Stumbling on a treasure

So it was, while I was skimming about for a photo of magical waters (never mind why), I stumbled across this illustration from a book called The Wonder Clock: Or, Four & Twenty Marvellous Tales, Being One for Each Hour of the Day.

Enchanted, I dug a little deeper and learned the tale of a wood-chopper’s son who, in spite of his father’s insistence, didn’t wish to be a wood-chopper himself and went off to school instead where he studied and studied and became the cleverest student in all the world…thumbnail version: with a bit of magic and much transformative wit involving hawks and fish and ruby rings, the Clever Student leaps into the basket of a princess who’s collecting seashells by the seashore. He ends up revealing his true self, marries her with the blessing of the King, and goes home to collect his wood-chopper father to live the rest of his days in comfort by the warmth of the stove in a fine home.

Key line: “And that is what comes of book-learning.”

—Gold.

Illustration from The Wonder Clock, Howard Pyle, 1887. Public domain.

Father talk

One more post prompted by WordPress:
Talk about your father or the father figure in your life…

He has born in a tenant farmer’s house
one October afternoon
during the Great Depression
the first child of a sharecropper and his wife

a responsible boy
who loved chocolate
most of all his grandmother’s fudge
made especially for him
whenever he spent the night

listening to rain
dancing on the tin roof
like dozens of squirrel feet

a boy who took baths
in a galvanized tub
behind a curtain strung
from the heater
in the living room
(there was no indoor bathroom,
only an outhouse)

a boy who loved cars
who wrote about racing

a boy who loved planes
who grew up
to join the Air Force

(after graduating high school
as senior class president)

a young man far away from home
who learned to love
Mexican food

who returned to visit his grandmother
(Mama, he called her)
carrying her for a ride
in his new white Thunderbird
Hold onto your snuff jar,
Mama

who eventually went to work
as a security guard

then marrying a girl
with big dark eyes

becoming father
a year and a half later

there are black-and-white photos
of me in his lap
wearing his hard hat

me sandwiched
between him and his father
on the sofa
all looking as serious
as the Culhanes
on Hee Haw

I can see him
sitting in the corner
rag in hand
shining his work shoes
I can still smell
the acrid black polish
from the little round tin

him taking me
to buy a parakeet I’d begged for
(I wanted the blue and white one
he said the yellow one looked better
so that’s the one we got)

the hall light coming on
late at night
when an asthma attack
had me wheezing
him coming to give me Benadryl
(it didn’t help)

him setting up the vaporizer
with Vick’s poured in the little tray
(it didn’t help)

many trips to
the ear, nose, and throat doctor
for allergy shots
(they didn’t help)

him sitting beside me
in the waiting room
(that helped
more than he ever knew)

him standing by
holding my doll
looking green
as an orthopedist pulled
and pulled
and pulled
my broken arm
to set it

intervening
like a bolt of lightning
when I screamed

him working every holiday
for the extra pay

him in his chair
watching Sonny and Cher

him telling me
after I married
that if I ever needed to
I could come home

him in a hospital bed
refusing to be taken to the OR
for coronary bypass surgery
until I arrived
and he saw me

him consequently
giving up cigarettes
for cigars
(surely that didn’t help)

him facing battles
that most people
still don’t know about

I knew

him giving me a cross necklace
at a family funeral

me wearing it to his
after he went
so suddenly

funny how
I find myself thinking now
of his scowl
and his warning
Get off your high horse

and his irritation
when I was small
Stop smearing!

(does anyone else
on Earth
use that phrase
for wasting time)

and all the neighborhood kids saying
Your dad is so strict

he was

but then there was his laugh
his love of silly jokes

him listening
while I played my Billy Joel album
and astonishing me
by saying he liked that song,
Stiletto

I bet it was the beat

twenty years now
he’s been gone

not seeing my boys grow up
missing so much

once in a while,
they stand like him
move like him
scowl like him

he’d be amazed by them

and fascinated by how
they like many things he did
such as some of
the same old-time music

his little great-granddaughter
who shares his birth month
will not know him
any more than I knew Mama

only a year in the world
and she loves music
and is already
something of a notorious scowler

her dad says
her head is shaped
just like Granddaddy’s

—the exact thing
you said about me
when I was born

but it’s not Granddaddy’s visage
I glimpse in the mirror these days

it’s yours
more and more

in so many ways, Daddy,
like all the stories
we lived
and every one
you told and retold
blood keeps pounding its rhythms
the beat goes on

Why I Write—2022

Every year for National Day on Writing, I reflect on why I write.

It’s like looking at a diamond ring in a semi-darkened room. Different facets catch the light, scattering sparks of brilliant color, red to orange, green to blue. Writing, for me, is an inner fire. A living fire. It is in my blood the way that farming was in my grandfather’s blood, that music is in my son’s, that crafting was in my mother’s, that a love of children was in my grandmother’s. I see different facets even in these comparisons. Farming is about sustenance. Cultivating the earth, harnessing resources to make it produce—this is what earth is designed to do. Music is expression, form, response, sounds in time, even color. It can be endlessly repeated and replicated; it is the unique and universal language of humankind. Crafting…it takes skill to make a new, useful thing from pieces placed exactly right, sewing them together so that the seams don’t detract. My mother was given a hand-me-down sectional sofa covered with pink scratchy fabric (it was 1970s horrible). She studied it, measured it, bought earth-tone floral fabric and cording and systematically created a custom slipcover that lasted for years. The love of children…does this not tie all of the above? Creating, nurturing, producing, expressing, a contribution to the future.

Writing is all of this.

One can make the argument that all these things are learned, and so they are. But that doesn’t account for the compulsion to do them even when there is no need. Granddaddy gardened into his nineties when he didn’t have to produce his own food anymore, when all he could manage was two small rows in the old dog pen after the dog was dead and gone. He carried a chair to sit on and rest between the kneeling to weed. My son hears all the instruments, all the harmonies, in a song; he spends hours recording a song over and over with different instruments, singing the different vocals, until it all comes together like he wants it…simply for the joy of accomplishing it. My mother received little income from the clothes she made for people; she crocheted countless baby blankets as gifts. She made flop-eared stuffed bunnies with changeable clothes, for the whimsical fun of it, never making a dime. Craftsmanship is beauty unto itself. Like art. Like music. My grandmother’s face shone like the sun at sight of children. I was one of her greatest beneficiaries, my life indelibly shaped, still being shaped, by her love. I might also mention it was Grandma who sparked my love of reading and writing long before I could do either.

Writing, in the end, has much to do with story. At least for me. The story of having lived and loved. The story of seeking the beautiful. The story of gratitude for finding it, in all of life’s brilliant facets and sparks, even in the shadows. There would not be shadows if there were no light. It is there, always there, for the capturing.

And so I write.

Necklace given to me by my father. Years later, it still shines.

Cotton tales

Cotton in the fields
reminds me of Granddaddy,
his recollections…

farm community
in friendly competition
out picking all day

he would pick the most,
winning proud recognition
when his load was weighed

the landowners then
permitted his returning
after the harvest

to strip the remnants
for himself, gleaning enough
to buy shotgun shells

Cotton fields abound this season in eastern Virginia and North Carolina

Modern cotton bales, waiting to be ginned

Harvested cotton field, with remaining bits my grandfather would gather to afford his shotgun shells. He called this “scripping.” When listening to his stories, I could envision him in his youth, strong and determined, never complaining of the laboriousness. His words only radiated nostalgic warmth and pride that he was able. Eventually, he said, the boll weevil forced out cotton and tobacco replaced it as the community’s cash crop. In the Depression, Granddaddy was a sharecropper; my father was born in a tenant farmer house. Eventually my grandfather “couldn’t make a go of it” and would find work in the shipyard three hours away, staying in a boarding house all week and returning to his family on weekends…for ten years, until the oldest children graduated from high school and he moved the family. Farming remained his love, however, for the remainder of his days. After retiring, he and Grandma moved back home where he planted glorious vegetable gardens, one of my own most-loved memories.

Shoe poem

For VerseLove on Ethical ELA today, Andy Schoenborn invites teacher-poets to write “tumble down poetry” about shoes:

“For the small spaces they occupy, poems can cause writers to freeze. To break a poem free, try writing a paragraph or two of prose and, then, watch a poem tumble down with this process… today let’s write about shoes. Please take three minutes and write in prose about a pair of shoes that you’ll never forget… Once your paragraph is written, look for naturally occurring repetition, alliteration, striking images, and moments of emphasis fit for enjambments. Then play with the structure and form as a poem ‘tumbles down’ the page.”

It’s amazing, when you stop to think about it, how many shoe stories we have… this memory from long ago quickly overshadowed all others for me today.

Shoe Story

Fifth grade
studying mythology

the teacher says:
Now you will write
your own myth

sometimes myths
are about inventions
or journeys
or transformations

what can I write
about any of these?

I think
I sigh
I look
around the room

rainslapped windows
there was a time when
my parents would have made me
pull galoshes over my shoes

I hate hate hate my shoes
saddle oxfords
— I call them sadlocks
black and white
or in my case, 
black and gray
needing polish
again

everyone else
wears Hush Puppies
suede desert boots

Be grateful
for what you have
I’ve been told
by various grownups
in my life

(who do not have to wear
sadlocks)

I wonder
who ever invented
these stupid stupid shoes

I wonder when shoes
were invented

—wait—

a picture forms in my mind
a boy, living in a village
by the sea
where the sand is soft
where no one needs shoes…

I grab my pencil

I write him into being

this boy who had to save
his village by climbing
the mountain
where sharp rocks cut his feet
where he made shoes
from big leaves, tied
with strips of bark

on his return to the village
everyone started wearing shoes
in honor of their hero,
Shoeani.

Saddle oxfords. MBK (Marjie). CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Ancient shoes. Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints. CC BY 2.0.

Story love

My family loves to tell stories.

Mostly on each other.

At every gathering, my husband and our two sons continually try to one-up each other with their own versions of stories, all of which are calculated for maximum comic effect followed by boisterous laughter.

My granddaughter Scout, age six, is used to this now. She smiles, shakes her head, sometimes smacks her forehead with her palm, and sighs: “C’mon, Franna, let’s play.” She doesn’t have to ask me twice…

Micah, five months old as of today, is just beginning to take notice of conversations by shifting her gaze from speaker to speaker. She’s probably wondering the baby version of These are my people??

It so happened at a recent family gathering that as I was telling a funny story about Grandpa, I noticed little Micah, sitting with her dad on the couch, watching me with rapt attention.

I paused. “Goodness,” I said, “look how Micah is listening!”

“Oh yes,” said my daughter-in-law, “she loves a story.”

I had a sense, then, of something meaningful in the making. Something of great significance. Something being recorded deep in Micah’s baby brain, before she even has words for it, long before images and moments become archivable memories. She may not understand quite yet that I am Franna, her grandmother; she hasn’t yet learned words and attached meanings; but she could tell by the cadence of my voice that I was communicating something. She watched me intently, absorbing it.

It made me mindful.

It also reminded me of her dad’s little brother, who, before birth, stopped moving around whenever the piano was played at church. He’d kick back up afterward. He’s listening to the music, I told his dad at the time.

And he was. He’s our musician-mortician son. He’s loved music all of his life and can play anything he wants on the piano and guitar. Without sheet music. The patterns and chords are all in his brain.

Which brings me back to his baby niece, who bears a strong resemblance to him in many ways, especially in this serious manner of absorbing of things.

Micah loves music, too; we’ll see how that plays out…

What I know for certain is that, at five months, she loves story before she knows what story is.

I predict she’ll be the greatest storyteller of us all.

Micah with her preacher dad, my oldest son, while he works

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March

For love of all creatures

Many years ago I read a series of books about a young 1940s veterinary surgeon beginning his career in Yorkshire, England. The stories are captivating, hilarious, heartwarming, and heartbreaking; the characters—some of them animals—are larger than life, unforgettable. I fell in love with these stories right away.

And so I have again, with the Masterpiece Theater version of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. When the series premiered in 2020, it was deemed “the surprise runaway hit of the year.” The second season recently ended and I do not know how I am going to endure until Season Three. I have begun watching episodes over and over…and over…

I have to ask myself why.

Maybe it’s that I loved these stories so much when I was young. I recall encountering the name “Tristan” for the first time and being so enchanted by it (and by the comical character, another young vet) that I thought about naming one of my eventual children Tristan (a thought which earned a resounding Are you serious? NO from my eventual husband). Maybe it’s that I find details of long-ago rural veterinary practice fascinating. James delivers calves and tangled-up twin lambs; in the show he must figure out how to untwist a mare’s uterus to deliver a foal, or both will die. Or maybe it’s James’s ongoing struggle for acceptance by the local farmers who are often mistrustful, preferring their familiar “old ways” (I so relate to this as an instructional coach, sometimes).

I suspect it’s all of these. And more.

Beyond James’s love for the animals and his gentle spirit is a compelling, refreshing sense of purity. Times aren’t simple, life is hard, loss is always imminent, yet there’s a richness in it all, a sacred honesty born of living close to the land, a sense of true interdependence and valuing all living things…

Not to mention the scenery. The Yorkshire Dales are breathtaking. I have to go there someday. I feel like I have seen this place before, in some of my most beautiful dreams. Place is a character in itself, alive, vibrant, calling in its own voice, and the Dales will not be outdone by human nor beast…speaking of which: the animal performances are astounding (how DO the directors manage this magic?).

As the series progresses, so do relationships. I will not say anything more than this: Conflict, humor, and great love are all bound together by cords of civility. Reputation matters. Honor matters. Honoring life matters…

And just as one is getting cozy at the end of 1938, and snow begins to fall, and farmers lead draft horses through the town streets at the close of day, and young people are gathered together, beginning new chapters of their lives…the first war plane flies overhead in the darkening sky…

And I’ve an overwhelming desire to stop time, to hit rewind, to savor peace… which we almost never realize we have, until we don’t…

Yorkshire Dalestricky (rick harrison). CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

*******
with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March.

Dear Writing poem

Shortly after NBA champion Kobe Bryant died, I watched his film, Dear Basketball, for the first time. I was profoundly moved by his passion for the game and by his gratitude for it. I composed a post afterward, Dear Writing. Today on Ethical ELA’s Open Write, Susan Ahlbrand invites us to write a letter to something we are passionate about, in poetic form.

Here is my first attempt at reworking my letter into an epistolary poem…

Dear Writing,

It is time to tell you
how much you mean to me
for it is more 
than ever before.

Let me begin
at the beginning
when you first materialized.
I was, what, about six years old? 
I wonder now whether I discovered you
or you discovered me
sitting there at the coffee table 
in the living room, 
wide-ruled paper in front of me,
a fat pencil in my hand. 
All I know is that it began with story. 
A pull 
a beckoning
a desire 
to get what was swirling inside me 
onto pages. 
By some great alchemy
my blocky letters
erratic spelling
rudimentary sentences 
ceased to be merely themselves; 
combined, they became something
distinctly Other. 
And there you were.
Almost a living, breathing presence. 

I didn’t know then
that you’d come to stay
that as I grew
you would grow with me. 
That you would, in fact, 
grow me, 
always pulling me to more.
To think more
explore more
discover more
strive more
play more. 
To be more.

Do you remember the diary
Grandma gave me for Christmas 
when I was ten or eleven? 
The front cover adorned
with an illustration of a little girl
trimmed in pink
complete with brass lock and tiny key. 
Do you remember this entry: 
I wrote a story and 
I hope it will be published…
whatever happened to that diary—? 
To that story? 
They’re lost in time. 
No matter. 
I can see that page in my mind to this day
—is it you that keeps this memory alive?

People began to notice our relationship
early on, didn’t they.
Teachers said we were a good thing
and offered tips 
on how we could be stronger. 
Friends and family told me 
to stick with you: 
Please keep writing. 
I owe them all 
for how they shaped
you and me.

Where would I have been without you 
in my teenage years? 
In the early days 
of my marriage? 
Those were the poetry years
the journal years
when you let me glimpse 
the beautiful inside the uncertain
when you compelled me 
to pour out my heart. 
You were bigger than 
my anguish
my anger
my fear. 
You channeled it all, 
absorbed it all. 
Ever how circuitous the path
how violent the storm
how steep the mountain
how dark the night
how deep the pain
you were there
leading me 
to safety
to calm. 

Even now, I reach for you
and you are there. 
Like the ocean
you bring forth 
unexpected treasures
and healing. 
When my emotions 
and energy are spent
washed clean away, 
you reveal over and over 
one thing 
that always remains: 
Hope.

For there’s always more 
to the story
to the ones that I create
to the ones that I live. 
I think that’s perhaps 
the most important lesson 
you’ve taught me: 
This chapter of life is ending.
A new one is about to begin. 
Embrace it. 
This is but one
of your extraordinary powers. 

Then there is
your amazing ability 
to mine my memory…

With you I am any age I ever was. 
I sit on my grandfather’s lap once more. 
He walks with me, holds my hand. 
I hear his voice. 
I am in Grandma’s kitchen
while steam fogs the windows
I am in her arms 
as she rocks me and sings: 
Jesus loves me, this I know
I see my father’s blue eyes
I hear my mother’s laughter 
and the whir of her sewing machine 
late into the night. 
With you my children are still little
my husband is young
black-haired
healthy
whole
and out on the court 
shooting hoops. 
And every dog I ever loved 
comes bounding back to me 
in absolute joy
all my shortcomings
forgiven.

With you, I relive it all. 
The parts I am proud of 
and the parts I’m not
the moments I cherish 
and the ones I survived. 
With you, they all become 
a celebration
of living,
of learning.

I learned long ago 
that I can harness your power 
to attack 
but you showed me 
that this doesn’t bring me peace.
You taught me, instead, 
to defend. 
Not as a warrior 
with drawn sword
but as a careful guardian
of my own mind and heart. 
Not by destroying
but by edifying. 
You enable me to walk 
in another’s shoes 
and see through another’s eyes
to understand that fighting 
doesn’t move the hearts of others
but story does. 

There’s something
of the divine about you.
Marvel of marvels
how a spark 
in the human brain 
becomes a thought 
and a thought
becomes substance 
because of you. 
Like something from nothing. 
Ex nihilo. 
It’s how God created, 
speaking the world into existence. 
With words. 
Without limits.
Anything is possible.
Believe. 

I believe there’s a sacredness 
behind the human spirit’s desperate craving 
to create
to express
to be heard…

which brings me back 
to six years old
at the table
pencil in my hand.

You will outlive me. 
You are my record.
You are what I leave behind.

Let it be the best of me.

Know that you’re an inextricable part
of who I am, 
one of my life’s greatest gifts. 
Meant to be given. 

And so I give you away.

I am grateful beyond words.

I love you.
Fran

One of my many writing notebooks

I want to be the kind of writer…

with thanks to SOS-Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog for the inspiration

I want to be the kind of writer who seizes every moment, carpe momentum, for the meaning it contains, for the uniqueness it brings, for the virtue of its existence and my existence within it, for these are fleeting: my presence of mind and my presence here. I want to the the kind of writer who lets the tap of memory flow full force, who drinks long, deep drafts in thirsty gratitude for every image that lives in the sea of my brain, inside the little seahorse itself. Precious hippocampus, my writer-symbol. I want to be the kind of writer who feeds it, keeps it strong, leaves floodgates open for all that rides the currents of memory, all that rises to the surface, all that washes up like flotsam and jetsam from long ago, even if but random bits of objects or recalled treasure like moments with those I loved and who loved me, still very much alive and real in the iridescent foam bubbling at the edges. I want to be the kind of writer who doesn’t attempt to pin a fragile new idea to the page but who stops to acknowledge it when it appears, makes note of it, gives it room to breathe, to unfurl its wings, for the thing has something to reveal. Yes, I will write to it, write around it, capture it; but softly, without force. Ideas are living things. They are to be nurtured and examined, not hammered and dissected (even in the name of research). I want to be the kind of writer who honors the organic and spiritual nature of the craft and the transcendent power of story in the human heart. It is a matter of mattering. I want to be the kind of writer who spins crystals of my memory, thought, sensation, perception, emotion, and imagination into stories of substance that matter to readers, that maybe add layers of meaning to their moments, too…the way that writers have done, still do, for me. I hear the echo of their words daily as I go about the moments of my living; the writers, the writing, the words, ever-present, tickling the hippocampus, anchoring in my soul, forever bubbling, forming and reforming, spawning yet more ideas. I want to be the kind of writer always reaching for what’s beyond my grasp, always discovering, always inviting awe, always listening, always and infinitely grateful to have been alive.

Carpe momentum.

I am working on it.

The seahorse is a favorite writer-symbol for me, sharing the same name with the part of the brain regulating memory and emotion: hippocampus. Photo: E. Johnson

For love of Narnia

Discovering people who love Narnia is the closest thing there is to actually waking up and discovering you’re in Narnia. From the time I was ten I felt the same longing of those fictional English schoolchildren who found their way in though several different portals between that magical world and this one, that constant desire to return, to see Aslan again…

So when my children were born, I set about imparting a love of Narnia (and books) in their hearts.

My oldest loves books to this day. Narnia, however, never seemed to hold the same Deeper Magic for him that it does for me.`

Until recently.

He began reading the series to his five-year-old daughter last year and Narnia pulled him in. All the way in.

That is what Narnia does.

He would text me at different points on his adventure, the same adventures I’ve had over and over all my life. The snow. The lamppost. The thaw. Talking Beasts. Dr. Cornelius. Bree the Horse. Boarding the Dawn Treader. Meeting Reepicheep. The royal line of kings. Falling in love with Aslan, over and over and over again…

At the beginning of The Last Battle, this text: It’s heartbreaking.

Later: I got to the part where Cair Paravel has fallen and Tirian says Narnia is no more…am weeping…

Later still: Just finished The Last Battle. It broke me.

I learned from my little granddaughter, who whispered in my ear: “He cried so much that I told Mama we should be really nice to him. His eyes were all red.”

My boy, my boy. Once Narnia gets a hold of you, it never lets go. It’s in your blood, forever and ever.

Trust me.

It is but the beginning.

For Christmas he gave me this necklace with Lucy and Mr. Tumnus
in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.