I am fortunate to belong to two writing groups and advise a student group of writers. Without the gentle prodding of deadlines, I know I would not have written a thing this month. Today's meeting with the Berlin Writers Group was energizing. Our prompt for the month was "red" and "president." With the last month of trauma in the Capitol, I could not write about presidents. I did reflect on "red."
Red Sky in Morning
Threads of purple, red, and orange raked the sky every morning the winter I decided that change would do me good. Dawn lured me to study the sky in my rearview mirror and to consider turning around to watch it from the beach. Instead, I drove west to the city and a job that had grown stagnant.
Too many times, I was distracted to the point of danger. Once, I jerked the wheel when a bald eagle swooped down from the pines and snatched a rabbit considering a run across the highway. A hare’s hazard. A hair’s breadth away from disaster, I turned the wheel back and avoided sideswiping a truck in my blind spot.
How many years had I driven that route out of tune with traffic while attending to some natural phenomenon? The dazzling mounds of snow on bent pine trees blinded me one morning to the skating rink the early morning drizzle made of the offramp. I held my breath as we slid close to the shoulder and crunched onto Rt. 50 at sliding crawl. The coworker who shared that ride escaped to a sabbatical in Rome and lives there still.
Early spring inflamed my desire to escape. A glorious red maple splashed heat into the placid green of an overgrown field. Red buds danced for a week—their ornamental crowns, purple-tinged crimson, waved goodbye. And the cherry blossoms at the college let me cry on the way home each evening—too beautiful to last a few days, they shed a pink carpet and blew petal kisses across the asphalt.
I do miss the stoics, those russet and ivory cows that munched and stared on my trek from a field of sparse green grass and mud tracks. They were my marker for fifteen more minutes of loud music and the sky shredded with impossible clouds. I walked into work staring up into red skies going orange then breaking up with cirrus streamers.
Red skies in morning; I should have taken warning. Each day held so much promise before reality set in. I promised myself beach sunrises on the weekend every weekday I drove west to work. But each Saturday, I slept in.
The ornithologist on the radio sounds like Neil Gaiman for about five seconds and gets my attention. The interviewer is making the case for his role as a black scientist devoted to birds, so he relaxes unconsciously into a slightly Southern cadence. Why does that happen every time someone points a finger at race?
The interviewer then admitted her ignorance of the proper names of birds, and he laughed. He said that if a bird is red—it’s a red bird. The bird doesn’t need to be named to exist or to be enjoyed.
I’m listening to the tone of his voice as he talks of birds he observed in his backyard during quarantine. Unable to travel to rarer birds, he speaks of his pilgrimage to the yard as we sheltered in place. He shared revelations from quiet observation ensconced in an Adirondack chair before a plastic-lined pond full of goldfish and visiting frogs.
He ruminates over common birds I have marveled over—the plentiful, red-breasted robin, the blue jay, the woodpecker, the gray and scarlet cardinals, starlings, crows, red-tailed hawks, vultures, and the twenty types of sparrows. I am struck by our similar experience no matter how far we are from each other—age, education, sex, geography, race. We were both pinned to the coordinates of our backyards—he, sitting with drink in hand and me, with rake and gloves—choosing to meditate in nature.
Yesterday, the pines that circle my house were filled with robins chirping and flitting--perhaps fifty before I stopped counting. We are approaching the full circle of a year confined to our homes, yards, and neighborhoods. Soon it will be time to take up the rake and dust off the Adirondak.
Amid the concerns over contact with others, I've managed to reread most of what I've written in fifteen years (about 12 novels, too many novellas, approximately 90 short stories, and enough poetry for another collection).
Last spring and summer, I sent out twelve submissions and received nine rejections--some anonymously machine and others personal. The three acceptances surprised me. Last year, I published a book review with The Delmarva Review, but I had given up on submitting years ago after too many rejections. This year, they accepted two of my sonnets written during the height of anxiety due to COVID19. My father's visits were so real in those early days, and now they live on the pages of the anthology.
A story I have been honing since 1983 when Ted was born, and I dove into science fiction during a summer of new mother loneliness was accepted by The Bay to Ocean Anthology. In "Celia's Audience with a Madman," the reader meets Celia Maycomb, my favorite brand of gusty, smart woman who faces a machine that can outthink her.
Finally attempting ekphrastic poetry for the Here l Not Here art exhibition by SU Galleries, one of my poems was chosen for an anthology of artwork and poetry and a meditative reading in September. The photograph I chose enjambed a beautiful shade of blue and the shambling rot of an old shed. "Overgrown" unlocked as I wrote for that scene and dove into the story of a woman who escaped, returned, was thwarted, and fled. Sometimes there are entire novels wrapped up in poetry.
There is the joy in quarantine.
I also finished my novel Confessions in Birdsong (which might have been lost in that cyberattack, but that is sorrow and not my subject.) Another novella jumped out of the past and threw itself onto the page as an exorcism from the seriousness of Confessions. Charlie's Heart is a romp into romance with all of its grumpy strangers, self-sacrificing urges, and twisting turns.
Embarking on the task to write book reviews, I want to be fair but kind. I read through the edits of "Celia" when I was returned to me. Something I have been honing for all those years had so many flaws. In a review, I am focusing on good storytelling, good formatting, and fine writing. I'm no expert, but I am a reader. So there's joy in reading and reviewing for Greyhound Books' authors.
Hello all from the 9th Month of Quarantine,
Spending the Thanksgiving break with a very small (3) family gathering this year instead of the extended family of more than twenty has been different but also restful. Although I worry over the ransomware attack on my school system, there is a bit of freedom in knowing there is little I can do but follow directives and stay off my work device and programs.
Each turn sends me back to writing. This time, the writing takes the form of book reviews for my friend and bookstore owner, Susan Ayers Winbrow of Greyhound Books of Berlin, MD. Each book that I review has been chosen from a curated list.
The urge to feature and support the publication of self-published writers by an independent bookstore is great, but it is double-edged. Some of the books offered through self-publishing are unique and enlivening despite not being shopped around traditional publishers, and some are downright drivel. Quite a few good stories are poorly edited or awkwardly set on the page. Self-publishing might have made it easier for writers to publish, but it has opened the floodgates for error.
I speak from experience. Simply shopping my first collection of poetry through a few publishers was time-consuming when I have so little left over from the day job--teaching. Then there are edits and promotion. Book signings and appearances take their own kind of preparation.
Most of my life has been devoted to teaching. Anyone who teaches can tell you that they've written a few novels-worth of pages just translating the curriculum into lesson plans. That is just the beginning.
And so it goes . . . I'm channeling Vonnegut this morning. The preorder period for my poetry collection Birds Like Me is in its second week and the postcards from Finishing Line Press have been delivered after a tumultuous process with the cover art. We have not received too many preorders which was due to my failure to promote the book for the first full week--headless as it was without a cover. Ugh.
Earlier this week, the purchase of Taylor Swift's early songbook made the news. People were shocked that she did not control her own creative works. Few artists do. This morning on Twitter, a fan berated Neil Gaiman (mentally genuflecting here to @neilhimself) for plans afoot for a Netflix version of Sandman which DC Comics owns. Once a contract is signed, control over a creative work is limited. That's the deal--the chance you take.
I vacillate between promoting the collection and growing embarrassed about asking (begging) people I know to preorder it. I did work, hone, polish, and grow the book. Friends read and offered suggestions. Birds Like Me is personal and universal. It's some of the best work I've done.
But here's the grand mess of publication--I want to see my writing in print. I would like it to represent my slim time on earth, but I do not want anyone to think I'm making any money at all from this process. The contract with Finishing Line Press is clear--I supply the book, the artwork (which Stephanie from Salt Water designed after the first in-house design horrified me), the book blurbs and any reviews I can beg. Finishing Line will only print if we sell 75-100 copies of the book and I get no royalties on the preorders. I do get free books (sell-75 and get 30 copies out of a 300 copy press run or sell 100 copies and get 50 copies out of a 500 copy press run). You think it through.
I self-published three books set in fictitious Lambertville, WV through Salt Water Media of Berlin, MD from 2014-2016--the Lilac Hill series. Stephanie and Patty from Salt Water were wonderful to work with through this gut-wrenching process. I love the books even though my writing is naive and rawboned.
But the books cost something to print. In fact, I deduced that any books sold from a signing I'm doing on Saturday at the incredibly generous Greyhound Books of Berlin, will cost me 50 cents each. If Greyhound orders them from Ingram, I earn $2.
But. . . my novels and poetry are in print. In this world of impermanence, they might become my little monument--my crumbling statue in the desert like Kubla Khan.
If you'd like to preorder Birds Like Me, go to
I've been saying all week that I am a straight ahead type of a person. Give me a goal, and I can usually find the path and keep on trudging when I can't run.
Thanks to rejection by a small college press, November gave me a few days off, a chapbook of poetry, and a bit of a chip on my shoulder. Rejection is not pretty--yes, it's instructive, but it also takes a little bite out of the psyche every time one arrives.
Thanks to the monthly missive from Duotrope and the playful suggestions from Submishmash, I renamed and edited the poems into a friendlier collection named Birds Like Me. I am so grateful to the editors at Finishing Line Press for sending a happy note along with an acceptance via email. I was astounded--a real publishing contract.
The nitty-gritty of the agreement is this: I pre-sell 75 plus copies before mid-August, and my slim tome is published by a very fine press. The pressure has been building ever since. Stephanie read the contract and approved it. A friend and former student, Danielle Greene read the collection, edited, and made suggestions, my sister Pat and friend Katherine read touchy pieces, and I asked Nancy Mitchell of The Out of Body Shop fame to write a blurb. Novelist and reviewer, Jerry Sweeney agreed to write another. Kelly O'Brien Russo took beautiful pictures one golden Saturday with me on Assateague Island. I've put in whole days editing, shifting around the order, making lists, and hoping that I'm not messing up the magic. Because that's what poetry is--magic solidified and compressed into an image.
In between, my buddy Karen lost her struggle with metastatic cancer last Saturday. Sometimes life grinds to a halt, shakes you by the scruff, and tosses you back a couple of miles. Sometimes you dip off the path for a breather.
Hug the ones you love, and practice patience with the rest.
The temptation of a couple hundred dollars forced me to schedule and attend a yearly physical with my doctor. A few questions and a little bit of listening had her ordering an electro-cardiogram and then declaring that I must have had a heart attack. Evidently, my heart sounds different than the old heart with the murmur.
One stress test later, I'm told that I have nothing to worry about except for "conditioning" according to the cardiologist at the hospital. A quick prescription for cholesterol meds to ward off future heart attacks or strokes, and I'm released back into the crowd.
And then my husband got sick. Really sick. His blood pressure was 212/110, and they monitored him for about an hour. He had a bladder infection, hypertension, and a rotten cold. The whole situation happened so quickly--yes, we were distracted by my batch of rotten news and threatening tests (including a biopsy for cancer screening--100% clear) but he was sick less than 48 hours before showing me a toilet full of blood. Not to be graphic, but it was alarming. Not to worry--emergency ordered him antibiotics, they calmed him down, tested everything, and monitored his heart rate. They took all these results and filed them with his name in an inscrutable file. Why? Because my husband has no PPO.
He has no regular doctor. He can barely get a doctor to pay attention to him despite the high blood pressure. It's late February and the soonest new patient appointment I can get is July. Want to talk health care crisis? That is a crisis--we pay taxes, contribute to our health care costs, try to live within our budget, and there's no doctor when you need one.
Forget universal health care, we need health care for people who pay for it. Richly. Constantly.
Too many people and organizations to thank--Kathryn Wilde for taking the reins of the student field trip portion of the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival and for being my travel companion and map manager for the trip; thanks to Meredith McGann and Danielle Greene for traveling with our twenty-three students and SU intern Jacob Anderson; thanks to our students for making this Dodge Festival special; and to the Dodge staff--wonderful event.
We came home awash with words strung so beautifully together that I was mute when asked about the festival. How can you express the sheer brilliance of these people? They are the bright beads on a necklace woven from so many experiences--love, hurt, pleasure, and pain. Wrap that up in a package of lines, the slim sounds of language punctuated by breath, and I am amazed that we don't dissolve in the distillation of crystalized emotion.
I am humbled. Quite simple. Most memorable--Jericho Brown, Gregory Pardlo, Elizabeth Alexander, and the man who made me sob--Forrest Gander. Like other festivals, I had close encounters with a few poets. Juan Felipe Herrera is a gentleman--curious about others, eager to hear about teaching, and a damn good salesman for his own books. David St. John was sweet and eager to talk in a shy way. I am not gushy or intrusive--so many of these poets are there to read or discuss and then hear what others have to say.
Poetry is a reciprocal gift. A perfect re-gift. I walk the dog and watch the leaves change thinking that is poetry. Greeting my students at the door is poetry. You just have to listen for the rhythm and the beauty.
Waiting is not one of my favorite pastimes—the time between submission of a piece and receiving acceptance or rejection is a small purgatory. I’m daring not to hope for good news so late in this brief month for the poetry chapbook, Foraging Storms. In between I have begun to open myself to memoir and poetry. A Lighthouse Learning class at SU with the gifted poet Nancy Mitchell is inspiring. Get out there and take a class. Talk to other people who share your interests—novice to professional. It’s a break from the humdrum and keeps me from checking my email.
Some days you can't catch a break, and then others you are brushed by angels. Over and over again.
Start with daylight savings which tricked me into an extra hour in bed and then rushing like a maniac to church. I arrived close to on time, sang to the last rock-hymn of the opening and enjoyed Ryan O's sermon on buried treasure. His words resonate--recognizing the blessings offered in the everyday--whether earned or given--is the key. Gratitude is the only appropriate response.
So we went to breakfast, met a delightfully exuberant waiter, were visited by a fellow parishoner, and talked. I was touched by a waitress who never fails to engage me personally when we visit the diner. Just as we were saying we had been tossed into an alternate universe by daylight savings, the waiter told us that our "booth hopping" friend from church had paid our bill. Love abounds.
Then tonight, Acacia's mother sent us a bag of eggs from their farm. Just out of the blue--white, brown, blue and green like Easter. Again, gratitude is the right response. Passing it on.
His White Lie will be my grand adventure into fast writing for this November. The story line is an old one for me: a hero takes on a challenge that few dare to face. The hero is a young widow who takes her nephew out of a dangerous situation. The point of view will shift between the aunt (Lily) and the boy (Dante).Yes, the classic struggle of wills ensues, the complications of secrets and outright lies twist the plot, but the theme of finding family returns. I plan to explore issues concerning drug addiction, treatment programs, support for families, peer pressure, bullying and trust The setting is today--right now on the Eastern Shore. I hope the novel echoes the struggles that I see occurring from my place at the classroom podium--witness, teacher, and agent of change.
Nanowrimo keeps me humble. Everyone dreams of writing something lasting. Everyone hopes they can make some sense out of the craziness life deals out. Some might paint a picture or write a song. I turn to the novel to puzzle out the messes of life.
Some of these messes thrust themselves on us. In my professional life, we have experienced terrible losses this year. Life is precious. Writing is about making sense and capturing fleeting time.
Write every day for one hour.
Stick to the outline. (Scrivener? Too complicated--I'm using a simple outline)
Keep it simple--Do not allow more than three main characters.
Write realistic dialogue that furthers the plot and uses standard dialogue tags.
Avoid adverbs and adjectives.
Communicate regularly (once a week) with the Maryland and Delaware Nanowrimo groups.
I am at the edge of writing again. Whether it is the glut of busy minds in the classroom, or the relative quiet of earlier mornings, the echo of time shifting like old leaves covered by new, the words are returning and spilling through consciousness. Is it the chatter of romantic, the sensuous nature of hard work, the exhaustion way down deep in the evening, that opens a portal to thought? Never look into the eyes of this feral beast.
Come phantoms of other lives. Flash into snips of conversation. Take over the idle moment and run through the pen to paper. Be free.
Robert told me today that his class was "rough" and wanted to know what I was going to do about it. I asked him how he was going to react when I removed him from class tomorrow. He is one of the toughest actors in the room. He is the friend who walks me downstairs to Magnet duty every day because I shouldn't "walk" by myself. He is cutting class as he does this community service for me daily. You have to meet people where they are. You have to see behind the urge to sing out loud for no reason, gather attention any way possible but still expect to be treated like an individual. To pass a required English class with a good grade. To get home safe and eat dinner. What more could we want? The other side of the coin is dreadful. Distressing.
Note on children
Children in literature tend to fall into the rut of darling cherubs who do no evil and charm the socks off of the most taciturn hearts, or they are conversely evil, plotting beasts. It is interesting to consider the real spirit of a child. Children are so much more complicated. Even with older children like Josh in this story, they spin in a world that revolves around them; they are careless with their loved ones to the point of breaking them; they are capable of rash decisions and have no concept that retaliation for actions can occur. When their little universe spins out of control, they are hurt and bruised but, most of the time, exhibit a resiliency that rivals adults. Most of the time, the poor decisions and follies of the young are excused and tolerated by adults. But every now and then, fate rears up and bites down viciously on one of these young fools. They are always astounded and want to blame the nearest parental figure they can locate. Their ire is unfathomable until they focus on themselves again and begin to see the truth. Then it is too late; they have awakened into adulthood.
Josh from this story is based on a real boy whose story could break your heart. Justin F. was seventeen years old when he entered our school during the third quarter of his senior year. He was a transplant from Baltimore—I think either Cherry Hill area or Pigtown from our discussions about home. Social Services placed him at a shelter and arranged counseling through Maple Shade on the Eastern Shore because he’d been in a number of brutal fights in the Baltimore facility and needed a change of scene. He was an obvious recovering addict with old track marks on his arms from low grade heroin, sometimes smelled sweet with pot, sported weird, homemade piercings and deep blue streaks in his short black hair, wore a bit of rough facial hair that hid some of an addict’s version of raging acne, but gave me a wide, intelligent look from bright blue eyes and sat up straight through every lesson.
He turned out to be shy and a genius with historical facts and deep reading in literature. He’d spent so much time confined to his room at various shelters; he had improved his reading by absorbing everything he could find. He had imaginatively created a fantasy grandfather whom had served in WWII and fought the Japs on an aircraft carrier. He had a disturbing interest in Hitler, guns, armed vehicles and war. He harbored Neo-Nazi views, dallied with becoming a white supremacist, but his best friends and later a first girlfriend were all black kids. He sometimes talked to himself if over stimulated and rocked. We discovered he was off his medications when he did that. By April when he was “overactive,” two of his other teachers sent him to me so he could sit in the back of the room, read his favorite WWII ship book and draw boat after boat in close precision.
I admit I found him an interesting conundrum because he didn’t seem to fit into the ungainly collection of gang bangers and regular kids they put him into at the end of the year. He watched them spout their neighborhood wisdom and mumbled about Baltimore. He knew what tough really was and didn’t get too impressed with small time hoods. He’d make eye contact with me or one of the other kids and roll his eyes at the nonsense.
The Monday he returned to school bleeding, I finally got the whole story. His roommate, a seventh grader at the school adjacent to ours, had beaten him up after their bedroom doors were locked for the night. He had complained to the monitor, but little had been done to stop the beating. The boy who did it was in a rage over something that had happened on a home visit, but Justin felt he couldn’t retaliate. That month he had turned eighteen and knew if he was charged with a crime, he would lose his spot at the home and be arrested.
First I noticed that he was very quiet. We were in the Media Center researching for an essay so I wandered from student to student. I noticed he smelled sour and rank beyond the normal, gamey smell of boys that age. My first reaction was to take a few paces back. A sweet-faced black boy who had befriended Justin raised an eyebrow at me and tossed his head to get my attention. I moved over to his side, and he toned clearly, “He’s bleeding, Mrs. C.” The boy’s look was grim.
I looked over expecting a bloody nose. Even in high school, sometimes kids are not too good with functioning when they are surprised by them. Justin must have brushed his hand along his face a moment before and disturbed the swollen knot where the boy’s ring had smashed him over and over again. Standing that close to him, I could see the imprint of a little square shape that I later found out was the shape on the ring. As I examined his averted face, I realized there was crusted blood in his jet black hair and in the whorls of his ears and along his neck. I touched his shoulder and he shuddered, “Who did this to you? Did this happen this morning?” I was thinking there must have been a fight on the bus.
Justin just shook his head. His friend leaned over and said very clearly, “His punk roommate did it. Nasty little nigger from the middle school. It’s a terrible place where they have him.” He gestured to Justin with a thumb and his bottom lip trembled.
“Justin, did you hit him back?” I know I must have sounded harsh, but reporting a beating is a two-sided disaster. Usually the victim is judged just as harshly as the attacker in a school or institutional setting.
“Only to get him off me. I can’t get thrown out. I have no place to go.” He swallowed suddenly and looked up so I could see the bruises beginning to color. They were new and needed ice. When I sent him to the nurse’s office, I called the guidance counselor and the deputy. The rest of the class watched me and mumbled about do-gooder teachers who cause trouble. My one concern was how hurt he really might be under all that crusted blood.
I had noticed he had stopped wearing the wild Baltimore clothes that were black and grey with long chains and studs. Someone had told me somebody at the home threw bleach into his laundry and ruined his wardrobe. The home supplied him with something right out of a Polo advertisement that made him look slightly more civilized but odd. The collared shirts and khakis looked clean, but they seemed to rob him of his personality. After a visit from his social worker from Baltimore later that month, the original style of clothes returned with even more personality in bright royal blue and black. Justin had chosen his gang affiliation in just two months in Salisbury.
Justin received his diploma after a few courses in summer school that year. They moved the roommate to another site and paired Justin with someone calmer. He came back to see me by November this year and sat in my classroom to vent a bit about real life. He was in the process of dropping out of community college; the Army had finally rejected him because of his manic depression medication and ADHD. That failure was close to breaking him. If he couldn’t go to school full time, he couldn’t stay at the home.
My heart ached for him, but the careful sense of protection I have after years of dealing with troubled children and adults warned me. We were sitting in my empty classroom at the end of a quiet wing, and he was raving about how unfair life was treating him. He was bordering into an eruption of violence like I’d seen one time when someone pissed him off. He left before I called the office for help. Ordinarily I’d have hugged him, shaken his hand or walked him to the door, but I waved him a goodbye, waited a few minutes, shut my classroom door and locked it. I haven’t seen him since.
The guidance counselor that I enjoy working with most at the school because she is so even tempered and realistic, cried a bit when we discussed Justin the day he came to school caked with blood and relieved to be with us in the safety of school. She told me his story was one that was too familiar: drug addicted parents, one of whom had died, grandparents who were overwhelmed by disabilities the boy was born with because of his mother’s alcohol and drug use during pregnancy, and the abuses he encountered as a beautiful child in the brutal world of foster care. It turned out that Justin had been in foster care since he was three years old. As she dabbed away the tears, she asked, “What do you do with a life like that? How can we help him survive once he leaves here?” She told me that in counseling today these children are considered “throwaways.”
I don’t have any answers. Self preservation kept me from trying to get over involved with Justin; I told myself that he could kill us if we got too close; I have a young daughter; he will need meds for the rest of his life. You know the drill when you are making excuses. The hurt I absorbed from knowing him well and caring for him the best I could while he attended school yielded this character Josh Avery. Josh falls short because he is not as destroyed as Justin is. Josh is salvageable and attractive. Daphne is too strong and good at being a guardian. It is a manufactured denouement for a fraction of the person who could be saved.
Justin stopped by to see me today. Really—the day after I wrote the remembrance of him from above. He was not as intense as the last time I saw him. Short hair with a trim beard, all black on with some kind of band tee shirt. He didn’t know whether to hug me or not but I had to because I had thought so much about him yesterday and there he was.
He told me that he had a hearing in a month in Caroline County where one of his grandmothers lives to decide if he can continue at the home. He is nineteen and dropped out of Worwic so he should be out on his own. He worries about where he will go; he knows it wouldn’t be long without his meds on his own. Now he is trying for a job with the armory but it’s part time. He gave me the catalog of relatives he can’t live with: Mom who he is trying to speak to again in Frederick, the grandmother who barely returns his call from Denton, and a pregnant girlfriend who the grandmother took in. (She is obviously not all bad.) The grandmother has her thirty year-old son living there, too. He tells me she was born the day her father flew out oversees to the Gulf War in the 1990s. Everything is still defined by its relation to the military in his mind though he reminded me that he can’t serve.
I took his number and gave him mine for a recommendation. I will see the guidance counselor tomorrow to get him the information for the Job Market. When they called looking for him, he hurried away to catch his ride back to the home. It is all just too much to imagine a mentally disturbed nineteen year-old to handle.
Crumbs in the Chillest Land--Resurrecting Hope through Writing
Summary for Nanowrimo:
An auspicious start to a collection of crumbs scattered for hope. In Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope is a Thing with Feathers,” the little metaphoric bird is buffeted by storms but asks nothing from the speaker—not a crumb. Hope is that brave, sometimes miniscule creature perched in the soul—refusing to give up to despair. Asking nothing and persevering despite the storm. Watchful of the thing hiding in the closet.
This collection of crumbs will be nonfiction accounts taken from life. Teaching in an urban public school during the day feeds the dramatic side of the novel. The artistic part of the process is recording my observations. During the last week in October alone, I said goodbye to a student who was moving to Baltimore, grieved for a teacher who succumbed to cancer at 51, hugged a student who told me he was entering residential rehab for alcoholism, calmed students after a two brutal fights that became a small riot, and cautioned yet comforted a co-teacher who made a decision that may cost her career. I also took part in a nonsensical Halloween celebration with my department to raise funds for another co-teacher who is undergoing chemotherapy. There have been births, deaths (one of a seventeen-year old), arguments and soothing conversations. These are the crumbs that the little hope in Dickinson's poem did not demand but that I will.
Two events in the last week rise to the rim of memory: the request to write a character reference and the announcement of the death of a colleague.
I knew my co-worker was terminally ill with cancer, that she had gone into hospice and that her daughters (one a former student and Facebook friend) were at her side. The announcement and moment of silence that followed during Friday morning homeroom routines tilted an already sliding planet. Cancer is a blight that strikes down the best, the blasé and the worst with equal measure. The disease sneaks into the back door, takes its time wandering through the contents of a life and then chooses which room to announce its presence. When it arrives, we rush to contain it, and then it hides in the closet and we forget it for a while. If we’re lucky.
The character reference was for a young man whom I’ve known for most of his life. In one defining afternoon, he and his younger cousins sat in my living room and waited for the police to arrive. His father had hit him the previous night which resulted in a black eye that had spread onto his cheekbone and run like lumpy fingers into his buzz-cut hair. It hurt to look at him. The violence in their family had festered into outbursts that resulted in ex-parte orders, slow-burning grudges, but weird, abiding love that clashed with the senseless arguments.
The boy who would grow into a man who needed help this week was destined to disappointment with his parents, three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, the near deaths of his wife and first child, and the pressures of being the father of a child with cerebral palsy. During the interview with the police in my living room when he was twelve and marked by standing up to an adult bully, I remember wanting to shake all of them. Couldn’t anyone see the pattern of violence that would reverberate and touch everyone? Couldn’t they see that saving them started with this moment with the boy, his father and mother? But we did nothing. We followed the law and the will of those intimately involved. We allowed the violence to fester and grow in the closet.
An auspicious start to a collection of crumbs scattered for hope. In Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope is a Thing with Feathers,” the little metaphoric bird is buffeted by storms but asks nothing from the speaker—not a crumb. Hope is that brave, sometimes miniscule creature perched in the soul—refusing to give up to despair. Asking nothing and persevering despite the storm. Watchful of the thing hiding in the closet.
Guided by economy and a yen for the sun, I walked the boardwalk in Ocean City yesterday. I had a three o’clock rendezvous at the Dunes for tea, but Becca had a party on 81st at one-thirty. Instead of wasting gas and patience, I drove into the outskirts of town and began a ramble down the boards toward the Ferris wheel at the inlet. After a week of chafing against the demands of other people, it was a relief to be alone for an hour.
The sun shone directly in my eyes and made it impossible to see people, dogs and bikes coming in my direction, so I looked out to the beach. The breakers were stacked in series of threes, about four foot high and tossing themselves directly onto a beach shortened by recent storms. The stretches of hilly beach were sparsely populated, a smattering of diehard surfers paddled out and rode back and a few sunbathers lay in sweats asleep. Only the year-round shops opened their doors with merchandise and signs spewed out to attract the off-season strollers. Conversations from balconies and storefronts were whisked away in the strong breeze. I walked as far as 4th Street and then turned around worried that I needed time to walk back to the car.
I felt good—warm from the sun, muscles stretched and limber, invisible among the other walking people. It is good to slough away the layers and walk without purpose. It is good to watch the grey ocean roll and froth itself into the madness of hurling to shore. I pick up the crumbs and continue my walk into the distance. I know my path though I cannot be sure the way will be lighted.
For those who haven't been exposed to the mania of National Novel Writing Month, Nanowrimo bands together a diverse group--thousands of writers from around the world--into the valiant effort to produce 50,000 words in a thirty-day period. There are pep-talks, regional Facebook conversations and the daily accounting for writing. Everyone says it--if you want to be a writer--WRITE.
The Nanowrimo goal is length, not edited or polished prose. I've written only two original novels during this effort, but I've rewritten three novels--two during November and one during Camp Nanowrimo in July.
Inspired by The Martian by Andy Weir, I plan to blog my 50,000 in the vain attempt to rekindle sputtering hope in humankind. This has been the autumn that has cooled a few fiery desires that have kept me teaching for twenty-five years. The schedule, meetings, testing and behavior have battered the little bird that hope has become.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers - (314)
BY EMILY DICKINSON
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R. W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)
Before we left our cat-sitting vacation at Deep Creek Lake, Becca and I hiked the short loop of Tolliver Falls. No one manned the entrance and our car was one of three parked in the lot that would be clogged with hikers later in the day. The crisp air touched my bare arms as Becca shrugged on a sweatshirt and we set off on a trail that bypassed Swallow Falls where we had waded into the rushing water with my two grandsons two days earlier. Someone told us it was seventy plus steps, another said one hundred and fifty—anything over ten creates pain without an intact meniscus in one knee and arthritis in the other. She bounded down them looking back every now and again to judge how far ahead she might be. When the trail flattened out into gentle curves and dips to the understated beauty of the less traveled Tolliver loop, her distance both guided me and gave me a new perspective. I paused a few times to capture her likeness in this pose of looking back.
Becca at sixteen could be any age—beautiful face and hair, shapely with long legs, kind to children and old folks yet capable of a rude belch or inappropriate laughter. She is tough and athletic without the muscle-bound stance of someone trying too hard. Her stance, as she peers back up the trail at me, is both withering and worried. My inability to keep up bothers her.
But I have no desire to pretend that I am not overweight and out of practice with being an invincible teenager. I have earned the right to hang back, step carefully and look about myself as the trail becomes more challenging. Becca is a wild deer crashing through the underbrush. She is skittish and sometimes angry. She is compassionate at the oddest times and on fire at the least provocation.
We marvel at the gentle waterfall once we reach it. We promise to bring the boys back here first. It would be much more likely for floating boats and actual swimming instead of the hazardous slippery rocks, the swift current and deep water of Swallow Falls which is a brief five minute hike further downstream.
We returned that way and I notice another young woman perched on a rock above us. She is staring out at the rush of water toward the larger falls and does not meet my eye when we are in her periphery. I want to take her picture because she reminds me of a muted version of a Maxfield Parrish painting. Becca yelps out an astonished cry when the same young woman bursts through the underbrush onto the trail in front of us with a nervous giggle a few minutes later. Becca says, “I didn’t know anyone else was down here.” I nod but I had noticed the young woman, a couple with a large backpack and a fleeing deer on our hike. Perspective given to me from age? Wariness of a mother accompanying her girl-woman child in a strange place? Or just the gift of the observer?
That was our morning hike to Tolliver Falls before leaving Deep Creek this August.
Summer Vacation Dementia July 22, 2015
“How can the public be so blind? This is the most important decision the Congress has ever had to make, and no one is paying attention!” The man gesticulating through fury stutters as he looks from the conservative talking heads barking at each other on the television and my seated absorption in the computer screen. “Did you listen to the President’s statement? Did you even read the news today?”
Good question. Like most of the public, I am more enthralled with downtime, the urge to the beach, shopping and my teenage daughter’s schedule. For two months a year, I turn off the political brain with its intellectual angst and focus on rest. The disruption of the dismal morning and evening news does not fit into seeking solitude, my small online universe of pretty pictures and the plethora of words that I smother during the working part of the year. The expansion of the mind during this yearly downtime called “summer vacation” rejuvenates more than I can credit it. At the beginning of every June, the stretch before the next academic year gleams with promise. I stop listening to the morning news shows, fail to read the news servers, and listen to music instead of my favorite public radio whining about the tragedies of the day. I don’t care about interviews, book releases, political machinations or the other wiles of the real world.
One summer on a whim, I methodically rewrote Beauty and the Beast. The reinvention of the beautiful woman as a psychologically twisted beast was diverting and simply accomplished for my personal enjoyment. I cannot open that document without wondering what spirit inhabited my brain that summer. I wonder what galloping mess Congress snared the country inside while my Beauty escaped the castle garden and found the wilderness inside herself. George W. Bush was the president that season, but he does not figure in the mystery or the romance of the novel. Nothing outside my own psyche intrudes on that landscape of tortured creatures, wild landscapes and magical women. However, in perfectly adjusted hindsight, I admit that the Beast’s garden was a good place to hide as the housing market collapsed, the foolish choices we made came crashing down on us, and our child rebelled in slow increments. In the end of my Beauty, the girl must face her own self-loathing and battle it. She rejects the sins of her father’s abuse and embraces her true nature—strong, magical and compassionate. The Beast is at first a dupe who gets into her way, but he grows into a man who invades her space and then demands her rebirth as his equal. I enjoy the struggle between them. She demands that he snap out of his enchantment and catch up with the real world while he demands that she treat herself to a dose of self-respect. Tall order that.
Which reminds me of the dementia created by the absorption in summer that I fall into lemming-like every year. When I blink awake in late August, or focus on the news story blaring at me from the television, I hope I have enough self-confidence to listen critically, squash the hysteria and move back into the real world.
Borrowing trouble could become a habit. I have just returned from a visit home with my mind teeming--joy, intrigue, and of course, trouble.
Perhaps it would have been more sensible to take the first week after school ended for the year and hibernate at the beach. My mother often chides me that the first week of summer vacation with me is none at all because I am still traveling at 70 miles per hour and ticking items off my internal checklist. This year more than previous, the seasonal influx of tourists took the blush off the revered boardwalk and beach. At Assateague, the charm of ponies tossing coolers waned after a day of jumping out of their way during the Air Show weekend. The clogged streets of Ocean City worked my last nerve, so I scurried back to Baltimore for a week to visit the people I love.
After the riots of spring were spurred by the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore has been sporting a black eye. Even the toughest of my Salisbury students quailed if I mentioned a trip home for the weekend. I've sought to calm their fears by insisting that the Baltimore looping through the same scenes of destruction on TV is not my Baltimore. The city I look back on fondly with ten years and the veil of fiction-writing to muddy the lenses is one of small neighborhoods, corner bars and restaurants, patchworks of parks, historic landmarks like the Walters or the BMA, the touristy Inner Harbor, Fells Point and Little Italy. My grandparents lived in Highlandtown and we shopped the avenue or walked to Patterson Park and climbed the pagoda. As recently as April, I drove through the neighborhood that hosted crowds who gutted the pharmacies and liquor stores, terrorized residents and threw rocks at the police.
A week at home and I find that Baltimore has changed. The Inner Harbor at five p.m. is quiet despite a plethora of restaurants and shops waiting for customers. Events have been cancelled or have been moved out to surrounding counties, and city businesses are reporting drastic losses. The tax base that was struggling to support a population skimming along on the poverty line is looking to leave. Someone suggested that razing blocks down and rebuilding from subterranean rot gave me pause. How do you save an entity that is rotting from within?
So I have returned from ridiculous traffic on the Baltimore Beltway, a tour of the exterior of the Hampton Mansion (the gardens are under a glorious reconstruction--another blog there), and quiet evenings on Normans Creek after noisy meals with family. Walking through an alley in Towson on Wednesday, I realized that my version of vacation isn't place-related at all. I visited with all of my Baltimore friends and every branch of my immediate family. As each person told the stories of their recent troubles and joys, I borrowed a few. My mother leaned over during a particularly intense discussion of a work-related conundrum and said, "This would make a good book!"
So if traveling is for education, and vacations are for rest, then people-cations are for rejuvenation of the store of ideas, expressions and impressions.
Battling curiosity and avoiding boredom, I have often borrowed trouble. I was in the midst of a huge project a month ago and scrambling for time to tackle all the little details when it occurred to me that I created this stress. I said I would take a major event on in May when seniors need the most attention, every event in family life converges and a year's worth of work was wrapping up for the year. Two field trips, a creative writing magazine, senior projects Trouble comes in the form of inspiration infused with enthusiasm that sees many a grand scheme to fruition, but this borrowed trouble also leaves me stranded sometimes in the middle of immense projects. If the projects go well, benefits spill over like the ESWA booth for the Maryland Library Conference leading to a new design scheme for the Gaithersburg Fest, book signings where I've met someone who inspires a story, field trips for students to places they haven't seen or theater workshops for kids who need controlled drama in their lives. But when a project doesn't go well, I am left wringing out my psyche like a dish rag. Case in point is the dreadful end of my tenure on one professional board. Lessons learned: don't commit too far from home (I'm still working full time after all and weekends are sacred family time), and if it doesn't feel right, don't do it. It is difficult to cut negativity out of your life if it has become a comfortable habit.
J D Cooper
Writer and Reviewer