Mystery prompts…

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, Exploring mysteries, here’s a list of questions that have magically appeared in my supposed-to-be-empty WordPress blog posts this month:

What is one thing that you would change about myself?

What are five things you’re good at?

Do you have a favorite place you’ve visited? Where is it?

What big events have taken place in your life over the last year?

What could you do less of?

Have you ever performed on stage or given a speech?

Tell about your first day at something—school, work, as a parent, etc.

What skills or lessons have you learned recently?

Is your life today where you pictured it a year ago?

All you writer-friends out there know the power of a good prompt for overcoming writer’s block, for reaching far and deep, tapping into memory and emotion. Writing itself is a release. It is healing. Perhaps even preventive medicine. Writing is a unique means of expression, of thinking, of creativity, of craftsmanship. It is a singular key for unlocking many mysteries, the greatest of all being yourself.

When gifts are offered, take them…they’re meant for your benefit, enjoyment, edification. The WordPress elves at work behind the scenes here clearly know this. These prompts are likely meant to be answered one by one (I have written to two: one thing I would change about myself and what skills I’ve learned recently) but today I wonder if I could tie them all into one reflection. For better or worse, here goes…

It is said that change is constant. I am constantly changing, growing older, a little slower. I would not change this. It is the price of having been alive a while. I’m willing to pay it. What one thing would I change about myself? My answer now would be different than it would have been years ago. I might have chosen something superficial, having to do with my appearance. Now I am much more concerned with my spirit. How do I narrow what I’d change to just one thing? I should choose to be more gracious, patient, forgiving, even loving…but as I write, the word listen blankets everything else that comes to mind. I would listen to others more. Not with my ears. With my soul. To hear what lies behind their words, their actions. Words are a thing I’m good with, usually. Were I to comprise a list of five things I’m good at, words are linked to at least half of it: I’m good at reading, writing (so I’m told…I do love it and work at it), imagining, wondering, and drinking coffee. In a way these are the five pillars of my daily life, the things I enjoy most, next to time spent with my family. When my boys were small my grandmothers told me that I was a good mother. Their simple proclamation, a revelation of their great esteem for motherhood, felt like the bestowment of a royal title. My boys have the final say, however. Children know all their parents’ flaws, eventually. What matters is that they know how much they are loved and that they learn to love. It is the beginning of belonging. It is why, when asked if I have a favorite place, I’m always going to talk about my grandparents’ home deep in the countryside, along an old dirt road (it’s gravel now). I haven’t been since the house has been torn down and a new one built for a young family. While I dread going because of that, another part of me desperately longs to go…to walk the old road once more, to remember being a child, hearing my grandmother’s old, old stories and my grandfather’s raspy, warm I love you when he offered his clean-shaven cheek to me for a goodnight kiss… again, listen. I imagine sensing them near even if all I hear is the breeze rustling the Spanish moss which wasn’t there, hanging there from the treetops, when I was a child. Once upon a time, though, there were little bridges along the road, due to the many canals…I don’t know what became of those bridges. But the tiny church at the crossroads remains, where my grandparents are buried with generations of my ancestors. One day soon, I must go. I carry them all and their stories with me… I am their story, the continuation of it, as my granddaughters are mine. They are the greatest event of my life in the last three years, one coming into our family at age three and the other born just over a year ago. They are the big event of my every day. I can almost hear Grandma chuckling…now you understand. Listen, listen. Carve time away from the clamor of the world to be still…to minimize distractions, to be fully present when another human is speaking to me, especially my young ones, especially my quiet son with the musical gifts and beautiful singing voice. So many layers there. Listen. I need to be less concerned with work; it is my livelihood, not my life. The family is my life. My pastor-husband, my pastor-son and his girls, The Boy and his music and funeral ministry, all our dogs, the church, the faith, the Lord God, Giver of all good gifts, including life, are my life. How perfect are His ways. Long ago when I was performing in plays and traveling to audition for acting school in New York, I could not have dreamed it would lead me to where I am now, that at nineteen I’d meet the man I’d marry through community theater. The title of that play: Whose Life Is It Anyway? Not just mine. Ours. It was ordained. I had an inkling of it, that first day after we were married, when we stood in the crashing ocean waves and I held onto my new gold wedding band for dear life, for fear of losing it. I knew salt isn’t good for jewelry. I just couldn’t bring myself to remove the ring. New beginnings are so fragile at first. As are new ideas. All these years into our journey, we still look for the new even within the old: we are going to learn how to use that Dobsonian telescope I got us for Christmas. We shall soon be wandering among the stars, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, all extending their glittering invitation every cold, cold night. I just learned I wasn’t using the finderscope properly. How poetic. Metaphorical. That’s what writing is for me… a finderscope. Through it I see the memories, the gratitude, the loves of my life…the light from years past, still meeting me right where I am today; I would not change a thing about that.

*******

with thanks to WordPress for the magical prompts and to Two Writing Teachers for the story-sharing place.

Happy holidays to all.

Toadally true story

While working outside around the house, I paid no attention to the little brown rock in the driveway.

Until it hopped.

On closer inspection: Not a rock. A tiny, rust-colored toad, pretending to be a rock.

Reminded me, for just a fraction, of story characters who magically transform themselves into creatures or objects to avoid detection from enemies…

I leaned in while trying to maintain a respectful, non-threatening distance.

“You’re doing a magnificent job of it,” I told the toad.

Of what? its tiny taciturn face seemed to ask.

“Of pretending to be a rock,” I said.

It sighed (I think).

What gave me away?

“Well, rocks don’t hop.”

Its expression: pure disdain.

“Toads don’t talk, either,” it said, as it turned and hopped away across the hot pavement.

Okay…so this story may not be toadally true…

The toad. Less than one inch long. Stone-faced, isn’t it. Can’t decide if I’d call it Rusty or Rocky. Or perhaps just Fowler, as it appears to be a Fowler’s toad, with poisonous warts…fun fact: apparently ALL toads are poisonous. Not highly toxic to humans through touch, only if ingested (gulp). Think of those I caught as a child and brought home in my metal Peanuts lunchbox amongst the crusts of my PB&J (toadally true. Honest). Would make for fun fiction writing with students when they study animal defense mechanisms: The Revenge of the Toads…

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge
and, of course, to the toad

Eggsultation

-The continuing saga of Little Blue Egg

Dear Little Blue Egg,

In all the generations of finches
hatched in wreaths on my front door
I have never known
a mother to lay just one egg
and leave

but that is what your mother did
last Sunday.

Here you’ve been ever since
resting in your nest,
forlorn in the freezing cold

day after day after day

one blue egg
one blue door
one long blue silence
one blue human
(that would be me, Franna,
sad self-appointed custodian
checking on you every morning)

until Friday

when, out of the blue,
there were TWO
of you!

On Saturday, three!

On Sunday, no more…
although I heard
the most beautiful singing
at my door

then on Monday… FOUR.

Little Blue Eggs galore.

I do not know
where your parents were
during those five days
of your cold blue lonesomeness
or how your mother could withhold
her charming clutch
for so long

but I know this thing:
your father and mother sing
every morning
like tiny angels
in eggsultation

and so
do I.

Little Blue Egg gets a sibling five days later

A quartet of Little Blue Eggs… joy!

A short clip of the parents’ music… it echoes throughout the house.
No wonder that finches symbolize joy or that their collective noun is a “charm.”

Some sources say only males sing; others say females sing in spring.
Listening to their bright morningsong, I am reminded
of these lyrics from O Come, All Ye Faithful:
Sing, choirs of angels,
sing in exultation…

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge

note:
the letter to Little Blue Egg (alone no more!) is an epistolary poem
for Day Five of National Poetry Month


Reflecting on wonder

“The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.” -Abraham Joshua Heschel
Epigraph in Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders
(Foer, Thuras, & Morton).

On the first week back to school after the holidays, I spent time covering classes and duties for colleagues who are out due to COVID protocols. I arrived on campus each day not knowing what I’d be called on to do. This has been the pattern for the whole school year thus far, in fact, and it may continue until June…

But I am not going to focus on the intensified daily juggling act.

I will concentrate on the unexpected moments of light…such as when a colleague told me that my iPhone could understand spoken Harry Potter spells.

This I had to see for myself.

Hey, Siri: Lumos...and my flashlight came on. (Lumos is the spell that makes wands and lamps light up in the books in and movies, for those who don’t know).

Hey, Siri: Nox…and my flashlight turned off.

Hey, Siri: Accio Twitter…and my Twitter app opened up in my phone.

Tell me this is not a great wonder, technology.

Furthermore, the knowledge came in handy when I filled in for quarantined teachers in upper grades. I demonstrated the “magic” and wowed the kids.

That’s the thing about wonders…you want to share them. Wonders are not meant to be contained. They are contagious. They are forever beckoning and burgeoning.

So maybe the magic of Siri understanding Harry Potter is a small thing.

Maybe a greater wonder is finding the right book to inspire a reluctant reader. This past week it was not Harry Potter but books about children with physical limitations and differences who face extreme challenges. Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. And, of course, Wonder by R.J. Palacio. They grip you from the start…

I pause to reflect here on all the wonder wrought by books in my own life. I feel the covers tingling with magic whenever I pick them up (maybe it’s just my anticipation).

Last week I watched the wonder on kids’ faces as they learned how a prism or raindrop separates light into colors. I watched in wonder as two students known for behavior issues stayed on task to complete their assignments when they were allowed to work together.

I thought, randomly, about the fireworks that went off in the distance on New Year’s Eve. My six-year-old granddaughter was spending the night. My husband and I allowed her to stay up. She heard the booming of the fireworks at midnight and wanted to see them. We went out on the back deck, but fog and trees obscured our view.

I’ve never gotten to see fireworks, said my granddaughter.

One day you will, I told her.

I like the sound of them. It makes me feel calm.

That filled me with wonder…I have never heard anyone express that about the sound of fireworks. Least of all a child.

Maybe the calmness has not so much to do with the sound but the place and the sense of safety…these are linked in their way to wonder. The unexpected, the new, a bit of uncertainty but also an embracing. The opening Heschel quote encapsulates it well: The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.

Like a bright, beckoning burst suddenly illuminating a moment, a mind, a spirit.

Do you remember spending last New Year’s Eve with us, too? my husband asked our granddaughter.

Oh yeah! Can I stay here next year, too? And the one after that?

Sure you can! You can stay every New Year’s Eve if you want.

Even when I am fifty-nine?

Yes, even when you are fifty-nine.

Wonders upon wonders await.

Of this, I am sure.

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge and the wondrous community of writers.

Tiny trembling life

One of my favorite things about spring is the return of the house finches, which build a nest and raise a little family on my front door wreath.

I am treated to a bird’s eye view of tiny life coming into the world.

As some of you know from previous posts, the finches built the nest last year but never laid any eggs. It was haunting, coinciding with the onset of the COVID-19 shutdown. Barrenness. Emptiness. Loss.

They are making up for it this year.

Mama Finch laid five eggs during Holy Week; usually there are only three or four.

They’ve all hatched now and more pictures will be forthcoming, but here are the first two babies.

For the record, the collective noun for finches is a charm or a trembling.

A trembling charm of tiny new life upon my house:

For Day Twenty of National Poetry Month, a haiku:

Nature has her charms
Gifts of fragile new songbirds
Trembling abundance

A bowl of snow

Deep in the night, it came.

I wake to the sound of it falling.

A faint, feathery swishing against the bedroom windowpanes. A silvery glow at the blinds, beckoning. I crawl out from under the warm covers to peer through.

It’s a different world. Softer. Purer. At peace in its perfect winter-white blanket, illuminated by the full moon. Big flakes descend to the ethereal stirring of wind chimes.

I imagine animals curled in their cozy dark burrows.

In the spirit of affinity, I return to mine.

I waited well into the morning before texting my son: Is she so excited?

His daughter, age five, has been longing for snow. Some winters pass without it here in central North Carolina.

He texted right back: She’s so wound up. We have already been out to play. We made snow cream. Put sprinkles on it and ate it for breakfast.

How awesome is that, I thought. She will remember it all of her life, this snow, getting to eat it for breakfast.

Magical moments. They will be stored away, deep in the hallowed halls of her mind.

I was just rereading The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. They explore moments we remember and revere the most. Some are tied to great emotion or to shared meaningful experiences. Others transcend “the normal course of events; they are literally extraordinary.”

The authors write: “The most precious moments are often the ones that cost the least.” They relate the story of a three-year-old who succumbed to a severe E. coli infection. They describe (brace yourself) her kidney failure, horrible pain, portions of her colon being removed twice, her heart failure and resuscitation; she desperately needed a kidney transplant and a compatible donor could not be found. At Halloween, her costume had to be laid on top of her because of all the tubes. She was still in the hospital as Christmas neared, and it began to snow:

For a child from Vermont, it was cruel, having to watch the snow through the windows. Wendy loved to make snowmen, to go sleigh riding. She hadn’t been outside for two months. Her lead nurse, Cori Fogarty, and and patient care associate Jessica Marsh hatched a plan. If Wendy couldn’t play in the snow, they would bring the snow to her. But it was more complicated than that. Because of Wendy’s heart condition, the staff was monitoring every milliliter of water that she consumed. So Jessica went and filled an emesis bucket with snow, weighed it, let it melt, and poured it into a graduated cylinder. Now they knew how to translate the weight of snow into its volume of water. So they went and filled the bucket with exactly the right amount of snow so that if Wendy ate it all — as three-year-olds are prone to do — she’d be just fine.

Can you see them, bringing the bowl of snow into the hospital room? Can you see that little girl’s expression when she saw it? Jessica Marsh said: “I have never seen such joy and pure innocence on a child’s face.” Wendy’s mother: “It was bliss, it was joy.” Many years later she would write: “It’s easy to forget the monotony of the endless days that stretched together during her recovery. But that one moment of brightness, that is one moment we will never forget.”*

Perhaps that is just the image we need right now, as COVID-19 drags on. A bowl of snow for a child…a bit of magic to escape the moment, maybe to carry us through.

As parents, as teachers, as writers, compassionate human beings, we have this power within us to imagine such moments, to make them happen. The most precious moments are the ones that cost the least…

Just so happens that as I write these words on this new, dark morning, flurries have started falling again.

Let us go and seek our bowl of snow. And where we might share it.

Maybe even for breakfast, with sprinkles.

*******

*Wendy’s story is from the chapter “Making Moments Matter” in The Power of Moments by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2017, 263-265). You might like to know that she did receive a transplant and went on to be an athlete.

Thanks to all at Two Writing Teachers for the power of your shared stories. Where there’s writing, there’s a way.

Toothless wonder

She said it was wiggly.

But how? She just turned five.

She has a vivid imagination. Fanciful.

We checked.

It was wiggly.

Oh my, we said. Soon you will lose it and—

I know, I know, she sighed, in her world-weary sixteen-year-old-five-year-old way. You put it under your pillow and the tooth fairy brings you cash.

—Priceless.

The umbrella

—Franna, I need a Frozen umbrella.

—You do?

—My friend had a Little Mermaid one but I want a Frozen one.

—I see. Was this your friend in preschool?

—Yes. Before coronavirus.

—Well. We will have to look for a Frozen umbrella, then. To keep you safe and dry when it rains…

She picked it out. It just so happened to come with a little rain jacket.

The week before torrential rains in this long, long hurricane season, in this long, long year.

When I was about her age, my grandmother gave me a ceramic ornament—two children in yellow rain slickers and galoshes hunkered under a big gray umbrella. If I held the base and twisted the top, it played a tune… I knew the lyrics, and sang…

Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head
But that doesn’t mean my eyes will soon be turning red
Crying’s not for me
‘Cause I’m never gonna stop the rain by complaining
Because I’m free
Nothing’s worrying me

And so the seasons turn, turn, turn, many times over, and here she stands in the autumn of this dreary year, excited for the rain, making her own special brand of magic under a celestial, bright-aqua canopy of love, wonder, and song… I once read that the umbrella is a symbol for power and dignity.

I would say yes, and in this case, absolute joy.

In which I bask.

My heart sings on.

Around the bend

white-peacock

Rezervatia de zimbrii Dragos Voda. Cristian Bortes. CC-BY 2.0 

I live in the country.

Long before daybreak, a rooster crows for all he’s worth, a passionate, guttural cry signifying that the dark night is ending.

My kitchen bay window faces east, catching the first glimmers of pink in the sky.

A short drive on the winding road by my home carries me past weathered stables and tobacco barns, abandoned unpainted houses from a bygone era, and fields where farmers still make their living.

There’s a horse or two in the pastures, innumerable goats, and the occasional delightful donkey, silvery-gray and calm. I have learned that donkeys keep coyotes away – how extraordinary.

One day, along a bend in the road, beside an old gate overgrown with brambles, a peacock strutted, the morning light electrifying the brilliant blue of his body. I slowed down, wishing I could see the long green train of his feathers fan out, but the peacock was skittish and went back through the gate via some hidden hole. Surely he should not have been out by the road, although the sight of him made me grateful to be alive. From then on, I looked for him.

Until the day I rounded that same curve and there, in the middle of the road, stood a white peacock.

I could not believe my eyes – I never knew such a thing existed.

But there he was, gleaming like some divine messenger, standing right on the double yellow lines. I slowed to a stop. He looked at me through the windshield; I hardly dared to breathe. He took his time heading back to the lush bank by the brambly gate, as if he owned this road, maybe this entire world, his long white tail feathers dragging behind him like a bridal train or a king’s ermine robe.

I watched him go, oblivious of everything around me except the sheer splendor of his presence.

I have learned, then, that every day is new, that there are unexpected wonders waiting just around the bend. In the middle of the familiar and mundane might be something rare, glorious, breathtaking.

Be watching.

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