Of stifling, stories, and stars

What stifles you?

This question appeared today on Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog.

The first thing the word stifle conjures for me is heat—stifling southern summer afternoons, air turning to bathwater.

Hard to breathe.

Which makes me think of COVID-19.

And masks.

It’s hard to breathe with a mask, if you have to expend much energy, if you have to talk very much… I know, because I wear one when I’m out and about.

In thinking of masks, I come to another layer…

Filters.

There to help protect. To keep harmful stuff out.

Or in. Depending.

Masks may be somewhat stifling.

Filters aren’t stifling at all.

It’s the lack of filters I find stifling, out there in the daily atmosphere, the zeitgeist of our times. Words of fire, of ash, of acid rain, meant to destroy…when their creative power could be harnessed instead to edify, to transform, to transcend. To honor. To heal. The poets know it…

I can only be vigilant with my own filtering. With what I let into my own mind, heart, and soul. With what I let flow in return… recognizing that

Fear stifles creativity
Inner critics stifle courage
Loudness stifles contemplation
Turmoil stifles contentment
Excuses stifle commitment
Regret stifles today—and tomorrow

—I’d like to continue the acrostic with a sort of reversal using each letter of “stifle” and “filters” on every line but I am tired now. Tiredness stifles the brain.

Humanity is stifling. As in, one’s own. Today an education colleague and I joked that we were done with Earth, having had enough of not-knowing, of virtual realities of teaching, of the inability to move forward with life in general and the tolls taken on us all in so many ways. We kidded about going to live on the Space Station. Even now, recalling, I am “slipping the surly bonds of Earth,” as WWII fighter-pilot-poet John Gillespie Magee wrote, to circumnavigate our planet every ninety-two minutes, seeing fifteen sunrises and sunsets in one day, like the astronauts do. To be among the stars…

Which evokes another favorite quote, this one from Muriel Rukeyser:

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”

And so I slip away from the cosmos, down through our protective atmosphere, back to my own country, to my home, my family, my little spot carved out here in the kitchen, to the waiting keyboard, feeling again the heaviness of humanity.

For us all.

For our very atoms, for the stories we live and breathe.

I reach for the words and it’s a little like reaching for the stars. Not those beyond but their remnants within; as scientists say, we humans are made of stardust.

Well then.

Seems we should be about filtering light.

I’ve enjoyed the open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join.

Reclamation

I love the stillness of the morning, before the dawn, which is presently hours away. I love the silence, the holy hush preceding the coming of the sun. My family, even the new puppy, slumbers on. If I have a word for these moments, it’s expectancy. If I were to step outside now I might hear footsteps in the pine straw beneath trees that border my back fence; I will not yet be able to see which creature is moving there in the dark. A white-tailed deer, perhaps, or a squirrel, which makes an astonishing amount of noise in the straw, much more more than larger creatures. Two mornings ago, in the first light, I glimpsed a huge gray rabbit running to and fro just beyond the fence. And if I wait long enough, I’ll hear my neighbor’s rooster crow. Any time now. He doesn’t wait for actual light that I can see. He’ll proclaim the new day, the continuum of daily living, before it’s set in motion. He’ll stir the goats in various pens throughout the neighborhood (not to be expected in a little subdivision—whatever happened to restrictive covenants?) and their loud chorus of wild baas will back up the rooster’s solo.

It’s life waking up again, claiming the day for its own.

On this new day, of this new year, this new decade, I think about life. The trouble with life, I once read, is that it’s so daily. Not merely being alive but trying to accomplish all that must be (or that we think must be) accomplished in this day, this week, this month … last year I learned a lesson about life on hiatus. When the life of someone you love hangs in the balance, all your best-laid plans disintegrate. Poof.

Moving forward becomes an act of will, a revised determination to do what you can, what’s most important, for that given day. Recovering ground, inch by precious inch.

Reclamation.

Whether life is suspended, or stagnant, or spinning out of control, we still have choices. Maybe it’s resting more. Writing more. Reading more, singing more. Praying more. Maybe it’s seeking help. Maybe it’s restoring relationships, or releasing them. Or creating something beautiful, meaningful. What we want to do and what we’re actually able to do in a day, a week, a month, a year, may be vastly different, but reclamation doesn’t happen all at once. It happens in determined, consistent bits by bits. It is deliberate and intentional.

Once I wished for something like parallel lives, a cloning of sorts, with one of me staying home to write all day, one of me getting everything done in the house the way I want it, and another me going to work. I am exacting of myself; I do a thing, I want to do it well, and so I am easily paralyzed by my own standards.

I think of the sea, rolling on and on, its billows and rhythms, its continuity, its fluidity. I contemplate its healing properties, how it is designed to cleanse itself. I look at the photo I included at the top of this post, how, writes the photographer, the cemetery “is being reclaimed by the forest as alders, birch, spruce, fir and a couple apple trees crowd out the dozen or so headstones that stand here.” It’s in Newfoundland and that symbolism strikes right at my writer-heart, new found land.

That’s what reclamation is. Taking back solid ground, or creating new land, from what would submerge it, overtake it. Inch by precious inch, bit by bit. Yesterday I heard a sportscaster speak of Ron Rivera’s move from the Carolina Panthers to the Washington Redskins: “Coach Rivera has been part of a reclamation project before.” It took him four years to take the failing Panthers to the Super Bowl. He’s already begun the work for the Redskins, before he ever gets there … like my rooster here, calling to the dawn before it appears.

It’s hard daily work, reclamation. Progress is slow to see for a time.

But I’ve started.

I pulled the weeds out of the planters on my back deck and planted pansies, a bright bit of welcome on these cold mornings when I take the new puppy out. The puppy is himself an act of reclamation, an affirmation of love my family has always had for dogs (which, I’ve said before, have souls; purer than my own, there in those eyes). He marks a moving forward.

One step at a time, I’ll reclaim the house by many little needed repairs and coats of paint. Patience, endurance …

My writing, my writing. How many stories lay unfinished? Not begun? If I can learn to live nonlinear, to live as fluid as the sea, then anywhere is an entry point. Whenever, wherever, just plunge. The time necessary for writing will come if I just begin the reclamation.

Work. I write this paragraph not only for myself, but for other educators and instructional coaches struggling for clarity and a foothold in an ever-changing, shifting field: Beware the great chasm between theory and application, between programs that are packaged as “the magic bullet” and cost a pretty penny but fail to deliver. Be aware of the great gulf between data that’s visible and the stories of human children, not so visible. Push back all that encroaches on growing the children, that which would inhibit their love of learning. Reclaim that for them. Know them and their families and their stories. Know your colleagues and their stories. Write together, all of you; in this day of restorative practices and social-emotional wellness, why are people not writing more in such settings? We reclaim the very heart of our humanity when we share our stories.

—It is light now. A new day is here; I hear life stirring all around. Forget those restrictive covenants.

Let the reclamation begin.

Photo: Reclamation. Derrick Mercer. CC BY-SA

Writing your own story

I saw his shirt from across the crowded cafeteria:

Writing my OWN story.

I hadn’t seen him before, didn’t know him, but I had to go over and say: “That’s the most awesome shirt! Do you like to write?”

He smiled and nodded, eyes bright and cheerful: “Yes!”

We had a short conversation about reading and writing. He was new to our school. After this initial encounter he was quick to come ask questions if he wasn’t sure about how we do things here, always greeting me with an earnest face and slightly self-conscious smile.

He wasn’t with us long. On his last days, he asked if he could stay after lunch and clean all of the tables as his grade level headed to recess. He wiped every table meticulously, then straightened all of the cardboard trays in the serving line for the classes to follow.

I understood.

It was something he could control. A positive and productive outlet.

I never got to write with him.

I thought about students over the years and what I learned about their lives from their writing. A girl whose family slept in their car on the journey north to visit relatives for the holidays; how she woke in the morning, shivering, to find frost coating the windows. A teenager whose vivid third-person narrative about a child born in another country, who survives abuse to find a new life and family in America . . . it switches to first person at the end as he rejoices and reveals he was that child. A first-grader who wanted to write about her dog, how the police shot and killed it. Unnerved, I told her teacher, in hopes that this was just a disturbing fabrication. It wasn’t. The child saw it happen.

For all the story-loving writer that I am, I know writing is not a magic cure for the pain and scars of life. It is, however, a real coping mechanism, a positive and productive outlet, a way of seeing and dealing with and finding hope to overcome. Even in the youngest of us, many of whom already know that life doesn’t follow a neat formula, that it seldom follows a clear and sensible series of steps. I often think about what passes for “writing” in schools; it can’t always be a neat response to a text or a prompt. If we are truly to equip children with tools for life, it begins with a real response to their lives in this world. We owe them, for as long as we have them, a place to feel safe, to be loved, a way of having some control in the face of change, to find their own power despite their powerlessness.To write their own lives, even as life is unfolding.

To have hope on the journey as it takes so many twists and turns.

Time is of the essence; we don’t know for how long or short a time they’ll be in our sphere of influence. Good-byes can come without warning.

And so I quickly gathered the best tools I had at my disposal: pencils, notebooks, a couple of favorite books from my shelf. It was my way of saying Godspeed, child. Write your OWN story. Believe. Attend to your heart. Here’s a piece of mine to carry with you.

Edward knew what it was like to say over and over again the names of those you had left behind. He knew what it was like to miss someone. And so he listened. And in his listening, his heart opened wide and then wider still.

You must be filled with expectancy. You must be awash in hope. You must wonder who will love you, whom you will love next.

—excerpts, Kate DiCamillo, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Writing identity

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I want to be riding the contours of my students’ writing—not judging it. 

Ralph Fletcher, quoting poet and writing teacher William Stafford

Day Four of our Teacher Summer Writing Institute opened with reflection on the quote above.

“I think the use of the word riding is significant,” said a colleague. “It means that students should be in the driver’s seat with regard to their writing. The teacher is a passenger.”

Another participant chimed in: “The word contours really stands out to me. I think of waves”her hands move through the air as if tracing curves, rising, falling—”and how the path of each student’s writing is so different, because they’re all in different places.”

With a focus on “Writing to Transform,” teachers spent the better part of the day exploring the research and impact of specific feedback, along with tools and approaches to conferring with student writers. They practiced with each other.  Teachers at the secondary level discussed the use of Screencastify and Google Keep as a means of giving feedback to large numbers of students.

They continued writing pieces from yesterday. A science specialist told me: “I started writing poetry and I couldn’t stop. I went home last night and wrote more.”

I listened to her, feeling as if I were living in a dream, straddling the line between reality and ethereality. Reminded, yet again, that the need to create is embedded deep in the hearts of humans.

We all took some time to reflect on our own writing histories, moments that shaped us into the writers we are at present.

For there’s a why to the writers we are.

I walked my colleagues through my own writing history (having spent much time pondering this recently). I made my first feeble attempts at writing stories just because I wanted to around age six. I don’t remember any more writing until about fifth grade, when I had great fun creating “The Myth of Shoeani” on how shoes were invented (we were studying mythology) and an autobiography that drew praise from the teacher regarding my “vivid detail.” I recall how surprised I was by the compliment. I went through a heavy poetry-writing phase in junior high, clearly a means of surviving my adolescent self. As a young wife, I suddenly realized that I was the bridge from the past to the future; I began recording my grandparents’ stories. How glad I am now that I did. My grandmother wholeheartedly encouraged my writing, believed I had a gift for it . . . but that’s what grandmothers do. Even as I won recognition for literary criticism and placed in short story competitions, as I amassed stacks of unfinished stories and mentor texts written in front of students as models, I thought of myself as someone who loves to write, who loves to encourage others to write, not “a writer.”

Not sure exactly when the shift occurred, only that it wasn’t so long ago.

The realization that writing is not just something I do.

It’s who I am.

A writer.

“Something we must remember,” I told my teacher colleagues as they began contemplating their own writing journeys, “is that we are currently helping to shape our students’ writing identities.”

Riding those contours, as individual to each student as patterns to snowflakes.

For we do not transform our young writers.

Their own words will.

We just help them harness their power.

From our place in the passenger seat.

When writers believe their words matter, nothing can stop them.

-Ruth Ayres, Enticing Hard-to-Reach Writers