Important things

On Day One of school, I had a conversation about informational writing with a third-grade class.

I asked them if they know what informational writing is.

They said, “Writing that helps people learn things. Important things.”

I read excerpts of three different texts aloud to them, and then I asked:

“Why is informational writing important?”

They said:

“We learn about our world and why things work like they do” (after reading about the sun).

“We learn about friendship. We learn about relationships. We think about why we need each other” (wait—we’re in what grade? That’s right, third. Those are their exact words after a page of Owen and Mzee: The Language of Friendship. If you don’t know it: An orphaned baby hippo is brought to a park to share the habitat of a grouchy, 130-year old tortoise and . . . well, you need to read it).

“We learn about history. We learn from the past. Like why things like wars happen and what to do different, so they don’t happen again. We learn things that can save our lives” (after a page of a book about the Titanic, a topic that never, ever fails to captivate third-graders).

I basked in the glow of their words, their thoughts, their voices. Eight years on the planet and they already know so much.

My task: To channel this knowledge and energy into their own informational writing as they study the craft.

I asked one last question: “So, what do you think about informational writing?”

A general “It’s so interesting!”

Day One.

We’re off and running.



Only time for a quick hug

Only Have Time for a Quick Hug. JackieCC BY

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



For the suffering of others.

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

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

For all of us.

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





Titanic relic


Pier 54,  April 21, 2012 – exactly one hundred years after the sinking of the Titanic.

Arriving by bus in New York City, the tour guide said, “This is Hudson River Park.”

Looking through the window, I saw a sign: Chelsea Piers.

Chelsea Piers – why does that sound so familiar?

The words buffered around my brain for a second or two, retrieving the information: Chelsea Piers is where the old old ocean liners docked. 

Pier 54 is where the Titanic survivors were delivered by the Carpathia – hey, that’s exactly a hundred years ago this week!

I scrambled for my phone and opened the camera.

I took the shot just as we passed.

There is no magnificent dock anymore, only a corroding steel arch standing like a neglected, tired sentinel as people go about their daily lives. It’s hard to imagine this unremarkable structure as a portal to luxury, to adventure, to the stuff dreams were made of over a century ago.

C.S. Lewis wrote in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in the chapter entitled “The Dark Island”:

“Do you hear what I say? This is where dreams  – dreams, do you understand – come to life, come real. Not daydreams: dreams.”

In other words, nightmares.

I tried to envision the crowd, the men in overcoats, the women in long dresses, everyone wearing hats, as the Titanic survivors disembarked on April 18, 1912. It was night. For a fleeting second, I could sense the darkness, the shattered dreams, the unspeakable horror of watching that massive, beautiful ship break apart in the icy sea, taking so many passengers with her to a deep, watery grave. The nightmare was real; it would never leave the survivors.

In an instant, the darkness vanished, my glimpse of long ago ended. I blinked in the broad daylight. As my bus sailed on, I studied the photo. A bright light shines in the very center of the arch, which once bore the words White Star. I cannot tell if my camera was poised just right to reflect a flash in the window, to be captured perfectly in the middle of that haunting remnant, or if it is a phenomenon of light from some other source; nevertheless it shines like the sun over this relic of ruin, like day following night, driving the nightmares, the ghosts, away, hallowing this entrance to another time.