The journey

I write this final post of The Slice of Life Story Challenge from the passenger seat of my son’s car as we return home from an impromptu vacation.

This weekend’s weather forecast: Sunny skies, upper seventies—how could spring fever NOT strike?

“Let’s go to Busch Gardens,” said my son. “It would be good to get away and just have fun for a while.”

He didn’t have to say it twice.

Off to Williamsburg we went.

The area is home to me. I grew up going to this park, am still a diehard roller coaster fan. I expected just to have fun spending time with my youngest in the glorious, inviting weather.

—While trying to think of TWO MORE POSTS to write in this thirty-one day challenge.

We arrived Friday evening and decided to walk colonial Williamsburg in the dark. Mostly because we never have before, so why not?

Naturally one thinks of ghosts. In fact, several ghost tours seemed to be in progress. Guides carried lanterns, told stories in hushed tones to huddled groups of tourists. Once or twice, as my son and I passed the little closed shops with their wordless, pictorial trade signs hanging out front, or little wooden gates slightly ajar, with paths leading through herb and flower gardens, or caught a pretty strong whiff of horse and stable in spots, it seemed we were eerily straddling Time. One foot in Now, the other in centuries past. A shivery, delicious feeling.

And those lanterns carried by the guides—Reminds me of Pa-Pa’s lantern. I just wrote about it.

Eventually my boy and I checked into our hotel room where the decor was, of course, in keeping with the colonial theme. On the wall by my bed hung this picture:

—The Continental Army! I have just been writing about them.

I felt a slight prickling on the back of my neck, but I didn’t pay it much mind. I crawled into the high colonial bed and typed the whole of yesterday’s post—on memory and being present in now and writing and my father—on my phone, before falling fast asleep.

I woke this morning to a day tailor-made for adventure, exploring, celebrating. As beautiful as a day can get. My son and I made our roller coaster circuit at the park, where flowers were riotous beds of color by the walkways and the sweet fragrance of fresh mulch stirred in me, as always, some nameless desire. I do not know what or why. Something so organic, clean, nurturing . . . .

My son asked at lunch: “What are you going to write after this March post challenge is over?”

I told him my ideas, many ideas. He listened with rapt attention.

“Do it, Mom. Do all of it.”

We finished our lunch, began another round of rides, when I caught sight of this:

“I JUST WROTE ABOUT SEEING AN EAGLE!” I exclaimed.

Passersby looked at me oddly.

My son laughed. “I know. The one by the road that flew away before you could get a picture. Well—now you can.”

There’s something in all this, I think, as I get my eagle photo. I don’t know what, but something.

We leave the park with one last stop to make.

My son wants to visit his grandparents’ graves.

Both sides are buried in the same veterans’ cemetery. We spend a few moments at each.

The last, my father.

Wrote about you last night, Daddy. Remember when I broke my arm in fourth grade and you brought my old doll to the orthopedist’s office? I could see it all like it just happened yesterday.

It occurs to me then that I’ve also just written about my house finches returning, generation after generation, to build their nest again on my front door wreath, a post I called “The Homecoming.” Like the finches, the next generation and I have just returned to the place where those before us carved out and sustained life. Where they now rest from all their labors.

—The baby finches, I should add, that my son and I named Brian, Dennis, and Carl after the Beach Boys, my musical son’s current passion. On this trip we’ve listened to their songs all the way up and all the way back, and as I write these very words, what should be playing in the background but “Sloop John B”:

Let me go home, let me go home
I want to go home, let me go home

“You know,” I say to my son, as daylight fades into night with just a few more miles until we really are at home, “this was a great tripI am almost finished with the last post and can’t help thinking how these two days were like some weird recap of all I’ve written this month.  Almost like that old, old, TV show, This Is Your Life—except that it would be called This Is Your Writing Life.” 

“That’s how life is, Mom. So weird, sometimes.”

“Well, that’s basically why I write in the first place. To interpret life.”

I think for a moment, then add: “And because I am deeply grateful for it.”

—We are home. I need to check on Brian, Dennis, and Carl before going to bed:

—All snug. Goodnight, little songbirds. 

They will be here so short a time; soon they’ll fly—OH!

I failed to mention that I got a “Happy Blog Anniversary” notification from WordPress that thanked me for “flying with them.”

Lit Bits and Pieces is three years old.

Three happens to be a number signifying completeness. Interesting to contemplate as the daily Slice of Life Story Challenge ends with this post.

I think of my fellow Slice bloggers, friends, fellow sojourners, how we all gathered at Two Writing Teachers for just a little while each day.

Now we fly on.

But that’s only the end of this journey. The end of a thing is only the beginning of another.

—Write on, writers. Keep tasting life, exploring the meaning of your days.

Keep spreading your wings.

Fly high.

And far.

Revolutionary fiction, revisited

Storming of Redoubt No.10

Yorktown, Virginia: Storming of Redoubt No. 10. Eugène Lami. 

I can taste the brine of the river, mingled with gunpowder and wood smoke from the Redcoat campfires . . . I know this shoreline, could walk it in my sleep, but it’s so changed, now, with the batteries, the cannons, the trenches. I can’t carry a lantern for fear of Redcoats seeing me. All I have in my hands is the sack for filling with potatoes. I slide along the ground in the dark, nearing the bank where the cave is set in the earth just below . . . 

The students are gathered on the carpet near my feet, looking at my writing on the screen of an interactive whiteboard, their own papers lying in front of them. They’re considering revisions to the opening scene I wrote while they watched.

To be honest, I am having to review a lot about the last days of the Revolutionary War in order to write this little bit of fiction. I’m tasked with helping the kids write their own story set during the Revolution, as a means of making the history “come alive” for them. As I re-read my writing aloud to the class, I’m already not happy with the reason my main character, Hannah, is going for the evacuated townspeople’s potatoes stored in the cave. Her family is in hiding during the British occupation of Yorktown, they’re nursing three wounded Patriot soldiers, they’re running out of food.

Maybe I should add that Hannah’s mother needs the potatoes to make a poultice for one of those wounded solders. Yeah, that would be even better . . . .

I explain that the next scene I want to write is Hannah getting in the cave, hearing someone come, hiding in the potatoes, overhearing Cornwallis telling his next-in-command that they will escape George Washington’s troops via the river. She will have to figure out how to get word to the Continental Army. Or to the French Army . . .

A boy raises his hand: “I have an idea for your story.”

“Great!” I say. “Let’s hear it!”

“You could have Hannah get back to her family and her friends in hiding and the older boys could disguise themselves as British soldiers to get through their lines.”

“That’s an awesome suggestion, ” I say. “I just might use it! Here’s the thing, everyone: for everything your characters decide to do, there must be a clear, believable reason. It has to make sense in context of the story.”

It is now time to hear their ideas, as they begin to write their own stories.

A few are willing to share with the whole group:

A girl’s brother is supposed to join the Continental Army but he’s afraid and runs away; she decides to dress as a boy and takes his place in battle.

As a Patriot family leaves town, outrunning the British Army, they find a British baby separated from its mother. The mother comes looking for it —”So,” I say, as yet a little unclear on how such a baby (maybe from a Loyalist family?) should be there, lost—”you know they’re on opposite sides, right? Would either take time to politely give a baby back to the enemy?”

—Emphatic nodding of heads; it’s the baby’s mother . . . .

I am picking up on a couple of developing patterns here. One: These fourth-graders are writing from the perspective of main characters who are children. Heroic, rather resourceful children. Well, that’s what I am modeling for them. And, perhaps more importantly: The adults in these stories seem to make remarkably empathetic, kind choices.

Despite a revolution, a war.

Maybe those were more civilized times? When warfare was conducted with etiquette?

Then a girl says that her main characters are a brother and sister whose dad is off fighting under Washington and whose mom is thrown in prison on suspicion of witchcraft. Then the British Army burns their town; the children have to figure out how to stay on the run and survive . . . .

—Never mind about ‘more civilized times.’

As she speaks, I can’t help mulling the true atrocities of war. How Cornwallis’ desperate plan to escape with his troops by river included leaving their injured behind. How deserters told the allied French and American armies that, to preserve food, the British army slaughtered their horses and threw the bodies on the beach.

I shudder at the inhumanity of man, then my mind suddenly reels from the image of dead horses lying on that colonial shoreline to one of greater horror, schoolchildren in America today, lying slain . . . less than 250 years later, THIS is what we’ve become?

“Stop!” I say.

The class freezes. The little writers look at me, quizzically.

“Sorry.” I wonder if they notice the tremor in my voice. “We’re writing fiction, of course, but I just need to know one thing: Are the children are going to be all right?”

—Or what’s a country for?

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis. John Trumbull.

 

The prelude to this post: Revolutionary fiction

Revolutionary fiction

Cornwallis' Cave

Cornwallis’ Cave, Yorktown, VA

The class had been studying the American Revolution.

Their teacher wanted them to have a sense of being there. What better way than writing historical fiction?

—Would I come model for them, help them get started?

—Are you KIDDING?

Let the revolutionary zeitgeist begin!

I set the fourth-graders to researching daily life, clothing, furniture, chores during colonial times. The story cannot come to life without some period details.

Then we worked on understanding that big ideas of the historical event don’t change, although we can make up some characters who live through it.

—A hand, waving in the air: “Like the Titanic sinking was a real historical event. The captain and crew were real people. Jack and Rose in the movie were not.”

—Other child, aghast: “They weren’t real? I thought they were!”

—Me: “Um, no, they’re fictional. Made-up characters.”

Ahem. 

Back to the Revolution.

We move on to plot . . . who’s this story about, what does this character want to accomplish, and what’s getting in the way or putting the character in danger?

Then setting . . .

I did my own background research and decided to let the class choose which of two stories for me to write as a model.

“Okay, I’ve given this some thought, ” I tell them as they gather on the carpet at my feet. “A town right here in North Carolina was one of the first in the colonies to oppose the Stamp Act.  The British burned the town and it was never rebuilt. What if my main character was a child who had to leave quickly with the family? What if they saw their home destroyed?”

“Ooooo,” murmur the children, wide-eyed. A couple of them nod their heads. “That’s a good story. It’s sad. It could have happened.”

“Yes, and as a writer that’s part of your job, to make the readers feel like they are there, experiencing everything the characters do. This story probably will be sad. And frightening. Or, here’s your other choice. I actually grew up near Yorktown, Virginia, where Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington, ending the war. I visited Cornwallis’ cave countless times. Legend says Cornwallis hid from Washington’s troops in the cave but that’s not likely. What is true is that the cave was used to store potatoes! So, what if I have a character, a colonial child, who, for some reason, has to go into that cave for the potatoes when Lord Cornwallis comes to have a quick, private conversation with his next-in-command? What if the child hides, hears Cornwallis’ escape plan, waits until Cornwallis leaves, and somehow gets the message to General Washington—which is how the British get captured, and which forces the surrender?”

“Yes! Yes!” All the kids are nodding, bouncing on the floor. “The cave story! Write the cave story! The boy will be a the hero of the Revolution!”

—”Why can’t it be a girl?” asks a girl.

All faces turn her way.

In silence.

Well, women helped in the war effort . . . some were even spies . . . why CAN’T it be a girl?

“What if,” I say slowly, my gray matter spinning hard, “what if a boy was sent for those potatoes . . . by someone, we can figure that out later . . . and he just can’t do it, he’s too frightened? Or sick—or injured? What if he has a friend, a girl, who has to help him by doing it in his place, who hides in the cave, overhears Cornwallis’ secret escape plan, and she gets the message to George Washington?”

Heads are tilted, fingers cupping chins, eyes shining. They all look like future history professors.

Except for the girl who made the suggestion. She glows like Victory herself.

—Revolutionary, indeed.

*******

A couple of other scenarios the class discussed for their own writing:

What if colonists were hunting in the forest and found a wounded British soldier? What would they do?

What if British soldiers were marching through a field or by the shore when they find an colonial baby, all alone? What would they do?

—”Wait a second,” interrupts a boy. “How would they KNOW this is a colonist’s baby?”

“That is a great question,” I smile. “You are the writer. That is for you to figure out.”

A rising tide lifts all boats

Boats

Fishing boats. karol m. CC BY

At a recent team meeting of K-12 cross-curricular educators dedicated to improving writing instruction, we discussed the Calkins and Ehrenworth article entitled “Growing Extraordinary Writers: Leadership Decisions to Raise the Level of Writing Across a School and a District” (The Reading Teacher, Vol. 70, No. 1, July/August 2016). While takeaways included the need for a shared vision of good writing and good writing instruction, as well as a need for shared expectations and ways to track growth – the reason for the formation of this team – what struck me most was this line on the transformative power of professional development: “It should be focused on strengthening teachers’ methods and spirits.”

Yes. Spirits must rise, I thought. Before we can raise the level of writing, before we can raise the students at all,  we must first raise each others’ spirits. 

The truth is that professional development is so seldom inspirational. For the last year, when I planned professional development in writing for teachers, my driving question was, How can I inspire them? How can they tap into the wellspring of their own power, their own voices, all that matters to them?

When I spoke on this at the meeting, a colleague chimed in: “We have to be the rising tide. If we rise, we’ll raise others with us.”

“Yes – a rising tide lifts all boats,” I responded, recalling those words associated with John F. Kennedy.

I grew up in the Tidewater region of Virginia. I have been on the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel when the tide was high, in a storm; as I descended into the tunnel, waves crashed above the entrance and spilled over the car. A layer of salt remained on the windshield when it dried. I’ve seen boats grounded when the tide was low, making the would-be sailors push and pull that much harder to get them afloat. I’ve walked floating docks of marinas on sunny days, feeling the sway of the boards under my feet as boats rocked with the incoming tide, the metal of their moorings and buoys clanking softly, rhythmically, as if coming to life with with the rising flow.

When the tide rises, it lifts everything with it – everything rises.

When our spirits rise, we lift others around us – everyone rises.

That’s so needed in education today.

It’s so needed everywhere.

The power lies within you. Tap into that inner wellspring; let it flow.

And rise.

Note: The one word I chose for for myself at the beginning of this year is Rise. If you’re interested, here’s my little poem: Rise.

slice-of-life_individual

A long time ago in a Galaxie far, far away

Galaxie

Truly wonderful the mind of a child is. – Yoda

A long time ago in a Galaxie far, far away . . .

A little girl clutches Mama Bear and Papa Bear. Baby Bear has accidentally been flushed down the toilet.  Clad in a mod red pantsuit instead of a long white dress, and with hair too short for cinnamon buns on the sides of her head, the little girl is nevertheless a princess of sorts, if not a rebel. Yet.

“Stand right there and smile,” says the little girl’s grandmother, who snaps a picture. The little girl really cannot not see the camera, as the sun is in her eyes. She smiles anyway.

Behind her stands the Galaxie  – a 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 that the little girl’s Granddaddy bought, used, for her Grandma. The exterior of the car is red. The interior is red, the fabric of the seats trimmed with silver cord.  The Galaxie doesn’t have power steering or air conditioning. In the summer its windows must stay rolled down if the people inside are to survive. Once it lost a hubcap and the girl’s Granddaddy had to run after it in the city streets.

Yet the Galaxie represents power, things far beyond the little girl. Ford Motor Company named it for the Space Race before the success of the United States over the Soviet Union, which came to pass in 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. The little girl has no memory of this event but likes watching Star Trek with her dad: “Beam me up, Scotty.” She sings The Jetsons theme song:  “His boy, Elroy . . . .” She loves the Jetsons’ dog, Astro. Space gets up close and personal in March of 1970, around the time this picture is taken. A total eclipse occurs in the southeastern United States. The little girl’s family and all the neighbors run out of their apartments in an excited frenzy to watch it. A hush, a stillness, falls over them as the bright day goes as dark as night. The sun disappears,  becoming a mere halo around the huge, black moon. 

“Don’t stare at it,” says Grandma, drawing the little girl close. “It will hurt your eyes.”

The little girl stares anyway, because it is so strange to see the sun go dark.

The world was changing fast. So was my universe. In the year following the eclipse, my grandfather retired. He’d been a shipbuilder since World War II. “We turned out ships in three months in during the war,” I recall him saying, “when it used to take a year.” The war had been over for twenty-five years and it was time to go home; my grandparents packed everything, loaded the Galaxie, and returned to the remote outskirts of Aurora, North Carolina – a tiny town named after the Roman goddess of the dawn. I thought at first it was named for Sleeping Beauty.

My summer voyages began. There on the old dirt roads where my dad ran and played as a child, I learned how to drive with that Galaxie. It was, after all, more indestructible than the Death Star. It was still running after the birth of my first child. My grandparents finally gave it away to the man who hauled trash off for them.

It’s probably running still, somewhere.

Which is more than can be said of our spacecraft.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

 

 

Crossing the bay

cape-charles-beach

Chesapeake Bay, Eastern Shore, Virginia. Ken LundCC BY-SA

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
   Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
   Turns again home.

-Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Crossing the Bar”

I walked the little beach many times in the five years I lived in Cape Charles. With the ebb and flow of the tide, tiny periwinkle snails bury themselves in the sand. Gulls hovering overhead cry in their piercing, lonely voices. Storms churn the Chesapeake Bay, stirring its hidden contents so that afterward, treasures can be found on the shore – sand dollars, whole and unharmed, prizes to a beachcomber. I collected many.

I was alone on the beach the day I saw the old train coming to the end of the line at the harbor. I’d never seen it come through – Cape Charles is a tiny railroad town that almost didn’t survive the loss of the industry.

Where’s that train going? I wondered. Has it gotten on the wrong track? There’s nowhere to go – nothing but the bay ahead of it. Will it turn around, somehow? Or back up? 

Is it going over the edge, into the water? 

The train kept rolling forward, slowing to a stop at last.

I relaxed.

And the train began to float away from the land, as if by magic, as if it were Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, sprouting a flotation device.

It’s on a barge!

I watched, marveling, as the train sailed out into the bay, a majestic, most rare sight. I imagined visiting fishermen looking up from their bait and tackle to gawk as the train drifted by their boats.

There was something poetic about it, both grand and poignant, filled with awe and tasting of sadness. The gulls cried; a salt-tinged breeze caressed my face. I watched as the train grew smaller and smaller on the bay, until I could see it no more, and turned again home.

slice-of-life_individual