Fourteen Years Ago…

Braden texted me yesterday afternoon to remind me that today was his fourteenth birthday. I smiled at his words and texted back. “Hi! You still have about nineteen and a half hours. I know because I was waiting in the hall with Granddaddy Crolley.”

He texted back with pictures from the middle school yearbook and the words, “Yep, then I’ll be 14.” Braden added a few emoticons, and right there next to the bananas, my eyes began stinging as I recalled the afternoon of his birth. I marveled at how a tiny newborn could have grown into such a handsome fellow exchanging texts with one of his grandmothers fourteen years later.

I wrote about Braden’s birth in a story entitled “Older Brother,” and although I can’t find the original manuscript, I’m copying some of it from the 2011 The Petigru Review.

My sweet daughter, a tough little cookie, had delivered a perfectly formed, three pound baby boy on a December night a year and a half before Braden was born. The baby, Spencer Paul, was stillborn, the word itself an oxymoron. He was still, unmoving and without breath or cry, and yet he was born.

Here’s part of the story from TPR.

“….we stood outside the door, me with my chin trembling and trying not to weep. Her father, on the surface, appeared calm, but I knew he too was troubled.

“A woman, probably in her 30s with brown hair and dark glasses, looked at us with concern. She walked over, hugged me, and said some reassuring words. I later learned she was a doctor. There’s a lot to be said for the kindness of strangers and eight years later, I still think of her compassion.

“Carrie’s father and I made small talk while we waited, me tearful and him stoic, a rock. Memories of the events of a year and a half earlier flooded my mind, and I became increasingly agitated and anxious.

“What’s taking so long?” I wailed.

“It hasn’t really been that long,” he replied. “Things are fine. Nothing to worry about.” Whether he believed his own words, I don’t know.

“The minutes ticked by. All we could hear were muffled sounds coming from the other side of the closed door. Was everything okay? Why didn’t they tell us something? Was the baby here? Was Carrie all right?

‘That’s when I heard it—the cry of a newborn. At first weak, Braden’s cry became stronger and louder. It was the most wonderful sound I’d heard in years. Laughing and crying at the same time, I looked at his grandfather and read relief and joy in his eyes.

“After what seemed like an eternity instead of a mere twenty minutes, we were allowed to enter the room. There was my grandson cradled in the arms of my beautiful daughter, her face beaming. Weeping with happiness and relief, I hugged her tightly and then put my hand on Braden’s tiny chest as it went up and down, up and down, breathing in life.”

That was fourteen years ago, almost to the minute. Now Braden is an awesome teenager. Responsible, smart, handsome, and kind, he’s a delight to be around. He’s chosen to spend his birthday weekend with the South Carolina side of his family in Myrtle Beach this weekend. Why the beach? It’s one of his favorite places. 🙂

 

 

 

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Two Words

A friend posted something on Facebook yesterday that I’ve been pondering ever since. She wrote of her ambivalent feelings about Mother’s day and her awareness that it’s not a happy flowers and chocolates kind of day for everyone.

There are mothers who have lost children and children who have lost mothers. I have a friend whose mother passed away when my young friend was only age seven, a deep cut that never completely healed. There are mothers and children with strained relationships. There are women who’ve chosen not to have children and those who long for a child. There are are those with children they didn’t want…or who are a disappointment or burden to them.

This morning I listened to a podcast that reaffirmed the fact that while there are excellent mothers, there are terrible ones, too. The things some parents do to their children are Horrible, Horrific, and Heinous. In my sheltered little world, mothers were kind and loving. They washed your clothes, prepared your food, and kissed your boo-boos. I recall having a visceral reaction, a nauseating one, as I read about the cruelty inflicted on Chris Sizemore, the real “Eve” in The Three Faces of Eve.

Trust me when I say that I’ve read about and listened to accounts of mistreatment and neglect by mothers that haunt me. Like my friend, I’m sensitive to the negative emotions experienced on Mother’s day. I too feel ambivalent about its celebration. At the same time, I had a wonderful mother and wish others could have had the same experience. Would keeping quiet about her virtues assuage their pain? No.

As writer Marianne Williamson said, your playing small serves no one (paraphrase). Downplaying my mother’s life and influence serves no one.

Here’s an incident that occurred late in my mother’s life that, in two short words, shows what kind of woman raised me and my fortunate siblings.

About two years before she died, my mother and I were going through some growing pains that were trying for both of us. Determined to make my own choices at the ripe age of fifty, I turned a deaf ear to her entreaties to straighten up and fly right.

Talking didn’t work. Nothing did. Neither of us wanted to say anything to wound or upset the other. I decided to take Melody Beattie’s advice and detach with love so that both of us could simmer down and develop some empathy.

For years, I had faithfully called her each Sunday evening at 6:00 PM. In those days, a long distance call was serious business—expensive too. But Sunday night arrived, and I couldn’t/wouldn’t dial her number. I felt burdened, bothered, and befuddled, and I didn’t want to hear any words of wisdom no matter how well-intended. She didn’t call me either.

Another Sunday came and went. No call, no words, no communication. I swallowed hard, a lump in my throat. Was she angry? Hurt? Uncaring? I could be stubborn, too!

 The following Sunday was Mother’s day, and as the week unfolded, I began to get antsy. I had never missed spending that day with my mother and knew that regardless of my attitude, I couldn’t miss this one either. She was my mother, after all, and a darned good one. The best.

On Friday morning, I dialed her number. The phone rang and rang until finally her message machine clicked on. Phew, I didn’t have to talk yet. I left a cryptic, matter-of-fact message about coming to see her on Mother’s day and hung up, relieved that I’d done something. The ball was in her court.

The phone rang five minutes later. This was before the day of Caller ID, and I didn’t dream she’d be calling back so soon.

“Hello,” I said.

“Hello, Darlin’,” my mother said, her voice the first I’d heard upon my arrival on Earth, the voice of reason, comfort, assurance, discipline, forgiveness, and love. Always love. In those two words, I heard everything I needed to know.

That’s the kind of mother I had.

While I appreciate Mother’s day and all it symbolizes, I realize that everyone doesn’t feel the same way. There are women and men, boys and girls, who suffer each of the twenty-four hours of the day and just want it to be done. I’m sensitive to that, and yet I couldn’t let another day pass without paying tribute to Mama.

 

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Hello Honey

My father visited me in a dream on a cruise ship in Alaska.

Who am I? Where did I come from? Who are my people? Those questions have haunted me for years, and now that I’ve begun writing a family history, I need more answers.

In September, 2015, we went to Alaska with two other couples, and some experiences there reinforced my longing to learn more about my roots, my ancestry. On at least two occasions while on excursions in AK, we heard presentations in which the speakers spoke of the importance of knowing your people.

The first presentation was by Carol Reid a native Athabascan. By this time we arrived at Primrose Ridge, one of the most beautiful places on Earth, we were getting a tad weary of getting on and off, on and off, the bus, but like good soldiers, we complied. No one was prepared for the treat in store for us. A petite gray-haired woman stood on a slight incline, poised to address us. With her long hair flowing behind her in the slight breeze, she shared the history and traditions of her people.

Until that afternoon, I hadn’t given much thought to the various tribes and their languages and traditions. Carol opened my eyes, not only to her own culture and background but to my own as well. I looked at her face and saw the features of her ancestors. She reminded us of the importance of knowing your family as a means of better understanding yourself.

She cast a spell on all of us. Even the tough guys in the group were mesmerized by her words, gestures, and essence. After a moment’s hesitation, I walked over and asked if I could hug her. She smiled as if to say, “Of course,” and I took her up on her inviting expression. I told her that her words had touched my heart and asked if it would be okay to have a picture made with the three gals in our party.

A few days later found us outside Juneau visiting the Saxman village. As a friend and I listened to the young man talk about his heritage as part of the Eagle clan, I was impressed with his pride and loyalty. “You have to understand your people and where you come from so that you can know who you are,” he said.

Who am I? Where did I come from? Who are my people?

The morning after the Saxman village excursion, I awoke from a dream in which I was visited by my father who died in 1998. In the dream, there were tables and people in a large room, and I felt like we were in a school—perhaps the middle school where my daughter worked. I stood at one of the tables busily going through a large box with files in it. Noise and commotion surrounded me.

As I stood rummaging through the box, I felt a presence on my right. I glanced in that direction and was surprised to see my father standing there looking at me, neither smiling nor frowning—just looking. His expression was one of love and peace rather than concern or sorrow. He appeared to be in his mid-40’s and still had black, wavy hair.

“Hey Daddy,” I said, stopping my paper search and resting my hands on top of the box.

“Hey Honey,” he replied, calm and composed.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I just came to see you,” he said.

When I woke up, I lay there trying to recall each nuance, sight, feeling, and sound so that I could recollect them later—always. He didn’t approach me to give me a fatherly hug (that wasn’t his nature), and I didn’t stop what I was doing to give him a big ole squeeze. Neither of us cried out for joy or demonstrated strong emotion. We simply looked at each other, secure in the knowledge that we were connected, that he was “my people.”

Other situations, including visits to Ellis Island, have heightened my desire to know more about my ancestors, and prompted by my daughter Carrie’s example, this morning I sent a DNA sample to Ancestry.com. I’m feeling excited, anxious, and curious. Answers will aid in recording a family history.

If you’ve had a DNA revelation, will you share it? Please.

 

 

 

 

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Enlightenment

I’ve been doing more reading than writing this week. What can I say? So many good books to read, so little time. And I’m trying to follow the advice of successful writers who say good readers make good writers.

I finished Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity last night and posted a review on Amazon this morning. Here it is.

My only regret about reading this book is that I didn’t do it sooner. A friend recommended it three years ago, and although I promptly purchased it, the book remained squeezed tightly between other unread volumes on a bookcase until last week. I thumbed through it, stopping at many passages and thinking, “This is fascinating,” or “I need to tell so-and-so about this,” or “Wow! I wish I had someone to discuss this with.

Borg covers too many topics for me to treat them all fairly, so I’ll focus on a few of my favorites:

Thin places. “This way of thinking affirms that there are minimally two layers or dimensions of reality, the visible world of our ordinary experience and the sacred. Borg reminds his readers that a thin place is anywhere our hearts are open and then tells us how to find them. Thin places don’t have to be explicitly religious and can be found in nature, music, art, and literature. He also lists practices one can follow to access thin places, practices that are doable.

Two relationships are at the core of Christian life. The first is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, life force, mind, and strength.” The second is to love your love your neighbor as yourself. While we know these things with our heads, we don’t seem to know them with our hearts.

Borg’s words about practicing compassion and justice made me squirm a little. Charity and compassion are easier than seeking justice and social transformation for those in need. It’s easier to donate money, time, or old furniture. It’s harder to seek actively seek social justice…or become politically involved.

The Bible’s relationship to time and place. The Old and New Testaments are both sacred and human products with metaphorical importance. Those of us who live in a modern Western culture tend to identify truth with fact and thus devalue metaphorical language. Reading Borg’s statement about the truth of the Bible not being dependent on its historical factuality was an aha moment for me since I too am a product of my time and culture.

There is much more that gave me pause for thought in this illuminating book, including religious plurality in America and how it came to be. There’s a thought-provoking passage on salvation, too, one that makes the reader realize it’s much more encompassing than avoiding the flames of hell. In the Bible, salvation can be light in the darkness, enlightenment, return from exile, healing of infirmities, knowing God, and resurrection from the land of the dead.

Highly readable, interesting, informative, and thought provoking, this is the book for those with open hearts trying to live more authentically Christian lives.

It’s a book I’ll likely return to many times. It’s that good. In the meantime, later tonight I’ll get back to Tribe, a nonfiction book I’m reading based on my brothers’ recommendation. Maybe the three of us can have our own little book club discussion afterwards. My friend Lynn recommended One Thousand White Women, a work of historical fiction based on the journals of Mary Dodd, and maybe I should start with that.

What are you reading this week? Do you have a book you’d like to recommend? Hope so!

 

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Read the Syllabus

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I listened to a great podcast this morning, engaging and informative—engaging because of the personalities, enthusiasm, and energy of the podcasters and informative because of the tips they shared with listeners.

Professors/instructors at a two-year college, Paul Crolley and Carl Beckham feel the frustration and stress that arrive at the end of each semester, and realizing that their students experience some of the same negative emotions, these two young profs offered helpful suggestions for students everywhere.

I listened to the podcast while on a morning walk and smiled pretty much all the way through it. Been there, done that, I thought. Below are three of their recommendations. I’ve taken the liberty to add my two cents’ worth from a slim volume I wrote entitled Crossing the Bridge: Succeeding in a Community College and Beyond.

#1. Read the syllabus. And then read it again.

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“A syllabus is a document that gives information about topics you’ll be covering, how final grades are calculated, the name of your text, and your instructor’s contact information. Chances are good that any question you might have has already been anticipated and addressed on the syllabus.

“Still, you could be confused about something, and if that’s the case, contact the teacher. By the way, in a technical or community college, faculty keep required office hours, and those hours will be listed on your syllabus.” According to Carl and Paul, students rarely visit during office hours.

#2. “Pay close attention to requirements and important dates. In addition to the above, your syllabus includes test dates and assignment/ paper/ activity deadlines, holidays and school closings, and dates like the last day of add/drop and the last day to withdraw from a class without a penalty. Even if you don’t anticipate having to change your schedule or drop a course, it’s a good idea to know these dates.”

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#3. “Follow instructions to the letter. I recently submitted a story to a magazine. Before I hit “Send,” I read and followed every guideline on the website. I was a little annoyed that I had to save my document as a .doc instead of .docx, but the instructions clearly stated that failure to do so would toss the writer’s story out of the running. I sighed and did it their way. I didn’t want the story returned unread so I took the time to learn.

“If the instructions say to double-space and use one-inch margins, then do it. If the instructions indicate that the paper should be three pages, don’t write five in the hopes that your teacher will be impressed with your diligence. She won’t. In fact, she’ll likely be aggravated because you didn’t follow instructions. If you’re asked to give a five-minute speech, then give a five-minute speech. Going over the time limit shows that you have no respect for other people’s time. Speaking less than that shows that you haven’t prepared well.”

The podcasters shared an incident in which a student submitted a paper using PDF instead of Word despite written and oral reminders from the instructor. I’m pretty sure it went unread.

“If a teacher says to send a paper or assignment to a dropbox, then do it his way. If a teacher says to use APA formatting for a psychology paper, then do it without becoming miffed and telling the teacher that MLA is used for English classes. Your psychology and history teachers already know that.”

Paul and Carl use rubrics to help their students, and I’m going to follow their example. Letting students know more specifically how their work is going to be evaluated is a huge benefit for parties on both sides of the lectern.

“If it seems that I’m going a bit overboard about following instructions, there’s a reason. Teachers care about student success and get flabbergasted, frustrated, and flummoxed when they ignore instructions or appear to take educational opportunity for granted.”

It’s the midnight hour, the critical time before the end of the semester, and students are scrambling to get their work in. Their teachers are feeling the pressure, too–pressure to read, grade, and assign semester grades by the due date set by their employer. The process would be more efficient and less stressful if everyone fulfilled his or her part of the bargain.

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Do This. Don’t Do That.

I’ve been a slacker in the blogging department lately, not because I don’t have anything to say but rather because I’ve been speaking my truth in other areas. Plus, although I always did my best (with what I knew at the time) on my blogs, now that I know more about do’s and don’ts, I’m less eager to share something until it’s perfect. But alas, we know that never happens–not with me, not with anyone.

Hmm. Hard to believe I once kept up four blogs at one time: one for psychology students as a way of earning extra credit (for them, not me), one about women in the Bible, one about a mother’s musings, and the fourth about writing. The first two have been axed, but the second two still get a lick and a promise. Ouch. I can hear the groaning of my writing friends who read those clichés.

Do this. Don’t do that. It’s a lot for a gal to keep up with. Let’s stick to some do’s tonight.

Do use active voice. Example from yesterday. One of my grandsons, age five, described some angry actions of one of his brothers. “He bit me like a dog,” he said and cut his eyes towards me to gauge my reaction. I knew he was exaggerating and reminded him of how he had reportedly scratched his sister’s arm because she was singing.

“But her singing hurt my head,” he said, jabbing his forehead for emphasis.

Feel free to begin a sentence with and or but regardless of what your high school English teacher said. Reportedly, Justice Scalia felt beginning a sentence with But added more flow and verve. Last week, I listened to Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips podcast and was amused by the example of using However vs. But in Robert Frost’s “Walking by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

“However, I have promises to keep,” just doesn’t have the same impact as “But I have promises to keep.”

Expand your vocabulary. I agree wholeheartedly with this. It’s more effective to say sweltering than very hot, for example, and yet there comes a time when a smaller word or more commonly used word is more appropriate. If you decide to use a lesser known word, consider defining it for your reader. “It’s been a long spell since we’ve had a friendly chat, a coze.”

You’ll have to be the judge of what to use and when to use it, but Stephen King’s advice seems spot on. “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.”

Vary paragraph length. Many of us learned to organize our thoughts to fit nicely into a five-paragraph essay. The first and last paragraphs could/should contain three sentences, but the middle three paragraphs needed five to be considered developed. Sometimes I had a wee problem with that guideline. Sometimes I wanted to vary paragraph length based on how it looked rather than what it said. I didn’t though. I was a timid little rule follower.

But then I joined a writing group, and all bets were off, in a manner of speaking. One brave writer encouraged me to write one sentence paragraphs. Blasphemy! I thought. But I did it, and it felt great. The words and their placement on the page actually looked and read differently too. They were more attention grabbing and powerful.

These days I encourage some in my critique group to shorten a paragraph just because it looks better. Sometimes they nod their heads politely and pay me no mind. Other times, they concur with my suggestion, especially if I tell them I got it from King. “Paragraphs are almost always as important for how they look as for what they say.”

What are some of your do’s? No don’t’s tonight please.

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Live Seasons

While a writer of Annie Dillard’s stature doesn’t need reviews the way our local writers’ group does (hint hint), people who ponder life’s mysteries and fleeting nature need to know more about her input on the subject. Now that I’ve read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and listened to it on Audible, I’ll never think the same way about the natural world again. I can’t see a shadow without remembering that outside shadows are blue because they’re lit by the blue sky rather than the yellow sun or walk in my front yard without thinking of the moles beneath the spongy ground.

There’s a lot to read and absorb and reread and ponder and investigate. Dillard says that like the bear, she went over the mountain to see what she could see. Through her eyes, I’ve seen more than I ever imagined was “out there.” Here’s the Amazon review:

“How can you not like a nonfiction book that’s both informational and interesting? Entertaining too. Seriously, if I’d had exposure to texts that made science even remotely as engaging and intriguing as this one, I might have been become an ornithologist or entomologist. Who knew that the average size of all living animals, including humans, is almost that of a horsefly or that the average temperature of Earth is 57 degrees Fahrenheit? Not I, at least not until reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

“Dillard’s musings on life, both ours as humans and that of the planet’s inhabitants (from muskrats to mites), trees, rocks, creeks, clouds, and mountains, give the reader a fascinating perspective on nature and on life itself. I’ll never walk out in the front yard again without thinking of the moles burrowing beneath the soil or the starlings let loose in Central Park in 1890. I’ll never stand beside a creek without remembering its rushing, fleeting nature being a metaphor for life. One thing I will remember is the admonition to “Catch it if you can….These are our few live seasons. Let us live them as purely as we can, in the present.”

“This book was first recommended to me by some writer friends after I mentioned that I was reading (at that time) For the Time Being. “You have to read Pilgrim,” they all practically shouted at me. Now I know why. The prose, the information, the visual pictures of Tinker Mountain and its surroundings, the vocabulary (chitin, oriflamme, bastinado for starters), and the references to spiritual and scientific sources make this book a must-read.”

One of my daughters and I visited Chimney Rock, NC this past weekend, and while there, we repeated something we’d done with the rest of the clan a few Thanksgivings ago. We walked out on to the rocks and boulders in the rushing creek behind the shops and restaurants and took a picture. Unlike the family photo taken years ago, this one was a selfie.

We were smiling, happy to be alive and experiencing the wild, fast, loud creek rushing around and above and beyond us. I thought of Dillard’s reminder that this is a lighted season.  “I never merited this grace,” she said. Nor did I. But hallelujah, I’ll take it.

 

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Lucinda and the Rain

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By the time I got the seedless red grapes, Granny Smith apples, Jiffy cornbread, and chicken noodle soup in the car to head to my daughter’s house, I realized I was probably going to be a little late. No problem, I thought. She’s making brownies for dessert and isn’t going to do that until after she gets home around 5:00 o’clock.

 The steady but gentle rain the coastal area had been experiencing for a couple of hours worsened as I drove inland towards Conway. Traffic was slow and stop-and-go until I got to Coastal Carolina. Then it came to a dead stop. No inching along. No nothing. Must be a terrible wreck. Hope no one is seriously injured, I thought, knowing that my hope was likely in vain.

Vehicles gradually began to inch forward, and after about twenty minutes, I was sitting at the intersection of Hwy. 501 Business and Hwy. 90, a distance that can ordinarily be covered in five minutes. The rain pelted the windshields, and I noticed the back wiper wildly swishing away the water. All I could see was a long string yellow lights behind me. Red headlights lay ahead as far as the eye could see.

I shivered involuntarily. Although it was not yet 6:00 o’clock, the sky was dark and gray except for the unrelenting rain seen through the headlights of my car and hundreds of others. Dismal, I thought. And gloomy.

 I felt rather than saw a presence to my right and was startled to see a woman standing there in the rain. Without umbrella or raincoat, she wore a head covering of some type and a white sign with black letters. It was too dark to decipher all the words, but I felt her message. She was a woman in need. We locked eyes for a couple of seconds before I reached into my purse and rummaged for some money. I found five dollars and lowered the window.

The woman approached. She looked early 50’s but could have been much younger. Her brown hair was medium length and matted, and some of her top teeth were broken. She leaned down towards the window and looked at me, her eyes sad yet hopeful.I didn’t say anything, just handed her the bill. “Thank you,” she said before asking, “What’s your name?”

“Jayne,” I replied.

She smiled a smile that broke my heart. Except for the grace of God, go I.

 Well, thank you, Jayne.”

“No problem,” I replied.

“You didn’t ask, but my name’s Lucinda.” (not her real name)

I gulped. She might have been homeless or hungry or both, but the lone woman standing in the rain outside of my nice cozy Highlander had an identity. I made a mental note of that before responding, “Well, you better get someplace dry, Lucinda. It’s nasty out tonight.”

She gave me that sweet, melancholy smile again and backed away from the car.

I moved ahead in the line of traffic, looking through my rear view mirror towards the back windshield. I couldn’t see her. Had Lucinda been an apparition? No, she and I had shared a moment on a cold, rainy March night.

Thirty minutes later I was sharing soup and cornbread and brownies with Elizabeth and Travis. We shared conversation, laughter, and conviviality around Elizabeth’s table. What was Lucinda doing while we basked in warmth and buttered our bread? What is she doing today? Where will she spend tonight? She’s just one person. There are thousands of invisible people whose identity we don’t know.

Is there a lesson in this story? I don’t know. All I know is that it was a surreal encounter and that I’ll never take my good fortune for granted again. Jayne with warmth, nourishment, and loved ones. Lucinda with ???

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Emma’s Boost

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In the years since retirement, I’ve read and listened to all sorts of advice about writing. Don’t use “it” so often. Show, don’t tell. Don’t be so thematically heavy-handed. Use said, not murmured or yelled. Make your dialogue realistic. Stay away from passive voice. 

What an awakening I’ve had. Several, in fact. This afternoon I’m thinking of two short instructions that make sense to me:

  1. Write what you know.
  2. Write something people actually want to read.

I know a lot about teaching two-year college students. Not boasting, just saying. During thirty-plus years in the classroom, I filled some other roles, including that of department chair, but first and foremost. I was a teacher. Some teachers see the classroom as a means to an end and desire to become promoted. Others are anxious to land positions requiring more research and less interaction with students. Not I. Each time, I crossed the threshold into a classroom, I felt the magic.

A couple of years ago, I decided to write a short book of guidelines for novice teachers. Why not share some of the things I’d learned throughout nearly three and a half decades?

I finished a manuscript, even inserted advice from co-workers and sections of blog posts, and then I put it aside, all 96 pages of it. The manuscript bored me. How could I expect peers to read it without falling asleep? I began second guessing myself about its value, and regardless of how I tried to jazz it up, the tone was too instructional and dull. Did today’s teachers really need to know a list of do’s and don’t’s? Would they yawn through the “back in the day” paragraphs?

I didn’t want to be too heavy on pedagogy, and yet some principles are important.

  • Know your subject matter. Study, study, study, and then look over it one more time. I read once that the secret to successful teaching is learning in the morning what you’re teaching that afternoon and talking about it as if you’ve known it all of your life. There’s much, much more to it than that, but knowledge of subject matter is essential.
  • Learn how to say, “I don’t know.” You aren’t fooling anyone, not even a kindergartner, when you try to bluff your way through something. I’ve followed Mark Twain’s advice on many occasions and have never regretted it: “I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.”
  • Keep learning. Things are constantly changing, both in your field, technology, and the world at large.
  • Be a reflective practitioner. Think, ponder, and “reflect” on what’s really happening:
    • Could you be part of the problem?
    • Can you be open-minded enough to learn from your mistakes….or to realize that perhaps you don’t have all the answers?
    • Is what you’re doing working?

This afternoon I’ve been looking over the manuscript and realize it’s now or never. The core of the book is there. Now it needs some soul to give it pizazz and vitality. I even have a cover, a picture drawn and colored by one of my granddaughters. While some people might think it looks childish and unprofessional, I think Emma’s drawing sets the tone for the message within. My students are not smaller than I, but I realize that’s her perception at the moment. Few teachers use chalkboards these days, and the idea of me teaching math is hilarious. Still, I love Emma’s drawing.

I might change my mind about the blond teacher before publication, but for now I’m using a child’s vision and courage as reminders not to take myself so seriously and to “go for it.”

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More than Something to Drink

I agree with Pat Conroy who said the four most beautiful words in the English language are, “Tell me a story.” Tonight’s drop-in at the Kershaw County Library verified Conroy’s assertion and my belief.

I arrived at the library a few minutes past 5:30, the time the drop-in was to begin, and took in a couple of dozen bottles of water, part of my contribution for tonight’s event. I could hear Douglas Wyant, chapter president, talking so I knew things were already underway. Good, I thought. I can sneak out undetected to get the rest of the water, the fruit tray, and the bookmarks I had created as mementoes.

Everything was going reasonably well until I dropped eight bottles of water, some of which rolled into the parking lot and under the car. Drat. Now what am I supposed to do?

 I didn’t have time to get into a full-blown pity party because within five seconds, I heard, “Can I help you carry something?” I looked up to see the kindest face I’d seen in, well, an hour or so at least.

“I hate to ask you to help me. I mean, that’s not what you came to the library for, I’m sure.”

She didn’t reply, just took the sixteen bottles (I was feeling especially optimistic about our potential turnout) and waited to make sure I could balance the fruit tray and cookie tin containing the bookmarks.

“You’re an angel to come to my rescue like this. Aren’t those bottles heavy?”

“Not at all. When my brother died, I just sort of stepped up and started helping my mother do all kinds of things. My sisters were already out of the house, and it was just me and Mama.”

I asked her what happened to her brother, and we talked about as we walked towards the main entrance. Although the cause of death was technically an accident, he lingered in a coma for several months, thus preparing the family for his ultimate “transition.”

“Is there any good way to die?” I asked. Is lingering better than suddenly being snatched out of the midst of loved ones and friends?

 Not wanting to interrupt the Q & A session that had begun, we put the goodies on a table and continued our conversation. My good Samaritan’s father had passed away a few months before her brother was injured in the accident, and losing both males of the family in such a short period of time helped cement the strong interdependent bond between mother and daughter.

“Oh yes, we’re close. But my father and I were close too. He’s the one who taught me the importance of family…and of being kind to other people, too. If there was one thing he couldn’t stand, it was somebody looking down on another person ’cause they thought they were better.”

“Sounds like a wonderful role model for you and your siblings.”

“Oh, he was. He was,” she added with a sweet smile.

Someone beckoned me in, and I invited (gently pressured) my new acquaintance into the room. She stayed the whole time, and before leaving, Mary (not her real name) said she was going to start keeping a journal. She drank a bottle of that water she’d brought in, said she’d been inspired by the stories she’d heard, ate a fruitcake cookie, and selected a bookmark.

That might seem like an ordinary event in an ordinary day. It was and it wasn’t. Mary and I think it was serendipitous. I needed help with water bottles, and she needed a nudge to write her story/stories. As an attendee remarked when hearing Mary speak about our meeting in the parking lot, “Water’s more than something to drink. It’s everything…so many meanings, so many metaphors.”

The Camden Writers had a reasonably good turnout tonight, and I can truthfully say that all who attended had a good time and are thinking of stories, both past and present, and of writing them for posterity.

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