All posts by ashleymcarmichael

Maybe It’s Just Me…

Maybe It’s Just Me

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inside restaurant Pan e Vino

Tick…Tick…Tick…Tock…My life clock continues louder with every little tick and each resounding tock it chimes and chirps wand each day rotates just a little bit fast.

“Thank you, Ma’am,” responds the girl in the salon. When did I become a “ma’am”?

I wonder…

Maybe it’s just me but…

I thought my life would be different. At sixteen I had a plan. I knew how my life would be at 28.

Maybe it’s just me but…

Everything seems so mundane, blasé, not at all what I had in mind.

Maybe it’s just me yet…

I know I am blessed beyond measure with beautiful people, meaningful work, and wonderful space.

Maybe it’s just me yet…

I am grateful, I should be grateful, I have forgotten how to be grateful. I am lost in a world of self-deprecation disguised as a sort of humility. I want to be proud. I want to own my pride. I don’t know where to begin.

Maybe it’s just me and then again, maybe it’s not.

 

These are just words, thoughts strung together as I reflect one Friday evening. I’m not even sure what form you’d call this. Maybe it’s verse, but I think it’s a kind of stream of consciousness. Really, it’s just me. Wondering. I’m not unhappy with my life. In fact most days I’m very content. But sometimes, especially recently I begin to wonder if maybe, just maybe I’m letting life pass me. And after I get done with all this wondering, I start to pray. My conversation with God is not exactly thrilling, it more just wondering about two little words: too late.

Are those not the most devastating combination of words? Too late—lost hope, dreams and future. They taste bitter on the tongue, as sour as the poison their power holds because once someone believes it is too late…

What is left to them?

That’s when God reminds me of Lazarus. (I started to say “I’m reminded of” then I realized it is no coincidence that this story launches into my brain).

The story is in John 11 and the NIV reads this way:

“Now a man named Lazarus was sick […] so the sisters sent word to Jesus. “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” […] he stayed where he was two more days.”

HE STAYED! He heard the news that his loved one is sick. Jesus knew what this meant, to the family. He knew what pain it would cause them. Agony, anguish, mental torment—not to mention what the physical illness did to Lazarus himself. It must have been painful to have ended in even a temporary death. And still, he didn’t go. He waited two days. Two of the longest days of his friends’ life (I’m sure they were no picnic for Jesus either).

Then the story continues with Jesus telling his disciples they are returning to Judea. His friends are worried because of the trouble brewing there, which makes me wonder if Mary, Martha and Lazarus didn’t question Jesus’ loyalty and love. I know I would have. Hardly able to understand why he didn’t come help their brother, they search for an explanation—even an irrational one. I imagine they might have thought that he cared for his own safety more than the well-being of their brother. Can you imagine the sick feeling of disappointed hopes and dreams? Maybe it’s just me…

Jesus tells his disciples they are going to see Lazarus who is dead and I love Thomas’ reply, but it is so sad. “Let us go that we may die with him.” Caustic, bitter, untrusting. Thomas doesn’t see the point in visiting the dead man. It’s too late. There are those words. It’s too late for him! Why put ourselves at risk?

When he finally arrives at Mary and Martha’s home, they greet him with the same response; although they greet him separately they are of the same mind. “If you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died. “

You’re too late, God.

Ah, ye of little faith.

Too late, oh so devastating to us mortals—as Alexander Pope said “born but to die.” Of course we will lose our hope and our faith with those words.

Restoration comes from one place alone.

And it’s never too late for God.

We may not like his timing. We may not understand his timing. But He’s never too late.

“Lazarus ,come forth!”

How I want to be raised from the deadness of disappointed hope and resurrected into the life of gratitude each and every day.  But, maybe it’s just me…

 

My Muse

I called my sister yesterday to share a story one of my students wrote. The question was to tell a short narrative with the purpose of entertaining. I started the conversation with “get ready for the funniest story on the planet.” My sister responded with “is it appropriate for young ears because you are on speaker.” Well, I’m used to that when it comes to conversing with a mother of three, but I had to think about this one. Is a squirrel being run over unexpectedly appropriate for a 2, 4 and 6 year old? I had to ask. Teenagers, I’ve got that down to a science. Go any younger than that and I’m pretty clueless.

 

Having determined that the story was appropriate, I proceeded to read it. The story (which I’ve included at the bottom of the post for those who are interested) is not really the point here. After I finished reading, a little voice piped up from the back.

 

“Aunt Ashley are you going to continue your writing?”

A little taken aback, because this is not my story that I’m reading to them I do finally respond.

“Yes, Sadie I am.”

“Good.”

“Are you going to continue with your  writing?”

“Yes I am.”

“You better.” I tell her.

You see, over the Christmas holidays I pitched my book to a publisher so we spent a long time talking as a family about my book and writing and the process. Sadie, my oldest niece, is often listening even when we think she is playing. She may look like a child, but she has the mind and intellectual capacity of someone much older so by the time we were visiting my sister in January, the first thing Sadie wanted to show me was the book she had written. Yes, my niece had written a book, unprompted, just because she wanted to. And it was good too, using higher order thinking with a unique plot twist that I didn’t see coming. The best part, however, was how she felt the need to explain that what she was reading was just the rough draft and how her final draft was going to be much better. Ah, I love how well they learn when they are young!

Now, Sadie is becoming my muse and accountability girl. She may be only six (almost seven!), but sometimes it’s that kind of childlike enthusiasm and energy that you need to keep you inspired. Because when you have someone who always believes in you, who thinks that you are worth imitating…well…who wouldn’t want to keep moving forward?

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Student from my class; identity protected for privacy purposes

Stories and Lies

When I was a little girl I was taught that we do not lie for any reason. In my childish brain this meant that when you do something wrong or something that you are not supposed to do then you do not make up a story about it. If you do, then something on par with a lightning strike coming down from the very heavens might come and strike you down or the earth might swallow you whole. Despite this engrained fear of fabrication, I still managed to distinguish the stories that are regarded as lies from the stories that are considered creative writing genius. From this moment of eminent discovery, I have been spitting out stories in as many ways as I can and preparing to one day teach writing to others. During spring cleaning this year, I stumbled across this pure writing genius from the late 1990s entitled “Twisted Kidnapping”.

                 My Father was killed in a freak accident about 6 months ago. He went out with some friends one night, and got drunk. When he was walking to his car he ran out right in front of a Pepsi truck and was killed instantly. My Mother was killed after giving birth to her sixth boy. After her death, about 2 months ago, all my brothers were sent to an orphanage 2 blocks down. I’m 16 so they let me stay at my preacher,   Herman Mister’s, house until further notice. He was a very nice man. One day he gave me this letter that said I was to stay at my Uncle Bert’s house. I’ve never met my Uncle so I had no idea what to expect. I set out immediately for my uncle’s house. The letter said that my uncle lived in a town called Clarence Ville. About 2 days later I arrived at Clarence Ville. I stopped a young man, at about the age of 20, to ask him about how to get to Bert’s house. “Excuse me…?” “The name’s Clarence “I, um I’m Peanut McDoodle, do you know where I can find Mr. Bert?” “Well sure, but you don’twant to find him!?” “Yes I do.” “If you say so, He lives in that log cabin over there.” “Thanks, by the way, did they name this town after you ?” “No, well yes, you see every man or boy’s name is Clarence, and every woman or girl’s name is Clare.” “Oh, okay, well thanks again! Later!” “Bye” What a strange town I thought. _____________________________ I looked up and up and up. My Uncle’s house was at least 5 stories tall. I felt like screaming and running away. The house was a dirt brown color with a chimney that is cement and gray. Next to the house was a half finished water tower. It is yellow orange and red striped all the way up. To where the builder left off. Just as I was getting up enough nerve to knock on the door, it opened! Out came a man, the ugliest man I’ve ever seen! He had at least 2 warts on his nose and 1 on his cheek, It made me so sick1 “Who are YOU???the man said in a bossy, sassy ,snobby ,voice. “I’m P-P-Peanut McDoodle, sir.” “My brother’s son?” “Yes.” “Well, come in, come in. You must be hungry, eat some of this bread, then I’ll show you to your room” True to his word right after a slice of bread he led me up the stairs to the fifth story bedroom. As soon as I stepped inside the room, he locked the door. “Hey, HEY! Let me OUT! LET ME OUT!?” I screamed. When no one answered I sat down and started to think. I had a PLAN! ______________________________ THUMP!! “What are you doing up there boy?” No answer. “I said What are you……?” He stopped short when he opened his door. There were bed sheets hanging out of the window and the mattress was lying on the ground. Suddenly out of no where the boy jumped out right in front of Bert, kicked him the ankle and ran locking the door behind him. As soon as he got outside he pulled the bed sheets down and moved the mattress out from in front of the window. He looked around and saw a bag of rabid chipmunks. Probably meant for me I thought. Well I‘ll just use his powers against him!! I through the bag in the window and sat outside the door with a shot gun in handy. There was a loud scream and silence. Abducted by WHAT? About 2 days after my Uncle’s death as I was finishing the water tower when a grey hound bus pulled up. Someone stepped out took me by the hand and forced me on the bus, and knocked me over the head, I passed out. When I finally came to a 3 foot chipmunk was handing me a piece of bread. Ok. Now I have seen a lot in my life, but a 3 foot chipmunk? That’s when I saw him, Clint Eastwood. I was so surprised I passed out again. When I came to again I saw many pictures on the walls. Pictures of Mars and the Moon and all the other Planets. I was very stunned.

I didn’t edit this at all, simply copied and pasted. What it shows is an immature but deep appreciation for storytelling and writing—and the personality of a young girl who had a creative mind, a healthy imagination and a respect for distinguishing fact from fiction. Writing is not a science. It does not have a perfect formulaic equation that will work every time to produce a perfect work of art (Clearly! Just read the above again!). However, there are certain skills that we can teach ourselves and students in order to produce better expository, persuasive and creative writing. Most people know the steps of the writing process: prewriting, drafting, revising and proofing. However, just knowing the steps to the writing process is not enough to succeed in the process, there has to be something more. When I was in the fourth grade, I was a terrible writer. My diction and grammar were horrible and messy. It was this time period that solidified my belief in learning and teaching good writing skills and the encouragement that needs follow to help each kid find their niche. I still remember one of the papers that I wrote in fourth grade. I do not have a hard copy of it anymore, but I remember what it was that caused it to stick in my memory so forcefully. It wasn’t the organization or the diction, but rather the comments my teacher made. It was a creative writing assignment that I wrote about a girl who was lying to her mother about keeping a skunk in her room as a pet. The skunk gave off a terrible odor one day when her mother came into check up on the girl, but instead of telling her mother the truth, the girl lied and made the excuse that she had ‘farted.’ My teacher was impressed with my ability to cultivate a story that complex at my age, which was the kind of encouragement that I was used to from my teachers. But that is not what I remember the most. After she praised my story, she told me that using the word ‘fart’ in a paper was inappropriate. That dumbfounded me. It seems to me that in writing, and in teaching writing, it is difficult to say to a student that they are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ because it is the unconventional creative writers that thrive.  However, had the piece been non-fiction or expository her comment would have had more of a foundation, because different kinds of diction are required for the various types of writing. My teacher’s comment has taught me what I want to pass on to others about writing as a process, but even more importantly, it educated me on what I do not want to pass on. Instead of teaching formulas, writing requires an initial demonstration of methodology followed by intense practice. Since my fourth grade epiphany, I have been perfecting this theory. Often during my education courses we were encouraged to be supportive of students’ work. We were told to use reinforcement instead of punishment in order to fully develop the students’ abilities. This kind of thinking applies to teaching writing too, but more importantly we should encourage the students to find themselves in their writing. Much of the writing process is recognizing yourself as a writer.  Becoming  aware of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer helps you to improve your own work. Commenting on style, appreciating uniqueness and encouraging creativity can all help a others recognize their own writing niche. Once a writer identifies their own voice they can work with it to make it the best it can possibly be. However, if the voice remains foreign, the writer’s understanding is inhibited by confusion. The writer spends most of their time scrambling to make sense out of the unknown and falls behind as a result. As teachers, writers and critiquers, it is our job to facilitate the discovery of the self to help each other become thriving writers. Many of these comments and ideas are theories, ideas I have learned in school which will help me, but not nearly as much as experience. Just like Scientific theories must be tested, so must writing theories. Because my parents taught me not to lie, I discovered how to write.  My fourth grade teacher encouraged me to create, and so I formulated an opinion on teachers and writing. I have had many good teachers who have taught me about subject matter and theory, but experience has been the best teacher that I have ever had, so I end up with stories that read more like this:

          Eerie quiet hugged the house in the early morning hours. Feeling like an intruder, Andi made herself continue for the door instead of returning to the comfort of the upstairs bedroom. Once outside, she took calculating steps down to the lawn, where she sat down with her legs stretched out in front of her. She felt her muscles tighten in protestation as she reached for her toes, sheltered by her faithful, worn Shox TL Nike—the most expensive running shoe around. As she sat up again, her muscles gave a sigh of relief before pinching up again as the cycle continued. During her warm up, her mind carefully planned the perfect run that would circle the front yard, bringing her up by then fence, then down around the barn and finally back up by the house. Not exactly the Olympic track Michael Johnson would have chosen, but satisfactory for the stress relief that she needed at that particular moment in time. Her thoughts were running loose and she wanted to return them to the Alcatraz of her mind. Both legs felt ready for their work out as she shook them out, the laces flailing and thumping on the black and blue polyurethane shox columns. Her legs pumped up and down, grinding the dirt beneath her feet as she jogged in place. Then, as if a starting gunshot had pierced the air, she took off around the yard, pushing herself, slowly at first and then faster and faster. She circled two times before the tears of frustration started to fall. They carved dirt caked trenches down her face and neck and blinded her with their glistening salty sting. Then her nose began to run, causing her to sniffle and snuff as she gasped for breath around the obnoxious emotions. Pushing herself to run harder and faster, she made the next two laps in record time in her attempt to escape the tantalizing voices in her head. But the faster she ran, the louder they became. On her fifth lap, she began to feel weak and slowed down as she made her way up by the fence. With a surge of adrenaline, she forced herself to sprint for the barn, seeing nothing. She’d barely made it around when her foot caught on the roots of the grass and she fell like a giraffe, head over heels until she was nothing but a heap of dirt-caked human, a peachy-brown contrast to the Bermuda green grass.

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Open up your mind to the stories within.
(Door to SECCA house in Winston Salem, NC)

A Practice in Perspective

I love looking at things from different points of view, which is probably why my students have multiple exercises each year dealing with point of view and perspective. I fully believe that putting yourself in someone else’s shoes can often help solve even the most complex of problems.

Not that it always works–otherwise I’d have found the solution for how to achieve world peace–but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

One of my college writing classes had us do something with perspective that I’ve been playing with a little this week, mostly because I can. We wrote a story from one point of view with at least two characters and then we switched the point of view around so that we could explore characterization in depth. This was my original piece told from Veruna’s perspective:

“The exact moment that the fall of mankind’s dominance occurred remains a mystery to the modern world. The inconceivable phenomenon evolved slowly so that the change became almost natural and nigh undetectable as it slithered its way into existence. One fact and one fact alone remains clear: change has happened. Denial is still prevalent among the vast majority of the fallen race, but I, brilliant mastermind that I am, have artfully recorded my observations and submitted to the inevitable, knowing full well that our days of power have come to an end.

 

The deviant forms have come to every neighborhood and city, commanding our utmost attention and care. We have no choice but to submit to their demands and live as comfortably as possible within our cloistered confines.

 

My theory and definitive conclusion was born out of experience and experience’s name is Jennis.

 

For years I determined to study The Change as an observant outsider. My goal was to remain detached but I soon learned that it was an impossible task for as a human there is and was little I could do to resist The Change I studied. Jennis arrived to assume control of my daily living and pursue the growing domination of his species. He lords over me with reckless abandon and pursues the life of continual comfort. These creatures are far more advanced than humans who must first school themselves to acquire knowledge that is innate for ones so mighty.

 

Jennis understands the way the world works and has since birth, leaving massive amounts of time that are wasted on humans.

 

My personal research shows the new dominations require the ex-dominate species to follow certain rules or else co-existence is impossible and the stronger breed will be the survivor—“

 

“Veruna, what are you babbling about?” the voice interrupted my speech and I looked up in surprise.

I had been working on my speech for days. The scientific community had a right to know that my discoveries were for real. They needed to know that the end of the world was coming. They needed to know.

 

“Veruna?” she asked again. I looked over and saw Serena staring at me. Her green eyes had that clouded look in them like the atmosphere in the moments before a hurricane unleashes its powerful destruction. That look immediately told me she was concerned about something I’d done, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why she was looking at me like that.

 

I tried to clear my mind. What had we been talking about before? Perhaps if I just asked her…

 

“What’s wrong, Serena?”

I had definite ideas for where I wanted these characters to go and what I wanted this interaction to become. It was interesting to hear the theories of my class, which I kept in mind as I rewrote the piece from Serena’s point of view trying to be clearer about where I wanted to the story to go:

“The exact moment that the fall of mankind’s dominance occurred remains a mystery to the modern world. The inconceivable phenomenon evolved slowly so that the change became almost natural and nigh undetectable as it slithered its way into existence. One fact and one fact alone remains clear: change has happened. Denial is still prevalent among the vast majority of the fallen race, but I, brilliant mastermind that I am, have artfully recorded my observations and submitted to the inevitable, knowing full well that our days of power have come to an end.

 

My theory and definitive conclusion was born out of experience and experience’s name is Jennis.

 

For years I determined to study The Change as an observant outsider. My goal was to remain detached but I soon learned that it was an impossible task for as a human there is and was little I could do to resist The Change I studied. Jennis arrived to assume control of my daily living and pursue the growing domination of—“

 

“Veruna, what are you babbling about?” I interrupted my friend with the loving care that anyone might have in the situation. Veruna had been talking to herself for a while. That much I could tell. Or maybe she was talking to someone else. I couldn’t be sure. Everything with Veruna is a little unclear to me.

She looked up, but said nothing to me. The blank stare was a bit disconcerting so I tried her name again. Sometimes that worked. “Veruna?”

 

“Hmm?” the hum was deep and it went straight to my soul with its undertone reverberations of someone who wasn’t quite sure where she was or why she was doing something. Her bright sea green eyes were vitric, common signs when the mind had become as cryptic as hieroglyphics in the maze of pyramids in the Valley of the Kings.

 

“What are you doing in here?” I asked again. Redundancy dismantles walls.

 

“Practicing my speech,” she murmured. The wall was still intact, but she was responding.

 

“What speech, Veruna?”

 

I stepped over and around the clutter of books, old term papers, clothes from previous days’ outfits and mismatched shoes. It looked like what I imagined her mind resembled.

 

“My speech. For the convention next week. I’m revealing my findings about Jennis finally. I think it is time.”

 

I tried to think of something to say. Something that didn’t make it sound like I thought she was crazy, but I was coming up blank.

I realized that my characterization was much clearer the second go round as I shifted perspectives. The first selection was too cryptic. I thought that would be good, to keep the mystery alive, but my perception was colored by my own sense of where the story was headed and I was blinded by foreknowledge. By shifting the point of view, I made it clearer to my readers what was going on in the scene. Now, do I think this is the best scene I’ve written. No, not really. I think it’s still a little unclear and wordy. I invite your comments and criticism.

Who is Serena to you? Who is Veruna? What do these interactions tell you? And most importantly, do you agree with the idea that shifting perspective can be a useful tool to writing and life?

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What is lost/gained as cultural identity evolves?

One of the questions I ask my students every year is “What is lost and/or gained as cultures evolve?” The idea behind the question is to get them thinking about how cultural identity is constantly in flux, first of all, and second of all how even though a culture may be considered ancient, that doesn’t make it irrelevant.

Every year they surprise me with the depth of their insight. We don’t give the youth of today enough credit for their ability to think critically when given the opportunity. Yes, the digital age is severely handicapping our kids’ ability to communicate effectively, but as one of my students points out “an evolving culture can’t lose their identity without gaining a new one” and that is exactly what our digital age does for our students. It is providing them an opportunity to form a new identity for their culture. I hope they take this seriously, so as an educator it is my job to help them see past the “Mily Cyrus twerking and wrecking ball” farce of an era we are living in and help them create a future they can actually believe in.

So the question is: how do we teach our students how to build a future to believe in?

This goes back to my original question. Teenagers today need to know that many things are lost in a culture as it evolves so they can choose to retain the valuable, ditch the unreasonable and procure the resources necessary to build a brighter future for us all.

The first topic we discuss is inevitably technology. As products of a digital age, the symbol 2/3 of almost all my classes choose to represent the “typical American teenager” is always a cellular device (of course I have to mention my students who think outside of the box and want to represent teenagers with a “rock” or other symbol—but they wouldn’t be teenagers if one or two of them didn’t want to deviate from the accepted norm, right?).  In an age of phones that apparently are “smarter” than we are—my students are quick to recognize that we gain new technologies every year; they are just as quick to say that this gains us knowledge—until I question them on this point: does access to information actually gain you knowledge? And then crickets. With some perception shift, they begin to understand that “as [our] culture begins to grow we tend to drift, and every day we seem to lose more knowledge, as new technology comes out.” My point is then proved with a handwritten response to this question: “we seem to worry less, but on the down side we become to releint on contraptions that could mounfunction, and makes us hopless, we loose are level of indepence.” I leave the misspelled words in the response as I think it helps drive the point home—there is no spell check, so has this student lost his ability to sound out even basic words like independence and malfunction? In his own analysis, as a society we would rather let machines do the work for us, so we begin to lose our ability to think for ourselves.

At this point, I hope that “Danger, Will Robinson!” is beginning to flash in front of them (not that any of them actually get this allusion, but one can dream).

Unfortunately, this is not enough for students to completely change their generation. And sadly, we continue to give our upcoming generation mixed messages. On the one hand, we want to encourage them to think critically and more importantly for themselves. On the other, we keep shoving digital media in their hands and in front of their faces we begin to lose sight of what is really important in education: the mind.

I want my students to succeed, but in a world where success is mis-defined and quite frankly unappreciated, what will it take to turn that bus around? 

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