Writing your own story

I saw his shirt from across the crowded cafeteria:

Writing my OWN story.

I hadn’t seen him before, didn’t know him, but I had to go over and say: “That’s the most awesome shirt! Do you like to write?”

He smiled and nodded, eyes bright and cheerful: “Yes!”

We had a short conversation about reading and writing. He was new to our school. After this initial encounter he was quick to come ask questions if he wasn’t sure about how we do things here, always greeting me with an earnest face and slightly self-conscious smile.

He wasn’t with us long. On his last days, he asked if he could stay after lunch and clean all of the tables as his grade level headed to recess. He wiped every table meticulously, then straightened all of the cardboard trays in the serving line for the classes to follow.

I understood.

It was something he could control. A positive and productive outlet.

I never got to write with him.

I thought about students over the years and what I learned about their lives from their writing. A girl whose family slept in their car on the journey north to visit relatives for the holidays; how she woke in the morning, shivering, to find frost coating the windows. A teenager whose vivid third-person narrative about a child born in another country, who survives abuse to find a new life and family in America . . . it switches to first person at the end as he rejoices and reveals he was that child. A first-grader who wanted to write about her dog, how the police shot and killed it. Unnerved, I told her teacher, in hopes that this was just a disturbing fabrication. It wasn’t. The child saw it happen.

For all the story-loving writer that I am, I know writing is not a magic cure for the pain and scars of life. It is, however, a real coping mechanism, a positive and productive outlet, a way of seeing and dealing with and finding hope to overcome. Even in the youngest of us, many of whom already know that life doesn’t follow a neat formula, that it seldom follows a clear and sensible series of steps. I often think about what passes for “writing” in schools; it can’t always be a neat response to a text or a prompt. If we are truly to equip children with tools for life, it begins with a real response to their lives in this world. We owe them, for as long as we have them, a place to feel safe, to be loved, a way of having some control in the face of change, to find their own power despite their powerlessness.To write their own lives, even as life is unfolding.

To have hope on the journey as it takes so many twists and turns.

Time is of the essence; we don’t know for how long or short a time they’ll be in our sphere of influence. Good-byes can come without warning.

And so I quickly gathered the best tools I had at my disposal: pencils, notebooks, a couple of favorite books from my shelf. It was my way of saying Godspeed, child. Write your OWN story. Believe. Attend to your heart. Here’s a piece of mine to carry with you.

Edward knew what it was like to say over and over again the names of those you had left behind. He knew what it was like to miss someone. And so he listened. And in his listening, his heart opened wide and then wider still.

You must be filled with expectancy. You must be awash in hope. You must wonder who will love you, whom you will love next.

—excerpts, Kate DiCamillo, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Muleogy

I love the two old mules who live down the road and around the bend from me.

They do not know this, of course. They don’t know me at all.

They do not know how they stir my soul when I drive by their pasture, or how the sight of them makes me feel like I just might be, for a few seconds, back in time. They are a brief glimpse of rural life as it was in the 1930s. Or 1920s. Or even long before. They are remnants of a time when man lived closer to the earth and life was hard but somehow better. The mules are reminders of my grandfather; I’ve rhapsodized about that before, having been a little girl who grew up in the city longing for the countryside that my grandfather loved and the past that he lived. All because of the stories. Granddaddy said, “Nobody had any money but everybody looked after each other and we were happy.”

So, I see these old mules several times a week and they never fail to lift my spirits. They fill me with an inexplicable sense of peace and well-being.

Until.

One day in the last few weeks when I drove by the pasture, anticipating this little stab of joy that the mules always impart, one of them was lying down on its side.

Odd.

In all the years I’ve lived here, I have never seen one of the mules lying down.

The next time I drove by, the mule was still lying there in the same place. Completely on its side, motionless, while the other mule grazed close by.

I didn’t like it. Something was wrong.

On the third day when I passed by, that mule was in the very same spot and position.

I started to cry.

It had to be dead. What other reason could there be?

And where was the farmer? Didn’t he KNOW his mule was lying out there? Why would he leave it to die like this?

I came home and told my husband, sniffling: “I think one of those old mules is dead.”

“Why?”

“It’s been lying on its side in the very same spot for three days. It hasn’t moved at all.”

“Hmmm,” my husband mulled. “Did you see any buzzards?”

“Uh, no . . . .”

“All right then. The mule’s not dead.”

His nonchalance irritated me.

And the next day when I drove by the pasture — lo and behold! — the mule was standing!

I drove by several times, rejoicing.

—It is possible that the mules now know my car, even if they don’t know me.

And it occurred to me that I might be developing an obsession so I ceased mule-stalking for a couple of days.

But I asked a friend: “You know those mules who live just up from you? What’s wrong with one of them? I’ve seen it lying down so much I thought it had died. Except that there were no buzzards.”

Yes, my friend knows the mules and the farmer. Yes, that mule is not well and the farmer is quite aware. He’s had these mules for thirty years, since they were three years old. They are sisters, named Penny and Annie. The farmer knows Annie is suffering; she’s old and she now has sores from lying on her side so much. The farmer told my friend that he ought to put her down . . . except that when he does, her sister Penny will grieve herself to death. They have never been apart.

And my soul is stirred, my heart wrenches anew at this love story within a love story within a love story.

I brace myself every time I drive around the familiar bend, as the fencing and the red roof of the dilapidated barn come into view, not knowing what I’ll see. Maybe on a day when the sky is its bluest blue and the grass is its greenest green, Annie will go peacefully. It’s autumn now; as I draw near I see the shadows of the trees dappling the grass, waving to and fro, and little yellow leaves wafting through the air, catching the sunlight like glittering specks of gold. Maybe it will be a day like today. I suddenly worry about the coming frosts and Annie lying out there in the open instead of being warm and safe in the barn with Penny.

I reach the pasture. I slow down.

Annie’s lying on her side.

I come to a stop.

Penny quits grazing, lifts her head, looks at me.

Then Annie raises up to sit and look at me.

We watch each other for a minute.

I wonder what they think.

I can’t stay here in the road, so I drive on.

That was yesterday.

Today, today . . . when I rounded the bend early in the morning . . . they were both lying down.

Sisters to the end.

I will not want to drive this way anymore when the pasture stands empty, but for this moment, the mules live, they love, and their little pasture is a hallowed place.

More so than ever.

I think again of my favorite Shakespearean sonnet, about autumn, about dying, about the coming of night and being consumed by that which once nourished, about loving well that which you must leave . . . if mules had funeral services and if I officiated, that would be my eulogy.

—My muleogy.

Ah, Penny and Annie, you can’t know that when you go, you’ll take a little part of me with you.

Maybe it’s illogical.

I only know it’s true.

For I love you two old mules who live down the road and around the bend from me.

Wishes

Author Matt de la Peña led the first day of my district’s Teacher Summer Writing Institute and graciously offered to sign books during our break.

Here’s the conversation I had with him as he autographed Carmela Full of Wishes for me:

“I noticed the recurrence of Carmela jingling her bracelets throughout the story. I wondered if it symbolized something in particular, in connection with her imaginings.”

“There’s no hidden meaning,” replies de la Peña. “Carmela jingles the bracelets to irritate her brother.”

I laugh. “Because that is what siblings do.”

He nods. “She removes the bracelets at the end as an act of kindness to him. Here—let me show you my favorite page in the book.”

He turns the book around for me, displaying Christian Robinson’s intricate artwork: a papel picado (cut tissue paper) rendering of a father kneeling, a little girl in his arms.

“The book is really about the importance of family being together.” De la Peña’s face is solemn. 

I run my fingers over the words. “Home . . . I am reminded of history, how slave marriages weren’t considered legal. Families were split apart and people didn’t care.”  I look back to de la Peña. “But family is the foundation of everything.”

Yes,” he says, his dark eyes sparking. “It is.”

This week in America, we observe Independence Day. We celebrate freedom.

It is a sanguine word. Bloodstained. By wars waged to win it, but also by the lifeblood of the people who call a nation “home.” In this freedom is also a consanguine word – for home is where the family is.

As de la Peña so poignantly conveys with Carmela’s mixed-status family. She’s a U.S. citizen, born in this country, wishing, waiting – dreaming – of the day her father will “finally be home.”

At the book’s close, as I look at the dandelion fluff in the wind, Carmela’s sky full of wishes, my mind sees white stars waving on a field of blue, fireworks showering a night sky. I recall that a hallmark celebration on the Fourth of July is family reunions.

And I don’t know why an old line of Kris Kristofferson’s insists on accompanying this vision: Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…

With artistic apologies, I can’t say that’s true in the context of nations and families and home … our hope and our humanity are still left to lose.

Five-card story

For three summers now, my district has offered a week-long Teacher Writing Institute, an invitation for K-12 teachers to deepen their identity as writers, hone their craft, and experiment with form. One of my great joys is co-facilitating this event.

I love to see how teachers rate themselves as writers and teachers of writing at the beginning, then, at weeks’ end, how much higher they rate themselves. They’ve written and shared a lot; confidence has spiked. Which is the whole rationale for the institute: Write first for yourself; grow so you can help the students grow.

Every year I stretch myself a little more with writing exercises and modeling for participants. I try new things.

This time it was Five Card Flickr.

Here’s how it works: Go the site and select Play a Round. Five random photos will appear. Choose one, and another round of five photos appears. Choose another, and keep going until you complete a sequence of five cards.

Then write the story represented by those cards.

When playing individually, you can share your story online with the 5cardflickr community if you like. At the Summer Writing Institute, we opted for selecting the photos as a group, with everyone writing their own version of the story in their notebooks.

Here are the photos we selected together during our round (all credited to bionicteaching ):

5cardflickr 15cardflickr 25cardflickr 35cardflickr 45cardflickr 5

One participant asked a question: “Should we write the story with scenes in the same sequence as the pictures, or can we switch it up?”

“I think that should be up to you, since we’re writing in notebooks,” I replied. “Just know the site won’t allow you to manipulate the order of the photos at the end of the online selection round.” (I had given it a try the day before).

And so, for about fifteen minutes, we wrote.

I wrote, too, as I do everything I ask students—or in this case, colleagues—to do.

Besides, I felt an idea bubbling . . .

Every day I pass by the brothers’ building. Hoarders, the neighbors said. Apartment full of junk to the ceiling. No one ever goes in and we’ve never seen them come out.

I used to stare up at that window but all I could ever see was a bit of lace curtain from a bygone era and the reflection of my own apartment building across the street. 

That was before the smell.

Before the police were called.

Before the medical examiner came and one of the brothers was wheeled out in a body bag.

Dead for a week, caught in his own booby-trap, rigged to keep intruders out.

The remaining brother, white-haired, frail, bedridden for who knows how long, was carted off to a hospital where he died in a matter of hours.

On the day the city sent people in hazmat suits to start cleaning out the apartment, a violent wind whipped through the streets, slapping against the crowd of us gathered on the sidewalk. The brothers’ neighbor, Mrs. Rosales, put her hands  in the air as their belongings were hauled out. A whole human skeleton, jars with alien things in fluid, a stuffed peacock with majestic tail feathers fully fanned . . . I couldn’t determine if Mrs. Rosales was shielding herself from the sight of it all or just bracing herself against the wind. Her scarf whipped out behind her like a red flag, waving.

Of all the objects I saw, the scarf is what I couldn’t get out of my mind that night. For a long time I watched from my apartment window on the top floor, as workers carted bulky things in the darkness, passing in front of floodlights across the street like shadows, like ghosts.

I tried to sleep and couldn’t.

All my life those old men had lived right across from me and I’d never seen them. Heard their dad been a doctor decades ago. Their mother, a socialite. How do people with such comfortable beginnings in life come to such bizarre endings? And who was left to truly mourn the brothers? Was mourning even appropriate, given their circumstances?

In the morning, as I walked to work past the brothers’ building as always, on the familiar, crumbling sidewalks I spotted something I’d never seen beforesome kind of petals. Pink and white, soft and delicate, as if they’d just fallen to the old gray stones where they lay.

Except that there are no such trees in this city.  There are, in fact, no trees at all anywhere nearby.

I stood rooted to the stones, lost in thought, mulling the presence of these petals, when a hand grabbed my arm.

I jumped—and relaxed.

Mrs. Rosales.

“Mamá told me long ago their mother had a tulip tree.” Her voice sounded strange, distant. I followed her gaze up to the window with the lace curtain, the one that reflected my building. Where the brothers were, and were no more.

I wanted to say Why are the petals here now? Where’d they come from? If they came off of that tulip tree long ago, they’d be dried, brown. . . these petals were fresh. They couldn’t have fallen out of the brothers’ things. . . could they?

But I couldn’t speak. I just watched Mrs. Rosales walking away after she patted my arm in parting, as she headed for some unknown destination, her scarf flapping behind her like a waving red flag. . . .

And when I looked back at the brothers’ building, my eyes fell on a rusted gate enclosing tiny old courtyard, tucked into a recess. Why I had I never noticed this before? I felt drawn—called—to go in, to see where the courtyard led. It had to be a secret entrance to the brothers’ apartment, surely.

But on the rusty gate sat a shiny new chain and padlock, gleaming in the morning sun.

I shall never enter, will never know the whys of the brothers, who went with all their stories locked inside of them. Forever.

*******

My inspiration: The Collyer Brothers, 1881-1947, who lived in a Harlem brownstone. I read about these two famous hoarders years ago. Over a hundred tons of trash was removed from their apartment after their deaths. Truth is far stranger, and more horrifying, than fiction: One brother had fallen ill and the other was caring for him, tunneling through the hoarded stuff, when his own booby-trap really did kill him. Without anyone to care for him, the sick brother died there, too. Nearly two weeks later.

At the writing institute, these five randomly-dealt cards on Flickr selected by my colleagues—beginning with the old window, the old brick building—immediately stirred the haunting memory sleeping in my mind. So much of writing is memory and the search for meaning. Once you start writing, you’re never sure what might come . . . what strange petals will drift through, what red flags might start waving, what gates will remain locked to you. . .  although hopefully not forever.

A story will find a way to be told.

Just open yourself, and write.

The door

Door

 

Once upon a very long time ago, I walked with my grandmother down the dusty dirt road of her coastal North Carolina home place. The road was little more than a path lined by deep ditches and cattailed canals. Frogs plop-plopped from masses of lily pads into the murky water as we passed by. Beyond the ditch banks rose the woods, so thick and dark on both sides that crickets sang all day, thinking it was forever night. The sun beat down on everything, yet a breeze seemed always to be sighing, shhh ssshhhhh ssssssshhhhhh, in the dark, leafy depths of the forest. Early in my childhood, I understood that the forest is a living thing.

The old houses, however, spoke of dying. In various stages of falling down, the homes of Grandma’s neighbors spoke of times past, of living and loving over and done. The long-abandoned, dilapidated houses should have haunted me and perhaps they did, in a way. I wasn’t scared. I wanted to know about the people, what they were like, what their stories were.

Grandma knew them all. The people, the stories. That day we when stopped at the fork of the dirt road, I pointed to the lone sepia-toned house nestled in the crook and asked, “Who lived here?”

“The Rosses,” she said, launching into their history, which I didn’t hear because all I could think was I want to see inside.

“Grandma, can we go in?” I blurted.

To my surprise, she hesitated. I was pretty sure she’d just say no.

“They’ve all been gone for so long,” she said, almost to herself, staring ahead. I knew she wasn’t seeing the sad little frame leaning slightly to one side or the brown weatherboard siding. She was seeing it as it once was. The people that once were.

“We’ll go to the door and peep in, but that’s all,” she finally decided. “It’s not safe to go inside.”

So up the rickety steps we went, and, with the scrape of soft wood against soft wood, Grandma pushed open the door.

An overpowering musty, mildewy smell.

I coughed, blinked.

Stairs. Windows. A bit of old curtain, still hanging. Floorboards, some curving up at the ends, and . . .

“Letters! Look, Grandma!”

Before she could stop me, I was in the foyer, bending over a stack of dingy envelopes at the base of the staircase.

Someone had addressed the envelopes with elegant penmanship, in ink faded to the same sepia shade as the house itself. The envelopes looked to have been ivory or cream once. Now tinged and mottled brown, some still contained letters while other envelopes were empty, their creased handwritten contents scattered throughout the layers underneath.

I grabbed one and began to read: “My Dearest— oh, Grandma! Love letters!”

Grandma’s hand on my own stopped me.

“These aren’t meant for us to read,” she said. “These folks may be long gone, but this is their business, their story. Not ours.”

I put the letters down and followed her out of that silent, colorless setting back into the bright, hot sun.

That’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

Across the years, I’ve remembered those letters, wondered who exactly wrote them to whom, and why they were left like that in the abandoned house. Why Grandma chose to let them be, when the people are dead and past caring. Stories that are now lost to living memory, that will never be known.

Oh, to go back in . . . !

But even as I wish that, a movie scene comes to mind. Another old, sepia house with another girl. If you watch The Wizard of Oz closely, you can see exactly when the Technicolor kicks in on Dorothy’s back just she goes to open the door to a world nearly too fantastic to believe.

So, for me, the image of an aged farmhouse door forever invokes story. It’s first an invitation to examine one’s own framework, the living, loving, and breathings written on one’s own heart. The going in. And then the going out to collide with vibrant colors of everything beyond oneself, to absorb, to get a sense of infinite contours so far above and beyond what we can fully see and grasp. Endless discoveries, always, whether going in or out.

I might as well say the old wooden door is why I write.

*******

Today the door opens on the Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers, a post a day in the month of March. 

Thank you, Brian Wilson

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Brian Wilson sings his favorite song from Pet Sounds, “God Only Knows.” 11/02/2018. Richmond, VA.

If setting is everything, then tonight is mystical.

To begin with, the November evening is balmy. Few people in the crowd gathering on the sidewalk are wearing jackets. There’s quiet anticipation in the air, in the murmur of voices. It’s supposed to be raining but the sky above the city is dry, shimmering like a thick swath of navy blue velvet.

The sense of wonder deepens upon entering the auditorium. I’ve never been inside the Carpenter Theater in Richmond before and am unprepared for the splendor of it. Gilded walls, pillars wrapped in vines, balconies adorned with Roman statues, backlit alcoves with busts—it’s like stepping out of a time machine into Old World fantasyland. Overhead, white clouds frame the stage front against the dark auditorium sky —ceiling, I mean—where dozens of man-made stars sparkle an ethereal welcome.

The writer in me searches for words:

breathtaking 

otherworldly

adventure

expectancy

Apropos, I think, for our temporary raison d’etre: My family is here for the Brian Wilson Pet Sounds concert.

Primarily because the younger of my two sons (Cadillac Man), at twenty-one, avows Brian as the artist he most admires. He strives to emulate him in his own music. He studies how Brian deconstructed songs and what he did with vocals and chord progressions, complex, innovative stuff fifty-two years ago when Pet Sounds was released and still the stuff of legend, of music history. My son researches the Beach Boys and tells me things I never knew about their origins, talents, trials, and tragedies. He identifies with Brian on multiple levels—they both have a penchant for Cadillacs, both of their fathers lost their left eyes—but mostly my son relates to Brian’s musical thought and language. Cadillac Man confesses that he couldn’t concentrate on what his first grade teacher was saying in class years ago because “Sloop John B” was playing in his own head. This explains a few things about his childhood academics  . . . nevertheless, that this incident occurred nearly four decades after the release of Pet Sounds speaks to the timelessness of Brian’s work.

So we’re here to see an icon tonight. A glimpse of the extraordinary.

For me it’s not just the music, although I’ve always loved it, too.

It’s the story.

A boy deaf in one ear, teaching his younger brothers the harmonies he heard in his head, singing together in their bedroom at night. An athlete who once wrote in a high school essay: “I don’t want to settle with a mediocre life, but make a name for myself in my life’s work, which I hope will be music. The satisfaction of a place in this world seems well worth a sincere effort to me” (I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir, 2016).

A name for himself, a place in this world, and a life that’s anything but mediocre . . .  I think about these things as the crowd greets him with a standing ovation. Brian is helped onstage, having had back surgery earlier this year. He wears a brace on one leg. His escorts seat him at a white piano, center stage, where his silvery hair glows in the spotlight.

I look at him and think about time. How quickly life passes. I think about the strange, sad, haunting truth of great gifts so often coming with equally great physical or mental afflictions attached, as if that’s part of the deal. We all have our demons. The ones that chase us, the ones that we chase. Brian’s battles are well-known. The most wondrous thing to me this night is that he’s still here, despite all, the only one of the Wilson brothers to reach old age, a survivor of so much. Still performing, sharing his profound gift.

He speaks just a little throughout the show. I wonder how he feels, what he thinks. At seventy-six, does he enjoy touring now? He wasn’t able to for years when he was young. Does anxiety still threaten to crush him? Is he in much physical pain?

If the answers are yes, then he’s mastered these demons. For the sake of the music, for others.

Brian sings his brother Carl’s solo in “God Only Knows” as stage lights come to rest on him like splintered sunbeams. God rays. I recall the clip of his speech for the Beach Boys’ Rock and Roll Hall Fame induction, in which he said that “music is God’s voice” and that he only ever wanted to create joyful music to make people happy.

He does just that, even now. At the end of the concert, this orderly, respectful crowd—comprised of multiple generations—is on its feet dancing to the old favorite songs. It’s a celebration of life, love, being young—whether now or long ago—and the creative power of humanity overcoming the terrible weight of being human. I think of these things as the audience thunders its applause, as Brian’s escorts return for him, as he’s carefully ushered away.

I wonder what it costs him, these moments of joy for other people. And marvel that he still has it in him to give.

I leave the theater mentally wishing Brian peace in the days and years remaining to him and to his loved ones. I hope he can keep doing this for as long as he wants. I ponder the curious nature of gifts and how they’re so clearly bestowed on certain mortals. Maybe the Roman auditorium put me in mind of the Muses. There’s a word for the strength to overcome, to relentlessly pursue and attain the beautiful, despite unfathomable suffering, the Herculean feat of living. I can’t quite think of what it is. Overhead, the real stars glitter at random through an indiscernible cloud cover. The night is soft, quiet. And then—there it is. The word. I am not sure what Brian would say, but to me, the street sign says it all:

*******

I must also mention the timeless charisma of Al Jardine in this performance. He carried much of it while seeming to enjoy every moment. As did Blondie Chaplin, with absolute showmanship. All in all, the instrumentalists and vocalists paid exemplary homage to the music, which sounded unbelievably rich and true performed live. 

 

Why I Write 2018

Fossil - Aurora

Pterorhytis conradi fossil murex snail shell, Croatan Formation, Lower Pleistocene. James St. JohnCC BY

It has been said that we are the sum total of our experiences (B.J. Neblett).

Our experiences are our story. Who we are. And why.

We are, therefore, our stories.

I write to tell mine.

I write because stories lie buried within me. I write to dig them out, to examine them, to find their value.

I write because ideas continually deposit themselves on top of one another like fine sediment in my mind. I am always sifting, sifting, finding the bits with meaning, determining how these random pieces connect to one another, for they surely and always do.

I write because my words will remain when I do not, imprints of my time on Earth. In the summers of my childhood, I walked little country roads covered with rejects from a local phosphate mine, gravel of shell and coral skeleton from epochs as old as Time itself. As my shoes crunched over this gravel I sometimes discovered primeval treasures—sharks’ teeth, whale ear bones, vertebrae—remnants of life gone before, lying there in my own shadow.

I write because I also walk upon all the books, all the words I’ve read in my lifetime. Within these layers upon layers of ever-deepening strata, too, lie treasures: phrases, emotions, images—again, remnants of life gone before, stowed away in the depths of my mind like the fossil bits in my childhood pockets. I carry with me always the impressions of other writers, the echo of their voices.

I write because I hear the echo of shoes scurrying in hallways, young voices calling my name: When I stop and turn, the children are there, eyes bright, faces glowing, asking a breathless question: “When are you coming to write with us again?”

I write to help them find their own treasures within, because their voices, their experiences, their stories matter; their existence matters, and they need to know it.

I write to preserve. To leave a record of those I’ve loved who’ve gone before, to celebrate those living and loving now. To share little fragments of hope, of peace, of pressing on, of rising above. My stories are my fossils, with or without value to the few who find them. No matter. They have immense value to me while I live them. They are my writing identity. My human identity.

I write because humans think and remember in story, because humanity is defined and connected by story. The sum total of our shared experience.

I am a storyteller.

And so I write.

*******

Another writing celebration: This is my 200th post published on Lit Bits and Pieces.

 

Making space

Anyone who’s ever worked in kindergarten or first grade knows that emergent writers often write strings of letters.

For example:   The flowers grow.

Sometimes the strings of letters are much longer and harder to decipher. A next teaching point would be working on the concept of words.

Enter Mr. Finger Space.

He’s a handy little tool for young writers, to facilitate their thinking about each word they’re trying to write and to begin making spaces between them.

I have, as you can see from the leading photo, a colorful collection of googly-eyed Mr. Finger Spaces ready to get to work.

Today as I passed by the jar, this gathering of Spaces seemed so beguiling that I thought: There’s a blog post in this. Somehow. 

I snapped a photo and went on my way.

I knew the accompanying story would come. That’s how it always works. A spark of inspiration, given time to grow . . .

This time it came pretty quickly.

As usual, it didn’t arrive as the expected story. Not about a little writer employing a cheery craft stick—I mean, a Mr. Finger Space!— to compose a sentence of separate words for the first time.

No.

It came after a conversation with a colleague about her wonderful weekend getaway, reconnecting with old friends, reliving priceless experiences:

There’s so much I’d forgotten, that I haven’t thought about in so long . . . it was incredibly meaningful to have those memories come rushing back. How important they were, those times we shared. I loved every minute of remembering and at the same time was saddened by how much I’ve lost because day-to-day responsibilities take all my focus . . . you know there’s not room to carry it all around in your head all the time . . . .

You need to write about them now, I told my colleague. My friend. Those memories, while they’re freshly stirred. Preserve them before they leave you again. Spend time going back in your mind, immersing, and you’ll be surprised at what you can recall.

I know this to be true from my own experience, over and over again.

A sigh. The longing was etched on her face: Just how to find the time . . . 

That’s when the googly eyes of Mr. Finger Space appeared in my mind; I immediately understood the message.

Moments of love and laughter, priceless gifts, slipping away under the weight of just living. Fragile strings of memory running together until the beautiful meaning is nearly obscured . . . .

The only way to stave off such loss is to push this often senseless, insensitive, jumbled-up world back, if only for a few precious minutes, in the midst of every run-on day. To breathe. To plunge deep into the recesses of your mind, to know yourself, who you are, and what really matters. Feel the stories pulsing through your being. Fight for them, to keep them alive.

Find the words. They’re all there, within you. They just haven’t been put into organized form yet.

Make the space. 

Put your pencil to the paper. Just start.

The rest will come.

Artifact

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Sometimes I think about the writing process more than I do about what to write. Like the origin of ideas, how the barest glimmering can turn into something substantial and take unforeseen shapes altogether during the writing. A breath of a thing becomes a breathing thing—for inspiration means to breathe in, to breathe life into. When I start writing my glimmer or breath of an idea, as it grows, shifts, and takes on a life of its own, it draws other things to it. When people say, “I don’t know how you manage to see these connections and string them together this way,” all I can say in response is, in the end, all things are connected. If you follow the glimmering threads far enough . . . .

Such was the case in my summer writing workshop for teachers. My co-facilitator asked fellow teacher-writers to bring a personal history artifact, something that holds a story about who we are or about a significant time in our lives.

My “default” artifact is a locket that belonged to my grandmother; her uncle gave it to her in 1930 when she was fifteen. She gave it to me when I was fifteen.

But I’ve already written about that: The locket.

I had trouble choosing another artifact. Why should it be so hard? We’re surrounded by pieces of our personal histories in every room in our homes, in our workplaces, even in our cars, sometimes . . . .

A thought hovered: There’s the cross necklace Daddy gave me at Grannie’s funeral. 

Nearly twenty years old, it still glitters like new, and there’s plenty of symbolism and story wrapped around it, for my father didn’t often give gifts, nor was he expressively religious except for a keen interest in eschatology. That he should give the necklace to me on that occasion (Grannie wasn’t his mother but his mother-in-law) is especially poignant.

I ought to write about that . . . yet, I hesitated.

I know! All those pictures I just had developed—if anything’s personal history, that is! Some years ago I’d gathered all my used rolls of camera film, placed them in a giant Ziploc bag, and promptly forgot about them. I’d finally remembered and had the photos developed (do you know how hard it is now to find a local place that will do this with same or next day service?). In these images, many loved ones who are gone smile at me afresh from decades past. Layer upon layer of stories to tell . . . .

Yes, this is an unusual sort of artifact . . . I definitely need to write about this.

The thing—the idea—certainly had a breath, a glimmer.

But it didn’t seem to be quite ready. I got the feeling that it didn’t want to be written about just yet.

I decided to take both, Daddy’s cross necklace and the old newly-printed photos, and as I prepared to leave the house that morning, another image glimmered in my mind. Rather brightly.

A sand dollar.

I have a few that I found years ago, and while I find them beautiful and compelling, I didn’t really think a sand dollar would be an artifact especially representative of my personal history. But . . . as the glimmering was suddenly there and I’ve learned not to question but to trust . . . I fetched the largest sand dollar, packed it carefully in a box with tissue paper, and took it with me to the workshop.

Guess which artifact I ended up writing about.

Of course.

I found this sand dollar on the beach when walking in the last weeks before my first son was born. There’d been a storm. The sand was still damp, the beach littered with seaweed and shell debris. The sand dollar, however, was whole, which is rare—they’re fragile and I’d never found any here before.

I don’t know why it drew me, just this morning, as a special artifact. It wasn’t something given to me, like Grandma’s locket or Daddy’s cross.

But maybe it was given, from beyond . . . .

I’ve just now recalled that, when I was born, my grandfather gave me twenty silver dollars. He did the same for all of the successive grandchildren. Sand dollar, silver dollar. Wealth of the sea, wealth of the earth. Gifts. Celebration. The coming of children, the next generation, the endowment of hopes and good wishes of those who’ve walked before. Like my younger self on the beach, I am walking the path of generations, I am the bridge between the past and the future. The sand dollar I have in my hand is really a skeleton. It was once a living creature. It’s symbolic of faith and strength despite its fragility and it comes from the ocean, which symbolizes life, continuity . . . .

It occurs to me now that the sand dollar is connected to the other artifacts I considered writing about, Daddy’s cross necklace, given to me unexpectedly at Grannie’s funeral, and the pictures from the old film I just found and had printed. All together they say: These are your life-pieces that endure; you will endure. Oh and I almost forgot that I just had my DNA tested. When I got the results, I marveled at the migratory history of my ancient ancestors, the story of their survival. I hadn’t expected the rush of profound gratitude to all of them for living, that I might be here now. I am here, whole, because they were here. I carry pieces of them within me. 

I found this sand dollar, the skeleton of a living thing, on the beach while walking after a storm, while carrying my firstborn. I walk the path of generations.

We go on.

My co-facilitator’s voice gently broke the hush in the room, we teacher-writers having been immersed in our thoughts, our words, recording on paper:

“Now, how can your artifact drive your teaching of writing?”

I wrote:

My sand dollar can drive my teaching of writing in so many ways. It’s a metaphor for writing:

-Just start walking. Like I did on the beach. Just start writing,

-Until you’re walking, you don’t know what you’ll find.

You’ll have surprises. Rare things will come, if you keep at it.

These gifts are waiting, meant just for you.

I looked at the sand dollar and I know, if it could look back at me, it would have winked.

Enriched

Coyote pups

Four Coyote Pups by Den. Colorado. nature 80020CC BY

As sixth grade ended, my teacher recommended me for a summer enrichment camp.

“You’ll love it,” she said. “Every day for two weeks, you’ll get to study drama, writing, and photography.”

I desperately wanted to go.

When I brought the paperwork home to my dad, he frowned.

“I don’t think so,” he told me.

“But, Daddy, it’s a special thing. You have to be invited by your teacher and I get to study drama and writing. It’s going to be so much fun. I can even ride the summer school bus to get there every day—please, Daddy?”

“It costs, you know.” He sounded tired.

The attendance fee, I think, was twenty-five dollars. Maybe thirty. It didn’t seem like a lot to me, but I knew Daddy worried about bills. My mother had ongoing medical expenses; my sister and I took weekly allergy shots. I knew not to bother Daddy when he sat at the table with the checkbook—I wouldn’t go near the kitchen at all, for then he wore a worse frown than the one he was wearing now.

No point in pressing him. I went to my bedroom, shut the door, and cried.

Later that day, or maybe the next, Grandma called. After chatting awhile with my father about news, how our all of our relatives were in their little North Carolina hometown and how everybody was there in Virginia, she asked to talk to me.

Daddy handed me the phone. It had a long cord—really long. From its wall mount, the phone cord reached the floor. It would stretch from the kitchen down the hall to my room, where I could sit on my bed and talk in private.

“Hi, Grandma.”

“Hello, Dear,” she said, the warmth of it like June sunlight bursting through a break in the clouds.  “I just wanted to hear your voice.”

My tears welled again. “I miss you.”

“Is something the matter?”

I told her all about the camp, about Daddy saying no because of the cost.

“How much is it?”

I told her.

“I’ll pay for it,” she said, uncharacteristically crisp. I could almost see the lift of her chin, the flash in her blue eyes. “I believe children should have the chance to do some things they really want to do.”

“Thank you,” I sniffled into the phone.

“Let me talk to your Daddy.”

And so it was that I went to the summer camp on the benevolence of my greatest advocate, Grandma.

Riding the bus with high school kids having to attend summer school in order to pass their grades was an adventure unto itself, but beyond that, camp was a laboratory of creativity.

I encountered pantomime for the first time, communicating story with the body, without words. I wasn’t especially good at it but some of my fellow campers—aged eleven, twelve, thirteen—were astonishing. One boy mimed being closed in by a shrinking box so well that the box was virtually visible. I watched, holding my breath, enthralled.

The drama teachers grouped us into fours, gave the groups four words, and challenged us with writing cohesive skits with these four words embedded in dialogue. My group’s words were—to the best of my memory—lion, clock, heart, flies. We were timed on the writing of the skit and the rehearsal of it, including the creation of minimalist props out of construction paper. My group, with me as scribe, wrote a farcical story of a doctor having to treat a patient who was attacked by a lion and who got away by throwing a clock at it, to which the Groucho Marx-esque doctor remarks: “My, how time flies!”

We entitled it “Dr. Heartbeat, Dr. Heartbeat” after a TV series that none of us really knew much about except that it seemed weird and therefore perfect: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. 

We performed last for our fellow campers, to a standing ovation and teachers wiping their tears at our over-the-top slapstick antics. Yours Truly played the hapless doctor.

We studied fairy tales; we wrote and illustrated our own, to be “published” in laminated books we could keep. I wrote “The Littlest Mermaid,” having long been captivated by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Ages before Disney brought us red-headed Ariel, my pink-haired mermaid battled jealous bullies. When I wrote The other mermaids hated her, the writing teacher said, “Hate is a strong, terrible word. Do you think it belongs in a story for children?”

I revised: The other mermaids didn’t like her. 

Ever since, I’ve thought about the power of one word, and when is right or not right to use it. And audience. And whether children should be shielded from the word hate, and when are fairy tales just for children?

In photography class, we campers built cameras from shoe boxes, learning about light leaks and timed exposures. I was able to produce a picture of a basset hound (they don’t move a lot) and my classmate sitting in a tree. The teacher explained that we were “photojournalists”—we’d write about the process of building and using our cameras, what worked, what didn’t, and why. He then encouraged us to write stories about the images we took and developed.

For a final writing adventure, the writing teachers invited us to look through a stack of glossy, full-page photographs. I chose two: One of a single coyote standing in a canyon, the other of four little coyote pups. I was taken by the animals’ beauty and the warm, reddish colors of the rocks.

Trouble was, I knew nothing of coyotes beyond the Road Runner cartoons. The animals in these photos were unexpectedly magnificent.

Thus began my first real foray into research. It began with place: Where do coyotes live? I needed to know. At home that night, I cracked open a dusty encyclopedia from the bottom shelf of the living room bookcase. After poring over the coyote entry, I chose Pueblo, Colorado, for my coyotes’ home. And having learned, somberly, that man is the coyotes’ worst enemy, I had an idea for a plot: Survival. After the mother or the father coyote is shot, the mate takes the pups on a journey to a new home. I also encountered the word ravenous for the first time . . . and when my teachers asked me to read my story for the gathering of families at the program on the last day of camp, I mispronounced it, saying that the coyotes ate ra-VEEN-yus-ly. “I wish I’d heard you read it aloud first,” a teacher apologized. “It’s RA-ven-ous-ly.”

Alas. Reader’s vocabulary.

It was decades and decades ago, but the richness of the camp is with me still: Every day an adventure, with something to discover, to explore, to synthesize into something new; an extension of myself, what I love, who I am. A wealth of learning compounded with interest, over time.

That Grandma made possible, because she believed it was important, even necessary. I later learned how much she wanted to take piano lessons as a child and her family couldn’t afford it. A charitable young preacher’s wife eventually taught her how to play.

And, ever the angel wielding the sword on my behalf, Grandma was willing to take a piercing in return; she sent me to the camp even though she knew it would shorten the time I’d spent at her house that summer.

Because, for some investments, the payoff is incalculable. Grandma understood this.

And even then I understood that I was, in so many ways, enriched beyond measure.