On Tolkien

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes, a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring . . . .
—J.R.R. Tolkien

I went to see the movie Tolkien this weekend. My thoughts, while sitting in the darkened cinema, watching it play:

Story is magic.

Reading aloud is magic.

Words are magic.

All are part of writing magic. 

Whatever critics may say of the movie, however accurate it may or may not be in depicting the early life of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, as a writer, I loved it. For me it beautifully captured the way a writer’s mind works.

When young John Ronald sat by the fireplace, utterly captivated by his mother’s reading and enactment of a dragon, I could relate to how the book and her voice spurred images to life in his mind. How flickering shadows on the walls, thrown by a candle carousel, took on the shapes of  mythological beings, how story played in his brain as vividly as this movie played in mine. I understood how these images stayed with him long after his mother died, after he landed as an orphan in a boarding house, even how they grew nearer, larger, clearer on the battlefields of the first World War while he succumbed to trench fever. I admired the artistry of the shadowy images recurring onscreen as part of Tolkien’s memory, recognizing: That is exactly what images DO. Once they spring to mind, they are THERE. They lurk, they submerge, they resurface. They’re never gone; they settle and swirl about again, waiting, waiting, waiting always, for the solidity of a page.

I loved how the movie emphasized the young Tolkien’s passion for words, particularly in a romantically-charged scene with Edith Bratt, who would become his wife. Tolkien speaks of the beauty of the phrase “cellar door.” He is enraptured by the sound of it. Edith tells him that it is not the sound of  a word that gives it beauty, but its meaning—what the word stands for, all that it connotes. This is reiterated in a scene with Tolkien and Joseph Wright, Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford, on the mightiness of ships, buildings, civilizations, history, all summed up in a three-letter word: oak. Connotations, connections, deep, deep roots, power . . . in language, in phrasing, in a single word . . . is this not an ancient alchemy that writers come to know? 

And, at the same time, how captivating is the story of an orphaned boy making it to Oxford, himself becoming a renowned professor of philology (the study of the structure and historical development of language, if ever you’re a contestant on Jeopardy!). It’s the story of a man overcoming circumstances and being a genius, the roots of which run back to Tolkien’s childhood, to the Latin his mother taught him, to the stories his mother read aloud to him.

—Story.  The apogee of language, of words. The ultimate form for which language and words exist. The creative force, perhaps, that calls them, drives them . . .

In the final scene of the movie, Professor Tolkien sits at a desk before an empty page and begins to write a now-famous line. I’ve read his own account of this: he was grading examinations, mind-numbing, “soul-destroying” work, when he discovered a blank page in an examination booklet. Without knowing why, he wrote on it: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. This instantly reminded me of J.K. Rowling, how the idea of Harry Potter just “fell into her head” as she was riding a train. The genesis, the magical conception, of story;  it does not exist, but then, inexplicably, in the blinking of an eye, it does, and the world is changed by it. The Tolkien Society relates that after the professor wrote that line out of nowhere, he then needed to know: What was a Hobbit? Why did it live in a hole? To find out, Tolkien began to tell the story to his children . . . and thus, eventually, was born the archetype of all modern fantasy.

The old that is strong does not wither. Deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes, a fire shall be woken. A light from the shadows shall spring . . . yes. It seems to me that in these words of his lies proof that old stories Tolkien began learning as a child remained strong in him; they didn’t wither. They sparked in him an unquenchable fire. Those roots of his love for language, quests, myth, survived the freeze of profound loss. His memories, experiences, the images from his childhood onward, all are the shadows, the ashes, from which his own stories spring.

So it is with writers.

Even if all who write are not Tolkien.

It’s still magic.

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.”

Keep it alive

It is the place

where ideas are born

some as ghosts

some fully formed

It is the place

where voices echo, echo

real or imagined

they ebb and they flow

It is a place of seeing

yet layered in veils

lift them one by one

as mystery entails

It is a place of sensing

both self and Other

alive within, without

—feel the shiver, the shudder

It was striving to be

long before we had words

for we are knitted of story

given voice, to be heard

So nurture it well

let it breathe, let it grow

keep the magic alive, for

you’re meant to write it,

you know.

Salt and the stagecoach

Stagecoach

Western Stagecoach 08. Robin HallCC BY

The third graders were having a hard time.

“We’re writing pourquoi tales in this unit,” explained their teacher, “which have to be based on the students’ research of frogs. We practiced writing one together and now they have to write their own, but they keep coming up with stuff that doesn’t quite work. I’ll end up with twenty stories about ‘Why Frogs Have Eyes’ or something.”

She sighed.

So, as extra practice,  I agreed to come help the children write pourquoi stories on topics of their choosing. I modeled writing one of my own composition, “Why People Wear Shoes,” incorporating their artistic contributions along the way (my main character meets a talking owl and the kids said it needed to be huge so that my character could ride on its back, which greatly enhanced the story).

Then we brainstormed ideas that they might write about:

Why there are stars

Why there are oceans

Why the ocean is salty

Why zebras have stripes

Why there are colors (challenging!)

Or anything else in the universe that might make a sensible pourquoi.

“Remember,” I told them, as they settled on their ideas and started to write, “you can have fun with this. You can make animals can talk, you can make mysterious things happen, but your stories have to clearly explain why or how something is the way it is.”

When I returned the next day, the teacher said, “You’ve got to hear this!” She asked a boy to read his draft to the class. A quiet boy who hadn’t seemed especially interested in writing.

I sat down and listened. He’d chosen “Why the Ocean Water is Salty.” A man working in the mountains delivered salt to people in a stagecoach. Thieves threw a stick of dynamite into it, which frightened the horses. They drove over a cliff into the sea, where the dynamite went off, dispersing “billions of salt” throughout the water.

Oh, and the driver survives, retires, and decides he’ll just fish and hunt for the rest of his life.

He finished reading. His classmates applauded enthusiastically.

Must have been a full minute before I thought to close my gaping mouth.

“Amazing!” I finally managed to say. “What made you think of a stagecoach?”

“Well, first I wrote that the man was breaking up rocks on the mountain and hit one accidentally with his foot. It rolled down a cliff and knocked other rocks in, but then I thought, that doesn’t make sense. Rocks won’t make the ocean salty. So I thought about a stagecoach with salt in it. Then I needed something to explode in the water . . .”

—Makes perfect sense to me.

The moral of the story:

We can show them the stagecoach

but if we never let them load it as they please, 

they’ll drive only so far.

Set the wheels in motion,

hand over the reins,

jump out of the way.

See what astonishing routes they take.

Something to say

All you have to do is open

All you have to do is open . . . Mike HartnettCC BY

If you want to absorb rich dialogue, hang out at a hair salon. I keep thinking that a lively full-length play could be derived from the banter and candidness between a stylist and clients, with minimal staging needed. Conversations are not constrained; there are no boundaries, no topic is taboo.

I confess that I cannot help listening with writer’s ears every time I visit my salon. Not that I eavesdrop. Nobody whispers. It’s all just out there.

So it was, while waiting for my turn at a recent appointment and helping myself to the coffee bar, that I heard a woman with her head in the nearby shampoo bowl mention the word writing to her stylist (visualize how I froze, ears perked, coffee stirrer held aloft):

“My son never liked writing. He didn’t do well at all with it until he went to college. When I saw his first college paper, I actually said: ‘What? YOU wrote this? You didn’t get somebody to write it for you?’ But he’d really written it himself. I couldn’t believe it!”

They laughed together as the stylist lathered up the client’s hair.

I stirred half-and-half into my coffee, thinking: The boy finally had something to say.

I don’t know who he is, this college student. I don’t know where he attended school or anything about him other than those few sentences. But as I sipped my hot cinnamon dolce, I wondered about those statements.

My son never liked writing. 

What made that change? What drove him to pour the words onto the page and to hammer them into shape? Was this the first time he felt passionate about his topic, whatever it was? Had he ever been able to choose his own topic before, one that mattered to him? Did he have any authentic writing experiences in elementary or secondary school, or was it all formulaic, step-by-step, assigned for a grade? Surely this college paper was assigned, too, but apparently something new—within the writer—had given it life.

He didn’t do well at all with it until he went to college.

What was his process, or was it just real for the first time? Did someone in college give him feedback on his strengths, validate his ideas? Did he visit the campus writing lab for help with this paper? Or was there a professor who inspired him, stirred his interests, made him realize he had a voice and something to say, at last?

I caught myself sighing between swigs of cinnamon dolce. Why, why, why did it take him all the way to college to “do well” as a writer?

Maybe it’s simply freedom. His not being confined by what’s all too often considered “writing” in school, but being able to articulate what he really thinks, what he feels in the depths of his heart, and having a safe, supportive venue for communicating his perspective to a real audience, even to the world. Maybe he got a professor who loves to write, who showed the students how and why to write. All I know for sure is that SOMETHING was the game changer for this young man; even his mother was amazed. Could it be that someone finally believed in him? That’s where the true business of education begins—in throwing doors wide open, not in closing them. Learning and understanding are like coming from a stuffy closet into a living room, or from a comfortable living room into the whole vibrant outdoors.

Or the hair salon, where you can speak what’s on your mind, where someone listens and responds, where voices are not constrained, where there are no boundaries, and no topic is taboo.

Making space

Anyone who’s ever worked in kindergarten or first grade knows that emergent writers often write strings of letters.

For example:   The flowers grow.

Sometimes the strings of letters are much longer and harder to decipher. A next teaching point would be working on the concept of words.

Enter Mr. Finger Space.

He’s a handy little tool for young writers, to facilitate their thinking about each word they’re trying to write and to begin making spaces between them.

I have, as you can see from the leading photo, a colorful collection of googly-eyed Mr. Finger Spaces ready to get to work.

Today as I passed by the jar, this gathering of Spaces seemed so beguiling that I thought: There’s a blog post in this. Somehow. 

I snapped a photo and went on my way.

I knew the accompanying story would come. That’s how it always works. A spark of inspiration, given time to grow . . .

This time it came pretty quickly.

As usual, it didn’t arrive as the expected story. Not about a little writer employing a cheery craft stick—I mean, a Mr. Finger Space!— to compose a sentence of separate words for the first time.

No.

It came after a conversation with a colleague about her wonderful weekend getaway, reconnecting with old friends, reliving priceless experiences:

There’s so much I’d forgotten, that I haven’t thought about in so long . . . it was incredibly meaningful to have those memories come rushing back. How important they were, those times we shared. I loved every minute of remembering and at the same time was saddened by how much I’ve lost because day-to-day responsibilities take all my focus . . . you know there’s not room to carry it all around in your head all the time . . . .

You need to write about them now, I told my colleague. My friend. Those memories, while they’re freshly stirred. Preserve them before they leave you again. Spend time going back in your mind, immersing, and you’ll be surprised at what you can recall.

I know this to be true from my own experience, over and over again.

A sigh. The longing was etched on her face: Just how to find the time . . . 

That’s when the googly eyes of Mr. Finger Space appeared in my mind; I immediately understood the message.

Moments of love and laughter, priceless gifts, slipping away under the weight of just living. Fragile strings of memory running together until the beautiful meaning is nearly obscured . . . .

The only way to stave off such loss is to push this often senseless, insensitive, jumbled-up world back, if only for a few precious minutes, in the midst of every run-on day. To breathe. To plunge deep into the recesses of your mind, to know yourself, who you are, and what really matters. Feel the stories pulsing through your being. Fight for them, to keep them alive.

Find the words. They’re all there, within you. They just haven’t been put into organized form yet.

Make the space. 

Put your pencil to the paper. Just start.

The rest will come.

Artifact

img_5055

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.

Enriched

Coyote pups

Four Coyote Pups by Den. Colorado. nature 80020CC BY

As sixth grade ended, my teacher recommended me for a summer enrichment camp.

“You’ll love it,” she said. “Every day for two weeks, you’ll get to study drama, writing, and photography.”

I desperately wanted to go.

When I brought the paperwork home to my dad, he frowned.

“I don’t think so,” he told me.

“But, Daddy, it’s a special thing. You have to be invited by your teacher and I get to study drama and writing. It’s going to be so much fun. I can even ride the summer school bus to get there every day—please, Daddy?”

“It costs, you know.” He sounded tired.

The attendance fee, I think, was twenty-five dollars. Maybe thirty. It didn’t seem like a lot to me, but I knew Daddy worried about bills. My mother had ongoing medical expenses; my sister and I took weekly allergy shots. I knew not to bother Daddy when he sat at the table with the checkbook—I wouldn’t go near the kitchen at all, for then he wore a worse frown than the one he was wearing now.

No point in pressing him. I went to my bedroom, shut the door, and cried.

Later that day, or maybe the next, Grandma called. After chatting awhile with my father about news, how our all of our relatives were in their little North Carolina hometown and how everybody was there in Virginia, she asked to talk to me.

Daddy handed me the phone. It had a long cord—really long. From its wall mount, the phone cord reached the floor. It would stretch from the kitchen down the hall to my room, where I could sit on my bed and talk in private.

“Hi, Grandma.”

“Hello, Dear,” she said, the warmth of it like June sunlight bursting through a break in the clouds.  “I just wanted to hear your voice.”

My tears welled again. “I miss you.”

“Is something the matter?”

I told her all about the camp, about Daddy saying no because of the cost.

“How much is it?”

I told her.

“I’ll pay for it,” she said, uncharacteristically crisp. I could almost see the lift of her chin, the flash in her blue eyes. “I believe children should have the chance to do some things they really want to do.”

“Thank you,” I sniffled into the phone.

“Let me talk to your Daddy.”

And so it was that I went to the summer camp on the benevolence of my greatest advocate, Grandma.

Riding the bus with high school kids having to attend summer school in order to pass their grades was an adventure unto itself, but beyond that, camp was a laboratory of creativity.

I encountered pantomime for the first time, communicating story with the body, without words. I wasn’t especially good at it but some of my fellow campers—aged eleven, twelve, thirteen—were astonishing. One boy mimed being closed in by a shrinking box so well that the box was virtually visible. I watched, holding my breath, enthralled.

The drama teachers grouped us into fours, gave the groups four words, and challenged us with writing cohesive skits with these four words embedded in dialogue. My group’s words were—to the best of my memory—lion, clock, heart, flies. We were timed on the writing of the skit and the rehearsal of it, including the creation of minimalist props out of construction paper. My group, with me as scribe, wrote a farcical story of a doctor having to treat a patient who was attacked by a lion and who got away by throwing a clock at it, to which the Groucho Marx-esque doctor remarks: “My, how time flies!”

We entitled it “Dr. Heartbeat, Dr. Heartbeat” after a TV series that none of us really knew much about except that it seemed weird and therefore perfect: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. 

We performed last for our fellow campers, to a standing ovation and teachers wiping their tears at our over-the-top slapstick antics. Yours Truly played the hapless doctor.

We studied fairy tales; we wrote and illustrated our own, to be “published” in laminated books we could keep. I wrote “The Littlest Mermaid,” having long been captivated by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Ages before Disney brought us red-headed Ariel, my pink-haired mermaid battled jealous bullies. When I wrote The other mermaids hated her, the writing teacher said, “Hate is a strong, terrible word. Do you think it belongs in a story for children?”

I revised: The other mermaids didn’t like her. 

Ever since, I’ve thought about the power of one word, and when is right or not right to use it. And audience. And whether children should be shielded from the word hate, and when are fairy tales just for children?

In photography class, we campers built cameras from shoe boxes, learning about light leaks and timed exposures. I was able to produce a picture of a basset hound (they don’t move a lot) and my classmate sitting in a tree. The teacher explained that we were “photojournalists”—we’d write about the process of building and using our cameras, what worked, what didn’t, and why. He then encouraged us to write stories about the images we took and developed.

For a final writing adventure, the writing teachers invited us to look through a stack of glossy, full-page photographs. I chose two: One of a single coyote standing in a canyon, the other of four little coyote pups. I was taken by the animals’ beauty and the warm, reddish colors of the rocks.

Trouble was, I knew nothing of coyotes beyond the Road Runner cartoons. The animals in these photos were unexpectedly magnificent.

Thus began my first real foray into research. It began with place: Where do coyotes live? I needed to know. At home that night, I cracked open a dusty encyclopedia from the bottom shelf of the living room bookcase. After poring over the coyote entry, I chose Pueblo, Colorado, for my coyotes’ home. And having learned, somberly, that man is the coyotes’ worst enemy, I had an idea for a plot: Survival. After the mother or the father coyote is shot, the mate takes the pups on a journey to a new home. I also encountered the word ravenous for the first time . . . and when my teachers asked me to read my story for the gathering of families at the program on the last day of camp, I mispronounced it, saying that the coyotes ate ra-VEEN-yus-ly. “I wish I’d heard you read it aloud first,” a teacher apologized. “It’s RA-ven-ous-ly.”

Alas. Reader’s vocabulary.

It was decades and decades ago, but the richness of the camp is with me still: Every day an adventure, with something to discover, to explore, to synthesize into something new; an extension of myself, what I love, who I am. A wealth of learning compounded with interest, over time.

That Grandma made possible, because she believed it was important, even necessary. I later learned how much she wanted to take piano lessons as a child and her family couldn’t afford it. A charitable young preacher’s wife eventually taught her how to play.

And, ever the angel wielding the sword on my behalf, Grandma was willing to take a piercing in return; she sent me to the camp even though she knew it would shorten the time I’d spent at her house that summer.

Because, for some investments, the payoff is incalculable. Grandma understood this.

And even then I understood that I was, in so many ways, enriched beyond measure.

Be

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Long may our land be bright . . . 

Be

I find a place where I can be

away from clamor

away from contention

away from conflagration.

A place where I can see

sunlight on the grass

on the trees

on the rocks

on the water

flowing on and on.

A place that invites me

to see the good

in myself,

in others,

to be the good

for myself

for others.

A place of recess

of stillness

of silence

where I sigh less.

Here,

for this moment,

I can

breathe

believe

and be.

Perhaps this is a strange Fourth of July post. It came together strangely.

It was inspired in part by two quotes from children’s television icon Fred Rogers in the documentary of his life and work, Won’t You Be My Neighbor:

  • Whatever happened to GOODNESS? To just being GOOD?” Mr. Rogers, a man of faith who spent five decades helping others and building them up, asked this in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. He would live just seventeen more months.
  • Silence is our most underused gift.” In many segments of his program, Mr. Rogers was silent so that children could concentrate on what they were seeing. 

I thought about children. About seeing our country, our world, through their eyes. 

I remembered the photo of my first son contemplating the autumn countryside from the doorway of an old grist mill when he was just three. He grew up to be an American history teacher.

A sprinkling of our patriotic songs and lyrics returned to me, like sea spray on the breeze. America the beautiful. Land that I love. Land of the noble free. Crown thy good with brotherhood. Home of the brave. Home sweet home. 

All stirring me to ruminate on beliefs and believing, on building up versus tearing down, on how, if all voices are shouting, no one’s being heard.

The word clamor came to mind and it somehow strung everything together—whatever happened to goodness and silence is our most underused gift and children and faith and long may our land be bright—like beads on a string.

So today, for a moment, I find a place away from the clamor. In the dawn’s early light and within myself.

To reflect.

To be.

And believe.

Still.