“It is hard to say good-bye to beloved flesh,” Madeleine L’Engle writes in Two-Part-Invention. It is also hard to say good-bye to beloved places. One of the tiny public schools where I taught was no longer able to retain all the teachers on staff. Funding was scarce. Because I was one of the last to be hired, I was among the first to be let go. There was no last-minute reprieve. As I prepared to leave a place I had come to love, I found myself humming a plaintive tune, first sung many thousands of years ago by a disconsolate group of displaced persons: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4).
suddenly a stream
refreshing weary pilgrims
in the wilderness
Words are the building blocks of thought—and stories. Words spoken by a blind poet around the campfires of old celebrated the cunning ways of a rogue named Odysseus. Words written by Hebrew poets on parchment still tell the tale of the origins of our world: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
My special education students use words every day, not to tell stories, but for far more mundane purposes: “May I go to the restroom?” “I need to sharpen my pencil.” “Can I get a drink of water?”
My students’ vocabularies are limited, and one of my jobs is to help them increase their vocabularies, because words are the building blocks of thought—and stories.
I select five words at random from a list—wrinkles, envy, odyssey, untidy, falcon—and ask my students to find the definitions, and use each word in a sentence. When that task proves too daunting for more than half of them, I make up sentences, write them on the board, and ask my students to copy them.
“Get acquainted with these words,” I say, “because tomorrow we’re going to use them to write a story.”
And we do:
Once upon a time there was a falcon named Julian (although sometimes he called himself Joshua). He was a very confused falcon—probably because he lived in an untidy nest. One day he decided to start an odyssey. The odyssey would take him to a magical land where the phoenixes rise every morning. The odyssey lasted so long that wrinkles appeared on the falcon’s face. He grew wise, and became the envy of other birds who lacked wisdom.
“I like that!” I exclaim as we finish our story. “I think I could turn what we’ve written into a book.”
Even if I never expand the story of Julian the Confused Falcon into a book, this little writing exercise engages every student—even my non-readers. Like the blind poet of old, they eagerly share their ideas orally as I write them on the board. Unlike Homer, however, my students tell their tale briefly.
Who’s to say that a long tale is better than a short one—or vice versa? What’s important is giving my students the gift of words so that one day, without my help, they will be able to tell their own tales as their eager children gather round to listen.
I search for a new story
in the blackbird’s beak.
More Midweek Motif at Poets United: “Gift”
My 9-year-old grandson came home from school and said to his mother:
“I got this airplane from the treasure box today. It’s the first time all year that I had enough tickets to get anything. I spent some on lunch with a friend. It’s the first time I got to do that too. So I spent all I had left on this neat airplane that did loops.
“Then at dismissal, a 5th grader grabbed it from me and pretended like he was going to fly it, but he scraped it against the wall and bent the wings, so it doesn’t work anymore. He was a Purple Folder kid, so I know he has anger issues.
“Maybe I can earn some more tickets….”
As I shuffle through the arroyo, I keep dropping to my knees. An onlooker might mistake me for a pilgrim making my way to Lourdes. But the healing I seek cannot be found at some distant holy shrine. It is here in the dust at my feet: cedar twigs snapped off by storms; summer’s leftover flowers; small stones trying in vain to fatten themselves on wisps of winter sun.
I aim my camera at a clump of wasted wildflowers, remembering words from a letter written long ago: “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are…” (1 Corinthians 1:28, RSV).
Low and despised is nature’s detritus in the arroyo, but it heals my battered spirit as I kneel in awe and wonder before it.
I kneel in the dust,
searching for underground streams—
three crows bear witness.
Revised haibun © 2016 and photo © 2012 by Magical Mystical Teacher
More Poetry Pantry #324 at Poets United
Sonoran Desert, Southern Arizona
“I hear America singing,” Walt Whitman wrote, “the varied carols I hear.”
I too hear singing, but instead of coming from throats of carpenters, masons or boatmen, it comes from sky and star and stone. It comes from weeds and wind and wild things. It comes from crow and cricket and cottonwood. It is the singing of the Sonoran Desert, and like the Siren songs that seduced Odysseus and his companions, I cannot ignore it.
I hear it as I help a student proofread her essay. I hear it while I confer with a parent about his son’s behavior. I hear it while I am grading papers.
At day’s end, I slip into comfortable clothing and walk into the nearby wilderness. The stones and weeds and dust greet me with rejoicing. They knew I would come.
I long for mystery, holiness and silence. Old Saguaro Woman offers to satisfy my longings. Not having seen her for several weeks, I strike out in her direction, while a few stars still dot the sky, hoping to avoid the worst of the desert heat. When I arrive at her courtyard, I am dismayed to find that someone has parked a fifth-wheel trailer, its generator roaring, nearby. As I strain to hear what Old Saguaro Woman might be murmuring, the camper owner flings open his door. Ignoring the wise and ancient voices of the desert, he laps up the mindless chatter of the morning news. I distance myself from the camper and its blaring TV, but across the wide-open spaces, sound carries easily. Even a half-mile away, I hear a reporter breathlessly describing the latest disaster in Egypt.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Southern California
“After we crossed the border, there was nothing,” the abuela tells her grandchildren, “just the desert, empty canteens, and the Great Thirst. Mama urged us on, saying that Papa was waiting in Phoenix. I didn’t care. My tongue swelled, my lips cracked and bled, I couldn’t sing—and you know how I love to sing. On the third songless, waterless morning, I saw something blue in the distance. Pensé que estaba soñando. I thought I was dreaming. Could it be Our Lady? I knew she often dressed in blue. As we drew nearer, I saw that it was a container, and on the side, a sign: Agua para Emergencias. I was sure that Our Lady had provided it, so I promised her that for the rest of my life I would sing this little song:
My springs are in you,
Lady of the Water Stash,
quenching all my thirst.”
~~ ~~ ~~
a cup of tepid water
keeping dreams alive
Text and photo © 2013 by Magical Mystical Teacher
More Blue Monday
More SkyWatch Friday
More Ein Stück Himmel
More Carpe Diem: “Sapphire”
More Haiku My Heart at Recuerda Mi Corazon
Templo Santo Domingo, Zacatecas, México
The churches of Zacatecas have one thing in common: a pervasive darkness.
In Templo Santo Domingo: shadows on the altar, shadows lurking behind the crucifix, shadows hovering like ravens above the baptismal font. The opening words of Genesis seem to presage the scene: “…and darkness was upon the face of the deep….”
But how much darkness can I endure? How long can I consort with shadows? My soul cries out for light.
I run to the church’s massive front doors, peer out into the sunlit street, and see for myself that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
One glimpse of the light is enough. I turn back to enter the gloom and to embrace the darkness that dwells in me, and in all of us.
I caught you in the darkness,
fed you crumbs of light.
Text and photo © 2013 by Magical Mystical Teacher
More Carpe Diem: “Kamishibai #4, Cathedral”
Threat of summer rain, Sonoran Desert, Southern Arizona
For seven halcyon days, the pilgrim has made her way through the wilderness, but now the sky is overcast. Rain is imminent. May I find shelter from the storm, she prays. But even as the last word leaves her lips, the first drops of rain begin to fall. Harder and harder they strike. Soon the pilgrim is drenched. She sinks to her knees, lifts her face to the heavens: All things come from You. All things serve You. Blessed be Your name. A bedraggled raven appears, landing on her shoulder. Its raucous caw sounds almost like human speech. It seems to be urging her toward a distant hill. At the foot of the hill, she sees a caravanserai. There she can shed her sodden garments and rest until the storm passes. Its mission accomplished, the raven takes flight.
Sunday morning our neighbor, a high school history teacher, wheeled his bicycle into the street and pedaled away for his customary ride. He never came home again. About an hour later, two police cars and a police motorcycle arrived, bringing the teacher’s bicycle, his helmet—and bad news. Throughout the day we gathered bits and pieces of information from another neighbor. No, the teacher hadn’t been struck by a car. Apparently he had a stroke or a heart attack, and toppled from his bike. Rushed by ambulance to a local hospital, he hovered between life and death for several hours. By nightfall, he was dead. What started out to be an exciting summer festival of rest, relaxation and recuperation for a weary educator turned into a season of mourning for his wife and two grown children.