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For Dewar

Heidi’s father strode up the granite-strewn trail that led towards Desolation Valley leading his rag-tag crew of wife, children and their friends into the Sierra wilderness. They hiked onward past Echo Lake and the Boy Scout camp—the squeals and echoes of the boys’ camaraderie pierced the solitude and then could be heard no more. Mr. Cole was an adventurer; he dreamed of sailing on a self-hewn ship to Tahiti—of course with family aboard. His wife had other plans, but the children adored him. He captained their summer adventures in the mountains showing them how to pitch a tent, start a reputable fire, protect themselves from the bears and trap game. And now as they walked under the cool shade of Douglas fir with the scurrying sounds of the squirrels and sparrows in the kingdom of high branches, they could see a change up ahead. The trees began to recede as the timberline approached, and the blistered azure skies that reigned in the upper reaches of the peaks provided no shade. Granite that was belched forth a million years ago covered the ground in looped and twisted roundness. All was a glare in this new whiteness and stillness of a mountain afternoon. The children became thirsty and had long since stripped down to t-shirts and shorts while Mother had covered their noses with a glob of zinc ointment giving them the touch of clowns. The captain seeing his ranks were failing gave good cheer that up ahead was a pothole lake where they’d camp; and sure enough, within a few minutes march the lake appeared. It sparkled and beckoned his crew, they who plunged into the emerald waters, and the water chilled to the bone—water that was snow fed. Everyone giggled and called each other chicken. Overhead an eagle swam in the silence of the updrafts and downdrafts of his life

For Lynn

The Sheephead Mountains stood like hooded monks in prayer that early spring midnight; Molly was due to calf and I, half asleep, braved the nippy air to check her progress. Calves seldom came when the powder dung of the stockyards was sunny warm. They slipped into life in the dark hours when Pacific Northers crossed the Sierras flooding the desert, and flooding the corrals. But tonight Orion chased the Pleiades across the sky as Cassiopeia and Andromeda draped the firmament with lantern-treasures. This cloudlessness brought water troughs caked with ice; the ground cracked as I walked. Climbing the fence, from the top rail I searched for my charge. Two hours earlier she had been fat and humped; quietly chewing and snorting frosty air, she had acknowledged me for an instant. I had left her feeling certain she was far from giving birth. But now with a panicked jump, I crossed the pen racing towards a little pile of darkness laid out afresh on the black frozen ground. Spring welcomes pretty things: the bee’s clover with its purple heads like lively ladies dressing up a field, the prickly pear’s splattered palette of colors brushing tapestries on a languid desert floor, the pea fowl’s parade of chicks—clowns and soldiers alike—sanctifying mama’s forty day set, the wiener pigs’ round, rosy and full bodies squeezing one another with playful exuberance against sty walls. So as I lifted the limp, wet, unfull body into my arms to carry it to the barn, I felt no weight.

For Emily, North of Monterrey

When Tio Victor pulled the carrots out of the earth and shook off loose soil, I knew what I was looking for; the sweet smell of carrots carried me to another place. From the beginning as the train lurched out of the tiny Control station, and I felt the cradle of the rails, I was remembering: the desert landscapes of browns and gold, the fields of mustard and oaks; the hills and then mountains—dry mountains—that stroked a blue sky; the stations and incessant talking and clatter of people; the city of hills with perched houses on terraced banks where cars creeped and braked their way home and back; the sooty air—grime on my face and neck—full of factory smog; bus rides and routes through city streets blending the greasy smells of transport with the grandeur or carved palaces and bronzed statues and arches of triumph. And then there I sat at Tio Victor’s house far from the city—two hundred miles or so—where chickens laid thick brown eggs in the backyard, and water was pulled by bucket from the well; and in the shade of pecans with the dry smell of firewood and pines, I watched the old man in this garden, and I scraped mud off the bottom of my shoes.

For Stephen

I had it packed away in a turquoise silk bag, and I rarely touched it. I mean I wouldn’t have touched it ever except out of curiosity I checked to see if it was still there. At my birth it was given to me—so blank and clean it was. As I grew I polished it and engraved it with beautiful symbols of life and roses and stars in the heavens, and it meant everything to me. I consecrated it and watched and waited for a voice to say “well done” or “I’m watching”; in the silence of the room I heard only my heartbeat. So perhaps my heartbeat held the key.

One day my house burnt down and in the ashes I found my treasure all tarnished and blackened with my life’s valuables stuck to it in twisted masses—melted by the intensity of flame. But it retained its shape, and with some polish and hand labor I shone it bright again and then packed it away. I packed it away while I travelled; I packed it away while I worked and raised a child and raced from day to day.

Yesterday I slipped it from its silk cocoon, and studied the figures; and I wondered if I had made a mistake. Through what keyhole did I figure out that man came first and the universe second? I had a splendid laugh. The infectious laughter caught my son and hurdled him to my side; and I placed it—golden alluring light—squarely in his hands

For Niema

One summer I lived outside of Flagstaff, Arizona in a trailer that was hidden from the road by an aspen thicket and the waving sheaths of unmowed, knee-deep grass. Down a bank on the right side of the trailer, a creek ran through brambles and leafy loam while on the left side loomed a mighty hill that made the mornings come late and kept the grass dewy past eleven. In the nights I studied Cassiopeia and Orion, but during the days I drifted from sleep to sleep recovering from the loss of my family. The succession of hours stapled like sheets upon the line, flapping and unable to move set position, stroked me.

One afternoon as I rested in a speckled shade beneath the white-barked trees, a beetle lit upon my hand and in a beam of sunlight the tiny bug’s golden stripes and emerald armor woke me up. The katydids in screeching chorus heralded a storm. The aspens turned golden.

That evening I announced to the Pleiades that in the morning I’d watch the sun come up on the other side of the hill. So with the persistence of a stubborn soldier, last man to drop, I raced darkness through the wet herbs to the top; I’d miscalculated the sun for it was already up. Hereford cattle were grazing on the secret slopes that stretched towards Zion, the Grand Canyon, and the Rockies. On the horizon bloomed the sweetest rose I’d ever smelled.

Tomorrow, 1987

 

During my adolescence, I remember a scientist on television revealing that, if the telescope at Mr. Palomar were powerful enough to see across the universe, a viewer looking through the scope would be presented with his own image. I imagined standing on my tiptoes and looking through the glass magnifiers, hoping to see the swirling galaxy of Andromeda, only to be given a mirror refection of myself. The mention afterwards of Mt. Palomar creating images within me of vast circles of time and space that had a beginning and an end became a vision akin to the alpha and omega of my Christian upbringing. Mt. Palomar stood beside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and Notre Dame as they together reached towards the stars to capture the unknowable. But I noticed a difference between the observatory and the churches. Cathedrals had smells of bones and mildew exposing human fragility. The observatory in its pristine roundness had no smell. Its connections of metal, glass and concrete housed no relics, no human forms. But, if the scientist’s revelations were correct, then this worship of the skies through a sterile eye, this adoration of science as God, would in the end come full circle to the discovery of divinity within the human form, the flesh, the beating heart of man.

 I delight in viewing man as a mammal with this sweaty brow and lumbering gait. During trips to the zoo I watch—myself included—the human animals prowling the pathways leading from pen to pen. A crowd of humans gathers close to the rail that separates them from the magnificent gorilla that is lounging on a rock, also watching. My son is far more interested in the humans than the ape. That’s the clue to our nature. A curious species of brightly decorated, mutilated creatures in varying sizes and shapes, we seem to say, “Look at us—forget the ape, aren’t we special?” Darwinians link us human to a species of ape, but I have my doubts. That’s a heavy burden to bear for the innocent ape. I prefer the linkage to go directly to the tiny forest shrew; that puts humans on the same footage as their other animal brothers.

How angry my Auntie would be to hear me say this. She spent countless hours trying to convince me that humans differed from the other animals. They had responsibilities: the care of the other creatures on this planet being one of them. Humans had within themselves a gift of vision, of creativity, of love. One day as she lay in bed recovering from pneumonia, she had me lie down beside her. The rays of the sun had come through the window and shone on her diamond wedding band spraying a shower of sparkles onto the ceiling of the room.  “Look, do you see them, each is a star—a human being,” she said.

I was young enough to buy it then. That was before I heard the details about Hitler. That was before I began to understand my own inner workings. So for a while, when I looked into the heavens on a clear star-spangled night, I envisioned all women and men on earth joined to a twin star and capable of brilliance.

But where was the rapist’s star when he chopped off his victim’s legs and threw her for dead in a ditch; where was the hijacker’s star when he planted a bomb that blew a mother and child from a plane in small pieces. Do we hide our stars when we spread rumors that will injure a friend, or does the light just go out? Should I continue? But my phantom image of Mt. Palomar still whispers in my ear, “all’s possible.” Gandhi lived here, so did Christ, and Buddha, and Mohammed, and Joan of Arc. The list would be incredibly long if I made it. How did they reflect God so well? Was it fasting? Praying? What was their human secret? And then, from my darkness, I remember that little known poem that my Auntie used to say with her eyes closed.

 

Abou Ben Adam—may his tribe increase—

Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,

And saw within the moonlit shadows in his room

An angel writing in a book of gold.

So to the vision in the room he said,

“What writest thou?”

The vision raised its head

And with a look made of all sweet accord

Answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”

And is mine one?” said Abou.

“Nay, ‘tis not so,” replied the angel.

“I pray thee then, “ said Abou,

“Write me as one who loves his fellow man.”

The angel wrote and vanished.

The next night it came again with a great shining light

And showed the name of those whom love of

God had blessed.

And, lo, Ben Adam’s name led all the rest.

 

Then for an instant all seems possible; my eyelashes really will appear in the scope.

What is a story?

We hear stories, we see them, we sing them, we read them, we write them, we paint them, in blogs, in poetry, on canvas, with eBooks and hardbacks, with cameras and film, with banjos and oboes, in elevators, on planes, while running and cooking and knitting and clicking. We never get tired of listening and telling and watching and singing our stories. Our stories. For everyone. The rest have no passion, no meaning, no bones. They chatter and fly with the wind. Ours move us, change us, reveal and stay from grandmother to daughter, from father to babe.

Happy Holidays to all!

To be a Librarian, a Writer, a Dreamer, and Editor…

I have finished NaNoWriMo 2011, my third; and now have over 200,000 words in a manuscript.

This past month I’ve been sequestered in the years 1811 to 1841: I have loved and lost for three characters; caught the square-rigged George Washington on the Waterloo dock bound for New York City; reread Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice; played Portia and Antonio at the Theater Royale; mapped out a Glaswegian Street and peopled it with 1839 residents, the butcher, baker and yes, the spirit dealer. I have read documents on Scottish law for servants, merchants, and ne’er-do-wells and made a phaeton carriage. I know something about the Glasgow abolitionists, merchants, playwrights, actors and tobacco lords. I have perused songs written in the early nineteenth century. I have read a novel on the Jamaica plantation system published in 1828. I better understand the Greek rebellion of 1820 and how it affected wee Cyprus and lunched with the British consul in Larnaka.  I have studied Scot’s lingo in dictionaries and in podcasts. I have buried myself under stacks of memories, ancestry records and family folklore. So with that I am going to take a little break and mop my kitchen floor, finish my Anne Tyler novel, sell Usborne and Scholastic titles this Thursday, order books for that coming visit of David Schwartz in February, do mid-semester grades, and enjoy the holiday spirit.

Oh, to be a librarian, a writer, a dreamer, and editor. Within the year, this totie, wee thing will have more than a name and a soul.

Yo, Ho, Blow the Man Down!

 

Mates, I just watched a keynote given by @abrarian. I found out about her “Rock the Boat” presentation via an @ulotrichous tweet. I realize that I’m not alone managing my little ship, my sabre well hidden. The sea must be full of our little ships. Many days, I walk the plank blindfolded, fall into a sea of alligators with “tick tick” clocks; but I live to tell the tale. I have decided that it isn’t the alligators I worry about so much anymore, though I am aware of my limited time.

My mates and I can work the decks and make meaning. As the captain, I think we are steering into the right waters: I need sailors who can navigate, who can think for themselves, who can battle the deceivers, who can doubt but who can trust and say, “aye, aye, sir.” It’s a hard path. They need to know how to go up to the crow’s nest, to watch the horizon, to manage the sails and ropes as a unit. They need to make it to that next port, well versed, with the sailor’s certificate that allows them access to a wider world. There, they can duke it out with Bibliobouts and other things and then carry those tools with them as they navigate seas on their own little ships.

I am not too worried mates, not even with time!  We have each other. Not even Captain Hook or Cook had that. On these wide seas, we have the power of pigeons with far reaching “tweets.” Aye, I have just received a message that a new manual on sailing these waters has been scribed. “School Libraries: What’s Now, What’s Next, What’s Yet to Come, an ebook” has been published and set adrift by Captain Kristin Fontichiaro and crew. It’s just in time for the big pirate meeting up the Mississippi River in Minneapolis! I can hear me sailors up at the prow singing “Yo Ho, Blow the Man Down.” It’s time I go to my cabin, read and further dream.

 

Nineteenth, Twentieth Century Learners Move Over

Twenty first century learning is hype.

I’d say remove the phrase from all recent articles extolling the state of our present education system.

I’d focus on something else.

A young woman lives just outside Nairobi, Kenya.

She has a cell phone and it connects to the Internet. She has discovered she can attend classes at Harvard using mobile technology.

She is self-reliant.

She is motivated.

We are experiencing the greatest revolution the planet has seen since the industrial one a few hundred years ago. That one took a hundred years to get rolling. The one now has taken fifteen or so years.

Maybe that is why we aren’t thinking so clearly.

Yes, we are entering the twenty first century. We entered the twentieth, the nineteenth, all to hoopla.

So what?

The revolution that is happening underneath our feet, isn’t about how we teach math or English. It isn’t about how to write research papers. It doesn’t concern itself with IB or SAT scores. It doesn’t look to business to boost it up.

I call it the great leveling.

That young woman in Kenya with small change in her pocket stands a greater chance of rising to the top of the economic ladder than the scions of those with cash to spread all around the globe. She has a gift.  She knows what it feels like to have nothing. She has fire in her belly. She has a cell phone. She can learn and has access to the best teachers worldwide. She knows from twitter and Facebook what is out there.

She has a chance to succeed.

The twenty first century is her friend.

She is a true twenty first century learner.

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