Bouncing Back – writing in front of them, take 2: Slice of Life 3/31 #SOL20

Last Tuesday, I posted about trying to write in front of my class and failing. On Wednesday, our class used a New York Times mentor text to think about how we can use details to show rather than tell. The text is from an essay called “The Iguana in the Bathtub” by Anne Doten. Here’s how it opens:

When the temperature dipped below 40, iguanas started falling from the trees. Small, sleek green iguanas; big iguanas as long as four feet from snout to tail, scales cresting gloriously from their heads; orange-and-green iguanas, their muscled, goose-pimpled arms resolving into sharp claws. Iguanas were everywhere: in the bushy areas surrounding canals, on sidewalks, in backyards, lying helpless among the fallen, rotting fruit of mango and orange trees.

I encouraged the students to try their hand at opening a scene in this way – exuberant, over the top description. We played around with this for a while, and then everyone got back to work on their own scenes. I didn’t write in front of them on Wednesday, but that evening, as I prepared for the next day’s class, I dove back into my own failed attempt and used the model I’d given the students. Imitating Doten’s opening freed something in me, and the words came more easily. Suddenly, I was able to write the story I’d failed at the day before. On Thursday, I showed my students my progress, and they were suitably impressed – whether with my story or my persistence, I am not sure.

We’ve also looked at dialogue in class, and I don’t have any in here yet, so I’m going to ask for suggestions today. My students are of good ideas. Until then, here’s my revised piece:

When Mrs. Barkman announced the mythology test, all of our eyes widened. We had heard about this test from the upperclassmen: impossible, beyond the feats of human memory, designed exclusively to weed out those of us who didn’t really belong in Honors English, created merely to squash all of our dreams. To hear my best friend’s older brother tell it, every year students ran weeping from the classroom, tearing their hair, blood seeping from their eyes, fingers permanently disfigured from the cramping caused by all the writing. We were scared.

After class, my friends and I huddled in the hallway and murmured worriedly. What would happen if we failed? None of us had ever failed. It was unthinkable.

Somehow, someone appointed me to talk to Mrs. Barkman about the test. I say “somehow” but, looking back, I’m not shocked it was me. I have long been too willing to stand up to authority, especially in the role of defender. I was, simultaneously, intensely studious and intensely willing to speak up. I didn’t yet know if I was a rule-follower or a rebel. I didn’t yet know that I could be both. I was 13. One day I wore blue eyeshadow, “midnight” mascara, and blush applied so heavily that I looked permanently sunburned. The next day I came to school fresh-faced wearing turquoise pants and a Disney t-shirt.

In my mind, I approach Mrs. Barkman as a 13-year-old with pigtails. I tell her that we are not ready for the test tomorrow and that we need more time. In my mind, she looms over me, nose like a hatchet, eyes like a hawk. In my mind, her sharp voice cuts through my tremulous one as she denies me – us – any leeway.

But I might have been wearing mascara so thick that it flaked onto my cheekbones and a shirt designed to show my nearly nonexistent cleavage. It’s possible that I was shrill and demanding. There’s a chance I was more cocky than courageous.

Both scenarios are equally possible. Either way, she refused to move the test.

I worried so much about the test and my encounter with my terrifying teacher that I made myself sick. My mother kept me home from school the next day. Mrs. Barkman gave my peers a ridiculously easy matching test and, when I returned, I took the hard test – alone. 

I aced it, but it was months before Mrs. Barkman stopped thinking I had skipped on purpose. I aced it, but I still didn’t know if I was a nerd or a rebel or a social justice warrior. I think I might have just been 13.

 

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Wood, with a gift for burning

Monday night and again I am sleepless. I have sung the songs, done the dishes, folded the laundry. I have chatted and texted and messaged. I have prepped and stretched and even – just for tonight – taken the pill, so that I can get the sleep I need.

Instead, my brain is awash with Adrienne Rich. She has come out of nowhere, her words interrupting my reading, her lines repeating ceaselessly in my head. She will not be ignored.

You’re wondering if I’m lonely:
O.K., then, yes I’m lonely

I am not lonely, I think back to her – or at least to her poem. What are you doing here?

Another stanza arises, unbidden. This is what comes of memorising verse, I grumble in my head.

If I’m lonely
it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
in the last red light of the year
that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but wood, with a gift for burning

My God, how I love this image. If I remember the words it is because the image is burned into my brain. If I could paint, I would paint this. I would take a photograph that would be this stanza. I would write it again as a book, as a hymn, as a prayer. 

No, I would leave it exactly as it is.

When she died, The New York Times called Adrienne Rich “one of the great poets of rage.” I was astonished. Rage? Really? Then again, I only know a few of her poems, and only one stanza of one poem has burned its way into my brain. So really, I know nothing. Tonight, with her words haunting me, I check the article again – I’ve only just remembered this characterization, and I feel a sudden intense need to understand because this poem, this is not anger. I see this: 

Ms. Rich is one of the great poets of rage, which in her hands becomes a complex, fluctuating power that encompasses the roots of the word “anger” in the Old Norse term for “anguish.”

Anguish. Of course. Not anger – so hard for me to understand, to express, to feel – but anguish… I can understand anguish. I imagine what it means to be the poet of anguish, the goddess of anguish, the writer of anguish.

I don’t feel anguish or anger tonight; instead I am starting to feel sleepy. Rich’s image persists as my eyes close. Am I ice-fast this cold December night? Perhaps the words arose because of the last red light of the year? No, I know the truth. Oh, Adrienne. Tonight your rowboat rocks me to sleep; tonight I will dream knowing that I, too, am wood, with a gift for burning

(Read the whole poem – Song by Adrienne Rich – here.)

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Words to describe the love

This summer, my father-in-law had a heart attack as he walked home from picking up a newspaper at a corner store. He and my mother-in-law were visiting family in Massachusetts, thousands of miles from their home in Arizona. By rights, Jim should have died. He literally collapsed on a neighborhood street.

But he didn’t die. Angels intervened. Neighbours sitting on a porch, enjoying the morning, saw him fall. An off-duty EMT was home and began effective CPR almost immediately. The ambulance that came for him was from a major trauma center.

For a few days, things were chaotic and unclear. Family drove in, flew in, called in and stayed close in every way that they could. And then, miraculously, Jim was ok. There were some cuts from the fall, some broken bones from the CPR and a defibrillator implanted for his heart, but in large part, he’s just fine. By the end of the summer, he was walking around, wondering when he’d be able to get back to his long hikes in the desert canyons of Arizona.

There are no words for this sort of miracle. I couldn’t write about this when it happened in July, and I can barely gather all the threads now: the wrenching loss; the nearly unbelievable salvation; the incredible rebirth; the emotions and experiences of so many people.

Today I received a beautiful letter from my mother-in-law, thanking her family for our support. My father-in-law wrote about his experience almost right afterwards,and I found his account equally moving. Each letter is haunting, so I’ve turned them into found poems. It’s the only way I can capture those few weeks in July.

My Strange Disappearance
I didn’t return in a reasonable time.
I have no memories
so I’m
reconstructing
from what people have told me.
I presumably stopped breathing,
my heart presumably stopped pumping.

Some force was certainly at work
to bring two strangers to my side
to bring me back from sudden death.

Unless I imagined this
family mysteriously appeared.

Do I believe in angels?
I sure believe in something.
I like the word angels.

-found in a letter from Jim Perry

Words to describe the love
I’ve been looking for words
But each time I thought or spoke
I felt raw and open.

I wake in the middle
of the night or
on my early morning walks.
I am swept away.
The heart-distance is non-existence.

How tender and fragile life is.

Please know that
if you need me,
I will come.

-found in a letter by Shirley Dunn Perry

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Summary of Debate

I am close to finishing my summer writing courses. So, so close, and yet… so far. One long piece of creative non-fiction, one 1500-word research essay (with a proposal – how is that long enough for any real research? Whatever. I’ll take it.) and one 500-word close reading. I can get this done. 

In the meantime, I am amusing myself and, hopefully, the poor “tutors” who have to read these assignments day in and day out. It was with them in mind that I wrote the following slice of life. The assignment calls for a one-paragraph summary of both sides of “a specific, local debate” in under 250 words. I had to present the two sides in an objective, neutral manner. I decided to go extremely specific and local…

Debate: What Is That in the Sky?

The debate in our car is heated: is the giant glowing white orb that we see in the sky above us the moon or is it something else? The person taking the affirmative position states that it is the moon and develops her argument relying almost exclusively on logos. She begins with a concession, acknowledging that the glowing orb does, in fact, look larger than usual, which is part of what attracted the attention of the passengers in the car. She continues to support the affirmative position by pointing out that, despite its size, the orb is in the place where the moon is usually seen, looks like the moon, and appears to be moving along the moon’s expected trajectory. Finally, the person in the affirmative attempts to use ethos, pointing out that years of experience in observing the moon makes her a credible source for determining if the orb is, in fact, the moon. For these reasons, the affirmative asserts that this is the moon. The person defending the negative position contends that what they are seeing is not the moon. This argument, too, relies largely on logos. For one, he argues, what they see in the sky right now is clearly much larger than the moon. The person assuming the negative position points out that he has never seen a moon this large. He then refers to authority, maintaining that “someone” recently read him a book about planets and that planets are, in fact, very large. He concludes his point by reminding his opponent that he, too, has seen the moon many times, which gives him vast experiential knowledge, if not quite as much as the other side. He closes with a clear statement of position: “I know a lot about moons, and that is not the moon.” In summary, the affirmative position is that the large, white, glowing orb in the sky is the moon; the negative position is that it is not the moon but, more likely, a planet.

In case you are wondering, it was the moon.

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On scars and being a woman

I was on a new-to-me big kids’ bike with skinny wheels, a slender blue frame and even gears. I wobbled a little every time I started, but no matter: the bike was mine.

That day, riding home from Saundra’s, a hot breeze blew my unkempt hair across my sun-browned face. I knew I should have combed it that morning, and could almost hear my mother scolding, “Mandy, if you’re going to have long hair you need to brush it and tie it back.” But who had time for combs when Saundra swore there was a real live black widow spider right in her bathroom and I needed to come over now before it got away?

The bike veered sideways as my dirty hand pawed my hair from my eyes. My legs splayed out and I nearly crashed, but – miracle! – caught myself just in time. As I  stuttered to a stop, I felt a stinging pain and looked down to see a furrow carved into my left shin. I watched the blood well up and drip down my leg, eventually pooling at the edge of my bobby sock. Then I started to cry.

It was only another few minutes to my house, and I biked the whole way: teary, bloody, determined. By the time I got there, my shin was splattered dark red and my face was shiny wet. In the kitchen, my father cleaned my leg with a damp paper towel while I dried my eyes on his shirt. Now that we could see it, the cut wasn’t much, really: a narrow inch and a half of pain. Daddy got the Band-aids and some Neosporin and set about doctoring me up.

When he finished, he patted my hair and said, “Well, that’ll leave a scar. There goes your shot at Miss America.” He grinned conspiratorially and walked away. But I was eight, and I didn’t get the joke. Was I supposed to be Miss America? Was I supposed to want to be? My father had already returned to his gardening, but I sat in the kitchen staring at the dark stain I could just make out through the pink of the bandage and thought of the beautiful women on TV. Where were their scars? Did they ride bikes? Maybe they were better at biking.

I don’t know when I realized that my father had never wanted me to be Miss America. I don’t know when I understood the jest he had offered to his scruffy, sturdy eight-year-old daughter. But that was the summer I recognized that, someday, I was going to have to deal with hair and dirt and scars and beauty. By the time 4th grade started, I played mostly with girls, combed my hair more regularly, and faked disgust at spiders.

It’s almost invisible now, the scar that introduced me to womanhood, but if I look hard, I can still see it.

 

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This post is part of the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, a weekly invitation to share a snapshot of life through writing. To read more or participate, click here.

When friendship lasts

As we pulled into a parking spot, we saw a blond boy waiting on his porch, looking longingly up and down the street. For a fraction of a second, before he recognized us, I saw how tall he was and, maybe, how lonely. Then his eyes widened and a smile filled his face. While he was visibly excited, he descended the steps and came towards us slowly.

In the van, Eric said, “What’s he doing waiting on the porch?”
“I think he’s waiting for you,” I explained.
“Oh,” Eric was hesitant, “ok.”

He opened the van door and walked towards his old friend. Looking at the ground, their feet in constant motion, the boys exchanged diffident “hi”s. Then, without warning or explanation, they started talking and, just like that, resumed their friendship from three years ago when they were six. Hours later, after the park, the corner store, the house; after basketball and jungle gyms and ice cream; after talking and laughing and wrestling, they parted reluctantly, already asking when they could see each other again.

Oscar’s family just finished a three-year assignment overseas. Our boys were inseparable before they left, but they’ve only seen each other in person once since then, so they barely know each other now. After all, they’ve spent one-third of their lives on different continents. No matter, they seemed to say, friends are friends.

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Learning to bike together at age 3

I believe this. Every summer we travel to South Carolina to see family and one of our stops is at my friend Malia’s house. She and I become friends as new moms in Ottawa, long before her husband’s job landed her an hour and a half from my father’s house in SC. As much as I love seeing her, our children’s friendship is a real driver of our annual visits. You see, our oldest kids were constantly together for their first year and a half. Sometimes I think they got encoded in each other’s DNA. Despite being separated when they were 18 months old and not meeting again until they were, I think, eight, despite visits of only a few days once a year, the boys magnet together every summer and still count each other among their closest friends.

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Left out of their mother’s conversation – escape attempt in progress
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These days, their enthusiasm is overwhelming.

And really, I should understand. After all, my husband still spends at least one weekend a year with friends he’s known since daycare. As for me, last month my childhood best friend and I had a slumber party (ok, ok, a “visit” because we are adults now, but really, it was a sleepover) for two glorious days. We met at her parents’ house for dinner. They made salmon, grilled on the backyard barbecue, creamed corn leftover from a reception, and homemade broccoli salad. After dinner, her father made us peach ice cream by blending real peaches into vanilla ice cream. He added a dollop of whipped cream and we settled onto the new patio until the mosquitos chased us indoors. This dinner, served in a place I know so well by people I love so deeply, nearly overwhelmed me.

After almost 40 years of friendship, the fact that we hadn’t seen each other for at least two years didn’t change a thing. We started chattering the moment I walked in, talking as though we had just picked up the thread of the conversation we started sometime in 5th grade. Sometimes I think that, if you counted only the times when we were physically together, Jamie and I haven’t stopped talking since we were ten. Nevermind that we are now very different people who likely wouldn’t have much in common if we were to meet today. That’s not how friendship works.

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The picture’s a little blurry, but we’re still laughing after all these years.

Even as I write, my toes are still painted from the pedicure we got the next morning. Just seeing them makes me smile. There’s something about these friendships, the unlikely pairings that last well beyond the convenience of time and place, something that nourishes us through their mysterious inexplicability.

Parker and Thomas have been talking online. Jamie and I just tag each other in social media posts. Oscar and Eric already have plans to play together again. It makes me grin. I’m glad they’re back from their posting – may the friendships continue.

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Hey, Turkey! #SOL19 23/31

After yesterday’s post, which included turkey vultures, the children would like me to explain how turkeys have come to figure prominently in our family jokes.

Our camping trip had been largely a bust. We’d had a good first day, but now everything everywhere was wet. The rain came sporadically – just enough to keep us from doing anything but not quite enough to send us home. Mercifully, our tent wasn’t leaking, but keeping an almost-4-year-old and a 6-year-old occupied in a tent was taking a toll on everyone. Finally, after an aborted attempt to tell yet another story, Andre declared that it was “just water” and loaded us all into the car to go find a trailhead and take a hike.

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The children were shocked.

“But it’s raining!” protested one.

“And muddy!” objected the other, looking at me because I, too, was grumpy and this sudden decision to hike in the rain struck me as, um, unwise. I kept my mouth shut and tried to be impressed by Andre’s enthusiasm, but I was mostly annoyed as I imagined more mud in more places.

We shoved everyone into rain gear and drove the five minutes to the trailhead in silence.

As we got out of the car, the drizzle began again and a breeze shook water from the trees onto our heads. Commence loud complaining. Andre, whose ability to be creative and funny in the face of daunting circumstances never ceases to amaze me, stepped onto the trail then stopped short and said, “Ssh… you don’t want to scare the turkeys!”

Wait. What?

He crouched down a little and looked towards the forest as though turkeys might appear at any moment. “Ok,” he whispered, “these are special giant turkeys unique to this region. The biggest ones can get as big as a small car. Actually, one was nearly as big as our car.”

The boys looked doubtful. I was trying very hard not to laugh. Andre continued, “If we want to see them, we need to proceed carefully. And we need to call them. Do you know how to call a turkey?”

We all shook our heads no. Andre, still crouched and tiptoeing, started to gobble while the three of us, convinced he had lost his mind, just stared at him. Then I thought, what the heck, and I started to gobble, too. Thomas watched us briefly and joined in. We proceeded cautiously towards the trees, gobbling like maniacs. Only 3-year-old Eric hung back.

Andre turned around and said quietly, “C’mon, Eric, don’t you want to help call the turkeys?” Eric just stared at him. He shook his head.

Thomas and I chimed it, cajoling, “Come on, it’s easy, you just say ‘gobble, gobble’.”

Eric shook his head again. He was not going to gobble. The rest of us might have gone insane, but he was maintaining a firm grip on reality.

Andre tried one more time, “Ok, Eric. If you don’t want to gobble, how do you call a turkey?”

Eric fixed us all with narrowed eyes, put his hands around his mouth, leaned back and bellowed, “HEY! TURKEY!”

The rest of the hike was lots of fun.

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