It is time to sit down and write. Concentrate. Get your thoughts together. They scattered like leaves in a wind storm. Sit down. Think. It is time to write. You can do it, and you will. Now, sit down. I sit and stare. I play with the keys of my laptop. I pretend to write. I try to think of something. I make lists of all the things I need to do – I must do. Nothing is coming. Nothing makes sense. I seek some of my photographs. Maybe they will help me find the words. Finally, I take a breath. I surrender my mind to the images, and images form in my mind.
This week, my thoughts came in quick, short phrases. They begged to be placed into poetry. January is a perfect month for reflection, and I am able to get to the center of my thoughts when I compose poetry. Everything seems to fall into place, and I feel comforted by the rhythm of my thinking.
I have been searching for something to read these past few months. I am in the middle of listening to The Once and Future King, which I started in August. I love T.H. White‘s humor and endless knowledge of medieval history, magic, and myths. I don’t want the adventure to end, so I am reading it ever so slowly. But right now, I need an intimate read. Since November, I have been telling friends that I feel like I’m entering a deep dark tunnel of winter. They seem a little alarmed, but I assure them that I am not experiencing a depressive state, that this melancholy is natural. The outside world is changing, and my interior climate is changing too. I have an intensive need to slow down and nourish myself. And just like magic – a book suggestion pops up in my inbox – Wintering by Katherine May.
I have been listening to May’s words carefully for the last two days. She describes wintering as a completely natural cycle of life. It is necessary for the animals and flora to winter in colder climes, and people need to prepare too for both internal and external winters. She weaves together a marvelously insightful story with bits and pieces of personal narrative, science, history, and literature. I am enjoying every word, and I want to slow down to savor them, but I know her words are what I need to get through this winter. I am experiencing a profound personal loss, and I need May’s words to show me the way through. I sit and listen quietly to her descriptions of whales swimming in the North Atlantic, of the Norwegian’s custom of being “in sauna,” and of her son, Bert’s, delight in Halloween.
As so often is the case, reading brings on writing for me. I listen to the images of winter and soak them in; I savor them. I sleep and wake, and my own words come to me. Yesterday, we had our first snow. A falcon stood sentinel outside my window. I wanted to capture her watchful calm, her powerful way in the face of winter.
Recently, my husband and I traveled south to visit family for the holidays. As he has done on all our road trips, my husband curates music, radio shows, and intersperses his own running monologues critiquing economics, art, fitness trends, and politics as I drive.. He is indeed a Renaissance man. As he talked, he mentioned Icarus in passing. At once, words popped into my head, and I recited to him: “Falling, falling, falling – down through the distant sky – like Icarus on melted wings – Never asking why.”
“Oh, that’s good,” my husband replied, “Where’s that from?”
I laughed, “From me. I wrote that in college. It’s part of a longer poem. But I had forgotten all about it until now.”
My husband went on with his story. I tried to pay attention, but my lost poem kept rolling around in my mind. It had been published in my college literary magazine, Cul-de-sac. At the time, I thought being published in the Cul-de-sac and being part of the editorial board was the height of literary success. I had kept several clippings but had lost them all in subsequent moves. This was long before the Internet and all things digital, and I had tossed out all my college notebooks on some impetuous whim. In my twenties, I was not aware of the need to keep memories. Now, in my sixties recalling memories and emotions is a sacred, almost devotional act.
I began recreating the poem silently in my head as I drove. It was had three stanzas maybe four. I couldn’t remember the exact words, but as I recited it my head, I got closer and closer to the original poem. The rhythm of the road helped me to remember. As the words came to me, in a short time so did my emotions. I thought about why I wrote that poem; all the loneliness and insecurity I felt came rushing back. Though being sixty-five is certainly not a cakewalk, I don’t think I would want to be twenty again. Don’t get me wrong. I would like to have my twenty-year-old skin, hair, knees, and back but not my twenty-year-old self-loathing that I have worked forty-five years to overcome.
My twenty-year-old poet-self wanted so much out of the world, wanted to do so much, and I felt so unprepared. I was so desolate and so hopeful at the same time. I guess that’s the nature of twenty-something. At the time, I was taking a course on Ibsen. We read one of his early poems as a prelude to his play, The Master Builder. I was struck how his poem, written thirty-four years earlier, connected to the essential message of his play.
I was very painfully aware of how ambition and desire were a dangerous mix. I was not at all sure how to build a strong artistic identity. I think I am still struggling with that. I create work – sometimes hiding it and sometimes presenting or publishing it. However, I think I have used teaching as a safety net. If I fall, teaching could always save me. Now, I’m facing the end years of my teaching career. The art and writing are still strong within me. And that poem that I wrote forty-five years ago, still remains true.
It is time for winter break: teachers are exhausted, children are restless, and COVID is on the rise. Everyone is weary except the young children. They are bright with anticipation for whatever holiday they celebrate – Hanukkah, Kwanza, Christmas. Their sweet voices sing songs of cheer, helping to lift my spirits as I search for something to give me holiday spirit. I sat down with a table of Kindergarteners this week and asked, “What are you writing?” They all looked up at me perplexed, and one of them looked down at her paper and answered, “We are writing art!” I chuckled, “Oh, you are drawing! That’s a good thing to do!” I am ever-amazed at the new way in which children view the world. I have sought to keep that fresh, creative mindset as I age. Sometimes it is easy to do especially since I am surrounded by young, inquisitive minds, but sometimes I get “imagination block,” and I feel lost and without purpose. When I feel this way, I know I have to discover new paths to return to my creative source.
A colleague of mine has a ten-year-old daughter who loves Santa Claus and continues to believe. This has worried some adults who think it’s time for the girl to leave behind childish things. I, on the other hand, love Cassie’s tenacity to believe in the face of doubters both young and old. She will not give up her belief in Santa. I think this is because he represents generosity, hope, and magical thinking. Why would anyone want to give up that? Those are qualities that will bolster us as we make our way on this long journey. There is no need to toss Santa out, instead let’s celebrate him!
To get myself in the spirit of the season, I went to a neighborhood nursery where they sell trees, wreaths, and holiday gifts. They had an outdoor market with a treat wagon selling hot cocoa, mulled cider, and various kinds of cookies. Immediately my mood brightened with the smell of apples, pine, and juniper. I ventured into the gift shop and took my time looking at the ornaments, pottery, candles, and candle holders. I selected a gift for myself, a small tin candle holder in the shape of a tree. A smile appeared on my face, and I knew this was the right place to be. I lingered a little longer watching young children come into the shop to choose their favorite ornament for their tree. You could tell from their parents’ faces that this was an important moment, that they were building a Christmas tradition, that they were kindling their child’s imagination. I watched as a two-year-old selected a glass popcorn ornament for her tree. She clapped as her father picked it up and gave it to the saleslady, her golden curls shaking with glee. My heart was warm now, and I was ready to venture outside where everyone was awaiting the arrival of Santa. I stopped to get a cup of mulled cider before leaving. I breathed in deeply its cranberry, orange, and apple essence. I walked about the lines of trees and wreaths. I wasn’t in the market to buy; I just took a leisurely stroll soaking in holiday spirit.
On the way back home, I passed a street I have passed many times since living in this small town for nineteen years. It looks like every other street in town, except at Christmastime. The street is named St. Nickolas Way, and at this time of year, the street sign is donned with a Santa hat. Every time I pass by, I smile. This time, I decided to stop and take a photo to remind me of holiday hope and Christmas imagination. I headed home, with a warm heart and a mind full of cheer.
Books Celebrating Santa
A Cooke for Santa by Stephanie Shaw
Auntie Claus by Elise Primavera
Dasher: How a Brave Little Doe Changed Christmas Forever by Matt Taveras
Dear Santa by Rod Campbell
Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs
Here Comes Santa Cat by Deborah Underwood
How to Catch Santa by Jean Reagan
How Santa Got His Job by Stephen Krensky
Hurry Santa! by Julie Sykes
Little Red Sleigh by Erin Guendelsberger
Little Santa by Jon Agee
Love, Santa by Martha Brockenbrough
The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore (Illustrated by Holly Hobbie)
Santa Calls by William Joyce
Santa Claus and the Three Bears by Maria Modugno
Santa Duck by David Milgrim
Santa in the City by Tiffany D. Jackson
Santa Mouse by Michael Brown
Santa’s Stuck by Rhonda Golwer Greene
Santa’s Underwear by Marty Fingley
The Animals’ Santa by Jan Brett
The Big Secret: The Whole and Honest Truth About Santa Claus by D.W. Boom
The Real Santa by Nancy Redd
The Day Santa Stopped Believing in Harold by Maureen Fergus
This week, I was able to once again attend a professional development workshop in-person! No Zoom, just educators getting together in a large space – listening and thinking; talking and laughing – the essence of true learning. We were all thrilled to be out in public once again, even if we still had to don masks and socially distance. We were together and that’s what mattered. The workshop was offered by the Rutgers Center for Literacy Development, directed by Dr. Lesley M. Morrow. I have been attending workshops presented by the center for the last twenty years, and I am on the board, helping make choices on presenter offerings and other logistical matters. The presenter for this particular workshop was Kelly Gallagher, and the title of his presentation was Building Readers and Writers: Moving from Compliance to Engagement. I have seen Kelly several times before. His expertise is teaching high school writing, which has no direct connection to me in my present role. I figured I would relax and listen and not worry about learning something. But of course, I was totally surprised.
In the course of Kelly laying out the importance of writing with students, he said something that sparked my interest. He talked about the notion of writing without a plan – writing to discover what you think and know. I do this all the time when I compose my blogs. I think of a topic, roll it around in my head for several days, and then start to write. I don’t make an outline, a web, or a Venn diagram. I just write. And then I revise. And revise. And revise. Many, many times. Eventually, I edit, and then I hit the publish button. The week before, I was discussing this very idea with Hadley, one of my private students who is a gifted 6th grade writer. She expressed her displeasure of having to always write a plan before she writes at school. She insightfully stated: “Sometimes I have an idea, but I don’t exactly know how the story is going to go until I start writing and meet the characters.” She is perfectly right, and I empathized with her, explained why the teacher was asking her to make a plan, but also encouraged her to write without a plan at home and with me. Hadley and I often write together, stopping when stuck, reading our pieces out loud, talking about where we might go next, asking ourselves, “What does this story need now?,” and then continuing to write quietly. I treasure these times when we are in the flow of writing.
Kelly explained that the “Writing process includes daily practice with finding and shaping words to express ideas, creating confidence, flexibility, and joy. He spoke eloquently about the importance of volume in student writing. Writing needs space and time to grow. It isn’t perfected overnight. A writer has to create, explore, discover, take risks, fail, and start all over again. It is the teacher’s job to help design that time and space, that love of story, that sense of adventure.
At one point during the workshop, Kelly had the attendees read the poem, “Learning the Bicycle” by Wyatt Prunty. Then he asked us each to select a line that stood out to us, write that line on a sheet of paper, and then start writing off of the idea we had selected. We got to work. I selected the line: “And her certainty she will always fall.” It jumped out at me as I read. “Yes, that’s me, always ready to fall, waiting for the moment, tense and certain.” I began to write, crafting a poem that pleased me.
The next day, I was working with Hadley. We were finishing up reading Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. We had about 20 minutes left in our session. Poetry would fit in perfectly, so I read Wyatt Prunty’s poem to her, and I asked her to select a line and then start writing. Hadley took up her pencil and leaned her head toward the paper.
After several minutes, Hadley lifted her head. “I’m stuck. I don’t know how to end it,” she declared. I listened as she read her poem aloud. I didn’t have to give a word of advice. Hadley picked up her pencil and put her head down again and started to write. Quickly, she finished and said, “ I’m done, but it doesn’t make any sense.” She read the entire poem to me, and I was stunned by its deep beauty. I was surprised that a twelve-year-old girl could express her self-doubt so clearly and maturely. I told her how incredible her poem was, and she looked at me with her dark brown Hadley eyes and said, “But what does it mean?”
I turned to her and smiled, “What do you think it means? What were you trying to say?”
She implored, “I don’t know. It doesn’t make any sense to me. Do you know?”
I took a breath and a chance. “I think it means that you are growing up, and the girl on the inside doesn’t always match the girl on the outside. You are trying to find your identity.”
Hadley pressed her lips together in thought and nodded her head. “How can you write when you don’t know what you are thinking?”
I smiled again. “Well, that’s what we’ve been talking about: writing without a plan, writing to discover what you are thinking. It takes time. And sometimes it surprises you!”
My words seemed to satisfy Hadley. She picked up her pencils and put them back in her case. Our writing time together was done for now.
I was tasked this week to introduce the concept of “short story” to our 4th graders, and I was thrilled because that meant I would get to share the work of Cynthia Rylant. I realize I have been teaching a long time because all my favorite authors from my classroom teaching days are now considered “classic.” Authors like Katherine Paterson, Jane Yolen, Natalie Babbitt, Patricia Reilly Giff, Lois Lowery, and my beloved Beverly Cleary are now considered old and outdated. Many teachers fear that these books won’t connect with our current students. I find this a very sad state of affairs. Even Sharon Creech is becoming a “classic” and is being passed over for younger authors and new titles. There is nothing wrong with exposing students to current trends in literature, but we don’t need to toss out books just because they were written a long time ago.
With this idea in mind, I used two short stories from Cynthia Rylant’s book, Every Living Thing to introduce our 4th graders to how an author can say a lot in a short amount of space. First, I asked the students what they knew about short stories. Of course, the kids said quite matter-of-factly: “They are short.” I smiled and said, “Yes, but what are the elements in a short story? What’s the secret recipe?” Now, some wheels started turning in their heads, and soon we co-created a list of what makes a short story a short story.
Now it was time to read! I set before them Cynthia Rylant’s “A Bad Road for Cats.” The front cover of the short story packet just had the title with a lot of blank space. I asked the students to predict what the story would be about. Why did they think it was a bad road? What do they think would happen? I gave them a few minutes to think and record. I walked around looking at their work. Some wrote in big loopy letters. Others got their faces down to the paper and were writing in tiny print in a corner of the large open space. It’s so interesting that personalities come out on the page. Their predictions, for the most part, were brief, so I encouraged them to stretch themselves and use their imaginations. I told them to try to fill up all the space of the page with their ideas. I gave them permission to think. I waited. Slowly they started to expand their thinking. Then I asked for volunteers to share their predictions. Everyone’s hands shot up. They do love to share! They often go off script from their writing, weaving intricate oral stories. I gently lead them back and record some their ideas. They are now primed to tackle the text.
In the story, we meet a young woman, Magda, who is searching the highway for her lost cat. Rylant expertly paints a detailed picture of the dangerous road, Route 6, where there are lines of gas stations, restaurants, and dairy bars. From her description, you can hear the traffic and feel the Magda’s increasing panic. We come to learn that the lost cat’s name is Louis, named after Magda’s grandfather and that Magda is alone in the world. Her husband had died, and she has no children. Louis is everything to her, and he is lost. We feel her pain, and in our minds we are trying to figure out where he could be. Rylant is a master of suspense, and we stop often to discuss how she chooses to weave her words. The story ends with Louis being found, but there are many questions to ponder, so I ask the girls to fill up the back page of their packet with all the questions they still have. This is an easier task for them. They are off and running. They have a lot to say.
Through this process, the students have developed a strong connection with this lonely woman, strange boy, and rescued cat. In just a few pages, Rylant wove a compelling story that had students thinking. The girls realized that even when a story ends, it isn’t the end of the readers’ thinking. Short or long, the story sticks with us, changes us, and make our worlds a little wider and richer.
The next day, we return to the concept of the short story. We discuss our predictions and questions for “A Bad Road for Cats.” Always the social activists, our 4th grade girls brainstorm how to make Route 6 safer for cats. Rylant has done her job. She has made the setting and the problem real. The girls are invested in the story. In a short space of time, they have come to care.
They are ready for the next story, “Retired,” about a retired schoolteacher and an adopted dog. This story is quiet, full of inner conflict – a departure from the loud bustling road where cats are not safe. This story starts with Miss Cutcheon and how she is dealing with being retired and now home alone. Quickly, she gets an old dog, Princess, whose 3-children family moved to France and left her with Miss Cutcheon, who promptly renames her Velma. It is revealed that Miss Cutcheon and Velma have many things in common, most importantly they love and long for children. This story is so accessible to students learning to understand the arc of a story. And after predicting, reading, and discussing the conflict and resolution, the children are ready to create story mountains (Freytag Pyramids) to show how Rylant constructed her storyline. I am hoping that this practice and preparation with help the students as they head to their next endeavor: writing their own short story.
A number a years ago, I created a makerspace for our elementary students based in an old unused art room. I blogged about creating and re-imagining with children in the Wonder Lab here. However, last spring, I was told that the Wonder Lab needed to be dismantled to make room for the Innovation Lab, which would be used to teach students computer science (coding) and engineering. I complied with undoing the Wonder Lab with a heavy heart. It had taken many years of planning and collaboration to finally get approval. Then in three short years it was suddenly discarded. I didn’t want to let it go, but I had no choice. I thought long and hard about a way to re-establish it. We had no open space except a small lobby between the newly named Innovation Lab and my office. I worked two full days by myself and cleared out the Wonder Lab and the lobby. I put everything in storage, which happened to be on the third floor, and there are no elevators in the Victorian house in which the Wonder Lab is housed. I trotted up and down the stairs working out my anger and disappointment. On my final trip down the stairs, I surveyed the lobby. The words, “Wonder Studio” popped into my mind. Yes, the Wonder Lab could be reincarnated into the Wonder Studio. I just had to think small.
This fall, Wonder Studio is operating full steam. Small is certainly beautiful. I have invited small groups of children each week to work on small projects. I keep small and tidy supplies on hand. Tidy has been a challenge, but I keep working at it. And my favorite phrase to the students now is, “If you do not clean up after yourself, you will not be invited back to the Wonder Studio.” That seems to have done the trick. The girls are learning increasingly to be accountable for their materials.
This week, I was working with a group of 3rd graders. They were wrapping yarn around small wreath forms on which they were ultimately going to attach jingle bells with ribbons. Two girls were painting with water colors. One was making a ferret out of a toilet paper roll, pipe cleaners, felt, yarn, and a plastic Easter egg. Another made an octagonal loom out of popsicles sticks and created a web with yarn. Yet another, was sitting on the steps gleefully finger knitting. I paused and looked around everyone was busy and happy. They were all creating in their own way. Then the loom maker said, “Wonder Studio is better than Art because we get to do our own thing.” The other girls agreed loudly. I sensed a rebellion in the making. So, I quickly explained that you needed both Art class and Wonder Studio. Art class teaches you skills and Wonder Studio allows you to practice those skills and stretch your creative muscles.” I look around at a lot of little nodding heads. Crisis averted. Phew!
I know that this brief time with the girls – 30 minutes at recess time – is so important. Wonder Studio supports creativity, imagination, agency, and self-confidence.
“Look what I made!”
“I made that!
Do you have rubber bands?”
“I want to make a slingshot.”
“Do you have balloons?”
“I want to make a stress ball.”
I love these statements and requests from our young learners. They keep me on my toes. I am endlessly searching for junk that they miraculously turn into their treasure.
Last week, I was walking through the cafeteria with my tray of food, when Mallory, a 5th grader, patted the spot next to her and called out, “Sit with us!” I was planning to go back to my office, but from the look on Mallory’s face, I knew she had something important on her mind. She put her tray down and hurried to grab a chair from another table for me. Wow – she was determined.
Quickly she said, “I have been thinking about you!” I looked up at her surprised. “Were you sad when they took Wonder Lab away?”
“Ut…Oh,” I thought, “I better answer this very carefully, but honestly.”
So, I smiled and said to Mallory, “ Yes, I was sad because I knew how important Wonder Lab was for you girls. I knew I had to keep a place for you to play.”
She smiled back at me.
“I think Wonder Studio is working out well, even through it’s small.”
Mallory looked at me intently, “Well, that’s what I want to talk to you about. I think we should build you your own Wonder House.”
I started to laugh, “That would be wonderful,” I said (pun intended).
Mallory continued enthusiastically, “We could build it right outside the Wonder Studio. We could go out onto the porch, make a pathway, and then build the Wonder House right on the empty space on the lawn. We wouldn’t have to cut down any trees.”
I marveled at how much planning and daydreaming Mallory had been doing. She is usually a shy and quiet girl. But her Wonder House idea had given her a strong voice. I was so humbled and honored by her thoughtfulness.
“Well, that is such a great idea to have our own house to work in, but it cost money to build a house,” I replied.
“I was thinking about that too!,” Mallory said eagerly. We could make things in the Wonder Studio and sell them. We could save up and then build the house. I’m going to talk to the Head of School about it. We need a BIG Wonder Space.”
And this is why I love working with children. They are ever optimistic and determined. I am so glad I didn’t give up and made a space in which the girls can dream and create. Every day, they give me more and more evidence for why creativity matters. Every day, they fill me with hope.
So many times, when talking about reading, teachers put an emphasis on decoding and comprehension. They want to make sure kids are reading accurately and fluently. They want to make sure they teach their students how to predict, how to find the main idea, how to infer from the breadcrumb trails the author leaves her readers. They want to check off all the boxes. And yes, these are all important, but in the midst I think we are losing the importance of the story. Why is this story important? How does this story connect to you? How has it changed you? What differences has it made in your thinking, in your life? Isn’t that what reading is all about? Isn’t that what keeps us reading? It isn’t my ability to read accurately and fluently; it isn’t my proficiency in finding the main idea or making an inference, it is my love of and connection to the characters in the story. I want to crawl into their lives for a while and live their experiences. That way I become more them and less me. I am able to take on different points of view; I am able to grow in my thinking and being.
Recently, I have been reading Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson with a sixth-grade student. She is a proficient and prolific reader and writer. She loves Percy Jackson novels and all things Greek mythology. She was in a rut. Whenever this happens, whenever students gets stuck in their reading, I often turn to poetry novels. I find that verse creates a space where kids can take more chances. Verse seems to challenge their thinking, but does so in a gentle, playful way. By reading Brown Girl Dreaming, Hadley and I are able to step into Ms. Woodson’s reality. We get to see and feel what a brown girl growing up in the south experienced – parent conflicts, loving grandparents, sibling rivalry, the love of reading – all things we can connect with. There are also lots of historical and geographical pieces that nudge Hadley’s knowledge and make her curious to want to know more. This is the very essence of reading; this is why we read.
We are almost at the end our journey with Ms. Woodson, so I thought we’d take a break and write using the first line of the title poem of the novel for inspiration. When I ask students to write, I also write alongside them. I think this is so important. We write quietly beside each other and somehow there is such power in this simple act. Hadley types. I write long-hand. She marvels at how fast I can scrawl words across a page. I find that the act of writing by hand magically connects my mind and fingertips. Sometimes I wonder what my fingertips are writing. How exactly am I creating? It’s like my fingers have a mind of their own. Hadley pauses. “I’m stuck,” she says. Well, I say, “Let’s read it out loud and see what comes to mind.” She is twelve now. She does not like hearing her own voice, so I read her poem aloud to her. She reaches for the laptop again, “ I got it now,” she says and continues. I love being within this process with her. I don’t want it to end, but it does. She is finished. She has run out of steam. She says that she is done. I do not argue. I read it one more time aloud to her. . I read mine aloud, and we enjoy the fact that Ms. Woodson’s one line could create two different poems. We are satisfied.
November 11th is Veteran’s Day, a day to remember and lay honor to all those men and women who have fought for this country. It is celebrated on November 11th because that day in 1918 marked the end of World War I: “The war to end all wars.” But of course, it didn’t end all wars. It was made a national holiday in 1954 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It became a day to honor American veterans of all wars. For many years, I’d thank my father for his service in World War II, but I truly did not know what he had sacrificed until he wrote a memoir, The Timid Marine: Surrender to Combat Fatigue, in 2005 when he was seventy-nine-years-old. Only then, did I start to put the traumatic pieces together and how his trauma became my trauma, not on the beaches of Okinawa, but in the suburbs of New Jersey. When my father was a soldier, PTSD was not a known disorder, and there was no help or treatment for World War II veterans.
In 2013, journalist Dale Maharidge wrote a book about his father’s experience in World War II called Bringing Mulligan Home: The Long Search for a Lost Marine. In preparation for writing his book, he came across my father’s self-published memoir, and they became fast friends culminating with a heart-felt acknowledgement to my father at the beginning of Dale’s book. In writing about his father, Dale was able to come to terms with his own childhood upheaval and start to understand and explain the true cost of war.
As I read my father’s memoir, I realized how much his war experiences had infiltrated our family life. Some of my most traumatic childhood memories were directly connected to his wartime trauma. I turned to poetry to make sense of it all. I took pieces from my father’s memoir and turned them into poetry. Then I intertwined his poems with my own creating a trail of lived experiences, trying to come back from war not broken, but whole and blossoming.
So, to all our Veterans of this Veteran’s Day 2021 – Thank you for your service and sacrifice. You have paid dearly, as have your families.
For Two Voices: Father and Daughter
Marine Boot Camp –
Parris Island, South Carolina 1942
All the days of summer
That year of our young lives
Were spent in a continuous monotony
Of drills and abuses and marches
Learning the ways of the Corps,
Learning to be heroes.
Little by little at his leisure
At his best opportunity
At his chosen place and time
The Drill Instructor would strike out
To drive home another lesson
He was trained to do.
“Today,” he shouted, “You will learn
One of the most important lessons
Of being a Marine.”
Even many years after the war,
Whatever object that happened
to be in my father’s hands
could possibly become a weapon:
A coffee cup, a broom handle, a basketball,
“Don’t you know how to do anything?”
He snapped as he lobbed the ball at my head.
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
I tried to duck, but he was too close to me.
“Stop crying, damn girl, have to toughen you up,”
And he kept hitting me with that basketball
Bounce….bounce… bounce… bounce…
“Can’t you do anything right?”
My head was ringing, tears were flowing
I tried to get away from him,
But he followed me wherever I went.
“Don’t walk away from me!” he screamed,
And kept bouncing that damn ball on my head,
“You’re nothing,” he barked, “You’ll always be nothing.”
I finally ran into the house and up into my room,
But his words seeped in and for years I believed him.
A Marine near me had a White Owl cigar
Still in good condition
After the long voyage,
And I was in the mood
To play a game with him –
Give you five dollars for that cigar,
He looked at me like I was nuts,
I realized that the five dollars
would not be of any use,
We would all be killed anyway.
It was the last money I had on me.
We made a deal –
I smoked two puffs of that very bad cigar
Before throwing it away,
For my five bucks I got a memory
that returned every time
I smoke a cigar in later years,
But I never bought one for five dollars again.
On a clear blue Father’s Day,
I proudly gave my father
A glass container of White Owls
Because I knew he liked cigars,
I went all the way to the mall
With my friends to buy it for him,
I was eleven-years-old.
I remember it had a bright red bow,
I thought he would be so happy
That his little girl chose a present
For him so carefully.
When my father unwrapped the container
And saw the cigars,
His face contorted from happy to rage.
He took my beautiful glass container
With the shiny red bow
And threw it against the wall,
Screaming something about
How I should have known
That White Owls were cheap, bad cigars
But how was I to know?
I was an eleven-year-old girl
Getting a pretty present for her dad,
What did I know about cigars?
The glass splintered everywhere
And I ran out of the house crying,
Vowing never to speak to him again.
Later, he apologized, said he was sorry
But I didn’t speak to him for a week
And I didn’t buy him another present for years,
I promised myself that I would never forget.
There seemed to be a shortage of everything
Sometimes we did not have a complete uniform
Needing a hat or pair of boots or jacket
The only thing you could do was requisition
Something for yourself if you wanted it
Requisitioning was a Marine translation for stealing
The Marines were great for requisitioning.
Unofficially the Corps condoned it without argument
If you needed something, you did not have
You were expected to supply yourself the best you could
Requisitioning was easy to do
And I had no problem with it
I had trained during The Depression
I’d stolen food from stores,
Pilfered clotheslines at night
to get a shirt to wear to school
Stole coins from various areas
to attend a movie or buy an ice cream soda.
Several years ago, my mother had a heart attack,
She had to have quadruple bypass,
Hospitalized for many months,
But we were sure that she would survive,
Just as she had survived colon cancer three years before,
You see, my mother was a fighter.
When we’d visit the hospital, my father would show us
All the things he requisitioned:
Basins, pillows, extra blankets, boxes of tissues -
He stored them in the closet next to my mother’s bed
- A Marine is always prepared –
That was the way he took care of my mother
Those awful winter months,
Sitting next to her bed watching television,
Stalking the hallways always on the lookout
For something she might need,
Everyone was his enemy:
He sniped at my sister, my nieces,
My aunt, my husband, and me, as usual.
No one could do anything right,
He was the only one who cared,
He was the only one who could comfort,
My father was my mother’s fortress
And in the spring she got well,
Returned home with a new heart.
I shot an old horse in the head
As it was lowered to eat some grass
I was only a foot from the horse’s head
And placed the carbine muzzle
Close to the head between the eyes,
Hoping to hit the brain.
The horse gave a shriek
And lifted its head high in the air
Before it fell to the ground twitching
And jerking in spasms of pain and ensuing death.
I shot the horse out of boredom
And the need to see something die.
The horse did not die instantly like in the movies.
I was agitated seeing the horse bleed from head and mouth
Twitching and jerking all over its body.
I wanted to end the experience.
I quickly shot the horse in the head several more times
To stop the quivering and pain,
“What the hell are you doing you crazy bastard?”
Several of the Marines asked.
“It was an old horse.” I said.
It was my only explanation
And no one pursued another explanation.
I have to find a way to release my rage,
Set it upon its own course away from me -
Good-bye Rage, you childish thing
That cripples my life,
I can no longer respond in anger
For all things lost.
Be off with you down that dark forest path,
Howl to the moon and be gone forever,
You are of no use to me,
I must take a new path,
The one in the mist,
The one lined with fear,
That path – that as the day breaks
Burns off the mist
And fear becomes flowers.
Okinawa, April 1945,
I looked into the dirt
Saw a yellow flower
That looked familiar, a buttercup.
It had pushed itself up out of the earth
In this remote rice field.
It was so incongruous growing there,
So far away from my childhood meadows
where I sued to pick them,
I turned my head without lifting it
so that I could see the sky above me,
Which was just perfect
white clouds and pale blue expanses
and there I was,
getting ready to resume running to save my life,
I held a handful of the dirt to my nose to smell it,
It looked dark and alive with organisms.
This is what men die for,
Earth - dirt - inches of it, and mile of it
Stretches of earth in the form of countries
all over the world had been fought over
and I visualized the various armies
and hoards that fought over the land
with various weapons from stones to aircraft.
I saw all the small flowers
had been pushing themselves up
out of the black earth
here the sunlight caught them
and transformed them into gold.
Now around me the enemy bullets
were kicking up bits of stone and earth.
They had located us where we fell.
Men were crying and shouting
all around in a mass confusion
Voices more frightened than my heart
that pounded in my chest.
Your golden head rises
Out of the rusty rubble,
Just another weed –
You push your way out
Between cracks in the sidewalk
Among rocks, bricks, bits of broken glass,
You grow strong –
Impervious to your surroundings
Your leaves, jagged toothed
Spread green along the old gray ground,
You are not discouraged –
You’ve never depended
Upon rain or fertilizer,
You provide your own sunlight.