded every Christmas; he goes deeper and deeper into the meaning, until: “Since my dad died, Christmas is the only time I get to see him. My mom can’t stand to watch all the videos at any other time. But on Christmas she lets us watch them, and it’s like we’re all together again.”

The why of teaching writing: We owe it to the children to find their stories, to tell them.

It begins with our finding and telling our own.

Here’s where I carve out time to write in this workshop training. We lift lines from our writing to create an interactive poem; we brainstorm for more writing with heart maps (credit Georgia Heard).

At this point, I have to gently ask the teachers to stop writing.

For we’ve reached the how of writing workshop, beginning with minilessons. The vehicle for teaching standards and process, for modeling, for creating that atmosphere, those conditions, for good writing to occur. Opening the windows for student ideas to flow. Choice, voice. Meaning and mattering.

And it’s time for lunch. I tell the teachers that when they return, we’ll spend the rest of the afternoon on the backbone of writing workshop: Conferring. It merits its own what, why, and how. Academic feedback in the effort to reach a goal, growth versus grades, meeting each child, each writer, individually . . . .

As they exit, the teachers seem happy. They leave sticky notes with their “gots” and “wants” on a chart. Personally I celebrate that the “gots,” pictured at the top of this post, far outnumber the “wants.”

Their notes revive my spirits. I’ve a sense of standing on a shore just as the sun breaks through the clouds. I feel the warmth of it. I can almost hear distant gulls, or something, calling and calling, wild and free; I can taste promise like salt in the breeze.

We’re not even done; we’ve only just begun.

I believe it’s gonna be a great day, after all.

*******

-Bits of the teachers’ final reflections at the end of the day.

Sanctuary

Stained glass birds

Stained-glass birds. Jesse RadonskiCC BY

Elizabeth, Elspeth, Betsy, and Bess

They all went together to seek a bird’s nest.

They found a bird’s nest with five eggs in,

They all took one and left four in.

—Mother Goose

It’s the summer of birds.

They became a recurring motif in my summer writing workshop. 2018 is actually The Year of the Bird, marking the 100th anniversary of major bird protection laws. I’ve discovered that I’ve written enough bird stories to give them their own category for this blog. I am reading a stunning, lyrical book recently recommended to me, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. I recalled the friendly little parrot I saw at a store a while back, and thought—for maybe seven seconds—about how nice it would be to have another pet bird.

And so they came. As if summoned.

House finches, they are. A pair built a nest in my lantern porch light fixture. I would not let my family turn on that light at night for fear of burning the birds. A brood hatched, grew quickly, and was gone; here’s a fledgling tarrying behind on the last day:

 

Once the nest was empty, our younger son, Cadillac Man, removed it and my husband had the house power washed (a thing well past due).

A day later, I heard a commotion on the front porch.

Birds. Very loud ones.

The front window blinds were up; I could see a male finch, a soft dusting of red on his breast, hopping to and fro along the white railing like an Olympic gymnast on a balance beam (forgive the mixing of genders here but that is what he looked like). He paused to stare right back at me. A speckled brown female flew to him, then instantly away again. Two or three more finches skittered nearby. The collective chatter seemed highly agitated—consternation is the word that came to mind.

It’s the nest, I thought. They’ve come back and it’s gone.

They had to be the same mother and father. I wondered if the others were part of their newly-grown brood. Or a support group. Some sort of council?  They seemed to be consulting over the vanished nest. Maybe problem-solving? Collaborating? Making decisions?

For two days, the lively bird debate continued.

Then it died down.

And a piece of pine straw appeared in the bottom of the lantern.

From the window I saw both male and female bringing more pieces, saw the male drop his on the porch floor, fly down to retrieve it, and hover like a hummingbird to work it into place.

My older son, The Historian, passing through the hallway, stopped beside me to watch: “It’s amazing how they know to do this.”

“What’s going on?” his father called from the living room.

“The birds are building another nest in the porch light,” I told him.

“Oh, no they’re not,” he said. “We just had the house washed. The porch was disgusting.”

He went to the kitchen, rummaged in a drawer. He went to the porch, pulled out the three pieces of pine straw.

And put aluminum foil in the lantern:

It sent the finches into a frenzy. For another day, the loud bird-chatter resumed. I found a bit of foil on the porch floor; had one of them tried to tug the stuff loose?

And I worried about the birds cutting themselves on the aluminum, about time elapsing when they clearly needed their nest. The female must be getting ready to lay more eggs, or why all this fuss?

What would they do?

The next day when I opened the front door to go get the mail, I heard a rush of wings and I knew.

The wreath on the door.

Sure enough, on the top of the wreath lay a few long grasses.

I chose to keep this a secret for several days, until:

“All right, you guys,” I announced to my menfolk, “we now have a nest on our wreath with an egg in it. No opening the front door until these birds are gone.”

I may have also mentioned, nonchalantly, that it is illegal in the United States to remove a nest containing eggs.

And then I worried even more: Is the wreath secure enough? How many more eggs will there be? Will they—will the babies—be safe?

The nest made me want to cry. At the perfection of it, at the dried dandelions laced through it like deliberate decoration, an artist’s touch. I wanted to cry at the determination of these birds to live on my porch, how they persevered in rebuilding their home from scratch. They do not know that they built on the door of my home as well as on my heart, where there’s an especially tender spot these days for little creatures and their well-being. I still mourn a small dog, grown old and frail, that I could not save. A rawness in my soul that has yet to grow new skin.

While these birds do not really need me, they spark a sense of ownership and protection. They’re in my realm now, in my sphere of influence.

All I can give them is sanctuary.

I remember how, when I was a child riding in the backseat of a car watching the cityscape give way to fields and forests, a little green sign appeared:

BIRD SANCTUARY

I puzzled over this: Where’s the bird church?

It took some time to understand that birds can’t be hunted here, that sanctuary means safe place. 

A place to be, grow, flourish, and fly. Something every living thing needs.

Sanctuary was the word I chose to describe the writing workshop just a month ago. The workshop that had the bird motif running through it. A safe place to think, explore, write, share.

So now, every morning, when the sun is new, when shadows are sharp on the ground, while the dew is still sparkling on the grass, I walk from the garage door to visit the sanctuary. Mama Finch sees me coming as soon as I round the corner; she flies out of the nest, bobbing through the air without a sound. There’s a reverent silence, a holy hush, in sanctuaries, you know. She waits on the rooftop while I quickly admire her handiwork. I go before she’s troubled. I’ve learned from these visits that she lays her eggs between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m.

As soon as my husband and I returned from a trip to the beach, he asked: “Have you checked on your eggs?”

“Yes,” I said, smiling at his words. My eggs.

I have four.

*******

Stay tuned for the hatching announcement.

While writing this post I could not help thinking how “sanctuary” applies to teaching and instructional coaching. As with the house finches—which are symbolic of joy, happiness, optimism, variety, diversity, high energy, creativity, celebration, honoring resources, and enjoying the journey—a safe place to be, grow, flourish, and fly comes through concentrated, collaborative effort. Right now my finches are singing. A song, perhaps, that all of humanity still needs to hear.

Heroes

img_4479

They’re heroes. All of them.

From across the state of North Carolina, they gathered in the capital city. Fighting crowds and full parking decks, between a St. Patrick’s Day parade, a street festival with an Irish band, a pub crawl, and educators arriving for the North Carolina Reading Association conference, the children made it to the Young Authors Project celebration.

These young people, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, and some of their teachers, were previously recognized by their local reading associations for writing on the theme “Show Your Strength.” Finalists went on to be judged by a panel for the state, and yesterday the North Carolina Reading Association awarded winners a book of their published entries and a medal.

Prior to the ceremony, such figures as Batman, Wonder Woman, and the X-Men swept through the audience, greeting the children, congratulating them, posing for pictures with them.

Project Superhero, Inc. and Causeplay Carolinas team up at the NCRA Young Authors Project celebration. Photo: Twitter, @superheroorg 03/17/2018.

Note the word POWER on the photo-op backdrop . . .

I thought immediately of the power in writing.

I watched as the children were called, county by county, to receive their awards on stage, their faces glowing. I’ve read their stories, how they showed their strength by sticking with tasks they thought they couldn’t accomplish, reaching desired goals, drawing inspiration from others, overcoming bullies, conquering their greatest fears, coping with illness, the loss of pets, of family members. How they got through, even when they didn’t think they could.

It takes courage to be a writer, courage to be a child.

There they stood, heroes, all.

Celebrating each other, celebrating their stories.

Celebrating perseverance. Celebrating courage. Celebrating hope.

Celebrating life.

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Celebrating Young Authors

Show Your Strength

Raleigh-Wake Reading Council 

This afternoon, I am celebrating young writers from kindergarten through high school. Our local reading council, affiliated with the International Literacy Association, sponsors the Young Authors Project annually. Students write on a given theme and council members submit their work. A committee then scores the pieces for quality of content and structure. This competition is about encouraging young writers to work hard at the craft, to tell their stories well. The stories are published in a local book. Some stories have gone on to the state level, to be recognized and published later this month by the North Carolina Reading Association.

This year’s theme is “Show Your Strength!” The students could write about their personal experiences of perseverance, how they’ve overcome obstacles, how they found strength in a time of weakness, and who or what inspired them to rise above a particular challenge.

It’s my honor today to be the speaker at the awards ceremony.

Here’s my tribute to these courageous writers:

Thank you, members of the Young Authors Committee and the Raleigh-Wake Council for encouraging students of all ages to write. Thank you, families and teachers, for being the wind beneath the wings of these young writers; because of your support, because of your belief in these writers, many of them have now flown higher than they ever thought they could before.

And thank you, Writers, for your stories. I’ve read your work and it’s breathtaking. I stand in awe of what you’ve experienced and how you captured it on paper.  It’s an honor and a joy to celebrate your courage, your beautiful work, and your personal victories today.

So you know that I am a writer, too. I remember being six years old and sitting at the coffee table in my living room with some notebook paper and a pencil, trying to write a story, not because a teacher told me to, but just because I wanted to. Something inside me needed to get out and even at age six, all by myself, I understood that I needed to write it. I’ve been writing all my life and I’ve written a lot of different things for different reasons, but I do it mostly because I love it. Why do I love it? I think it’s because writing helps me see things in different ways, sometimes in deeper ways than I would have if I didn’t write.

Here’s an example from last summer: I noticed that seahorses had started showing up in my life. Yes, seahorses! When I ordered some books, they came with a tote bag that had a seahorse on it. A friend gave me a notebook that happened to have a seahorse on it. I took my seahorse tote bag and my seahorse notebook to a teachers’ writing workshop at the beach, where I was given a journal to decorate . . . guess what was in the decorations? Seahorses! This, Ladies and Gentlemen, is what we a call a motif, a symbol that keeps recurring, or showing up. I started wondering if there was a reason for all these seahorses suddenly appearing —what could they mean? I do what writers always do: research. I looked up seahorses and I learned a few pretty cool things: The scientific name of the seahorse is hippocampus, the same word for the part of the human brain that’s the center of emotion and memory. As a writer, this connection between the seahorse and the human brain fascinates me. I also learned that seahorses are a species recorded as the slowest swimmers in the animal kingdom. They swim so slowly that they can die of exhaustion when storms come and churn the seas, so seahorses use their tails to anchor them to long grasses and corals. They survive by being anchored.

And that’s another big thing that writing does for me; it anchors me, it helps me survive whatever comes.

Seahorses, Writers, are a symbol of perseverance, the very theme that you wrote on for our Young Authors Project. You’re here today because you persevered in writing your stories.

Your stories show your strength as writers and your strength as human beings. Stories, in the end, are gifts that we give to others. We give these pieces of ourselves away to make other people think and feel; writing is an almost magical connection between the heart and mind of the writer and the hearts and minds of readers. There’s power in it. Think about it. We can use our words, our power, to hurt others or to strengthen them. Be mindful that you always use your power for good.

It is my hope, as a teacher of writing, that you will keep writing. Today is just the beginning of what you can accomplish, and you’ve started off so strong! Good writing is hard work. Sometimes it comes so, so slowly. Don’t give up. Always remember there’s power in writing and the effort is always worth it. The more you work on your writing, the more your writing will work on you; it will give you more and more strength to share with the world, and the world needs you.

Thank you all.

To love that well

Drema Gaye Spencer

Drema Gaye Spencer. Her first name means “reverie,” or dream. Her middle name, “merry, lighthearted.” Her surname is Old English for “guardian,” “object of awe,” “dispenser of provisions.”

She stands on the precipice between childhood and womanhood, facing the camera directly, her hooded eyes steady and confident. She does not know it yet, but she will be like the mountains framing her background, where she and her seven siblings loved to run, calling to each other across the distance, teasing, playing jokes, laughing with wild abandon at their own mischievous humor. As intense pressure, heat, and time formed the ancient Appalachian coalfields, so the course of her life would forge an internal fuel, the deep, burning drive to keep going under the weight of crushing adversity.

It’s the early 1940s. World War II is in full swing; her three brothers have enlisted in the Navy. The family has survived the Great Depression in the place it struck the hardest, where the economy has always been precarious. When she arrived with the January snows of 1926, her coal miner father hadn’t had steady work in a year due to frequent safety shutdowns; the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health Safety and Training references nearly 700 fatalities for 1925.

She’s just a teenager with a head full of dreams for the future.

Maybe she could teach English literature and composition—What fun that would be! Maybe I’ll even visit England one day.

Innately musical, singing harmony with her sisters in church, she also harbors aspirations for the stage. She knows she has true dramatic and comic talent, which, along with her natural beauty, lands her roles in high school plays. Her blue eyes sparkle: Well, I AM a good actress. Very good. Eventually, of course, I’ll get married and have children. I do want children . . . Sometimes she can almost see their little faces, these someday-children. I hope one’s a boy with brown eyes.

So she looks at the camera and smiles, the mountain beneath her feet, her childhood behind her and her whole future lying ahead.

But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

-William Butler Yeats

The reality is that just a few years after this photo was made, she married a man who would be killed in a mining accident, leaving her with a toddler and a baby at twenty-three.

Several years afterward, she married a widower, an Army man with two older children. Eventually they had a boy and a girl together.

Her boy with brown eyes.

When her husband completed tours of duty in Korea and Vietnam, she cared for the six children by herself.

When the brown-eyed boy was four, he developed acute bronchitis, necessitating an emergency tracheotomy. His temperature spiked to 107 after surgery. The nurses packed the child in ice. The hospital doctors told her that her little son might not make it. She sent for his father, away at Army summer camp; a police escort was dispatched to meet him at the airport. As the boy drifted in and out of consciousness, she sat by his oxygen tent, praying, weeping.

The boy survived.

She wrote him a letter on the inside back cover of a book of Bible stories.

4:00 a.m. In hospital.

Dearest . . .

When you are well and safe at home again, I’ll read you this little note I’ve written to you during the hours I sat by your bed and watched you sleep so soundly . . . Mommy and Daddy have been so scared . . . We love you so much, our little son . . . Little angels have been all around your bed since you have been sick and Jesus sent them to watch over you and keep you . . . soon all the suffering and fright you have had will pass from your little mind but Mommy will always remember and thank God for giving you back to me.

Your Mother

She could never speak of the ordeal without tears.

Staggering losses were yet to come.

When the brown-eyed boy was twelve and his sister nine, and all the others grown and on their own, her Army man died suddenly, instantly, with a heart attack.

Widowed twice—each time with a boy and girl at home to care for.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

-I Corinthians 13:7

When her sobbing son asked, “Who’s going to take care of us now?” she wrapped him in her arms.

“God will. And I will.”

And she did.

Survival ran in her veins like coal beds through the Appalachians. She dug deep within herself, tapping into the hardy DNA passed down by her ancestors, into the wellspring of her faith, into the fierce love for her children, and carried on. When her son was consumed with fear of something happening to her, she said:

“I have prayed and prayed that nothing will happen to me until you’re grown. And I am convinced that God will allow it.”

For the next ten years, she poured herself into her children and her home.

Still she laughed. Still she sang. She called her brothers and sisters, who still teased each other with jokes old and new. She gardened. She arranged flowers. She organized a women’s political group, taught Sunday School, went to her son’s basketball games all through high school.

She managed, and managed well.

When her son said he found the girl he wanted to marry, she gave him her blessing and the diamond engagement ring that his father, the Army man, had given her.

The brown-eyed boy—now the man—gave the ring to me on my twentieth birthday, long, long ago.

For the boy who lived (apologies, J.K. Rowling) is my husband; the woman in the photograph is my mother-in-law.

When I came to know her, I first admired her elegant, impeccably-kept house, which she was forever redecorating. And the food, the food, oh, the food! Her table always looked like something from Southern Living, down to the coordinating linen napkins and rings. Her iced tea was always blissfully sweet and there must always, always be lemon slices with it. I came to appreciate her ever-present wit, her spunky humor, her fashionable attire. Being well-put together was a priority to her. I browsed her bookcases on every visit, knowing she’d have a new bestseller for me to devour. I was instantly at home in her home.

When she was sixty years old, a third man proposed to her. She hesitated. “I’ve buried two husbands. I don’t want to bury a third.”

But he was a good man; she took a chance on him. For the next three decades, they celebrated the coming of grandchildren and the first great-grandchildren.

Three years ago, she was widowed for the third time.

There were no children at home to care for now.

She was, for the first time in her nine decades, alone.

With housekeeping being too much for her, it was time to go to the home of one of the children or to assisted living.

And her genes, or her Appalachian roots, or the rising dementia—or all three—kicked into overdrive.

She would not go.

The house had become her whole identity. It was where she’d provided for the last of her children. It symbolized her strength, her ability to survive. This was her mountain; she would not be moved. She dug in her heels. Deep.

Until the stroke.

After surgery, when her family was allowed to see her in intensive care, she greeted us with a smile. “I can’t believe I’ve had a stroke! Can you believe it?” she said, as if she were sitting in the den at home, making everyday conversation, even as the nurses watched her monitors. Blue eyes sparkling as bright as ever, she reached out her warm hand to grasp mine. “Hey, you’ve got a birthday coming up. We’ll have to celebrate.”

I held her hand, marveling.

She rebounded for a short while, working hard at her rehab, thinking she could go back home. She couldn’t. She went into a nursing home instead, for, as the weeks wore on, her strength waned.

So did her mind.

The one thing that waxed bright and hot was her fighting spirit. She grew more determined to go home, even as she grew weaker, less hungry, more and more tired.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

-Dylan Thomas

She raged. She burned within like a coal seam fire, until her energy was spent at last.

Lying in her nursing home bed, she stood on the mountains again, seeing her brothers and sisters in the distance. She called their names over and over—only the ones who’d already died. She carried on conversations with them.

“I can’t go on up,” she told these siblings that the rest of us couldn’t see. “Not just yet.”

She knew us, called us by name when we last gathered with her, at Thanksgiving. Within the hour, she couldn’t recall who we were, or why we were there.

Still she sang.

There is coming a day, when no heartaches shall come

No more clouds in the sky

No more tears to dim the eye

All is peace forevermore

On that happy golden shore

What a day, glorious day, that will be . . . .

“My throat hurts,” she said. “I can’t sing any more.”

“It’s okay,” said her children. “You don’t have to.”

They moistened her lips and mouth with water.

And still she sang.

If we never meet again this side of heaven

I will meet you on that beautiful shore.

And then she sang no more.

She rested a while, then, with her eyes closed, turned her face toward her brown-eyed son, my husband.

“Where do you live?” she asked.

“North Carolina,” he replied, smiling through his tears.

“Oh, my son lives there,” she said.

“Yes. I am your son.”

She opened her eyes the tiniest slit. “Well. You’re all grown up.”

It was the last thing she said to him.

I have prayed and prayed that nothing will happen to me until you’re grown. And I am convinced that God will allow it.

A few days later, my husband, his younger sister, and my son, the youngest grandchild, sat by her bedside all morning, watching her labored breaths. Finally they told her, “We’re going to go eat lunch, Mom, but we’ll be right back.”

The minute they finished eating, the nurses called. “The time is near.”

They came. They took her hands.

She took two labored breaths, and was gone.

She’d waited for them to have their lunch. To the very last, making sure her children had what they needed.

She never taught school.

She was never an actress of renown.

She never made it to England.

She lived one of the most extraordinary lives I’ve ever known.

The diamond on my finger shines as bright as it ever did; I can only hope that a portion of her strength, her courage, her wisdom has passed on to me along with it.

I look at her teenage photo, contemplating all that she will endure.

All that she did endure, and need endure no more.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
-Shakespeare, Sonnet 73

She loved as deep, as far, as long as she possibly could, with every ounce of her being. That is what I will remember most, her fierce, fierce love. It burns on, and on, and on, bright and warm, forevermore.

Anchored

Seahorse

Seahorse. Brandon LeonCC BY-SA

The seahorse was the motif of my summer.

He turned up everywhere – on my new beach bags, on a bracelet from a friend, on a spiral notebook given to me, in a pile of decorations for writing journals at a summer institute.

Seahorses galore.

This sudden proliferation was odd, too odd to be random. Loving symbolism, interpretation, and looking things up in general, I researched seahorses, curious about what mysterious meaning or significant message they portend for my life at the moment.

I already knew, of course, that the males bear the young, which is the reason I am mostly using the pronoun he, in honor of the seahorse dads.  I really couldn’t make much of a connection to this appealing characteristic, however. I am the only female in a household of males (including three dogs and two guinea pigs), none of whom are about to become a gestational vehicle.

In the metaphorical realm, seahorses apparently represent a great number of things: patience, persistence, inventiveness, creativity, whimsy – all enchanting. I celebrate and welcome all of these things.

I learned that the scientific name for the seahorse, hippocampus, is the same word for the part of the human brain thought to be the center of emotion and memory.

Speaking as a writer – utterly fascinating.

Seahorses can also symbolize stubbornness (my father’s word was “hardheaded”). Speaking as a human – ouch. Ahem.  I prefer to call it “determination” or “perseverance,” but we’ll keep moving along here.

The thing that strikes me most about the seahorse is that it’s a poor swimmer – one species being the slowest-recorded swimmer in the animal kingdom – and that its tail is invaluable to its survival. National Geographic puts it this way: Seahorses are rather inept swimmers and can easily die of exhaustion when caught in storm-roiled seas . . . they anchor themselves with their prehensile tails to sea grasses and corals.

Ah. A ray of light shines here in the murky depths of symbolism.

The seahorse began appearing, and appeared most often, in things connected with my work as an educator – on a tote bag with a book order, on my notebook and journal.

Education today – might that be the storm-roiled sea, full of conflicting ideologies and solutions that sometimes beget more problems, just for starters? It’s not that educators are inept (“poor swimmers”) but that the ever-changing currents in our ecosystem are vast and powerful, so to shrink one’s spirit and drain one’s energy just trying to keep up, to stay afloat.

Seahorses can die of exhaustion if they aren’t anchored.

I think about how often the word anchor appears in the educational realm – anchor text, anchor standard – signifying the foundation of something upon which other things will be built, or that subsequent learning will connect back to.

But I don’t think that’s why the little seahorse loomed so large of late. In my mind I see him, small and shadowy against a backdrop of coral and waving sea grass, anchored by his tail, swaying peacefully despite the surging sea. I think of teachers and the demands they face. I think of students, who, above all, are too easily caught in a virtual riptide.

What’s the anchor here?

We are.

We anchor one another. Teacher to teacher. Whatever’s raging around us, we support each other, we help each other along. Ultimately, we form the solid thing, the reef, where students can anchor themselves, where their best interests are tantamount to our own, where they are sheltered, nurtured, and given outlets for inventiveness, creativity, whimsy, even in the most uncertain, troublous times.

Hang on, hang together, and believe.

Says the seahorse not just to the educational world – but to humanity.

Seahorse motif

In-between places

Gloomy forest

Gloomy forest. gorchakov.artemCC BY

I read the final page and close the cover. The idea of being separated from someone you love intensely, whether by distance, time, or circumstances, comes with a stab so sharp that it almost isn’t bearable.

Never mind that The Time Traveler’s Wife is fiction. The frequent separation of Claire and Henry, especially their final one, is crafted with this piercing truth, the longing for the “in-between” period to be over so that the characters can be together again. Sometimes the interim lasted for years.

While Claire and Henry usually had the advantage of knowing the duration of their separations thanks to his time traveling, the rest of us don’t get such clear glimpses of the future. We have to endure the various in-between stages of our lives, not knowing how long they’ll last, not being able to speed up time, not knowing the outcome, often having little or no control.  These in-between places are often laced with deep aching, a sadness and desperation at being apart from someone we  love. Existence is as flat and barren as a desert. The emptiness is huge, frightening; we want to rid ourselves of it before it consumes us. The scope of this in-between-ness is too much for us. The loss cannot be dealt with as a whole but only lived through in chunks  – a day, maybe just an hour, at a time.

There are in-between places other than those of relationships. The loss of a job, long illnesses, hardships, disasters – all can be dark places that sap our strength, sometimes with no foreseeable guarantees that all will end well. Living in these situations is like navigating a dark, unfamiliar forest. Not knowing which way is the shortest or best way out, we often go in pointless circles without realizing it.

I recall an in-between place that’s quite different. It’s remained in my mind since I was a child, on my first reading of The Magician’s Nephew.

It’s called The Wood Between the Worlds.

In the attempt to move from our current world to another by wearing magic rings, two children land in a sort of “connector” place. Here’s how C.S. Lewis describes it:

It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals and no wind. You could almost feel the trees growing . . . a pool every few yards as far as his eyes could reach. You could almost feel the trees drinking the water up with their roots. This wood was very much alive. When he tried to describe it afterwards Digory always said, “It was a rich place: as rich as plum-cake.” 

Digory discovers that he’s not frightened, excited, or curious. He’s forgetting why he’s there and what he knew of his own life, even his mother, who’s dying.

If anyone had asked him: “Where did you come from?” he would probably have said “I’ve always been here.” That was what it felt like – as if one had always been in that place and never been bored although nothing had ever happened. As he said long afterwards, “It’s not the sort of place where things happen. The trees go on growing, that’s all.”

Not the sort of place where things happen, but things go on growing around us while we are numb, sleepy. Who among us hasn’t experienced this?

Digory has an epiphany nevertheless – he tells his companion, Polly:

That’s why it’s so quiet and sleepy here. Nothing ever happens here. Like at home. It’s in the houses that people talk , and do things, and have meals. Nothing goes on in the in-between places, behind the walls and above the ceilings and under the floor, or in our own tunnel. But when you come out of our tunnel you may find yourself in any house. I think we can get out of this place into jolly well Anywhere!

Digory is right. The rest of the book deals with the results of his and Polly’s choices, both wise and foolish, but suffice it to say that they get out of The Wood Between the Worlds to witness the birth of a brand-new world.

Narnia.

Here’s another illustration, not out of fantasy.

My family once decided to travel from Raleigh, North Carolina to Boston by train. There was a problem with the train at the first segment of the trip – it had to be made by bus. Arriving at a different station, we boarded the train at last.

What we didn’t realize is that the train would stop at every major station on the East Coast even when no one was getting off or boarding. Long into the night we rode, stopping in deserted stations, sometimes for an hour or more. Bleary, exhausted, regretting our choice of transportation, we wondered how long this train would sit in this place where nothing was happening, and why.

I fell asleep.

The first light of dawn woke me. I looked through the train window at gray nothingness to see a shoreline slowly materializing. After having come through the unsightly backsides of major cities for most of the trip, this was unexpected. The sky turned pink, the sea rose-gold and sparkling, with the rising of the sun.

It was breathtaking, one of the most glorious sights I’ve ever seen.

After nineteen (eternal) hours on the train, we arrived in Boston.

The trip home was longer, as another train’s battery died and our train had to deliver a new one to them.

The point is that while the in-between places are static, and we often arrive in them for indeterminate stretches of time, they do serve a purpose. We can rage at the nothingness there, fervently railing at the passing of time, or sink into numb paralysis for the duration. Or we can see the in-between places as connectors, the temporary segue from one phase of our lives to another. Away from the energy, the hustle and bustle of life in this world, the in-between place may be one of needed rest, one of learning, reevaluating, recharging, restoring, until the path becomes clear and we can move on with living where the action is.

The next destination may not look like what we imagined.

It could, in fact, be far more glorious than we ever dared to hope.

Reflect: What in-between places have you experienced in life? What stories can you tell about enduring and getting through to the other side? If you are in an in-between place now – strength to you. It is temporary.  Reorient yourself; think, and begin preparing for what is waiting for you just ahead – be ready to meet it.

And write!

Mastering the monster

School bus

Bus #147. SebamirumCC BY

Life takes many unexpected twists and turns – a friend of mine says, “Life is one wild ride.” The mysterious is frequently interwoven with the breathtaking, the brightest moments often collide with the darkest, and the greatest desires of our hearts almost always involve epic challenges.

It took me the better part of two decades to finish college, for example.

I married at twenty, quitting college with a year and a half of coursework in general studies and theater arts. My boys were born. My husband completed two degrees needed for his work. I took a variety of jobs, all the while wanting to return to college myself, taking a class or two whenever and wherever I could. Sometimes I dusted off the old textbooks and plays, reread portions, dreamed of going on with my education.

When my younger son started kindergarten, I took a part-time reading remediation position that became full-time, until the program was cut after a couple of years.

“I’d like to keep you on, if you’re willing to take a teaching assistant job in first grade,” my principal told me. “Furthermore, there’s a distance education cohort beginning for paraprofessionals to get teaching degrees. You should pursue this – you’d be an excellent teacher.”

I pondered the prospect. A teacher. At the elementary level? I don’t know. High school English, maybe, but . . .

“It’s a consortium,” the principal went on. “If you’re a full-time teaching assistant, our county qualifies you to attend with financial aid. The books are even covered.”

Here it was, the long-awaited chance to finish school, only it didn’t look exactly like what I imagined.

The principal noted my hesitation. “It’s a perfect opportunity. What are you waiting for?”

Turns out that the program had K-12 reading certification built in.

That was the tipping point.

I love roller coasters. They climb and climb, gaining momentum, then – wooooosh. Hold on tight, as you don’t know what’s coming next – a pretty good metaphor for the wild ride of life. I applied to the program, got in. I loved my classes, my advisor, my instructors, my classmates. Returning to college was exhilarating.

Until.

“Of course, as a full-time teaching assistant in our county,” my principal said, “you’re required to get bus driver licensure.”

WHAT? 

I’m not overly fond of driving in the first place. The idea of maneuvering something as big as a bus, loaded with kids, being the only adult responsible . . .

“I’m not sure I can do it,” I said, going cold and clammy. My stomach lurched like it does after a sudden twist on a coaster, only worse.

The principal smiled. “Yes, you can. Look at it as something that gets you where you want to go.”

That’s what it came down to. If I wanted to finish school, to teach – which I now wanted to do more than anything, the ultimate situational irony – then I would have to face the big yellow monster.

My dad had driven a school bus when he was in high school. So had his sister. Back in their day, students were drivers. Daddy told stories about students tampering with the governor so the buses would go faster – I could envision the buses bumping down the country dirt roads, whipping around the bends in thick clouds of dust, kids bouncing wildly. He told the tales with glee; I listened in horror. While I darkly imagined Daddy’s great amusement on learning that I’d be driving a bus, if he’d lived to see it, this connection to him helped, if only the tiniest bit.

Look at it as something that gets you where you need to go.

I couldn’t let a bus stop me from finishing school or embarking on a whole new career that stretched out before me, glimmering and beckoning like the sea.

I signed up for the training.

The trainer started off with lots of stories, such as a driver once tipping a bus over by trying to avoid a squirrel, which is why we should never swerve if an animal runs in front of the bus.

I put my head down on the desk.

Then there was the first exam: Memorizing all the parts of the bus, how these parts are connected, what these parts do and why, what every light means. This was conducted by walking with the instructor, pointing everything out and giving an oral explanation. A written exam was also given.

I briefly considered failing these exams but my pride wouldn’t let me.

The training culminated in behind-the-wheel practice with the instructor, who asked: “Ever driven a Mercedes before?”

“No sir,” I answered.

He chuckled. “You’re about to now.”

I thought he was joking.

He wasn’t.

The bus I learned to drive on was made by Mercedes-Benz – who knew? It almost drove itself.

I managed to get this monstrous thing, this almost-airplane, through the narrow tree-lined streets of the nearby little old southern town without doing harm to anything until the instructor said: “All right, make a stop. Let these imaginary kids off the bus.”

I made the stop, opened the bus door. The flashing lights came on, the stop sign came out. I even counted imaginary heads.

For the first time, I thought: I’ve got this. It’s not so bad.

Then, as I closed the door to move on, the instructor said, “STOP!”

“What?!” I jumped a little in my seat. I stood on the brake.

“You just ran over a child,” said the instructor.

“I – what? How? I counted all the imaginary heads!”

“You didn’t check your mirrors. Kids can hide close to the bus and you’ll never see them if you don’t check all those mirrors. That’s why they’re there. Kids have been killed that way.”

I returned to work that afternoon in the deepest funk. A teacher assistant colleague greeted me: “Hey, how’d the training go?”

I sighed. “Not great. I ran over an imaginary child.”

My colleague grinned. “How did the imaginary parents take it?”

I laughed in spite of myself.

Still, I put myself on the prayer list at church. Seriously. The youth minister consoled me: “Look, when the time comes, God will give you driving grace.”

He was right.

The first time I had to drive, on my own, with real kids, it wasn’t a magnificent Mercedes bus but an old “cheese box,” as the kids say. I boarded with driving grace in my head and rosary beads in my pocket, given to me by a friend – and I’m not even Catholic.

I – and more importantly, the kids – lived to tell about it.

In fact, my driving the first-graders on their field trip to the movies (a trip of about three miles, consisting of three turns, one of which I took too close with a back wheel going over the curb, causing the bus to sway and the kids to scream), made their writing journals. When the teacher asked them to write about their favorite part of the trip, our entire class wrote various versions of this, with various spellings: “My favorite part of the field trip was when Mrs. Haley drove the bus.” On all the pages I was depicted at the wheel of the big yellow monster, my hair flying in the breeze for some reason, and smiling.

In the eyes of the kids, apparently, I was a great success.

I consider my mastery of the yellow monster my most dubious achievement, closely followed by my passing a college course on golf. No animals ever ran in front of me, all the kids got home, and other than the door handle rolling off one day and causing me to drive back to school with the stop sign out and all the lights flashing so that every car on both sides of the road pulled over, I am happy to report that I only had to drive a handful of times without incident until I finished the teaching degree and moved on, when I no longer had to drive a bus.

It did, indeed, get me where I needed to go.

Those obstacles that stand in the way of what we want, where we want to go – there’s no shortcut, no way over or around them. The only way is through, even when it doesn’t seem feasible, beneficial, or possible.

Whatever it is, whether it looms in front of you, in your past, or inside you, face your monster. Look it in the eye.

Then make up your mind to master it.

Grace be with you.

Three cheers

Candles

Three is a magic number. Alan LevineCC BY

I love the sound of chimes.

I always have.

There’s something magic in those ethereal tones, something stirring, uplifting, echoing the fairy world, whispering of good things and better yet to come, hinting at happily-ever-afters. Perhaps this is why chimes sometimes play at the end of weddings, their light, airy sound signifying the beginning of a new, hope-filled chapter, the turning of a page.

Come to think of it, when I was little I had read-along books with audiotapes that chimed when it was time to turn the page.

The telephone on the kitchen wall of my childhood home was avocado green with a six-foot cord, and instead of ringing, it chimed. Visitors always said, “There’s the doorbell,” and we always responded, “No, that’s the phone.”

I never knew of anyone else’s phone that chimed like mine.

As a teenager my pulsed quickened at the sound, because I was sure the chiming meant someone was calling for me. It often was. I stretched that cord at least another two to three feet, enough for me to sit on the bed in my room and talk with the door closed. Yes, on the cord.

My smartphone is set to chimes now. When it rings, the melodic tones are like strings of tiny silver plates in the wind.

Perhaps no chime has given me as much pleasure as that of my WordPress app, however.

For me, that’s truly the sound of celebration.

I’ve heard this chime so often in the past month, denoting likes and comments on Lit Bits and Pieces during the Annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers. The chime has come to represent the warmth of this community, the connection of minds, hearts, and kindred spirits, reiterating the power, the magic, of words. I am a first-time slicer and the words of others have borne me far in the completion of thirty-one posts in thirty-one days.

This is the thirty-first post. With it, I cross the finish line – my first cheer.

The WordPress chime also proclaimed two other milestones, two days ago:

Lit Bits 50

I hit the 50-post mark. My second cheer.

Lit Bits Anniversary

Lit Bits and Pieces turned one year old on March 29th, along with my first post. Cheer number three.

When I started Lit Bits and Pieces a year ago, I asked a friend to give me feedback. The friend said: “Hmmm. What’s your niche? Your target audience?”

I said, “I don’t really have a target audience in mind. I just want to write whatever I want to write.”

The friend looked skeptical.

I added, “It’s for human beings.”

To you, Dear Reader, I leave three parting thoughts on this Lit Bits and Pieces celebratory post. Chimes play for you, somewhere in the wind – I hope you hear them as you read:

  • Do, or do not. There is no try. -Yoda
  • Inspire. That means be a life-breather of ideas, tiny notions of stories. – Avi
  • Write.

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Forgotten

Forgotten

Forgotten Sounds Pt.II. Marco NurnbergerCC BY

Memory makes us. If we couldn’t recall the who, what, where, and when of our everyday lives, we wouldn’t be able to function. – “Memory Basics,” Psychology Today

This week, I remembered a poem I wrote as a teenager.

Some of the lines returned to me, complete and clear.

I couldn’t recall other lines at all.

I wrote the poem after a dream. In this dream, I was with a group of young people around my own age in a deserted beachy area with trees. We had reunited there on a hazy afternoon when the light is most golden, just as the sun begins to set, and with great joy, we began singing.

Except that I really did not know these people, this place, this song. In the dream I knew I was supposed to know all of these things, and I didn’t. I was meant to belong, to be a part, and I couldn’t. The sense of mounting sadness over the desperate attempt to remember the significance of these people and the words to the beautiful song so that I could join in was overwhelming.

The dream haunted me so that when I woke, I wrote the poem.

Remembering my poem for the first time in years, I wanted to reread it, to recapture the lines that were missing in my memory. I could envision the little stapled booklet I made, could actually recall other poems I wrote in it, word for word.

I couldn’t find it.

I searched everywhere I thought the booklet ought to be – I could not remember where I put it.

Things like this become compulsions for me. The more I searched without success, the more determined I became to find the missing poems.

At some point I realized the many layers of irony folded into this situation: I wrote a poem about forgetting something I could not remember in the first place, because I wanted to remember the experience; not remembering all the lines compelled me to read it again, and I forgot where I put it.

I began to think about what dementia patients must feel like.

But I kept looking, and yesterday, in a box of old notebooks, in a planner under some loose papers, I found it:

Forgotten Remembrance

My mind, it plays a melody

That it hasn’t ever heard

A voice sings in my memory

But remembers not a word

Faces I don’t recognize

Are singing this with me

Sadness streaming from my eyes

Such a haunting harmony

I hear the music chiming there

And then again it’s gone

Hidden in my mind somewhere

Chiming off and on

I ought to know this tune

These words I’ve sung before

I’ll try to learn them very soon

So I can sing them more

I can’t remember this refrain

I’ve forgotten it this far

My mind cries out to know this strain

And what the lyrics are

But all I know is sorrow

A deep and dark despair

I’ll cry and cry tomorrow

For what was never there.

At last. My mind can rest now.

I certainly can’t end on such a dark note, so today I pay tribute to the vital, mysterious power of memory, how it makes us who we are; to writing, which preserves who we are at various points in our lives and sets us free from whatever haunts or hurts us; and to the foresight of my young, rather gothic self for having grasped it.

 

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