Teach Write

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How amazing these words are that slowly come to me.

How wonderfully on and on they go.

Will the words end, I ask

whenever I remember to.

Nope, my sister says, all of five years old now,

and promising me

infinity.

—Jacqueline Woodson on learning to write, “The Beginning,” Brown Girl Dreaming

Writing is, in many ways, a celebration of life. Of our stories that we live out each day. Of discovering our ability to change the course of our stories even as we are living them.

Believing in the power of writing and the need to share our stories, today I celebrate the vibrant work of my friends and colleagues at Teach Write.

Teach Write is dedicated to teachers of writing and teachers as writers. Founded on the knowledge that teachers often struggle with writing instruction and with ways to grow as writers themselves, Teach Write provides a treasure trove of ideas, connections, support, and opportunities to contribute—everything from coaching to tips to daily writing opportunities.

Check out their website and resources: Teach Write.

Also check them out on Twitter: @TeachWriteEDU. Participate in their #TeachWrite chats on the first Monday of each month, 7:30 p.m. EST.

As a teacher desiring to grow as a writer, consider joining the Teach Write Facebook Tribe.

It’s my honor and pleasure to have a small part in the great work that Teach Write is doing to encourage teachers, from discovering I AM a writer to going forth and instilling the same in children. My contributions as guest blogger:

March 9, 2018: What Community Is and Why It Matters

April 11, 2018: Thinking in Poetry

May 8, 2018: When I Stick With It

July 9, 2018: The Power of Feedback and Risk-Taking

October 10, 2018: Writing is My Elixir

November 9, 2018: A Taste of Memoir

May 8, 2019: Tuned Into Meaning

Thank you, Teach Write, for the invitation to write . . . for that is sometimes all that a person might be waiting for.

To write that first word, to take that first step, on the journey toward infinity.

Your story matters

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“The world needs stronger stories.

We’re here to live a story and we’re made to live a good one.”

– Ruth Ayres

The focus of Day Two of my district’s Teacher Summer Writing Institute was Your story matters, with the driving question for teachers: “Why is it important for me to see myself as a writer?”

The bottom line is that we grow strong at writing by writing. If teachers expect to help students grow as writers, teachers must be actively writing. And teachers must believe in the craft, in the process, in the transformative power of writing, if they expect students to. As Ruth Ayres states in Enticing Hard-to-Reach Writers (Stenhouse, 2017): “When writers believe their words matter, nothing can stop them.”

Our group of K-12 cross-curricular teachers took some time to delve into their own stories by charting “peaks and valleys” from their life experiences. Peaks meaning moments or experiences that were positive—not necessarily milestones like getting married, seeing your newborn child, etc., although these can be peaks. Exploring moments or memories that have stuck with us over the years, those that carry great emotion, can impart greater insight to why we are who we are (see Your why for the expanded explanation of this activity). One of my peaks, for example, is from 5th grade, when I saw a classmate  do something extraordinarily brave. It’s my definition of “noble” to this day (if you want to read that story, see The Valentine ).

Valleys, or pits, are harder moments that have also defined who we are and why. They’re often ones of loss, but not always. Sometimes the valleys are moments of despair or disappointment, especially in yourself. Yet there’s great learning and insight attached to these moments. One of my valley-moments occurred when my mother invited a boy who bullied me to my birthday party.  When I began writing this piece, I recalled only my anger at my mother and our conflict. But a funny thing happens when one continues to write . . . I learned a truth that has stayed with me, subconsciously, all these years; it continues to shape me and my relationships with other people (you may read this story, if you like: The birthday ).

So the teacher-writers explored their peaks and valleys. They watched an extraordinary Ted Talk on perspective and assumptions of others, The Danger of a Single Story,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. They read articles and books of their choosing on writing. They studied visual texts.

Their takeaways:

“Writing about the peaks and valleys was so therapeutic.”

“I loved having the space to write. I began writing about one of my peaks and my mind hopped to something I saw recently; these two things don’t seem to be remotely connected . . . I wrote that instead because the image and what I was thinking were so vivid. I don’t know the last time I wrote like this.”

“I thought about things I haven’t thought about in years.”

“It’s so cool how writing takes you to places you don’t expect.”

You stories matter. Not just to you, but to others who may need to hear them.

Write first, Writer, to know thyself.

Find your stories and to discover where they take you, and what they mean. What they reveal to you about who and why you are.

Then tell your stories. Encourage others to tell theirs.

That’s what stories are meant for.

Wisteria, part 5

Wisteria long arbor

Wisteria arbor. Jason BakerCC BY

Here’s my last installment of a tale told by a wisteria vine.

“Setting is everything,” said the facilitators at the writing workshop I attended last summer. “Setting drives the plot, the actions of characters . . . .”

That’s certainly true of this story.

All my life I’ve been haunted by an old house in the woods beside my Dad’s childhood home. I looked for it every time I visited my grandmother and we walked down the narrow dirt road. She’d point it out through the trees (she knew where to look; I had trouble finding it):

“There it is, the Griffin house.” 

I’ve seen many old, abandoned houses since, in various stages of falling down, but the Griffin house, obscured by thick woods, was the first. The allure, the spooky wonder I felt as a child, was immediate and intense.

It’s never left me.

None of the people who lived in this house were my relatives. They’re in my blood only because of the place and the stories, real and imagined. My aunt, as a child, used to run on a path between her house and the Griffins’ to play with the Griffin grandchildren. Eventually, said my aunt, the wildflowers and weeds grew taller and taller, and then . . . well, everyone and everything grew up.

The Mixon road began across from the right front of my grandparents’ yard. Standing in the Griffin yard, to the left of my grandparents home, the Mixon road would have been visible to the far right, branching off of the main dirt road. By the time I came along the Mixon road consisted of only two wheel tracks in the grass, a path leading partway through the woods and fading away where fields were still being farmed. There’s no trace of the road at all now; scrubby brush has overtaken it. No one would know a road, or a house, was ever there. Grandma said that the Mixon home down this vanished road was beautiful. It was two stories with a double porch, dating back to the Civil War. That house was gone long before I ever came to be. 

Perhaps this story springs only from a hopeless romantic streak, but as the wisteria grew heavier and heavier in the trees of my ancestral homeplace with each passing year, it stirred the stories, imaginings. For fractions of seconds, I could see the old, hidden Griffin house as it was. I could feel the thrum of farm life, see a mother surrounded by little children, sense a man pouring his soul into the earth to make it produce enough to feed his own.

That house is, for me, an abiding image. I can forever pull back layers to find new and deeper meanings: the passing of time, “memento mori,” we are mortal, and who will remember us when we’re gone?

The wisteria is another abiding image. If it has attached itself so to me, then why not to my characters?

When I happened upon an science article about plants having memory, I wondered, What if such memories could be tapped? What if a botanist actually had a means of, say, sticking a needle in a plant to extract its memories? 

As a writer, I get to do just that. Without the needle.

In previous segments of this story, Jennie Jay Mixon has grown up to marry the widower neighbor, Thomas Griffin. The wisteria finally blooms for the first time. The affinity between girl and plant deepens; their lives, their maturity, mirror one another. In this final segment, the mirroring takes an unexpected, divergent turn . . . .

*******

So Jennie Jay transplanted herself in the Griffin household as the mother figure to six children, the oldest being barely younger than she. Jennie rooted herself in the family as if she’d always been there. And in some ways, she had. She wrapped her love around Thomas Griffin the way I wrapped myself around the arbor frame. Like my arbor supported me, Tom’s strength secured Jennie Jay. Under the arc of their love, the children, the farm, flourished.

Until their first baby died, weeks after birth.

She spent that day drifting between the house, the cemetery, and me, wandering as if she were that lost toddler of long ago.

He finally pulled her to a bench he’d placed under me, sat her on his lap.

I did all I knew to do, Tom. She seemed to be getting stronger. What did I do wrong?

Nothing, my love. She was just too little. You can’t blame yourself.

I ache to hold her. To feel her warmth. I think somehow I needed her more than she needed me. I am just so empty. 

There’ll be others to come, who need you. And I need you, Jennie.

She smiled a little then. She pressed her wet face against his coat. He leaned his head back against my trunk, let her cry, and cried along with her.

But he was right. In time, more babies arrived: Twins, then two more.

I was a part of that last fertilization. Really, I was.

They crept out of the house one balmy summer night under a waning crescent moon when I was blooming riotously, having been pruned back a few times for my own good. I sheltered them as they loved each other, murmuring of long ago: dandelions, destiny, The Powers That Be.

And me. Jennie Jay and Tom whispered of me, even then.

Let it be duly noted, however, that I find the efficient business of self-pollination far superior, although this interlude did clarify some finer points.

And children grow almost as fast as vines; one by one, they all left home.

Tom began to wilt.  Rheumatism, Jennie called it. She fussed over him, waited on him. He basked in her attention much like I bask in the sun.

Considering the span of their ages, everyone expected him to go first; it was the natural order of things.

I perceived it before she did.  How, I cannot convey, but I discerned something stealthily growing, snaking its way silently through her inside parts, bit by bit. The terrible truth is that this Thing was like me. Powerful in the way it grew and took over. I had not fully known my own power until Tom extended the arbor with an enclosed walkway of trellises. My new shoots, innocent, so tender, had spiraled through the lattice. As I grew, my tendrils tightened; I began to pull the lattice into myself, out of control, until Jennie Jay and Tom cut that part of me away.  They left the overhead beams of the new walkway for me to extend myself and luxuriate, but no more lattices, as I would only destroy them.

I sensed nothing good in the Thing that slowly choked the life out of Jennie Jay. It wanted to live, she wanted to live, I wanted to live; but I could not desire to live if my living was at the expense of hers.

The elongated arbor allowed me to get near the bedroom window. Jennie Jay, so small and white, lay still on the bed. Tom’s cane remained in the corner, for he seldom left her side, even when the neighbors came to relieve him, or when the children came to say good-bye.

He held her whenever she screamed, when the Thing, out of control, took, bent, consumed, destroyed. He was holding her on that last morning. The sun had just risen; dew sparkled like scattered seeds of fiery rainbows.

Her eyes opened, looked through the window at me.

It’s morning, Tom. Time to get going. I’ll wait for you under the wisteria. Come on whenever you’re ready, dearest.

Humans say envy is green. I am green. I know envy. I envied the pine tree given for her casket. I wanted to be the one, would have sacrificed myself, to hold her forever and ever.

Of course he knew. Before he nailed the lid shut, he hobbled outside with a pair of shears to clip a little sprig of my purple flowers. When his children and the neighbors attempted to help, he shooed them all away. He carried my flowers, placed them under Jennie Jay’s white fingers, kissed her hands, her face, one last time, and nailed the lid himself.

He planted her beside their first baby, a wise distance away from the first Mrs. Griffin.

In his grief I was powerless. I could offer no condolence, could not weep, could not acknowledge our loss in any way other than shedding my blossoms, borne by the breeze to collect on the mound where she lay.

I lost track of time then. So did Tom.  He did not come to me again but went quickly after her, his existence too intertwined with hers for him to adapt to a world without Jennie Jay in it. She was his world.

By then the garden was no more. The yard soon went wild. Grasses and weeds grew tall; the pecan tree rotted away. The Griffin children, their grandchildren, their great-grandchildren, came back from time to time, always in a hurry, visiting the graves, showing the land to potential buyers.

No one wanted it.

The barns collapsed. The house and I kept standing, even as saplings grew into trees around us. My arbor could not bear my weight; I crushed it. I latched onto a sturdy oak, where I climbed and climbed above the darkness of the woods which claimed for itself what was once the productive farm of a good, kind man.

I reached the house, at last. All traces of the whitewash were long gone. I wove myself through the bare clapboards and window frames, up the narrow staircase, back out between the cypress shingles.

She lived here, she was happy here. Her babies were born here. The walls and I were the last testaments to their love, that peculiar human gift. My tendrils tasted it all, absorbed it, took every bit and stored it deep within myself. My twisted trunk attained the girth of a man. Parts of my vine grew larger than Thomas Griffin’s muscular arms when they first wrapped around Jennie Jay.

I am all that remains. The house caved in from the ravages of time, weather, and me, but I am compelled ever onward and upward. Trees do not grow fast enough to suit me, for my goal is to reach the sun, that life-giving, golden orb beckoning from the periwinkle sky; I sense that something of Jennie Jay is there, just on the other side.

Until then, I draw from the essence of her deep within myself, where every sensation is preserved, where she lives on and on and on.

Her first and last words were of me.

First and last, first and last. My images of her keep circling, circling, ever-circling.

She was the first child I ever saw . . . .

Wisteria & old house

Old North Carolina home covered in wisteria. David R NCCC BY

*******

The End.

But maybe not.

Wisteria’s last line is also its first, so, back to The Beginning . . . .

Wisteria sprig

Wisteria sprig. Maggie McCainCC BY-SA

Wisteria, part 4

Wisteria vine

Wisteria. Asiya QureshiCC BY

I love things that are old. 

I am having fun tinkering with this little story about the old days, based on my grandmother’s childhood memories and stories that occurred before she was born. The ancient oral tradition . . . as I listened to her, faint images of people partially materialized in my mind. I wondered what their extended stories might be, what their lives were like on family farms in this remote, woody place that I visited each summer. In my lifetime, it was nearly all woods; few traces of the community remained. 

The wisteria remains. It hangs in the trees where the farm houses once were, its abundant, pale purple flowers the very image of April in North Carolina, whispering of long ago.

I starting wondering what stories the wisteria could tell, what it had witnessed across the years.

Then I heard its voice. 

I guess I’ve always had a wild imagination . . . 

It’s also fun to relate Wisteria’s story, beginning in the 1880s to the turn of the twentieth century, thus far, in segments somewhat like a serial in newspapers or magazines of that era. 

In the preceding installments (Wisteria, Wisteria, part 2 , and Wisteria, part 3), the vine tells of its mysterious origin on the Griffin farm and its developing kinship with a girl named Jennie Jay, who’s become a teenager harboring a secret. Mr. Griffin, father of six, has just lost his wife in childbirth with the seventh. The vine isn’t able to bloom, not an uncommon condition.

In today’s post . . . well, just sit back and listen to what Wisteria has to share . . .

*******

I woke the next spring to find Mr. Griffin building a porch on the front of his house. Every day, neighbor women stopped by with fudge or a pot of chicken and dumplings or stew for his family. The married women stayed only minutes, but the widows . . . they lingered, smiling and chatting at Mr. Griffin as he tried to work. By now I understood a lot more about humans than I used to. I stretched myself closer to the house for snatches of conversation.

Mr. Griffin, it seemed, had little to say.

He managed, somehow, to finish the porch. He left the gardening to his children and whitewashed the house. It stood tall, narrow, and bright in the sunlight by day; it glowed in the moonlight at night, as white as the stone markers just across the dirt road.

In all this time Jennie Jay did not make an appearance.

Her mother walked over one afternoon, bearing a basket, when the Griffin children had gone Up the Swamp to visit their mother’s relations. Mr. Griffin leaned against a porch column, smoking his pipe, gazing at the place where his wife, his baby, and his parents were planted.

He straightened, nodded, when he saw who was coming.

Miss Aurelia.

Hello, Thomas.  Here, I fried a chicken and made some biscuits for you.

I greatly appreciate it.

Your porch is lovely.

Thank you. The children enjoy it. Just got the swing up this morning.

How are you?

Can’t complain. You?

We’re all well.

A pause. Then—

Jennie Jay came home today.

Ah. So she’d gone away, had she.

Mr. Griffin puffed his pipe. He took a long moment to respond:

How did she like Raleigh?

She says she likes the shops but hates the city.

They both chuckled.

My sister said she was terribly homesick. She couldn’t understand why Jennie Jay wanted to come back to the ‘sticks,’ you know.

A slight smile played on her face.

Mr. Griffin just stared ahead. He made no reply.

She asked about you. Wants to come by.

He turned and looked directly at her for the first time since she arrived.

His voice was suddenly hoarse:

Well, by all means, Aurelia, go and tell her to come.

********

From my high perch on the arbor they built for me, I knew she was coming before he did.

In a yellow dress, her wide-brimmed hat a corona, she gleamed against the reeds and trees, a far cry from the tottering child who once escaped her mother.

He’d hurried in the house to shave, then waited for a while in the new swing, which faced the old Mixon road. Where she’d be walking. Then he took to pacing back and forth out in yard by me, until she finally came into sight.

He stood in my shadow as if rooted, drinking her in the way I drink in sunlight: Jennie Jay, pink-cheeked, blue eyes shimmering, pulsating with life. Her pale hair, long tendrils that my thin green ones could never begin to match, hung loose under her hat.

His gray eyes were as sharp as knife blades when she drew near, his expression unreadable.

He extended his hand:

Welcome home, Jennie Jay.

She grasped his hand, smiling.

Is that all you have to say to me, Mr. Thomas?

He trembled. Oh, could I feel it.

Just say it, man, say it!

God above, Jennie, you are beautiful.

Did you miss me while I was away?

I did.

That is good, because, Thomas Griffin, I. Missed. YOU.

She threw her arms around him.

Her hat fluttered to the ground beside my trunk; there were no more words. He clasped her to him like he might never let go. He sobbed, but Jennie laughed, even as the salt water flowed down their faces; she reached up and pulled his to her own.

By my calculations, she was in her eighteenth year.

I was about sixteen.

****

It happened.

On the day Thomas Griffin married Jennie Jay Mixon and brought her home in his old mule-drawn buggy—by her request— he had a special wedding gift waiting. He wouldn’t let her look; she had to keep her gloved hands over her eyes until he was ready:

All right, love, you can look now.

It was me, of course. In full bloom for the first time in my existence.

My heavy lavender clusters spilled like grapes over the arbor; my fragrance filled the air. I was majestic and I knew it, nearly as resplendent as the young bride.  My one regret—if my kind is allowed a regret—is that I couldn’t bloom yellow for her.

She laughed and cried at the same time, just as when Mr. Griffin first held her in his arms.

It is amazing, amazing! Oh, Tom, how…?

It just happened, Jennie. Of its own accord. All for you, I’m sure.

That wisteria is the most beautiful thing in the world.

Ah, my sweet, salty Jennie Jay.

Wisteria blooming

*******

This isn’t the end of the story. Not yet.

To be continued, one last time . . . Wisteria, part 5.

Wisteria, part 3

Wisteria arbor

Wisteria arbor (cropped). Jon CallasCC BY

Here’s the next installment of a short story based on a tiny North Carolina farming community at its peak, circa 1880-World War II.  While short stories typically don’t cover a period of years, this one does, as it’s told from the perspective of a wisteria vine that may have lived through the entire period, and may be living still; I will have to visit the area again, just to see . . . 

I grew up on my grandmother’s stories of long ago. Here I am basically just having fun weaving bits of them together, taking liberties, watching the story unfurl with the long tendrils of the wisteria vine. 

Another source of inspiration was an article posing the question, “Do plants have memories?” That’s all I needed for fact and fiction to take root in my mind; the wisteria sprouted then and there, and began to speak.

In the previous two installments (Wisteria and Wisteria, part 2), the vine relates its beginnings on the Griffin farm and its attachment to a little girl named Jennie Jay. Sent to the Griffins to escape diphtheria at her home, Jennie Jay is miserable. Mr. Griffin (Thomas) offers comfort by reminding her of her first encounter with the vine, which vows, whenever it blooms, that its blossoms will be yellow—Jennie Jay’s favorite color. Now we discover that plants, as well as people, harbor secrets . . . 

*******

I couldn’t bloom at all.

The seasons came and went again, one after the other, on and on. I grew thickly over Jennie Jay’s arbor, but I was all leaves, spirals, and shoots, without flower. I made a nice shade, however. In the dead of summer, when nothing but mosquitoes, dragonflies, and snakes desire to move, the Griffin children—six of them—sought refuge under me. I was strong and healthy. Every spring I woke back up to the world, sure my flowering would come. Every autumn when I began ebbing away, it was having failed to flower.

Mrs. Griffin had no such trouble. She budded out yet again.

One black summer night, as lightning flickered and flashed, and thunder shook the earth, Mr. Griffin drove the mule and buggy up the Mixon road. He came back with Miss Aurelia. Bowed against the pounding rain, the wind whipping hard enough to rip away a portion of my leaves, he ushered  her into the house. He set off again, yelling at the mule when it shied at the thunder. After some time, he returned with Doc Martin.

The storm raged all night. As it subsided, and the morning dawned gray, Miss Aurelia left the house. She ran toward her home, holding her skirts up from the muddy road. Within moments, she came back with Jennie Jay.

How she’d grown. Taller than her mother, now.

Holding onto each other to keep from slipping, minding their skirts against the mire, they hurried back to Mr. Griffin’s.

They stayed all day, washing, cleaning, cooking, consoling the sobbing Griffin children. Other neighbor women arrived with more food and husbands for Mr. Griffin’s chores. Jennie Jay’s Papa, Mr. Mixon, took the doctor home and returned with a pine box on the mule cart.

Late in the evening Jennie Jay came outside and rested her head against my frayed leaves. I felt her warmth, her energy; she radiated aliveness. Strong and healthy, like me. Always like me.

Wisteria, she whispered, I wish you could know what’s in my heart.

Tell me, I longed to say.

I’m not a good person.

Oh, but you are.

I wasn’t fond of Miss Rachel. She wasn’t especially kind to me. But I didn’t want her to die. Honest, I didn’t.

It comes to all of us sooner or later, Jennie Jay.

And the baby, that poor baby . . . 

I had no words for that.

Mama says Mr. Thomas wants them buried together. They’ll be together forever and ever.

Jennie Jay fell silent for a while. Then she sighed as deeply as any human ever did, I am certain.

I can’t stop thinking about Mr. Thomas. He’s so good and gentle. I will never forget how he comforted me when Papa nearly died, how he got me to help him build this very arbor. Look at you now, how great and green you are.

Thank you. Look how tall and strong you are yourself.

Why haven’t you ever bloomed, Wisteria?

Alas, Jennie Jay, you cut me to the quick!

Can I tell you something I can never tell anyone, any person, ever?

Yes, of course; I can never divulge your secrets, you know.

I’ve loved him ever since.

Naturally.

I think she—Miss Rachel—knew. It’s part of why she didn’t like me much. Do you know she told Mama once that she wanted to tear this arbor down? She despised it. She’d have gladly destroyed you.

She is dead and gone now. She cannot hurt me. Or you.

—Jennie Jay?

She jumped.

Y-yes, Mr. Thomas?

Please come eat a bite before you and your Mama go home. The children are asleep now. Don’t know how we would’ve gotten along without you today.

Jennie Jay’s long fingers lingered on my leaves, caressing, as she turned to go. I caught her parting whisper: Well, I owed you, didn’t I.

Tell him, Jennie Jay. Tell him every bit of it.

*******

To be continued, in two more installments … here’s Wisteria, part 4.

Wisteria, part 2

 

Wisteria leaves

Wisteria leaves. “Leaf edge.” Rebecca SiegelCC BY

I recently posted the first part of a short story about a real wisteria vine that grows in an old, forgotten place. Forgotten people are buried there. An article about plants having memories made me wonder what this hardy old vine may have witnessed in its long lifetime . . . here’s Part One , if you’re interested, in which the vine relates how it mysteriously sprouted, took note of its surroundings, and had its life saved by a little girl, Jennie Jay, and her mother. It was the beginning, shall we say, of a very curious friendship.

Here’s Part Two. The vine has lain dormant during its first winter . . . 

*******

I awoke to a gentle sun and delicious, cool dew. I felt new greenness coming on, so I spread what there was of myself.  I was bigger, definitely bigger. Several days went by before I realized how much time had passed while I slept. A whole season, it seemed. For one thing, the cow had a calf.

For another, Mr. Griffin had a Mrs. Griffin.

Intriguing.

As they planted the garden together, I learned her given name, Rachel, and that she came from Up The Swamp. She must’ve already bloomed, as her fruit was showing right in her middle. I wondered how the fruit would transform into a miniature human like Jennie Jay; did new humans burst forth from pods fully formed like that, or did they just drop off? The fruit kept growing but apparently never ripening. Something taking that long to grow surely could not be healthy.

Finally, near harvest time, Mrs. Griffin shut herself in the house with other female humans. Mr. Griffin scoured his garden for the last of the beans, peered at his pumpkins, sighed, repeated the meaningless motions and hoed, although nary a weed was to be found.

He didn’t see the door when it opened, didn’t see Aurelia Mixon until she called, You’ve a fine son, Thomas! Squalling his very lungs out! Come and see him, Papa.

Mr. Griffin’s face glowed like the risen sun, but I considered myself cheated not to have witnessed the human fruit falling.

****

The seasons cycled and cycled again before Jennie Jay came back to me.

I knew her at once. She’d grown. A lot. I’d grown, too. I no longer needed a cage. Mr. Griffin hadn’t built an arbor for me so I squatted instead of standing upright, but my trunk was decidedly thicker.

By this time there were three little Griffins, one in his Mama’s arms and two hanging from her skirt as she went partway up the Mixon road to meet Jennie Jay, who trudged along wearing a straw hat tied with a wide yellow ribbon. She dragged a curious bag behind her, making a noise like Mr. Griffin’s beagle pup when it got its back leg stuck in the fork of the grapevine.

Mrs. Griffin’s face looked ominous, like storm clouds gathering. Heavens, what a fuss, Jennie Jay. Quit that howling and pick up that valise. You’re getting it filthy. Come on and I’ll fix you a bite to eat.

Ain’t hungry.

Your Mama wouldn’t like that. Say ‘I’m not hungry, thank you.’

Ain’t hungry!

What a stubborn little cuss you are. No matter. You’ll do what you’re told until your Papa gets over this diphtheria and you can go back home.

I want my Mamaaaaa!

She can’t come, she’s tending to your Papa. Besides, you can play with Tommy and Molly; I’m sure you’ll all have a big time together, now won’t you?

They made it to the house but Jennie Jay didn’t stay inside long. Within minutes, the door flew open and she ran as hard as she could toward the garden. She flung herself down so close to me that if a stiff breeze blew, I might bend just enough to touch her. A drop or two of the water flowing from her eyes seeped into the earth, to my underparts. The taste surprised me: humans are remarkably salty.

Mr. Griffin drove up in a cart pulled by one of his more pleasant mules. He saw Jennie Jay, called Whoa, hopped down.

Well, if it isn’t little Jennie Jay.

She paid him no attention. She continued dripping.

He knelt beside her. Tell me what’s the matter.

I want to go hoooommmme!

I know you do. I know your Papa and Mama are missing you as much as you miss them. But your Papa has to get well first. He wouldn’t want you to get sick too, would he?

Jennie Jay sat up and wiped her face, leaving smears of earth.  She shook her head.

It’ll be all right, Jennie. Don’t cry, now. Want to know something?

What?

See that vine there?

Mr. Griffin pointed to me.

The funny bush?

Yes. Know what that is?

Jennie regarded me thoughtfully. She shook her head.

It’s wisteria. Once when you were very small you got away from your Mama and came here to pick every last one of my dandelions. We found you here by this vine. I didn’t even know it had sprung up. I aimed to yank it right out of the ground but your mama said no, let it be, on account of you called it by name and that was your first word.

It was?  A flicker of recollection crossed her face.

It sure was. I witnessed it myself. You didn’t start with something easy, no sirree; you had to go and try to say ‘wisteria.’ It came out something like ‘siria’ or ‘siwia.’

Jennie giggled. The dripping had ceased.

Your mama said I ought to make an arbor here, so this vine could grow and grow. It might even bloom one day, Jennie Jay, with flowers hanging all over.

 Ohhhhh . . . will it?

 It just might. Of course I have to build the arbor first, and see, the trouble is, I ain’t had anyone to help me.

 I’ll help you, Mr. Thomas!

 Well then, let’s get started.

 Mr. Griffin held out his hand and helped Jennie Jay to her feet. She stared up at him with shining periwinkle eyes.

  Mr. Thomas, will them wisteria flowers be yellow?

  Probably not. Usually they’re purple.

  Oh.

  Reckon that will be all right, Jennie Jay?

  I reckon.

Mr. Griffin unhitched his mule and off the three of them went toward the barns, Jennie Jay skipping, Mr. Griffin smiling, the mule laying its ears back, looking altogether like Mrs. Griffin at the doorway.

As for me, I vowed that, whenever I finally bloomed, my blossoms would be yellow.

*******

To be continued . . . here’s Wisteria, part 3

 

 

Wisteria

In recent years, I’ve written lots of short stories, beyond those as models for students or posted here on the blog.  Some of my stories are realistic, usually centering on a character making a self-discovery or a difficult decision. Other stories are more ethereal, with a slightly supernatural element.  

“Wisteria” is one of the latter.

April in North Carolina brings life to the heavy vines snaking through the woods. One day the woods are dark, gray, forlorn, and the next, it seems, they’re bursting with color. Along the highways and back roads, cascades of soft purple blooms reminiscent of grape clusters swathe the trees. The wisteria is beautiful. Its perfume laces the fresh spring air. To me it speaks of old things, old ways, long ago, things we cannot see and did not know, but are with us still, even so.

Regular visitors to this blog will know that I frequently write of my grandparents’ country home in eastern North Carolina, where I spent many childhood summers. It is a tiny, old, remote place. Utterly foreign and mysterious to a little city girl. The images abide with me to this day for myriad reasons: I was happy there. To be with my grandparents was to be in a stronghold of love and safety. Absolute sanctuary. Not until I was grown did I realize how much the environment, the setting, nature itself wove its way into my very being much like wisteria stealthily weaves its way through a forest, grabbing hold of anything it can. Like it did in the thick woods looming eternally dark and secretive around my grandparent’s home. Suddenly, in the spring, these tall, ominous trees were laden with wisteria blooms. They made my grandmother sneeze; they made me stand still and dream. 

Grandma told stories of long ago, before these woods existed. When a whole community thrived along this old dirt road. When the people in the cemetery in the tiny clearing  across from her house were alive. As a child, listening, these people lived and breathed once more, just briefly, in my my mind. Like ghosts temporarily made corporeal before dissolving again. I stood by their aging white stones, some eroding or so weather-streaked or moss-covered that names and snippets of verse were hard to read, seeing my own moving shadow cast over the grass of their graves, as a soft breeze picked up. Leaves and pine needles rustled; birds chattered with wild abandon; frogs plopped into the tiny canal at the cemetery’s edge; crickets chorused from the recesses of the woods because it’s always night there. 

The cemetery vibrated with life. 

I looked up and saw the wisteria nodding, high in the trees.

I tried growing it myself, once.  

A few years ago, a friend of mine, knowing my affinity for the vine, brought me a potted wisteria. I planted it by the back deck with great glee. Another friend built a trellis for me on the deck, so that as the vine grew—which is alarmingly fast—I could tease its tendrils through the lattice. Soon I’d have a glorious arbor of soft purple bliss.

That is not what happened.

Those tendrils, so tender and unassuming, grew daily; they began reminding me of something out of science fiction. Like thin green antennae, they grew out and up from the woody trunk. They held themselves aloft in the air, swaying, twisting—I could actually see these movements. Some tendrils eventually reached the deck and coiled around its posts. Still others stretched, as if consciously, toward the lattice; I guided these green strands to spots where they could weave through in their ever-onward and upward way. 

The first small blooms appeared.

-Joy.

And then one day as I walked across the deck I realized that the lattice was bending, was already quite convex. The wisteria, pulling and pulling, continually gaining strength and momentum (as best I can describe it) was destroying the trellis, was literally drawing it into itself. 

I gazed in fascinated horror. How did this happen so fast?

I noted that one sweet little tendril had reached the gutter of the house, so benignly . . . 

It had to go. 

I cut down the vine. Hacked it to bits.

And mourned.

Not long afterward, I read a science article that posed the question: “Do plants have memories?”

Oh. Oh. Oh . . . .

That wisteria in the woods by my grandparents’ home surely must. . . it’s been there for how long? A century? More?

What, exactly, would it remember?

And that is how my story “Wisteria” was born.

My friends enjoy it. Contest judges and magazine publishers apparently do not.

For whatever it’s worth, I’ve decided to share a bit of the story here, maybe tinkering with it as I go, just because it’s April and the wisteria blooms are once again hanging in the trees, nodding high above whenever I pass by.

*******

She was the first child I ever saw.

I did not recognize her as human. Tiny, clad all in white, she was rather daisy-like, with her upper petals drawn toward her capitulum. I have since learned that this curiosity is a bonnet, for shielding the female’s face from the sun.

I have never understood this.

I came up craving the full sun over my entire being, excepting my under parts that forbid any relocation, that stretch incrementally downward and outward, darkly drawing moisture. This flower possessed the astonishing power of locomotion. She tottered along the dusty road and into Mr. Griffin’s yard where the pecan tree shadowed the patchy grass. Apparently she attracted dandelions; wherever a fuzzy yellow head dotted the ground, she paused and somehow drew it right to her.

Nearer and nearer she came. To her own fate, I suspected, should she enter Mr. Griffin’s garden. Vigilant about his cultivation, he allowed no weed or creature of any kind to interfere with it. I’d poked my way aboveground to discover him plowing painstakingly straight rows, followed by weeks of planting, fertilizing, constructing poles for his beans, staking his tomatoes, scanning the sky wistfully for rain. The black earth bubbled up into greenness, a ceaseless unfurling, blooming, enlarging. The garden was, I must confess, a magnificent human endeavor. If this mobile daisy dared invade, Mr. Griffin might well appear with his shotgun, as he frequently did with four-footed fauna. I preferred not to witness the annihilation of the only known walking-flora specimen.

I shuddered when the vibration came.

Not the crack of the shotgun; a human cry, a scream:

JENNNNNIEEEE! JENNNNIEEEEE JAAAAAYYYYYYYYY!

A harrowing sound.

I know about harrows.

Mr. Griffin heard it from the cow barn. He came running, pitchfork in hand, looking every which way. He couldn’t see the daisy; she had fallen flat behind a sprawling squash vine. A movement at the road caught his eye: A woman, running hard, clutching her long skirt.

JENNNNNIEEEE!

By this time the daisy had righted herself. She proceeded on through the furrows, right in my direction.

They saw her. Just as her warm shadow fell upon me, the woman was there, Mr. Griffin immediately behind her.

Up into the woman’s arms went the daisy.

Oh, Jennie Jay, you frightened Mama to death. You could have fallen in the creek and drowned.

No harm done, Miss Aurelia. Looks like she was just hunting dandelions. Got a whole bouquet of ’em clutched there in her hands, don’t she.

She loves anything yellow. She’s strong-minded, to be such a little thing. Lord-a-mercy! Sound asleep on the quilt under the oaks one minute and gone the next, when I stepped in to stir the soup!

She didn’t get far.

Thank heaven. Your garden’s a wonder, Thomas. What made you decide to start a wisteria?

Ma’am?

Miss Aurelia pointed to me.

Your little wisteria, there.

To tell the truth, that ain’t my doing. Ain’t even noticed it.  Here, I’ll pull it right out . . . 

Oh, no, Thomas—don’t. Let it be. You could build an arbor for it, train it up. That wisteria would make the place real pretty for a bride, now wouldn’t it?

Mr. Griffin’s sun-browned face burned as red as the kerchief in his bibbed overalls. Miss Aurelia grinned and turned away. A little face peeped over her shoulder, and that’s when I perceived that the white-petaled thing was no walking flower but a miniature human, as capitula do not have two great blue eyes.

Siwia, she said.

My land! Did you hear that, Thomas? Jennie Jay just said her first word! Say it again, Jennie.

Siwia. Siwia.

What on earth?

Sounds to me like she’s trying to say ‘wisteria’, Miss Aurelia.

Well, I never. Not ‘Mama’. Not ‘Papa’. Wisteria! That does beat all. I reckon you have to leave that vine now, Thomas, to mark this occasion for Jennie Jay.

From the moment she spoke my name, I was enchanted. As her mama carried her away, Jennie Jay’s eyes stayed fixed on me.

Thus our kinship germinated.

We were both so new.

That evening, Mr. Griffin cut some chicken wire and made a cage around me.

Just you stay out of my garden, he muttered, the first and last time he ever addressed me directly.

I vowed to try.

Some weeks later he brought mulch—oh, so rich and warm!  Before I knew it, I slipped into a deep sleep.

*******

To be continued . . . see Wisteria, part 2.

Wisteria in yard 2

Wisteria and spring blooming. Ryan BasilioCC BY

Still born

Lost in France WWI

WWI digital collage by jinterwasCC BY

“In this place, time is not measured by weeks, or months, or years, but by deep human experiences . . . .” -Woodrow Wilson, 1915

By Christmas, she’s too weak to get out of bed. She listens to him singing carols with the children in the front room by the fire, his resonant bass filling the house. If the pain would stop, she thinks, I might could play a song or two for them . . .

The piano stands silent as she drifts in and out on the sound of his voice.

He peers in at her. How strangely frail she is, birdlike, lying there with her black hair spread like wings over the pillows, skin as white as the sheets, dark circles around her eyes. Until the lost baby in September—poor, stillborn thing—she’d been tireless, out in the cotton from dawn to dusk, all the while keeping an eye on their three children at the edge of the fields.  

Her strength hasn’t returned, but she’s alive. He is grateful, for he walked the valley of that shadow once before, fourteen years ago. Just down the dirt road, over the canal footbridge, under a stone on the land his father gave for the building of the church, lies his first wife. Nineteen years old, buried in her wedding dress, holding the infant who never had a name to inscribe on the stone:

a place made vacant

in our home can

never more be filled.

A place now filled by a woman who’d been twelve at the time of her predecessor’s passing. 

She opens her eyes. Huge, black eyes that look straight through him, making him shiver.

“Francis. Go get Mama. Please.”

Turning back to the front room, he kneels with the children—ages six, four, and two—and gathers them in his arms. “Listen to Papa. I’m fetching your Grandmama. Stay close by Mama, hear?”

The older girl and boy nod. The two-year-old squirms against him. He hands her to her big sister. “Mind her. Keep away from the fire. I’ll be right back.”

The six-year-old regards him with solemn eyes, big and dark, so like her mother’s. “Yes, Papa.” She grips the little one’s hand, tight.

He grabs his coat and cap. The children watch him through the frosty window, hearing the echo of his boots running over crunchy patches of snow.

They file into the bedroom where she lies with her face turned toward the other window and the winter white world beyond. 

She moans as the pain in her middle cuts like a knife and the whiteness deepens to gray. I am turning inside out. If I didn’t know better, I would think . . . 

Then the darkness swallows everything.

*******

Day blends with night, it all runs together, until a cry shoots through him. He bursts into the bedroom, blue eyes wide with shock.

There, in the quivering circle of red-gold light cast by the kerosene lamp, stands his mother-in-law, her face shining with perspiration. Before he can take it in, she crosses the creaking floorboards to hand him a wriggling, wailing bundle.

How can this be? How can this be? pounds his heart. The baby was stillborn nearly three months ago!

His wife, smaller, paler than ever, watches from the bed, black eyes glittering in the lamplight. “Merry Christmas, Papa, one day late,” she grins. “It’s another girl.”

Who is very much alive, crying for all she is worth, here in his arms.

His instincts kick in. He jiggles the infant and begins to sing, softly, tears spilling down his cheeks.

The newborn and her mother both drift away on the sound of his voice: “Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.”

*******

“So, you see,” says Grandma, “I was a twin.”

“How can that happen? Having a stillborn twin but not the other for almost three more months?” I’m hanging on her every word as she makes up her four-poster bed. Through the window of her room, with its tongue-and-groove walls painted a cheery pastel pink, I can see her homeplace just on the other side of Granddaddy’s garden. The tin roof gleams bright silver in the morning sun. For a second, I see it in the icy December of 1915 . . .

She shrugs. “It’s rare, but it happens sometimes, even with animals.”

“But how did she not realize she was still expecting for that long? She’d already had three children, not counting the one she lost!” My  great-grandmother went on, in fact, to have a total of eight children, all of whom I know. Not counting the lost one, of course. Grandma’s twin.

Grandma shakes her head. “There’s no telling. Women didn’t go to doctors like they do now. When she lost that baby, it came early. She just didn’t expect there to be a twin remaining, I guess. Women lost babies all the time. My sister had stillborn twin girls. I was there and saw them. They looked like tiny dolls, not quite finished . . . ”

She says this with a matter-of-factness that I cannot comprehend.

“It’s so mysterious, that you were still born after all,” I say after a bit, following her to the kitchen, where she ties on her apron.

“Oh yes,” she says, flouring the spot and croaker that Granddaddy caught in the creek. “Life is full of mysteries, that’s for sure.”

“You’re kind of a Christmas miracle, then, aren’t you?”

Grandma chuckles, placing the fish in the frying pan where they sizzle and pop, sending up a fragrance that makes my stomach growl.

“Just one day late,” she smiles.

She goes about her work as usual, while I drift away on the sea of her stories, filling in the minor details that have been obscured by time, envisioning these great-grandparents who died before I was born, sensing the tenor of their daily lives, yearning to know more. I halfway expect, as I go out on the back steps to gaze at the empty homeplace, that I might see them in one of the translucent windows, waving to me in recognition.

I have to stop myself from waving back, in case anybody else happens to be watching.

*******

Happy Birthday, Grandma. Your stories live on.

Love always from your and your Papa’s namesake. 

Soul-ache

Only time for a quick hug

Only Have Time for a Quick Hug. JackieCC BY

I recently learned of the UK’s Empathy Museum, which began in 2015. Their mission: To help us look at the world through other people’s eyes. To walk in their shoes.

Literally.

Part of the exhibit, “A Mile in My Shoes,” is an actual collection of shoes worn by a Syrian refugee, a war veteran, a neurosurgeon, and many others. A person can don the shoes and walk in them while listening to a recording of the original shoe-owner’s story.

Another project of the Museum is the Human Library – instead of checking out a book, you can borrow a human for a conversation. “A Living Book,” says the site.

The keys to empathy are story and dialogue. Experiencing what others have experienced.

The Museum was founded by – can you guess? – a writer.

A thousand things flood my mind as I read about the Museum. Although I know it well, the power of story to impact and transform the mind and the heart is driven home again, anew. To live for a moment inside of others, to see through their eyes, to feel the stab of their pain, their fear, their sorrow, their longing, their joy (for joy, too, is a stab; read C.S. Lewis and William Wordsworth) is to bleed away part of ourselves on their behalf. Empathy is a simultaneous forgetting and remembering of our own soul-aches, while standing in someone else’s shoes.

Shoes remain, as stories remain. People do not. I have long been haunted by the image of shoes lying around the wrecked stern of Titanic when it was discovered. Author Charles Pellegrino writes that it took months for scientists to realize that these pairs of shoes, still intact after seventy-three years on the ocean floor, were uniformly spaced about eighteen inches apart, with shoelaces still tied. There’s no other trace of the people at all – not even teeth. Only the shoes remain to mark where the bodies came to rest. Scientists are at a loss to explain exactly how leather and shoelaces endure when no other clothing or skeletal remains are to be found, yet the shoes are there, the final witnesses, the last word in the story of their wearers. (And one more secret of the utterly mysterious ocean).

It is also worth noting how the hardcore scientists, successful in their famous mission to find her, wept over the Titanic.

Empathy.

Soul-ache.

For the suffering of others.

It’s also important to note that the word origin of empathy is rooted in passion as well as in suffering, hence the photo at the top of this post. The little girl runs to hug the stuffed bear in a burst of feeling, then runs away too quickly for the camera. Her image is blurred, ghost-like; a reminder that life is fleeting. She will not be a child for long. She may or may not ever be in this place again to see this bear, but in this moment, she is spurred to action.

That’s what empathy does – the short walk in someone else’s shoes strikes our souls so that we come away changed, wanting to make changes. We are all islands in a common sea, wrote Anne Morrow Lindbergh, twenty years after the kidnapping and murder of her baby boy. The common sea – the human experience, with all of its sufferings, its horrors, its joys, its beauty. See – really see – the people around you. Hear them. Feel their soul-aches, even as you feel your own. That’s empathy. Read it, write it, speak it – and by all means, teach it. A little soul-ache goes a long way in making the world more livable.

For all of us.

Note: The idea of soul-ache came to me while reading Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.”

 

 

 

 

The brain and story

 

Ghosts in hall

Ghosts in the hall. Rachel TitirigaCC BY

My mother-in-law had a stroke one week ago today.

At ninety-one, she came through emergency surgery astoundingly well. In ICU, she was happy to see her children and grandchildren, called them all by name, told everyone how shocked she was that she’d had a stroke. As I greeted her, she held out her hand to me and said, “Hey, you’ve got a birthday this weekend.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, in wonder.

“I haven’t forgotten,” she said, holding tight to my hand.

In the hospital and rehab, she has remained lucid, talking about books, authors, politics, and traveling she wants to do.

So when she occasionally asks, “Hey, little boy, what are you doing over there?” when no little boy is present, or “Who’s that standing behind you?” when no one is, the family gets anxious.

The physician explained: “It’s her brain at work – partly because of the area affected by the stroke and partly due to her declining vision. When she doesn’t immediately understand what she sees or what’s happening, her brain supplies the story, to make sense of it.”

I hung on every word, thinking: The power of story is profound. It’s more than reading or writing. It’s who we are, how we are wired. 

Both Scientific American and Big Think explain: “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” Our ability to solve problems, the scientists say, is tied to our understanding of story: “Perhaps story patterns can be considered another higher layer of language.”

Fascinating, isn’t it, that story is where science and the humanities meet.

Story is the essence of being human. It’s how we make sense of the world and our place in it. Story is how we attempt to understand who we are, and how we stretch the boundaries of possibility and our humanity, by imagining more: “What if . . . .”

As an educator, the visit with my mother-in-law could not have been a more striking reminder that story is critical to student learning and growth. It’s not so much the types of texts that students read, but their interpretations, their stories, about the texts that matter – and that for students truly to be critical thinkers and problem-solvers, they must go beyond synthesizing and responding to what others have written. They must look within and generate their own stories. To not do so is to hamper human nature, to not meet an intrinsically human need – and to starve the human brain.

slice-of-life_individual