On changing seasons, rain boots, and strange magic

For so many of us, this time of year means taking our kids shopping for bigger clothes, reviewing school schedules that list “bigger kid” classes, and comparing back-to-school pictures with those of years past. It’s a time of noticing that bewildering phenomenon– the kids are growing. Really growing.

The weather starts to try on cooler temperatures, sporadically at first, as if to get us ready. As if we could ever be ready. But the seasons will change; our kids will grow. The best way I can participate in times when I might be reluctant for change is to notice the magic– to look for beauty and to let the astonishment bubble up.

A few years ago I worked as a preschool teacher for a three-year-old class. So this time of year I often think about that enormous season change that is starting school for the very first time. This poem comes from my teacher-self, written as a note to my assistant teacher, Dianne, who was a true partner in noticing magic. Thanks to Callie Feyen and Tweetspeak Poetry for the prompt that inspired this poem!

Sunflowers

Remember when the kids put on those shiny little boots
(bought by excited or nervous moms
on a special trip to that shoe store
with the trains, and the matching raincoats?
Completing the checklist, they’re ready for school–
at least on paper).
Remember how long it took,
helping to wiggle thirteen sets of small feet
into those rigid rubber rainboots?
They needed our help with so many things.

In late spring we tromped out to the playground
in those still shiny boots
each plump hand squeezing tightly several seeds
like gold pieces,
or wishes,
and they poked the striped seeds into the soil
with a blessing–
a ritual to mark the
last day of school.


Just one summer has passed,
and now sunflowers line the playground fence,
tall enough that the kids can stand under them.
Bigger boots on their feet,
making bigger footprints in the muddy mulch.
And those bigger boots,
the kids put them on by themselves.

No longer my kids;
It’s a new year and I have a new class.
But in some ways they will always be
my kids.
They play and my heart smiles.
They have learned to take turns
on the slide.
Now they teach the “little ones”
the rules.

The sunflowers look like big yellow faces
wearing floppy hats
and they are nodding their heads in approval.
Blooms so large, heavy with seeds
we will soon harvest.

And I’m standing in a moment
called morning recess,
amidst a chorus
of buzzing bees
and play-song
wondering,
What is this magic
that makes them
grow
so
fast?

In the Glow

When my girls were little, I would lay down with them at bedtime, helping to soothe fears and calm hearts as they drifted off to sleep. Back then, I wouldn’t have imagined that I’d continue this nighttime ritual, even as their bodies grew so big that I could barely fit in the bed next to them!

There are probably dishes in the sink, dogs that need to go out, school papers to sign, maybe laundry to put in the dryer before bed. But I think about my nephew, who was 4 lbs at birth and I was scared he might break when I held him… He’s now 6’3″. I think about how quickly it went for my sister — from diapers and dolls and trucks to calculus and college and suitcases. So I go with them at bedtime; every night I press the pause button on this impossibly inevitable growing up, for just a little while.

Now it’s more of a sitting together, for a few minutes as sheets get straightened and stuffed animals gathered. But these moments are as sacred as ever. Questions, thoughts, or stories that had been reluctant or set aside bubble up to the surface, and I get to witness this offering, to serve as a touchstone for my girls as they close their day.

And when we turn off the lights and say goodnight in the warm peachy glow of the night light (or salt lamp), I get to travel back in time. In those still moments just before sleep, time isn’t real. There’s only drowsy eyes, golden strands of hair like a soft halo on the pillow,  and breath. There’s only being here. That’s all there is.

Below is a poem I wrote for a poetry prompt from Tweetspeak Poetry with the theme “Quiet as Velvet.” I was thrilled when they chose to feature my poem on their website! This is written from the perspective of that time when the girls were little… or maybe it’s  from that dreamlike perspective of no-time.

In the Glow

By the night-light glow
I see you holding the hem
Of the pink velvet dress
Worn by your lovey-doll

I watch, quiet,
as you slide the velvet
Along your rosebud mouth
And your apricot chin

The way you do
When sleep tugs
at your faded daisy pajama shirt
And your sparkle-eyes grow soft

Your breath hushes
like a bamboo rustle
The deeper, sleeping breath
My own breath slows

The velvet just resting now
Between your finger and thumb
I imagine you bring this softness
Into your dreams

I could quietly slide from your bed
But instead I stay
In the glow
and listen

This is all it is
This is everything

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Happy Mother’s Day!
Love,
Shannon

The Story Sherpa

Happy holidays to you and your family! Here’s to a new year filled with wonder, meaning, and good stories.

It’s a snow day today, due to the “bomb cyclone” storm, which for us has meant just a bit of snow, some intense wind, and bone-chilling cold temperatures! A phrase like “bomb cyclone” makes me want to play with poetry. But for now, I’ll follow another inspiration to write about snow, and words, and the sometimes-overlooked sophistication of kids.

The girls are home from school, which means they are busy making home movies and/or stop-motion animations. Today they’re re-creating some favorite Harry Potter scenes. Kaiya is reading the series for the 7th time, and she continues to get something more out of these books with each re-reading. I think this is due to the layers of J.K. Rowling’s characters, and also the vocabulary. Each time Kaiya revisits these books, she has more words in her mental lexicon, unlocking deeper levels of understanding as she trowels her treasured pages.

As a poet, and as someone who writes for both adults and children, I’m mindful of offering words that invite this kind of journey. One of the things I love about writing picture books is that I get to play with rich vocabulary. When illustrations support the text, children can understand the content while their skill with language (and, I hope, their love of words) grows.

When does it work to introduce new vocabulary in a picture book? How do we know when our words will act as stepping stones, rather than blocking boulders, on a child’s journey through story?

If there is a trail map for this, I don’t have it. My method is to play it by ear. And by that I mean, I listen to the sound of the word within the sentence. If the word flows — sounds like it belongs– within the sentence, and if it contributes to the rhythms and the sounds that support the larger piece, then I feel I can rely on this flow and on the illustrations to help carry the child through the sentence.

Here’s an example from my story, “WHOOSH!” about a brother and sister who are playing outdoors on a gusty fall day:

We stretch back and rest on a golden-red bed.
A branchy-brown canopy sways overhead.

Can you see the colorful bed of leaves, and the swaying branches? I’m not sure many four-year-olds know what “canopy” means (although some may, if they have a canopy bed!). But in any case they get it within the context of the stanza, and they get to experience a rhythmic and rather sophisticated word. Also, with picture books, children are often being read to by a parent or teacher who can answer questions about a word’s meaning.

Even so, too many new or strange words in one story can be alienating. In addition to using rich vocabulary, sophisticated structures and rhythms from poetry can add adventure to the  journey. And when more complicated words don’t fit, we can also rely on active verbs and sound effects to make some magic.

Back to the bomb cyclone… I said I was going to write about snow! The golden-red beds are long gone and what we have now are drifting blankets of white.

I wrote a poem several years ago called “!” about the way it feels when the first snowflakes of winter fall on your nose and cheeks. This feeling is something that kids surely know well, and so I attempted rewriting the poem as a picture book.

So, from my poem,

A sky dome of gray-white
The world inside a snowball
A flake breaks free
descends
loosening the others
and soon
the air is texture
crisp, ordered
I can breathe

Became:

The sky is a dome of shimmering white —
the world inside a snowball.
One brave flake lets go of the sky,
calls to the others who float and fly
down, down, softly down,
and the air is crisp and quiet.

And,

Each snowflake
landing
an exclamation point into my skin

Became:

Each snowflake lands with a cheer in my heart,
A ZAP! upon my skin.

Madeleine L’Engle said, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” She was keenly aware of a child’s ability to read, understand, and fall in love with a sophisticated story. I think if she or J.K. Rowling had written picture books, their stories would delight young readers with a few well-placed, sparkly new words.

From my perspective, the challenge, and the privilege, of writing picture books is to act as a kind of story sherpa, mindfully guiding children as they pick up new words like gems to cherish on their path through the text, and creating excitement with structures and rhythms that nourish their appetite for a deep experience with their world.

 

Dappled Things

Glory be to God for dappled things—
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
  Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
      And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
     With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                    Praise Him.

— “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

I love these autumn walks with Remi. Seeing her in her spotted glory against the blanket of peach and yellow leaves reminds me of this poem. I love it for the word-play, for the gratitude it so lovingly paints, and because I am also a lover of the contrasting beauty of “dappled things.”

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family. Enjoy the dappled things, the things strange, fickle, sour and sweet that tend to come along with holiday gatherings. Extra love to all of us whose table will be missing a loved one this year.

Easy to be grateful for things adazzle. Harder for things dim. May we find the past-change beauty in it all.

Love,
Shannon

Trickery

Happy Halloween!

I have been playing with poetry over at tweetspeakpoetry.com, trying out their Monday morning prompts. Last Monday’s poetry prompt theme had to do with beasts and bears. I’d been reading Shel Silverstein with the girls, and with Halloween around the corner, the following is what I conjured up. (With a deep bow to Shel Silverstein, I also had some fun doodling a few illustrations).

Trickery

“Do your chores!” my dad says
but he’d better beware…
a witch has bewitched me
and now I’m a bear!

To help mom with dinner
is the right thing to do,
but a grouchy gray ghost
turned me into a gnu!

 

My brother would like me
to help stack the blocks,
but a feisty lil’ fairy
has made me a fox!

To finish my homework
would be just divine,
but a spellbinding sprite
turned me into a swine!

 

So this is my story– a tale sad but true.
Now I must say good-bye, and find something to do!

Write with me!

Happy Friday!

Let’s play a game. I will post a picture and the first sentence to a fictional story to go along with it.

You help me develop the story by adding a sentence, or up to a paragraph, in the comments for this post. I will string them together along the way and see what we can come up with. Anyone can play! I’ll post the full story on Monday.

Just like the car game, “add-a-line,” only, don’t play this one while driving, please!

Here we go:

“Lulu entered our world under unique circumstances.  ….

This Vibrant Now

My girl is a sea sprite. I’m standing in the surf– frothy waves shimmer like liquid quartz and jade, churning circles around my shins. And she is joy itself, in the form of a child. 

She laughs into the breaking waves, falling into them and allowing them to receive her, and they push back, holding her up and offering their own sudsy celebration. She looks back at me after each leap, eager to share her bliss as it pours from its secret infinite source.

Now she splashes towards me and gifts me with a kiss, squishy and cold on my salty lips, before she plunges back into her element. My feet sink into the silky sea floor and I am held in the most vibrant of places, called now, called Home.

This is your second chance

I woke up this morning with a list running through my mind of everything I hoped to accomplish today, this week, in life…  The wiser part of me said, “This worrying through the ‘shoulds’ is not helpful.”  But that knowledge didn’t help me to feel less pressured.

Knowing that a change in perspective can really change what we experience, I sought to feel better in my body.  I breathed for a few minutes, enjoying the comfort of my blankets, the sound of my dog breathing at my feet, and the sensations of aliveness in my skin.

Then I went into the kitchen and played some feel-good music as I made breakfast for the girls.  I chose “Second Chance” by Miten, a song that I was so moved to hear at a mantra concert a few weeks ago.

I found this lovely video that some beautiful soul made to go with the song.

Taking in the beauty of the music, I stopped to watch my girls.  They were now making bracelets as they ate their breakfast, consecrating the kitchen table with a confetti of muffin crumbs and rainbow rubber bands.

I heard Miten say
“And we all come and go like waves on the sea
Each with our own responsibility
To leave this world more beautiful than we found it.”

It occurred to me that every moment is a kind of second chance.  Enjoy, and may your day be infused with beauty, and the fresh perspective of second chances.

Summer

bone tired photo by shannon mayhew

Something about when your dog is sprawled out, bone-tired from chasing rabbits, and you lay your head on her chest. Her fur smells like cut grass and honeysuckle. It’s so warm, like it still has the sun in it, even though the peach of the sky has given way to darkness hours ago.

peach of the sky photo by shannon mayhew

Something about all that is how you know, not in your mind, but in your organs and your teeth and the cracks in your skin, you know it’s summer.

Summer run photo by shannon mayhew

Happy Summer!

Love,
Shannon

Flower Power

Daffodil

“Every flower is a celebration of the goodness of life.  Look how it exists in its incredible beauty, open to the sky and the sun, like an act of worship.  I’ve never found a flower that has a problem.”

– Eckhart Tolle

Happy early Spring!

Love,
Shannon