My Name was Supposed to be Elizabeth Ann

— Stories from the Roads (Not) Taken

To give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it—well, that’s a way of bringing the said thing into being.

— Iff to Haroun in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories

This is the story my mother told me:

A few weeks before their due dates, my twenty-three-year-old (almost) mother chatted long-distance with her friend, Dorothy, whom she met at Fort Bragg. After Uncle Sam drafted their baby-faced husbands and shipped them off to Vietnam, Dorothy returned to Ohio and my mother to Philadelphia, where she lived with my father’s family while awaiting my birth. My mother tells me the friendship was a source of comfort despite their geographic distance. Though both women were surrounded by family, each felt an isolation that only the other could understand. Which partly explains why my mother never told Dorothy how angry and hurt she was by what happened next. Dorothy, who hadn’t decided on baby names as of that conversation, delivered her daughter first and named her Elizabeth Ann–the name my mother had reluctantly revealed she had always intended for her own child.  

So I became Michele Elizabeth. Michele with one L. Remember that. It’s important.

*****

In Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories–a wonderful book, by the way. You should read it–Haroun’s father Rashid, a professional storyteller, “[runs] out of stories to tell” after his wife runs off with the neighbor. Iff the Water Genie reluctantly agrees to help  Haroun reconnect Rashid’s access to Story Water, the magical source of Rashid’s extraordinary gift, and tells him to select their means of transport. “Pick a bird…any bird,” Iff insists, which makes no sense to Haroun. They’ve met accidentally in a houseboat bathroom, and the only bird Haroun sees is a wooden peacock bed, incapable of flight.

“Iff [gives] a snort of disgust. ‘A person may choose what he cannot see,’ he [says], as if explaining something very obvious to a very foolish individual. ‘A person may mention a bird’s name even if the creature is not present and correct: crow, quail, hummingbird, bulbul, mynah, parrot, kite. A person may even select a flying creature of his own invention, for example winged horse, flying turtle, airborne whale, space serpent, aeromouse. To give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it—well, that’s a way of bringing the said thing into being. Or, in this case, the said bird or Imaginary Flying Organism.’”

The Genie opens his fist, and Haroun’s “eyes almost [fall] out of his head.” Creatures smaller than fingernails cavort on Iff’s palm.

Names, you see, are magic.

*****

Here is another story:

When I was four and my brother was three, my mother told us we would be getting a new big brother and sister. The details arise in my memory like photographs looping through a slideshow. Me seated at my play table behind the front door, Barbie on my lap. Philip sprawled on the floor pushing a truck. My mother, hair headbanded and looking equal parts flustered and severe. My father is absent, though he could not have been. The doorbell rings. The dogs scamper and bark. A matronly social worker enters with two children. Share, Mom had told me and Philip. And be nice. So I ask my new big sister if she wants to play Barbies.

Her name is Michelle, with two Ls.

*****

Big Michelle sticks.

Little Michele does not.

I become Michele Elizabeth, all one word. Micheluhlizabeth. Then Elizabeth, but only within the family. Not in school, not among my friends, never at work. I meet my husband and tell him, I’m Michele. People who know these stories ask, Why didn’t you change your name? Surely it was confusing, a sister with the same name? How on earth did you manage?

By a P2C2E. A Process Too Complicated to Explain. This is Iff’s answer to all of Haroun’s impossible questions, and it is partly the answer to my own. Truthfully, part of me did not acknowledge the chaos.

Most of me delighted in it.

*****

The summer I meet my new big sister, the six of us, our two dogs and a turtle travel to Ohio, where I meet Elizabeth Ann. A year or two later, her family travels to Philadelphia. Eventually, our families lose touch. Why, my mother does not recall. Nor do I recall much about the girl. She was nice enough and had brownish hair. 

Now, I wonder whether she knows the story of her name. Whether her mother knows that in stealing from my mother, she magicked a unique landscape for my childhood.

*****

My name was supposed to be Elizabeth Ann.

I’m glad it’s not.

(second in a series on teaching media literacy in high schools)

So I’m glad you’re here today. Have a seat. Cameras on, if you don’t mind. Thanks.  

You may be wondering why I invited you here. 

Good question. I’ll get to that. 

But first I want to tell you a story:

My daughter is an RN and works night-shift at a northeast Philadelphia hospital. A few days before her first Pfizer shot, she messaged me with a disturbing report blowing up several social media sites. Apparently, the Pfizer vaccine had been linked to infertility, and women of childbearing age were being cautioned against receiving it. She’s getting married this fall and they want children someday, but she also doesn’t want to die of Covid or infect anyone else.

Understandably concerned, she asked what I thought. I told her to send me the article and we’d talk.

Some of you are nodding.

You know the article I mean? Scary, right? 

Here’s the thing. I love and respect science, but I am no scientist. 

However, I am a pretty decent researcher. So that’s what I did.

I researched.

Guess what I discovered?

The article was fake. False. Full of malarkey.

AKA, bullshit.

You don’t believe me? 

Well, guess what? That’s why you’re here.

I recently began a unit on media literacy with your kids. They’re awesome, by the way. You can tell them I said so.

Anyway, some adults assume their teenagers, as digital natives, are digital literates

Guess what? They’re not.

And neither are many of their parents.

You’re squirming now. 

Good. 

Raise your hand if you ever posted inflammatory content on Facebook or Twitter. Forwarded an email filled with lies and misattributions?

You? Of course not. Never!

Wrong again.

Adults do it all the time. 

The same adults who are parents who would never, ever allow their kids to get away with lying, with spreading rumors or gossip about Ms. X and Mr. Y–those same adults willfully, eagerly let their thumbs do the talking when the subject is 

politics, 

or religion,

or immigration,

or welfare,

or abortion,

or whatever other hot-button, I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong issue that just

PISSES US OFF.

And it’s not okay.

In fact, it’s dangerous. Terrifying, actually. 

Because too many of us can’t distinguish fact from falsehood. Too many of us are building worldviews on compromised foundations.

What do I mean? Excellent question.

Let’s think about building physical structures.

What happens when you build a house on degraded or inferior materials?

Its foundation inevitably shifts, cracks, and maybe allows a rainstorm to flood your basement. You lose everything in your basement.

Or it could fall down, and you lose your house and everything in it.

Or it could fall down when your family is inside. 

Or it could fall down like a domino on your neighbors’ houses when your family is inside and your neighbors are in their yards and…

Bottom line, building a house on an unstable foundation is NEVER a good idea.

The same idea applies to building a worldview on an unstable foundation.

I see you shaking your heads. You follow me?

Good.

So here’s what I’d like you to do.

First, review our first lesson on trust. Remember what I said: We’re building a foundation.

Second, put a pause on your posting. Unless it’s pictures of your kids, funny pet videos, or yummy recipes,  just don’t for now. 

And third,  watch your inbox for more in this series. Over the next several weeks, my seniors and I will discuss that Pfizer article, as well as bias, echo chambers, and strategies for accurately separating fact from fiction. Consider this an open invitation to join our conversation. 

See you in class!

(First in a series on teaching media literacy…)

I’ve been told I’m weird. I love teaching writing.

(Grading writing, not so much. But that’s a topic for another post.)

I particularly love teaching research writing. Forget all the formatting and college prep stuff–though that’s part of it, yes, and important–what I love about it is that knowing how to conduct and synthesize true research is a life skill.

I’m not just teaching English–I’m teaching survival skills.

Ignorance is strength, opines George Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty-Four, arguably more relevant now than at its 1949 publication. 

In other words, I tell my students, your ignorance is someone else’s strength. 

Someone who most likely does not have your best interest at heart.

Someone who can–and will–manipulate your ignorance to their benefit.

Someone who thinks it’s a good idea to storm the Capitol.

*****

I start by asking them whom they can trust and why. 

Their answers follow similar patterns: 

They say they just “know.” I say, What about strangers?

They trust people who are honest. I say, You mean you always do the right thing?

They trust people who keep their secrets. I say, What about secrets involving harm to self or others? 

They say they never thought of trust like this.

Then I play devil’s advocate. 

To the one who says he trusts no one, I say You’re saying I’m untrustworthy? To the one who says everyone lies, I say You’re calling me a liar? 

They laugh. They backpedal. They lean closer to their cameras.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Now we’re going to figure out what trust looks like. We’re going to describe the actions of an abstract Someone Trustworthy. We’re going to create a definition we can all agree on.

Because here’s the thing: 

Just as it’s dangerous to trust everything you see/read/hear, so too is it dangerous to distrust everything and everyone. As one of my kids pointed out, Sometimes you have to trust in order to learn something new. 

So how can you recognize Someone Trustworthy?

Consider the following:

Honesty. Do their words and actions match

If they say one thing and do another, watch out.

Motivation. Why do they say what they say and do what they do?  

If their words and actions are primarily fueled by self-interest and/or a desire to control, watch out.

Knowledge. What credentials support their words and actions? 

If they lack the first-hand training, skill sets, and/or experience needed in a specific situation, watch out.

Patterns of behavior. Do their words and actions consistently match up over time?

If they are Someone Trustworthy on Mondays but not Saturdays, at work but not at home, watch out.

Responsibility. Do they admit to wrongdoing? Strive to FIX it, LEARN from it, and  AVOID REPEATING it? 

If they refuse to accept the fact that they can make mistakes–that WE ALL make mistakes–watch out.

Ultimately, Someone Trustworthy exhibits all of those characteristics, not perfectly, but reliably. In other words, you can trust them to be trustworthy because that’s who they are by definition. Like a cat is a cat and not a rock.

Can you tell me what I mean by that, I ask my kids.

Here’s another thing I love about being an educator:

When my students GET IT. When the lightbulb that goes off in their minds is so bright it shines on everyone else in the class and they all go, Mm-hmm and nod as if the same brilliant idea has occurred to  them all at once.

That’s exactly  what happened when one of my students–normally quiet, normally reserved–unmuted himself and said, You can tell whether someone is trustworthy by how they act when they think no one is looking. 

Mic drop.  

Wondering how any of this connects to research and Orwell? Ignorance and insurgence?

See you in class next time.

…And my feet are killing me.

First thing I did when I got home was kick them off. Second thing, exchange my big girl clothes for sweatpants, a fat, fluffy sweatshirt and socks. Fuzzy socks.

See, I’ve been teaching remotely since before Thanksgiving, meaning at home in my family room, thirteen steps and two hallways from my bedroom, and equidistant from my kitchen and bathroom. Which any teacher will tell you is an  ideal working condition. 

Easy access to the bathroom, I mean. None of the rest of this has been ideal. At all.

Other than the occasional foray for groceries or to the CVS, I haven’t had to wear shoes since mid-November. Somedays, I didn’t even wear socks with my slippers because yup, that’s how I roll.

Anyway, today I had to return to my building because today we returned to hybrid instruction. Today, I had to not only defrost my frost-covered car, I had to decide what I wanted for lunch and pack it before I’d even considered what’s for breakfast and what on earth am I going to wear. And by the way, where are my pants? My work pants, I mean. Have you seen them?

Thank goodness for coffee. Thank goodness for travel mugs. Thank goodness I screwed that lid on tight because everything else was a hot Monday.

I couldn’t find anything. My remote. My pens. My routines.

But then the bell rang and the kids arrived. Not all of them, of course, just the Monday cohort minus the ones who forgot or who were too tired or worried or confused to know where they were supposed to be and when because the remote schedule is not the same as the hybrid schedule, nor the revised hybrid schedule, which is the one we’re following now. 

I think.

But it was good to see them. Even with the masks. Even with the blue Xs on their desks and the green bottle of spritz I have to spritz on the desks and the door after they leave and before second period arrives. 

I’ve got this, I thought. 

Shoulda knocked on wood.

The alarms went off mid-second, a mechanical feminine voice that’s supposed to be calming but isn’t, not when she’s announcing a lockdown. Not when we just started back and our capitol was just attacked by wacko-crackos who, Internet rumors have it, are planning a sequel. Or fifty. So I flipped off my lights and shoved desks away from my safe corner while my seniors, four boys, shoved the table and crouched where I pointed, six-foot bubbles be damned. We’ve been trained, you see. Teachers. Students. About how to hide. How to run.  How to barricade our doors and arm ourselves with anything that could be a weapon. Books. Chairs. Staplers. Canned goods long past their expiration. 

In case… you know. 

In case.

I wasn’t the only one frightened, my colleagues shared later. All of us believed it a real lockdown, but it wasn’t. Thank goodness. It was neither an emergency nor a drill. It was an accident. A malfunction in the system that was quickly fixed, quickly forgotten. Thank goodness. The rest of my day went well, and now I’m home wondering what to make for dinner.

My point?

I was–am–a bit unsettled.

And I’m glad to be home.

Thanks for listening.

Sometime mid-spring 2020, administration allowed faculty and staff to return to our building to retrieve personal belongings and teacher resources abandoned so abruptly when Covid forced school closures March 13.

The four large totes I carried home contained the books and binders I needed to carry my classes through June, as well as two items I needed to carry myself through June and beyond.

The first was my joke-a-day calendar. 

The second was a blue wooden sign.

Suffice it to say I needed a good laugh. So did my kids, those in my Google Meets and those in my house. A good corny joke makes even cynics smile. For Christmas this year, one of the gifts I gave my family was the  gift of yearlong laughter:  joke, pun, and cartoon calendars. Here’s hoping 2021 has more to smile about than 2020.

I also needed a lifeboat. My 15” x 5” sign is blue, its brown letters accented with cream. At school, it stood atop the filing cabinets behind my desk, a backdrop to every day’s lesson. At home, it stands between my monitors, a reminder of every day’s goal.

Life isn’t about surviving the storm but about learning to dance in the rain.

Suffice it to say, 2020’s been one colossal shitstorm and I’m sick, sick, sick of being dumped on.

You too, I bet.

Want to dance?

Middleswarth potato chips are to central Pennsylvania what cheesesteaks are to Philly.  You can’t get them anywhere else, and nothing else compares. 

After college, trips back home always included pit stops to the Sheetz or turnpike hubs to stock up on their BBQ barrels, tangy sweet deliciousness to which I introduced my husband and then children, formerly geographically deprived. Then several years ago I discovered an online retailer offering a variety of PA-specific snacks, and a Christmas tradition was born. Every year, I order a jumbo box for Christmas Eve. Every year, we hang our stockings then gather to watch Christmas movies and munch Christmas goodies.

But not this year. 

This year, tradition was consigned to post office purgatory. 

Although I’d ordered before Thanksgiving, although they’d shipped two-day priority December 1, on December 5 they arrived at Philadelphia’s regional facility and there they’ve remained, nearly one month and counting.

*****

Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell” has been one of my all-time favorite poems, ever since AP English my senior year. A series of personal difficulties had left 17-year-old me adrift and needing an anchor. Brooks’ nameless persona offered me a map to find it. 

(You can read the full text of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43315/my-dreams-my-works-must-wait-till-after-hell).

On first reading, the poem seems merely dark and despairing. Anticipating famine, the persona secures within her memory the title’s metaphorical dreams and works (honey and bread). No one offers consolation, so she must journey alone, draw on her own reservoirs of strength, and hope one day to return home, her recollected treasures intact. We don’t know what happens next. We don’t know what she finds when she returns.

Here’s the thing–I don’t think that matters. I don’t think that’s the point of the poem. 

Notice the tense: Hold. Store. Keep. Drag.

It’s present tense, which means the persona experiences these events while they occur. She speaks to us IN THE MOMENT OF their occurrence. Not until line thirteen is there a brief use of future tense, and its effect seems more conditional than predictive.

Notice the sentence structure: Whereas the octet ending with “The puny light” is composed of simple and compound sentences, the sestet is one complex sentence containing two subordinate clauses. And whereas the octet focuses on how she prepares, the sestet focuses on how she will overcome.

In other words, the former is EASY. The latter, not so much.

So what  does the poem mean? And what on earth does that have to do with potato chips?

This:

No matter who we are or where, we are all like Brooks’ narrator–travelling through an unnamed hell, carrying with us the memories and dreams of the time before Covid. But we will “return,” she says. Look at line four. 

How? 

  1. By focusing on what truly matters. “Eyes pointed in,” the volta (or turn of thought) in the second half of line eight. 

2. That is the food that nourishes hope (line 9)….

3. Which becomes the fuel to keep moving (“resume” line 10)…

4. Which reminds her “to go home” (line 12).

5. Because she knows it’s not IF “the devil days of [her]hurt/Drag out to their last dregs.” It’s “when” (lines 9 & 10).

This too shall pass. 

But don’t kid yourself. 

We can’t go back to the way things were. Life won’t ever be the same. We’ve lived this experience, been altered by our journeys through whatever hells we’ve confronted. Such change is as immutable as our DNA. 

Brooks’ persona knows that, as well. She also recognizes the very real danger of becoming “insensitive/To honey and bread old purity could love” (lines 13-14). In other words, the danger of not appreciating the very food whose memories sustain her.

Which I think is the poem’s message. 

Prepare. Protect. Keep moving. 

Because as she creates her present, she creates and feeds her future.  She doesn’t know what form her future will take any more than we do. However, she affirms what she DOES NOT WANT and in so doing, affirms how she will journey forth.

With hope. 

Hope, like love, is an infinite container. 

Hope celebrates the past, accepts the present, and welcomes the future. And together with action, hope effects change.

I don’t know about you, but I find that message pretty powerful. Seventeen-year-old me committed those lines to heart. December 2020 me committed to celebrating the holiday in whatever form it took. To nourishing myself and my family with this moment’s weird but wonderful honey. 

I’m so glad I did.

As for our potato chips?

The retailer switched shippers from USPS to UPS, so I decided to place another order, hoping it would arrive on time.

It did, on December 23.

And as I finished this post December 30, a soft whump vibrated my glass door. 

Yup. The original box. Unopened. Undamaged. Delicious.

Want some?

*****

How are you faring? How are you marking the end of 2020? Drop a line below and share your traditions new and old!

When the very old man was a very young man, he discovered a bucket brimming with time, clear as rain and heavy as gold, but in his haste to secure it from greedy marauders skulking among the dawn’s  shadows, he tripped and tumbled and spilled its contents onto the parched soil above which the scorching sun, thirsting for sacrifice, rose and  lapped the offering like cream. 

He wept, and the sun drank again, withering the man where he stood.

For those of you unfamiliar with the challenge, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Beginning every November 1, writers of all ages and abilities set out to write a 50,000 word novel by midnight November 30. 

I planned to participate. I even signed up. I had a project and a schedule in place.

Then I changed my mind.

*****

During spring quarantine, my concentration suffered. I read poems and short articles, but no books. I wrote emails and blog posts, but no fiction. Like Didi and Gogo, I spun in circles awaiting an intervention that never came.

Their quest is called Theater of the Absurd for a reason, and I’m its fan in neither literature nor life. 

What does that have to do with NaNo?

Everything.

As I struggled to create my personal New Normal, I struggled to determine WHY writing non-fiction came so much easier than writing fiction. WHY I struggle with drafting and relish revising.

Two reasons. First, I’ve spent much more time writing non-fiction than fiction. Second, writing non-fiction is a process of manipulating and polishing events that have already happened.

Eureka! That’s my fiction stumbling block. Not DRAFTING–

Figuring out the events that have already happened so I can then manipulate and polish them.

And for me, that takes time. Time and thinking, then writing. Then rewriting, then more time and thinking and rewriting, all the while remembering that, like building a house, building a story requires certain parts be fabricated and placed before others leave the factory. Every writing session, I always begin by rereading and (slightly) tweaking scenes drafted the day prior, even if it just means making marginal notes about necessary changes. I have to. I can’t move forward otherwise.

Which means the NaNo model doesn’t work for me.  Writing on such a stringent timeframe makes my brain cramp.

Uh unh.

It doesn’t mean I won’t be writing every day this month. I will be.

Nor does it mean I won’t start writing that novel. I already have a very ugly draft.

It means I needn’t feel guilty about not meeting the NaNo challenge. Every writer needs to recognize and celebrate her own process, and stepping away from NaNo means stepping toward a writing month that works for me.

And I’m more than okay with that.

*****

What have you learned about your writing during quarantine? I’d love to hear it! Share your comments below.

My microflash story “Come Live with Me and Be My Love” is included in the fall issue of Sunspot Literary Journal. I’m honored and thrilled to be included in their publication and to have had my piece accepted by them in only a few minutes!

You can download a copy and read the entire issue here: https://sunspotlit.com/editions

Enjoy!