Walking my talk, the better late than never version

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I’ve been finding it kinda ironic that I proclaimed “voice” my word of the year, and where I find myself living now is a place that requires me to (mostly) shut up and listen.

But “voice” is what carried me to the Portland production of Listen to Your Mother, which has been one of the best experiences of my year. We performed the show in early May, and last week videos from all of the shows were released online.

I’d sort of forgotten that was going to happen, and when it did I found myself feeling…a whole bunch of things, but, mostly, vulnerable.

A few days after they were out, a  friend from the cast asked me why I hadn’t posted about it on Facebook, and aside from questions about vanity and the general weirdness of seeing oneself on video, I realized that I was wrestling again with  questions about when and when not to publish, and who has a right to tell which stories. It was feeling like one thing to tell a story that involves our children in a blog post, or in a small live performance, but another one to tell it on video and then direct people to that video. I’m still not sure if it is different or not, but it feels like it might be.

I am a deep believer in the power of story and preach (often) the necessity of telling them. I know how important it is for us to tell our personal stories, particularly about topics that carry stigma. I wrote the blog post that became the story I told on stage because I wanted to create something to help others understand what it is like to parent a child with a mental illness. I hoped that doing so might alleviate for someone else the fear, guilt, and isolation I felt early on. It always helps to know that we’re not alone in grappling with a hard challenge.

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But, but, but…

I am a mother before I am anything else, and the world can be a cruel place. There can be real consequences to sharing your membership in a stigmatized group. While I want to serve others, I serve our children first. Always. It is hard, often, to know how to best do that. I want to do my small part to make the larger world a better place (for everyone’s children), but I don’t want to hurt my children’s personal world to do that.

After a fair amount of internal hand-wringing and conversations with good friends, I’ve decided that the potential rewards outweigh the potential risks. So many people right now are being called upon to be brave, in so much larger ways. The hard stories that help us see each other more truly and fully are the ones we most need to tell. So, here’s my offering, my small act of courage, some walk to go with my importance-of-sharing-our-stories talk:

You can click here to get to  the national Listen to Your Mother post that will connect you with all 500+ videos from this year’s productions across the country. You can find videos by location or you can browse featured playlists. (I am feeling really honored that mine was selected as a featured video.) If you couldn’t attend the Portland show and want to experience the next-best thing-to-being-there, you can go to the Portland playlist and watch it in order. Our producers did a fantastic job of putting together an anthology of stories best listened to in the order they were presented. (Nope, not biased at all!)

Before you click over, I warn you:  You may find yourself spending more time there than you planned. The stories (and their tellers) are so compelling. Raw humanity always is, isn’t it?

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Color photos by Elizabeth Sattleberger of Lizilu Photography
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lack-and-white photo by Amy McMullen (of our wonderful cast).

Listen to Your Friends

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My friends told me that it was an amazing experience. They said it was life-changing. They said it was powerful.

And yet, none of that really captures it, any more than the prenatal class I took for those expecting multiples conveyed what it would really be like to care for two babies. I want to write words that will somehow help anyone reading to know how amazing, life-changing, powerful, and down-right magical it is to appear in a Listen to Your Mother show, but I’m pretty sure it’s not possible.

I think you had to be there.

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I’m going to try anyway.

All of those things my friends told me–they are true. What it really all comes down to, I think, is the power of shared story. Sharing:  That’s where the magic is.

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For much of my adult life, I questioned and struggled with the purpose of writing. It was so hard. It took me away from other things. And for what? What would be gained? Who would really care? What purpose would it serve, really? Was it worth what I would sacrifice, taking the precious minutes of my life to write my stories?

Several years ago, I decided that the answers to those questions were pretty much nothing, no one, none, and no.

I think, perhaps, it’s because the crucial piece that was missing from my practice as a “serious” writer was the sharing. I mean, yes, publishing is sharing, but it’s such a one-way thing. I think I’ve kept at blogging because it’s more about reciprocal sharing. It’s about community, and that’s what makes writing matter.

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There are women in this group whose life experience is different from mine in important ways, but in our first rehearsal I found connection to every single person’s story. Some walloped me close to home–Sue’s story about a difficult pregnancy, Becky’s story about step-mothering, Susan’s story about how it is to be a family with a visibly disabled child, Amy’s story about her family of strong women who rarely speak openly about the tragedies in their lives.

But truly, there was something in everyone’s story that spoke to me: from Kate’s mother who loved the Handi-wipes I remember from my grandmother’s house to Mandy whose voice is so much like her mother’s that no one could tell them apart on the phone. (My dad never knew if it was my mother or me when one of us called home.) When Kylene told of her valiant struggle to carry her large baby on her body, I remembered my own challenges to give my babies what I thought they needed. Carisa talked about not shielding her children from life’s truths, something I’ve been doing with mine for years, and Sandra told stories about her mother who, like my grandmother, was the center of her family’s universe. The absurdity in Leslie’s story about burying a pet hamster reminded me of so many moments I found myself doing things I never imagined I might do as a mother.

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Through our stories–and making ourselves vulnerable by telling them honestly–we became a community. I have probably spent fewer than 15 hours with these women, but I tell you this:  I feel I know them better than others I’ve known for 15 years. And I would drop everything for any of them if they needed me to, because I’ve looked into the most tender places in their hearts, as they have looked into mine. (I also feel this way about so many of you I’ve only “met” in our online spaces.)

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Imagine how our world might be if we could all do this. What if we could lower our defenses and share our most important experiences? What if we could learn to really listen to each other? How much kinder and stronger and more able to love might we all be?

Putting our writing out into the world is hard because so often we are opening up the softest parts of ourselves (if we are doing it right) to others who may not accept our gift with respect or care. We put ourselves at risk when do that, just as much as if we were offering our bodies to a lover who can’t love us back.

But damn, the world needs it.

It needs brave souls who will say:  “This is my story. This is my truth.” We need it so that we can see ourselves in each other. We need it to know we aren’t alone. We need it so we can be strong in the face of all that life throws at us. We need it so that we can turn to each other in the face of our fears, rather than on each other.

We need it.

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My friends told me that being in Listen to Your Mother is life-changing. I believed it was true for them, but I wondered how it could be that way for me. How could getting up on a stage for a night and telling a story do that? I signed up to audition because I was full of my new year’s resolution to find and use my voice, but I didn’t expect it to change my life.

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I don’t know that I can really parse out how the whole thing works, much as I’ve been trying to here. I likely can’t tell you that any more than I can tell you how it really is to raise two babies at the same time.

But, thanks to this experience, I might just take a stab at trying to tell that story–and a whole bunch of others. These women have helped me see that I have stories worth telling and others I want to tell them to. I went looking for my voice, and I found it in a community of women who honored and amplified it. More importantly, I think I’ve also found the courage and heart to use it.

And that, my friends, just might be life-changing.

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All of these wonderful photos were taken by one of our sponsors, Elizabeth Sattelberger of www.lizilu.com. Please do not share without her permission.

On the precipice

Kate, one of the members of the Portland Listen to Your Mother cast, recently won an Oregon Book Award for her memoir, Objects in Mirror Are Closer than They Appear.

I have only just started reading it, but I can see that it will be just like Kate:  funny, warm, smart, sharp. Poignant without being sappy, tender without being soft.

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We had our last rehearsal for the show on Saturday, and of course we all wanted to hear about what it was like for her, winning that award. As she shared what she did that day and how she felt, how she prepared a speech and had to cut it down, what it was like to sit in the audience, waiting for her category to be announced,  then listening to them read the first few lines from her book and knowing before anyone else that they were hers, I just grinned, happy for her and happy for myself in the way any of us are when in the company of someone else who’s lived our own unusual experience.

Because I won one of those awards once, too. Although 2003 is now seeming like quite a while ago, it’s one of those clubs that you get a lifetime membership to, and you feel an instant sense of kinship with anyone else who also belongs to it.

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During the potluck after rehearsal,  someone asked me about my book. I said that, like Kate, my experience had been unusual. I hadn’t sent a manuscript out; my publisher came to me. I’d met him in a poetry workshop in college, and in my first years of teaching I hadn’t written much, but I started again when my children were born. When he saw those poems, he told me that I had a book he wanted to publish.

“I started writing again because I wanted to remember it all,” I told these new friends. “Writing is how I remember, how I experience things more fully. I didn’t want to forget anything.” Then someone asked if I’d written any other books.

Well, no, I haven’t.

They asked if I still wrote poetry.

Um, no, not really.

Short prose, then?

Uh, kind of. (Somehow, what I do here didn’t seem legit enough to claim.)

At this point, I felt awkward and uncomfortable and lesser-than in the way I often do when others start talking to me about my writing. I mentioned that when I won the award I was raising young children and teaching high school full-time, and…

I mumbled something about how I always thought I wrote poetry because the pieces were so short, that I could sustain the focus needed to make them be what I wanted them to be.

I added something else about receiving a writing residency a few years later, where I got a whole week to do nothing but write–and how that was a turning point for me, though not the kind my benefactors had intended. I saw what I could do when I had time for sustained focus, how different the writing was…

I’m pretty sure my voice trailed off around there.

What I didn’t say was, after the residency I stopped writing in the way I once had because it just hurt too much. The things I had to write about hurt. My kids were leaving childhood, and I was a newly single mom, floundering in a life I’d never wanted for us. I was still teaching full-time, and the kind of time I saw I needed to write in the way I wanted to was just not something I could manufacture or claim. The margins of my life were too thin. Writing felt like another busted-up dream I couldn’t glue back together. So I let that one go.

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Our potluck talk turned to kids, and I found myself connecting with another mom-of-a-high-school-senior. We shared how wrenching this time with our children has been, how the process of letting them go is both exquisitely painful and beautiful. These last few weeks have been especially so for me, as my daughter has been trying to decide whether or not she will go 3,000 miles away to school this fall.

A choice like that brings so much into stark relief.

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I came back to an empty house on Saturday afternoon, its rooms silent but my head full of the voices and stories of these women that writing–and sharing my writing–have brought into my life. Feeling the swell of my own regrets and desires and possibilities, I realized that I am not so different from my daughter, poised on the border between one life and the next. Sad and a little scared to let go of the first, but looking forward with hopeful anticipation to the next.

I began reading Kate’s book, which I loved, and then went looking to see if I could find a copy of my own to give to her. Which is where I found this, a poem I’d all but forgotten.

Between My Daughter and Me

There will probably be times of distance,
winds of one disappointment or another
pushing us away from each other–
or perhaps our separation will be literal,
miles of mountains, plains, or oceans
that cannot be easily traversed,

and I will have to remember this day
when she sat snug between my legs
in the bow of the boat, her head nestled
into my shoulder’s hollow as she held my hand
and sang into the wind, the sun behind us
just beginning to sink into warm, brown hills,
the waters below us parting, a rippling mosaic
of light and shadow stretching ahead of us
as far as we could see.

Those words–“miles of mountains, plains, or oceans/that cannot be easily traversed”–were a club my 35-year-old self swung at my 51-year old heart, battering it open. She knew in only the most abstract way that there would come a day when I could not cradle my girl within the confines of my limbs, my life, my love. She had no idea how her words would simultaneously shatter and soothe an older self who would rediscover them at the very moment she is launching her daughter into the sky of her own life, standing on the precipice between what they’ve been to each other and what they are going to be.

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Remembering that day in the boat and how complete and whole and joyful I’d felt in those moments with my daughter, feeling so fucking grateful that I’d found the time to gather those words so that fifteen years later I could remember that day in the boat, so that it was not lost in the oblivion of small moments that have made up most of the days of the last eighteen years, and simultaneously grieving all the other moments I have lost since I decided that I couldn’t both live the moments and gather the words,  I sat alone and ugly-cried tears of gratitude and grief for all that I’ve been given and all that I’ve lost and mostly for how I just wish there had been more time. More time to hold my children, more time to find my words, some way I could have been more of what I wanted for both myself and for them.

Talking with that other mom, I said what has become my mantra in the face of loss:  “The size of our pain is commensurate with the size of our love.” I mean, I get it:  I know how much I have, how blessed I have been.

This truth and knowledge makes the pain easier to bear, but make no mistake:  It doesn’t in any way lessen it.

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Telling it raw

Last week, I traveled to Bellingham, Washington, to see my grandmother.

As we drove the last stretch of I-5 that carves into the foothills bordering Lake Whatcom, my mind was filled with a hum that sounded like homehomehomehomehome.

I’ve never lived in Bellingham, but it was home to both sets of grandparents, assorted cousins, and loads of family lore. The happiest days of my childhood were spent there, and I know it felt like homehomehome because it is the place I have felt most safe, most free, most me. As a young adult venturing out on my own, Bellingham was my safety net. My other grandmother’s house caught more than one of my cousins during a tumble, and I always knew I had a place to go if I really needed it.

That grandmother’s house was sold the year I was pregnant with my twins, and the grandmother I was visiting isn’t doing well. Although she’s still in her home, she’s not in a place to have company. Cane and I stayed in a lovely, funky little house we found through Airbnb, close to Bellingham Bay, near the house that has been sold. Through the night, I could hear the sounds I heard when I slept there as a young girl, the trains’ whistles and gulls’ cries. They, too, sounded like homehomehome.

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Bellingham has changed since the years it was a regular part of my life. It feels much smaller, as places from childhood tend to do. But it was still homehomehome, and although I didn’t cry when our car moved again through the foothills, this time heading south, I felt heavy inside.

Too heavy to cry. I have lived away from the Sound and my people for more than 25 years, and I want to go home.

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This wonderful bookstore wasn’t there when I was a kid. I spent a happy late afternoon here.

Until last fall, our house in Oregon felt like home to me, but it really doesn’t any more. It is just a house now, one my children will be leaving within the next 6 months. I am feeling untethered, and I am asking, again, questions I feel I should have answered long ago.

And so, this is why I am mucking about with words about home.

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I can’t say much about my process. I spent more time than I’d like to admit over last week’s spring break just moving strips of words around on a piece of green paper, not getting anywhere. I am not sure why I decided to make houses out of pieces of maps, but I did.

To make the houses I first sketched some house shapes, and then I looked at some images of house drawings. (Do a Google image search for “house graphic vector” if you’re in need of house drawings to help you see the shapes of houses.) Then I just started cutting out boxes and triangles and putting houses together. I did that for a day or two and left the words alone.

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Then when I returned to the words, I realized I needed the bit about looking on a map–because the houses are made of maps. I decided to take out anything having to do with building/creating a home.

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During yesterday’s early-morning, 4th day of migraine insomnia-fest, I realized that, perhaps, the open space needed to curve on the page the way Bellingham Bay curves into the town. And that I definitely need the water words. I might need to think more about water.

At any rate, this is where I am now.

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I’m not that thrilled with this.

I want the houses to look differently. As I’ve been driving about the past two days, I’ve been seeing the shapes of houses. I think these houses may be just practice houses. I know the words aren’t right, either.

But I am attempting to practice stripped-back storytelling, which Jill introduced me to this week. I like the idea of it, raw blogging.

This is pretty raw, all right. Just like my feelings these days. We’ll have to wait and see what comes of any of it.

 

 

Wednesday Words 2.3.16

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When I love a man, I will climb on the back of his scooter on a balmy summer night wearing only a t-shirt and a thin cotton skirt.

There are things I won’t say:
Where are we going? Or, It might get cold, or, Maybe I should stay home and work.

Because he loves me, he will stop before the road turns up the mountain, rub a palm across my knee, and he will say, Are you OK?

What he means is, Are you warm enough? Are you sure you want to go further?

When I love a man, I will rest my hands loosely on the bones of his hips, hooking my thumbs through his belt loops. I will lean forward and tell him,
It’s going to be a beautiful evening.

He will know that what I mean is,
Let’s wring as much wonderful as we can out of the twilight of our lives.

*********

Last February, I began making a Valentine, which I talked about here and here. Because February 2015 was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad month, I didn’t finish it. When I came across it in July  or so, I tossed it. It hurt too much to think of finishing it. But I thought of it the other day and went looking for the poem fragment, which I knew was different from the last version recorded here. I think I will not try to revive this card for February 2016. I need something all new. But I wanted to get this version into my notebook.

Wednesday Words 1.20.16: A creative recipe

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Take bits and pieces of one poem (“For You, Friend,”) from a favorite book:

Ted Kooser's Valentine

Add a favorite photo:

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And a stir with a set of thrift-store letter stamps:

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The photo is of my grandmother.  Of course, I never knew her when she looked like this–and yet, this image is as iconic to me as any I’ve seen of Bowie or Rickman in the past week. Something to remember, I think, as we collectively mourn:  That we are surrounded by those who stroll along on the outside of time. They don’t have to be famous for us to bask in their light.

Wednesday Words 1.13.16:

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I.
Most days seem little more than furious treading,
all arms and legs churning just to stay afloat,
but there are moments when I am able, briefly,
to stop kicking, kicking, kicking my way through.

Body still in an amniotic calm, eyes open
to the balm of sky and light, I recognize the sea
of these years as the place I have spent
my whole life swimming toward, from the time

I was little more than a seed tethered
by one gnarled root, and all I want is to float here
forever, feel the waters of these days with every inch
of skin, my spirit buoyed and rocked by them.

But now, as then, my head turns to the shadow
of the coming shore. As I measure the distance
between myself and that inevitable coast,
unable to deny the currents of time or the futility

of treading, the lilting waves rise into swells
of sweet pain, salt flooding the gates
of my eyes, breaching the barrier of my lips,
and my animal limbs begin their windmilling once again.

II.
We swim above boulders of loss,
our bodies sliding through
the mute shadows they cast.

I once thought we might move beyond
them, but I now suspect
they stretch to the opposite shore.

I remember a time
when this sea was a playground
and we frolicked with abandon.

Now it is an open plain we must cross;
vast fields of water
that mirror the sky’s infinite tides.

Too often we are caught
in separate currents, but still
we swim here together,

our children a tiny school of trailing fish.

III.
Sometimes I think my love
for them might drown me, my body
slowly sinking beneath the weight of it,
bulky as a box I cannot get my arms around.

Sometimes I imagine letting go of it,
setting it upon the roll of a wave
and watching it drift until it looks no
bigger than a ball, a bottle, a doll.

Sometimes I wish I were a mighty ship,
with a sharp bow that could slice neatly through
these waters that constantly surprise me,
my steel hull an impenetrable hold
in which to store it.

But sometimes I know
this love is not something I carry
but something I am, and I am more
the water I swim in than anything else,
more than flesh or blood or bone,
more than dream or memory or desire,
and my skin is more membrane than wall,
and the sea around me, within me, stretches
as far as I can see, and I can see
that it cannot be contained or diminished,
this body that holds me, holds me holding my burdens,
the precious cargo of my existence,
and I know that what holds me will not drown me.

******

This morning I was looking in a book for a poem I might share here today, and I found this one tucked into its pages. I wrote it years ago, when in the thick of mothering, but I’d forgotten all about it. I know there are other poems I’ve lost. Perhaps I’ll find them again. Perhaps not. I’m sharing it here because this is my notebook, and this is one I’d like to keep.

I’m feeling a bit full of thoughts about writing these days, and about what creative work I do and why. My windmilling is winding down; my babies turn 18 in weeks, and in months they will graduate from high school. When they were born, I had roughly 6, 752 days to spend raising them. Now I have fewer than 200. I cannot believe we are so close to the shore that was only a shadow when I wrote this poem. So many days now, it feels like all I can see. I wonder what will fill my days (mind, heart) when I finally land there.

Why click Publish?

In October, a person I lived with hit me. On purpose. It was an event that was both the climax of one narrative, and, perhaps, the precipitating action of another.

Ever since, I have been struggling not only with living this narrative, but also with knowing how or whether to tell the story, to put it into words to share with others.

Like Joan Didion, I’ve long thought that the primary reason I write has been fairly simple and very personal:

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Publishing–the act of putting our writing out into the world–is an entirely different thing.

When one writes primarily for personal reasons, as I do, whether or not to write is a simple question with a simple answer:

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When one publishes, when one has at one’s hands the means for easy publication (as we all do now), the question is much trickier.

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And even this doesn’t really capture it. Far more often than the chart would indicate, the question needs the word “possible” and my answer is actually “maybe.” The idea of my own gain is always mostly abstract because for me, both writing and publishing are entirely optional. I made choices early in my life to make it so. Though there was much I didn’t understand (about everything), I somehow knew (fiercely, without doubt) that I did not want to tie my writing to my livelihood. Not “real” writing, anyway–the words I cared most about, the ones I set down in order to find out what my experiences mean.

I’ve experienced traditional publishing, but probably because I did not care much about influence or money (and subsequently didn’t get much of either from it), my experiences with traditional publication felt a little hollow, a little flat. (Not unlike losing my virginity, which mostly caused me to wonder what all the fuss had been about.)

Blogging has been a different thing entirely.

To carry my questionable metaphor further, writing and (traditional) publishing are, it seems to me, fairly masturbatory acts, at least for the writer.

Yes, yes, yes, I know:  Published words can have profound effects on readers. But in the traditional model of word sharing, those effects are rarely known by writers in any but the most abstract of ways.

Blogging–the small, old-school blogging of the type I do here–is much more a two-person affair with the potential for intimacy. The answer to the question of Why publish? is different here. I’m under no illusion that publishing isn’t still very much about my own desires and gratification, but the notion that putting words out there will do something for someone other than just me is more than an abstraction. And what we create here is just that:  what we create. Whatever happens in this space is as much about readers as it is me. My words are the opening of a conversation, not a lecture.

So, the question of whether or not to publish is a quite different one when the venue is a space such as this. To answer it, I must consider what value my words might have to others, what benefits my partners–my community–might get from them. I have to weigh those potential benefits against possible costs to myself and others, which are so often those I know (sometimes intimately) IRL. It’s rarely an easy equation to balance when the topic and the truths are hard.

So. Do I tell the story of being hit? I’m down in that last big bubble on the chart, where my words are hanging out in a drafts folder. There are things I want to say about mental health care. I know that shared experience is always valuable, but I don’t know how much value my words on this might create. I don’t know how much sharing those words–even in a space as small as this one is (but which could blow up in size at any time)–might cause more harm than good, particularly to some I love. Though I boldly claimed voice as my word for the coming year just days ago, I have more questions than answers about how to use it. That’s why I’m doing here what I always do when I write:  I’m writing entirely to find out what I’m thinking. And by publishing here, I’m letting you know that I’d like to know what  you think, too.

Hope we can talk in the comments.

Wednesday Words: 1.6.16

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To Her Absent Husband

I try to love you with light hands,
fingers cupped enough to hold you,
yet open, so you won’t mistake them for a cage,
but no matter how I curl them, too often
they are empty and you are gone again.
You seem to me then like a suit on a hanger,
or a car idling at a curb, no driver in the front seat.
I walk into love’s closet and bury my face in the suit’s jacket, inhaling
your scent, but the empty sleeves hang slack above my hips.
In the car, I rest my cheek against the cold window,
the chorus of a song you once gave me playing
in my head, wondering if you still listen to that music.

When I am away from you, my wonderings bloom
like weeds in the field of space between us, and then our marriage is a kite
I am running with to hold aloft.

I am tired of running, of looking backwards to see
if the kite is still there, bobbing in our infinite sky.
I need to let go of the string.
It is a beautiful kite, and I love it.
I love it.
But I don’t want a kite.
I want, perhaps, a glass of water.
A letter to read by the bank of a river, or in front of a fire.
A pair of warm socks.
I want something I can put on, hold close, drink from.
There are many things I might be for you,
would be for you, forever:
a sheer curtain, the limb of an oak, a painting
on the wall of a favorite room.
I do not want to be a shovel or a boot.
I do not want to be a cracked teacup, a scratched record,
a shutter banging against the house on a cold night.
I will not be the dog who whines outside your closed door.

Poem is mine. Photo is from: ** RCB ** via Compfight cc

Recently, someone asked about posting their own Wednesday Words and linking to them here. Please let me know in the comments if that’s something you’d like to do. And if you do your own version of Wednesday Words, please feel free to leave a comment with a link to your post. 

Wednesday Words 11.18: Storybird Play

Last week I went to a seminar on instructional technology, and for part of the session we were presented with a list of online tools and told to use 30 minutes to explore and have fun with one of them.

There were others on the list with far more practical application to my work than the one I chose, Storybird. I thought that there might be some way to connect it to what I do in my job, but within minutes I realized it wouldn’t provide much (if any) clear value to the work I do in schools. (If I were still a language arts teacher or worked much on curriculum with ELA teachers, yes. But I don’t.)

The directions, however, were to “have fun,” and I decided that that’s what I’d do.

I made poems by selecting a Storybird image, and then playing with a palette of words provided by the tool. It’s like having a big digital box of word magnets.

At first I chafed against the limitations; it was when I surrendered to them that I began having fun. Limitations always lead to new kinds of creativity we wouldn’t otherwise discover.

If you need permission to play with words, consider it granted. Go have some fun.