Title poem

with thanks to Dr. Stefani Boutelier on Ethical ELA’s #VerseLove today. She writes of the way a title can change the interpretation of a poem, or how it might add layers of metaphor: “I invite you to write a poem where the title helps identify its content, theme, or purpose. The topic and form are up to you–the focus today is on the title.”

I will share my poem’s title at the end.

For Day Fifteen of National Poetry Month

The stories
of time before my time
I lived them
through your telling
felt them through
your pounding heart
breathed them
with your young lungs
until I wanted to run
coughing from
the reek of smoke
the acrid taste of ash
and I think of
how you spent your years
giving yourself
to others
despite the ghosts
that surely clung
as smoke clings to clothing
and as I enter the doorway
I can hardly breathe
for the cloying scent of flowers
and there you are on the table
ready and waiting
in your little box
conveniently resting
in a little white tote
I dare not trust the handles
I just wrap my arms around you
and carry you against my heart
like I did my babies
only there’s no car seat needed now

still, I must keep you safe
in your new lightness
so I strap the seatbelt across us both
pondering the measure of a man
larger than life
so reduced

but I’ve got you, I’ve got you
cradled close
see now, I’m driving you home
sun and shadows flickering
over us like old newsreels
of liberation

******

Title: What Remains

Dedicated to my father-in-law, a World War II veteran.

His birthday is next week.

I didn’t know I loved poem

with thanks to Barb Edler who posted the prompt for #VerseLove on Ethical ELA: “Consider the challenges you’ve overcome, the celebrations you can rejoice, the way you may miss something that you never realized you missed”…as inspiration for a “things I didn”t know I loved” poem.

When I returned to college later in life, after having had a family, I was asked to write an essay on “My Most Memorable Teacher.” I’d never thought about this before and was unprepared to write on the teacher who came immediately to mind…but I did write.

I had to.

On Day Nine of National Poetry Month, I give it to you in poem form.

For Mrs. Cooley

You terrified me, you know
looming large
an immovable mountain
in pearls and heels
casting your dark shadow
over my fourth-grade days

The topography of your years
etched deep on your face
your eagle eyes
piercing my very existence

The fear and trembling
of math drills—
Dear Lord
save me
from subtraction!—
I look up 
and there it is 
in your expression:
You can’t squeeze blood
from a turnip

I did not know
that many years later
when I’d be asked to write
of my most memorable teacher
that you’d spring to mind
clear as day
overshadowing all others

and that what I’d recall
is how you read 
Charlotte’s Web to the class

I did not know
I could love a spider so

and then how you read us
Old Yeller

My God my God
I almost died with 
that dog

I did not know
that you were the one
who made me love reading
for there is a difference
in being able to 
and it being the air you breathe

I could not believe
how worried you were
when I fell on the playground that day
how you cradled my distorted left arm
all the way to the office 
and waited with me
‘til Daddy came

I never dreamed
you’d come see me at home
when I had to stay in bed
propped with pillows
ice bag on my cast

I saw you
and the tears came—
I am missing the last two weeks of school
I won’t pass the fourth grade

I did not know you could CHUCKLE
that your sharp blue eyes
could go so soft
and watery
and I never heard that phrase before:
flying colors
you pass with flying colors

Would you believe
I am a teacher now
it isn’t what I planned
but here I am

I never knew until Daddy told me
years ago
that you’d passed
how much I’d long
to see you again
to ask you a thousand things
maybe even to laugh

but more than anything
to thank you
with all my heart

so I do that now
in hopes that you
and Charlotte
and Old Yeller
know that
my love
lives on

Photo: Girl reading. Pedro Ribeiro Simðes. CC BY – reminds me of young me

*******

Thanks also to Tabatha Yeatts for hosting the Poetry Friday Roundup

Snowball

Is there a childhood toy that stands out in your memory? For me, that’s Snowball.

He’s one of my first experiences with loss.

*******

Kindergarten. Show-and-Tell. It is my favorite part of the day and today I am especially excited: I’ve brought Snowball, my toy dog. He sleeps with me every night, he eats with me, he does everything with me except take a bath, because Mama says that will ruin him.

This is Snowball, I tell my friends, sitting in a circle on the rug for Show-and-Tell.

I hold him up.

Oooooos and aaaahhhhs, because Snowball is so beautiful. His yellow ears and tail are made of ‘real’ fur. One ear has a little bit of ketchup on it from falling into my plate while I was eating fries. His stuffed body is woolly white, which is why I’ve named him Snowball.

I tell my friends: I saw him on a shelf at the store and Grandma bought him.

They all want to hold him and stroke his silky ears.

When recess comes, I decide to take Snowball out to the playground.

We have a really tall sliding board on our playground. It’s red and silver, not so shiny.

We take turns. I hand Snowball to a friend and climb, climb, climb to the top of the slide. Whoosh! It’s almost too fast, but SO fun. I make sure to hold my feet high for sailing over the mud puddle at the bottom, that worn-out place made by many, many feet landing there.

An idea: Snowball should have a turn.

Hey, Snowball wants to slide! I say.

My friends hop up and down. Let him slide! Let him slide!

Susan E. is standing beside me. When I climb up and I let him go, you catch him for me, I tell her.

I will! says Susan E. She moves toward the bottom of the slide.

I walk around to the tall, tall ladder. You will LOVE this! I tell Snowball. I give him a squeeze.

I climb, climb, climb, hanging onto the rail with one hand, onto Snowball with the other.

At the landing, I call down to Susan E.:

Are you ready?

Yes! She leans over the puddle with her hands held out.

I’m gonna count to three and let him go!

Okay! Susan E. shouts up.

One

two

three…

here he comes!

I release him.

Snowball slides so fast, so much faster than me…bumpity-bump…

Susan! calls a friend from the sandbox.

Susan E. turns her head.

—Susan! I cry from the top of the slide.

But it’s too late.

NOOOOOO!

With a soft splash, Snowball lands in the mud puddle.

—SNOWBALL! I slide down like a crazy person, scrambling, clawing…

Susan E. stands there, frozen. Then I’m sorry! I’m sorry!

I lift Snowball out of the puddle. He’s soaked through. His woolly white body is gray-brown; dirty water drips from his beautiful silky ears. They’re flat against his head, silky no more.

Sobbing, I carry him back to the classroom. I wrap and wrap him in paper towels. I cry the whole walk home after school.

Mama, I think. Mama will fix him.

When I get home, I pull the wet paper towels off to show her Snowball’s mushy, muddy body.

Honey, I can’t fix him, she says. He is ruined.

ruined

ruined

ruined

—Can’t you just put him in the washer and dryer? I am crying so hard that I can hardly speak.

It is my fault.

my fault

my fault

She shakes her head. He’s not meant to be washed that way. He’d probably come apart.

She says we have to throw him away.

I beg, I cry, but Mama says there isn’t any choice. It has to be done.

I wrap Snowball back in the muddy paper towels. I hold him close one last time, shaking with terribleness. I am sorry, Snowball. I am so sorry. I will always love you.

I lay him in the trashcan.

I cry in my bed all night long. Snowball is not there, will never be there again, to comfort me.

*******

Is it childish that, five decades later, writing the memory, I still cry...

I once drew him for students during writing workshop, when they asked if I had a picture. Even the ketchup on his ear.

*******

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 19, I am writing around a word beginning with letter s.

What’s in a word

Perhaps you have taken part in the “one little word” tradition for the New Year as a means of living more intentionally and reflectively, maybe letting it guide your writing. At the beginning of 2020, I had a word in mind for the year.

Reclamation.

Here’s what I wrote, ten weeks before COVID-19 shut us down:

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

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

At the end of 2020, I have to reflect on what my original vision of reclamation was, and what it became.

Life suspended, stagnant, spinning out of control. At the time, those words were mirroring 2019, when my husband was recovering from cardiac arrest and two heart surgeries. We spent weeks at the hospital in late summer. I never imagined the pandemic lying just ahead…moving forward becomes an act of will, a revised determination to do what you can, what’s most important, for that given day. Caring for my husband took precedence over returning to work when school resumed that fall. When I did return, I fought a daily battle to catch up, to hit any kind of stride, as 2020 dawned. In February I broke my foot. In mid-March, the governor closed our schools due to COVID. In May, George Floyd was killed. America erupted. COVID continued erupting across the world. The election…really, one runs out of words. Life suspended, stagnant, spinning out of control…moving forward becomes an act of will, a revised determination to to what you can, what’s most important, for that given day.

Reclamation, I wrote, involves choices. Both large and small. Every day.

One of my original intents for the year resembled a true environmental reclamation project: repairs and improvements around the house. Did I succeed? As I was home a lot more than ever before, thanks to the pandemic, yes, I accomplished a good bit. There’s just always more to do. One thing (don’t we know) often leads to another.

In 2020 I meant to write more. Did I? Most definitely. It wasn’t the type of writing I envisioned. I thought I would finally complete some things I started in years past. My blog post productivity increased. I ended up writing a lot more poetry than I have in decades. What does that say about the power of poetry in coping with powerlessness, inertia, darkness, even despair? Psychologists avow its therapeutic benefits. Poetry-writing invokes calmness, healing, strength. It calls to the spirit in a unique way. There’s something about the rhythms and breaks, something in the metaphor and imagery, in the cadence, the musicality, that soothes the soul and brings release. Not to mention the good old-fashioned value of hard work in trying to hammer a thing out, especially if there’s a desire to create something beautiful, meaningful.

Perhaps the most interesting take I had on “reclamation” in January 2020 had to do with teaching—before the scramble of completely reinventing it:

I write this not only for myself, but for other educators and instructional coaches struggling for clarity and a foothold in an ever-changing, shifting field: Beware the great chasm between theory and application, between programs that are packaged as “the magic bullet” and cost a pretty penny, but fail to deliver. Be aware of the great gulf between data that’s visible and the stories of human children, not so visible. Push back all that encroaches on growing the children, that which would inhibit their love of learning. Reclaim that for them. Know them and their families and their stories. Know your colleagues and their stories.

—I bolded the part I find most haunting, in retrospect. When I wrote those words I had no clue that children would be learning from home for months, that families would be scrambling to manage it, that devices and hotspots would have to be distributed on a massive scale, that people would lose jobs and loved ones to COVID, that food insecurity would become so widespread, that crisis and survival would keep some students from their learning, let alone a love of it.

What remains true, more so than ever, is that data can’t capture it all. We do need to know families and their stories. We need to know each other’s. From what else are compassion and empathy born? How else will we move forward, together? Reclamation in this sense involves pushing away whatever encroaches and consumes. It involves building something new, taking back what is being lost, reasserting rights…I am thinking of teachers now as much as of students, submerged by systems, structures, checklists, machinery. Of reclaiming a sense of humanity from processes, protocols, and programming which are, in the end punitive. When, if not now? Was a time ever “riper”? I wrote: It’s hard daily work, reclamation. Progress is slow to see for a time. The point being, start.

I also wrote: We reclaim the very heart of our humanity when we share our stories.

I have never been more grateful for the outlet of writing and the writing communities that feel like home to me. Writing taps an inner strength we may not realize is there; sharing the stories knits us to one another by our heartstrings. In a time of distance, isolation, stress and anxiety, with spiking mental health issues, connection is ever more vital. Therapists say that one of the best things a person can do to reduce stress is to write or journal (writing therapy and poetry therapy are real things). In the action of framing thoughts, or facing fears, we collect emotional resources, resilience, and creativity lying dormant or hidden as we wormhole our way through. One more line from my pre-COVID January 2020 vision of reclamation: In this day of restorative practices and social-emotional wellness, why are people not writing more? Here’s a point to ponder: a study by the National Literacy Trust in the UK (June 2020) says that children are turning to imaginative writing more than ever as an outlet for self-expression, creativity, and well-being, now that they have time and freedom to do so…

Life is, after all, writing us. In the words of Albert S. Rossi, clinical psychologist and Christian educator, which I’ve read before and rediscovered this week: We don’t live life. Life lives us.

As the page turns from 2020 to 2021, we’ll see where life leads. It may be in charge of the story, but we are in charge of the craftsmanship.

On that note, I am thinking twice about choosing a word for the new year. Maybe I’ll just see what it wants to say for itself.

In the meantime, resting more, reading more, singing more, praying more absolutely helps. Seek more help when needed. Be more gentle with yourself (a lesson I am still trying to learn).

Keep on writing alongside life.

*******

with a debt of gratitude to Two Writing Teachers and the ongoing Slice of Life Story Challenge which is, above all, a joy

and to the gathering at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog, a divining rod of inspiration

Of stifling, stories, and stars

What stifles you?

This question appeared today on Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog.

The first thing the word stifle conjures for me is heat—stifling southern summer afternoons, air turning to bathwater.

Hard to breathe.

Which makes me think of COVID-19.

And masks.

It’s hard to breathe with a mask, if you have to expend much energy, if you have to talk very much… I know, because I wear one when I’m out and about.

In thinking of masks, I come to another layer…

Filters.

There to help protect. To keep harmful stuff out.

Or in. Depending.

Masks may be somewhat stifling.

Filters aren’t stifling at all.

It’s the lack of filters I find stifling, out there in the daily atmosphere, the zeitgeist of our times. Words of fire, of ash, of acid rain, meant to destroy…when their creative power could be harnessed instead to edify, to transform, to transcend. To honor. To heal. The poets know it…

I can only be vigilant with my own filtering. With what I let into my own mind, heart, and soul. With what I let flow in return… recognizing that

Fear stifles creativity
Inner critics stifle courage
Loudness stifles contemplation
Turmoil stifles contentment
Excuses stifle commitment
Regret stifles today—and tomorrow

—I’d like to continue the acrostic with a sort of reversal using each letter of “stifle” and “filters” on every line but I am tired now. Tiredness stifles the brain.

Humanity is stifling. As in, one’s own. Today an education colleague and I joked that we were done with Earth, having had enough of not-knowing, of virtual realities of teaching, of the inability to move forward with life in general and the tolls taken on us all in so many ways. We kidded about going to live on the Space Station. Even now, recalling, I am “slipping the surly bonds of Earth,” as WWII fighter-pilot-poet John Gillespie Magee wrote, to circumnavigate our planet every ninety-two minutes, seeing fifteen sunrises and sunsets in one day, like the astronauts do. To be among the stars…

Which evokes another favorite quote, this one from Muriel Rukeyser:

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”

And so I slip away from the cosmos, down through our protective atmosphere, back to my own country, to my home, my family, my little spot carved out here in the kitchen, to the waiting keyboard, feeling again the heaviness of humanity.

For us all.

For our very atoms, for the stories we live and breathe.

I reach for the words and it’s a little like reaching for the stars. Not those beyond but their remnants within; as scientists say, we humans are made of stardust.

Well then.

Seems we should be about filtering light.

I’ve enjoyed the open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join.

Blanketgeist

One recent morning, dark and dreary, as I pondered, weak and weary, after binge-watching vintage noir films (as if one needs more psychological drama on top of taking one’s husband for another ER visit due to his sky-high blood pressure and pains in his still-healing heart, rising pandemic numbers and escalating real-life horrors televised nonstop on the news, hurricane-spawned thunderstorms, demon-possessed Internet connectivity, and Election Year), I’d had enough couch-cocooned passivity. I tossed my safe warm blanket aside. I got up, showered, dressed, fixed my hair and makeup even if I wasn’t going to see another person but my husband and son, who’d taken his dad to pick up new prescriptions. I would face the day and whatever it held, head-on.

Having pulled myself together, feeling quite in command for the first time in a while, strolling back through the living room, picking up random bits of fluff from Dennis the dachshund’s destruction of yet another furred squeaky toy (why do we keep buying these), I noted one of my guys sitting on the couch.

Huh. Could’ve sworn they’d already gone to the pharmacy... barely glancing, bent on my fluff-retrieval mission, I said, “Hey, didn’t know you were—”

Whoever it was, sitting there on the couch, wasn’t.

There were no feet on the rug.

No legs, either.

It was the blanket. Sitting on the couch, right where I tossed it.

Now, this is when it either really pays, or really, really, really doesn’t pay to be a reader/writer/film noir binge-watcher.

Because, voilà! A STORY.

And because, Heaven help me, I know too many, truth is stranger than fiction, brains can’t always process what eyes are seeing, I overdosed on ghost stories and tabloids like National Enquirer and Weekly World News as a youngster, watched too many Twilight Zone marathons as an adult, it’s my fault I’m this wired from excessive cups of coffee, that my mind short-circuits with what and why and how, as in: How could the blanket land exactly like that and look so like a person? Albeit a kind of smallish one? Unless… unless it happens to be covering something heretofore invisible… and how long might it have been sitting here without my knowing?

But it’s only the blanket, right?

I check the driveway. Yeah, my guys are gone. No one’s here. Just me and Dennis, who saw me cleaning up his toy-wreckage and promptly took off for the bedroom to hide under the bed.

I eye this blanket. I walk around it.

All those times I told students to think what if? comes back to haunt me… What if the blanket has taken on a life of its own, after I cocooned myself in it for so long? What if my melancholy has taken form, substance, become a Thing, made manifest by the blanket? What if I’m just, like, finally losing it (would that be so terrible)?

—POP—

I almost come entirely out of my hide to leave it lying beside me as yet another separate Thing. I was beside myself …

It’s just the house popping, does it all the time, you’d think I’d be used to it by now (why is it SO LOUD, it sounds deliberate … what if someone is living in the attic? has been living there for ages and I haven’t known? … don’t be ridiculous, the floor up there is incomplete, no one has fallen through the ceiling… yet…).

Well.

The blanket isn’t moving.

It’s just sitting. Rather benignly.

I decide to take a few photos (proof, you know. In case of… whatever).

That’s what I said I was ready to face, right? The day and whatever it held? Head-on?

Be careful what you wish for…

So silly. Absurd. Over it.

Time to reveal what is and isn’t real. I reach for the edge of the blanket and

—is that faint chuckling I hear?

Signs of the times

A friend wanted to know if my family would like some face masks.

She is making them.

She sent us pictures of the fabric—she has bolts of it—for us to choose the prints.

Yesterday she and her husband pulled up in our driveway to drop off the masks. My husband and I went out to meet our friends, offering our thanks only in words, no hand-grasps or hugs … a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing … a few weeks back, we were all sitting around the dining room table here in the house, laughing and telling stories after a lasagna dinner. It seems long ago.

When will we be able to do so comfortably, again?

When I look at these masks, I see all that they represent. Shields in time of trouble. A friend channeling inertia into something productive, a practical means of battling an unseen enemy. Self-care spreading out like a blanket to cover others. Homemade love. Colorful patterns against the dark backdrop of our days.

These masks are artifacts of our times. Symbols of our story as we live it. And nothing connects humanity as much as story.

As I walked out to the driveway to receive these gifts, my grandmother’s voice echoed from across the years:

You won’t believe it, but where these woods are now used to be houses and farms, up and down this little road … when the Spanish flu came, it hit all but a couple of them … twelve people died in one week … Mama made pots of soup and Papa would carry it to their doors. He wouldn’t go in, of course …

Grandma wouldn’t have had living memory of this. When the influenza pandemic began in January 1918, she was only two. But she knew the stories. If my own memory serves me correctly, as I walked the tiny country cemeteries surrounding her homeplace, listening to her narratives of the people resting there—for she knew all their stories, and how they were connected— there was an unexpected commonality.

A death year. 1917.

That was before the Spanish flu.

Grandma nodded. There was a sickness before: They called it hemorrhagic fever. People would bruise and bleed from their noses and ears and eyes … a lot of people who tried to take care of the sick caught it and died, too …

She was hardly more than a baby then, a girl born and raised in a hard place in hard times, but here she stood, by the weather-worn stones under a cloudless blue sky, telling the stories seven decades later.

Because of story, these events are lodged in my memory a hundred years after they happened.

My father was Grandma’s first child, born during the Great Depression. Flour companies made their sacks with patterns and bright colors so people could make clothes out of them … look at my handmade face masks and tell me they aren’t reminiscent. A second child, my aunt, arrived with the war. Granddaddy moved the family from North Carolina to Virginia; he found work in the shipyard, where production increased to the point of cranking out ships in less than a third of the time it normally took. How can one not compare that to the scramble for mass production of ventilators today …

Grandma said: It was so hot that summer. I was miserable, being pregnant. I’d sit by the upstairs window and watch the iceman delivering blocks of ice to grocers … companies stopped making refrigerators … everything went into the war effort. I just cried. I’d have given anything for some of that ice … then we had ration cards and could only get certain things at certain times … once my sister Jack and her husband pooled their gas ration cards with ours and we all went on a trip to Massachusetts … it was so beautiful and so cool there …

I look at these masks and that is what I see.

The story of overcoming. Of determination. Of resourcefulness in time of scarcity. Of finding a means to be a good neighbor, a good friend, a real and present help in time of need, even if from a safe distance. Sharing so that everyone has enough. Acts of service, gifts of love. Sacrifice.

The story of surviving.

It’s a collective one.

For the love of reading

When our second grade team had quarterly planning, one of the subs didn’t show and I was summoned to cover the class for a while. I knew there would be sub plans.

But I brought three books with me anyway.

I gave a quick book talk and let the class choose which one to hear. The high vote-getter was A Deal’s a Deal, the story of two little rabbits swindling each other while trading toy cars. There’s a (delightfully disgusting) surprise ending, which is why I brought this book; it never fails to elicit big belly laughs and loud cries of EEEWWWWWW!

I wanted, in my few moments with these kids, for them to experience the joy of reading. I love to watch children’s faces while I read aloud; it is my favorite thing to do, next to writing with them.

A read-aloud, done well, is a theatrical performance. The kids hung on every word, they could feel the action building, they covered their faces, they howled and hollered EEEWWWWWWW!

—Perfect.

Then they went to work on the activities left for them.

I walked the room, well-aware that teachers are trying their best to adhere to a new curriculum that offer less individual reading and writing choices. I watched the children at their tasks. I watched the clock … and decided to set my timer.

“All right, you have a few minutes left to finish this work before my time with you is up. Let’s get it done, and I will read you the book that got the second-highest vote.”

In short order, the work was done, desks cleared, random things on the floor picked up. They gathered at my feet to hear The Adventures of Beekle, the Unimaginary Friend.

I first encountered this book in a summer writing institute for teachers. Our guest author, Matt de la Peña, used it as an example of perspective, asking what’s the story really about, who’s it really about. There was a good bit of debate, as I recall …

But I didn’t set it up this way with the kids.

I just read, letting the words and the illustrations work their magic.

Turned a page, heard the collective Oooohhhh.

Saw light playing on their faces, wonder in their eyes.

I savored them as they savored this book on friendship and imagination.

Whispering in my mind: You were my first friend, too. My oldest and my dearest, even now.

All too soon we reached the end of the book, if not the end of Beekle’s and his friend’s adventures. And here’s the interesting thing: the kids knew who the story was really about, what it was really about, something I’d watched grown-ups—teachers—struggle with.

As I prepared to leave, the children gravitated to the stuffed Beekle who’d been sitting off to the side by himself. He usually sits on my bookcase in my room, an outlier amid all my Harry Potter memorabilia. At the last minute I’d grabbed him and brought him along.

Seems he was here by design, waiting for every child in turn to embrace him, in the way that only children can.

Sick Ada, part II


About a month ago I shared this idea for a story about a little girl who loves cicadas and who’s having a hard time dealing with her parents’ separation. The girl’s name is Ada and she becomes seriously ill . . . hence the title, “Sick Ada,” cicada . . .

The story’s been gestating for a while as there were so many things to flesh out: How old is Ada? Why are her parents separated? Who left, Mom or Dad? Why? What’s the deal with her cicada fascination? How does she get sick? Most of all: Where should the story begin?

I considered writing this scene first: Near the end of the story, Ada goes into the hospital, sick enough that her recovery hangs in the balance. It is winter, when cicadas don’t sing, but she hears the heater rattling in her hospital room and believes it to be cicadas. She decides she doesn’t mind dying as long she can hear them . . .

But I am not starting there, and Ada will not die because my friend Kathleen interceded, pleading for the little girl’s life.

Amid much encouragement and a few thinly-veiled threats (thanks, Friends!), here’s the first draft opening scene.

*******

The darkness began to change.

Strips of light glimmered between the blinds until a thin finger of sunshine pushed through, reaching across Ada’s rumpled bed to caress her cheek.

At its warm touch, she opened her eyes.

Morning.

Oh!

Ada sat straight up in bed.

It’s my birthday! I am nine.

She felt strangely old.

Sitting there in the grayness, Ada knew two certainties. Today the cicadas would start singing. They always started singing on her birthday; Daddy said it was their song of celebration for her coming into the world. He would sing to her, too, only this time it would be over the phone. He promised to call today. Next week when school was finally out, Mama would drive Ada to the airport, put her on a plane, and Daddy would be there to meet her when the plane landed. It would be her first flight.

Ada wondered if cicadas sang on the other side of the country.

The other certainty was that she wouldn’t get her biggest birthday wish of all, that Daddy would come home to stay.

*******

So, Friends, that’s how Ada’s story begins for now, rough as it is.

For the record: The cicada is an ancient symbol of change or transformation and the name “Ada” just so happens to mean “noble.”

Photo: Girl with cicada bug. Jose HernandezCC BY-SA

On Tolkien

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes, a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring . . . .
—J.R.R. Tolkien

I went to see the movie Tolkien this weekend. My thoughts, while sitting in the darkened cinema, watching it play:

Story is magic.

Reading aloud is magic.

Words are magic.

All are part of writing magic. 

Whatever critics may say of the movie, however accurate it may or may not be in depicting the early life of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, as a writer, I loved it. For me it beautifully captured the way a writer’s mind works.

When young John Ronald sat by the fireplace, utterly captivated by his mother’s reading and enactment of a dragon, I could relate to how the book and her voice spurred images to life in his mind. How flickering shadows on the walls, thrown by a candle carousel, took on the shapes of  mythological beings, how story played in his brain as vividly as this movie played in mine. I understood how these images stayed with him long after his mother died, after he landed as an orphan in a boarding house, even how they grew nearer, larger, clearer on the battlefields of the first World War while he succumbed to trench fever. I admired the artistry of the shadowy images recurring onscreen as part of Tolkien’s memory, recognizing: That is exactly what images DO. Once they spring to mind, they are THERE. They lurk, they submerge, they resurface. They’re never gone; they settle and swirl about again, waiting, waiting, waiting always, for the solidity of a page.

I loved how the movie emphasized the young Tolkien’s passion for words, particularly in a romantically-charged scene with Edith Bratt, who would become his wife. Tolkien speaks of the beauty of the phrase “cellar door.” He is enraptured by the sound of it. Edith tells him that it is not the sound of  a word that gives it beauty, but its meaning—what the word stands for, all that it connotes. This is reiterated in a scene with Tolkien and Joseph Wright, Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford, on the mightiness of ships, buildings, civilizations, history, all summed up in a three-letter word: oak. Connotations, connections, deep, deep roots, power . . . in language, in phrasing, in a single word . . . is this not an ancient alchemy that writers come to know? 

And, at the same time, how captivating is the story of an orphaned boy making it to Oxford, himself becoming a renowned professor of philology (the study of the structure and historical development of language, if ever you’re a contestant on Jeopardy!). It’s the story of a man overcoming circumstances and being a genius, the roots of which run back to Tolkien’s childhood, to the Latin his mother taught him, to the stories his mother read aloud to him.

—Story.  The apogee of language, of words. The ultimate form for which language and words exist. The creative force, perhaps, that calls them, drives them . . .

In the final scene of the movie, Professor Tolkien sits at a desk before an empty page and begins to write a now-famous line. I’ve read his own account of this: he was grading examinations, mind-numbing, “soul-destroying” work, when he discovered a blank page in an examination booklet. Without knowing why, he wrote on it: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. This instantly reminded me of J.K. Rowling, how the idea of Harry Potter just “fell into her head” as she was riding a train. The genesis, the magical conception, of story;  it does not exist, but then, inexplicably, in the blinking of an eye, it does, and the world is changed by it. The Tolkien Society relates that after the professor wrote that line out of nowhere, he then needed to know: What was a Hobbit? Why did it live in a hole? To find out, Tolkien began to tell the story to his children . . . and thus, eventually, was born the archetype of all modern fantasy.

The old that is strong does not wither. Deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes, a fire shall be woken. A light from the shadows shall spring . . . yes. It seems to me that in these words of his lies proof that old stories Tolkien began learning as a child remained strong in him; they didn’t wither. They sparked in him an unquenchable fire. Those roots of his love for language, quests, myth, survived the freeze of profound loss. His memories, experiences, the images from his childhood onward, all are the shadows, the ashes, from which his own stories spring.

So it is with writers.

Even if all who write are not Tolkien.

It’s still magic.