Why I write, 2021

The Children’s Eyes (When They Are Writing)

The children’s eyes
are windows to the skies
sun-bright,
moon and star-studded night,
reflected wonderlight.

The children’s eyes
are toy-wagon wheels
absorbing, bearing, hauling
so much more than playthings.

The children’s eyes
are gates in a small walled garden
which widen when they realize
the stunning flora growing within
—cultivate it, Children.

For in my own walled garden
of memory
lush greenery still grows
not concealing
but revealing
what I now know
to be healing.

All I’ve lived and seen
eventually spills forth
in story or verse
above and through and over
the old stone wall

for even in the moonless,
star-obscured,
darkest night,
there is always
a ribbon 
of light. 

This, Children,
is why I write.

Speaking of things I’ve seen…artwork on a concrete wall in Asheville, NC.
The garden struck me as metaphor for writing, growing there in the brain.

*******

with thanks to Andy Schoenborn for the “eyes” and life experience poetry prompt on Ethical ELA this morning, to Two Writing Teachers for sustaining a community where teachers of writing flourish, and to the National Council of Teachers of English for designating October 20th as National Day on Writing.

and in honor of all the children who inspire me, every time I’ve come to your classrooms to teach writing.

Poignant poise

(a pantoum)

Little seabird with only one foot
Standing perfectly balanced at the shore
You’re so calm, so still
Despite wind-ruffled feathers


Standing perfectly balanced at the shore
You’re a picture of grace
Despite wind-ruffled feathers
For you aren’t alone


You’re a picture of grace
Safeguarded, transcending
For you aren’t alone
Flanked by faithful friends keeping watch


Safeguarded, transcending
You’re so calm, so still
Flanked by faithful friends keeping watch

Little seabird, with only one foot.

As best I can determine, this is a laughing gull, already wearing winter plumage. I thought it was merely standing on one leg before realizing the other foot was gone. I have since learned that such sightings are common: many gulls lose feet and legs when they become entangled in fishing nets while hunting for food. What you cannot see in this close-up are two fellow gulls standing nearby, looking in different directions like bodyguards. I was struck by the poignant poise of this little shorebird and the proximity of the others. Gulls are symbols of adaptability, resourcefulness, community, survival, and strength. Maybe even uncommon grace.

*******

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

Fallidays

a poem which began as I was driving to work through the darkness and fog that appeared on the first day of October…

October awakens
in the night.
She rises in silence,
stirring white veils of fog
within the world’s
darkened bedchamber.

She knows
I am awake, too,
watching,
and that I am aware
it was not as dark
yesterday morning
at this same time
when September
was still here.
October gathers

her black satin robes
shimmering silver
in the moonlight.
She whispers of magic
and I shiver

just before the sun bursts forth
like a famous artist
with palette in tow-

There is no blue without yellow
and without orange,
and if you put in the blue,
then you must put in the yellow
and orange too,
mustn’t you?” 
and suddenly everything is
yellow and orange and blinding blue
with flecks of scarlet and brown
against the still-green
canvas.
For all her dark mystery
and the death-shroud she carries,
October doesn’t speak
of endings.

She points instead
-see that golden thread glittering
there in her sleeve?-
to celebrations just ahead.

Ah, October.
I see you
disguising your smile
as you creak open
nature’s ancient alchemical doors,
reverently ushering
in
the leaf-bejeweled holiness
that I shall henceforth call
the ‘fallidays’.

“Female ghost”WhiteAnGeL ❤.CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

How would you personify early October?
It is difficult to find a photo of a veiled figure comparable to the dark morning bands of fog.

“Figure In The Fog”. paulmcdeeCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The quote, “There is no blue without yellow and without orange…” comes from Van Gogh, written in a letter to his brother. I have used it several times in poems. Seems especially fitting here for the colors of October, illuminated by the artist-sun.

“Symphony of autumn colors”. PeterThoeny. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Writing Challenge
(even when my small-moment story morphs into poetry)

Shimmer of being alive poem

Late September

across the street
the first few spots
of yellow dot the lush green
abundance of trees
despite the searing blueness of sky
and bathwater-saturated
Carolina air

lingering summer

yet in it I feel a tinge
the tiniest tinge
an almost imperceptible
coolness

deep in the wooded shadows
from a sun-patched limb, no doubt,
a lone cicada takes up his rattle
crescendo, decrescendo


they were late arriving this year
but still here

driving to work
along the winding backroads
a darting from the left
two gray squirrels, 
scampering in tandem
right in front of me
on the double yellow lines

I stop for them 
they stop for me

after a moment
of squirrel contemplation
one continues on across
but the other, the other
turns back
with something in its mouth

not an acorn, something hanging
pale-colored
I’ve never seen the likes
but instinctively know:
that’s a baby squirrel

and on I drive, thinking
of the old squirrel twins book
my grandmother read to me
so long ago

and of how I shall read it
to my own granddaughter
arriving in a few short weeks

the morning September sun shimmers
rose-gold in my rearview mirror
like promises steeped in time

I no longer dream of dying
like I did when I was nine
now, in my first tinge of autumn
I dream of new babies born
every night

*******

with thanks to Sarah Donovan at Ethical ELA for the inspiration to write poetry
around moments of knowing “I am alive.”

September morningsong

-a pantoum-

Just outside my window
an unexpected song
so loud and full of joy
I want to sing along


An unexpected song
bright spirit, wild and free
I want to sing along

until you fly from me

Bright spirit, wild and free
winging your doxology
until you fly
from me
I’m clinging to your singing

Winging your doxology

so loud and full of joy
I’m clinging to your singing
just outside my window.

The Carolina wren is a little bird with a big voice. I’ve been trying for days to get a photo of this regular visitor perched on our birdhouse church. I finally managed it this morning. As wrens are a common symbol for artists, musicians, and poets, a poem seemed called for. The pantoum form beckoned, with the rhythms of its moving, repeated lines (per new line, in stanzas of four: 1234 2546 5768 7381).

The wren also represents rebirth, immortality, and protection. It is considered a guide through dark times.

Mostly I am awed by its glorious singing.

Suddenly sunflowers

Where I live
rolling fields
of soybeans, tobacco,
and occasionally cotton
are the familiar.
I imagine
it all looks like
a patchwork quilt
of various textures
and patterns,
from the sky.
Driving by
the pastures
where the pair of old mules
lived and died,
on my way back to school
at summer’s end,
I see something
unexpected.
Sunflowers.
Tall and tangled,
bordering a garden.
Light-seeking sentinels
with open faces
and inner resources
as myriad
as seeds.
At sight of these
yellow-petaled suns
my heart leaps
a little.
Is this what they’re mostly for,
sunflowers?
Beyond seed, oil, fiber,
beyond cleansing the soil
and waters
of nuclear radiation,
burning with their own
silent, mysterious fire
just to inspire?
I realize as I drive
backroads I’ve not driven
in a while
that they are everywhere.
All around me.
Whole fields of them
where I’ve never seen them
before.
They buoy my spirit.
Whatever task
lies before me,
I am up to it.
I stop at a store
to buy sunflower seeds
for my workday lunch salads,
as if channeling
the power of the sun
while remembering
what Van Gogh said,
as he painted:
The sunflower is mine,
in a way.

*******

My first encounter with sunflowers was in childhood summers spent deep in the countryside. My grandmother’s brother, who suffered trauma at birth and who lived alone in the old homeplace with his siblings looking after him, planted sunflowers in his garden. I marveled at their towering height and how their faces always followed the sun. Fields of sunflowers have indeed been planted to remove toxins from the soil after nuclear radiation. They are cleansing, healing, and surprisingly buoyant: their stems were used as filler for the first life jackets.

There could hardly be a more encouraging motif as the new school year gets underway.

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the space and invitation to share these noticings in the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge.

Last hurrah

Twenty-four hours ago I woke with the sun by the sea, rested and at peace with the world. I spent a few hours sitting at the ocean’s sandy altar beside my beloved sister-in-law, who’s like my own flesh and blood, speaking of the past, present, and future. Remembering loved ones lost. Cherishing new little ones, our children’s’ children. Hardly any other people were out and about; the beach seemed to be our own for these few sacred hours.

“Look! Dolphins!” my sister-in-law pointed. Out in the glimmering, watery distance, a distinctive leap…dolphins, navigators of the deep, ancient symbols of protection.

Just above the surface, gliding with astounding grace despite their unwieldy appearance, brown pelicans. Flocks of them. More than I’ve ever seen at one time before. Breaking their flight with dives and a mighty splash of white spray, catching fish and bobbing for a while in the waves.

Pelicans, a symbol for resourcefulness. And sacrifice. Legend has it that mother pelicans sacrifice themselves for their young, if need be. They wound themselves to feed their children with their own blood. They are social birds which hunt cooperatively—representing teamwork. Community.

Twenty-four hours ago, I sat breathing the same salt air as the pelicans, stood in the same sparkling waters as the dolphins.

Today I pack my bags, load my car, and return to school, masked. COVID rages on. Many unknowables lie ahead.

Yet I remain at peace. Diving, leaping, or gliding, I shall navigate as called for in the ebb and flow of moments. Children await, life awaits, time does not. The ocean remains. A reminder of constancy, of strength.

Here’s to the mighty plunge.

Low-flying pelicans. Tony Alter. CC-BY

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers…strength and protection to all in this uplifting community of teacher-writers, seasoned navigators of life and story-sharing.

Sidewalk angels

Asheville, North Carolina.

First vacation in two years, owing to my husband’s cardiac surgeries and the pandemic. He wants to see the mountains. They remind him of his childhood. They’re in his blood, like rivers and bays are in mine.

We’re not campers, though. We stay in town.

Late arrival, chilly summer rain, deserted city streets. Apparently everything closes early on a Sunday night. Downtown is eerily vacant, as if we’ve landed in a time warp or the Twilight Zone. Where have all the people gone? We walk in the desolation, huddled under our umbrellas.

On the sidewalks, random pink granite squares bear strange designs of some secret code: a feather, a horseshoe…

“Did you see that angel?” I ask my husband. I think I recall seeing this here before, on a previous visit.

“No. Where?”

“Back there, on the sidewalk. An angel pointing up, with a star on its head. We just passed it. I’m sure it has something to do with Thomas Wolfe. You know, ‘Look Homeward, Angel’…”

“Oh yeah, I bet it does.”

The rain slacks off. We round a corner to discover people dining under a café awning. A stocky, stubble-faced man lurches along the sidewalk from the opposite direction; his countenance lights up when he sees my husband: “Kris Kristofferson! Jerry Garcia! Can I get your autograph?” He fairly ripples with his own merriment.

Aside from the mountain panorama, this may well be the highlight of the trip for my hoary-curled, gray-bearded husband. Never mind that he’s a Baptist preacher. He’s a lifelong fan of these artists. He laughs: “My autograph won’t get you very far, brother.”

As we press on, trying to determine if any other restaurants are open, I glimpse blanketed bodies nestled in recessed shop doorways. The homeless, sheltered from the weather, settling in for the night ahead. Disparity, like cold mountain rain in midsummer, seeps all the way to my bones. I shiver.

They are still cocooned there the next morning when my husband and I hunt for coffee and bookstores, navigating around other vacationers who are now out and about, pushing their dogs in strollers. One lady on the sidewalk has risen and is sitting by her rolled blankets with a small basket by her side and a little black dog in her lap. Over the course of the next two days, as we try to decipher the odd hours of stores and restaurants (we discover that some are closed on Mondays, others on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and that some don’t open even when their signs said they will; how apropos is the ‘Stay weird, Asheville’ slogan?) —we see this petite lady several times. She remains there on the sidewalk by the same shop while other people of the street come and go, apparently checking in with one another. She is of indeterminate age. Slight wrinkles, blondish hair pinned up. Blue eyes. The little black dog stays right with her, cuddled close, never making a peep, watching the world walk by. I note that they get visitors. Some bring food. As my husband and I wait for the walk signal to cross the street, a young man from the Ben & Jerry’s shop comes out with a tiny cup of ice cream for the dog. I wonder how often he does this, how many other shopkeepers share in this caring…

I wonder how long this lady has been here, what her story is, if she has any family, if she’s ever stayed at a shelter. Not all shelters are safer than being on the street, especially with COVID. I find myself trying to imagine her daily life, her subsistence, the haunting freedom of living on the street; in the lyrics of Kristofferson: “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” She doesn’t appear to ask anyone for anything although she has a red plastic container sitting out for donations. I begin to worry about someone taking it from her…

On our last day, as my husband and I approach, she greets us: “Good morning.” She smiles. I know she’s recognized us as having passed this way before. It’s a familiar, familial tone. Full of warmth, the way a mother speaks to her waking children.

We respond in unison: “Good morning!”

“Your little dog is precious,” I say. “And so good.”

“Thank you.” Her voice is raspy but pleasant. “She’s a girl.”

“Such a sweet girl! What’s her name?”

“Raspberry.”

My husband and I learn the woman’s name, too. We chat with her for a moment. My husband takes some cash from his wallet and puts it in the red tub where the woman has an inconspicuous cardboard sign with the words ‘Thank you and God bless youG. and Raspberry’ written in red marker, accompanied by a small drawing of a cross.

We say our goodbyes. The image of Raspberry’s moist dark eyes stays with me as my husband and I walk our last through this beautiful city of Look Homeward, Angel: The Story of a Buried Life. Wolfe set the novel in a fictionalized version of Asheville, his hometown, to explore the “strange and bitter magic of life.

G. and Raspberry remain on my mind as we head homeward through the majestic blue-shadowed mountains. What is homeward if you have no home? Which way do you look then?

I have infinite questions, but this I know: there’s more than one sidewalk angel in Asheville.

*******

It is estimated that over half a million people in the United States experience homelessness. This includes those in shelters, transitional housing, and hotels and motels paid for by charities or government programs as well as those who sleep in cars, parks, camps, and places not meant for human habitation. While many misconceptions persist, among the the primary causes are lack of affordable housing, poverty, disabilities, and domestic violence.

The pink granite squares with designs in Asheville’s sidewalks are part of the Urban Trail, comprised of thirty different stations with sculptures representing historical periods. The Trail tells the story of the city’s past. The angel represents The Times of Thomas Wolfe, 1900-1938.

Right now, as the sun rises in my part of North Carolina, it’s raining again; I wonder how G. and Raspberry are faring this morning.

with special thanks to Two Writing Teachers for providing a venue for sharing Slices of Life.

What’s in a name poem

I love the mid-monthly Ethical ELA Open Write for educators. The kickoff for July is hosted today by Mo Daley, who offers the invitation to explore your name, and who you are, through poetry.

I happened to write a post about my name in March: Frances. This morning I rework it here, with a few more layers of meaning…

Early morning
before the dawn
as first birds begin to sing

I light a candle
on my table

I sit
by its wavering halo
to write
about my name.

In the beginning
I didn’t even know
it was my name.

My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Brown, 
called the roll: 
Frances?…Frances?

She finally narrowed her eyes at me: 
Aren’t you Frances?

Sitting before her at a tiny table, I blinked: 
No. I’m Fran.

An inauspicious start
to my academic career.

The first shaky foot
on the lifepath
of learning who I am.

I didn’t love it at first,
my name.

Early on
(sometime after kindergarten,
that is)
Daddy told me
it was after his mother,
Ruby Frances

Grandma

my consummate storyteller
avid letter-writer
daily diarist
devout reader
tireless defender-angel
Grandma

On the day you were born
I stood at the nursery window

and cried.

You looked
like a little angel.

Grandma

My life’s memories
begin in her arms
on her lap
being rocked
in time to the beating of her heart
and the cadence of her voice
singing
Jesus loves me, this I know
or reading reading reading
until I could recite
the rhyming stories
by heart, page by page
long before I went to school

Grandma

who read the entire Bible aloud
several times over
to Granddaddy
who could not read it 
for himself

Grandma

who was named
after her beloved Papa,
Francis

a very religious man

who nevertheless hung himself
on a tree in the woods
in front of her childhood home
when she was just sixteen

Grandma,

I asked, when I was around sixteen,

did you know
that the name Frances
means ‘free’

or ‘one who is from France?’

We talked about it in French class
today

—Does it? I didn’t know.
I loved taking French

—You took French? Really?

—Yes. Such a beautiful language

I didn’t tell her
we got to choose French names
for class
and I chose to be Renée 
without realizing 
that it means born again

or that the kids back in elementary school
could never get our name right:
Hi, France! they’d cheerfully greet me.

I’d grit my teeth:
It is Fran
or Frances.
Not ‘France’.
I am not
a country.

No one else in school
had my name.

It wasn’t cute or popular
since maybe 1886

not to mention
the spelling problem
such as on labels
from the pharmacy:
Francis

Does the world at large
not understand
or care
that the feminine spelling
is with an e?

I wanted to hurl
those little orange bottles
through the window

along with my problematic name

until the day I was teaching
a group of little Spanish-speaking girls
how to read English
and one of them grabbed my badge
to decode my name:
Fran

Very good! That’s really my nickname.
It’s short for Frances.

Ooooo, breathed my little student.
That sounds just like ‘princess’.

In all my years
I’d never thought of that

even though Princess Diana’s middle name
was Frances

and I have to laugh a little now
because Daddy always said
You ought to take Spanish instead of French,
it would be more useful.

He couldn’t have been more right, alas.
He usually was.

I wonder what he’d say now
if he knew my DNA tests
reveal a dollop of French ancestry
that he very likely
passed down…

and as I’ve been writing
the sun has risen
bright and ever-new

a red dragonfly
lands on the little statue of Saint Francis
by my front steps

never minding that I’m not Catholic

nesting birds find sanctuary here
on my porch
along with a host of small creatures
seeking a resting place
even the occasional stray cat in need
for whom I leave fresh water.

The candle’s wavering halo
is invisible now
in the sunlight spilling
through the windows

as I write about my name
this inheritance
I’ve come to treasure
at last

and it just so happens
that the candle’s fancy label says
chèvrefeuille
French for “honeysuckle”

the flower and scent
of happiness
of hardiness
of devotion
and everlasting bonds

like a legacy of love

and unseen angels

that are
always near.

Note on red dragonflies, mentioned also in my most recent post: I’ve seen them for the first time this summer. They’re stunning and in some cultures, considered a sign of the sacred.

Out of the water

Summer storm passes
leaving debris in its wake.
I open the door

to investigate
and discover a creature
there on the threshold

Dragonfly resting
weary, heavy-laden wings
—what ARE those patches?

Curiosity
drives me to investigate.
I learn that your name

comes from your luggage:
Carolina Saddlebags.
What do you carry?

Ancient traditions
abundant superstitions
folklore taking flight.

Symbol of wisdom
messenger between the worlds

born underwater

to rise new, transformed.
Your stories go on and on,
tired traveler.

My phone’s search engine
resolves one more mystery
from a day ago:


That red dragonfly
—the first one I’ve ever seen—

may have been your mate.

So otherworldly,
that darting scarlet body.
I caught just glimpses

for it never stilled.
Now I learn red dragonflies
are believed sacred.

A slight fluttering
of your strange saddlebag wings
seems to validate.

To me, you are rare.
Pleased to make your acquaintance
here on this portal

this dividing line
between shelter and tempest,
living and dying.

Take your repose, then.
I ponder birth and rebirth
as I close the door

where I discover
my husband’s baptismal robe
hanging up to dry
.

*******

My pastor husband doesn’t like to dry his robe in the dryer. After a recent baptism, he happened to hang it here on the door where the sidelight flooded it.

I’ve seen many dragonflies in my life, but this is the first Carolina Saddlebag. I hope to get a photo of the male, which has a brilliant red body and a violet head. That might be a feat; I read that they don’t land often. The female on my threshold soon regained her strength and flew away.

The sightings on each side of the portal filled me with awe—the word that chose me this year. More reminders to stay open to it every single day, not to miss it.

As a lover of symbolism…well, there’s enough here to last me pretty much forever…

The post is written in haiku, as dragonflies have spawned infinite haiku and inspiration in Japan where they are considered harbingers of life, prosperity, courage, happiness, strength. They have also represented the emperor and immortality. In Native American tradition, the dragonfly is a symbol of resurrection.

Special thanks to the Slice of Life community at Two Writing Teachers for also spawning courage, inspiration, and strength through the writing and sharing of stories. To teach young writers how to write, we must write, and by writing we discover infinitely more about the world and ourselves.