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.
I have been thinking about a word to choose as a North Star for 2022. What came to mind was the phrase: “Walk with purpose.” I say these words over and over again this year, guiding our students down hallways, across the campus, and out to the playground. I noticed that some students walk quickly to their destination, almost like they are in a race. Others meander and wander from point A to point B. They take their time; they are not in a hurry. And then there are ones who almost drag their feet – the procrastinators. They are happy where they are and don’t want to move on to another destination. I realize this is much like how I walk through my life. Sometimes I run head down into the unknown. Sometimes, I wander here and there, stopping to take in beauty or a sudden surprise. And other times, I slow down, happy where I am and not eager to move on. Approaching sixty-six, I feel the need even more sharply to walk with purpose. I slow myself down, take a breath, and make sure that where I am going is where I really want to be.
The more I thought about choosing my OLW, the more I felt like it would be cheating to choose a phrase. I sat myself down and told myself that this was not a time to color outside the lines. This was a time to be thoughtful and deliberate. This was a time to choose just one word.
The older I get, the more I try to hold moments in my memory and try to remember moments in my past. The remembering for me is a time to take a breath and savor the pieces of my life. Some of those pieces are traumatic, but many are sweet and healing. I know many aging family members whose abilities to remember are waning. It is a sad thing, a great sorrow. I think one reason I started this blog was to help me remember my teaching days and the way approached life in my sixties. It is a kind of testament to my life in education, art, and poetry. It is a touchstone where I can look back and remember. That is important to me. To remember is to be mindful, to walk with purpose in this life, and to be happy at my destination’s end.
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.
It is time of gathering. Bare branches stretch up to the sky. The last of autumn’s glorious colored leaves cling to the trees. Squirrels and chipmunks scurry across the frozen ground retrieving nuts and seeds they have collected. An ever- changing assortment of birds alight on branches, flit from fence post to fence post, come to feed on the seeds a samaritan has left on the ground. This time of year is a time for celebration, a time to bring friends and family together, a time to reflect for all we are grateful for. And still I feel a sense of sadness. A loss for the green and growing. A loss for summer’s promise and spring’s renewal. I await the winter mornings with trepidation. But her icy fingers beckon. and I know I must follow. Everything has a season. I am fortunate to live in a place where nature surrounds me. I take comfort in the industrious birds who decorate the landscape before me.
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.