Write bravely

Today concludes the thirty-one-day Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers. Today I cross the finish line with many fellow Slicers, having written a post each day.

But the writing doesn’t end here.

Nor does the challenge …

That’s the thing. Now, more than ever before in our lives, is a time to write.

The photo above is of a pocket notebook a friend and mentor gave as a parting gift to all who attended her retirement celebration years ago. Her love of writing and advocacy for teachers as writers inspires me to this day. She also passed the torch of facilitating district writing workshop training to me … until this year, when it is no longer offered. But I carry the notebook with me everywhere I go, just to remind me …

Teachers, students, families, friends, citizens of the world, all … today I offer the same to you, in the ongoing composition of life: Write bravely.

*******

write your stories

share your glories

write bravely

write for healing

name the feeling

write bravely

write all your rages

fill all your pages

write bravely

write through your tears

conquer your fears

write bravely

write of the past

save it at last

write bravely

write of your sorrows

and your tomorrows

write bravely

write them for you

and for me, too

write bravely

write bravely

write bravely

Puppy therapy

Seems like a couple of weeks into stay-at-home orders and physical separation is an ideal time for some puppy therapy.

So I brought you a tiny puppy to hold awhile. In your heart, anyway, if not in your hands.

You’ll want to know the story, I suspect …

Last December, my son and I went to pick up his new puppy.

We wanted a mini dachshund, as we had one for sixteen years, from the time my boy was four until he was almost twenty-one. Dachshunds love to snuggle. They’re full of affection and whimsy. And mischief … and stubbornness … but their devotion outweighs all else.

When we got to the breeders, as paperwork was being completed, I noticed a movement under some blankets in one of the kennels.

“Oh, something’s in there!” I remarked. “It looked empty except for the blankets.”

“Yes,” said the breeder-lady. “A mother and her baby. She only had one, born yesterday.”

And then the lady did the unthinkable.

She reached under the blankets, scooped the newborn out, and placed it in my hands.

I could hardly breathe.

Tiny. So fragile. So beautifully formed, utterly perfect in every way. The sheen of its gorgeous coat, solid chocolate. Teeny little ears. Nails so miniscule they could barely be seen … awe isn’t adequate for the suspended moment of wonder at this bit of life in my hands.

The puppy’s mother, a long-haired red dapple, hovered at my feet, her big brown eyes fixed on me as I held her baby.

“Here, ” I said to my son, “hold it for just a second and we’ll give it back to its mother. She’s anxious.”

I placed the puppy in my son’s hands and took took a picture with my phone. With a fingertip, I stroked its satiny head, just once.

“It’s so beautiful,” whispered my son. Very carefully, he slid the tiny creature back into the breeder-lady’s hands and she deftly returned it to its blanketed kennel.

The mother darted in. She went right to work on her baby, licking away all of our human smell from its fur.

I don’t know why I wanted to cry just then.

Maybe it was the mother’s impeccable care of her one baby. We’d worried her, made extra work for her. The puppy squirmed against its bath but quickly settled back to blissful neonate-sleep.

Perhaps it was the fragility of new life that twisted my heart, its precariousness and preciousness, the struggle of being alive and helpless and dependent. Or the convicting knowledge that the human touch is not always a kind or good thing. Or maybe the pang was simply because life is beautiful and because I love dogs.

“Okay, you’re set,” smiled the breeder-lady, handing us the paperwork. “He’s all yours.”

No, of course not the tiny day-old chocolate puppy. That was just a gift of the moment. The breeders hadn’t yet determined if it was a boy or a girl. I did fantasize about returning in two months to get it, however, and what I’d name it … right now, as I write this post while watching Citizen Kane, I am considering “Rosebud” …

No.

I just felt you might need a moment with the tiniest puppy I ever held.

THIS is what we went for, and what we carried home:

Our Dennis.

He’s like a furry worry stone … while holding him and rubbing him (he now rolls over for belly rubs, his favorite) it’s impossible to feel sad or worried or anything but peace and gladness to be alive.

So I give him to you for a minute, to hold with your eyes. And maybe with your heart. He’ll steal it—trust me.

Just a little puppy therapy for your day.

Signs of the times

A friend wanted to know if my family would like some face masks.

She is making them.

She sent us pictures of the fabric—she has bolts of it—for us to choose the prints.

Yesterday she and her husband pulled up in our driveway to drop off the masks. My husband and I went out to meet our friends, offering our thanks only in words, no hand-grasps or hugs … a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing … a few weeks back, we were all sitting around the dining room table here in the house, laughing and telling stories after a lasagna dinner. It seems long ago.

When will we be able to do so comfortably, again?

When I look at these masks, I see all that they represent. Shields in time of trouble. A friend channeling inertia into something productive, a practical means of battling an unseen enemy. Self-care spreading out like a blanket to cover others. Homemade love. Colorful patterns against the dark backdrop of our days.

These masks are artifacts of our times. Symbols of our story as we live it. And nothing connects humanity as much as story.

As I walked out to the driveway to receive these gifts, my grandmother’s voice echoed from across the years:

You won’t believe it, but where these woods are now used to be houses and farms, up and down this little road … when the Spanish flu came, it hit all but a couple of them … twelve people died in one week … Mama made pots of soup and Papa would carry it to their doors. He wouldn’t go in, of course …

Grandma wouldn’t have had living memory of this. When the influenza pandemic began in January 1918, she was only two. But she knew the stories. If my own memory serves me correctly, as I walked the tiny country cemeteries surrounding her homeplace, listening to her narratives of the people resting there—for she knew all their stories, and how they were connected— there was an unexpected commonality.

A death year. 1917.

That was before the Spanish flu.

Grandma nodded. There was a sickness before: They called it hemorrhagic fever. People would bruise and bleed from their noses and ears and eyes … a lot of people who tried to take care of the sick caught it and died, too …

She was hardly more than a baby then, a girl born and raised in a hard place in hard times, but here she stood, by the weather-worn stones under a cloudless blue sky, telling the stories seven decades later.

Because of story, these events are lodged in my memory a hundred years after they happened.

My father was Grandma’s first child, born during the Great Depression. Flour companies made their sacks with patterns and bright colors so people could make clothes out of them … look at my handmade face masks and tell me they aren’t reminiscent. A second child, my aunt, arrived with the war. Granddaddy moved the family from North Carolina to Virginia; he found work in the shipyard, where production increased to the point of cranking out ships in less than a third of the time it normally took. How can one not compare that to the scramble for mass production of ventilators today …

Grandma said: It was so hot that summer. I was miserable, being pregnant. I’d sit by the upstairs window and watch the iceman delivering blocks of ice to grocers … companies stopped making refrigerators … everything went into the war effort. I just cried. I’d have given anything for some of that ice … then we had ration cards and could only get certain things at certain times … once my sister Jack and her husband pooled their gas ration cards with ours and we all went on a trip to Massachusetts … it was so beautiful and so cool there …

I look at these masks and that is what I see.

The story of overcoming. Of determination. Of resourcefulness in time of scarcity. Of finding a means to be a good neighbor, a good friend, a real and present help in time of need, even if from a safe distance. Sharing so that everyone has enough. Acts of service, gifts of love. Sacrifice.

The story of surviving.

It’s a collective one.

He loves me, he loves me not

Today I am revising a fun memoir I first wrote as a model for a fifth-grade class. Given the choice of a time in my life when I was happy, sad, angry, afraid or embarrassed, the kids voted for “embarrassed.”

What fun it was to watch them alternately cringing and writhing in their seats—but also laughing.

*******

As soon as the dismissal bell rang, I shot down the hall, through the doors, and to the crosswalk in record time. I could hardly wait to get home from school: My grandma had called that morning to say that my present should arrive in the mail.

I’d been thinking all day about what my present might be. Was it a latch hook kit, or a Mystery Date game? I’d been wanting those forever. Maybe it was those books that I heard some middle-school girls whispering about and which titles I kept mentioning as potential gifts, as I was dying to read them, but so far no one had gotten for me yet. Last year, when I was ten, I still read the Little House books and wished I was Laura to the point that my mother made sunbonnets for me, but of course I’d become too old for that now … most of the time…

I ran the whole way home, slowing only when I got a stitch in my side. At last I reached the steps of my own house. I took them two at a time and barreled through the front door into the living room.

“MOM, I’M HOME! DID MY PRESENT GET HERE?”

“It’s on the coffee table,” said Mom.

Sure enough, a large box wrapped in brown paper sat beckoning from the table. In ten seconds I had the paper off, trying to imagine what fantastic thing Grandma had chosen for me.

I threw the box lid on the floor and yanked away the tissue paper inside.

For a moment, I wasn’t quite sure what I was seeing.

Clothes.

I was okay with clothes, but …

This was a shirt with some kind of huge design on it. I picked it up. When the shirt unfurled, the design turned out to be a giant daisy with a bright yellow center and enormous petals covering the entire front.

Ewwwww!

Mom said, “Oh, that’s nice.”

But that was not all. Oh no, that was not all.

Something was glowing at me from inside the box. A color so bright that it was practically blinding, a shade close to a French’s mustard bottle.

Somewhat fearfully, I lifted the glowing yellow thing out of the box.

Shorts.

A bulky pair of shorts that matched the daisy shirt.

Shorts made of thick polyester that would never wrinkle in a million years, an unsympathetic fabric that scratched against my skin.

I detested polyester.

I couldn’t pull my thoughts together. Was Grandma serious? Surely she wasn’t playing a joke on me! Didn’t she understand that I was now eleven, not six?

Mom said, “How cute, a little shorts set. Look—there’s still something in the box.”

I wanted to say I do not want to know, and I do not care, this is the most hideous thing I’ve ever seen in my life, but I quietly reached into the box one more time, as the last wisps of my hope withered and died.

In a flat pack of cellophane lay a pair of knee socks.

KNEE SOCKS.

They were white. Each had a daisy on them. One sock bore the words “He loves me” and the other sock was emblazoned with “He loves me not.”

“Now, that’s unique,” Mom commented. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

“Mom! I can’t wear this! Can I ask Grandma to exchange it?”

“Absolutely not. Your grandmother took time to pick this out especially for you and to get it in the mail so that you’d have it on your birthday. You will keep it and be thankful.”

“Well, I’m not going to WEAR it!”

My mother’s eyes went dark, flashing like warning signs. She stuck out her chin, reminding me of a hungry bulldog that just had its food snatched away. I even detected a slight growl:

“Oh yes, you WILL wear it. You will wear it tomorrow and we’ll take your picture for Grandma.”

“I’m NOT wearing this to school, Mom! No way!”

The next morning, I trudged slowly, miserably to school in the hideous daisy outfit, socks and all, while Mom watched from the front steps with her arms crossed over her chest. She’d checked my bookbag to be sure I hadn’t snuck a change of clothes in there.

People could probably see me coming for miles, wondering what this unearthly glowing object could be. I kind of hoped I would get run over on the way to school, or that I would magically come down with flu, but my mother would still make me wear this so I might as well get it over with.

The snickering began as soon as I stepped into my fifth-grade classroom. The girls took a quick look at me, looked at each other, and erupted with uncontrollable giggles. The boys just stared, not even bothering to look away.

No one wants to be stared at in this way.

The cutest guy in my class, Allen, finally said, “What in the heck are you wearing?”

Why, oh why wouldn’t the floor just open up and swallow me? I couldn’t even think of a reply.

All day, when I passed by classmates, I heard little comments: “Here comes the flower girl” and “Has she figured out who loves her or loves her not yet?”

As I was getting up to sharpen my pencil, my left sock snagged on the side of the desk. When I snatched my leg free, a long thread pulled out.

Now I had to walk around with a long string dangling from my “He loves me” sock.

I could not endure any more. At lunch, I just wanted to sit by myself in peace. But when my classmate Vincent realized that the cafeteria was serving fried fish, he came around with his brown paper lunch bag, asking the rest of us if wanted ours. Vincent always did this on fish days; he took the greasy bag of collected fish home to his family.

He plopped down on the seat beside me. “Hey, you want your fish?”

“You can have it, Vincent. I’m not hungry.”

“Thanks! What’s the matter with you?”

“Geez, Vincent, isn’t it obvious? You can see what I look like today. Haven’t you heard what everyone’s been saying?”

“Not really,” said Vincent.

He did look a little confused.

“This is the most embarrassing day I’ve ever had! My grandmother sent me this ridiculous daisy outfit for my birthday. I can’t believe she thought this would be a good present. I hate it! I feel stupid.”

Vincent shrugged. “It ain’t that bad.” He took the fish off of my tray and put it in his grease-stained bag. “At least you got a grandma who loves you.”

I stared at him. He was smiling and happy, even though he wore the same brown shirt to school almost every day. He never seemed embarrassed. I thought about his family who’d be eating the unwanted lunches of fifth-graders for supper that night. Funny Vincent, the class clown. He made everybody laugh, including the teachers, even when they tried not to. It all came together in my mind, just then, how Vincent didn’t dwell on himself; he thought about others and tried to make them happy.

That’s what my grandma always did, too.  

Tears of shame stung my eyes.

“You’re right, Vincent. She does love me. She’s the best.”

“Anyway, happy birthday!”

None of my other classmates had said that to me.

I had an inspiration:

“Hey, Vincent, do you want half of my cinnamon roll?”

“You kidding me?”

And we sat sharing my cinnamon roll until lunchtime was over, with Vincent making Mmmm! Mmmmm! sounds and me swinging my leg, long string swaying gracefully through the air, daisy and all.

Photo: Macro daisy. Brandon Martin-Anderson. CC BY-SA

A Jesus moment

Up until COVID-19 closed the churches, my choir and my son’s choir were practicing for a combined Easter cantata, one of his childhood favorites. His idea: “Your choir knows this, mine knows this, so we can just do it together at each church. I’ll lead the music. You can take care of the drama, Mom.”

Thanks, Boy.

But I got rolling.

We were one week away from the performance when everything shut down. Will we be able have the Easter production later this year? We don’t know … which reminds me of a complication the first time we attempted this drama about Jesus …

With no Jesus …

*******

Once upon a time, I started college to major in theater arts. I’d performed in plays all through high school, which lead to community theater. That’s where I met my husband. Never got that degree … a story for another day. My husband went into the ministry two years after we married and my love of theater took the form of small church productions.

Which grew bigger.

And bigger.

One year our choir director asked if I would help her look for an Easter cantata with a play: “People don’t come for plain old cantatas anymore. They’ll come if we add a play …”

We found a cantata we loved, but … only narration, no acting.

“Can’t you write one?” the choir director wanted to know. “I’ll handle the choir if you’ll handle the play.”

I opened my mouth to say No! but before I could speak it, something tugged on the sleeve of my mind (that is not a mixed metaphor, it’s what happened) and so I said, in a teeny-tiny voice:

“I’ll try…”

I listened to the songs over and over; they happen to form an ideal sequence for the last week of Jesus’ life. As I listened, I wrote the scenes as they materialized in my head … no speaking parts, just stage directions based on lyrics while the choir sings. Beginning with the busy streets of Jerusalem, people greeting one another, lining up with palm branches as Jesus walks through—Hosanna! Hosanna!—moving into the Last Supper with the twelve disciples, the garden scene, the betrayal, the arrest, the Roman soldiers gambling for the robe, the mourning of Mary the mother at the Cross with John, the distress of Mary Magdalene, the tomb, the Resurrection, Jesus reuniting with his disciples, even a scene of martyrs for the faith and a grand finale …

I figured out set pieces that would have to be made. Props that would have to be acquired. I came up with a head count of people—twenty-five!— seventeen of them men—Why were there SO MANY disciples?!—and asked if any ladies at church would be willing to make all these Bible costumes. Six of them took it on. Everything fell into place. I cast the parts …

All except for Jesus.

Which is kind of a problem.

My main issue: I didn’t want a fake-looking Jesus. If we had to put a wig and beard on some guy … it was going to detract. It would cheapen the whole thing. And: Who was going to be comfortable playing this part, anyway? In such a case, how does a church go about finding a Jesus? A believable one? It’s not like you can put an ad in the paper: Wanted: Church seeks Jesus … people would read that and purse their lips: “Tsk tsk, you church people, you oughta have Jesus already …”

I grew more nervous with each passing day: We still don’t have a Jesus

And then one Sunday, from my vantage point in the choir loft, I spotted visitors out in the congregation. A woman and a man.

A man with long brown hair.

And a beard.

He was kind of olive-skinned …

When they came back the following week, I could have sworn he was wearing sandals.

I said to my husband: “Give me that guy’s number off the visitor’s card.”

“He’s only been here twice! How are you going to just call him up and ask him to be Jesus in this thing!”

“I am just going to do it. The worst he can say is No.”

And so I called. The conversation went something like this:

“Um, hi, I know you don’t know me, I’m the pastor’s wife at the church, we’re glad you and your wife have been joining us recently … welcome, welcome … I have sort of a question for you … see, we’re preparing to do an Easter production and it’s all set except for one little thing … we, um, don’t have a Jesus … when I saw you last Sunday, I knew you’d be perfect … was wondering if you would help us … there’s no lines to learn or anything, it’s really easy and fun, just reenacting the last week of Jesus’ life while the choir sings …”

He chuckled. “Okay, sure.”

“Wha— I’m sorry … did you say yes?”

“Yes, I’ll do it.”

“You—you will? Wow! Thank you! That’s awesome! I think you’ll enjoy it. I mean, we wouldn’t, like, really hang you on a cross or anything …” <relieved laugh>

Another warm chuckle: “It would be okay if you did. I’m full of nail holes anyway—I’m a carpenter.”

Carry on

The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows where …

—”He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” B. Scott/B. Russell

Dear Son,

I think this may be my favorite picture of you. For several reasons. I like to see you in such a peaceful setting, walking that country path beside lush green fields, under the blue summer sky. You were walking with a friend, so you weren’t alone. You told me that her puppy followed youI still can’t believe that’s just a puppy; he’s massive!and he got tired, so you picked him up and carried him the rest of the way.

That is why I love the photo so much. It captures the essence of who you are.

Quietly bearing your burdens, no matter how heavy. There have been many in these past few years. Ever how burdened you were, ever how twisted and dark the path became, you kept on walking.

No one knows better than I what a long, long road it’s been, from the day you started college to now. Graduation being canceled, just when the end is in sight, feels like a coup de grâce.

It all started off on such a high note, didn’t it? Getting that phone call two weeks after you finished high school, a church looking for a music director. Your childhood dream. I still have your kindergarten “All About Me” book with the prompt ‘When I grow up, I want to be’ … where you drew yourself as a choir director in crayon. You attained it at seventeen, before your formal training even began.

That summer was glorious and brief.

That fall you started college and almost instantly the shadows came.

Your father‘s diagnosis of ocular melanoma, the loss of his eye, the weeks waiting for pathology to reveal no cancer cells had spread. Despite your new job and your courseload, you stepped up to help him readjust.

On the heels of his healing came Ma-Ma’s stroke, the beginning of her slow decline over the rest of that year. She knew how much you loved her. She treasured every minute with you; she savored every long phone call you made from the time you were little. She couldn’t keep from crying whenever you played the piano and sangremember how she organized for you to come play at her nursing home, near the last? I will never forget her wet, shining face. She was inordinately proud of you. She loved you fiercely.

How grateful I am that you and your dad were there, holding her hands, when she died.

And so you bore her loss on top of an unexpected one.

I know you’re marking the date. Three years ago today, the accident that took your friend. Your little childhood playmate who sang with you in preschool choir, your high school band mate, the organizer of the Sunday-nights-at-Bojangles gatherings. As I write, I hear her pure, high voice echoing in the church to your harmony and piano accompaniment. Her going left all of us reeling—a swift, severe, deep cut to the heart, a knotty scar we’ll bear forever. And yet you play on. You still sing. You stand by her family in their remembrances, your presence the only comfort that’s in your power to give. She would be graduating, too, this spring … but no one is graduating this spring …

It’s one of the hardest things in life, losing people, and not only to death. People will come and go because they choose to, no matter how much we wish they’d stay. You endured this, too, with uncommon grace, never lashing out, just walking on with your invisible pain. I knew it was there. I could feel the weight of it.

Seems we were due a respite, and if there was one, it was those few weeks of vacation last summer before your dad’s heart attack. You and I had just come home from walking when the officer arrived in the driveway to say your dad’s truck had run off the road and hit a tree, it might have been a medical event, maybe a seizure, no, he wasn’t sure what condition your father was in, EMS was working on him when he left, and did we have a way to get to the hospital? With your big brother too distraught to drive, you did it. Calmly, carefully, you drove us to the emergency room where the nurse met us at the door. You were beside me when she ushered us to the little room where the doctor met us to say your father had been resuscitated and was being prepped for heart surgery.

You were there with me that first night of sleeping on the waiting room chairs, not knowing what tomorrow would bring. You were there with me throughout that long week of his hospitalization, until your dad came home, battered, bruised, trying to recover his memory. You got his prescriptions so that I wouldn’t have to leave him … and when I took him back to the ER with chest pains a couple of weeks later, you met us there. Another hospital stay. Another heart surgery. Two more weeks of sleeping in the hospital. Do you remember the surreality of it all? How we felt like it would never end, like we were caught in the web of the wrong story, a movie with a terrible plot twist we didn’t see coming? How could this be?

Somehow you managed to keep your studies up, only leaving for your classes and your church services, making the music and leading the worship for others.

So here we are, at last. Your dad, recovered and restored … able to drive me back and forth to work with my broken foot … until this tiny pathogen bent on world domination closed the schools. Here you are, completing your final weeks of college online, being denied the walk to receive the reward of all your labors … it is unthinkable.

I think about the whole of your young adult life. How your road has been so long, with many a winding turn, through many a dark shadow. I watched how you went around, through, or over every obstacle on this arduous journey. You’ve endured what might have caused others to quit college, others who might have actually enjoyed their studies; I know you never loved the “game” of school and that for you it’s been a test of endurance, in itself. But the end is in sight—despite a pandemic. A plague. Who’d have ever believed, in our time …

You have come this far, bearing every heavy load. You’ve carried on. Often you, the baby of the family, carried the rest of us. You’ve fought internal battles for your own wellness more than anyone else knows; in this spiritual war, you’ve earned a Medal of Honor for exceptional valor. I know it and God knows it, Son. I stand in awe of your heart, full of love and mercy, so self-sacrificial, so willing to lighten others’ burdens as your own grew heavier. Like carrying a giant puppy during a long walk on a hot summer’s day, because it got tired.

That is why I love this picture. It is your story.

There are no words for how much I love you.

Keep walking, Son. Carry on. You are strong.

I am stronger because of you. Soon my foot will be well enough to walk with you again.

When we come through this present ominous shadow, college will be over, we’ll find ourselves in a whole new chapter in our lives, and we’ll celebrate all of it. Just a little farther alongI know that in your quiet way, you’ve already made your peace with it. I can almost hear you singing:

Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right
...

All my love, my always-little darling,

Your forever proud, grateful Mom

Self-care offering

During the month-long Slice of Life Story Challenge on Two Writing Teachers, fellow Slicer Leigh Anne Eck decided to host a virtual Spring Fling party. The price of attending: Three of your best self-care tips for enduring this time of sequestering (my word of choice, as I am already weary of “social distance” and “quarantine,” even “shelter in place”… more on that later …).

Thanks for the invitation, Leigh Anne! Here’s my tripartite offering.

Self-Care Tip One: Remember, revisit, relive.

Think back on the happy moments of your life. Maybe in childhood. Maybe connected to a place you love. A person you love. The moments don’t have to be major ones like weddings and personal victories; they can be simple, really happy moments. A time you felt safe, secure, at peace; it may be laced with laughter or wonder. Then go back. Recall the setting—the lighting, the season, details of the surroundings, smells, objects, who was there, motions, words, thoughts, and why you felt happy. If you stay there a while, the scene will fade in clearer and clearer. Write it. Write your memory. Bring it out of the attic of your mind. Dust it off. Let it breathe. Write it in present tense, because you are actually there, living it; the moment is now.

Self-Care Tip Two: Write a letter of gratitude.

Think of someone who’s been a guiding influence or great inspiration in your life. Maybe someone who believed in you when you needed it most, or someone who’s encouraged you. Write a letter to this person to say “thank you” for impacting your life for the better. It could be a person who’s been part of your life for a long time, or one who appeared for a short but important while. Tell this person why you’re so grateful for what he or she has given you. Then … call this person and read the letter. Or send it in written form. And, if your person should happen not to be living now: Light a candle this evening and read your letter aloud. Or find a favorite place outside to read your letter aloud; maybe take a gratitude walk at your favorite time of day and read it aloud.

Variation: This could even be a letter to a favorite pet. Or to God.

Self-Care Tip Three: Abide.

I can’t take long walks at present because of a broken foot, but when it’s healed, I’ll resume walking around the churchyard with my youngest son. Many times we talked and I got to hear the innermost workings of his mind and heart. Other times we walked in silence, and I absorbed the images around me. The gardenias budding and the waft of their sweet perfume (impressions come with images). The sparkle of quartz in the little rocks scattered along the pavement, the tiny wild violet growing in a crack. The long limbs of the weeping willow, whispering and dancing in the breeze, the setting sun turning the white steeple to fiery rose-gold … you get the picture.

Just walk. Abide in nature, in silence. Take a notebook to capture what it shows you. Write what you see. These are abiding images. Listen to their whisperings, stirrings, songs. Write (and sketch or photograph) what comes to you, and abide.

Bonus Hostess Gift: Leigh Anne, I’d have brought the precious request of your heart—toilet paper—but as you know, alas, “there’s not a square to spare.” Instead I bring the board games of my childhood: Parcheesi, Monopoly, Life, Chinese Checkers, Backgammon/Acey-deucey, as well as Yahtzee and jacks … jacks! Do kids know what jacks are anymore? Give me a while and I’ll remember all those cool tricks I once knew…

Enjoy this rare time with your families, my friends.

Take good care.

Read like a hero

The coming of spring at my school means it’s time for Literacy Lunch, an annual event where families are invited to take part in literacy-related activities in class followed by lunch in the cafeteria with their children. It’s one of our best-attended events. We do it over three days; parents with multiple children typically come on all three. The comment they make most often: “Thank you so much for this time at school with my child.”

It won’t happen this school year.

Our theme was to be Read Like a Hero! Our committee, entitled Reading Incentive People, otherwise known as the RIP, brainstormed and came up with suggestions to use with families. Note the emphasis on writing to be read aloud and art, which can also be “read”:

The “hero in me” digital word cloud (student photo with digital word cloud of student’s character traits)

Any reading/writing about community heroes OR superheroes

-“What makes a hero” activities, such as artistic representations of adjectives that describe a hero, with discussion

Character development (create a hero; use heart maps? ) Note: I’ve done this when teaching fantasy writing—we used heart maps to create villains!

Research and present living/historical heroes (tie to social justice?) Consider having kids present as a wax museum! Note: We’ve done a wax museum before, with students holding a “button” on one hand for families to press and hear them read as their character, in costume. EVERYONE loved this.

With heroes OR superheroes: Consider comic strips, saving the world, or any activity incorporating beginning, middle, and end

Onomatopoeia art/action word art for heroes/superheroes

Handprint heroes, real or superhero, with written stories to be read aloud

Create masks representing heroes, with corresponding poetry, story, or play writing, to be read/performed

Create action figures, with story writing; what about a short action film?

Opinion writing about the superpower students would want and why, to be read aloud

Favorite hero/superhero costumes welcome, so students can truly “read like heroes”

THE POINT: Creatively celebrating the joy of reading and the value of it—hence, being a reading hero.

I share this now for several reasons.

First being that our theme was set in motion before COVID-19 hit; we’d be gearing up for it at school now.

Secondly: I wonder if choices of heroes would be different, if kids and families would now choose to research, represent, or write and read about doctors, nurses, government officials (Andrew Cuomo, anyone? And I’m not even in New York!) How about those who are providing childcare for medical professionals and food to those in need? Maybe strangers who share their stash of toilet paper? People making and distributing hand sanitizer for free? The concept of hero, in just a few weeks’ time, is suddenly redefined.

And as for comic strips … how many might feature a specially-created superhero to defeat the monster COVID-19, also known as CoronaVirus? How many fictional doctors or kids in a lab might create an antidote?

Imagine a student creating and reading that aloud.

One day, my school will hold our Read Like a Hero event on campus—I already have the shirt (the lead photo). I am wearing it as I write this. One day, we’ll all enjoy gathering to celebrate literacy, learning, and lunch together—when we’ve defeated the tiny viral archenemy currently terrorizing us.

Until then … here’s to reading and being the hero of living one day at time.

A hero is someone who, in spite of weakness, doubt, or not always knowing the answers, goes ahead and overcomes anyway.

—Christopher Reeve

Child’s play

My granddaughter, age four, has a touch of cold. She told her dad (my son): “I think I have a little bit of coronavirus.” Yesterday she told the family that that her new Barbie bakery had to close down because “people in her town got coronavirus.”

Her understanding of such stark realities pierces my heart. Her comments also take me back to something I learned in my final high school English class, where I sat horror-struck, riveted, as my teacher painted a verbal image of London in the bubonic plague (which also originated in China):

This was the second and worst wave … people were superstitious about a catastrophic event occuring in 1666, with the Biblical symbolism of three sixes together, but the plague struck the year before, 1665 … spread by fleas on black rats … First you must understand the condition of London at the time. The characteristic fog was mingled with black smoke from factories and the coal-fires of a terribly overcrowded city. There was no sanitation; people dumped their waste from windows—that’s where the phrase “Gardy-loo!” originated, from the French “garde a l’eau!”—”watch out for the water!” It’s what people shouted to warn those walking on the street below, so they could jump out of the way when the buckets and chamber pots were dumped. Raw sewage ran in the streets … human and animal … just imagine what was on people’s shoes, on the hems of ladies’ long dresses … and during the plague, bodies also lay in the streets, where people fell dead… this sparked the children to invent a new game: Ring-Around-the-Rosie …

—What?

Ring-Around-the Rosie? It’s a silly, giddy game. How many times had I played it as a child, with neighborhood kids or schoolmates, trying to pull each other around the circle of our joined hands faster and faster, until we deliberately made ourselves fall?

“Ring-Around-the-Rosie” was originally “Ring a ring of roses,” funeral wreaths for the dead. “Pocket full of posie” was a reference to the nosegays people carried when they had to walk in the streets—flowers held to the nose to counteract the stench, or a handkerchief doused with cologne, if they were wealthy enough to have it. “Ashes, ashes”—at the time, it was “rashes, rashes,” indicating the discoloration of the skin from bursting lymph nodes, or “buboes,” hence the name “bubonic plague.” And “we all fall down” … that’s self-explanatory. It’s what the children saw…

That’s an indelible image: Children joining hands in the streets, chanting, whirling around faster and faster— laughing—against that ghastly backdrop. It’s how they interpreted and internalized events, how they coped with their world—through play.

The game remains with us centuries afterward. In our time, it’s indicative of the carefree joy of childhood; the darkness is long forgotten.

That’s what play does: defeats the demons, diminishes fear, turns the dark into light. It’s the way children communicate their learning about the world. It’s release, acceptance, solace, safety. It’s the bright, creationary force in a child’s domain: play is within the child’s control when nothing else is.

Its value, inestimable.

Barbie’s bakery will re-open, I am sure, for our businesses will. Our times are grim at present, but we know what causes disease to spread. We understand (most of us, let’s hope) that for now we have to keep our physical distance, for our greater good. We know the value of hygiene. We shall have to join hands—figuratively— in many different ways; we shall be pulled, and strained, but as long as we don’t succumb to panic, and if we submit to wisdom, we shall not fall.

And our children?

They’ll keep on playing.

And watching.

“We should respect with humility the bright holiness of childhood.”

-Janusz Korczak

Photo: “Circle of Peace” bronze sculpture by Gary Lee Price (children playing Ring-Around-the-Rosie). Blake Bolinger. CC BY.

I will love you forever

Can I play it?

Sure. This was my Grandma’s piano. She let me play it when I was little like you.

I’m not little. I’m a BIG girl.

Oh, sorry. I meant when I was a big girl like you.

How do I find the white part?

The keys? You just open the lid. Here, I’ll help you.

I am going to play a song for you.

Really? For me? What’s it called?

It is called “I Love Your Heart.” [playing] [Ballad feel] [singing] I love your heart, your heart. I love and love and love your hearrrrt …

That is so beautiful. [sniffling]

I have another song.

You do?

[nodding] Yes. This one is “I Will Love You Forever.” [Slowly, freely] I. Will. Love. You. Foreverrrrr…

[instrumental] [rocking small body in time]

{I love YOUR little heart, and …}

Hey Franna. [still playing and rocking]

Yes?

Can I live here with you until I am a hundred and nine? [pause]

Oh, I … um, that’s a really long time.

Is it forever?

Well, no. Forever is longer.

[nodding] [playing] [a tempo] I. Will. Love. You. Foreverrr …

{I know one thing, Little Big Girl}

{I.Will. Love. You. Forever.}