Writing teacher rhapsody

Globe with gold suspended in water

Writing time.

Expectancy painted on their faces.

They know something’s coming,

just not what, yet.

But something.

Ideas.

Their own.

In this moment

I’m just the crossing guard

from the unit 

to the universe.

Ever expanding.

They do not know, yet,

that they’re made 

of the same stuff as the stars.

That the stuff without

is always calling

to the stuff within.

They are children

but not too young to discover

they’re oceans

containing more than simply

water 

and salt.

But I know 

there’s millions of pounds of gold

infinitesimally dispersed

throughout the oceans.

Here is where

those priceless grains 

rise to the surface

take shape

become substance.

Now is when they start spilling

onto the page

to shine

with a light of their own.

The whole of my task

is to stir

release

and be swept away.

Artifact

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Sometimes I think about the writing process more than I do about what to write. Like the origin of ideas, how the barest glimmering can turn into something substantial and take unforeseen shapes altogether during the writing. A breath of a thing becomes a breathing thing—for inspiration means to breathe in, to breathe life into. When I start writing my glimmer or breath of an idea, as it grows, shifts, and takes on a life of its own, it draws other things to it. When people say, “I don’t know how you manage to see these connections and string them together this way,” all I can say in response is, in the end, all things are connected. If you follow the glimmering threads far enough . . . .

Such was the case in my summer writing workshop for teachers. My co-facilitator asked fellow teacher-writers to bring a personal history artifact, something that holds a story about who we are or about a significant time in our lives.

My “default” artifact is a locket that belonged to my grandmother; her uncle gave it to her in 1930 when she was fifteen. She gave it to me when I was fifteen.

But I’ve already written about that: The locket.

I had trouble choosing another artifact. Why should it be so hard? We’re surrounded by pieces of our personal histories in every room in our homes, in our workplaces, even in our cars, sometimes . . . .

A thought hovered: There’s the cross necklace Daddy gave me at Grannie’s funeral. 

Nearly twenty years old, it still glitters like new, and there’s plenty of symbolism and story wrapped around it, for my father didn’t often give gifts, nor was he expressively religious except for a keen interest in eschatology. That he should give the necklace to me on that occasion (Grannie wasn’t his mother but his mother-in-law) is especially poignant.

I ought to write about that . . . yet, I hesitated.

I know! All those pictures I just had developed—if anything’s personal history, that is! Some years ago I’d gathered all my used rolls of camera film, placed them in a giant Ziploc bag, and promptly forgot about them. I’d finally remembered and had the photos developed (do you know how hard it is now to find a local place that will do this with same or next day service?). In these images, many loved ones who are gone smile at me afresh from decades past. Layer upon layer of stories to tell . . . .

Yes, this is an unusual sort of artifact . . . I definitely need to write about this.

The thing—the idea—certainly had a breath, a glimmer.

But it didn’t seem to be quite ready. I got the feeling that it didn’t want to be written about just yet.

I decided to take both, Daddy’s cross necklace and the old newly-printed photos, and as I prepared to leave the house that morning, another image glimmered in my mind. Rather brightly.

A sand dollar.

I have a few that I found years ago, and while I find them beautiful and compelling, I didn’t really think a sand dollar would be an artifact especially representative of my personal history. But . . . as the glimmering was suddenly there and I’ve learned not to question but to trust . . . I fetched the largest sand dollar, packed it carefully in a box with tissue paper, and took it with me to the workshop.

Guess which artifact I ended up writing about.

Of course.

I found this sand dollar on the beach when walking in the last weeks before my first son was born. There’d been a storm. The sand was still damp, the beach littered with seaweed and shell debris. The sand dollar, however, was whole, which is rare—they’re fragile and I’d never found any here before.

I don’t know why it drew me, just this morning, as a special artifact. It wasn’t something given to me, like Grandma’s locket or Daddy’s cross.

But maybe it was given, from beyond . . . .

I’ve just now recalled that, when I was born, my grandfather gave me twenty silver dollars. He did the same for all of the successive grandchildren. Sand dollar, silver dollar. Wealth of the sea, wealth of the earth. Gifts. Celebration. The coming of children, the next generation, the endowment of hopes and good wishes of those who’ve walked before. Like my younger self on the beach, I am walking the path of generations, I am the bridge between the past and the future. The sand dollar I have in my hand is really a skeleton. It was once a living creature. It’s symbolic of faith and strength despite its fragility and it comes from the ocean, which symbolizes life, continuity . . . .

It occurs to me now that the sand dollar is connected to the other artifacts I considered writing about, Daddy’s cross necklace, given to me unexpectedly at Grannie’s funeral, and the pictures from the old film I just found and had printed. All together they say: These are your life-pieces that endure; you will endure. Oh and I almost forgot that I just had my DNA tested. When I got the results, I marveled at the migratory history of my ancient ancestors, the story of their survival. I hadn’t expected the rush of profound gratitude to all of them for living, that I might be here now. I am here, whole, because they were here. I carry pieces of them within me. 

I found this sand dollar, the skeleton of a living thing, on the beach while walking after a storm, while carrying my firstborn. I walk the path of generations.

We go on.

My co-facilitator’s voice gently broke the hush in the room, we teacher-writers having been immersed in our thoughts, our words, recording on paper:

“Now, how can your artifact drive your teaching of writing?”

I wrote:

My sand dollar can drive my teaching of writing in so many ways. It’s a metaphor for writing:

-Just start walking. Like I did on the beach. Just start writing,

-Until you’re walking, you don’t know what you’ll find.

You’ll have surprises. Rare things will come, if you keep at it.

These gifts are waiting, meant just for you.

I looked at the sand dollar and I know, if it could look back at me, it would have winked.

Your story matters

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“The world needs stronger stories.

We’re here to live a story and we’re made to live a good one.”

– Ruth Ayres

The focus of Day Two of my district’s Teacher Summer Writing Institute was Your story matters, with the driving question for teachers: “Why is it important for me to see myself as a writer?”

The bottom line is that we grow strong at writing by writing. If teachers expect to help students grow as writers, teachers must be actively writing. And teachers must believe in the craft, in the process, in the transformative power of writing, if they expect students to. As Ruth Ayres states in Enticing Hard-to-Reach Writers (Stenhouse, 2017): “When writers believe their words matter, nothing can stop them.”

Our group of K-12 cross-curricular teachers took some time to delve into their own stories by charting “peaks and valleys” from their life experiences. Peaks meaning moments or experiences that were positive—not necessarily milestones like getting married, seeing your newborn child, etc., although these can be peaks. Exploring moments or memories that have stuck with us over the years, those that carry great emotion, can impart greater insight to why we are who we are (see Your why for the expanded explanation of this activity). One of my peaks, for example, is from 5th grade, when I saw a classmate  do something extraordinarily brave. It’s my definition of “noble” to this day (if you want to read that story, see The Valentine ).

Valleys, or pits, are harder moments that have also defined who we are and why. They’re often ones of loss, but not always. Sometimes the valleys are moments of despair or disappointment, especially in yourself. Yet there’s great learning and insight attached to these moments. One of my valley-moments occurred when my mother invited a boy who bullied me to my birthday party.  When I began writing this piece, I recalled only my anger at my mother and our conflict. But a funny thing happens when one continues to write . . . I learned a truth that has stayed with me, subconsciously, all these years; it continues to shape me and my relationships with other people (you may read this story, if you like: The birthday ).

So the teacher-writers explored their peaks and valleys. They watched an extraordinary Ted Talk on perspective and assumptions of others, The Danger of a Single Story,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. They read articles and books of their choosing on writing. They studied visual texts.

Their takeaways:

“Writing about the peaks and valleys was so therapeutic.”

“I loved having the space to write. I began writing about one of my peaks and my mind hopped to something I saw recently; these two things don’t seem to be remotely connected . . . I wrote that instead because the image and what I was thinking were so vivid. I don’t know the last time I wrote like this.”

“I thought about things I haven’t thought about in years.”

“It’s so cool how writing takes you to places you don’t expect.”

You stories matter. Not just to you, but to others who may need to hear them.

Write first, Writer, to know thyself.

Find your stories and to discover where they take you, and what they mean. What they reveal to you about who and why you are.

Then tell your stories. Encourage others to tell theirs.

That’s what stories are meant for.

Blowin’ in the wind

Yesterday, while outside with my old dachshund, Nikolaus, I saw this old dandelion.

It stood trembling in the soft spring breeze, holding its seeds tight under its parachute sphere, and I thought Any second now they’ll be blowing in the wind.

Which reminded me of the song.

When I was a child my parents had a stack of record albums, and in it was Peter, Paul and Mary’s In the Wind. Only now do I wonder which of them purchased it, for my young father and mother seemed more representative of the fifties than the sixties. No beads and long hair or tie-dye. Daddy wore a crew-cut all of his adult life. My parents were . . . just parents. Pretty mainstream. I don’t know how old I was when I first heard the album, but as a child I played it over and over on the old stereo, a huge, bench-like piece of furniture on four legs that took up half the length of the living room wall.

Bob Dylan’s “Blowing’ in the Wind” was one of my favorites, mostly because Peter, Paul, and Mary’s harmony was as haunting as his lyrics. But it wasn’t the song I loved most on the album.

That was “Stewball.”

It’s about a racehorse, the underdog, and how a man laments betting all of his money on “the gray mare” and “the bay,” how he wishes that he’d bet on Stewball, who somehow managed to win the race.

The ballad’s content is mournful—Oh, the hoot owl she hollered, and the turtledove moaned, I’m a poor boy in trouble, I’m a long way from home—but the instrumentals jingle along, almost incongruous with the words. Perhaps not as incongruous as me, less than ten years old, swinging as hard as I can, round and round on a tire swing that Granddaddy hung from a pecan tree in the yard of my father’s childhood home, singing at the top of my lungs: Oh, Stewball was a racehorse, and I wish he were mine, he never drank water, he always drank wine . . . .

So long ago.

Funny how songs can weave their way through chapters of our lives, as they do through movies. There are stories to be told about the poor choices of adults, and the consequences, with “Stewball” playing in the background.

Nik the dachshund makes his way back to me, staggering in the grass. At sixteen he’s unsteady on his feet and blind; he plows into the old dandelion. Instantaneously the perfect white sphere dissolves, the seeds go airborne.

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Maybe it’s answers I seek.

Maybe they’re seeking me.

I do not know.

But I do know that ideas are everywhere, blowing in the wind; I sense them and I know they’ll land, somewhere, sometime, that they’ll take root and grow. If I write them, they’ll spawn more and more ideas.

I gather Nik in my arms, careful of his old, fragile bones, and go back inside the house, humming.

 

 

Believe

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A writer is first a receiver, open to messages all the time, always watching and listening. A message or image can come at any moment; the writer’s job then becomes How do I interpret this? What meaning shall I attach? How will I shape this notion, this idea, this sense of something, into words to relay it?

The greatest challenge is capturing that first fleeting message before it’s lost; I heard an author say once that “a new idea is fragile thing.”

Sometimes a writer recognizes that an idea is hovering close and just hasn’t landed yet. Some ideas flutter and dart about like hummingbirds for a while. For me this is like Yeah, I know you’re there, Idea, whatever you are. I feel you darting in and out. One of these days I’m going to get ahold of you but right now I am tired of the chase.

So it was on a day that I visited the hair salon. One of my favorite things there is the complimentary coffee bar for clients. As the iCoffee machine whirred and glowed with blue light, illuminating the cup (so mesmerizing), I reached for a napkin.

The napkins here are always pretty, often seasonal. A lot of thought on someone’s part clearly goes into the napkin choices, no detail being too small or insignificant in creating a pleasant experience.

This napkin was a message.

You saw it yourself, at the top of this post—that’s a picture of the napkin.

Coffee momentarily forgotten, I stood there thinking, I’ll write about this. Somehow . . . 

Yesterday I told someone: “When an image comes to you, Writer, use it!”

Today I return to the napkin, thinking. I finally decide to Google the phrase printed on it, suspecting that it’s connected to an author out there somewhere.

Aha. The quote seems to have come from Patrick Overton’s book of poems entitled The leaning tree: 

“When you come to the edge of all of the light you’ve known, and are about to step off into the darkness of the unknown; faith is knowing one of two things will happen. You’ll have something solid to stand on, or you’ll be taught how to fly.”

The idea is so near now that I can feel its wings beating against my soul

Believe. Believe. Believe.

Like the beating of a heart.

I wonder what word would remain if the napkin were tossed outside, trampled on, battered by wind and rain. What the last surviving word would be.

Maybe faith.

Maybe believing.

Maybe fly.

For the napkin in my hand is ephemeral, meant to be thrown away.

Faith, believing, and fly — hear the wings, feel the breeze stirred by their rustling? — are eternal.

Oh, wait—there’s one tiny word there on the napkin, there on the butterfly—how could I have almost missed it?

Blessed.

Thank You, I whisper at last.

And I write.