xmlns:og>='http://ogp.me/ns#'> Pedals & Pencils: 2009

December 30, 2009

Brave

Fearless is a word I don't have much use for.  Being fearless is sometimes touted as this great character trait, but there are things to be afraid of, things worthy of a shake in my shoes, a shiver up my spine, and a sweaty nightmare or two.  I am not fearless, but I've got bravery in spades.  Or at least I used to.

These past few months I've taken care to follow doctor's orders to rest my heart.  While spiders laced cobwebs through the spokes of my bike and my most favorite cycling season fell to the ground in a blush of yellows and reds, I waited for my heart to be sure and steady.

While I waited I pursued my love of words.  I wrote a novel.  I wrote poetry.  I wrote about teaching and life in general.  As the air whispered out of my tires, my fingers flew across the keys tapping out this life of a writer.  Writing can be a frightening affair and I faced some of my writerly fears head on.  When I reached a stuck point in my novel, I tucked my head down and pounded away at the keys until my characters moved my story along for me.  I'd heard of that happening, but I thought it was just something writers tell each other to get past the quicksand that secrets itself away in every newborn plot.  But no, it turned out to be true, even in my meager novel.  I dipped my toe into being published and faced my first rejection letter.  With bravado to spare, I tackled two fears at once: public speaking and reading a piece born of my own hand to a large group people I know.  It turned out to be one of the most rewarding days in my life as a writer.  So this idea of facing fears is one I've grabbed hold of with both hands in my life as a writer.

It's puzzling to me then that this boldness in my writing life would come at a time when I was paralyzed by fear of riding my bike or doing anything else that might press my heart beyond it's capacity.  The weight of the heart monitor was so much more than the half pound of space it occupied in the corner of my purse.  It sat in that dark corner, unwanted and untouched for almost a month.  My little heart beat away happily, normally as if my heart knew of the monitor's presence and decided now was the time to play nice inside my chest.  For months I was careful not to strain my heart in the least.  Trust me, I've got the gelatinous thighs to prove it.

It was at the tail end of this time that a friend asked me "Is this the life you want to live?"  Well, not really, but the "live" part of that question was of more import than the quality of living I was doing.  On days when my heart was a sloppy quick step and my arm throbbed, living was enough all by itself.  Honest to God it was.  But is that a way to live a life?  No.  Definitely no.

Eventually the time came to turn in my heart monitor.  Enough days had passed without incident or pain that I was free to resume life.  And yet, I was afraid.  Quivering in my shoes, waking up in a pillow of sweat, eyes wide as moons kind of afraid.

What if my heart started to race in the middle of nowhere on my bike?

What if I lost feeling in my arm and crashed?

What if?  What if?  What if?

As I sat on my couch pounding out tales of my brave writing life, my fear of turning the cranks came to a head.  I could not stand the stagnation of my life a second longer.  It was time.  It was time to pump air into my tires, to pull on my gloves and brush the dust off of my saddle.

It feels appropriate that my reunion with my bike happened on Christmas Eve morning, a day full of anticipation.  On Christmas Eve Terry and I found ourselves in Sacramento, near my old friend the American River and it's seemingly unending bike trail.

That morning I pulled on my tights and armwarmers, my nerves bouncing just inside my skin.  The what ifs rose to every surface of my being.  I forced them back down as I tightened my helmet strap and velcroed my shoes, breathing deeply before facing the morning air.

It was a frigid thirty degrees when I rolled the Rocket out to the street.  I said a prayer and watched my words float above me in bleached puffs against the blue sky.  I wanted to ride 25 miles.  25 miles is nothing on a bike.  Barely long enough to warrant filling a water bottle.

Three of us set out that morning.  My legs moved in unsure circles after so many months off.  I thought about the time I was cycling in a dream and sleep pedaled my sheets into a lump at the foot of my bed, but this was no dream.  We moved onto the American River Trail, the river rushing to the left of us.  My heart was steady.  Steady and happy.  It was a slow and beautiful ride.

After 26 miles I unclipped and rolled to a stop back at our starting point.  Steam rose from the vents in my helmet and the morning air was cold on my teeth as I smiled.  I packed my bike into the car and breathed a sigh of relief.  I patted my heart for a job well done.

A few minutes after our ride, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror.  These last few months, my increasingly chubby cheeks or my multiplying chins have been the first things to catch my attention when I look at my reflection, but not this time.  This time I was taken aback by the expression on my face.  It was familiar, but something I hadn't seen in quite some time.  It was the expression of a girl who'd faced fear and found it wasn't so terrifying after all.  Welcome back, brave girl, welcome back.

December 24, 2009

Can O' Light

The final school day of 2009 passed without any Midol incidents.  This year I received many cards from my students and a handful of lovely gifts.  The handmade journal and the dragonfly pin in particular suit me perfectly.

There was also one more gift that is a superb addition to our home.  It's a luminary carved from a recycled can.  Behold the Can O' Light.



It's simplicity is beautiful to me.  From the manger to Christmas carols to candlelight services to sipping hot cocoa in the glow of the tree, my wish for you this season is that you find simple beauty.

December 23, 2009

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 it's 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.


December 16, 2009

I Learn A Lot From Your Post

So the other day I was procrastinating doing stuff like wrapping presents, folding laundry and writing sub plans.  I decided it was time to clean out the spam accumulating on this site.  Most of it was a smattering of random consonants with a fancy backslash thrown in here and there for good measure.  I was happily deleting those mysterious little messages when one caught my eye.
Great post.  I learn a lot from your post.

Uh, unknown user, you are so obviously spam or very, very new here.  Nobody learns a lot from one of my posts.  Nobody learns a little from one of my posts.  You are welcome to stay, but heed my warning.  Statistics show you may actually decrease in useful knowledge as it is replaced by a wealth of knowledge on such subjects as the miracle of candy and how to properly humiliate yourself.

December 14, 2009

Must See Christmas Movies

It's holiday movie season and there are a few on my list to revisit before the big day.  In no particular order, they are:

1. Love Actually:  I love the weaving of the stories and the deadpan English humor.  A word of caution-I saw this in the theater with my mom and the scenes with the nude stand-ins were a touch, uh, awkward.

2. Four Christmases: One word: Mistletoe!

3. The Holiday: I'm not sure why I love this movie.  The writing is average.  The acting is nothing remarkable, but for some mysterious reason, this one is mandatory.  I think it's the adorable old man.  Especially his water aerobics scene.  Hot stuff.

4. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the cartoon):  I love any movie with a character with a heart full of unwashed socks.  I crack up every year reading this book to my class and the narration in the movie only makes it better.

5.  Elf: It's impossible to dislike a movie with the line "I'm sorry for ruining your life and shoving eleven cookies into the VCR."

6. A Charlie Brown Christmas:  I love the music and the message.  That little tree is just so sad and endearing.  You didn't know a tree could be endearing?  Obviously you haven't spent very much time with your Christmas tree.  Shame on you.

*Not on the list because they're television shows are the Festivus episode of Seinfeld and the Chanukah Armadillo episode of Friends.

December 13, 2009

An Open Letter to...

Dear Nose,

It is completely unfair that you have chosen this particular time to be stuffy and thus rob me of a full week of inhaling the fresh scent of my Christmas tree.  I am over you and your sliming sinuses.  Please leave post haste.

Sincerely,

Me & the tree

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Dear Tomato Soup,

You are divine.  If you were a person, I'd kiss your tangy red lips.  You and your friend the grilled cheese sandwich make a lovely couple.  See you soon.

Fondly,

The One in the Pajamas Wandering the Kitchen

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Dear Marisa De Los Santos,

You are a beautiful writer.  Even though I finished Love Walked In a full week ago, I think about it daily.  Not the story so much, but your delicate, dead on phrasing.  I don't usually read books over again, but I'd be lying if I didn't confess that I want to read that one a second time straight away.  You inspire me to write while also recognizing I will never write with your poignancy.

Sincerely,

An Awestruck Fan

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Dear E! Network,

I am not interested in keeping up with the Kardashians, the Girls Next Door, or anyone else famous for being famous.  The mere sight of such shows on the channel guide makes me want to pitch my remote at my tv, Telemundo.  For the well being of my television, please cease and desist all shows not prominently featuring Joel McHale.

Muchas gracias,

Yo y telemundo

December 11, 2009

Christmas Meme

One more week and then glorious Christmas vacation is here.  Two weeks of sleeping in, reading books, writing, wearing my pajamas all day long, watching movies, drinking hot cocoa, and hanging with my husband.  I can barely stand the wait.  So in honor of the upcoming bliss, here's a Christmas meme.

1. Getting kissed under the mistletoe or in the snow?  Under the mistletoe because then I'm warm and toasty.  I'm not so much of a snow girl.  Something about being cold and wet kills my romantic inklings.

2. Santa or Rudolph?  Santa.  I love Santa's many names throughout the world and the story of Saint Nicholas.  Although I'm not such a fan of some dude breaking and entering to drop off gifts and eat my cookies.  Not cool.

3. Stocking or presents?  Stockings.  The essential stocking stuffer is the Lifesavers Story Book.  Terry and I exchange stockings and it's so great because we have to find small, meaningful gifts.  My stocking was handmade by my great grandmother when I was a baby.  She must have been a wonderful person to have made me such a thoughtful gift.

4. Egg nog or hot cider?  Neither.  Hot cocoa with a tiny peppermint candy cane thrown in for good measure is the perfect winter drink.  Coming in second is Peet's peppermint tea with two teabags for good measure.

5. Angel or Star?  Angel atop the tree.  Stars in the sky as we ride in the MINI with the top down and the seat warmers on high.

6. Decorating the tree or putting lights on the outside?  Tree.  I love putting up all the ornaments from my childhood as well as the conglomeration of handmade ornaments from my students betwixt the white twinkle lights.

7. Warm fires or sleigh rides?  I've never been on a sleigh ride, but I love a crackling fire and a good book.

8. Expensive presents or presents that come from the heart?  Neither.  I have everything I need.

9. Snow ball fight or snowman?  Snowman.  One of my favorite children's book is called Stranger in the Woods about a family of deer who discover a snowman.  The photographs are fantastic.

10. Will you be getting coal or presents?  Definitely coal.  Loads and loads of coal.

11. Caroling or Christmas stories?  Both.  I'd play Christmas music year round if it didn't drive Terry insane.  My Christmas playlist is in full effect right now.  Traditional carols like The Holly and the Ivy carry me back to my high school days in the Madrigal Dinner.  My accent was terrible, but I loved the sound of our voices harmonizing and echoing off the walls Frank Lloyd Wright designed.  My affection for Christmas stories is equally strong and I'm thankful it's part of my job to share such gems at The Polar Express, Welcome Comfort, Gingerbread Baby and The Velveteen Rabbit.

12. Snowy days or icy days?  Snow if I'm inside and there's enough for the schools to close for the day.

13. Red or Green?  Green.  Green now and every other month of the year.

14. Fake tree or Real tree?  Real tree and a shiny Festivus Pole, too.

15. Prime Rib or Ham?  Neither.  Gotta save room for Christmas candy.

16. Red and White Candy Canes or Colorful Candy Canes?  Red and white dipped in hot cocoa or smashed into minty shards on ice cream.

17. Get up early or sleep in late?  Sleep in.  Always sleep in.

18. Old Christmas Movies or New ones?  Both as long at that includes A Charlie Brown Christmas, the original Grinch Who Stole Christmas and Love, Actually.  On Christmas Day we always see a movie in the theater, too.

19. The Santa Clause 1 or The Santa Clause 2?  There's a Santa Clause 2?  I discovered today there's a Santa Baby 2 as well.  Surely, the apocalypse is upon us.

20. Christmas Eve or Christmas day?  Christmas morning.  It's just Terry and I huddled under a blanket in our pajamas, reading Luke chapter 2 and appreciating another Christmas together.

December 10, 2009

Mrs. Mcmahoomei

As I was sitting at my school computer today typing up some of the beautiful imagery my little ones had written in their winter poetry, I overheard the after school program tromp into the pod.  Usually I shut my door when they arrive so that I can work in a little bit of tranquility, but today I overheard a conversation between one of my kids and his friend.  It went something like this:

"I can spell Mrs. McCauley's name."

"You can?  It's looong."

I leaned in and heard my darling little guy list a string of letters.  I walked into the space where they were working and crouched down near him.  I once heard a student say her eyes were brown like horses.  Well, this little guy has those kinds of eyes, deep brown in one light, golden brown in another.  Horse eyes for sure.  I told him I'd heard him spelling my name and I wondered if he could do it again.  He smiled the windowed smile that is the hallmark of first grade and started spelling.

"M-c-m-a-h-o-o-m-e-i."  he pronounced.  "Did I get all of the letters?"  He looked up at me, his eyes beaming from all that effort.

"You got most of them."  I patted his back

"Did I get enough?"

"Yes, honey, that's definitely enough."

December 9, 2009

Potato Soup, Almost

I'm a firm believer that the quaint saying "Practice makes perfect." is complete hogwash.  Hear me out, practice usually helps, in copious amounts, as a matter of fact.  There are three things I practice or have practiced in the past.  Four if you include my job, but that doesn't count because it's my job and I have to practice it.  So, three then.  Writing, cycling, and cooking.  When I write and cycle on a regular basis, they improve.  Not that I become good at either, but there is definitely progress.

Cooking is a whole other story.  A sad, sad story.

No matter what I do, I can't seem to make anything edible.  Yesterday I took a potato soup mix, yes a mix, and put it in the crock pot.  I was careful to add the correct amount of water and even some suggested additions like broccoli and bacon.  My love for broccoli is such that I would morph all other vegetables into broccoli if I could.  Then I tossed in a lonely handful of black beans and plugged it all in.  It smelled delicious.  Finally I'd broken the cooking curse.

After it simmered and bubbled for the appropriate time, I went to pour some of it into a bowl.  (I have the baby crock pot for two, so I can lift out the middle and pour.)  It all came out in one gloppy lump.  It still smelled good, so I cleaned up the mess I'd made and sat down with a bowl of steaming soup.  I scooped the perfect bite; a bit of broccoli, a black bean, and a crumb of bacon.  I blew on it and sucked it off the spoon, ready to revel in my cooking prowess.  Surely they hand out crowns for such soup.

And then I tasted it.  I don't use this word lightly, but it was nefarious.  I couldn't bring myself to take another bite.  I prodded the whole glop of soup down the drain, popped open a can of Progresso and called it a night.

It doesn't seem to matter what I try cooking or how minutely anal I am in following the recipe.  It never works.  I am doomed to a life of canned soup, take and bake pizza and salad (because any idiot can chop stuff and put it in a bowl).  This idiot just seems to become an exponentially worse cook with each try.  Because all that practice is only making me excel in creating the most vile of creations, I've called a cease fire and am hereby retiring from the kitchen.  Everyone I know just breathed a well-earned sigh of relief.

December 8, 2009

Reading. Out Loud. To My Colleagues. Gulp.

A few days ago my principal asked me to speak to the staff at my school about the National Writing Project conference I attended in Philly.  I thought about what to share.  At first I thought I'd share the hilarious genius of the poet Billy Collins.  Then I thought I'd share about a workshop I attended on writing across subject areas.  Both of those sounded just fine to me, except that another idea kept poking at me, whispering into my ear, disrupting my dreams even.

I felt compelled to share about the LOVE Statue.

I wanted to talk about something bigger than the conventions of writing and instead address the purpose of writing.  To present writing as an expression of feeling, as a call to action, as a response to an experience that changed me.

Oh man, that is not even close to what many people consider in the box of "writing instruction".  Thankfully my principal is an out of the box kind of guy and when I pitched him my idea, he gave me the okay.

I was honored.  I was excited.  I was terrified.  Talking to my colleagues about my experience would mean reading them something I wrote.  Like, out loud, at the front of the room and stuff.

Gulp.

After fighting back the urge to hurl, I summoned my bravery from the pit of my rolling stomach.  Being a writer means taking the risk to share.  At least that's what I told myself.

The staff meeting was today and I sat listening to my principal talk about copy machines and new phone systems and all the nuts and bolts that make a school run smoothly.  I tried to listen attentively, but my stomach was aflutter and my heart was hammering.  Then it came time for me to share.  I begged for God to have mercy and take me to Heaven right now.

He did not.  So I stood up and took a deep breath.

I talked a teensy bit about an upcoming writing series I'm co-facilitating and I talked a smidge about the conference and then I read my piece.

My voice shook.  My eyes welled up when I came to the part about being ashamed.  I pushed to the finish and waited for an accordion of groans and a slew of pencils flung at my eyes.  Instead they clapped.  And smiled.  And wiped their eyes.

I talked about the discussion Terry and I had about what it means to act in love, to seek out opportunities to show empathy.  Then, we wrote about what it means to love, about big and small ways we can show love.

That's right, we wrote as a staff at a staff meeting.  It was a quick write and then I asked for volunteers to share out.  And people actually volunteered.  What they shared was moving and brought a fresh run of tears pricking my eyelashes.

In a time of standards and testing and budget cuts, it was water to my soul hearing about the heart my colleagues have for each other and our students.

At the end of the meeting, seven colleagues signed up for the writing series I'm co-facilitating.  Seven teachers willing to give up time on a Saturday to better themselves as teachers of writing, to better themselves as writers.  I have a beautiful opportunity to discuss within my teaching community the importance and power of writing.

Between now and then, I'm going to dig out my brave face and quell my squeamish stomach in hope that come January we will all be reading our writing out loud to each other.  And I couldn't be more excited, more honored or more terrified.

December 7, 2009

NaNoWriMoDontKnow

National Novel Writing Month was a blast.  I hit my 50,000 word goal ahead of schedule and even sort of liked parts of what I wrote.  So, now the question is what to do with that monstrosity of words.  Here is my three pronged plan:

1) Let it steep for awhile and not touch it at all.  The benefit of this is that I can gain a little perspective.  I've been away from it for a little bit and these are the things that are rising to the surface for revision.  I think I need to switch parts of it from third person to first person.  I need to change some character names.  I'm also starting to see areas where I can expand.

2) Read the whole kit and caboodle.  Out loud.  Gulp.  It turned out to be 100ish pages.  So, later on this month when Terry goes on a business trip, I'll print the thing out and read it all in one go.  It doesn't sound appealing to me either, but it has to be done.

3) Keep writing.  I'm in the throes of NaBloPoMo, National Blog Posting Month, which requires me to post here daily.  It also keeps the old writing noodle nimble so that when Christmas break arrives, I can jump back into my novel and start the real work.

Many of you have asked whether or not I will venture out into the big land of publishing.  I don't know.  Right now that sounds absolutely terrifying, but we'll see if December will bring me some progress on the page in addition to the lump of coal in my stocking.

December 6, 2009

Cake Or Something Like It

After witnessing a particularly awkward/seething with rage wedding ceremony, I found myself thinking "At least the cake will be good.  I could really go for a tasty little slice right about now." The cake was a small three tiered affair with white icing and blue accents.  It wasn't beautiful, nor was it hideous.  It looked like it would hit the spot just fine.

I sat down and took a forkful of cake.  As I lifted it to my mouth, I had my reservations because it was an odd color.  Really there are only three acceptable cake colors: white, yellow, and dark brown.  The only exception to this is Funfetti cake, which is white with happy sprinkles embedded like delicious little treasures.

This cake was sort of beige-ish, almost the color of spice cake.  I don't care for spice cake.  Why would you make spice cake when chocolate cake mix is readily available?  It's a mystery worth pondering another time.  But it's hard to totally mess up cake, so I took a bite.  It tasted like...it tasted like...it didn't taste like any food product I'd ever eaten.  It looked like cake.  It felt like cake.  But that's where the similarities ended.

I couldn't put my finger on what flavor it was and so assuming I'd gotten an off bite, I took a second bite.  It was just as awful, maybe even more so because now I had impostor cake in my belly and my mouth and, let me tell you, neither location was pleased.  Had I been at home or even in a restaurant or anywhere but in the direct line of sight of the cake baker, I would have spit it out right onto the silvery names monogrammed on the napkin.  As this was not an option, I swallowed it and chased it with three cups of strawberry lemonade.

The weird thing was nobody else at the table could identify the cake flavor either.  I looked around the room and saw people pushing cake around on their plates to give the appearance they'd eaten it.  I felt terrible for having handed out such a poor excuse for a cake.  These people didn't do anything to deserve that.  Okay, maybe some of them did, but as a whole this crowd was being severely punished.  With cake.

It reminded me of a scene from Better Off Ted.  Two scientists have created a meatless beef product and it's up to the taste tester to determine exactly what it is.  The scene went something like this:
"It tastes familiar."

"Like beef?"

"No."

"Like chicken?"

"No.  It tastes like...it tastes like...despair.  Yes, that's it.  Despair."

I never did figure out what flavor this wedding cake was supposed to be, but it was a dead ringer for despair.

December 5, 2009

People Scavenger Hunt

I'm a people watcher.  I admit it.  Terry and I have this people scavenger hunt game we like to play in the mall.  Before we enter, we each give the other person a person they have to try to find while we're there.  For example, I might make Terry spot a man with a broken leg, tattoo, and a cowboy hat.  He might make me look for a woman with a stroller, seven piercings, and mom jeans.  Points are awarded for found people.  Bonus points are awarded for unusual sightings, like someone dressed up as Santa in July.

Recently we attended a wedding that was the People Scavenger Hunt jackpot.  Check it out.  For the record, there wasn't any alcohol present.

-woman in a muumuu and a very long, bad wig

-family of the groom entering while the ceremony was in progress to show their disapproval of the marriage.

-mother of the bride talking trash about the mother of the groom

-mother of the groom in full length fur coat, fur scarf, and Russian style fur hat that she wore for the duration of the ceremony and reception.

-groom passing out during the ceremony (I only get half a point for this one because although he swooned, he came to before hitting the floor.)

-embittered reverend who does not believe in marriage and felt free during the ceremony to share his staunch belief that 1 Corinthians 13 is a big, fat lie.

Nothing like a wedding to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

December 4, 2009

Dude, Where's My Car?

I'm a creature of habit.  In the morning I follow the same routine in the same order.  Shower, put on robe, brush teeth, deodorant, hair, makeup, clothes and breakfast.  Every.  Single.  Day.  One misstep in my routine and I wind up at work with unbrushed teeth and a spritz of deodorant in my hair.  I do not handle change well, as proven by an incident yesterday morning.

After a successful morning routine I went to work early.  I parked in the front lot and hustled in for a meeting.  I usually park in the back lot and so as I walked to my meeting, I told myself, "Don't forget you parked in the front lot.  Don't forget you parked in the front lot."  I even did that tapping on the forehead thing, like maybe that would cement it into my brain.

In the afternoon, I walked out to the back lot toward my regular spot and was gobsmacked when my car was not there.  I stood puzzled for a full minute.  My house is a short walk to my school and sometimes I walk to work.  Upon seeing my empty parking spot, I deduced that I must have walked to work.  So I strolled out of the back lot and onto the sidewalk.  The sidewalk parallels the front parking lot.  It wasn't until I saw my actual car in the front lot that I put it all together.  I did the walk of shame from the sidewalk to my car, profoundly grateful that I was the only one in the lot to witness my feat of stupidity.

I am very concerned about what I'm going to be like when I'm old.

December 2, 2009

Interpretation of a Rejection Letter

It happened.  My first rejection letter darkened my inbox this week.  I submitted an article to a journal and truly, truly, truly I did it to get over the fear of actually sending something off for consideration.  Well, let me tell you, I am exquisitely good at lying to myself.  When I saw the message in my inbox, my heart flipped and fluttered at the sheer prospect of my piece being published.  I opened the e-mail and as quickly as it flipped and fluttered, my little heart sank.  I swear I felt it drop down to my stomach.  I didn't know how badly I wanted to be accepted.  Until I wasn't.

I have included my rejection letter sans identifying information because I love this journal even though it doesn't love me back.  After you read it, don't go firing off comments about how rejection is part of being a writer.  I know that.  Being stung is part of being a beekeeper, but it still hurts a little bit.  For your benefit, I have translated editor speak into regular people language.

Ms. McCauley,
Thank you for your submission.  We'd run out of toilet paper and it was the perfect substitute. The editors have read and considered your piece and, unfortunately, will not be able to publish it.  Because you are a ghastly writer and your overzealous use of sentence fragments made the editors want to claw their eyes out. The current editorial team is currently coming to the end of its tenure and the few remaining slots have all been filled with other pieces.  No way in hell were the current editors going to publish drivel like that in their swan song issue.  Seriously, no way. We are sorry we can't offer you better news, but we just can't because your writing is that bad, and we are sorry for the significant delay in getting you this decision as the editors made their difficult choices, but we had to allow enough time to pass it around the office so that everyone including the UPS man could mock both you and your article, but we wish you all the best as you continue your writing, if that's what you're calling it.  And please stop calling it that. Thank you for your interest in our journal. We hope you will enjoy reading pieces by writers who are by far your superior.

Editorial Assistant, the one who drew the short straw and had to figure out a polite way to tell you that your writing is dreadful.  Maybe you should consider a career at Safeway.  By the way, your outfit sucks, too.  I haven't seen it, but I'm confident that it does.

LOVE, Part 2

Last night after I wrote about the LOVE Statue in Philly, Terry and I had a conversation about the value of small vs. global acts of love.  Giving someone a coat or supporting the mission that gives away hundreds of thousands of coats-which is the better way to act in love?

In my mind, both are important and actually I'm not sure you can have one without the other.  I think about the Gap's RED campaign against AIDS, and Nicholas Kristof's continued work to expand gender equality, and Youth to Youth's dedication to creating dynamic young leaders.  They all started as a seed of an idea in someone's heart and mind.  One person decided they could make a difference, that they indeed would make a difference.

So, the niggling question is this?  What am I going to do?  What is my part in this life I've been given?  For now, this is what I've decided.  I will continue to seek out small opportunities to show love in my own circles, but I will also support people who took their seed of an idea and grew it into a operation that helps people in places I've never been, people living in circumstances I cannot fathom, people I could not otherwise reach.

My photo of the LOVE statue was everything I didn't want it to be.  It was a glimpse into the gaunt face of homelessness.  In response, I choose to commit small acts of kindness in conjunction with using my resources to support organizations that embody what it means to love.  If my money becomes their money, if my time becomes their time, and in turn if their arms become my arms then my reach knows no bounds.  And to me, that's picture perfect.

December 1, 2009

LOVE

 



The famous LOVE statue in Philadelphia was not what I'd expected.  The fountain was dried up and the corners of its mouth overflowed with wads of garbage.  I went to see the love piece three different times during my stay in Philadelphia, hoping each time to glimpse the fountain fanning cool sheets of water behind the crimson letters, hoping my meager photographic skills would capture just the right angle, just the right light.


Each click of the camera left me struck by the clusters of homeless men and the occasional homeless woman living in the park so known for its proclamation of love.  They were huddled in masses of faded grays and browns on the park benches and against the corners of statues of somebody historic, I'm sure.  It was not the background I'd hoped for my storybook photo of love.  Some men zipped themselves into sleeping bag cocoons and others flung their words at each other, their anger knifing the air and making me quicken my pace as I walked by.

Writing those words I'm ashamed because that's what I did.

I just walked by.

I, the pious seeker of the perfect picture of love, just walked by, sometimes with a prickle of fear shimmying down my spine and a look of pity angling down my nose.  Not once did I stop to offer my gloves, or the few dollars wrinkled in my wallet, or the coat that usually hangs stuffed amongst many in my closet.  I went looking for love and I missed it.  I missed it completely.

I dream about the LOVE statue and in my dreams I am the kinder, more compassionate version of myself, the version I wish I was in my waking hours.  In my dreams I cock my head at the same angle as the crooked O atop the E.  I tilt my head and ponder the statue, ponder what it means to really love.  I wake and my neck twinges with pain from all my dreaming.

I swing my legs over the side of the bed and desperately hope I don't miss the opportunity to love again today.

November 21, 2009

The Blanket

I tuck under the green blanket you bought me in Mexico when we were much younger, when our faces were unlined and our eyes unclouded by what would become our history.  It is here on the couch, toes wiggling free in the fringe at the bottom of the blanket, that I write.  Propped up with a pillow behind my back in the red walls of our living room is where I am a writer, where I am the truest value of myself.  It is where I write about teaching and the untainted faces of my students.  It is where I paint in the details of my town as seen from two wheels.  It is the place I write about you and I and how we’ve moved beyond pain and come up for air in this place of joy.

On the computer I bought with money, blood money, from my dead father, I figure out who I am, what my purpose is.  Faces come to me here in intricate detail, illustrating my life.  In the solitude of our home, I write without veils, with truth so searing that I have to throw the blanket off and let the cool air slap against the sweat gathering on my skin.

This is writing, breathless and demanding, rushing red warmth into my cheeks.  In this version of myself I’m learning to let go, to type with racing fingers, to wander halls of my mind, to slip into the corners.  My destination is unknown and there is a freedom in that.  I can't help but think that I am secure in that leap because I am grounded in our home, grounded by you.

I remember the day you bought me the blanket, walking in the market stalls of Tijuana after a long day building a church of stucco and tar babies.  We walked a careless pace, eating from taco stands.  The new blanket was made of itchy wool, so scratchy I could not sleep under it.  Instead I piled it atop other blankets.  Fifteen years later it’s been washed so many times, spun through and dried, that all the itchy fibers have been rubbed away.  I press the soft corner to my cheek and I wonder if you and I are the same way.  After a time of cleansing and spinning dry until there were no more tears, we are soft.  You are soft and I press my cheek to yours.  I curl under the blanket of you and write.  What is my favorite subject?  You.  You are my happy ending.

October 31, 2009

15 Hours and Counting...

A day or two before I lead a workshop on writing I come to a point where I'm convinced I don't know anything about teaching writing.  In fact, I work myself into such a frenzy that I'm convinced I don't know anything about writing or teaching on their own and that I should quit everything and work the checkstand at Safeway.  The crazytalk runs rampant.

NaNoWriMo is a mere 15 hours away and I'm all a jitter, worrying about plot lines, character names, and the word count.  Oh, the word count.  I have to find 1,667 words a day.  And they have to, like, go together and stuff.  I'm not even sure I know 1, 667 words.  My days are pretty much filled with lots of teachery talk and then random grunts I have leftover for Terry because the classroom has vacuumed up any reasonable semblance of thought I had for the day.

1,667 words a day for thirty days straight.  Egads.  So I'm spending today battling the crazytalk, by eliminating anything that might offer itself up as an excuse not to write every single day.

1. I finished report cards so they wouldn't be lurking about in November.

2. I'm doing massive amounts of laundry so I have at least enough clothes to wear for the next two weeks.  Terry's wardrobe is not nearly as expansive as mine, so he might be sporting some pretty odd combinations.

3.  I'm hitting Costco and FoodMaxx in one swoop today.  I loathe grocery shopping, but I can just see myself staring at the computer screen, typing nothing, rummaging in the fridge, finding nothing, justifying going out to eat, and then going to bed with a full stomach and empty pages.

4. I made a playlist that I'm hoping will inspire greatness.  If not greatness, then at least length.  If nothing else, it will send a clear message when I'm in public that I don't want strangers talking to me.  Or touching me, as has happened in the past.

5. I've notified everyone in my life that I will be no fun in November.  If you didn't get that call, consider this your warning.  I'm not letting myself go out and play until I've met my daily word count.  And chances are when I do come out and play, I'll still be wandering the halls of my story.  So, forgive me for November and I promise to be fun in December.

6.  I've picked up a Safeway application just in case.

October 28, 2009

This I Believe: 1-100

My husband is the  consummate list maker.  He leaves himself a 'To Do List' each day before leaving work.  He delights in listing the best songs, best athletes, best movies, etc.  Me?  I've never been a list maker.  I write a grocery list and that's it.  Even then I always manage to forget to buy at least one thing.

That is until last July when I became aware of a little boy who wrote his 100 beliefs for the 100th day of school.  I don't agree with all of his beliefs, nor do I expect you to agree with all of mine.  What I do agree with is thinking hard about what I believe.  So I began tapping away at the keyboard, writing my own beliefs one line at a time.

The first thirty or so were easy, jumbling out in a quick rush.  The next thirty took some time, appearing in handfuls and pairs.  The last forty took, well, months.  I'd write one every once in awhile, sometimes stopping at the words 'I believe' followed by bouts of blank staring.

I found myself deleting beliefs if my actions did not align with the words.  If I wasn't living something, how could I claim to believe it?  On days when I was the better version of myself, instead of deleting the belief, I'd delete the action that didn't fit.

I typed and then erased duplicates, relieved to know that I believed something at least enough to think of it on more than one occasion.

I carried this project with me and found my beliefs in the most unexpected places.  In the car, in the shower, on airplanes, on the couch, in my classroom, in the grocery store, in bathrooms, in dreams, in waiting rooms, and even on the playground.  I'd scavenge the depths of my purse for an old receipt and a pen, scratching out my beliefs at stoplights and checkstands.  I'd leave them on my answering machine and scrawl fragments in my bedside notebook.

Four months and 100 beliefs later, I'm surprised and content in the knowledge that there is so much to believe in.

Here is my list.  Read it.  Curse it.  Applaud it.

Whatever your reaction, when you reach the end, sit down and start a list of your own.  Discover yourself in the most unexpected places.  Discover unexpected parts of you in the most regular of places.  It will impact your life in compelling ways.  This I believe.

This I Believe



1) I believe God is good.

2) I believe my husband’s love is real.

3) I believe the written word is a living, powerful thing.

4) I believe the truth cannot be manipulated or changed.

5) I believe all people have the capacity to love.

6) I believe all people can learn.

7) I believe in the sanctity of marriage.

8. I believe in being a good steward of the planet.

9) I believe people should read every day.

10) I believe riding my bike helps me see beauty.

11) I believe I am responsible for helping the sick.

12) I believe in protecting children.

13) I believe in honesty.

14) I believe that time is my most valuable resource.

15) I believe I am a writer.

16) I believe in actively seeking peace.

17) I believe in thinking before speaking.

18) I believe in healing.

19) I believe people should smile at each other more often.

20) I believe in equality.

21) I believe that each day is precious.

22) I believe people should own fewer things.

23) I believe in buying books.

24) I believe people should go outside more.

25) I believe there are a lot of good books waiting to be written.

26) I believe in miracles.

27) I believe in Heaven and Hell.

28) I believe giving is better than receiving.

29) I believe that a drink of water helps almost everything.

30) I believe in saying what I mean and meaning what I say.

31) I believe life is full of humor.

32) I believe in taking naps.

33) I believe in being organized.

34) I believe joy comes in the morning.

35) I believe alcohol and tobacco are drugs.

36) I believe in examining the heart of my desires, instead of examining the desires of my heart.

37) I believe in focusing less on being right and more on doing good.

38) I believe playtime is important.

39) I believe in strength of heart.

40) I believe in eating with friends.

41) I believe age is just a number.

42) I believe God created the universe.

43) I believe home cooked is better than store bought.

44) I believe in buying produce from the Farmers Market.

45) I believe in the underdog.

46) I believe the taking of life is the responsibility of God, not of man.

47) I believe people should not own guns.

48) I believe the Bible is the Word of God.

49) I believe in living drug free.

50) I believe “Thank you.” is a valid response to “I love you.”

51) I believe everyone has a story.

52) I believe love is a choice.

53) I believe the Holy Spirit lives in me.

54) I believe prayer is a conversation with God.

55) I believe some weeds are more beautiful than flowers.

56) I believe death is not the end.

57) I believe I am called to teach.

58) I believe breast milk is baby’s best first food.

59) I believe in laughing often.

60) I believe the book is usually better than the movie.

61) I believe in right and wrong.

62) I believe yelling never helps reach a resolution.

63) I believe anger can be a catalyst for change.

64) I believe a fetus is a baby and a baby is a life.

65) I believe in singing every day.

66) I believe joy is independent of circumstance.

67) I believe in staying up late and sleeping in during the summer.

68) I believe cuddling under a blanket is better than turning on the heater.

69) I believe in angels.

70) I believe in sharing ideas.

71) I believe I have a lot to learn.

72) I believe people should focus less on looking for the right person and more on being the right person.

73) I believe parenting is the most difficult and most important job.

74) I believe in asking questions.

75) I believe grief has many faces.

76) I believe my actions can help or harm and the choice is mine.

77) I believe ability is the most important part of ‘disability’.

78) I believe I have not been given a spirit of fear,

79) I believe in delegating.

80) I believe I am an important part of my community.

81) I believe in daily quiet time.

82) I believe children should be taught big concepts and big words.

83) I believe in voting.

84) I believe truth is stranger than fiction and also much easier to write!

85) I believe people should travel as often as possible.

86) I believe in gathering stories from previous generations.

87) I believe research is critical in pre-writing.

88) I believe taking a deep breath is good in all circumstances.

89) I believe in writing small.

90) I believe a good cry is necessary sometimes.

91) I believe in tithing.

92) I believe people who are unhappy at work should change jobs or change their attitude.

93) I believe worship is in daily life.

94) I believe my marital vows.

95) I believe healthcare is a basic human right.

96) I believe actions speak louder than words.

97) I believe God still speaks through visions and dreams.

98) I believe depression is an illness.

99) I believe great generosity begets rich blessing.

100) I believe my life is a gift.

October 21, 2009

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.

October 14, 2009

NaNoWriMo

I am a lousy fiction writer.  Each time I've tried my hand at it my writing is full of plotless drivel, innane conversation and way too many adjectives.  It's just plain awful.  You think I'm just being humble.  Number one, humility is not my strong suit.  Number two, it really is that bad.

These last couple of months have been different than I expected and have left me a bit aimless.  Usually at this time of year, I'm deciding which charity I'm going to ride for.  I start to think about my weekly mileage goals and mull over routes.  As it turns out, having a goal or several smaller goals is something I miss.

So, hmmm, what to do with all this time?  What to do indeed.

I'm going to write a novel.

You're horrified and, if you've read any of my fictional stuff, rightly so.  Well hang on a sec because it gets worse.  I'm going to participate in NaNoWriMo and write a novel in a month.  I'll wait while you recover from that statement.  Starting November 1st, I'll start typing with the goal of having 50,000 words or more by November 30th.

A dear friend of mine told me she'd rather gouge her eyes out than write a novel in a month.  I like my eyes, but come the middle of November I might be looking for sharp objects.

The thing is, other than an eyeball or two, I have nothing to lose.  It's impossible for my fictional prose to worsen.  1667 words a day can only improve my writing or at the very least help me learn about myself as a writer.

Did I mention that writers who reach 50,000 words get to say they won?  I like the sound of being a winner.  Yup, I like it a lot.

October 10, 2009

The Dream Quilt

Asking for money is hard.  Asking for money for a good cause is only slightly less difficult.  My friend, Marie, has been a consistent supporter of my efforts to cycle and raise money for several worthy causes.  So about a month ago, when Marie told me her mother was doing the 3-Day Breast Cancer Walk, I was quick to donate.  My donation gave me a chance to win a quilt handmade by her mother.  I never win anything, so I didn't really think about the quilt.

Last Thursday night I felt a cold plugging my head and I slept perched upright on the couch so I could do that whole breathing thing.  In the middle of the night I awoke from a dream, chilled by the crisp fall air brushing in through the windows, turning my exposed toes white.  I scrambled around for another blanket and as I lay waiting for sleep to descend, I thought about the dream.  I dreamt that I'd won the quilt and was sleeping snuggled under it's story squares.

The next morning Marie beamed as she told me I'd won the quilt in real life.  I grinned from ear to ear as I recounted my dream.

The quilt arrives at my house later this month.  I can't wait for frosty winter nights when I'll pull it tight under my chin and dream some more.

October 9, 2009

October 4, 2009

The Same

It's been almost three years since my dad died.  We were estranged, a choice that was mine.  And yet, grief still sneaks up on me.  Today I was baking peanut butter cookies, a holiday favorite, and my mind snapped back to the Christmas morning my parents gave me a Bianchi my dad had picked out for me.  Moments like that were few and far between and cause a twinge of sorrow.

There are other times when I do expect it and it's not any easier.  My best friend and his wife moved into a beautiful house just beyond the cemetery where my dad is buried.  On the way to their house Terry and I were cruising in the Mini with the top down, enjoying a perfect evening.  When we passed by the cemetery, I could barely keep from vomiting.  I sucked in gulps of cool air, blinked back hot tears, and tried in vain to listen to what Terry was saying.

I'm not really sure how to handle grief when it sneaks up on me.  I'm entirely unsure how to handle it even when I know it's coming.  The truth is, sneaky or not so sneaky, it all hurts the same.

Marathon Man

Yesterday Terry ran a full marathon on the elliptical machine at the gym.  Let that sink in for a minute.  26.2 miles on a machine with no change in scenery.  That guy has mental fortitude in depths I cannot fathom.  I went and cheered him on for the last 2 miles.  I'm amazed at him.

I'm also disappointed with myself.  When he originally told me this crazy idea, I said I'd come and walk part of it with him.  I wanted to.  I so wanted to.  But my heart has been increasingly bothersome and I was not physically able to do it.  It was all I could do to drag myself into the car and go cheer him on.

This has been happening more and more frequently, my heart keeping me from doing what I want to do.  The Rocket has cobwebs on her crossbar because I can't ride right now.  I can't count how many times I've cancelled plans with friends because I have to rest.  Sometimes I can't even carry a full laundry basket into the house because I lose contact with my left arm.

I was dealing pretty well with most of those minor inconveniences, but when I couldn't keep a promise I'd made to Terry, it really got me down.  I put on a happy face, but I really wanted to be a part of this thing he was doing.  And I couldn't.  I can't.  I won't be able to for some time.

Admitting I couldn't physically do it makes me sad.  So sad I can't actually say the words out loud.  Instead I say happy words like "I'm really proud of you, honey."  Those words are true, too.  I'm eager for the day when my heart is strong again and I return to a life where couldn't, can't and won't are erased by can, will, and do.

September 14, 2009

The Auntie Diaries: Happy Birth Day, Aiden!

Dear Aiden,

It's your Birth Day today.  For reasons beyond my understanding this is not technically your "first birthday".  Even though it really is.  You were born on the most perfect day.  At around one in the morning your dad sent me a message saying they were on the way to the hospital because you were finally ready to see the world.

I got the message from your daddy and probably responded with a "afhoighyerhjans" because I am always very coherent in the wee hours of the morning.  What I meant by "afhoighyerhjans" is that I said a prayer for you to begin your life happy and healthy.  I laid awake breathing in the scent of summer rain.  I wondered when you would take your first breath.  I wondered if you'd be lucky enough to catch the same scent of rain.  All night long I awoke to the steady tap of rain dripping from gutters.  Each time, I checked to see if there was a message proclaiming your arrival.  The veil of night gave way to morning sun and the rain slowed to a mist.

At 6:59 am, your mom ushered you into the world.  Your daddy called me a little while later to tell me you were healthy and that your mommy birthed you naturally.  She is a strong woman, your mom, a fact you will surely appreciate many times in your life.

I came to meet you this afternoon.  You were asleep and kept flinging your blanket off.  Swaddling is not for you, almost like you've been cooped up too long and just want to stretch out.  Your mom wasn't wearing a stitch of make-up and her hair was pulled up with curls escaping here and there.  She looked beautiful and happy with you by her side.

You are surrounded by people who love you and I thought I'd give you a heads up on some of us.  Your daddy knows everything about cars and will teach you as you grow up.  Your mommy is selfless, always putting her family before herself.  Your brother is awesome at kicking a soccer ball and I imagine the two of you playing many games together.  In case you need a laugh, your brother does a sidesplitting impression of a duck.

Your Uncle Terry knows everything about sports.  He is convinced kids don't like him, but you two will get along perfectly, especially if you root for the Chargers.  As for me, I love to read and write.  You'll live among piles of books upon books upon books.  When you're a little bigger we will go to the park to look at bugs, dig in the dirt, zip down the slide, and talk about all the things we see.

It's going to be a great life, Aiden, full of joy, full of love.  Happy Birth Day, sweet nephew of mine.

Love,

Auntie Alicia

September 2, 2009

Robot Teacher

Years ago when my little heart was all aflutter, and not in the good way, I had to wear a heart monitor to school.  I did my best to cover up all the receptors stickied to my chest, but the wires hanging down from the monitor were harder to keep tucked away.  I didn't want to alarm my little students, so I went about the day teaching while my heart ticked away on the monitor.  A couple of kids noticed the wires and asked what they were.  I pacified them with simple answers like "wires" or "oh, nothing" and kept on teaching.  These dismissive answers did not satisfy Ethan.

Ethan was a stick of a boy with a heart of gold.  He was quiet and thought carefully before he spoke.  In a small voice he questioned what the inside of a chrysalis looked like when a caterpillar is becoming a butterfly.  Another day he asked me how much gravity weighed.  He was the kind of kid who lost a tooth and then looked at it through a magnifying glass to see what teeth were made of.  So, when he saw wires sticking out from under my shirt, our conversation went something like this:
Mrs. McCauley, what are those?

Wires.

Wires to what?

Ethan, it's really nothing.

Wires don't usually go to nothing.  What do they connect to?

Can we talk about this later, Ethan?

I'd hoped he'd forget all about it, but, no, not Ethan.  Later that day, as I crouched down, helping another student, Ethan sidled up next to me, fingering the wires.  He gave them a gentle tug and was shocked to discover they were attached to me.  I didn't say a word, smiling because I could see his wheels turning.

The next morning as I prepared for the day in the quiet of the classroom Ethan arrived insistent on knowing what these wires were for.
"Mrs. McCauley, what are those wires?  Where do they go?"

Here's where I got creative and cemented this kid's future need for therapy.
"Well, Ethan, I'm a robot and my wires are coming loose.  I have to go in to get repaired."

"You're not a robot...are you?"

Leaning down so we were face to face, in my most staccato robot voice, I replied
"I am robot 413 in need of repair.  Do you have any tools?"

Ethan stared at me wide-eyed, jaw agape.  Other students filed in, ending our conversation.  As the day went on, I answered all of Ethan's questions in a quiet robotic tone.

As the last kid hurried out the door, I dialed Ethan's mom.  I explained the real reason for the monitor and then told her about the joke I'd played on Ethan.  Her sense of humor was as twisted as mine and, to my delight, she played along!  The rest of my conversations with Ethan that year were peppered with robot talk and more than once I saw Ethan checking for loose wires.

Today I sat in the cardiologist's office, dismayed to be on this road again.  Dismayed to add another EKG to the stack.  Dismayed at the idea of going on heart medication again.  Dismayed at the fact that I have to wear a heart monitor for a couple of days.  Terry, always trying to make me feel better, halted my grumblings by pointing out one bright spot.
"Well, at least you might get to convince another kid you're a robot."

August 31, 2009

Tick, Pause, Tick, Tick Pause, Ticktickticky

I hate the feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop.  When I was a naughty kid, I dreaded my dad uttering those terrible words "Just wait until your mother gets home."  Waiting is the worst, especially when you know that what is waiting for you is BAD.

I am currently in a nasty waiting game.  My heart has been all jumpy, and stoppy, and generally not good.  My little ticker is doing some sort of rhumba that makes me sweat profusely at the drop of a hat, makes my left arm simultaneously achy and prickly with pins and needles, and causes me to be tired almost all of the time.  Not to mention the whole inconvenience of constantly dropping stuff because I lose feeling in my left hand.

As much as I don't like it As much as it scares me, I made the dreaded call to my cardiologist.  I hate the fact that I'm 32 and have had a cardiologist for many years now.  I hate that when I called, the receptionist knew exactly who I am.  I hate that I had to tell my principal about what's going on because I don't like being weak.  I hate that when I fill out my emergency card every year, I practically write a book under "in case of emergency".  But most of all I hate waiting.

My appointment is Wednesday afternoon.  Questions swim in my head.  What's wrong this time?  How many EKG's will I have to do?  Will I have to wear a monitor to school?  Will I have to carry one in my purse?  What does this mean for bike riding? And the worst one yet: Will I need surgery again?

I know the Bible tells me to be anxious for nothing.  And I'm trying.  I really am.  But if I'm being straight with God and myself, I'm anxious.  If I strip it bare, I'm afraid.  Really afraid.  I'm waiting for Wednesday and right now Wednesday feels very far away.

Death By Chocolate Cake

I haven't ridden my bike in almost two weeks.  I have a litany of excuses related but not limited to a pencil stabbing and birthday cake.

I am exhausted from the first week of school.  This week is usually completely tiring, even when all goes well.  All did not go well.  In the span of one week my precious students dealt me 2 bouts of vomit, 1 rush of pee on the playground, 1 pencil stabbing, 1 punch in the face, and a long string of profanity.  I'm going to have to dig down deep this year.

My body tends to tell me when it's time to rest by getting sick.  I woke up Saturday with a bit of a stomach bug.  I laid on the couch and watched a lot of bad tv.  Sunday I woke up with fever aches, but by Sunday afternoon I was feeling well enough to go to the grocery store.

My step-dad, Chris, has been taking amazing care of my mom as she recovers from eye surgery.  Sunday was his birthday and I wanted to do something nice.  Since I love my step-dad, I didn't bake for him.  No, I bought him a shimmering quadruple chocolate monstrosity of a cake.

As I carried the cake and an armload of groceries from the car to the house, I noticed that the washing machine had leaked all over the garage for the second time that weekend.  I stepped carefully because flip flops do not have the greatest traction.  I'd almost made it to the door when my feet slipped.  I held the cake aloft.  Oh no, oh no, please don't let me ruin the cake.  Wait, please don't let me hit my head or ruin the cake.  No, wait, please don't let me hit my head, rip the seat of my pants or ruin the cake. With a thud and a weird "Oof" of air, I landed squarely on my tailbone.  Pain shot up my back.  I cringed.  What about the cake?  What about the cake?

I peeked in the bag and to my great relief the cake stared back at me in perfect condition.  It's all about priorities, people.  Tailbones heal.  Cake does not.

And so there it is, my list of excuses as to why The Rocket is in the garage, stewing with Frank.  That's never good.  I'll ride soon and I hope that when I do, The Rocket will forgive me without demanding penance for my inactivity or for the divine piece of chocolate cake I inhaled.

August 16, 2009

Crooked-Mouthed Kitty

Friday afternoon I opened my classroom to my incoming students and their parents.  I met 16 of my new families and am touched by the fact that they took time out of their day to stop in.

A few minutes into the meet and greet one of my little girls reached in her pocket and pulled out a kitty cat face made of beads.  She said "I made it for you.  It's mouth is crooked."  I smiled and replied "I like it better that way."

And it's true, I do like it better that way.  The lopsided grin gives this cat a mischievous look, like it just swallowed a bird.  (And you know I like anything that eats birds!)  I put a magnet on the back of the kitty face and stuck it on my filing cabinet where the girl is sure to notice it Monday morning.

I couldn't get this little cat face out of my mind all weekend.  I'm not really a cat person, so it took me awhile to figure out why this plastic kitty was stuck in my head.  Then it hit me-it's not perfect.  The imperfection is what makes it interesting, quirky even.  The juxtaposition of the otherwise cheery cat with a big smirk amuses me.

The same is true for my students.  The little things that make them unique are the things I treasure the most.  The kid who accidentally cut my hair, the kid who fell out of his chair more times than either of us could count, even the kid who shouted out curse words when he was excited-all of them hold a place in my heart because they weren't perfect.  They were delightfully unique.

Tomorrow, with a stomach of butterflies, I'll begin a new year of teaching.  A new year of learning from my students.  A new year of learning about them, finding out what it is that makes them inimitable.  Every now and then I'll catch a glimpse of my precious crooked-mouthed kitty and I'll smirk right back, happy with the knowledge that imperfection is a wonderful thing.

August 12, 2009

Are We There Yet?

A new school year is nearly here and I'm so eager to get started that I feel like I'm perpetually leaning forward, kinda like when I'm watching a tense movie and I can't wait to see what happens next.  It's not that I'm tense about the new school year.  I'm just about to burst waiting to see what happens next.

I've spent the last couple of weeks giving my room a complete overhaul.  Re-arranging furniture to facilitate partner work stations.  Cleaning out files, cupboards, cabinets and ridding my room of anything resembling clutter.  I recovered my bulletin boards in different fabric, replacing harsh colors with calming blues and greens.

My summer was spent filling my brain with books on literacy and writing instruction.  Just when I thought I would overflow with good ideas, I went to an Interwrite training and left with even more ideas on how to provide dynamic instruction.

Yesterday as I wrote out nameplates for my incoming kids, I couldn't help but wonder what they're like.  Which kids will make me laugh?  Which kids will devour books so quickly I can't keep up?  Who will beg to be my after school helpers?  Which kids will blow me away with their compassion?  Who will puzzle me and make me discover new ways to teach?  Which of these little ones will take my passion for writing and make it their own?  Who are these kids?  I'll meet them Friday and Friday can't come soon enough.

August 5, 2009

Fight Like Susan

"If ever there is tomorrow when we're not together there is something you must always remember: you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we're apart: I'll always be with you.”  Winnie the Pooh

Today Susan passed away.  I will continue to wear my jerseys that say Win Susan because I'm going to fight like Susan.

July 28, 2009

The Auntie Diaries: A Day at the Park

It's no secret that I'm not cut from Mom fabric.  Motherhood isn't for me and nothing proves that like when my big brother's kids are in town.  I take each of the five of them on a special date.  My first date went like this:

12:00 Pick up 5 year old Kyleigh to go to Kids Kingdom.

12:14 Realize that when it is 112 degrees swings, slide, and tire swing sear through shorts when sat upon.  Climb around on jungle gym instead.

12:30 Follow Kyleigh over to the sprinkler area where she plays for a few minutes.

12:37 Sit with Kyleigh in the shade waiting for the water volcano to erupt.  Want to poke my eyes out after telling her over and over that the water volcano won't erupt until 1:00.  It's "Are we there yet?" times a thousand.

12:49 Tell weird babysitter guy with a toddler that perhaps he shouldn't set his cigarettes and lighter in the woodchips on the playground because, ya know, there are kids here and stuff.

12:51 Move away from weird babysitter guy who apparently took my scolding as an invitation for conversation.

1:00 Finally the volcano erupts.  Kyleigh is afraid to get near it.

1:02 Volcano stops and we sit in the shade waiting for the next eruption at 1:15.

1:15 This time Kyleigh runs for it, understanding that if she doesn't get to it ASAP, she'll miss out and will possibly shrivel up into a raisin if she doesn't get wet.

1:22 Introduce Kyleigh to a little girl from school.  They splash around like old friends.

1:30 Volcano erupts again and Kyleigh has wisely staked out the spot that gets the most water.  She guards her area fiercely and gets completely drenched.

1:40 Weird babysitter guy moves near my shady spot, bringing with him 2 other pock marked, skinny legged meth users.  One sits behind me, one to the side, and the other in front of me so that when they want to talk to each other they have to yell.  After being caught in the middle of yelling conversations about a festering rash, a stolen truck, and the (insert colorful word) government, I tell Kyleigh that after the next volcano eruption, we're going to get frozen yogurt.

1:47 Practically injure Kyleigh as I rub her dry with a towel, simultaneously pulling on her shorts and shirt.

1:48 Walk so briskly to the car that Kyleigh runs after me calling "Wait for me!  Wait for me!"

1:48 Think briefly about the Pirates of the Caribbean Code: If anyone falls behind, they're left behind.

1:49 Grab Kyleigh and hustle her to the car.

1:50 Peel out of the playground parking lot.

2:00 Sit happily in the clean, air conditioned yogurt shop.  Smile as Kyleigh tops her yogurt with gummy worms, gummy bears, chocolate chips, cherries, sprinkles, more sprinkles, and whatever else she pleases.

2:01 Smile even bigger at the mom who explains to her kid that he can't do the same thing because they only put healthy things in their bodies.

2:22 Kyleigh puts her sweaty, ice cream covered face up to mine and says "Thank you, Aunt Alicia."  She tops it off with an open mouthed kiss, leaving sprinkles on my lip.

July 27, 2009

Riding Bikes with My Brother

Yesterday morning my alarm went off at 5am.  Yes, it's still summer.  Yes, I set it for 5am on purpose.  Yes, I did the same thing again this morning.  On Saturday That Laura, my little brother Pete, and I headed out for a 17 mile jaunt along the river.  This morning, Pete and I did the same route again.  My brother has recently started cycling the two miles to work and back and when he expressed an interest in doing longer distances, I jumped on it.

I have a simple rule: If you like bikes, I like you.  If you ride a bicycle, or even its ugly cousin the unicycle, you pretty much have to be Satan for me not to like you.  I don't know much about bike parts and that kind of geekery, but I can talk to you about rides until your face falls off.

I already like my little brother, so I knew taking him on a bike ride would be great.  We rode along the Sacramento River when the air was still cool enough to send goosebumps skipping up my arms.  I know this trail like the back of my hand.  I've ridden it in the dark, knowing exactly where I was based on the rise and fall of the pavement beneath my tires and the black shadows of the trees around me.

Since this trail is an old friend, I chattered about bumps in the road, blind corners, the mint that grows here, the blackberries that grow there, the gravel that always gathers around this corner, the fence that marks the end of the hardest part of the hill and all the little details that I have learned about this trail over the last few years.

When Pete was 3 and I was 8, he used to copy what I said.  Not in that irritating way when someone instantly repeats you over and over.  Although he did that, too.  The copying I'm talking about was when I'd hear phrases I used come out of his little mouth within the context of normal conversation.

As we rode in the quiet of the morning, I heard Pete say some of the same things I've said on The Rocket.  It's so relaxing.  It's better with company. Of course, there were familiar utterances of another vein, too.  My butt hurts.  My legs are sore.  I wanted to get off and walk the hill, but I didn't let it beat me.

In a lot of ways, riding my bike with Pete feels like we're kids again.  Only better. When we were kids, we were just brother and sister.  Now we're friends and I can't wait to show him another one of my favorite rides next weekend.

July 16, 2009

Touched By the Devil & Other Stories from the Big Ride

Dear Friends & Family,

Another cycling season has come to an end.  The Livestrong ride in San Jose this weekend was uh...er...um... memorable, yes, memorable is a good way to put it.



  • 4 really cool prizes: The day before the ride, I picked up my registration packet and jersey number.  Your generous donations entitled me to a LiveStrong t-shirt, water bottle, hat and the highly coveted LiveStrong messenger bag.  I stuffed all my booty into my super awesome bag and strutted around the LiveStrong village, making sure that all the other participants took note of my bag.  As they were taking note of my bag, I took note of the fact that everyone except Terry and Nick (my other two Redding Fat Cyclist teammates) had shaved legs.  And everyone was unusually lithe and athletic.  Walking around amongst such freakishly fit people I came to the realization that although it was called a "ride", I had unknowingly entered a "race".  A bike "ride" and a bike "race" are two very different things, a fact that would become apparent the next day.

  • 1 amazing dinner: The night before the ride Terry, Nick and I were privileged to attend the fundraising banquet.  We were inspired by the speeches given by cancer survivors and enjoyed a night of meeting our teammates.  Team Fatty won two separate awards that night.  To begin with Elden "Fatty" Nelson won the individual messenger award.  He and his wife, Susan, made this video acceptance speech.  Thanks to you, Team Fatty also won the award for most funds raised.  You can see our team on stage as our captain, Matt, accepts the award and honors Elden and Susan as they fight cancer in a mighty way.  Elden is bald and our team donned bald caps to show our support.  It was a fantastic night and I was proud to be a part of Team Fatty.

  • 1 upset stomach: The morning of the ride, I woke up with a disgruntled stomach.  I chalked it up to nerves, ate some breakfast, and joined my team at the starting line.  As the top fundraising team, we began the race ride ahead of all of the other participants.  We were escorted by a police cruiser.  Well, the people who could keep up were escorted by a police cruiser.  Me and my knotty stomach were in the throng of all the other riders within minutes.  My stomach gurgled and churned for the first twenty miles.  At the first rest stop, I spent some quality time in the port-o-potty doing what my friend, Nate, calls "livin' the dream".  I was miserable, but when my stomach realized I wasn't quitting, it settled down.

  • 1 windy day: The wind that day was unholy.  I rode into a strong headwind and through wicked cross winds.  The wind was so powerful that rest stop snack tents were blowing over and garbage blew into my mouth as I rode.  Never was there even a hint of tailwind.  It was punishing and it remained that way the entire ride.

  • 1 friendly devil: About 25 miles in, I faced my first hill.  It was short and steep.  My legs cranked the pedals and my little heart hammered away.  I walked a portion of the hill and just as I was getting back on The Rocket to face the crest, I saw the devil.  Or at least a man dressed in a red devil suit.  He goes to The Tour of California and other bike races (again proof that I'd mistakenly entered a race) to cheer on the cyclists.  He stood there high-fiving riders as they topped the hill.  He must have seen me walking because when I came by, he placed both of his red painted hands squarely on my buns and gave me a push, calling out "That's what we call a European start."  Uh, then let me just say that Europeans are much friendlier than I'm accustomed to.

  • 1 enthusiastic flagger: This by far was the best staffed ride I've participated in.  Volunteers showed up in droves to work rest stops, flag riders in the right direction, drive SAG wagons, and perform a myriad of other tasks.  I gave one particular course flagger a good shock at around mile 40.  A left turn took riders to the 65 mile course.  Straight ahead led to the 100 mile course.  The flagger took one look at me and immediately started flagging me left.  I shook my head.  He flagged more vehemently.  I again shook my head.  He continued flagging and as I rode by, I yelled "I'm doing the century."  He shook his head and in one last ditch effort tried to flag me left.  I just smiled, well aware of the fact that I didn't look like any of the other people riding the century.

  • 2 circling buzzards: What would a ride be without at least one bird story?  As I was still chuckling at the dumbfounded flagger, 2 buzzards circled overhead.  2 skinny cyclists came from behind and rode next to me for a few minutes.  They commented on the buzzards.  I replied that I was moving so slowly that the buzzards thought I was dead.  They laughed, made a remark about how funny Team Fatty is, and then left me in the dust with the birds.

  • 3 times I walked The Rocket: I walked portions of 2 small hills and at mile 7o faced a 12-18% climb.  I pedaled until my little heart began to actually ache.  I got off my bike and walked up the hill.  Nick was with me and we clomped along in our bike shoes, pausing every few steps to rest.  We waved off about 10 SAG wagons, insisting that we were fine, absolutely fine.  We took off our cycling shoes and huffed up the hill in our socks.  It seemed logical at the time, okay?  "No, really, we're fine." we'd pant at each SAG wagon.  The hill was only 1.9 miles and we were sure the top was near.  My heart ached and even squeaked, but we plodded on.  Then we came upon another Team Fatty cyclist getting into a SAG wagon.  We asked how much further to the top.  "Oh about another mile and a half.  Then you go downhill and then back up the steepest pitch."  the SAG lady chirped.  My head drooped.  I couldn't walk another mile and a half.  My heart physically couldn't do it.  I fought back hot tears, overcome by shame.  Then in the midst of my pity party, I thought of Susan.  Susan who has strength in ways that I will never comprehend.  Susan who graciously accepts help for tasks like getting out of bed and getting dressed.  Part of strength is knowing when to accept help.  I swallowed my pride and rode in the SAG wagon to the top of the hill.

  • 1 tweet from Lance Armstrong: At around mile 85, another cyclist told me Lance Armstrong had twittered a message to all the San Jose cyclists.  This is a direct quote: "Thanks 2 everyone in San Jose 4 the Livestrong Challenge! I was there last year and the course kicked my @$$!!! Appreciate all the support!!"  What!?!  Lance Armstrong had a tough time on this ride?  I couldn't help but wonder what the heck I, a big, wimpy, wannabe cyclist, was doing on a ride like this.

  • 14 bottles of water/Gatorade: People often ask about what I consume on rides like these.  On this particular ride I drank 14 bottles of water and/or lemon lime Gatorade.  I ate 1 1/4 pb& j, 2 bananas, 3 handfuls of gummy bears, 1 slice of peach, 1 handful of grapes, and 1 Clif bar.  After the ride I ate dinner.  Twice.

  • 90 miles: The course was actually only 95 miles long and after 5 miles in the SAG wagon, I rode a total of 90 miles at an average speed of 12.5 miles per hour.  I was disappointed with my mileage and my speed, but it turns out those things aren't what this ride was about.

  • 22 donors: Thank you Amy & Steve P., Anita J., Carmen L., Chris F., Christine W., Debbie S., Janet M., Janice L., Jean P., Jeff W., Jill L., Jill S., Katie G., Katie L., Kyra M., Nancy C., Nancy W., North Valley Bank, Peter K., Sara S., Sue H., Tiffany D., Tracy H. and Youth to Youth International.  Your support and generosity made it all worthwhile.

  • $1, 790: I'm grateful to know people who eagerly help others in need.  I'm honored to call you friends.

  • 9 hours: After starting the ride at the front of the pack Terry and I finished almost dead last 9 hours later.  After gripping my handlebars into the unforgiving wind, I'd lost feeling in 4 of my fingers.  My face stung with the combination of salty sweat and windburn.  My heart labored over ever beat.  It was the most grueling day on a bike I've ever experienced.

  • 4 days later: Four days have passed since the ride.  My windburned face is a peeling mess.  My heart is steady again.  I have feeling in 9 fingers and am hopeful that the last one will soon follow suit.  I mentioned earlier that this ride wasn't about miles or speed.  I think Winston Churchhill sums it up best, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”  Thanks for giving from your heart and making my life that much richer.



Fondly,

Alicia

June 26, 2009

Cover Letter '09



Dear Amanda and Peter,

Once when I was rafting, (Jodi can tell you which river), our raft stuck in Hell Hole, a sink hole kind of thing that spanned the width of the river.  Our raft was completely submersed under water, with all of us still sitting in it.  It was such a strange feeling, sitting in the raft with water above me.  I remember looking up at the water and thinking "This is not good."  I wasn't really sure what to do, but then our raft popped back up to the surface and flung me into the cold rapids.  A guide on the bank threw me a rescue line and pulled me to shore.

Writing was a lot like that this year.  I was submerged in this thing that wouldn't let me go and I didn't know what to do.  The institute was a rescue line for me, a line back to myself.  The pieces I selected for my portfolio are a reflection of this stuck stage and my inaugural steps back out of it.

The first piece, "The Escape Artist", tells a story that grips me even after many years.  I think about Brice daily.  His story directed many of the changes I made in my approach to writing with my young writers.  It was a gift to come back to it after a year and tie that story to my current practice.

"The Gray Hair" was a way for me to show all of my cards at the pre-retreat.  So much of this year required me to put on a brave face, often a fake face.  It was important to me to begin this institute honestly, even though it meant exposing vulnerability.  I fleshed out the raw truth and was surprised that it resonated with others.  Donald Murray says "The more personal I am, the more universal I become."  Never has that been more true for me than this year.

One of the hardest and most rewarding pieces I wrote this summer was "Hands".  It started as I wrote with my students, transformed during my presentation, demanded that I work on it at the writing marathon, and finally rested when I realized that a multimodal document was the genre that would house it best.  I did not include the multimodal document because that's for Terry, but I did include the text.  During the writing marathon I followed Lynn's good advice, I stopped fighting it and gave myself permission to write about this thing until I didn't need to anymore.  Giving myself the freedom to write about it as much as I needed to was apparently the key to being set free.

I've included "Clipless Pedals" because I love me some cycling and I love writing about the funny things that happen on my bike.  Life can be funny, so very funny, and I no longer take that for granted.

The final piece I've included in my portfolio is "Big Voice".  It's a found poem from Newkirk's book.  It represents two things.  First, it captures my desire to return to writing poetry.  Secondly, it illustrates the beliefs I hold true as a writing teacher.  It also conveys the responsibility I feel to speak up for what I know is true about fostering a love of writing in children.

Thank you for allowing me to attend the institute a second time.  Thank you for being a rescue line.  Thank you for encouraging me to pursue bigger things in the arena of writing and teaching writing.  It's more than I ever imagined for myself.  I am grateful and blessed.

Fondly,

Alicia McCauley

Hands


My hands are a book of stories, a criss-cross of scars, both seen and unseen. The scar across the back of my hand reminds me of my clumsy, carefree childhood, chasing my brothers through the house.  Stomping, yelling, running when running was just for fun.  Then the acute pain of catching my hand on my dad's wire bristled sanding wheel, the bristles, like porcupine quills catching under my skin.  And then my mother's tender hands, silky smooth bandaging my own small hand.


My cycling gloves have drawn tan lines across my wrists, a promise that adventure is mere pedal strokes away.  Steering my bike up mountains, beside rivers, through waves of wildflowers bowing over the plains.  My bike is escape.  My legs turn circles while my hands brake, shift, and guide almost without thought.  My mind moves beyond the daily clatter.  It is my space to think about big things and small things all under the careful guidance of my hands.


My left hand wears the promise of love.  Love in all its joy.  Love in all its pain.  Love without condition.  Love like I thought I didn't have the capacity to give.  Or receive.  How my lovely hands took care of me this year.  Wiping away tears, both his and mine.  Our hands clasped in the spare doctor's office, trying to hold onto light and hope.  If we just entwined our fingers tight enough, maybe our life together would not slip away.


My hands twisted medicine bottle lids, rubbed his back after lonely nights, and threw my raw prayers up to heaven.


The skin of my hands began to peel, as if my heartache had descended into my fingers and my hands could only respond by peeling away the layers.  It was painful, the forced exposure of new skin before it was time.  And still my hands continued to do all the required jobs just so I could make it from one day to the next.  Soon one day became many days and we'd held on long enough, tight enough, that our life together did not slip away.


My right hand wears the promise of eternity, of peace beyond my most vivid imaginings.  We cling to this and it clings to us.  It is here in our morning prayers, hands folded that we rediscover our life together, cognizant of the fact that we balanced precariously on the edge of it all and didn’t fall.


Stories balance on the tip of my tongue and the callous on my finger reminds me of my childhood spent holed up in my room, poetry spilling out, filling pages with graphite.  Now, my fingers tap at the keys of my computer.  It’s the rhythmic tapping of letters becoming words becoming paragraphs becoming the story of my life.


So far it is a story of joy, heartache, and healing.  I think of fairy tales and that phrase “They lived happily ever after.”  It always comes at the end of the story.  In my life story, we are living happily ever after.  We are living happily ever after right now because we are aware, so very aware, of just how precious now is.



The Escape Artist


           Brice was on the taller side. Well, as much on the taller side as you can be in first grade. He had downy blond hair and eyes like clear morning sky. His smile was easy and he’d not yet lost his first tooth.  He came to me on the first day of school, shirttails tucked into pants pulled up way too high. He beamed when I commented on the gel in his hair and the shine of his new shoes. As I came to know Brice, it became apparent that reading and writing were already a struggle.  His kindergarten teacher noted that he was behind in language arts, but proficient in math and science.  While most incoming first grade students could recall 20 or more letter sounds and read short words like "and", "the" and "can", Brice retained only 12 letter names and when encountering the written word, labored over each sound.  While others were writing words and constructing basic sentences, Brice was penning strings of letters and random symbols.  Together we began by studying letter/sound correspondence.


            By the time the leaves turned crunchy and brown, Brice had transformed into a functional reader and a lover of writing.  He was reading simple, repetitive stories with multiple sentences on each page.  During writing time, Brice used the words he'd mastered in reading to create stories of his own.  


            Each day, our class devoted an hour exclusively to the purpose of writing.  I'm not talking about handwriting practice, fill in the blank workbooks, or copying the teacher's writing.  My students viewed themselves as authors with important things to say.  


            As a beginning teacher, I was clueless on how to teach writing, so I let my students select their topics and go from there.  As they worked, I would assist and answer questions when needed.  Our class was a hive of activity.  As students worked, I would stroll around the room, often interrupting the class to reading snippets of their writing.  Despite my miniscule knowledge on teaching the craft of writing, my students bubbled with excitement at the opportunity to record their thoughts and above all, create books of their very own.  


            On Friday afternoons, my class would cluster on the carpet to read finished pieces.  Without exception, when a student climbed up into The Author's Chair and read aloud a story created by their very own hands, their face shone with pride.  The children on the carpet were rapt as they listened to and applauded story after story.  When a student would scoot down off the chair, a flurry of hands would shoot up, eager to be the next reader.  Most of my students chose to leave their books in the safe haven of the classroom.  Consequently, our classroom was brimming with their books.  There were books sandwiched on the shelves, leaning in the windowsills, stacked in cubbies, spilling out of desks, overflowing out of book boxes, and just when I thought we'd run out of space, we started tacking them up on the walls.


            Brice especially took pleasure in writing about his family. He wrote about his mom, his grandma, his sister, and his rowdy horde of cousins. His stories were predominantly retellings of exciting vacations to every place a kid could dream of.  Several times that year I’d sent notes home and left phone messages to tell Brice’s family about the tremendous progress he was making. My attempts to connect with his parents went unanswered, but hearing the stories about his close knit family set my mind at ease. Parents are busy. I understood. So, each Friday in the Author’s Chair, Brice would sit up straight, clear his throat, and read his latest adventure with his family.


            To describe what happened next as shocking is like saying the ocean is slightly damp. One day the principal asked me to escort Brice to the office during lunchtime. Brice was not a troublemaker. In fact, he befriended everyone and avoided conflict at all costs. Lost in conversation about his recess plans we walked hand in hand up the hallway, oblivious to the police cruiser in the parking lot and the possibility that it’s presence was linked to Brice. As we stepped through the office doorway, my eyes met the gaze of a police officer. A CPS caseworker stood beside her.  My heart dropped like a stone. The caseworker spoke with Brice privately while the officer filled me in on the details. Brice’s father was in prison and his mother had just been arrested for possession of methamphetamine. According to the officer, this was an ongoing case, which included prior arrests and visits to the home.  I was blindsided.  My mouth gaped as the officer succinctly informed me that Brice was to be relocated to a foster home and a new school that very day.  His little sister would be placed in a separate home.


            As he returned to the office with the caseworker, Brice cried from a deep and broken place. I held him, rocking him like a baby, feebly assuring him that he would be loved in this new home and at his new school. He was adamant about returning to his mom.


    “My mom is a GOOD mom! My mom is a GOOD mom! I want to go back to MY HOME!” he wailed, sucking in his bottom lip, struggling for breath.  After forty minutes of rocking, crying, and desperate screaming, Brice caught his breath and paused.


    “Can I do Author’s Chair today even though it’s not Friday?”  I was speechless. I would have wrapped the moon in a silver bow and placed it in his small hands had he asked.


            When the lunch bell rang, the class sat at the carpet.  Brice sat in the Author’s Chair, straightened his back, cleared his throat, and through red-rimmed eyes began to read. He read about a trip he’d recently taken with his family to Disneyland.  I knew it wasn’t true.  He knew that I knew it wasn’t true. In that moment I knew that all of his stories about his family were untrue.  He finished reading and with my heart in my throat, our class said goodbye to Brice. Our paths did not cross again.


            On that tear-streaked day, it was starkly apparent to me that writing had become a survival mechanism for Brice.  Perhaps his stories were a bundle of wishes he’d hoped would come true if he scratched them out on paper.  I’ve always known that writing has the power to whisk an author away to unknown and exciting places. What I learned from Brice is that writing can also sustain a person in places that are painfully real. His fictitious life created a safe space of normalcy. Pencil in hand, Brice scripted the life he both craved and deserved.  


            I often wonder what became of Brice. At night, between the hazy edges of dreams, I glimpse his face amongst other lost children who have come and gone too quickly.  I regret not seeing beyond his eager smile and bright eyes.  I regret not hearing Brice’s real stories, the ones that were too hard to tell.


            That day was a turning point in my life.  It changed who I am as a person, who I am as a teacher.  I pursued parents with regular phone calls and when they didn't call me back, I called them at work, flooded them with notes, and even dropped in on them at home.  Shiny new shoes, freshly gelled hair, and parents who appeared "too busy" would never again fool me into assuming a loving home existed for any of my students.


             Most of my digging into their lives produced discoveries of yards littered with bikes, parents who were eager to hear about their child's school life, and above all, families with deep love for their children.  Occasionally, I'd uncover a family without electricity, a kitchen with hollow-eyed cupboards, or a parent undone by addiction.  Knowledge is power and I did my best to use the intimate knowledge of my students’ lives to help them attain whatever resources they needed.  Digging beyond the surface allowed me to see the real stories of my students and maybe even ensure that some of those stories had happier endings.


            Eight years have crossed the calendar since my time with Brice.  Eight years and not a day has passed without his story rising to the surface of my mind.  Over the years my shock over his abrupt departure gave way to grief.  Grief was shoved aside by guilt.  And guilt became the catalyst for change.


            I recognize that some children have tumultuous lives outside of school.  Lives that I cannot always understand.  Lives that, to my dismay, I cannot always change.  The guilt I feel lies in this one lingering thought: If I’d shown Brice powerful words, words sturdy enough to bear the weight of his reality, maybe, just maybe those words would have given him the courage to write the heartbreaking truth.


            Yes, Brice demonstrated tidy handwriting.  He applied correct sentence structure, but that was not enough.  That is not enough.  I wanted Brice to have the power, or at least the choice, to write honestly.  While fiction can be a captivating vehicle, fiction under the guise of truth is hollow.  In his keynote address to the National Writers Workshop Donald Murray said “The more personal I am, the more universal I become.”  Writing that comes straight from the heart is what I want my students to strive for.


            What I did not know eight years ago, but am sure of now is that young writers need familiarity and practice writing with compelling words.  They need to roll words around in their mouths just to see what they sound like, to sandwich them side by side in unlikely metaphors, to appreciate the expression in a vivid verb.  As J. Patrick Lewis puts it, I want my students to experience the joy of  “uncovering that elusive verb or metaphor that one hopes will make a reader stop, ever so briefly, in wonder.”


            My desire to give young children access to powerful words combined with my conviction that writers need to write daily led to incorporating writers’ notebooks into my classroom.  Writers’ notebooks serve two purposes in my class.  They are a place where I guide my students in gathering vivid verbs, similes, metaphors, and other rich language.  Their notebooks are also a place to take off the training wheels and venture out on their own as writers.  Story starts, poetry, drawings, photographs from their lives, and a variety of things occupy the pages of their notebooks. 


            Let me introduce you to Marcus.  Marcus started first grade as a good student, excelling in reading and math, but he was not particularly interested in writing.  As the year progressed, he absorbed every bit of writing instruction and began playing with words.  As fall turned the corner into winter he was even calling himself a writer.  Within his first draft of a response to a prompt about the best part of his body, Marcus uses some beautiful imagery.



“My Thinking Brain


I like my forehead because it has my thinking brain in it.  My brain lets me tell stories and play.  When I am tired my brain gives me dreams of colors in the night.  In the morning my brain tells me when to get up.  And it tells me to eat breakfast.  I like my brain.


 


            In her book, Wondrous Words, Katie Wood Ray speaks to the importance of reading like writers, examining the crafting of texts for a variety of things including word choice.  To create awareness in my young writers, we do a lot of word gathering beginning in the whole group setting.  Below is Isabelle’s word gathering from Jan Brett’s book, Gingerbread Baby.  Gingerbread Baby brims with impeccable verb choice.   Faster verbs convey excitement and slower verbs create tension as well as reveal the Gingerbread Baby’s emotional state.  As a class we gathered verbs from the story and divided them into fast and slow.  Then the students picked verbs from within our list that they might want to keep in their notebook to use in place of the passive ‘went’ in later pieces.  Isabelle was the kind of kid who worried about everything from forgetting her lunch to not finishing her work in time.  Although her worries were unfounded, the fact that she was plagued by her worries was a very real thing.  Gathering words in her notebook helped Isabelle relax when it came time to draft.  Knowing she had lists of words available functioned as a safety net and allowed her to think about what she was writing, rather than worrying about not being able to come up with the just the right word.



Notes from whole class word gathering


            One of my purposes within writing instruction is to give students tools they can apply as they grow as writers.  It’s my hope that they’ll continue to use these tools long after they’ve left my class.  I foster this step towards independent work by stepping back and allowing for student led small groups.  After several whole group word gathering lessons, my class was ready to gather words within their table groups.  The entry below was in conjunction with a science unit on dragonflies.  Each table group had a tank full of nymphs (baby dragonflies) on their tables.  The nymphs grew and molted into gorgeous, emerald green adult dragonflies and the children observed each stage.  In preparing to write about all they’d observed, the table groups brainstormed lists of adjectives and verbs they might use in their report about the nymph stage.  As you can see, when left to work in groups, they came up with long and varied lists.  After the table groups were finished, we met back as a whole group for children to share out the words they’d gathered.  As they read, most of the other children added words they hadn’t thought of.  It’s wonderful seeing my students actively learning from their peers.


 


Independent Small Group Word Gathering


            While I believe great value lies in teacher and peer led activities within the writing process, the most important thing I can teach my students is that they are writers, real writers.  And writers often choose their own topics.  Teacher directed lessons on craft translate almost seamlessly in their self-selected writings.  Knowing the power of words creates a drive in my students to write freely with purpose and feeling.  Emotion spills out from the tip of their pencils onto the blank notebook pages.  Here Savannah exhibits vulnerability by expressing her fear during a storm.



“Lightning


Last night there was lightning.  I was afraid."


            I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the need for writers to write for real audiences.  In my class this takes many forms: letters to their big buddies, book reviews for the school library, reports to share with other classes, fictional stories about their classmates, apology letters, thank you notes and anything else that has an authentic audience.  Of course, the most relevant audience to young children is their parents.  After a lesson on writing small details, Maddie, a special needs student, decided to write a letter to her mom.  After that same lesson Marcus used his notebook to draft a letter to his dad for father’s day.


 


AppleMark


“I like my mom.  She is the best.  I love my mom.  She is cute.  We play hide and seek.  She is the best mom ever.  We go for a walk.  I love mom.”


AppleMark


“Dear Dad,


I love you for lots of reasons.  Sometimes you watch my brother’s baseball games with me.  Every time at dinner, you give me something I like.  Happy father’s day!


Love, Marcus”


 


            Writers’ notebooks allow space for my students to try out different genres.  After lessons on poetry and alliteration, Maiya wrote this poem about the joy of eating ice cream with her big sister.



“Ice cream


delicious, delectable, delightful


licking, freezing, melting


feeling happy with Haley


yummy”


            I wish I could say that all of my young writers are eager to bite into expressive language and play around with words, but the truth is some of my students struggle with writing.  Even at the age of six, some of my writers think that editing and writing are one in the same and that to write, you must write each word correctly the first time.  They avoid writing, hate it even.  Frankly, I would, too.  Matthew was one of those writers.  He spent months snapping his pencils in half and declaring his hatred for writing.  It just about broke my heart because Matthew was a creative, caring kid with important things to say.  I tried every trick in the book to help Matthew write and, more importantly, see himself as a writer.  Nothing worked.  I think it’s accurate to say that both Matthew and I were frustrated and at a loss of what to do next.


            Then one day, Matthew rushed in and asked if he could skip independent reading time because he had something he just had to write about.  I was over the moon.  He actually wanted to write.  Here is his notebook entry from that day.



“My Loose Tooth


I have a loose tooth.  It’s a loose tooth.  I hope it will come out in one week.”


 


            This was a turning point for Matthew.  A few months later I tasked the class with writing author’s blurbs about themselves for one of our class books.  They were to include true and interesting facts about themselves.  Formerly a reluctant writer, Matthew wrote this about himself:


AppleMark


“My name is Matthew.  I have a dog named Gouda.  I am a good writer.”


             Reflecting on my second year of teaching, the year Brice entered my life, I feel grateful for his impact on the way I teach my young writers today.  I feel honored to have witnessed the preserving power of writing in Brice’s life. Yet, there is a tender place in my heart that still pulses with sorrow because this was a lesson too callous for a six year old.  Even for one on the taller side.