The tree I’d be

Cypress trees.jpg

Sunlit Cypress. Teresa PhillipsCC BY-SA

A few days ago,  I happened upon this captivating tweet:

I am well on the way to becoming a tree myself. I put down roots. I sigh when the wind blows. My sap rises in the spring and I turn towards the sun. Which tree would I be? Definitely a walnut tree.

-Roger Deakin, journal entry for April, quoted by writer Robert Macfarlane, Twitter, 04/04/2018

Macfarlane then asks: “Which tree would you be and why?”

—A cypress.

That was my immediate thought.

But why?

After all, one of my favorite scents is Fraser fir (the predominant Christmas tree in North Carolina). I vacuum the stubby needles at holiday’s end and try not to empty the canister for as long as possible, because the fir fragrance fills the air with every subsequent use. The trees of my childhood are dogwood, pine, live oak, magnolia, sweet gum. I have early memories of sun-dappled sidewalks covered with “helicopters”—one-winged seeds, or samaras—that spiral down from maple branches. I tossed the helicopters again and again, as high as I could, to watch them swirl like propellers. Crape myrtles lined my grandparent’s yard; I climbed their smooth trunks, sat in the crooks of their branches, countless times.

Why does cypress come to mind first, then?

Poets and writers, you know when an image appears so vividly that it holds some significance begging to be explored . . . .

For starters, my image is of Taxodium distichum, more commonly known as a bald cypress, or, my preferred name, a southern-cypress tree.

It’s rooted in the swamps of the southern United States, where my roots are. A tree at home in water, in rivers. I grew up in a place called Tidewater, entered the world in a hospital named for its proximity to water: Riverside.

My first recollection of the word cypress was my grandparents’ reference to a place on beyond where they lived, where the little dirt road curved past canals and thick woods that had grown to obscure stately houses: up Cypress Swamp, they’d say. Grandma’s best friend from first grade, who grew up to marry Grandma’s brother, was from Cypress Swamp. As a child, standing on the dirt road, looking through the treetops, if the sun was right, I could glimpse a bit of one old, abandoned house—a roof of cypress shingles.

The word sounded poetic to me even then: cypress. Like a whisper. Like something inviting. Maybe magical.

Although, through the ages, a cypress was usually associated with funerals and mourning. My affinity for the tree is clearly fused to my eastern North Carolina heritage, a reminder of the generations that have gone before me. My family tree, so to speak. It is ancient. Maybe nothing encapsulates that so well as this passage from Our State magazine, in which the author chronicles his boat journey on a river through a cypress forest:

 Many of the trees here must have witnessed those long-vanished species. They would have nodded over Native Americans in dugout canoes. They would already have been tall when the Lost Colony was lost, when the Mayflower sailed, when Attila the Hun was on the move. A few might have stood when Christ was born.

-T. Edward Nickens, “In Search of Methuselah,” Our State, June 8, 2016.

They live for so long, cypress trees, due to their ability to withstand storms; they thrive despite adverse growing conditions. Cypress wood is hard, strong, water-resistant—hence those shingles on the old country houses still standing as a forest  grows up around them. Those hand-hewn shingles sheltered the life therein. Like Noah’s ark, made of gopher wood from an unknown tree that some researchers speculate to be . . . cypress.

I cannot say the adversity, the storms, in my own life are any greater or worse than those weathered by other people I’ve known. I can only say that I’m still here. I view the cypress not as a funeral tree but one that preserves, celebrates, and affirms life; that, ultimately, is the whole reason why I write, why this blog exists at all.

On a fanciful note: Earlier I mentioned the word cypress sounding magical. When I was a child I loved the Chronicles of Narnia. I still do. In these books, C.S. Lewis borrowed from Greek mythology to depict dryads and hamadryads, the spirits of trees that took the form of young girls with their particular tree’s physical characteristics: a birch-girl dressed in silver, another with hair like long, willowy branches. Does a cypress call to me, then, because I am tall (5’8″ in bare feet)? That’s taller than the average American woman (5’4″) but not dramatically so. There must be something more, then, as to why the cypress chooses me, something unique to the tree and to me, other than our having southern roots in watery regions.

The knees.

In cypress forests, knobby projections stick up from the water. Theory has it that those “knees” help the tree breathe, enabling it to take in more oxygen. I don’t know how much truth lies in that theory, but I can tell you this: For my entire childhood I suffered from asthma and the only way I could sleep at night, the only way to breathe, was by curling up in a ball with my knees drawn up under me.

So, yes, my knees helped me breathe.

*******

In the old places

where the water stands still

they live on

holding all their stories

not evergreen

but ever-enduring

reassuring

reaffirming.

With every breath

drawn on their knees

they whisper,

“Remember.”

Real

and ethereal

—if I were a tree

a cypress

I’d be.

Cypress trees - pink

“When we are present in each moment, the past gently rolls up behind us and future slowly unravels before us.” echorooCC-BY

Relics

Mom's empty room

Mom’s empty room. The_DoodlerCC BY_SA

So many stories 

in every room

in every thing.

A lifetime packed

tight in every closet

in every drawer

for even in the time

of abundance 

the memory of deprivation

remained.

A lifetime of love

recorded in cards and letters

all saved 

even poems 

I don’t remember writing.

The photos of my children

so carefully preserved

growing up all over again

here in my hands.

Their father captured 

as a  little boy

in black and white

long ago.

His own father in uniform

smiling, alive

his olive-green dress hats

sealed in a bag 

on a shelf 

deep in her closet.

The ghost of holidays past

pulled from the attic 

with childhood toys

long forgotten.

Tarnished silver in the kitchen

and a fine layer of dust

on the crystal. 

Cookies in a jar

grown stale 

maybe in hopes of

grandchildren coming.

Things with no explanation

only wonder 

as to what they are

and what they’re for. 

So many stories

in rooms once beautiful

in every thing crammed

holding on, holding on

in the hidden places.

A lifetime packed

with living

and loving.

Decades of

acquiring

prospering

overcoming

remembering

all dismantled 

and disposed of

in the space of

a single afternoon.

Only a minute

Hourglass

Hand drawn romantic design hourglass. jl71077CC BY

Every so often, this poem comes to mind.

I first heard it years ago, when a young co-worker recited it from memory. Listening to her mellifluous voice, rising and falling in all the right places, I thought, How profound.

I’ve used it with students for interpretation, for inferring, for fluency practice, for the pleasing rhythm.

Mostly I just mull the truth of it, in its utter simplicity.

Especially the last two lines.

I’ve only just a minute,

Only sixty seconds in it.

Forced upon me, can’t refuse it,

Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it,

But it’s up to me to use it.

I must suffer if I lose it,

Give an account if I abuse it,

Just a tiny little minute,

But eternity is in it.

Attributed to Dr. Benjamin E. Mays

You’ll bring your own interpretations, images, minutes to this.

I think of all the stories that hang in the balance of a minute. In the wavering. In the choosing. There’s always that minute before the accident, before the attack, before the kiss of human or substance, before the choice that cannot be unmade is made. In a minute, lives are created, lives are destroyed. Fortunes gained, fortunes lost. The young, often consumed with this minute, blinded by now, cannot see forward; the old, bearing the weight of all their minutes, look back, see them all too clearly, and sigh.

We do not choose our minutes. We cannot save them or store them. We can only seize them, endure them, waste them, invest them, or pay for them. A choice lies inside each minute, always, even when there seems no choice.

I think of the ripple effect of one minute’s choice, how it never affects just one person but countless others, spanning families, communities, cities, nations, maybe generation after generation. For better, for worse.

I see the news. I read. I hear people’s stories, every day. We live our stories, we make them, every single minute, by our choices, actions, reactions. In some minutes I pause, recalibrate, celebrate, breathe a prayer of gratitude. In other minutes I sink under the anesthesia of why.

Only a minute, come and gone, and we are changed, whether imperceptibly or instantly, forever.

And that line whispers to me, once more. It’s never far away, really.

Just a tiny little minute, but eternity is in it.

Last blast

I watch the pouring snows/ The last of winter’s throes . . . 03/12/2018

First the stillness

portending

the silence

descending.

The last of winter this way comes.

The first flakes

wending,

waxing larger,

distending.

She surges, clings, suppresses, numbs.

As we endure,

transcending,

her spirit

commending,

   Spring, over throes, a requiem hums.

Abiding images

Last week I spent several days on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, studying writing with teaching colleagues from across the state.  This extraordinary opportunity was provided to us by the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching – heartfelt thanks to you, NCCAT, for your support of teachers, and for inspiration at a time when it is needed more than ever.

Ocracoke is, in the words of our faculty advisor, who’s native to the island, “a windy, sandy, watery place.” It’s also tiny and breathtakingly beautiful. One of our assignments was to capture abiding images from this idyllic locale in our writer’s notebooks.

Abiding images are symbols with deep personal meaning to us, often recurring, according to dream analysts. Abiding images are part of us, shaping our lives the way the wind and the water continuously shape this island. To poets and writers, abiding images come from a wellspring inside us – stories, dreams, conscious and unconscious memories – each as unique to us as our own fingerprints.

Our task was to walk in this brine-tinged breeze, under the moody sky, without speaking to one another. We were to walk alone, searching for the images that speak to us.

I prefer to think of it as being called by the images that wish to speak to us.

The long beach grass rippled like hair against the ground; the sea, shimmering and calm on the Pamlico Sound side, flowed ceaselessly from left to right like words across a page. Come, was the inherent, compelling invitation. Come. Listen to me. I have stories to tell.

I filled seven pages with abiding images and took pictures of a few.

There were the pink wildflowers, startlingly bright against the beach grass. Marsh pinks, they’re called. Sabatia stellaris. Our advisor said for anything to survive on the island, it must be hardy, yet here were these delicate flowers with perfect yellow stars in the center, as if painstakingly hand-painted by an artist. Incongruous. Surprising. Hopeful, somehow, for these flowers carry the mark of the heavens in their upturned faces.

I came across some shells by a small hole in the sand, out of which grew a thin, solitary blade of grass. No other grass stood anywhere near this one long, lonely strand, this one hair from this one follicle. There are secrets in the sand, the advisor told us. So much more goes on in it and below it than we really know. 

This curious wisp of grass shivers, nods.

I walk farther and discover the ivory-yellow skeleton of . . . something. I don’t have a frame of reference for it, other than knowing it’s a bone, something once alive. It worries me. I want to know what creature it was and why it’s here in such pristine condition, with no other marks in the sand near it in this isolated spot. How long has it been dead?

I learn later that it’s the skull – just the skull, although it’s the size of a chicken – of a red drum. North Carolina’s state fish.

I still don’t know why it was lying there all by itself.

The last of my abiding images is at the marina in front of the NCCAT building, which used to be the old U.S. Coast Guard lifesaving station. As I turn to go back inside, I encounter a rusted handle quite suddenly in the sand near the marina’s edge. It’s sticking upright, clearly attached to something buried there, and it’s obviously been around a long time. What’s THIS secret hidden in the sand? I don’t tug on the handle, although I want to; I imagine pulling it and a door coming forth from the sand to reveal an opening with stairs leading down to . . . anywhere. A bunker, a secret gathering place, another world, another time. Oh, the stories this strange handle evokes!

Perhaps I will write one of them yet.

For now, the images abide in my notebook and in my mind; they shape me, even as I shape my thoughts about them. I carry them with me while I leave a piece of my heart, perhaps a piece of my soul, behind with them.

We belong to one another. That’s what I think as the sun goes down over the Sound, as I hear boats over in the marina rocking as if they are waking from a long sleep, coming back to life.

We abide.

 

Sunset Pamlico Sound

Sunset on the Pamlico Sound.

In reading and in writing, our instructors told us, “Setting is everything. It drives the story, drives the characters’ actions.” 

Come SWiRL with me

SWiRL

Our Literacy Lunch team’s T-shirt design

Q: What’s a fun way to engage families in English Language Arts activities with their children?

A: Have a Literacy Lunch!

Every year, families look forward to Literacy Lunch at our school. It’s one of our best-attended events.

Our theme this year, “Come SWiRL with Me,” centered on the facets or domains of language: Speak, Write, Read, Listen (we added the “i” to the SWRL acronym to make a real word), as speaking, writing, reading, and listening comprise the ELA standards and language skills needed across all disciplines.

So, grade levels came up with activities that encompassed all elements of SWRL. Some included poetry, in recognition of National Poetry Month.

 

Spring poems 1st

First graders wrote spring poems with families, to read aloud. Second graders wrote “I wish” poems.

Swirl poem 4th

Fourth graders composed “swirl” poems with families.

Book tasting 5th

Fifth graders treated parents to a “book tasting.”

Wax museum 3rd

Third grade’s wax museum: Meet Woodrow Wilson, Frederick Douglass, and Jackie Robinson. Visitors pressed a “button” to hear the historical figures speak. This was the culmination of a biography writing unit.

After the in-class activity, families went to the cafeteria:

SWiRL - Cafe

All ready for families to eat together – and to write on the tablecloth.

The children seemed to enjoy writing on the paper tablecloths at lunchtime the most – at the end of each lunch, tablecloths were covered with messages and small sketches. One carefully crayoned note from a first grader: “I love you.” Underneath, the neat printing of a parent: “I love you, too.”

Upon exiting, parents gave feedback: They were in awe of the artwork,  fascinated by the children’s ideas and their creative expression. One parent commented: “Public speaking is VERY IMPORTANT!” Another parent, after attending kindergarten’s renditions of reader’s theater, wrote: “I’ve seen so much improvement in my son’s writing and speaking.”

Perhaps most telling is this comment, one frequently echoed throughout our years of Literacy Lunches: “Thank you for this special time with my child.”

Speak, write, read, and listen well, for words are important.

So is time.

SWiRL table

Reflect: What message do you need to communicate to someone today? Make time.

 

Elegy written in the countryside

Tobacco barn

A friend tells the story of a visitor from England who, while riding through our rural North Carolina community, asked: “What are all those quaint, narrow houses in the fields?” My friend chuckled: “Those aren’t houses – they’re tobacco barns.” 

I thought: They’re really elegies written all across the countryside.

I love tobacco barns. Within a short radius of my home stands a grand one with a shiny tin roof, another crumbling in a timbered wood, and another housing two mules – seeing this makes me feel as if I’ve stepped back in time. So, with serious apologies to Thomas Gray, I attempt to pay homage to tobacco barns on this last day of National Poetry Month.

Along the winding roads, bereft, they stand
Beyond their use, and most beyond all care,
Just empty shells of creaking wood, unmanned;
Gone gold, within, leaves sweetness in the air.

The fires no longer burn, nor flues convey
The curing smoke, the farmer’s cash-crop dreams;
Those hands and hearts that worked all night and day
Lie spent, burned out, unremembered, it seems

But for the spectral structures standing yet,
Hand-hewn ghosts, whispering to passers-by:
“Press on, work hard before your sun shall set,
Live, love, build well.” – I hear the old barns sigh.

Reflect: What in your landscape, your neck of the woods, speaks to you? What does it say? Why? Listen – and write. 

 

 

Celebrate today

Dogwood

Dogwood. JenniferCC BY

The first day of April – glorious. A sky as blue as it ever gets, hardly a cloud to be seen. Dogwoods and redbuds, bare just days ago, flowering profusely. On the breeze, the scent of blossoms, almost like perfume – winter daphne, I think.

All marking the end of desolation. Nature composes a theme of renewal with color, fragrance, amber light and birdsong.

At the close of the day, I celebrate its beauty. I celebrate the inherent message of hope with the arrival of another spring. Even the news carries a rare inspirational story about a man opening his front door to find his dog, missing for four years, back home on the porch. He sat down and the dog put her head in his lap – what an emotional celebration that must have been.

Today is also the first day of National Poetry month. I have recently discovered a lost booklet of poems that I wrote as a teenager. All things considered, this particular poem struck me as one appropriately celebratory  – winter is over, spring has returned; a lost dog has returned home; my lost poems are found.

I wrote it when I was sixteen. Back then, I called it “Yesterdays.”

Yesterdays are gone

Leaving nothing but memories behind

And, if meant to be, a chance for tomorrow.

So weep no more

For what once was,

For it may be

Once again.

Celebrate today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

slice-of-life_individual

 

 

 

 

 

All that you hold dear

Fawn in hands

A new idea is fragile, fleeting

capture it as soon as you can.

Find the meaning

what it makes you think

how it makes you feel.

Nurture it

as you nurture the artist within you

so the idea and the artist will grow.

Play with the words

the images will come.

Play with the images

the words will come.

Trust your inner writer

to find a way

of conveying that idea, that image

so that others think and see

and feel.

There’s power in that fledgling thought

in every feeling connected to

 all that you hold dear.

More power in sharing it

than in holding it tight, unspoken.

Let it breathe

let it live.

It wants to.

It is precious.

Even

priceless.

Inspired by my writing workshop with teachers yesterday on “creating the magic”  – first as a writer, then for your writers.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer