Reflecting on wonder

“The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.” -Abraham Joshua Heschel
Epigraph in Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders
(Foer, Thuras, & Morton).

On the first week back to school after the holidays, I spent time covering classes and duties for colleagues who are out due to COVID protocols. I arrived on campus each day not knowing what I’d be called on to do. This has been the pattern for the whole school year thus far, in fact, and it may continue until June…

But I am not going to focus on the intensified daily juggling act.

I will concentrate on the unexpected moments of light…such as when a colleague told me that my iPhone could understand spoken Harry Potter spells.

This I had to see for myself.

Hey, Siri: Lumos...and my flashlight came on. (Lumos is the spell that makes wands and lamps light up in the books in and movies, for those who don’t know).

Hey, Siri: Nox…and my flashlight turned off.

Hey, Siri: Accio Twitter…and my Twitter app opened up in my phone.

Tell me this is not a great wonder, technology.

Furthermore, the knowledge came in handy when I filled in for quarantined teachers in upper grades. I demonstrated the “magic” and wowed the kids.

That’s the thing about wonders…you want to share them. Wonders are not meant to be contained. They are contagious. They are forever beckoning and burgeoning.

So maybe the magic of Siri understanding Harry Potter is a small thing.

Maybe a greater wonder is finding the right book to inspire a reluctant reader. This past week it was not Harry Potter but books about children with physical limitations and differences who face extreme challenges. Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. And, of course, Wonder by R.J. Palacio. They grip you from the start…

I pause to reflect here on all the wonder wrought by books in my own life. I feel the covers tingling with magic whenever I pick them up (maybe it’s just my anticipation).

Last week I watched the wonder on kids’ faces as they learned how a prism or raindrop separates light into colors. I watched in wonder as two students known for behavior issues stayed on task to complete their assignments when they were allowed to work together.

I thought, randomly, about the fireworks that went off in the distance on New Year’s Eve. My six-year-old granddaughter was spending the night. My husband and I allowed her to stay up. She heard the booming of the fireworks at midnight and wanted to see them. We went out on the back deck, but fog and trees obscured our view.

I’ve never gotten to see fireworks, said my granddaughter.

One day you will, I told her.

I like the sound of them. It makes me feel calm.

That filled me with wonder…I have never heard anyone express that about the sound of fireworks. Least of all a child.

Maybe the calmness has not so much to do with the sound but the place and the sense of safety…these are linked in their way to wonder. The unexpected, the new, a bit of uncertainty but also an embracing. The opening Heschel quote encapsulates it well: The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.

Like a bright, beckoning burst suddenly illuminating a moment, a mind, a spirit.

Do you remember spending last New Year’s Eve with us, too? my husband asked our granddaughter.

Oh yeah! Can I stay here next year, too? And the one after that?

Sure you can! You can stay every New Year’s Eve if you want.

Even when I am fifty-nine?

Yes, even when you are fifty-nine.

Wonders upon wonders await.

Of this, I am sure.

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge and the wondrous community of writers.

Snow magic

Holidays over
first day back to school
we heard it might snow
what we get
is gale force winds
diagonal rain
and utter darkness
(oh, those kids waiting at bus stops…)
which is why so many don’t come
there are just four kids in one room,
six in another,
and so on
not to mention that at home
the power went out
before I could get ready
hardly an enchanting winter morn
except for candles…

when I finally arrive at work
my family texts
it is pouring snow here,
pouring
but when I look through the windows
don’t see any of it
not any
just cold cold rain
collecting in huge puddles
on this dark dark day
until
I pass a teacher in the hallway
leaning out of the glass door,
scouring the iron-gray sky
are you looking for snow?
oh yes, if it starts,
I am bringing my class
out here in the hall
to read Snowmen at Night


just then, we see
the first flakes of white…

all over the building
children run to the windows
for every little bit of magic
they can find

or perhaps it’s more a matter
of letting the magic find you

or maybe even
a determination to
make the magic
yourself

for it is in yourself
just as it is
in every single
falling crystal

and most certainly
in books.

Detail of a magical mask design a colleague made and happened to give me today.
You will have caught the book connections in the first two photos; can you catch the last?

A bowl of snow

Deep in the night, it came.

I wake to the sound of it falling.

A faint, feathery swishing against the bedroom windowpanes. A silvery glow at the blinds, beckoning. I crawl out from under the warm covers to peer through.

It’s a different world. Softer. Purer. At peace in its perfect winter-white blanket, illuminated by the full moon. Big flakes descend to the ethereal stirring of wind chimes.

I imagine animals curled in their cozy dark burrows.

In the spirit of affinity, I return to mine.

I waited well into the morning before texting my son: Is she so excited?

His daughter, age five, has been longing for snow. Some winters pass without it here in central North Carolina.

He texted right back: She’s so wound up. We have already been out to play. We made snow cream. Put sprinkles on it and ate it for breakfast.

How awesome is that, I thought. She will remember it all of her life, this snow, getting to eat it for breakfast.

Magical moments. They will be stored away, deep in the hallowed halls of her mind.

I was just rereading The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. They explore moments we remember and revere the most. Some are tied to great emotion or to shared meaningful experiences. Others transcend “the normal course of events; they are literally extraordinary.”

The authors write: “The most precious moments are often the ones that cost the least.” They relate the story of a three-year-old who succumbed to a severe E. coli infection. They describe (brace yourself) her kidney failure, horrible pain, portions of her colon being removed twice, her heart failure and resuscitation; she desperately needed a kidney transplant and a compatible donor could not be found. At Halloween, her costume had to be laid on top of her because of all the tubes. She was still in the hospital as Christmas neared, and it began to snow:

For a child from Vermont, it was cruel, having to watch the snow through the windows. Wendy loved to make snowmen, to go sleigh riding. She hadn’t been outside for two months. Her lead nurse, Cori Fogarty, and and patient care associate Jessica Marsh hatched a plan. If Wendy couldn’t play in the snow, they would bring the snow to her. But it was more complicated than that. Because of Wendy’s heart condition, the staff was monitoring every milliliter of water that she consumed. So Jessica went and filled an emesis bucket with snow, weighed it, let it melt, and poured it into a graduated cylinder. Now they knew how to translate the weight of snow into its volume of water. So they went and filled the bucket with exactly the right amount of snow so that if Wendy ate it all — as three-year-olds are prone to do — she’d be just fine.

Can you see them, bringing the bowl of snow into the hospital room? Can you see that little girl’s expression when she saw it? Jessica Marsh said: “I have never seen such joy and pure innocence on a child’s face.” Wendy’s mother: “It was bliss, it was joy.” Many years later she would write: “It’s easy to forget the monotony of the endless days that stretched together during her recovery. But that one moment of brightness, that is one moment we will never forget.”*

Perhaps that is just the image we need right now, as COVID-19 drags on. A bowl of snow for a child…a bit of magic to escape the moment, maybe to carry us through.

As parents, as teachers, as writers, compassionate human beings, we have this power within us to imagine such moments, to make them happen. The most precious moments are the ones that cost the least…

Just so happens that as I write these words on this new, dark morning, flurries have started falling again.

Let us go and seek our bowl of snow. And where we might share it.

Maybe even for breakfast, with sprinkles.

*******

*Wendy’s story is from the chapter “Making Moments Matter” in The Power of Moments by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2017, 263-265). You might like to know that she did receive a transplant and went on to be an athlete.

Thanks to all at Two Writing Teachers for the power of your shared stories. Where there’s writing, there’s a way.

Life is what you bake it

“‎All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.”

-Henry Havelock Ellis

Today I share my golden shovel poem inspired by the Ellis quote, posted this week on Two Writing Teachers‘ Slice of Life Story Challenge along with these questions: What are the moments you’re holding onto? What are you letting go of today?

Here’s to the art of living, to holding on while letting go, to savoring moments spent with children, making every one count.

I hold to all
moments spent with children in the
holy art
of seeing the world with fresh eyes, of
spontaneous embracing, of living
each day in newness. I hold to freedom that lies
in forgiving, that paradoxical self-rising power in
letting go. I hold to a
continuous, necessary cobbling of fine
crystal moments, their pure sanguinity mingling
with, dulcifying, the blood-tart of
a sliced heart. Letting
go of despair, of my shortcomings, letting go
of yesterday, yet believing in tomorrow, letting go and
savoring today in a bluesy canton of confidence, holding
onto the children, always the children, just holding on.

My granddaughter loves to bake. I love symbolism. Here’s our flag cobbler. “Canton” in the poem is the term for the flag’s blue square. Strawberries, heart-shaped, represent love; blueberries, youthfulness and confidence in the future. Bake it well.

The future is calling. I’m listening.

*******

Thanks also to Margaret Simon for hosting Poetry Friday. Visit her blog, Reflections on the Teche, for more poems and magnificent quotes in response to “What is poetry?”

Remnants

Some time ago, I came upon a giant Ziploc bag filled with disposable cameras and rolls of film I’d gathered and promptly forgot about.

I really need to take these to be developed, I told myself.

And I set them aside.

And life kept happening.

And time went by.

Until I wasn’t even sure anymore how old the film was and who’d taken pictures of what.

Last summer I finally found a shop that still does same-day printing on site (do you know how hard that is to find now?). I took my film—thirteen rolls.

When I returned for the pictures, I learned that some of the film had nothing on it. The rolls hadn’t been used or they’d been exposed and the images were lost.

Many of the pictures that did come out were weirdly double-exposed. Scenes of my children when they were little, superimposed over each other, over other people.

Ghostly. Tricks of light, of time.

In the shadows, my grandmother sits with her arm around my younger son. He was three.

Eighteen years ago.

Suddenly my father’s grinning right at me from the childhood room of my older son, who’s twelve and seated beside him on the foot of the bed, playing Nintendo 64.

Daddy’s been gone for sixteen years. Died the month after my youngest started kindergarten. But this photograph turned out clear and bright; Daddy looks happy.

Fragments of life, preserved here and there, telling our stories a piece at a time.

Kind of like Grandma’s quilt.

I left the photos and went to pull it from where it’s safely stored.

Grandma made a quilt for each of her five grandchildren. In mine many of the squares are leftover scraps of material from clothes that my mother and grandmothers wore. The brown-and-white swirled pattern was once a vest and slacks, the silky coral-and-pink floral fabric, a blouse—all made by my mother. These remnants were painstakingly stitched together by my grandmother. Random parts forming a pattern, making a whole.

This old film, this quilt. Tangible memories. Remainders, reminders, of long ago. Pieces of my life, of who I am.

Kind of like DNA.

One of the things I learned with ancestry testing is that everyone can trace their maternal haploid group, because everyone has an X chromosome from their mother. When I read the narrative of my female forebears’ migration thousands of years ago, surviving the Ice Age (for, clearly, some of them did), and who knows what else . . . it was nearly overwhelming. To think of each one going before, through the ages, on and on, all the way to my being here. That even now we are trace-able patterns of each other, a virtual, long-reaching quilt, connected, continually replicating and unfolding through time.

Not being male, however, means that I have no Y chromosome haploid history to trace. This knowledge left me bereft at first. I have no brothers, my father is gone, and with him his Y-history, which forms half of my own, the migratory story of which I cannot know. Like my old film, it is obscured forever.

Yet I carry remnants of them all within me, those ancestors, male and female. I am their remnant, a whole stitched from their infinite parts, the conveyor of their continuum, the next chapter of their narrative.

And so are my children, superimposed over us all.

Like layers of memory upon memory.

As life keeps happening.

As time goes on, and on, and on.

Good vibrations

Two of our three baby finches hatched 

I was expecting to find a hatched baby finch on Sunday.

Instead, I found two!

—I think.

I can really only tell it’s two because one egg of three is still there. Although I can kind of discern two different necks, one baby lying over the other.

I knew the eggs were due to hatch around Sunday, and all last week I wondered what the mother bird was experiencing. To begin with, she built—rebuilt, actually—her nest on top of the wreath on my front door, which means that any time we walk down the hallway or open any other doors in the house, she feels those vibrations. Is that a good thing, somehow? Is that a reason why finches like to build so close to humans, to feel those larger rhythms of life, perhaps trusting them to be benevolent and protective forces?

And I wondered—being a mom—if she could feel stirrings inside the eggs beneath her as she diligently kept them warm on these still-frosty nights and mornings. Eggshells are only so thick . . . Can she feel those tiny hearts beating under her, long before her chicks begin pecking their way out into the world?

So many good vibrations . . . .

Reminds me of the story behind the famous song. When he was young, Brian Wilson’s mother told him that dogs will bark at people who give off “bad vibrations.”

Inspired, Brian eventually composed the Beach Boys iconic masterpiece Good Vibrations.

Which leads me back to the naming of these three babies (in a previous post: Tiny trio).  Finches are singers, and my son is a Beach Boys aficionado, so . . . .

Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Brian and Dennis (the latter of which was apparently revved up and decided to hatch early—how fitting).

Their brother Carl is due to arrive tomorrow.

—Stay tuned!

“I’m pickin’ up good vibrations . . . “

What delighted you today?

Narnia

Narnia. Mark IrvineCC BY

The sky became bluer and bluer and now there were white clouds hurrying across it from time to time. In the wide glades there were primroses. A light breeze sprang up which scattered drops of moisture from the swaying branches and carried cool, delicious scents against the face of the travellers. The trees began to come fully alive. The larches and birches were covered with green, the laburnums with gold. Soon the beech trees had put forth their delicate, transparent leaves. As the travellers walked under them the light became green. A bee buzzed across their path. 

“This is no thaw,” said the Dwarf, suddenly stopping. This is spring . . .”

—”Aslan is Nearer,” The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

What delighted you today?

That it’s the first day of spring delights me.

The beautiful description of spring coming after a hundred years of winter (but never Christmas) in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe delights me.

That I remember first reading that passage at age ten delights me.

The painting of a child in a green forest clearing, reaching out to pet a deer that may be merely a statue, or might be real, or will become real at the touch of her hand, delights me.

—I’ve decided to notice things that delight me, every day.

As way of stopping to breathe in the daily grind, of pushing back the domineering world, of finding a moment of stillness, even seconds of stillness, to savor something I see, hear, taste, touch, smell—or simply sense within my soul.

Such as:

the three finch eggs in the nest on my front door

birdsong early in the morning

my youngest son asking when I’ll be home so we can go walking

my husband’s laughter

Henry the dog’s ecstasy at any sighting of me

finally writing something down after its wings have beating in my head or heart for ever so long

What delighted you today?

All around us are affirmations, if we open ourselves to receive them. The wondrous exists in close proximity, is even ours for the taking, if we remain aware. As grand as a bald eagle at the roadside, as pure as the light in a child’s eyes, as simple as a stranger passing by with a genuine smile and a “Hello! How are you today?”

What delighted you today?

Might even pay to keep a journal of delight, to read and re-read when most needed, to create a pocket of peace amid the clamor, to strike a spark in the dark.

Every day has its gifts, small and great, that await.

What delighted you today?

—And what delight will you be?

A different Nativity story

They loved decorating for Christmas, my in-laws.

My mother-in-law had bows and garland running all through the house. Candles in each windowsill and against the panes, wreaths hanging from long ribbon.

My father-in-law took care of the outside. He made a lot of what he displayed—a wooden Santa and sleigh, snowmen. Every year he added a bit more.

In the backyard, which is what people saw first as they entered the neighborhood, stood the Nativity scene. Large, colorful, lighted figures. My father-in-law made a wooden stable to shelter Joseph, Mary, and the Baby. He covered the roof with straw and rigged a star to stand over it.

One year, when my children were small, vandals climbed the backyard fence on Christmas Eve. They knocked the Nativity figures down, coated them with black spray paint, and stole the Baby Jesus. He was nowhere to be found when my distraught in-laws discovered the desecration on Christmas morning.

My father-in-law painstakingly removed all of the spray paint—I can see him in my mind, bending to his task, working gently to avoid doing further damage, until the figures were clean.

My mother-in-law, however, was afraid to display the scene again:

“Whoever did this came over the fence, awfully close to the house. I don’t want to invite them back.”

She asked her son, my pastor husband, if he wanted the Nativity. After all, he and I lived in the country, in a parsonage right beside our church. Seemed a fitting home for a Nativity scene—albeit one without a Baby Jesus.

So we took it.

And put it up in the parsonage yard the next Christmas.

Our youngest son, a preschooler, was fascinated by the scene. He’d put on his coat and go out into the yard to stare at it for as long as we’d let him.

One day, he asked: “Why doesn’t Baby Jesus light up?”

We’d supplied a little wooden manger and a doll in swaddling cloths (i.e., a tightly-wrapped blanket). We simply told our boy that someone had taken the Jesus that lit up; we didn’t know who had done it or why, so we had to use this one.

He accepted that. Furthermore, his fascination rested on Joseph anyway. For a year or two, he referred to the entire Nativity scene as “The Joseph.”

He loved it so much that once people at church heard about it, they began giving him all kinds of small Nativity scenes. He put every one of them up in his room. I told my husband: “It’s beginning to look like a Palestinian South of the Border in there.”

Our boy became interested in the Wise Men next. He identified them by their clothing: the Blue Wise Man, the Green Wise Man, and the Pink Wise Man. He learned that they carried gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Of those, myrrh captured his imagination most. I think it was the sound of it.

A few times I caught him out in the yard with a blanket around him, kneeling at the manger.

When I asked what he was doing, he replied, solemnly, “I’m the fourth Wise Man.”

I crept away to a respectable distance, marveling at his devotion.

Wondering.

Many Christmases have come and gone. My in-laws are no longer here. “Ma-Ma” died at the end of November last year.

But my son, age twenty-one and a music minister now, still sets out that very same Nativity on the day after Thanksgiving. When the wind gusts enough to blow the figures down, he’s soon outside, standing them back up. The wooden stable fell apart long ago, but “Pa-Pa’s” star remains.

Oh, and we now have a Baby Jesus that lights up.

See, when our makeshift, non-lighted manger and doll got too weathered to use after a few seasons, our elementary-age son improvised with a stuffed dog that our real dogs had played with. It was dirty and torn. He placed right on the ground in front of Joseph and Mary.

I shuddered, thinking, Is it disrespectful to have such a thing depicting Jesus?

Then I realized . . . isn’t it actually more symbolic? To have a Jesus that’s torn, battered, and stained?

I used this as an analogy in a Sunday School lesson.

That Christmas Eve, church members who had a Nativity scene just like ours came in the night to leave their Baby Jesus in the back of my husband’s truck. On it was a note to our little son, wishing him a Merry Christmas.

And that is what Christmas is all about, is it not.

Redemption.

Pa-Pa removing the paint. The people sacrificially replacing what was taken long ago.

Restoring what seems to be hopelessly beyond repair.

My son pauses by the window. The old Nativity is still standing there in our yard, lighting up this dark Christmas Eve night, as I write. My son goes up the stairs to his room, where he’ll work on his music for a while longer.

And I hear the strains of song, faintly:

With the dawn of redeeming grace . . . .

Charmed

 

The door to my home is now charmed.

By a family of finches.

I’ve been researching house finches since a pair of them persevered in rebuilding a nest on the wreath adorning my front door, where the mother laid four tiny blue eggs (see last week’s post, Sanctuary). I discovered in my reading that the word for a group of finches is a charm.

A word of delight, enchantment, magic . . . very much what I feel as I step into my bird sanctuary to check on the babies. The last egg hatched early this morning. The mother removed the eggshells after each hatching so now there’s just four pink things with tufts of gray-white feathers huddling close to one another, so tiny that they’d all fit easily in the palm of my hand with room to spare.

I think: They’re so fragile. Yet so hardy. 

A paradox describing life itself.

With every glimpse of the hatchlings I am filled with the glory of being alive. That they are alive, changing every single moment. That I am alive to see them. My door is their sanctuary; they are my miracle. That this is the ordinary course of things does not make it any less so; we will never have a sense of the miraculous if we cease to look for it.

I wonder what the babies will think of me, this formidable being who briefly appears and disappears by the rim of their dwelling. I do not want them to be afraid. I can offer my bird family nothing but the safety and shelter of my porch roof, but, truth is, the mother and father chose the place and it had nothing to do with me. The mother flies to a nearby pine when she sees me coming, so I limit my visits to once a day for a few seconds. I get my fix of awe and get out of the way.

Honoring the life that came into my sphere.

There are so many directions I might take this post, as a mother, as a teacher, as a literacy coach, as a writer. I will let it rest on the level of human being: Honor the lives that come your way. How you do so is the shape and artistry of your own life. It is what we’re meant to do, every bit as much as the mother finch was meant to design her beautiful, dandelion-laced nest for the lives it now holds.

I am grateful for my tiny charm of finches, profoundly grateful for life itself.

Charmed, indeed, in so many ways.

Incidentally, charm comes from the Latin carmen, meaning “song” and “verse.” The babies are silent right now but in a few days they’ll be peeping, eventually singing. Finches are songbirds. All in all, I cannot think of a better word to collectively describe these little creatures.

Although I intentionally didn’t mention before that the other word for a group of finches is a trembling.

Again so perfect.

Not for describing the finches, however. For describing me as I stand in the quiet of my porch sanctuary viewing the new pink life, holding my breath, a wordless song swelling in my heart, trembling at the minuteness and magnitude of it all.

img_0024

As the last egg was hatching