Letter #2: My Stone Face

Dear Gramma,

I wrote about you on Saturday during the writing workshop I was leading.  I write about you all the time actually.  On Saturday I wrote about sitting on the edge of your hospital bed, reading poetry to you.  You kissed a lipstick print onto my cheek and I wiped it away, a quick reflex, a careless gesture.  I wish I hadn’t wiped it away.  Had I known it would be the last time, I would have left the shape of your lips on my skin a little longer.

I’m sorry that my last words to you weren’t ‘I love you.’  I said it probably hundreds of times during your last days here and countless times during my life.  It’s not that I question whether or not you knew I loved you, love you still.  I know you knew, that you know right now.  And I know that you loved me.  I do.  Telling each other so was the period at the end of each of our conversations.  I’m sorry, then, that when I kissed your forehead and said goodnight that I didn’t say ‘I love you’ one more time.  I thought I’d see you the next morning, but you slipped into Heaven while I dreamed in your house.  I didn’t know.  I just didn’t know.

On Saturday one of the workshop participants wrote about her grandmother dying of cancer.  When snippets of her piece were read aloud, I froze thinking ‘Did I write that?  I had to have written that.  I don’t think I wrote that, but I must have written that, right?  How could someone else have written about my life like that?’  I listened to the lines and I tried to keep my composure.  Underneath the veneer of my face I could feel the blood seeping from my cheeks.  I felt pale.  And exposed.

Do you remember that castle we saw on our trip?  Not Dracula’s castle.  Not Kalemegdon.  The other castle.  The pretty one.

It was drizzly that day and I took this picture of a stone cherub.

Something about the cherub’s face moved me.  Like being exposed to the elements somehow peeled away the layers revealing a more honest face, a scarred face.  That’s how I felt on Saturday listening to another person’s words so accurately narrate my own life.  I was terrified that my face, still raw with all my missing you, would show.  And maybe it did.  I don’t know.  I stood there, an exposed statue, and said something to close the session.  I have no idea what I said.  I hope it was coherent.  Or at least real words and not just a mash of stuttered consonants.  I don’t know.  I really don’t know.

My mom wore your favorite turquoise shirt tonight.  It looks pretty on her.  For a moment tonight she was standing in front of your photo, the one from your birthday where you’re wearing the turquoise shirt.  I looked back and forth from my mom’s face to your face.  You are so much alike.  I wish you were still here finishing her sentences and laughing at the same things.

Mother’s Day and your birthday are just around the corner.  It doesn’t seem fair that I have my mother and she doesn’t have you.  The rows and rows of Mother’s Day cards in the stores are so unkind, so cruel to the motherless.  I wish you could tell me words to say to her that will make those days easier, words that would flush away some of the anguish.  I’m afraid that when the time comes, I will stutter consonants and cry and the right words will lodge in a lump in my throat.  I need those words.

I believe God speaks to me in dreams and I dream of you almost every night.  Sometimes they are dreams invented in my imagination, but other times they’re dreams pulled from the pages of my memories.  I hope I’ll dream a memory of your words tonight, that I dream of something to write, something to give my mom on Mother’s Day.

Love,

Alicia

P.S-And just so it’s the last thing I say to you tonight, I love you, Gramma.

LOVE, Part 3

When I was a kid we lived near the Rogue River and on sticky summer days my family would head to the river.  My big brother would walk the riverbank filling his pockets with skipping stones.  He’d tromp along picking out the flattest, smoothest rocks and then he’d fling them with a flick of his wrist and they’d dance across the water.  I tried in vain to make my own rocks tiptoe across the water, but I always chose rocks that were too lumpy, too big.  I’d heave them into the water and after a satisfying splash, my rocks would sink to the bottom, the river rippling great rings in their wake.

Enough time has passed since sharing about the LOVE statue with my colleagues that I can look back on it and see beyond my quivering hands holding the paper, beyond stumbling over my own words in a room so quiet that my nervous vibrato seemed to echo off the walls.  When talking with my colleagues, the heart of our conversation was my desire not to miss opportunities to act in love because I was too wrapped up in my own life to notice opportunities that are sometimes quite literally right in front of me.  I talked about how it’s easy, especially this time of year, for me to be caught up in the inertia of my own life.

I mentioned previously that some of my dear colleagues shared what they wrote about what it means to love and that their writing moved me.  Two things that they wrote stand out in particular.

The first is this: love means loving even when that affection is not reciprocated.  The enormity of that statement is something I’ve thought about daily since our time together.  It’s something I struggle to put into practice and by the nods in the room, I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one acknowledging that unsavory part of myself.

The second thing that has stuck with me is what a teacher wrote about compassion.  This teacher lost her husband to cancer last year.  Currently another teacher’s husband is in the same fierce battle.  Through tears in her eyes and over the muffled crying of just about everyone in the room, the first teacher shared about how love means acting with a depth of compassion only birthed by her own loss.  This teacher gets a gold star for bravery.  To write about her loss and how it has changed her and then to share about it in a staff meeting amazed me, amazes me still.

Each day since our staff meeting, teachers have sought me out telling me their stories, telling me about ways they’d acted in love in light of our meeting.  Teachers began doing things like collecting money to help pay for cancer treatments and writing notes of encouragement to their students.  I was delighted by their actions, but the thing that surprised me most and tickled me to my core, was that teachers took additional time outside of the staff meeting to finish the quick write we’d done.  Oh, that our students would experience that compulsion to write!

My experience at the staff meeting harkens back to my memories of throwing rocks into the river.  I threw my rock into the water and my little LOVE story rippled out in beautiful rings.

I’m left thinking then, what if writing in the classroom was like this?  What if more teachers mustered the courage to share their own writing, to talk about big ideas, to use writing as a vehicle for growth, both academic and personal?  I have a feeling that if we looked at the heart of writing as closely as we look at its structure, then profound change would occur.

My family moved away from the Rogue River and into the backyard of the Sacramento River, but I never did master the art of skipping stones.  And I’m okay with that because right now I’m filling my pockets with rocks.  Big, lumpy ones.  Come January, during the first session in a writing series, I’ll start tossing my stones into the water.  This time I hope they won’t skip across the water.  No, I hope they sink down deep and ripple wide.


Pouring Eyes

This week I started reading “Charlotte’s Web” to my class.  Year after year I marvel at E.B. White’s word choice.  His phrasing leaves me in awe.  It’s so rich that I often stop and read sentences over again, savoring the words like a lump of dark chocolate on my tongue.

From a young age I’ve been a collector of words.  I’m constantly listening for snippets of interesting conversation.  My ears stand at attention for striking word combinations.  A plastic spelling trophy along with stacks of journals brimming with angst filled teenage poetry are evidence of my history as a wordie.

I delight in helping my students collect and add words to their budding writing arsenal.  A couple of days ago, I was discussing Charlotte’s Web with one student in particular.  She was hopping around, sheets of sunset colored hair bouncing, telling me how excited she was to read the book because the movie was so good.  I prepared to launch into my creed on why the book is always better than the movie and how if she liked the movie, then she’ll love the book, etc., when this little pixie left me speechless.

The day before a huge storm had rolled in.  It was the kind of storm with lightning that razors the sky in two, the kind of storm with raindrops that smash against windowpanes, the kind of storm that requires me to turn the lights low and read “Thundercake” by Patricia Polacco.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of reading anything Patricia Polacco’s put on paper, then you know you are in the presence of a magician who turns letters into words into phrases that leave me begging for more.

The storm and the book inspired a torrent of weather poetry in Writers’ Workshop.  Words like poured and rumbled and struck fell out of their mouths onto the pages.  It was delicious.

So as I took a deep breath to deliver my sermon on books vs. movies, this little girl stopped bouncing and from behind her auburn tresses said

I loved the movie because it was such a good story it made my eyes pour.

And there it was.

It made my eyes pour.

My ears pricked up at her poignant pairing of words.

This six-year-old reached back into our weather words, grabbed one out, pitched it into another context, and encapsulated just the right emotion.

She assures me she won’t cry during the book because she already knows it’s sad.  Me?  I make no such claim.  E.B. White’s stunning writing has caused me to brush away more than a tear or two, mostly when his words slowly begin appearing in the writing of my young wordies.

Rolling the Seed

I have a slight phobia of speaking to groups of people.  Ok, it’s more like debilitating terror.  I sweat bulbous drips of anxiety.  My hands and voice tremble out of control.  My heart threatens to drum straight out my throat.  It’s bad, people, really bad.

But I’m a tough chick.  I ride bikes.  I once had a root canal without anesthetic.  I drink milk after the expiration date.

I really shouldn’t be so paralyzed by speaking to groups of adults.

Last summer I decided enough is enough.  I was going to conquer my fear.  This was my plan.  Each time I was asked to speak in front of a group of people, I forced myself to say yes.  I’m not eloquent or well-versed enough that I had people beating down my door or anything like that, but I did get to speak a few times on the subject of writing.

I love writing.  I love teaching writing.  I love reading what others have written.  I love reading what others have written about writing.  I love writing about what others have written about writing.  You get my drift.

So this fall a colleague and I put together a workshop on how we teach writing and why we love it so, so much.  Easy, no?  We met twice to discuss what we each wanted to present.  I left both of those meetings hugely excited about presenting.  So excited that I actually wanted more speaking time.  This has never happened to me.  Ever.

After our second meeting, I went home to “fine tune” my notes, accompanying slideshow and to work on pieces of the handout.  I made good progress on the handout and added new photos to the slideshow.  Then I set to work on revamping my notes for this particular audience.  As I was typing, I came to the conclusion that every single word was moronic.  I re-read my notes and panic struck.  The workshop is only two weeks away and I don’t know anything about teaching writing.  I don’t know anything about teaching at all.  Why did the curriculum director approve this?  Doesn’t she know I don’t know anything?  None of this presentation works.  Especially the end part.  And the middle.  And the beginning.

Just as I was about to click the entire caboodle into the trash, my husband walked in and convinced me to take a break and watch a movie.  Throughout the movie, my mind kept wandering back to my presentation.  Then I began to think about apricots.  Yes, really.

You see, when I eat an apricot I devour all it’s sweet, fleshy goodness and then pop the seed into my mouth.  I don’t eat the seed.  I roll it around my tongue, hold the sandpapery pit in my cheek, clamp it between my teeth, flip it over and back, over and back again.  Sometimes I do this for hours.

After my meltdown about my presentation, I held the seed of it in my mind.  What do I love about teaching writing? I let the seed roll around.  What makes my students view themselves as writers? I flipped the seed over and back in my mind.  How can I best show other teachers how to take the next step? I mulled over my presentation for hours, days even.  Lo and behold the seed sprouted.

I chose a handful of texts to highlight.  I wrote a handout on the usefulness of each one.  I wrote down easy steps to help students gather words and foster word choice.  Most of all, I thought back to when I was a new writing teacher.  Back then I knew I was stuck, but I didn’t know the next step to take to get unstuck.  I thought of the ways I’ve changed as a writing teacher since that time.  All of a sudden, my presentation was coming together.

Now I’m not going to kid myself into thinking I’m presenting new and revolutionary ideas about writing, but surely within the audience there will be teachers who are stuck.  Teachers who are looking for the next step.  I’ve been there.  I hope to give them ideas to roll around in their mind, ideas to flip around as they please, ideas to clamp down on and make their own, ideas they can use to improve writing in their classroom.

I’m sure that while I’m presenting, I will have hula hoop sized sweat rings in my armpits.  I’m absolutely sure that my voice will tremor.  Undoubtedly my hands will shake.  The thing is, I’m just not that afraid anymore.

I’m a tough chick.  I’m a tough chick who loves writing.  I’m a tough chick who has students in love with writing.  I’m a tough chick with a seed to share.