The bullet

 

Bullet

“Dodged” a bullet. John Spade

I don’t often get reader requests for posts here on my blog, but after sharing an exercise on writing about your past —”When you look back at your life, what do you see?”— a phrase about my childhood home stirred some curiosity and I promised to tell the story behind it.

So if you read Dust motes and asked about “Bullet in the living room rug, in the floor, if you know where to look,” today’s post is officially dedicated to you.

To recollect these details, I had to submerge a good while in Long Ago. When this event occurred I was around eight years old. That part’s blurry.

The rest, however, is all too vivid . . .

Mom lifts the curtain again but there’s only blackness beyond the picture window. I know by her sigh that the street is empty. No sign of Deb. She has never been this late before. She’s usually here before supper but tonight we had to go ahead and eat, hours ago. Baby Aimee—Deb’s baby—is fussy because she’s ready to go to bed and can’t settle. Mom holds her on one hip, says “Shhh, shhh, you’ll be going home to sleep soon.” Something icy glitters in my mother’s black eyes as she looks out of the window into the night.

Aimee’s eyes are almost as black as my mother’s. Big and round. They make me think of Looney Tunes characters when they’re sad, how their eyes go all huge and dark. Baby Aimee’s eyes always look like this, huge and dark, even when she’s standing in the playpen staring up at me in the daytime when I get home from school. She can stand without holding on now but isn’t really walking yet because she’s only one year old. She hangs onto my mother, her cheeks pink and watery, her big eyes shiny.

Mama,” she cries over and over. “Mama.” And she buries her face in my mother’s shoulder.

I am sorry for Aimee because she’s little and doesn’t understand things yet. I am starting to feel sorry for Mom because it’s not easy to take care of someone else’s baby while they work all day and then don’t show up and you don’t know why . . . 

“Mom! What if something has happened to  . . . “

She turns on me, her mouth a tight line under those icy-hot eyes. “Shh!” she nearly spits.

And I know, I know why.

Mom’s afraid.

Just then headlights shine through the window. Mom snatches back the curtain. Her body softens like a flower in a glass of water. 

“Thank God.” 

She squeezes past the playpen—it takes up the most of our living room floor spaceand goes to open the front door.

I hear Deb’s laughter before I see her.

Someone is with her.

They come in.

Deb is short with shoulder-length reddish hair and glasses. She dresses in what teachers at my school call “mod.” Sometimes short skirts and boots or chunky shoes, sometimes vests and bell-bottoms. Deb smiles a lot but tonight she can’t stop laughing about something. Even when she says to Mom, “I am sorry it’s so late, had some car trouble…this is Ab. My boyfriend.”

Ab, standing partly behind  Deb, is very tall. His face is thin and white, his hair black, curly, reaching past his shoulders. He’s wearing a long fur coat. I’ve never seen a man in a fur coat before. He nods to my mother when Deb introduces them but he says nothing. 

Mom looks at me, hard. “Go to bed now.”

I know this really means “I’ve got things to say that you don’t need to hear” and so I head down the hall without a word—

—BANG—

—a flash of light, the loudest sound, thunder in the house, like a car hitting it, shaking it, rattling the windows—

a scream, not sure whose, my mother’s or Deb’s—

baby screams—

I run the few steps back to the living room.

There’s a funny smell, something smoky.

Pieces of brown fur, hundreds of pieces, floating through the air. 

Deb’s crying now, her screaming baby in her arms. Ab’s face is whiter than before. I stand, frozen, as my mother demands the gun he has in his pocket, or the pocket he had a minute ago, before he blew it to smithereens.

HOW DARE YOU bring a gun into this house, around other people, around children! To stand here with your finger on the trigger…Give. It. To. Me. NOW.”

And Ab places the handgun in my mother’s open palm.

As her hand closes around it he hurries out of the door, away from her, back into the night.

*******

After Deb and Ab were gone—and after she vacuumed up all the fur—Mom ran her fingers over the rug. She found the hole and the bullet lodged in the hardwood floor beneath. For as long as we lived in that house, I could find the bullet, too.

The house still stands, so as far as I know, the bullet remains there to this day.

I can’t recall what became of Deb and her beautiful baby, Aimee, or how quickly after the bullet they quit coming to our house. I changed their names in case they’re still alive out there, somewhere. I wonder if they are. And what their stories are. And if I could stand knowing.

I really wonder about Ab.

All I know is that my mother kept his gun a long time. I’m not sure she ever gave it back. Or where in the house she hid it. Somewhere far away from children…

I think a lot about the darkness of that night, of a baby’s big, frightened eyes, of being completely at the mercy of others and their choices, not just sweet baby Aimee, long, long ago when I was still a child…but my mother, who didn’t drive, who babysat for many years to make ends meet, who accommodated other people’s schedules and whims, who was dependent on others to go anywhere or get anything she needed. Some might say powerless.

But they didn’t see her take a gun away from a strange man who towered over her, a man who, as far as I know, never darkened our door again.

I did.

The moment reverberates in my mind still. Lodged deep, so deep in my memory, lying there all this time, covered by layers and layers of stuff …

The power remains, if you know where to look.

 

Coaching metaphor

During recent professional development sessions on “Coaching the Coach” at Ocracoke Island, the facilitator charged participants with finding a metaphor for coaching.

We were to take a photo. We would write to it.

There were no other parameters.

Ocracoke is a tiny place full of narrow, twisting roads, quaintness, legend, and mystery. It has around a thousand inhabitants. In tourist season one has to drive with extreme care as the streets become clogged with pedestrians, horses, bicyclists, golf carts, and cats (the island has a rampant feral cat population). The word island might as well be a synonym for enchantment or mystical; a sense of these hang in the air along with the salt. Sort of like expectancy.

When I first saw the grove of trees—predominantly live oaks—on the corner lot of a house converted to a bookstore, I thought: What a restful place. It has its own particular allure. While there are larger live oaks, individual, ancient giants, elsewhere on the island, these smaller trees grow together, toward one another. I read somewhere that live oaks focus their energy on growing out, not up; perhaps this is especially important in a place where ocean winds continually carve the landscape. These trees survive hurricanes. They flourish in salty places.

The early May afternoon was hot; the sun blazed overhead. I noted the profuse shade under the trees. They stand leaning inward, reaching to one another, as if intentionally collaborating to benefit all who enter their realm of existence. No one tree stands out. It’s a joint effort. I walked into their proffered coolness, this respite, this shelter, envisioning how their roots are deeply intertwined, that they draw collective strength in their mutuality. They are anchored together. That’s part of how they endure. A foundation from which to grow, branch out, and sustain their own lives and others’.

There is more, there is always more, to a metaphor, for it knows no parameters, either. It can keep on going and going, changing shape, developing new layers in new light. It’s supposed to, just like learning. Like life. I just choose to stop here.

For now.

Coaches, teachers

gathered

in rapport, mirrored

growing together

toward one another

is strength

and refuge.

For all.

A healing presence

One of the kids in our Harry Potter club, a third grader, wanted to know:

“Mrs. Haley, if you could do any of the magic, what would it be?”

That’s an easy one.

“Healing,” I say.

The children think I mean “episkey,” the little mending of a broken nose or split lip (its name coming from Greek for ‘repair’).

But I mean the healing song.

The one without words, that puts the maimed, the mortally wounded, back together; the song that knits gaping wounds closed.

In the books, the strange song, invented by Professor Snape—perhaps the ultimate antihero—heals devastating physical wounds. They’re obvious; the injured people lie around bleeding profusely.

So many people walk around in the real world just as wounded, emotionally, spiritually, mentally.

Sometimes it is obvious.

Sometimes it is not.

I am not a magical character in a fantasy series nor a trained medical professional. I am no alchemist, apothecary, or angel. I cannot dispense healing.

But I write.

My words don’t grant healing, but maybe they can stir hope of it.

I can listen.

I don’t have a healing song, but I can have a hearing heart.

I can be still.

I can be a pocket of calm inside a world of clamor.

It’s not in my power to fix broken hearts, broken spirits, broken minds, broken families. If I could, I would have done so for many I’ve loved.

I can only be a presence, a voice, an encouragement to be strong in the broken places.

—Yes, healing.

—That is what I wish, children.

Image result for if you don't heal what cut you

 

 

 

After

On a mission through the school’s main hall

a casual glance through the glass wall

fresh mulch, a sea of woody brown

a few dead leaves scattered round

—Fall.

It registers after I pass

something else beyond the glass

something crumpled on the woody bed

a conspicuous spot of red.

I turn around. 

A bird, lying on the ground

flat on its back

speckled white and black

white claws curled, scarlet head.

Little woodpecker. Dead.

Flew into the glass wall, it’s clear

from the way it’s lying here.

A broken neck, I think

but then, then—I see it blink.

What comfort can I give?

Is it even going to live?

I mustn’t touch it, must let it be

I won’t have it die for fear of me.

The hall’s deserted, what to do

people are waiting for me, too

—I’ll hurry. I can never atone

for letting it die alone.

On my hasty return, a wondrous sight

the woodpecker, sitting upright

scarcely moving, still dazed.

I am amazed.

It opens one eye, tests its beak

assessing the damage wreaked

turns that stunning head

of breathtaking red.

I silently celebrate

as I watch and pray and wait

for that one eye remaining shut

to be all right, to open, to see—but

the instant it does, without warning

with a flurry of wings, off in the morning

he goes. I didn’t see him fall

from my side of this glass wall.

I’m just here, rejoicing, for his open eyes

his reclaimed strength, his reclaimed skies.

My heart goes with him, as he flies

—I saw him rise.

Just before he took flight again. A woodpecker happens to symbolize communication, opportunity, and awareness. How grateful I am to have seen him, to have witnessed his overcoming.

Incapacitated

The initial predictions were utter destruction by an epic monster.

Having suffered extensive damage from hurricanes in years past, central North Carolina fortified itself against Florence. I collected a small mountain of dry goods and canned vegetables—”hurricane stash”—that probably could have fed my family of four for two weeks without electricity. Since we’re on a well, we don’t have water when the power goes out; I  even purchased powdered milk to mix with bottled water, for our cereal. Bottled water . . . that took several trips across three days. By 6:30 in the mornings, restocked grocery shelves were again picked clean. I finally scored a 36-count pack of Aquafina and turned to maneuver away from the throng in that aisle when a man, loading his own cart, said, “Here, you better take another.” He hefted a pack of water off the shelf and stacked it on top of the one in my cart. This gesture by a stranger stirred my heart.

At home, the dogs had plenty of food, we had batteries, all the laundry was done, one of the bathtubs was filled with water, the cars with gas. Our porch rocking chairs and the grill were secured in the shed. The television news ran nonstop. My family watched the slow, drawn-out approach of the monster, and although the sun was still shining, school was canceled in anticipation of the onslaught. My mind continually scrolled for every possible preparation. I even boiled the remainder of our eggs so they’d be usable if the power went out for days, as happened in the past.

I planned for everything.

Except my back going out.

It started on the day before Florence was to make landfall and grew steadily worse. I attributed it, at first, to the barometric pressure; I’d heard several people mention headaches and backaches. By the time the wind and rain arrived, however, the grip of pain was too intense for me to sit or walk anymore. Dosed with ibuprofen, I spent the duration of the storm — five days, all told— lying in bed with pillows under my knees.

Unable to do anything.

Except re-read the entire Harry Potter series.

Escapism at its best.

Different things strike me on each reading. This time, as the wind raged on the other side of the walls, as sideways rain whipped in voluminous sheets, slapping the windows with fury, as the encroaching darkness forced me to switch on my phone flashlight in order to see the words on the pages—Lumos!— I lay there contemplating the nobility of the characters, the way they banded together, helped one another, in the face of their own destructive, epic monster. How they found unrealized courage despite ever-increasing darkness. As I lay reading, immersed in Harry’s world,  I caught distant snatches of the news from my own: on the TV in the living room, where my husband and sons tracked Florence’s path, meteorologists warned people that if their houses flooded to not seek refuge in their attics, because there’s no exit. Rescue personnel are not equipped to cut through houses to save people. Meaning that it’s safer to climb on the roof of one’s house than to be trapped.

For a second, everything went still: How could I do that? If it flooded here—never say never—how could I possibly climb to the roof? I can’t even move!

And then I read the words of Mad-Eye Moody to Harry as Harry was about to compete in the Tri-Wizard Tournament: Play to your strengths. 

Harry doesn’t think he has any strengths—this is Book Four, he’s just fourteen —and he has no idea that the Tournament was designed solely to destroy him. Moody growls: Think now. What are you best at?

Lying flat on my back, at the mercy of my own body, helpless against the forces of nature, imagining a flood . . . what strength would I have, just now?

I thought of elderly people in this storm. Then of my Grannie, years ago, when her house caught fire in the dead of night on New Year’s Eve; how, after just having heart bypass surgery in the days when it was a new thing, she climbed out of her upstairs bedroom window onto the porch roof and survived.

Play to your strengths.

In Grannie’s case it was pure grit. As for me . . . well, a streak of that same determination and strong will (Grannie-grit) runs in my own veins, but I think my strength is rooted in something greater. If had to choose what’s deepest within me to tap, it’s hope.

I recently heard hope defined as not wishing, but knowing, trusting. No matter how severe the pain, I know I’d be able to climb to safety. Somehow. I trust my family would help me. Even in my weakened state, I’d find and give the last of my strength to help them, too. A strength that would come exactly when it was needed, not before.

On and on I read. Of Harry’s overcoming, of his concern for others, his willingness to give his own life in order to save them, even those he didn’t know personally . . . .

The darkness, the storms bring out the best in humanity, reminding us that we are, above all, here to help each other. Not to destroy.

—I will write about Severus Snape another day.

And storms, ever how violent, do not last forever.

It didn’t flood here, although our yard remained a bog for a while.

Now we have a plague of bloodthirsty mosquitoes to battle.

And my back pain has diminished, bit by bit, day by day. It remains a twinge, still causing me to be mindful. Strange thing, that. Being rendered powerless during the storm, unable to do anything but read. And endure.

But, in the end, powerless all depends on one’s own perspective. Reading is another great strength of mine, is it not? Didn’t it get me through the storm and the pain? That’s hardly powerless. Not to mention that in my tiny neighborhood, in the heart of a rural area where we frequently lose the power for no apparent reason at all . . . the lights blinked but never went out.

Just like hope.

 

Of calluses and rings

My older son showed me his hands this morning: “Look, Mom.”

He has tiny calluses across both palms from working out.

It causes me to reflect on why we labor hard enough at something for the friction to wear such places on our skin. To my son, the weight training is worth the effort for his physical well-being; he is dedicated to his regimen. His hands pay this small price for the health of the rest of his body.

In the photo above, a man’s ring has worn a callus on his palm when he forgot to remove it before a mountain bike race. It draws me because I have a similar, very faint callus on my own left palm from my wedding band. As I hardly race mountain bikes or use my hands in intensive manual labor on a daily basis—and I don’t even wear my rings while at home due to contact with soaps, cleansers, and detergents—it’s a bit mysterious as to why this hard little spot exists on my hand. I’ve decided that it’s occurred over time, over many, many years of marriage.

Therein lies the rub, so to speak. The ring, over time, has worn the callus. Might it be symbolic of marriage friction? For, let’s face it, no two people can live under the same roof for long without some earnest element of friction. But in a strong marriage—in any strong relationship—the labor of love is worth it; you keep at it. As long as your hearts don’t become callused (and your attitude callous) toward one another, the relationship protects itself against the friction. That’s what a callus is, a protection-against-the-friction place.

Last Saturday, my younger son, Cadillac Man, showed me the huge callus on his own palm. It’s from the shovel he used to dig the grave for Nik, our sixteen-year-old dachshund. This little dog was his daily companion since he was four and saw him almost through college.

If you’ve ever raised a dachshund, you know about friction . . . .

But the callus on Cadillac Man’s hand is a labor of love.

And worth it, for while his heart (and mine) are presently more sore than his hand, we expect more calluses yet, for we’re going to make a memorial garden where Nik is buried. A beautiful callus on the earth, if you will. A protection-against-the-friction of having to let him go, a working toward healing by building up a place of strength. The pains of creating our little memorial will be insignificant compared to the expected result.

It happens to be Memorial Day weekend. I think of men and women wearing wedding rings given by spouses who’ve died in service of the United States. Of families and friends marking the losses of those they loved. They’ll bear the scars of it on their hearts always. I think of those who fell, in this generation and all those before, believing that, if they must pay the price of their lives for the well-being of others, the outcome would be worth it.

Labors of love, protection-against-the-friction.

The story of sacrifice, sometimes complete, often beautiful, lies in the hard places left behind.

 

Heroes

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They’re heroes. All of them.

From across the state of North Carolina, they gathered in the capital city. Fighting crowds and full parking decks, between a St. Patrick’s Day parade, a street festival with an Irish band, a pub crawl, and educators arriving for the North Carolina Reading Association conference, the children made it to the Young Authors Project celebration.

These young people, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, and some of their teachers, were previously recognized by their local reading associations for writing on the theme “Show Your Strength.” Finalists went on to be judged by a panel for the state, and yesterday the North Carolina Reading Association awarded winners a book of their published entries and a medal.

Prior to the ceremony, such figures as Batman, Wonder Woman, and the X-Men swept through the audience, greeting the children, congratulating them, posing for pictures with them.

Project Superhero, Inc. and Causeplay Carolinas team up at the NCRA Young Authors Project celebration. Photo: Twitter, @superheroorg 03/17/2018.

Note the word POWER on the photo-op backdrop . . .

I thought immediately of the power in writing.

I watched as the children were called, county by county, to receive their awards on stage, their faces glowing. I’ve read their stories, how they showed their strength by sticking with tasks they thought they couldn’t accomplish, reaching desired goals, drawing inspiration from others, overcoming bullies, conquering their greatest fears, coping with illness, the loss of pets, of family members. How they got through, even when they didn’t think they could.

It takes courage to be a writer, courage to be a child.

There they stood, heroes, all.

Celebrating each other, celebrating their stories.

Celebrating perseverance. Celebrating courage. Celebrating hope.

Celebrating life.

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Celebrating Young Authors

Show Your Strength

Raleigh-Wake Reading Council 

This afternoon, I am celebrating young writers from kindergarten through high school. Our local reading council, affiliated with the International Literacy Association, sponsors the Young Authors Project annually. Students write on a given theme and council members submit their work. A committee then scores the pieces for quality of content and structure. This competition is about encouraging young writers to work hard at the craft, to tell their stories well. The stories are published in a local book. Some stories have gone on to the state level, to be recognized and published later this month by the North Carolina Reading Association.

This year’s theme is “Show Your Strength!” The students could write about their personal experiences of perseverance, how they’ve overcome obstacles, how they found strength in a time of weakness, and who or what inspired them to rise above a particular challenge.

It’s my honor today to be the speaker at the awards ceremony.

Here’s my tribute to these courageous writers:

Thank you, members of the Young Authors Committee and the Raleigh-Wake Council for encouraging students of all ages to write. Thank you, families and teachers, for being the wind beneath the wings of these young writers; because of your support, because of your belief in these writers, many of them have now flown higher than they ever thought they could before.

And thank you, Writers, for your stories. I’ve read your work and it’s breathtaking. I stand in awe of what you’ve experienced and how you captured it on paper.  It’s an honor and a joy to celebrate your courage, your beautiful work, and your personal victories today.

So you know that I am a writer, too. I remember being six years old and sitting at the coffee table in my living room with some notebook paper and a pencil, trying to write a story, not because a teacher told me to, but just because I wanted to. Something inside me needed to get out and even at age six, all by myself, I understood that I needed to write it. I’ve been writing all my life and I’ve written a lot of different things for different reasons, but I do it mostly because I love it. Why do I love it? I think it’s because writing helps me see things in different ways, sometimes in deeper ways than I would have if I didn’t write.

Here’s an example from last summer: I noticed that seahorses had started showing up in my life. Yes, seahorses! When I ordered some books, they came with a tote bag that had a seahorse on it. A friend gave me a notebook that happened to have a seahorse on it. I took my seahorse tote bag and my seahorse notebook to a teachers’ writing workshop at the beach, where I was given a journal to decorate . . . guess what was in the decorations? Seahorses! This, Ladies and Gentlemen, is what we a call a motif, a symbol that keeps recurring, or showing up. I started wondering if there was a reason for all these seahorses suddenly appearing —what could they mean? I do what writers always do: research. I looked up seahorses and I learned a few pretty cool things: The scientific name of the seahorse is hippocampus, the same word for the part of the human brain that’s the center of emotion and memory. As a writer, this connection between the seahorse and the human brain fascinates me. I also learned that seahorses are a species recorded as the slowest swimmers in the animal kingdom. They swim so slowly that they can die of exhaustion when storms come and churn the seas, so seahorses use their tails to anchor them to long grasses and corals. They survive by being anchored.

And that’s another big thing that writing does for me; it anchors me, it helps me survive whatever comes.

Seahorses, Writers, are a symbol of perseverance, the very theme that you wrote on for our Young Authors Project. You’re here today because you persevered in writing your stories.

Your stories show your strength as writers and your strength as human beings. Stories, in the end, are gifts that we give to others. We give these pieces of ourselves away to make other people think and feel; writing is an almost magical connection between the heart and mind of the writer and the hearts and minds of readers. There’s power in it. Think about it. We can use our words, our power, to hurt others or to strengthen them. Be mindful that you always use your power for good.

It is my hope, as a teacher of writing, that you will keep writing. Today is just the beginning of what you can accomplish, and you’ve started off so strong! Good writing is hard work. Sometimes it comes so, so slowly. Don’t give up. Always remember there’s power in writing and the effort is always worth it. The more you work on your writing, the more your writing will work on you; it will give you more and more strength to share with the world, and the world needs you.

Thank you all.