Summer Writing Challenge: If you want to join in the fun, check out Shannon’s other writing prompts here: http://www.shannonabercrombie.com/what-did-you-shove-up-your-nose/
Wednesdays during this challenge will be reserved for reflective prompts. Reflective writing is a fantastic tool to add to your writing repertoire. It will help you make connections between your experiences and the writing theory you are practicing.
Prompt #3: Write about a moment in your past that lives infamy for you.
I decided to keep what I wrote this morning just for me — reflection, and clearing the head, and getting rid of the stuff that gets in the way of writing.
My page today was filled with middle school embarrassing moments and bad mama angst. So one thing the prompt did for me, however, was to remind me to look for the JOY.
- 7:00 AM / ~15 minutes
- Mood: curious – wondering what I would write about.
- Reminder: Don’t think; write. No editing. No questioning. Permission granted to fail on the page.
Having cleared my head, I was able to work on a story that used to be 14 minutes long when told. I’m trying to get it down to under 5 minutes. The morning 15 minute head dump cleared the way for this:
I ran downstairs and skidded to a stop in the kitchen. Even though I was only 10 years old, I could tell right away my mom and dad were having an argument. At least my mom was.
“No.” she said to my dad.
“For goodness sakes, you can’t wear that.”
“Go put something else on.”
I looked at my dad. I didn’t understand what the problem was. He was wearing his:
navy blue pants
dirty brown work boots
and … his long-sleeved navy blue shirt with a frayed white tee shirt sticking out underneath.
That’s what he wore every day.
But my mom was shaking her head and she said it again, “For goodness sakes, you can’t wear that. Not tonight, Al.”
He didn’t say a word. But he did turn and head back into his bedroom. Within moments he was back wearing his:
clean navy blue pants
clean white socks
dirty brown work boots
and …. a white shirt … an ironed white shirt …. and a red tie.
“Daddy? What’s going on?”
Silence. He wasn’t a talker. Instead, he picked up the car keys; we all piled in, and headed out to the Red Barn not too far from town.
On Saturday nights the old Red Barn was transformed into a dance hall. The wood floor was swept clean. Tables lined one edge of the barn. They were overflowing with tuna noodle casseroles, chocolate chip cookies, and bowls of jello. Bottles of pop were cooling in the mountain of ice that spilled out of the horse trough. A 3-man polka band played the accordion, banjo, fiddle, harmonica, trumpet, drums, and cymbals – all at the same time.
Right away – just like he had changed his shirt earlier, Daddy’s face changed too. His Saturday night smile was huge. His toes were tapping and his arms were stretched out wide. My mom walked into those open arms and they danced in that crowded barn through the first polka, the second, the third, and fourth.
By the time the band started to play their next polka my mom needed a rest. My dad danced with her to a metal folding chair so she could sit down. He polkaed over to the barrels of beer near the horse trough, poured my mom a cold one, and brought it back to her.
Then his eyes began dancing around the room. Who wanted to take my mom’s place?
I already knew the answer to that, of course. One of the ladies – the ladies sitting in metal folding chairs along the wall – the ones who always watched my mom and dad dance. They knew this moment would come. They’d been waiting for this.
I was standing near the wooden post not too far from the chocolate chip cookies. I watched my dad look from one of those folding chair ladies to another. And then he looked at me. He tilted his head to one side and smiled – at me. He stretched out his hands and curved his fingers – toward me. It was my turn to learn to dance!
“Really, Daddy?” He smoothed down the front of his white shirt and adjusted the red tie so it looked just right. Then he took me in his arms.
The band played. I held on tight, afraid I’d step on his toes. He just laughed and squeezed my hand and twirled me even faster.
And that’s when it happened. My dad started talking to me. Not with words. But in the turns and spins and smiles … and song.
♫ Roll out the barrel. We’ll have a barrel of fun. Roll out the barrel. We’ve got the blues on the run. ♫
He was saying, ‘Sue, you’ve got to chase the blues away. Sing out loud with your friends.’
And so we did.
♫ In heaven there is no beer. That’s why we drink it here. And when we’re gone from here, our friends will be drinking all the beer. ♫
This time it sounded like a joyous shout as my dad whirled me around. ‘Enjoy this day. Enjoy this dance.’ And so we did.
♫ Oh I don’t want her you can have her she’s too fat for me, she’s too fat for me. ♫
“Daddy? Daddy, they’re laughing at Mom.”
But his twinkling eyes had found hers and they whispered, ‘You’re beautiful.’
He looked back at me with those same shining eyes. Then he danced us over to the accordion player and requested a new song.
♫ I dream of that night with you, lady when first we met.
We danced in a world of blue how can my heart forget? ♫
He pulled me a little closer so he could bend down low and rest his cheek on the top of my head.
Daddy? ….. ♫ I was in heaven that night, dancing the waltz with you. ♫
I’m not sure if I’ll be able to keep up, but whenever I do accept the ‘prompt of the day’ writing challenge I’ll post it here.
Join me if you’d like and let me know where I can read what you’ve written!
All the details are here on Shannon Abercrombie’s blog: http://www.shannonabercrombie.com/welcome-ladies-and-gents-2/
So here we go. Here’s my Day #1 response.
Prompt 1: Start a scene where your protagonist celebrates a moment of glory or suffers through a public embarrassment. Try showing this moment rather than telling what happened. A strong example of a protagonist caught in a public moment is Hester Prynne, from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. She is shamefully led from the town prison with a scarlet “A” on her chest. As a reader, we learn about Hester’s character and commitment by her resolve to protect the father of her baby. This scene builds an impeccable sense of the character as well as creating tension and exposes a central conflict in the storyline.
Response: She never took her eyes off of him. She watched him as he roller skated toward her, showing off his fancy footwork as he performed a perfect cross over on every curve. Then she gazed at his broad shoulders whenever he moved past her, push-glide-push-glide-push-glide-spin. He was the tallest of all the 7th grade boys, and the strongest and fastest and funniest and most handsome too. All the girls thought so.
But on this night of the 7th grade roller skating party, when every whiz past her caused her bangs to lift and her hot cheeks to cool, when he saved his fanciest twirls and spins and backward skating for when he was directly in front of the bench where she was sitting, she just knew he was finally going to ask her to skate. So she wiped her sweaty palms on the back side of her pants whenever he wasn’t looking. She used her fingers to comb her bangs back in place over that pesky cowlick. Each time he came back around the roller rink and smiled, she smiled back. Again. And again. And again.
Her heart told her he was coming before it registered in her brain – the rapid beat-beat-beat-skip-beat. He’d broken away from the knot of boys going ‘round and ‘round the rink and now he was skating toward her, dragging the toe of his skate, moving slower and closer. His smile was huge. He continued to drag his toe – slower and closer. His braces flashed. Slower and closer. He used his middle finger to push his square black glasses back up his nose.
He was so close now that she could see the dark stains beneath his armpits. His cheeks were shiny with sweat. His glasses slipped again. He ignored them this time and stretched out his hand with a laugh that reverberated around the room.
She took a deep breath and stood. She took another deep breath and smiled. She looked down for just a moment to make sure her blouse was still tucked into the front of her pants and to position her skates just so – it would be absolutely embarrassing if she fell now. When she lifted her gaze to meet his she lifted her hand as well – to touch his.
The sharp bang-thud-bang-thud-bang-thud of her heart confirmed what her eyes could see. His eyes, his smile, his hand – they held …. her best friend, sitting next to her, smiling, sighing …. standing. As they skated away, neither of them seemed to notice her slip back down toward the bench, like ice cream melting down the side of a cone on a sweltering hot day and falling to the ground, drip-drip-drip.
- 5:00 PM / ~45 minutes
- Mood: crabby that the first assignment was so hard.
- Reminder: Don’t think; write. No editing. No questioning. Permission granted to fail on the page.
I know it’s been awhile since I posted anything here. I think I haven’t had anything worthwhile to say. But today feels different.
My daughter teaches at a high school in Chicago. It’s a tough crowd. Between entering the door at the beginning of the school year grade levels behind their peers, gangs, guns, homelessness, poverty, varying levels of family support, discipline issues, and any number of physical and mental health issues, she has to hold on tight to the bright moments. Every day she brainstorms with colleagues about how to make tomorrow better than today. She considers what she can do again, what she can never do again, what she can tweak or add or research or amend to make a difference tomorrow.
So when she asked me if I’d chaperon a field trip with her — a trip to a local college with her junior class — because their goal this year has been to focus on being a first generation college student, to focus on what comes next and achieving more and being more and not settling for only what they can see in their lens right now, I said yes.
Leading up to the college visit she had her students write practice personal statements. One boy was excited that his teacher’s mother was going on the field trip and asked if he could send his statement to Ms. Black’s Ms. Black. And that’s how I learned F’s story:
When his mother’s mom passed away the family was put out of the house they’d shared with her. His aunts and uncles all said the same thing, ‘no room in this house for you’ — not even a space on the floor to sleep. F explained that when they showed up at his other grandmother’s house, she told them their father was a survivor and they should be survivors too. “Then she closed the door and locked it.”
So that’s how F came to live in shelters, waking every day at 6 AM to catch the bus to get to school. That’s how he came to hear, over and over again when visiting relatives, that he was a bum, that he was just like his dad, that he would never amount to anything, that he’d grow up to be a “nothing”.
But there’s something special about F that his essay revealed: he refused to believe what people said about him. Instead he looked for jobs, doing anything he could just to help the family a little bit. And when he got his first real job he used some of the money from his first paycheck to give his baby sister her first real birthday party.
Seeing his sister happy “for once” made F happy and it motivated him to work hard and strive to do it again — “to provide from time to time.” And he knows he needs an education beyond high school to make that happen.
And hearing his relatives trash talk him and his siblings motivates F to prove them wrong. He refuses to believe it to be true. Instead he wants to go to college. He already knows he wants to be an engineer.
Of course after reading F’s personal statement I wrote him back. I told him what a fine writer he was, and how much I already admired him without even having met him yet, and that I was really looking forward to meeting him at the college visit. Because I was.
When the bus arrived at that local college on Monday I was waiting to greet the class. There were hand shakes and introductions and smiles and lots of anticipation for the day. I knew F the moment he stepped off of the bus. He was the one with his arms stretched out wider than his smile — he wanted to hug Ms. Black’s Ms. Black. Sharing his story, knowing his story was heard, and receiving my simple email response all let F know he mattered beyond his neighborhood. Because he did.
It was a happy day. The kids were excited to talk with representatives about the college and intramural sports and studying and how to apply and dorm life. They were ecstatic to eat in the cafeteria — it might have been the highlight of the tour with the ‘all you can eat’ policy. And they asked real questions of the student guide who showed them around campus. They posed for group photos on the football field and wanted to stand next to the college sign for the last picture before boarding the bus back to their Chicago neighborhood. It was becoming a real possibility and they knew it was within their reach now.
A few thank you emails arrived today, but the ones that mean the most included “thank you for understanding our goal” and “You look at people for what they can achieve and not what they fail at.”
And I was glad I said yes.
Let me say right here and now that I know having a great teacher, my daughter, in their lives – a teacher who believes that they can accomplish this goal to go to college if they work hard and study harder and stay focused — a teacher who is constantly motivating and prodding and pushing and challenging and affirming and waiting and leading and following (and reevaluating at the end of Every Day) — makes a difference to F and his class today … and all of their tomorrows — and NO test will ever measure that.
But let me confess this — my dark moment on that happy college visit day: As I looked at all of their faces — eagerly soaking up the words of the college rep (or struggling to stay awake), laughing in the lunch line as they overfilled their plates, exclaiming over the beautiful dorms and houses surrounding campus — I wondered how many would live to see the dream come true. It was an unwelcome thought on a bright blue-sky day and I pushed it away as fast as it came. But it won’t stay away. Because I live in Chicago. I know that these kids in this tough school in this toughest neighborhood in the city are in danger of not making it out alive. Violence is all around them and its force is powerful. They run the risk daily of being targeted or caught up in it.
And they aren’t the pretty kids that the news media latches onto when another young person is killed by a gun. They’re the kids you hardly hear about because of their address or their parents’ income or their test scores or the color of their skin. And so nothing happens and nothing changes and the dream eventually dies.
But here’s what I know for sure and this thought is stronger than the dark moment: Those kids do matter. All of our kids deserve to have their stories told … and heard. All of our kids deserve to dream and live to see the dream realized.
It’s not an easy problem to solve. I won’t pretend it is. But for now, I’ll start by saying yes.
In April and May of this year, I had the pleasure of working with the 4th grade students at Oakton Elementary School in Evanston, IL. The students I meet are always special, unique in a variety of unexpectedly delightful ways. In this post, I want you to meet one of Oakton’s rare gems — Inorri.
After hearing the story of The Golden Arm, Inorri O’Neal approached me. “Ms. Black, I can illustrate that story for you.”
“Really?” I asked. And then she handed me a picture.
Inorri did not exaggerate. There was the old man long in search of a wife. There was the one woman in all the land — not too tall or too short, not too talkative or too quiet, not too old or too young — who would make a ‘just right’ wife. Since the old man had two wishes — to marry and to be rich — the fact that his future bride happened to have a golden arm made her doubly attractive.
A collaboration was born. Right then and there Inorri committed to working on more pictures. With borrowed paint and a creative mind, the illustrations began to take shape.
The old woman had often questioned her husband. “Is it me you love? Or is it my golden arm?” He would always reassure her that it was his wife he loved. “Then promise me.” she said. “If I should happen to die before you, promise me you will bury me with my golden arm.”
“Of course, my love. Of course I will bury you with your golden arm.”
As fate would have it, the woman did die before her husband. He wore the blackest of black clothes and the saddest of sad faces as he took her to the cemetery to be buried — with her golden arm.
Here’s Inorri’s illustration of this part of the story.
When the old man returned to the empty house, sat in his rocking chair, and stared at the empty rocking chair beside him, it was then that he realized, “Why? Why? Why did I bury my wife with her golden arm? I could be a rich man if I had that arm! I will return to the cemetery and retrieve it from her coffin.” Under cover of darkness, he scurried to the cemetery and began to dig.
Here’s Inorri’s illustration of the cemetery scene.
In his haste to return to his home, carrying the golden arm close to his body, the old man forgot to close the lid on the coffin. The ghost of his dead wife escaped and went in search of the golden arm.
He thought it was the wind blowing through the trees at first. But the soft whisper grew to an angry chant. Over and over again, coming closer and closer he heard, “Where’s my golden arm?”
He hid in the closet, certain he would not be found hiding there.
But of course he was found. The sound of his wife’s voice screaming, “You’ve got my golden arm!” was the last thing the old man ever heard. The neighbors who found him dead on the closet floor a few days later could only shake their heads sadly and murmur, “Poor man. He died of a broken heart.”
We know differently, of course. But whether he died of fright or at the hand of his wife’s ghost, we may never know.
In true storytelling tradition Inorri added her own, new, ending to the story. The wife, free to roam the earth, sailed to Africa where she lived quite happily ever after.
And guess who else is living happily ever after?
That would be me — lucky enough to work with the 4th graders at Oakton Elementary School, fortunate enough to walk into Mr. Hollins’ class, and blessed to find among all of his fabulously energetic and creative students (and they were all awesome in their own unique ways and I just might write another blog about them, too) one illustrator — Inorri.
Be sure to leave a comment for Inorri. She’ll be glad you did!
If I only have this one chance to tell you, then I’ll send you to the living room couch to find him. He’s sitting on the end closest to the lamp so he can read the morning paper. On the overflowing bookshelf near his right elbow there’s a chipped Bayfield, WI coffee mug. The cooling coffee – brown not black, plenty of real cream, not milk, with a little sugar too – has already been refilled two times.
His brown and graying hair is still wet from his morning shower. He raises his arms in tandem, as if he’s stretching, and uses the fingers of his two hands to comb the soft, thin waves away from his face. There’s a small piece of toilet paper dotted red, clinging to the spot he nicked while shaving. He’s wearing tan pants and his favorite red and white Crazy Legs t-shirt. Beneath his white tennis shoes his feet rest on a small round braided rug. Grandma makes him sit there, with the rug beneath his feet, since he refuses to take his shoes off when he comes in from the garden. “Aahh”, he always tells her, “I wiped them.”
He’s listing to one side. The paper has fallen to his lap. His nose points ceiling-ward, his mouth is open and he is snoring. The big rimmed glasses resting on his nose are crooked because his head has fallen against the cushion at an odd angle. Grandma’s complaining. “If he didn’t get up and run 10 miles every morning maybe he wouldn’t need to nap when the rest of us are ready to get out and do something!” Maybe it’s her impatience that wakes him with a start, maybe it’s his giggling grandchildren jumping on the cushions. He bounces up from the couch, takes a last swig of coffee, and grabs the car keys from the hook near the phone. “Are we ready? Let’s go!”
If I only have this one chance to tell you, then I’ll send you to the church basement to find him. He’s in the kitchen, in front of the black 8 burner stove, a flowery apron tied around his waist to protect his church shirt and pants. The sleeves on his white shirt are rolled up to his elbows and his tie is tucked inside of the front, between the middle buttons, so it doesn’t get dirty. He’s fried the bacon, drained the grease in the Folgers coffee can, and the scent fills the room. In one arm he cradles a huge silver bowl resting against his hip. In the other hand he holds a wooden spoon, scrambling the eggs. His eyes watch: the clock as it moves toward 8, the other men on his Easter Breakfast committee. He surveys the preparations, encourages the joyful chaos, and issues orders too. “Are the cinnamon rolls set out yet? How’s the coffee coming? They’ll be here soon; let’s get these eggs cooking!” Using the hem of his apron, he adjusts the handle of the hot frying pan and pours the frothy egg batter. One hand reaches into a drawer so he can set out the missing serving spoons, the other stirs, and he notices the first of the Easter Sunday breakfast eaters to arrive. “Ah, you made it! Sit over there and I’ll bring you something to drink.” Handing off the stirring spoon to someone nearby, he puts a dish towel over his forearm and grabs the carafe. There’s a spring to his step on this new spring morning as he hurries to meet us at one of the long tables crowded into the small and musty basement. Holding the carafe high and away so it doesn’t spill on us, he pulls out Grandma’s brown and battered metal folding chair so she can sit first. He hustles to do the same for his three grandchildren – the ones who moments ago were complaining in the car. “Why do we have to get up so early on Easter morning? Can’t Grandpa just make eggs at home?” The paper tablecloth has been pulled askew and he straightens it with a flourish. Then with a small bow he smiles and cries, “Happy Easter! Who wants juice?” Before we can answer our glasses are filled and he is turning to the door to welcome the newest arrivals. “Happy Easter!” his voice booms across the room again. Trays overflowing with rolls and bacon and eggs – one in each hand – begin appearing on the tables. Wiping spills and setting up more chairs, he swoops in and grabs the nearly empty trays and brings them back filled again – serving food, serving joy, serving. The people and their laughter, the hellos and sunrise greetings fill the room and swirl around him.
If I only have this one chance to tell you, then I’ll send you to the kitchen to find him. He’s sitting in his favorite chair at the head of the table. He’s leaning back, both hands behind his head, fingers clasped there, as he and ‘the boys’ talk about all of the important news – the Badgers, the Packers, the Brewers. Merrilee’s setting the table with the ‘good’ silverware. Laurel and Barbara plop dollops of cool whip on the jello, a leaf of lettuce under each jello square to make it a fancy salad. Grandchildren bring matchbox cars and my little ponies to their places at the table. He’s already mashed the potatoes for Grandma, the gravy bowl is full, and now Grandma’s pulling the pot roast from the oven and sets it in front of him, ready to be carved. “Let’s pray.” he says as everyone finally sits down. Then he holds out his hands, one on each side, and takes the hand of the ones sitting closest to him. The circle forms, each one touching two. His barrel chest is pushed outward and he turns his head from one to the other, taking them all in – to the room, to the table, to his heart. He inhales deeply, lowers his chin, and sings loudly in his tenor voice. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” His eyes smile and tear just a little as they take in his family. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” He sings again.
If I only have this one chance to tell you, then I’ll send you to the hospice room to find him. “St. Peter’s coming,” he told us in a phone call. “I’m not sure exactly when, but he’s coming …for me.” He is propped up against pillows, dry chapped lips sipping slowly through a straw. It’s harder to swallow now and he chokes on the water. His son returns the glass to the tray and gently wipes his lips. He struggles to lift his bone-thin arms to push back the white hair at his temples but they are too weak, so his daughters do it for him – one on each side, whispering, soothing. The wedding ring on his finger is in danger of falling off, of getting lost because he’s lost so much weight but he did not take the ring off six years earlier when it was her time to go, and he will not take it off now.
The nurses helped him dress in his favorite red and white Crazy Legs t-shirt before we arrived. Now his son is hanging a Wisconsin Badgers flag to remind him the Rose Bowl is coming and he won’t want to miss it. His chin quivers when we tell him again how much we love him and he struggles to smile, then wink, instead.
When we were alone with him earlier – when he asked us, “Have I taken care of everything?”, when we told him everything was done, when we told him he could rest well – he told my husband, “It’s up to you now, Johnny.” We try hard not to cry but it’s impossible; and we realize he doesn’t see our tears anyway because his eyes have closed again.
It is Christmas Eve. His head rolls toward the door as his family begins to arrive. As he has filled our lives to overflowing for 90 years, so too do we fill his room. Thirty two children, grandchildren and great grandchildren have traveled from Texas and Wisconsin, New York, West Virginia, Illinois, and Georgia and are now crowded around his bed. Tears fill his eyes and he lets them fall as his wrinkled cheeks receive kisses and “Merry Christmas, Grandpa”.
We begin to sing – all of his favorite carols and hymns and the University of Wisconsin’s Varsity. Other patients on the floor push their wheelchairs past his room and stop and listen. He lifts his head from the pillow and the gray hair at the back sticks out in spiky angles. His daughters adjust the pillows so he can sit up straight. His mouth opens, then closes. He tries again. He inhales deeply; his lungs fill with air and he finally joins the family chorus, his tenor voice blending with ours, his chest rising and falling beneath the thin white sheet. “Joy to the world!” we sing. And he sings too. “Joy to the world.”
If I only have this one chance to tell you, then I’ll send you to heaven to find him. If you should get there before me, look for him outside in the garden. He’ll be with Virginia and Merrilee, Ruby, John and Howard, Nettie and Warren. Tell him that I miss him …. my father in law – John M. Black.
This was written for a writing class I took. The assignment was to develop a character — ‘show’ him or her, don’t tell ‘about’. How’d I do? I hope you feel like you know him now.