Why I write, 2021

The Children’s Eyes (When They Are Writing)

The children’s eyes
are windows to the skies
sun-bright,
moon and star-studded night,
reflected wonderlight.

The children’s eyes
are toy-wagon wheels
absorbing, bearing, hauling
so much more than playthings.

The children’s eyes
are gates in a small walled garden
which widen when they realize
the stunning flora growing within
—cultivate it, Children.

For in my own walled garden
of memory
lush greenery still grows
not obscuring
but revealing
what I now know
to be healing.

All I’ve lived and seen
eventually spills forth in story
above and through and over
the old stone wall

for even in the moonless,
star-obscured,
darkest night,
there is always
a ribbon 
of light. 

This, Children,
is why I write.

Speaking of things I’ve seen…artwork on a concrete wall in Asheville, NC.
The garden struck me as metaphor for writing, growing there in the brain.

*******

with thanks to Andy Schoenborn for the “eyes” and life experience poetry prompt on Ethical ELA this morning, to Two Writing Teachers for sustaining a community where teachers of writing flourish, and to the National Council of Teachers of English for designating October 20th as National Day on Writing.

and in honor of all the children who inspire me, every time I’ve come to your classrooms to teach writing.

Fallidays

a poem which began as I was driving to work through the darkness and fog that appeared on the first day of October…

October awakens
in the night.
She rises in silence,
stirring white veils of fog
within the world’s
darkened bedchamber.

She knows
I am awake, too,
watching,
and that I am aware
it was not as dark
yesterday morning
at this same time
when September
was still here.
October gathers

her black satin robes
shimmering silver
in the moonlight.
She whispers of magic
and I shiver

just before the sun bursts forth
like a famous artist
with palette in tow-

There is no blue without yellow
and without orange,
and if you put in the blue,
then you must put in the yellow
and orange too,
mustn’t you?” 
and suddenly everything is
yellow and orange and blinding blue
with flecks of scarlet and brown
against the still-green
canvas.
For all her dark mystery
and the death-shroud she carries,
October doesn’t speak
of endings.

She points instead
-see that golden thread glittering
there in her sleeve?-
to celebrations just ahead.

Ah, October.
I see you
disguising your smile
as you creak open
nature’s ancient alchemical doors,
reverently ushering
in
the leaf-bejeweled holiness
that I shall henceforth call
the ‘fallidays’.

“Female ghost”WhiteAnGeL ❤.CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

How would you personify early October?
It is difficult to find a photo of a veiled figure comparable to the dark morning bands of fog.

“Figure In The Fog”. paulmcdeeCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The quote, “There is no blue without yellow and without orange…” comes from Van Gogh, written in a letter to his brother. I have used it several times in poems. Seems especially fitting here for the colors of October, illuminated by the artist-sun.

“Symphony of autumn colors”. PeterThoeny. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Writing Challenge
(even when my small-moment story morphs into poetry)

Dear student…

That email you sent.
Almost didn’t open it.
Seemed like random spam.

Thank God I did, though:
I hope you remember me…
the little girl who

halfway wrote a book
‘bout five or six years ago…

-How could I forget?

Never finished it
but now I’m writing this one…
-You are still writing!

You can’t know the gift
it was, assisting your craft
as it developed

the pure joy I took
from the spark in your child-eyes 
born of storylove

-that’s YOUR gift, you know.
Your storytelling power.
It’s grown stronger, still.

And your plans, to be
a therapist. A healer.
An author. Oh, child

you have no idea
what your words have done today.
I read them again

and again, amazed
by your remembering me.
I compose my thoughts

to respond to you,
most of all to say that you’re
unforgettable.

*******

I wasn’t this child’s regular teacher but the school’s literacy coach, supporting writing workshop across grade levels at the time. Her fourth-grade teacher asked if I could make time to work with her as she had fallen in love with the craft and wanted to write historical fiction. We carved out the time; we made it happen. I blogged about it in 2017: Tripping the write fantastic. That teacher invited the student back a couple of years later to share her writing with a new crop of fourth graders. I blogged about that, too: Still tripping the write fantastic.

In the recent surprise email that sparked the poem I posted today, the student also wrote: “Every now and then I’ll read what you wrote about me on Lit Bits and Pieces, and it always makes me smile and feel inspired.”

That, Dear Student, makes ME smile and feel inspired. ❤ Can’t wait to see where your writing takes you!

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge…for teachers must write to teach writers.

Thanks also to Allison Berryhill who hosted an Open Write on Ethical ELA with prompting “a poem to a student.”

Photo: “Steal Like An Artist – ‘Write the book you want to read’.” Austin KleonCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Brave beginnings

with thanks to Tammi over on Ethical ELA for sharing the “sevenling” poem. She writes: “The sevenling is a seven line poem written in two stanzas with an additional single line wrap up. The first stanza (lines 1-3) consists of three lines with connected ideas, details, statements. The second stanza (lines 4-6) also contains three ideas, details or statements. These may or may not be connected to previous stanza. Line seven should wrap up the poem or offer a juxtaposition to your previous stanzas. Because of the brevity of this poem, the last line should leave the reader with a feeling that the whole story has not been revealed.”

This is my first sevenling, really a tribute to someone special…reveal to come afterward.

Facing the Inevitable

Life pivots on this point.
Resolute but trembling at the threshold,
she considers her new place of belonging.

Releasing pent-up breath,
she takes a draft of courage with familiar paper and pencil:
“#1 Teacher seems nice #2 Not too scary”

—She’s starting kindergarten. 

My granddaughter’s handwritten takeaway following kindergarten Open House:
“#1 Teacher seems nice #2 Not too scary”

Strength and safety to all going back into schools as COVID rages on.

Thanks also to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge and for always promoting writing. To paraphrase Donald Graves: Children really do want to write. They want to leave their own marks on the world. At age five, that is. Too often “school” turns writing to a chore, emphasizing receptive literacy over expressive, or valuing the ideas of others over one’s own.

Let us be about nurturing a lifelong love of the craft and belief in the power of one’s own thoughts and voice.

Write bravely.

Unexpected poem

with thanks to Araceli, Deanna, and Michelle at #verselove on Ethical ELA today, for the invitation to write about someone who’s influenced your life, incorporating sensory details. My first inclination is to write of my grandparents – as I often do – but today, my aunt came to mind. I expect she’d be so surprised.

I am.

This one’s for her.

On Day Twenty-Two of National Poetry Month

A Poem for Earnie 

I didn’t expect to write of you today
but here I am, remembering
of all things, the tape recorder
your ready, set, go!
the click of your finger pressing play
and singing for all we were worth,
you, my little sister and me:
Wherever you go,
wherever you may wander in your life
Surely you know
I always want to be there…

one of us flubbing the words
all of us cracking up
you saying, I’ll rewind
let’s try it again

I think of your laughter
wild, free, contagious
your raucous humor
trailing you like an ermine robe
rich, resplendent, priceless
cloaking loneliness
I may not have perceived

The only one of my mother’s sisters
never to marry or have children
which didn’t keep you from giving advice
pressing Mama’s buttons
like no one else on Earth
yet she went and named her youngest daughter
after you

Then there were the wigs on
the featureless disembodied heads
sitting on your dresser
you could pick whatever 1970s hair you wanted
each day
how cool was that?

I can’t recall a thing you ever cooked
only that you loved eating
Mama said you were picky
you didn’t look it
Mama said that’s why you weren’t married
so picky that you didn’t get got

I wondered why you never really left home
living with Grannie most of your life
you’d break away for an apartment once or twice
but would always go back
like you needed to be
within the borders
of her shadow

Perhaps it will surprise you
that I recall the ceramics class you took
and the Pepto Bismol pink statuette
of Hotei, the Laughing Buddha
god of happiness and contentment
that you made for me
his hands thrown high to the heavens
Rub his big belly for good luck
each day,
you said
and I could hear the pleasure in your voice
only much later did I flip him over
to find your inscription of love
on the bottom of his pedestal

Funny how the dress you wore to my wedding
was Pepto Bismol pink
I am glad I asked you to be my wedding director
at Mama’s prodding
I remember the books you ran out to buy
to do the job well
for me

Of course there’s Jenny…
a love of your life
Siamese as picky as yourself
who’d curl in my lap
purring
That’s rare,
you’d say

Jenny who lived twelve years
who died in the fire
when you woke in the middle of the night
choking on the smoke
phone in your bedroom
hot to the touch
calling 9-1-1 for the first time
because it was
a brand-new thing
I don’t know how you roused
Grannie and Papa G in the other room
nor how any of you climbed out of the windows
onto the roof
into the freezing midnight air
and safety
as the firemen arrived
but you did it

in my mind, Mama’s voice:
It took three firemen to hold her
from going back in
for Jenny.
They found her
the next day
under Earnie’s window.

I hear your anguished sobs
even now
in those wee hours when you
arrived at our house to stay
reeking of smoke
so that the fur coat you wore
would have to be destroyed

I remember the clothes
you bought for my first baby
in bright, beautiful colors,
expensive
so lovingly chosen

You didn’t live to see my youngest
never knew of his gift for music
how you’d have loved it
I can see you right now,
tape recorder in hand

As the disease took your lungs
and reached its insidious fingers
into your brain
I recall the peculiar shine in your hollowed eyes
against the yellowing of your face

when you asked:
Are you still writing?
Have you published anything yet?

Yes and no, Earnie.
I am still writing, yes.
Long, long after we laid you to rest
in your pink dress
(Grannie had your nails painted to match)
and this isn’t really published
but it’s for you
I didn’t expect to be writing of you today
or singing Olivia Newton-John all of a sudden
after all these years,
but here I am
and here you are,
wherever I may wander
in my life
snatches of song, rolling laughter
here in my morning
here in my night.

Backwards poem: This day

I recently began experimenting with “backwards poetry,” in which you read the lines right to left as in the Hebrew and Arabic languages.

For Day Six of National Poetry Month, I am playing with these lines and where to break them most effectively. They’re fun to read left to right but remember, they’re intended to be read from right to left…which version do you like best?

The source of my inspiration follows.

Take #1:

at
each of end the
think day
this has what
brought day
what and me
I have
it given

Take #2:

at
day, each of end the
this has what think
what and me brought day
it given, I have



Magnolia

Next-to-the last day of March. Early morning. Still dark. Chilly.

I sit at my laptop, sipping coffee, catching up on my Slice of Life blog comments. The neighborhood rooster across the street crows for all he’s worth.

My husband comes into the kitchen: “Is she up yet?” he whispers.

He means our granddaughter. She spent the night. We stayed up way late watching Frozen II (again). We watched her dancing to the ending credits soundtrack, performing her own astoundingly artistic interpretation, cheeks pink, blue eyes glowing…followed by punchy laughter before the crashing.

“Not yet,” I whisper back. He retreats to his study to work on sermons.

Shortly, though, she here she comes, a gift of the dawn, Aurora’s child, barefoot in a blue flannel gown, cloaked in long, disheveled hair, ethereal smile of joy illuminating the semi-dark kitchen. Favorite lines of a Billy Collins poem come to life:

But tomorrow dawn will come the way I picture her,

barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window
in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.

My radiant dawn-child climbs into my lap. I let her read my post about Dennis the dachshund and his toy moose. At five, she reads with exactly the right inflection in exactly the right places, decoding beyootiful without batting an eye.

“That rascally Dennis!” She laughs aloud.

My husband returns, his own face alight at sight of her. “There she is!” he exclaims. “I’ve been waiting for you, Sugar Magnolia.”

He sings the opening line of the Grateful Dead song:

Sugar Magnolia blossom’s blooming

Just so happens that our granddaughter’s middle name is Magnolia. A nod to her Louisiana heritage. A native tree here in North Carolina, too.

I think how, less than two years ago, my husband was dead, until EMS and CPR brought him back. I think of all he’d have missed…

What matters is that we’re here together now, today, in this moment. The Grateful Alive.

Sugar Magnolia, in one of Grandpa’s hats

When we are dressed for the day, she asks: “Can I pick out your earrings? And your necklace?”

“Certainly.”

She picks the magnolia. She and my son gave it to me for my birthday last year.

She hands me the necklace, watches me clasp it, smiles with satisfaction.

She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light

Just beyond the bedroom door, from the windows in the foyer, birdsong.

The finches.

I waited for them all of March, in vain. Then, here at the very end, within the space of these last twenty-four hours, a nearly-complete nest rests on my front door wreath. More on this tomorrow, when I write with the Spiritual Journey gathering on the first Thursday in April…for now all that needs to be said is that the finches always come to my door, every year except this last one. They vanished without warning, without a trace, during COVID-19. Now they’re back, making their home in the wreath.

The magnolia wreath.

Front door wreath and nest-in-progress

Magnolias, magnolias, everywhere…

They are tougher than they look. The oldest flowering plants on Earth. A symbol of love, longevity, perseverance, endurance.

It’s that word that captures me: Endurance.

It is the end of March.

We’ve endured the COVID pandemic for a whole year.

We’ve endured the reinvention of life as we knew it, school as we knew it, teaching as we knew it.

My family has endured distance, isolation, individual private battles…and we all get our second round of vaccinations over these next two days.

My husband has endured. He is alive.

My granddaughter has endured. She is the light of our days.

The finches have endured. They have returned to resume nesting.

This is my last post for the Slice of Life Story Challenge; for thirty-one consecutive days, I’ve endured. My writing has endured.

I wrote a lot of memoir in the Challenge, for memories endure. I wrote of a walled garden and roots and the need to get out of the comfort zone; I did that with some of my writing. I think now of my magnolia metaphor and look back at its deep roots in my childhood. Southern heritage. My grandmothers, steel magnolias (although they wouldn’t have thought it of themselves). Women who endured wars, deprivation, unspeakable losses. The stand over the landscape of my life like the old magnolia trees near their homes, their churches. They were the encompassing, protective shadows against the burning sun and sweltering heat, the solid coolness of the earth under my feet, where lie the curious, fuzzy seedpods of my existence, my remembering, my gratitude, my faith. From these branches waft the eternal fragrance of sacrificial love and forgiveness; nothing on God’s Earth smells as sweet.

One final curious image—it persists, so I have to figure out if and how it will fit here: When I was very small, I spent a lot of time with Grandma, Daddy’s mother. She and Granddaddy lived nearby in city apartments until he retired and they moved back home to the country when I was six. In this scene, I am around four, I think:

I am waiting in the hall for Grandma. She’s turning the lights out; we are getting ready to go. She calls my name from another room. I call back: “I am here.” My voice keeps bouncing, off the walls, off the stairs going down, down, down, into the darkness; we have to go through it before we can get to the door and the sidewalks and the sunlight outside.

“Grandma!” I cry. More bouncing voice, hollow, strange.

She’s there in an instant. “What’s the matter?”

“What is that sound?”

Oh, honey, that’s just your echo.”

She calls out, “Hello”…her voice bounces, just like mine.

“Echoooo…” I call. Echooo-ooo-ooo, says the shadow of my voice, rolling down the stairwell.

And I am no longer scared, because now I know.

What does this have to do with magnolias?

Only that we are on our way to the park, where she would offer me bread to feed the ducks, which would come to eat from my hands, from my little extended arms…and where the magnolias still grow in abundance. The memory is a cup of light I carry with me, just as the echo of her voice remains, just as I find myself echoing her, for we are always echoes of the ones we love most. As blood circulates in our veins, so do remembered light and beloved voices, long past shadows and silence. These are things that endure.

Grandma’s homeplace was named for the dawn, by the way. She’s literally Aurora’s child.

But tomorrow dawn will come the way I picture her

“Stand right there, honey. Let me get your picture by that tree,” I tell my granddaughter, on our first trip to the park.

It’s a different park. A different tree.

But still, and always, a magnolia.

Our Sugar Magnolia, by “her” tree.

*******

With abiding gratitude to the community at Two Writing Teachers during the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, which concludes today. It was a joy to write alongside you every day in the month of March. Thank you for every cup of light you offered; I will savor the echo of your voices for many days to come.

Moose! by Dennis!

Dear Readers…as with children, what you do for one, you must do for the other, so…on the heels of yesterday’s airing of a grievance by Henry, another guest “pawthor” today

Not to be outdone by that Henry! Here’s me and my Moose!

I LOVE LOVE LOVE my beyootiful Moose!

Won’t turn him loose! Try! Try! You can’t get my Moose, Moose, MOOSE!

I Moose Moose Moose….until I’m out of juice…

Zzzzzzzzzz…taking a snoose. With amoosing dreams.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, 
meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. 

This marks my fifth consecutive year.

About the Pawthor: Dennis the Dachshund is sixteen months old.
He belongs to my musician son and is named for Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys.

Digging for awe: Golden shovel poems

I recently wrote a post for the CCIRA Professional Development Blog on the sometimes spirit-crushing work of literacy education. I will not list all of the contributing factors here; I will just say that there are many, especially during this long year of COVID-19. Prior to to writing the post, when asked what teachers are facing in regard to literacy and what is most needed, I responded: “A great lot of pressure at present. We have to able to relax some and find joy in our work.”

As I wrote, and as is usually the case, the path became clearer: Make room for awe.

That is my guiding “one little word” (OLW) for the year, see. And maybe for the rest of my life…

Yesterday I spoke with a colleague who will continue teaching virtually until the year ends in June, for students whose parents have chosen this option. She spoke of awe in regard to the Google Classroom chat feature: “So many more kids share their thoughts this way, more I’ve ever seen in person. I’m in awe of how much they have to say and how they encourage each other. We use the chat all the time now.”

This means students are writing more, which makes my heart sing. If ever there is a conduit for awe, it is writing.

Example: Have you noticed how many people—many students—have suddenly been enraptured by poetry after hearing Amanda Gorman? Who credits her childhood teachers and her school for valuing this kind of expressive, artistic, move-the-mountains writing?

I’ve been lamenting the loss of meaningful writing in elementary schools in my corner of the world, just when it it’s most needed—the writing workshop model having fallen out of favor in the last few years for an embedded, formulaic approach around a topic at a time. That is another whole story; suffice it to say that I am in awe of teachers and students finding their way back to writing that matters.

All of which brings me to Golden Shovel poems. It’s a form I’ve been playing with for about a year. It holds great appeal on a number of levels, practical, creative, metaphorical…the idea of mining for the nuggets of gold, the diamonds that lie within, often so unexpected, yet so important.

A teacher might give the Golden Shovel to students to dig something more out of whatever books they’re reading, songs they’re singing, famous speeches they’re studying, even a line a classmate has written—anything, really. Not necessarily as a response to the work itself, but latching onto any line that strikes them with its beauty, or pierces their hearts with its poignance, or stirs their souls with its power, to create something new and personally meaningful from it. Make room for awe…

Try digging with the Golden Shovel yourself. Take a line from a poem or a favorite book, speech, or song that has special appeal to you and transform it into something of your own. Each word in that line becomes the ending word of a line of your own poem (or the beginning word, if you prefer). Your poem may reflect an aspect from the original work. It may not. A Golden Shovel poem can mean whatever you wish; it’s just inspired by the line you use to create it.

I chose this line from Gorman’s Inauguration Day poem, “The Hill We Climb”: Even as we grieved, we grew.

Days roll on, even to odd, odd to even,

tossed dice, never quite landing, as

we wonder how that’s possible. Don’t we.

In the spinning we still loved as we grieved

and we’ll go on, won’t we, 

even as we did when odds against us grew.

And this one, from the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, by Katherine May: We do not fade so easily from this life.

Now, who are we

and what should we do,

here where the sun shines not

and Earth’s colors fade.

Even so

consider how easily

we glide from

that room to this,

enduring, rather than living, life

And so I pass the Golden Shovel.

Here’s to the awe of your own discoveries.

Happy digging.

Photo: Golden shovels. Alachua County. CC-BY

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, 
meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. 

This marks my fifth consecutive year.

Writing

With special thanks to Dr. Kim Johnson who hosted Ethical ELA’s Open Write last week with the invitation to compose “Your Life’s Table of Contents” poems. There is no formula, just lots of freedom; Kim said: “I started thinking about how I might write a table of contents organizing the poems I have written over these past few years, in verse…Imagine you are creating a collection of your own work, and try your hand at an organizing poem to be a table of contents or any other feature of a book.

My poem is based on a timeline of my writing history, starting at age 6.

My Life’s Writing Anthology

Bible story plagiarized
in blocky big letters
on lined newsprint paper

All About Me
carefully rendered detail
teacher-praised

Myth of Shoeani
on the origin
of shoes

Dr. Heartbeat, Dr. Heartbeat
a play composed
around four words
heart
lion
clock
—I forget the fourth

The Poetry Years
of rainbows
friendships
love
loss
even a baby dragon
rhythms of my soul
attempting to understand
itself

A short story
a mystery
a secret
a little girl
kept safe

All-nighter
research paper
on the function of 
King Claudius
in Hamlet
—still tied two of my best friends
for the highest marks in class

Oral tradition
of grandparents
put to paper
for the first time

Novel ideas
captured in notebooks
beginning to live
even if 
they haven’t breathed
in a while

Critical research
on children’s fantasy lit
taking the last of my strength
and the humanities prize

Short stories
hammered out
within word counts
for competitions

Mentor texts
for students
and teachers
learning how to write
and to love
memoir
essay
story
fantasy
poetry

The blog:
the archive
the scrapbook
of my writing life
my love letter
to words
and the world

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 23, I am writing around a word beginning with letter w. How could it NOT be “writing”?