It’s storming outside and quiet inside and I don’t want to write.
I don’t want to write because it means I have to get up and get my computer. I’m comfortable on the couch. Everything is quiet and I don’t want to move.
I don’t want to write because I don’t want to open my computer. I want to be technology-free. Stupid technology.
I don’t want to write because I’m reading and I just want to keep reading. Maybe forever. And fiction. I want to read fiction forever. No more non-fiction for me. Harumph.
I don’t want to write because I haven’t written at all this week and I’m embarrassed about it. Who am I to call myself a writer? Better to just give up now.
I don’t want to write because my brain is nicely blank and my thoughts are comfortably amorphous. Writing will give those thoughts shape, then pin them down and examine them. See? Look at that! A judgment here, a grump over there. I knew it. Not nearly as nice as I was hoping when they were just swirling in my head. Wait! a random delight! Well, I’m glad for that at least.
Maybe if I keep writing I can find more of those… Grr… but I really don’t want to write.
But I’m going to. I’m going to find three sentences about three things and then I’m going to post this slice JUST LIKE THIS.
I have just realized that I am worried about a lot of things. Well, no wonder I don’t want to write. I’ll just ignore the truth that writing often soothes the worry.
I love watching my children play on the sandbar in the lake. I love the way they get completely absorbed in whatever game they make up and how they traipse about half-in half-out of the murky water, finding rocks, playing with the red mud, diving, swimming, hiding in the bits of bushes sticking out of the water. I wish for them as many sandbar hours as they can get for as long as they can get them.
I feel inadequate because I cannot bring myself to read the professional books I brought with me this summer. I love fiction. I really really love it. But I *should* be reading some of these other books, right? I may need to hide the horrible pd stack so that it stops glaring at me from the corner because I have a couple of really good novels hidden behind a pillow on the couch.
Harumph. I still don’t really want to write. So I’m stopping. For now. Because now that I’ve started I have a feeling that I might need to keep going. Later. Once the storm is over. Or maybe at the end of the next chapter.
A few months ago I became a regular reader of Margaret Simon’s blog, Reflections on the Teche, and I almost immediately fell in love. Sometime in March, she posted yet another of her beautiful pictures of the Bayou Teche and I pretty well just asked to come visit her. She was gracious in her reply (for example, she did not say, “I don’t even know you!”), and I hope she understood what I was trying to say: her descriptions of the place around her came alive in a way that made me want to be there. I haven’t visited yet, but Margaret’s awareness of the Bayou that surrounds her infuses much of her writing, so I was delighted to learn about her new book, Bayou Song: Creative Explorations of the South Louisiana Landscape(University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2018).
The book is a wonderful mix of elements: Margaret provides poetry and short, informative descriptions of various flora and fauna found on the Bayou Teche, Anna Amelia Cantrell offers whimsical illustrations and Henry Cancienne adds gorgeous photographs. These work together to create mini-sections: a photograph or two, some information, a poem and an illustration. But wait, there’s more! After all that, in each section readers are offered two entry points to add their own ideas to the book: a writing prompt and a sketch/drawing prompt.
I loved it – and I had a feeling my students would love it, too, but… it’s summer. No students at hand. So I turned to my favourite stand-in students: my children. I told myself that I just wanted to know if they would find the format as compelling as I did, that I was not actually forcing them to do school work during the summer… and then, I got a clever idea. You see, we’ve been on the road for a while now. First, we drove from Ontario to South Carolina to visit my family. After a ten day visit, we hopped back in the car for a series of adventures – an overnight in a cave in Tennessee, a trip to a waterpark, a drive through multiple states and, finally, a visit to my sister’s family in Kansas.
In terms of landscape, it’s safe to say that Kansas is not much like Ontario. As we drove along, I couldn’t take my eyes off the tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills and the sky and the farms and, well, all of it. My darling children were more engrossed in their tablets than the landscape and, even though they humored me by tearing their eyes from the screens when I called out “Look at the ________!”, their lack of interest was driving me crazy – until I realized I might have a solution at my fingertips: Bayou Song. I knew Margaret had written this book with kids in mind. In fact, I asked her about the audience she envisioned as she wrote.
“I absolutely envisioned my audience as my students. I’ve taught them poetry every year and have come to be known as the poetry teacher. I love this. My heroes are teachers like Amy VanDerwater, Laura Shovan, Irene Latham, and Laura Purdie Salas. I turn to their work over and over for teaching and writing inspiration. I also wrote it for teachers! I want teachers to find a way to enter into poetry with kids that is not intimidating but inspiring and fun.”
I had a feeling my kids and their cousins (all boys, ages 7, 9, 9, and 10) might, indeed, be inspired and have fun if I could get them to read even a bit of Bayou Song. So one morning, as we drove to the Milford Nature Center, I challenged them to observe the plants and animals around them. They were suspicious but I played up the fun and the challenge and they became champion lookers. My nephews are from Kansas while my boys are first time visitors, so their observations built on each other as we explored.
We walked through the nature center and watched the rescued bobcats, turkey vulture, kestrel, bald eagle, prairie dogs, snakes, and owls… we peered into the stream and saw the water bugs, minnows, frogs, herons… we chased down butterflies, grasshoppers, and beetles as we wandered down the trail… we heard the cicadas, the bees, the birds, the water…. we found the tracks of deer, raccoon, herons, humans… In short, we immersed ourselves in the landscape for several hours.
When we got home, we turned to Bayou Song to see how our observations helped us. Margaret is a great believer in poetry for kids and asked her own students about parts of this book. Here’s what she says:
“I write poetry with my students all year long. When I was editing these poems, I asked for their advice a few times and stole some of their ideas. The one that comes to mind is ‘Things to Do if You’re a Snapping Turtle.’ My student Lynzee came up with the last line. She said, ‘Don’t leave home.’ I re-envisioned the line as ‘Don’t leave your room’ thinking about how a room is a special, safe place for a child.”
So, I followed Margaret’s lead. I asked for the kids advice: is this a good book to use in a classroom? We opened the book and the boys were immediately drawn to the Legend of Bayou Teche.
Legend of Bayou Teche
Long ago, in the days when Native American tribes lived
in harmony with the land, there lived a huge venomous
snake. The snake’s body stretched for miles and miles.
The Chitimacha tribe warriors gathered together to
conquer this enemy snake. To kill a hundred-mile-long
snake was no easy task, so it took days for the snake
to die. As the snake fought to survive, it twisted and
turned and created a great gorge in the soil, eventually
dying and decomposing, leaving behind Bayou Teche.
“Creepy,” said one. “Cool,” said another. “Turn the page!” said the third. I did, and we saw this:
“LOOK! It’s a snake and a tree!” “And it’s a river!” “There are birds.” We read the poem. The boys nodded a lot and got into a debate about creepy vs cool. Then we read the prompts:
Write it: Choose a place in nature (an ocean, a tree, a flower, an animal)
to write about. If you use personification (as in “I am a Beckoning Brown
Bayou”), you become the thing you are writing about. How would an ocean,
tree, flower, or animal feel, act, hear, smell, or see?
Sketch it: What is a waterway near you? Does it have a shape? Does the shape
match its name? Draw the waterway so that it matches its name.
We repeated this process for the first few sections – one boy lingered over the “non-fiction,” another liked the drawings, two had me read poems out loud repeatedly – until one of the kids looked at me and said, “When do we get to write?” Um, in mid-July a bunch of kids just asked me if they could write and respond to poetry. “How about now?” I suggested. I already had the paper, pens and colored pencils. The kids dove into drawing, writing, and sharing their ideas with each other. They talked about what we had seen. They thought about things in new ways – like leaves as hair or trees as rivers. All four boys were intensely focused as they worked. Here’s a peek into their creations:
(The fourth boy was also inspired, but creating his grand vision – the Kansas River and several complicated elements of animals and trees – required more stillness than he could muster in one July sitting, and he asked me not to share his unfinished product.)
Clearly, Bayou Song is an open invitation to children and adults (because, I can’t lie, I wrote a little something, too) to experience their environment and respond to it in ways that are simultaneously thoughtful and playful. When we went canoeing yesterday, the boy in my canoe was still imagining himself as various animals and noticing things as we floated by. As a parent, I couldn’t ask for more. As a teacher, I can’t wait to use it as a mentor text and as an inspiration in my classroom next year.
Would you like to know more about Bayou Song? Continue your tour at these blogs, where you’ll find more poems and illustrations from the book, interviews with Margaret Gibson Simon, and other surprises.
As I navigated the cobbled streets on the way to the hotel, I hoped that would be less awkward than I had been at 13. I was 20, on my way to meet a charming British gentleman at his hotel in Strasbourg, France.
I was studying abroad and my aunt’s father-in-law was attending a meeting not far from my temporary home. My aunt, always interested in strengthening the ties between the people she loves, had insisted that we get together. So here I was, teetering precariously through the ancient streets on brand new heels to meet a man I barely knew.
The last time I had seen Bill – the only time, in fact – was at my aunt’s wedding 7 years earlier. I had been an awkward 13 who fell hard for a handsome blond British boy who’d flown in for the wedding. He was one of my very first crushes. We had spent a lot of time gazing and each other and dancing. There is a distressing amount of photographic evidence of this. Bill, the bride’s father and the 15-year-old’s great uncle (I think), apparently found me charming, though looking back I did not recollect feeling charming in anyway. ‘Self-conscious’ would have been my choice of description.
I was definitely self-conscious now, as I walked into the lobby of a fancy hotel on the River Ill and glanced around for a man who was 44 years my senior. Ah, there he was, crossing the room with a welcoming smile. I can’t remember if he kissed me on my cheek or placed a comfortable hand over mine, but I’d bet he did both. He embodies graciousness, and his kind presence calmed me as we said hello.
He immediately suggested an aperitif, and naturally I agreed, but as we walked across the lobby to the elegant bar, I was suddenly aware that I had no idea how to order a drink. Of course I had been on dates before, and I’d been to college bars, but I wasn’t a big drinker, and since I wasn’t of legal drinking age at home, I’d never ordered a drink in a fancy restaurant. What was I going to do?
We sat down, and my increasing panic must have shown. A glass of wine? Surely not a beer? I didn’t even know the names of most cocktails. My eyes darted to the bar as the waiter approached. Then, quietly but with a sparkle in his eyes, Bill leaned towards me and said, “If I may. I suggest a whisky sour. In my experience, the ladies enjoy the sweetness and the men are always impressed by the whisky.”
I ordered my first whisky sour that evening, and I kept ordering them for years. Bill was right: I impressed many a date with a confident, “whisky sour, please.” Their sweetness accompanied by the complex undertones of the whisky always brought the echo of a lovely evening in Strasbourg, France with a charming older gentleman who saw me as I could be.
Bill turned 90 this week – my aunt, still connecting us all these years later, has been sending me pictures of the celebrations – and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him a few more times in the quarter century since that evening. To me, he is the epitome of graciousness. So today, I raise my glass to Bill, and to his clever recommendation and simple kindness to a young woman he barely knew in a restaurant in a foreign country 25 years ago. I’ll have a whisky sour, please.
Update, July 10, 2018: My friend, her daughter (and the rest of the family) are in for a long, grueling year or more, but the doctors say that they have every reason to believe she will live. I’ll take it. THANK YOU for all the support you shared when I was in my deepest grief.
My father is a not-quite-retired infectious disease doctor. He chose this path in the late 60s when infectious disease was a research-based kind of medicine, a good fit for my logical, thorough, bookish dad. He liked identifying symptoms, looking them up in the library and finding the best diagnostic fit; disease was a puzzle to solve and he’s good at puzzles. He also liked talking to the patients, but from the stories he tells, I think that was a skill he developed over the years.
He does tell a good story, and by the time I was 10 he was a teaching doctor who was often invited to give lectures in other cities. Sometimes he would take one of us with him, and as I got older sometimes I actually listened to what he told these doctors: corny jokes, technical details that were of no interest to me, and a few stories that marked me deeply.
My favourite story was when my dad talked about a patient he treated in the early days of CT scans. The young man came in complaining of severe headaches. They checked him out and finally ran a CT scan. The diagnosis was devastating: he had brain cancer. The young man was a youth pastor and had a long-planned church retreat scheduled for that weekend. He asked if he could put off treatment for a few days and attend this final retreat. The doctors agreed. When he returned, after a weekend where his whole church prayed for him and took care of him, his headaches were gone and he felt much better. His surgery was scheduled but the doctors decided to do one more scan because the technology was new & they just wanted a clear image to be sure about what they were dealing with. The image came back – no tumor. It was just gone. They had the previous scan: tumor. They had the new one: nothing. A third scan confirmed it: no tumor. What happened? Did they make a mistake the first time? Did the prayers work? My logical father could only say, “Sometimes in medicine you have to believe in miracles.”
My mother-in-law is a nurse who worked for years in a cancer treatment centre. Just moments ago she told me a story about a patient of hers who was diagnosed with mesothelioma and was given mere months to live. He was distraught, naturally, and spent three days in a panic of fear and anger. Then he remembered that he was a statistician and he could understand statistics, so he pored over the numbers and realized that the odds that he could live longer than the median were in his favour. He lived for 20 more years.
I would like to request a miracle, please. The 4-year-old daughter of one of my best friends was diagnosed with cancer on Friday, and I would like a miracle now. She is such a vibrant, funny, smart, HEALTHY little thing. There is nothing wrong with her – except this cancer. Cancer. She is four. I am trying very hard to remember that sometimes we have to believe in medicine and miracles. People are praying for her in all the various ways that people pray, but I’m having a little trouble praying right at this moment. But stories, I believe in stories. So please, accept these stories as my prayers. And if you can add your own, we’ll take that, too.