I live at the edge of a woods and often hike the fields, hills, and woodlands of my surrounding countryside. One would think I live in a rural, bucolic place but I live in bustling New Jersey, not know for its pastoral qualities even though it’s called “The Garden State.” It seems a sort of joke, but New Jersey has varied beauty from its Atlantic coastline to its western hills and farmland. Most of my inspiration comes from this terrain that I know so well. And even though I know the woods, the hills, the coastline, the land often surprises me. There is always a gift to uncover. The woodland is where I find solitude, where my thoughts keep cadence with my footsteps, where I can go to unpuzzle the world and find peace.
My inspiration for “Every Bend” came from Verse-Love, Ethical ELA, which was created by Sarah J. Donovan. Today’s prompt was from Cara Fortey, who suggested to write in a modern Tanka-style as modeled by poet and UCLA professor, Harryette Mullen.
Spring is for the birds! I am so grateful I live just on the edge of a large woods. A wild assortment of fox, deer, raccoons, possum, groundhogs, even the occasional coyote, have frequented the woods and fields that are my backyard. However, it is the birds to whom I have developed a deep and lasting bond. The songbirds, waterfowl, and raptors all living under one glorious roof.
Observing the small birds like the juncos, chickadees, and sparrows, I wonder at their tenacity. Such small and fragile things, yet they weather winter snows, spring rainstorms, summer heat, and fierce fall winds. Where do they find their strength? Are they indeed angels with beaks and feathers? I witnessed one young sparrow, who could easily fit in the palm of my hand, sit under my azaleas waiting for a spring torrent to dissipate. She was patient and mindful. She didn’t seem to fret and took her situation in stride. As I watched her, I was conscious of the lesson I could learn from her: slow down, find strength from within, liberate myself from worry, and fly free.
Before I could write, I loved to tell stories. I told stories to anyone who would listen. I loved to listen to other people’s stories too. I was a master eavesdropper by the time I was four. I loved the warp and weft of the words people told. It seemed like pure genius. Words came together and made people laugh, surprised them, and sometimes made them cry. Words were a way for me to express my emotions, and I had so many emotions rushing at me when I was a child. The way I managed them was to write. The way I could understand my world was to write. The way to make order and feel safe was to write.
As soon as I could hold a pencil in my hand, I drew stories and then eventually began to write. I wrote all the names of the people in my family, made lists of all my stuffed animals, wrote poems, and then wrote stories about everything and everyone. I never ran out of ideas. I always had something to say. If I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t thinking; I wasn’t living. But I was an undisciplined writer. I wrote sporadically as if some kind of divine intervention had to happen. The poem would just plunk itself down from the sky. And I would be satisfied for a week or so until another poem would fly in from the open window. I have boxes and boxes of half-written in journals. Throughout my school experience, I was praised as a writer. It was a place where I could shine. I never felt afraid when I was writing. I had some success at having some poems and articles published through the years.
However, it wasn’t until two years ago, when Ruth Ayres invited me to join SOS: Sharing our Stories that I began to write consistently. I would post every week and that was so good for me. I read other bloggers and began to make connections. Last year, I came across Stacey Shubitz’s TWT: Slice of Life March Challenge. And honestly I thought, “Are they crazy? I can’t write every day!” So, I tried but I only posted 5 or 6 times. I wondered, “How on earth could anyone write every day? Didn’t they know I was busy?”
This year, something changed. I got rid of “busy” and started to focus on what is most important to me. When this year’s SOL Challenge came, I was ready. I set my invention to sit and write every day. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I did. I learned so much from this experience. I created pieces that would never have been written because I wrote every single day. I plan to keep this up past March. I don’t think I will post every day, but I will certainly write every day.
I am so grateful to Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz for providing platforms where teacher-writers can share their work. I’ve learned so much from them and so much from fellow bloggers. I love connecting with people who share my passion for the pen (pencil, keyboard) – for the wild, poignant stories.
I wrote a poem years ago as part of a poetry novel I hope to finish this year, since I think I’ve finally made a break through with my battle with consistency. It expresses how much writing is a part of my life. I don’t know how people get through the day without reading, writing, or art. It doesn’t seem possible to me.
When we are alone,
My mother hands me a present
Wrapped in brilliant blue.
I rip it open to reveal
A brand-new journal.
It’s suede, the color of new earth,
It smells of earth too, comforting,
Tied together with strong leather strings
And small brass beads.
I look up at my mother to thank her,
She puts one arm around my shoulder,
Holds me close and whispers,
“Just keep writing -
Just keep writing,” she says.
But she does not say it
Like my teachers would,
Not just keep writing because I have to,
It’s an assignment – I will be graded.
Punctuation counts, spelling counts,
Not just keep writing – like it’s good for me,
Like it’s medicine or spinach -
But just keep writing because it’s part of me,
Like breathing in air and exhaling,
Because it keeps me alive,
Because it connects me to the world,
Because it keeps me sane
It is my life – I need to live it,
My feelings count,
This week I am celebrating. I am celebrating 52 and 65. I have blogged for 52 weeks straight – one whole year of weekly writing! As of this week, I will have been living on this small blue planet for 65 years. My personal philosophy is that there are people on this planet who are candles – placed on Earth to light the way for others. All my life, it is teachers and writers who have lit my way to new and better understanding; opened my mind to possibilities and promise.
Writer and educator, Ruth Ayres, is one of these people. I have read all of Ruth’s books and have followed her blog for years. I was attracted to the honest way she talked about teaching and raising her family. She is an advocate for children who come from dark places. And as a former child who survived a dark place and thrived, Ruth’s children’s lives were of great interest to me. I worried about their troubles and cheered when they overcame obstacles. Healing from trauma is no easy matter. It is a lifelong process. Ruth’s stories helped me to heal.
A year ago, she invited me to come write with her community of bloggers at SOS: Sharing Our Stories – Magic in a Blog. I was hoping that Ruth’s kind invitation would help me write more successfully, come out of the shadows, and share the poems and stories I had been storing up for years. And indeed, it did work. I have been writing consistently this year, and I have met a group of insightful, affirming, and inspiring writers and teachers. They have lifted me up and given me ideas to ponder, books to read, and their stories have brought me equal parts of tears and laughter.
When I was ten-years-old, I was deeply affected by the lives of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy. The story of the young deaf and blind girl who, with the careful guidance of her teacher, learned to speak and write, becoming an international lecturer and advocate for the deaf and blind. If Helen could learn to speak and light world up with her ideas, then who could I become? What could I accomplish? It was Helen’s young teacher who served as a candle lighting her way, giving her language. Helen describes the moment she began to understand that Anne’s finger signings were words:
I stood still; my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free! (The Story of My Life)
Anne Sullivan regarded that same moment this way:
My heart is singing for joy this morning! A miracle has happened! The light of understanding has shone upon my little pupil’s mind, and behold all things are changed!
William Gibson made Helen’s autobiography into a play, The Miracle Worker. In the first act, Anne explains to Mrs. Keller that “Language is to the mind more than light is to the eye.” The 1962 film of The Miracle Worker was one of my favorites and made me want to become a teacher like Anne Sullivan when I grew up. I wanted to teach children, connect with them, and show them what words can do to free them to learning.
I have been teaching for over four decades. I am proud of my work and immensely proud of all the children I was so fortunate to get to know. Over these years, I have met children who have faced immense obstacles: abuse, poverty, abandonment, death of a beloved one, illness, and difficulty learning. I hope that the books I read and the stories I told were of comfort to them. I hope I provided them with a candle in the darkness. Some days, I think back and wonder how they all are doing and hope they are having happy lives. Some students I have been fortunate enough to still have contact with and who still reach out to me to tell of their triumphs and tribulations as young adults – grown up people. I am very grateful.
This week, I happened to see an article on the Internet about a former student and his important research. He now has a doctorate in some very complicated and technical field of statistics that I cannot even try to fathom. I marveled at the list of his publications. But the simple line that made me smile was this one: “I love to paint.” When I read that, I knew that Marco was safe and sound. Over twenty-five years ago, when Marco was in my 3rd grade class, we studied a new artist every month, and we would take trips to the Metropolitan Museum of art (it was only nine blocks away). The children would sit, wonder, and sketch in front of some of the world’s greatest paintings. Back in the classroom, they would experiment with paint, torn paper, and glue. All things were possible. In that school, with those children, I was able to teach freely. It was a wonderful time. And then, as life would have it, something terrible happened in Marco’s life that made our world tilt upside down. His grown brother, the brother he loved and wanted to emulate, was killed. We mourned. We gathered around Marco and his family. We did and said all the things one is supposed to do and say. It did not take away the pain. We knew that. One day, I noticed that some Lego pieces were missing. More and more – more and more rapidly. And it wasn’t the blocks that were missing, it was the people. Soon we had no more Lego people. I brought this problem up to the class. I waited for someone to confess and give back the people. No one did for weeks. My co-teacher and I searched the classroom and school looking for Lego people. No luck.
Then one day, as I was walking a back staircase, I saw a little glimmer of yellow high up on a ledge – a Lego person! What was it doing there? Who put it all the way up there? I took the Lego person and went back to my class with the evidence. I asked them what they thought happened. No one said a word. Then later in the day, Marco came to me and quietly said, “I put him there. He is resting forever, but he is still with me.” I tried to stop my sudden tears. Now I understood. The Lego people were Marco’s brother, and he was hiding them all around the school so he would never be alone. I went with Marco back to the stairway ledge and put the Lego person back in place. I told him that he could keep the Lego people where he had placed them, and I would just get some new ones. Months went by, Marco and his family slowly healed. One spring day, we were writing fractured fairy tales. Marco asked if he could write a play and have his friends be the actors. I encouraged him to write. As he wrote, he shared his work with his friends, who erupted into gales of laughter. I wondered what he was writing, but he told me it was a surprise. Finally, the day had come, and he unveiled his play, The Three Little Wolfies and the Big Bad Pig. Marco and his friends acted out the silly scenes and the rest of the class clapped. It was so wonderful that I decided to invite all the parents to hear their children’s work. When it was time to present the play, Marco’s parents sat in the front row. They laughed, they held each other’s hands, they hugged Marco when he took his final bow. There was a little light in the darkness. A small glimmer of hope.
And now this week, to know that Marco is an accomplished scholar who loves to paint, this is the best 65th birthday gift I could have ever wish for. Marco is happy and healthy and safe.