All posts by Shannon Mayhew

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

Phoenix Meditation

The phoenix is a mythical bird with flame-colored wings that symbolizes regeneration and rebirth.  In my previous post, I mentioned that I had the opportunity to lead a Yoga Nidra and guided meditation session at the Evergreen Yoga Phoenix Women’s Retreat in August.

In writing the meditation, which was centered around an empowering encounter with a phoenix, I was inspired to draw and paint this creature to get to know it better.  This picture is a little askew, but it was the best one I got before sending it off to a dear friend who needed a little phoenix magic.

Phoenix by Shannon
Phoenix by Shannon

Many of the retreat attendees had asked me to share a recording of the meditation I led, so, I have recorded it and am sharing it here for anyone to enjoy.

The meditation begins with a guided Yoga Nidra practice. Yoga Nidra is a deeply relaxing, meditative process that guides you into a state where theta and delta brainwaves are produced. This creates deep rest, healing and physical regeneration.

The Yoga Nidra session is followed by a guided meditation where we meet the phoenix, for a profound process of renewal and empowerment.

More about Yoga Nidra:
In yoga wisdom teachings, Yoga Nidra is a method of purifying the “samskaras.” Samskaras are patterns of thought and behavior that are repeated, and thus create grooves that become our well-worn pathways for acting and reacting.  Imagine tracing a line through the sand with your finger, then re-tracing that same line over and over again. The line becomes deeper as that pathway becomes more and more ingrained. It can be difficult to create a new groove when the current ones are so established.

sand grooves

Yoga Nidra gives us access to the subconscious mind, where we can know our Self as separate from our thoughts and patterns of behavior, and where we can access intuition and information beyond our normal conscious awareness.

(Note — some exciting news… the talented Rebecca Clever (who composed the original music for my “Zoom out/ Imaginal Cell Meditation” will be creating special music for this Yoga Nidra/Phoenix meditation as well!! I will post the new version later this year, when it’s done.  But for now, enjoy, and if you’re inclined, check out the other meditations on the Presence and Prose YouTube Channel.)

Namaste,
Shannon

 

To be where you are

Last month, I had the opportunity to join the faculty of the Evergreen Yoga Retreat at the beautiful Bon Secours Spiritual Center in Marriottsville, MD.

Bon Secours Footbridge photo by Shannon Mayhew

Footbridge at Bon Secours

Many of the women attending had participated in this retreat for over 20 years.  Some have traveled through India and studied with prominent gurus.  Many of these women have been practicing yoga for as long as or longer than I have.  I have to admit that when I was preparing my sessions that I was to lead, I asked myself, “Who am I to be leading them?”

But as we gathered in the Peace Garden for my first session, I saw nothing but supportive, welcoming faces.  I heard my inner voice say “It’s OK to be where you are.”

Bon Secours Mary Silhouette photo by Shannon Mayhew

After a sunrise meditation

And I taught from there.  Where I am, where my heart is… where the yoga comes through.

Peace Garden Treasure photo by Shannon Mayhew

I found this treasure someone made at the Peace Garden

At the end of the retreat, I was given wonderful feedback about my yoga nidra session, along with several requests to record and share it, and to write up and share my teachings on meditation and samskaras. (I’ll post the recording and write-up here next week in case you want to give the meditation a try.)

This experience, along with being a deeply nourishing retreat, was an affirmation for me that perfection, or even, feeling fully confident, is not where I need to be — but that acceptance, authenticity, and presence (being where I am), are surely gateways for my best self to emerge.

Bon Secours Sunlight photo by Shannon Mayhew

I sat here after a meditation in the Peace Garden to write the poem below

Peace Garden Meditation

Stones and pebbles, Peace Garden Altar photo by Shannon Mayhew
smooth, angled,
some stacked into stupas,

slightly askew

Surrounded by trees,
stately, gracefully
offering their cooling shade

And the birds!
They are calling to each other,
sing-song exclamations,
weaving through the silence, Peace Garden Stupa photo by Shannon Mayhew
structuring the spaces,

sounds and rhythms

that settle into my ears,
and I translate:
“Now!” “Joy!” “Awake!”

And I sit in the center,
still and open.
Transfixed
by this symphony
of sweet belonging.

Bon Secours Reflecting Pool photo by Shannon Mayhew

Namaste