Archive for the ‘story’ Category


Save A Hard Copy Of Everything That Might Be Important To You. This Does Not Mean You Should Keep Everything, But Some Day You’ll Be Glad You Did Some Selective, Creative Savery.

March 10, 2012

And bring me a hard copy of the Internet so I can do some serious surfing • Scott Adams, Dilbert

During the latter part of the twentieth century (golly, that sounds self-important!), I taught in a high school dropout prevention program. I often recorded my students’ words so I would remember them. Years later, I’ve forgotten most of those words, but I can revisit them because I have that written record. Now that I teach teachers, I’m especially glad I saved so many things that help me be first person present in my high school teaching past. I’m also glad that I have hard copies of my related reflections. I am both amused and saddened when students tell me that they have electronic copies of materials and don’t need hard copies, dismissing my pleas to print and file. Today’s computer is tomorrow’s obsolete, toxic landfiller. And all those electronic files you saved on your Apple IIe? G-O-N-E!

I’m especially happy that I saved what follows here. When teachers are frustrated by their students’ behavior, it’s easy to forget that what we want them to do may matter very little in the bigger picture of their lives. Sometimes acknowledging those realities is a first step toward helping students engage in the kinds of empowering educational experiences that really do change lives, or at least change perceptions about possibilities. In the quotation/reflection that follows, students’ comments are in italics, interspersed with my own reflective thoughts:

Always the Same • Always Different

So I sit and listen and again I am overwhelmed by all I cannot do, a thousand problems that I cannot solve, the pain I can’t prevent, the angry lives unfolding opening sharing revealing more than I want to know because I’m only one and I’m carrying this invisible sack of worry and troubles of my own, the one that’s hidden from them behind my sunny smiles, the smiles they crave like candy or even some kind of drug, smiles withheld so often in so many places that when they get one, they cannot get enough.

And so I sit and listen and begin to understand that this always comes first. This dreadful torrent that pools in front around among us—each story adding to the waters that swirl with blended colors of our private agony. We stir the waters, salty with our tears, seeing each other with eyes washed clean. Every year the same. Every year different. Games and names and sharing our shallowest safest memories until we cross this bridge over our waters into another world. A place that’s real. Circled round, lounging on floor and couches, waiting for someone else to trust. Open. I’ve seen this many times, but I always wonder if. If the time will come when ones together become us, when we see the sameness underneath the difference, when what matters less is overwhelmed by what matters more. And so it begins.

My stepdad says I can’t go nowhere in the house. Just stay in the garage he says and if I want to be there I got to pay rent.

He stops.

There’s a freezer out there, but they got a big ole lock on it so I can’t get in. The only bathroom I got is in this trailer my grandma left in the yard, but it don’t work so I go in the yard at night if I have to and just cover it up.

He stops again. We wait. He doesn’t sa anything else. No one says anything. He’s hanging out there. Naked. Me? I want to jump in and say something. Offer something. But it’s not my tie. Another voice, so quiet we can hardly hear begins.

We sold our Levis yesterday. We were holding on to those, my mom and me. We like them a lot, but they wouldn’t give us anything for our Wranglers. My mom is gonna get a job pretty soon. Waitin’ for a call. I wrote a poem about being homeless. Wanna hear?

She pulls a piece of paper from her backpack—her new backpack—we can still do that much around here—supplies and backpacks and winter coats and PE clothes and bread and peanut butter and Ramen noodles and sometimes milk and even juice. She reads her words about doing homework by the glow of a cigarette lighter and dreaming of the better life she’ll have if she can only graduate.

And I wonder. What the hell am I doing? What am I promising? Acting as if this place we sit ifs the gateway to some promised land that offers all the things they’ve never had and maybe never will. We sit surrounded by pictures of their dreams and homes and happiness, cars and children, freedom to be to do to have to dream and have it all come true. I lose sight of why I’m here. What I can do. It gets lost in the sea of what I can’t. But still I, still we, listen.

I’m pregnant. Again. You’re gonna know soon enough so I might as well tell you. This time, it’s twins.

Period. We wait, but she just sits and glares. Folded arms and I know she’s just waiting for the word—any word—a wrong word—so she can up and bolt and leave this place and run to get the only piece of love that life has given her. Pick him up from daycare. Go to the park. Push him on the swing. Imagine that the life he’ll have is different form her own. Now this. And what’s it going to mean? We wait. Staring into space. Avoiding eye contact. Is it safe? Will it stay here? Will he be broken never to be fixed if we remove these masks, dismantle the facades, discover we are all in places we would never choose?

So I’m sleepy, you know. And you all poke me when I drift off and yell in my ear and I jump and you think it’s pretty funny, don’t you. Well, I’ll tell you this and you can see how funny you think it is. My dad left and he isn’t coming back and I’m working now ‘cause my mom’s two jobs just don’t cut it any more, not with five kids. I’m the oldest, man of the house now, my mom says. I work till four every morning and damn straight I’m tired. So leave me the hell alone, okay?

He slouches back and closes his eyes. We wait some more. And so it goes.

There are many spaces we inhabit that are filled with adolescent or adult angst and challenges, but often we don’t know our students or our friends or our colleagues or co-workers well enough to know what kinds of difficulties they may be grappling with. Sometimes we don’t even know these things about our families. As you go through your day, I hope you’ll take care of yourself, of course, but I also hope you’ll be charitable and kind, knowing that you don’t truly know what kind of burdens may be weighing down the others you encounter.

I also hope you’ll keep a hard copy of important information you may want to revisit some day!

What is it about today that you may want to remember tomorrow? How do you plan to do it?

I finished the paper, but the computer ate it. It’s gone. I have my notes, but nothing else. • Comments I’ve heard countless times during my teaching career, W-OZ



Wisdom From My Mother: I Would Like Everybody In The World To Know That They Have A Special Purpose—If They Really Listen To Themselves, They’ll Get Clues To What It Is

March 4, 2011

Note: This is long, but it’s for my sisters and my brother and my sons and nieces and nephews and my cousins to provide a record of what was shared at my mother’s FUNeral.

It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him [or her] for what he [or she] is. • Hermann Hesse

The buried talent is the sunken rock on which most lives strike and founder. • Frederick William Faber

In October of last year as her health continued to fail, my mother and I talked about the challenges facing artists in a world that often doesn’t seem to appreciate them. Mom began playing the piano by ear as a pre-schooler and until her death at age eighty-nine, made a living as an entertainer, playing the piano and singing. She was also a poet. She did not like housework of any kind although she had five children and did plenty of it. She was a good mother, but she was not a traditional one.

Before she died, she requested an inexpensive casket with pink satin lining and an informal service with only immediate family to send her off. She didn’t want anyone flying in for her funeral—“Save the money for a visit to Disneyland when everyone’s over being sad,” she said. Although her faith was strong, she’d not been able to find a church that shared her belief that that redemption would be a universal blessing and that a loving God would get everyone into heaven. Her service featured the piano music I’d secretly recorded her playing, hiding my iPhone so she wouldn’t know.

There is a Dakota Sioux saying that we will be known forever by the tracks we leave. My mother left her wisdom, she left her poetry, she left dozens of quotations she found meaningful, sending them to me and sharing them when we talked on the telephone, and she left the words of others—hundreds of others—who wrote to her over the years and who valued both her music and her poetry. The next time I write, I’ll share her poetry. Today, I’ll share other kinds of words we read at her funeral:

When I was going through boxes of mom’s correspondence, tossing much of it at her request, I found a Mutual of Omaha airline trip accident insurance policy. You used to be able to buy these policies in a vending machine at the airport. It isn’t dated, but on it was a note my mother had written to her sister, my Aunt Mildred:

If you collect on this policy, take a trip to Hawaii and think about how much Jesus loves you and I love you. Don’t cry, but be serious about meeting me later. My prayers will be with you.

Mom saved all the letters and cards her children wrote to her. As I divided them into piles for each of us, I read some of my own correspondence. In 2004, shortly after I graduated from a doctoral program, I wrote to her:

It has made a difference in my life to have your support and your belief in me. I have come to believe that these things are crucial in the lives of all of us who have dreams of possibility. It is difficult to remember dreams—and almost impossible to keep them alive in our “waking” real life. We need people who remind us of the importance of our dreams—and who believe we can achieve them. Of course, we must also believe in ourselves—it all starts there—but keeping the flame alight is infinitely easier if we are surrounded by people who will help feed our flames rather than extinguishing them.

Most of the cards and letters mom saved from the hundreds of people she corresponded with are gone now, but I could not resist saving a few of these testimonies to mom’s interactions with others so we could read them at her service:

I was cleaning off my desk and sorting out papers and every time I came across a card or letter from you, I glanced through it and by the time I was through, I felt so good and so deeply loved I had to get a letter off to you to tell you how dear to me you are. Did you know I have all your letters and cards in a box so now I have a box full of love. I bet this is the first time anyone ever had you organized and neatly put where they could find you when they want you. But having you organized and in a box isn’t any fun at all compared to having you unorganized and all over the place in person.

I’ve been thinking of you and I notice I smile a lot when I think of you and it’s such a pleasant feeling.

Thanks so much for the many cards, good thoughts, prayers, and encouragement. Your fudge always arrives at the right time. I call it “love calling.”

You restoreth my faith in myself just when I needed to be restored. Your very affirming letter is going to be tacked up on my wall.

My favorite letter is one that mom didn’t mail, writing that “Life is fascinating. You never know what’s going to happen. It’s full of surprises. I think you are in the middle of a big transition, so keep your receiving set open. I’ll be sending along some good thoughts and prayers to be oil in your wheels.” Before she died, she told all of us that when she was gone we should keep our antennae up for her messages of love.

Besides telling our own stories about mom, the other words we read were some of her favorite collected quotations, shared with me over the years:

There are two things that I want you to make up your minds to: first, that you are going to have a good time as long as you live—I have no use for the sour-faced man—and next, that you are going to do something worthwhile, that you are going to work hard and do something you set out to do. • Theodore Roosevelt in a talk with schoolchildren in Oyster Bay at Christmastime, 1898

The significance of a man is not in what he attains, but rather what he longs to attain. • Kahlil Gibran

Happiness is doing it rotten your own way. • Isaac Asimov

One who ruins the enjoyment of a wonderful experience with worry about things beyond his control is wasting a gift.  • John A. Nance, Turbulence

People are always waiting to be discovered. • Nathan Carroll

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid. • Albert Einstein

Mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever in his foolish dreams. • An elementary school teacher about Albert Einstein

If you can’t be yourself, what’s the point of being anyone else? • Tennessee Williams

A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi to come back—but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you. • Marian Wright Edelman

Your heart is full of fertile seeds, waiting to sprout. • Morihel Ueshiba

Every baby’s a seed of wonder that gets watered or it doesn’t. • Dean Koontz (2009), Relentless

Every memorable act in the history of the world is a triumph of enthusiasm. Nothing great was ever achieved without it because it gives any challenge or any occupation, no matter how frightening or difficult, a new meaning. Without enthusiasm you are doomed to a life of mediocrity, but with it, you can accomplish miracles. • Og Mandino

As a well-spent day brings a happy sleep, so a life well spent brings a happy death. • Leonardo da Vinci

The last thing I read was an anonymous quotation written in mom’s hand on a 3×5 card: Grieve not for me who am about to start a new adventure. Eager I stand and ready to depart. Me and my reckless pioneering heart.

What is your purpose? What is the adventure of your life?

If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied could thus have been kept active through use. • Charles Darwin (1887), Autobiography

Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinion of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth. • Katherine Mansfield


Writing By Hand While Riding The Rails

June 2, 2010

For Monday, June 1, 2010

The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see. • G.K. Chesterton

We were supposed to have several hours in the Chicago train station, hours I’d planned to spend in leisurely word processing. I started out the trip trying to word process, but I realized that I was missing the sights and it seemed a shame to make our tiny compartment into a rolling office. So I didn’t.

I brought along a small notebook especially for blog thoughts and I’ve already filled pages with ideas and inspiration from the folks we’ve met at meals and talked to in the corridors. People are endlessly fascinating and filled with stories and it’s seldom that we have opportunities to talk with strangers.

I’m with my husband and unless we decided to invent a mutually-agreeable story, we’re struck with the truth, at least as we choose to tell it, but I just realized that we could be anyone we want to be. Hmmm. Food for mealtime thought.

Imagine that you’re having a meal with a stranger. What story would you tell about yourself?

A human being is nothing but a story with a skin around it. • Fred Allen


Every Writer I Know Has Trouble Writing*

April 27, 2010

I must write it all out, at any cost. Writing is thinking. It is more than living, for it is being conscious of living.
• Anne Morrow Lindbergh

There’s one thing I hate about this blogging thing besides its onrushing daily pressure to perform. It feels like I’m writing less when I’m actually writing more. All of my journaling, regardless of the kind, has usually focused on things I want to say to myself. My professional writing has always been situation- and audience-specific, written for particular purposes. Because all writing could probably be categorized as self-indulgent in some way or another, awareness of an amorphous potential audience—and their potential interest—makes this infinitely more difficult regardless of whether or not I really give a damn if anyone reads it. The word count here may be the same as in a journal, but there’s much I edit out.

I have many words inside of me, like the novelist Vladimir Nabakov (Lolita) who wrote that “the pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.” This project bullies the other words inside of me; they’re there, but they don’t seem to be coming out to play. Their playtime is dominated by this bigger thing. And, yes, I could stop. Just stop. But not yet.

One of my students, Amy Sidwell, wrote this untitled piece. I hope she’s still out there writing.

I searched this weekend for stories of places like this, people like us.
Living, breathing, rolling their eyes when someone is silly,
pretending not to see when someone cries.
But in all of my books, I could not find our stories.

There were stories of pirates and talking cats,
Women in bloomers and children playing games outside.
I’ve never met a pirate.
My cat doesn’t talk.
No one I know wears bloomers.
And today, children have forgotten how to play outside.
We stay locked inside safe.
Away from the speeding cars, away from the gangs of fear,
away from the winter wind,
Away from the sweetness of a springtime rain.

So I searched for our stories.
In books filled with wild things and sidewalks ending.
In poems full of walks in the woods and lonely beaches.
Our stories our stories are not there.
We keep our stories locked inside like our children.
Only we can write them down, let them out to play in the winter wind.

What’s your story? If you were writing a daily blog, what’s the first thing you’d write about?

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.
• William Wordsworth

* Thanks to Joseph Heller (please read Catch-22 if you haven’t) for the title quotation.


A Thought That Sometimes Makes Me Hazy: Am I or Are the Others Crazy?*

April 24, 2010

He suffered occasionally from a rush of words to the head.
• Herbert Samuel

Once upon a time, almost thirty years ago, I had an appointment with a psychiatrist. I was selling radio advertising for a living and I detested the job. I thought there was something wrong with me. I liked my clients. My clients liked me. I was successful, but I dreaded every morning that I had to go into the office and out onto the streets. I was so stressed that my doctor recommended I see someone. It only took one visit to find out that the problem was the job. I quit sales and have never done that kind of work since.

Of course, I already knew that this was what I needed to do. Sometimes, we just need official permission.

I wrote a poem in the waiting room:

Owed to a Psychiatrist
by W-OZ

Welcome to my brain,
take a walk inside my head.
You’ll find it more than int’resting
for you can see what I once said.
‘Cause all my thoughts and secret dreams
are filed in little drawers,
and pictures from my past still hang
along the corridors.
Yes, my brain’s a fine and lovely place,
a dandy place to visit,
and while you’re there
I’m sure you’ll see:
It isn’t crazy,
is it?

I spoke with the doctor for less than fifteen minutes. He told me that his prescription was that I find another job. I did.

Are you doing something you shouldn’t be doing? What are you going to do about it?

If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.
• Lord Byron

Oh, you hate your job? Why didn’t you say so? There’s a support group for that. It’s called EVERYBODY, and they meet at the bar.
• Drew Carey

* Thanks to Albert Einstein for the title couplet.


A Foolishness Advisor’s Advice for April Fool’s Day

April 1, 2010

No man [or woman] is so foolish but s/he may sometimes give another good counsel . . .
• Hunter S.Thompson

We all have many titles in our lives. We are born to be someone’s child or sister or brother or niece or nephew or grandchild. We become other things by virtue of our talents and our interests—quarterback, writer, barista, artist, shortstop, runner, poet, cook, partner, parent, teacher, student—the list of our titles is endless, some formal and societally-recognized, and others we adopt to describe ourselves. I am, for example, a funsultant, an inefficiency expert, and an aesthetic recycler (our home is decorated with the detritus of other lives).

People are often passionate about titles. I was asked to leave the National Organization for Women in its early years when, as a member of the local group who was also women’s editor of a newspaper, I refused to use only the honorific Ms. to refer to women in articles I was writing or editing or to advocate for its sole use in the newspaper.

It was a contentious meeting, and there were other reasons I was asked to leave the group, including my assertion that the traditional role of breadwinner might be just as onerous to some men as the role of homemaker was to some women, but it was my Ms. refusal that really did it. I believed then that people should be able to choose the honorific they preferred. I still do. And I still resent women’s choices—Ms., Mrs., and Miss—that situate them in relation to men while Mr. is neutral.

But once again, I digress. Titles. And what does any of this have to do with April Fool’s Day and advice anyway? I have another title. I am my mother’s foolishness advisor. I know because she told me so as she was trying to decide what kind of new car to buy about seven years ago. She had never had a new-to-her car, only used vehicles that usually got her and her five children where they needed to go but were sometimes notoriously unreliable. I remember a white Oldsmobile that might decide to quit for no reason. When I drove it on the freeway, I always stayed in the right hand lane so I could coast to a stop and wait for it to decide to start again.

My mother had been looking at sensible cars, Volvos and the like, but what she really wanted was a Jaguar. I’m not sure why, just that it represented the ultimate in luxury for her—a car she could baby and drive as long as she needed to have a car. And that’s when she called me, asking me, as her official F.A., if she was being foolish to hold out for her dream. Interestingly, the cost was about the same among her choices, but F.A.s don’t deal in practicalities. I told her if it were me, I’d get the car I wanted. She did and she’s still enjoying it every day.

Even incredibly busy students need a bit of foolishness.

The follies which a man [or woman] regrets most in his [or her] life are those which /he didn’t commit when s/he had the opportunity.
• Helen Rowland

What would you like for your foolishness advisor to advise you to do or to get or to be or . . . . . ?

When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth. So what the hell, leap.
• Cynthia Heimel

P.S. I haven’t forgotten the D.O. L.I.F.E., but I couldn’t resist the lure of April Fool’s Day!


He Sucks and I Hate Him! Oddservations from Life

March 5, 2010

Read a lot and hit the streets. A writer who doesn’t keep up with what’s out there ain’t gonna be out there.
• Toni Cade Bambara

The growers’ market opens in our town tomorrow and I can’t wait. We’ll be there, looking over the plants and planning the garden, buying something fresh for supper, and having a tamale for brunch. I never know what I’ll find as I keep my eyes open for interesting things. Sometimes I find notes or shopping lists that people have dropped. I’m fascinated by these things that provide a glimpse into someone else’s life.

One of my finds from last year is a stream of consciousness list that doesn’t seem to distinguish among the places the shopper is going: “pork tamales for lunch-spinach for Jack, goat food, rabbit, salsa, jack cheese, carrots, screen for hutch, catsup, green and red thread, pork chops, milk, two baseball bats, 3 yds. flannel, green beans, butter, black buttons for MR’s coat, stop at pharm. Jack’s prescr., oranges, lunch stuff, magnifying glass?, kids need glue, bd gift for mom, aspirin.”

I like this list because I can imagine a harried mom (and yes, I realize that the gender of the writer is indeterminate, but this is my fantasy, so MYOB) trying to juggle lots of stuff on her trip around town, getting back in time to feed the family growers’ market tamales for lunch. I hope she was done with her errands when she dropped her list at the tamale stand.

Lucy Maynard Salmon, a social historian, was also fascinated by informal historical records and taught a course at Vassar in the early twentieth century entitled “Historical Materials” in which she encouraged her students to explore artifacts such as laundry lists. An ad for the course noted that “[l]aundry lists, being closely and continuously connected with daily life, reflect custom and change in social conditions, industry, or in language, with a detail and rapidity which other sources seldom do” (

My favorite find from last year’s market is a folded Post-It® that just says, “He sucks and I hate him!” Was this a note someone wrote at school? A reminder? A stress-management rant?

I still have these things because I stuck them into my journal. I was reminded of them by a book I bought this week, Davy Rothbart’s (2009), Requiem for a Paper Bag: Celebrities & Civilians Tell Stories of the Best, Lost, Tossed & Found Items from Around the World. My list is small potatoes next to the fascinating items that Rothbart has chronicled in the book and in Found Magazine. The magazine publishes notes and letters that people find on the streets and for the book, Rothbart asked some of his favorite writers, musicians, entertainers, and artists to tell him about the best things they’ve found.

Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief, contributed an essay, “Shreds and Shards,” to Rothbart’s book, and notes that her “entire professional life has revolved around finding things” (p. 63). She goes on to say that “[y]ou have to really train your eye to find the things that lead to great stories. I think it’s a bit of an instinct that you either have or you don’t, this curiosity for the seemingly mundane. To me, the most interesting things often seem utterly ordinary at first. The trick is to develop the habit of paying attention and poking around. I can’t walk past a telephone pole with things stapled to it without stopping and reading them” (p. 64).

I think you can train your eye and your mind to wander and wonder and to make unexpected connections. This connectivity is a skill that can transfer to school and work and is an essential part of building your creative abilities.

This weekend, keep your eyes open and see what you can find.

Vision is not enough. It must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps, we must step up the stairs.
• Valav Havel