Monday, May 31, 2010

the boy who harnessed the wind

oliver sacks

oliver sacks

I remember the first time I saw the movie 'Awakenings'. I was living at Jeff Street Baptist Center and working with a community of inner-city teenagers from the Clarksdale housing projects in Louisville, Kentucky. Monday nights were 'Dollar Movie Nights' for us and we would load up in our orange van (affectionately called 'The Great Pumpkin') and head out to the theater. On that Monday night I chose 'Awakenings' as our movie of the week, hoping that my kids would identify with the 'helping each other overcome' theme in the story. My dream was deferred. They hated it! Within 15 minutes of the start of the movie they were throwing popcorn at the screen! We got up and changed theaters to something faster paced and action oriented. I had to promise to check my movie choices with them before they agreed to go with me again.

I loved the first fifteen minutes of Awakenings, though, and went back to the theater to see the whole movie by myself on the next night. I identified with Dr. Oliver Sacks (played by Robin Williams) and the compassion, commitment and creativity he had toward his patients suffering with post-encephalitic disease, a 'sleepy sickness' that broke out in the world just after the First World War and left the sick in varying states of suspended animation unable to realize that years were going by, unknowing that they were 40 years older than when their bodies succumbed to the disease. I saw myself in the way he came home from the chronic hospital where he served and poured himself into the study of the little known plants he tended in his sparse apartment. I felt the community of dedicated friends around him in the asylum. I understood why the movie received 3 Oscar nominations, one for best actor (Robert DeNiro for his role as Leonard), one for best picture, and one for best writing of a screenplay adapted from a book.

The movie led me to the book 'Awakenings' by Oliver Sacks and into the literary and neurological worlds of one of the finest writers and doctors of our time. He taught me to picture people (and the characters in my stories) as worlds, a variety of worlds - the landscapes of being in which they reside. And the picturing of worlds requires an active exploration of images and views, a continual jumping-about and imaginative movement instead of a static and systematic formulation. I like the image 'landscape of being' and it helps me see the world with insight and grace. I hope it helps you, too.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

teaching haikus

teaching haikus

farmer's weathered hands,
planting in the broken ground
working, hoping hope

an empty classroom
early on an August day
hopes and dreams grow there

number 2 pencil,
a story to be written
on a bright new page

immigrant children
walk into the classroom and
sit down quietly

at the school window,
a child stands alone outside
under a shade tree

little bonsai tree,
growing slowly, unnoticed
in the morning sun

Tuesday, May 18, 2010



Once I opened a new box of Crayola Crayons. I looked inside of the box and saw all of the beautiful colors, all of the colors of the rainbow, all of the colors of the people of the world, all of those colors and more! There were 64 colors in the crayon box!

As I was gazing at all of those amazing colors, a surprising and wonderful thing happened. The box of crayons spoke to me!

"Excuse me," it asked, "What is your favorite color?"

"My favorite color is yellow," I answered and smiled in wonder at the friendly box of crayons. "Thank you for asking."

The box of crayons smiled back at me and asked simply and profoundly, "Why is yellow your favorite color?"

"That is a great question," I said to my inquisitive friend. "You are the first one to ever inquire why my favorite color is my favorite color."

"Colors are my life," remarked my humble friend.

"Well," I began, "Yellow is my favorite color because it is the color of the early morning sun as it rises over the horizons and hills of Africa where I lived. It warms me. Yellow is the color that moves me in Vincent Van Gogh's paintings. It inspires me. And yellow is the color of my grandpa's freshly shucked corn. It comforts me. When I hold my baby Zeke and kiss him softly on the cheek, I feel yellow. When I read with my 9-year-old Bakary, I feel yellow. As I share life with my wife Robin, I feel yellow. This is why yellow is my favorite color," I reflected.

"Please take my yellow," said my wise, colorful friend, "And hold hands with people who like red and blue and green and orange and purple and all of the other colors inside of me and go out together with them and color the world."

I gladly accepted the yellow crayon, gently closed the lid of my newfound friend, and went out hopefully with color in my heart.

Monday, May 17, 2010

the last shot: city streets, basketball dreams

the last shot: city streets, basketball dreams

Have you ever read a book you wish you'd written? I'm reading one now. It's "The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams" by Darcy Frey. Basketball is and always has been my favorite sport. When I was a kid, I spent the last hours of sunlight each day shooting freethrows at the trusty iron rim Dad put up for me in our back yard. The best games in the history of the sport were won or lost in the final seconds with me at the charity stripe, my heart pounding harder than the sound of the dribble of the ball on concrete. I was the point guard for the North Carolina Tarheels or the Philadelphia 76ers and I could hear the cheers from Chapel Hill and Philly and the jeers from Durham and Boston as the ball left my fingertips. I shoot freethrows still. The best games I played in were games on the courts of the Clarksdale Housing Projects in Louisville, Kentucky, a place where I lived and served. I think of those games still.

In "The Last Shot", Frey has written a compassionate book. It is truly a compass that guides us into the sneakers and the hearts of children growing up in the housing projects of Coney Island, New York, inner-city kids defying the law of nature by growing in a tough place like flowers growing through concrete. It is truly passionate about basketball and life, basketball as it is loved by children, coaches, and as it is felt through the hearts of people who know human beings are human beings and not commodities.

"There's something I'd like to ask. If you'll do it, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds. You see, you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view," says Atticus to Scout, Jem, and Dill in "To Kill A Mockingbird." "Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." This book helps you do just that...climb into the sneakers and skins of inner-city children and play the game of basketball and feel the struggle and triumph of life.

Monday, May 10, 2010

the housekeeper and the professor

the housekeeper and the professor

"The Housekeeper and the Professor" by Yoko Ogawa is a truly wonderful book. Ogawa is one of my favorite authors. I learned about her in the literary journal "A Public Space," a journal out of Brooklyn, NY that contains many themes - seeing and feeling the world through someone's eyes and heart, especially a someone who is small and forgotten, someone who is an underdog; finding wisdom in the seemingly foolish and strength in the seemingly weak - that are meaningful to me. Here is a synopsis of the story from Powell's Books -

He is a brilliant math Professor with a peculiar problem--ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory.
She is an astute young Housekeeper, with a ten-year-old son, who is hired to care for him.

And every morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are introduced to each other anew, a strange and beautiful relationship blossoms between them. Though he cannot hold memories for long (his brain is like a tape that begins to erase itself every eighty minutes), the Professor's mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past. And the numbers, in all of their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her young son. The Professor is capable of discovering connections between the simplest of quantities--like the Housekeeper's shoe size--and the universe at large, drawing their lives ever closer and more profoundly together, even as his memory slips away.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is an enchanting story about what it means to live in the present, and about the curious equations that can create a family.

Here is a review I wrote about the story for Powell's Books -

This book is a serendipity, like a flower growing through the cracks of a cement sidewalk. Ogawa's lowly housekeeper, broken math professor, and latchkey kid show the essence of being human - building community in the midst of loneliness, finding hope in the midst of despair, being human in the midst of inhumanity. It also introduces the wonderful worlds of math and baseball. A simply profound book that is profoundly simple!

I'm looking to vanquish the cruelties of the real world and I'm always hoping to find authors like Ogawa to who are signs who point the way.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Watching with Wonder

Watching with Wonder

My county is a farm county and so I’m the son of a farmer and a child of the deep, rich soil of Clarendon County. Most mornings, just before sunrise, I stand sleepily outside our back screen door and see the world brighten around me to a maizy yellow, the color of corn before it fully ripens underneath the husk of a cob growing on a stalk. In the evening, just before sunset, I wonder wearily outside that same door and watch the tomato-y sun hang on the horizon, the color of a “goliath” the day we pick it off the vine. The long day in between is filled with cow milking, egg gathering, school going, weed hoeing, lesson learning, and cow milking again. The days are good, though, because I have a younger brother named Carver, who, as Momma and Daddy say, is my pea in the pod. He's my best friend.

A surprising thing happened on the morning he was born, a thing that turned life on our small farm in Clarendon County, South Carolina upside down. It was March 16, 1948. The window was open in my Momma and Daddy’s bedroom because spring had come early and Momma appreciated the cool morning breeze blowing through the cotton curtains after her long night of labor. With the breeze came a lightning bug. Did it stay up all night, flashing its light to the sleeping world? Or did it sleep all night, taking flight at dawn, shining its light on the waking world? “You always ‘a askin’ questions,” said my Daddy early to me one morning as I walked my shoeless feet through the freshly turned soil. His hands were on the plow and he was following our old mule Charlie and I was following him. “That’s a good thing, askin’ questions. Did you know questions drive the world forward, like I’m drivin’ ol’ Charlie down the row? Did you know questions can turn the world upside down, like the plow turns the hard, rocky ground into soft, helpful soil? Did you know questions are like the seeds we’re gonna plant in these rows? It takes a long time to get from seeds to fruits and vegetables and it takes a long time to get from questions to answers that can make a difference in the world. But seeds change to food that feeds people and questions change to answers that can make the world a better place. You keep ‘a askin’ questions always, Carter. Always keep ‘a askin’ questions.” I’ve always tried to do just that, to ask as many questions as I can ask.

There are two questions I haven’t had to ask, though, since that morning Carver was born. Here was the surprising thing that happened. My little baby brother was wrapped in a blanket, snuggled by Momma’s side with his wide brown eyes open. He was as still as the water in our farm pond on a mid May afternoon. The lightning bug that came into the room with the breeze lit gently on his nose. I watched in wonder as my brother blinked his eyes four short blinks and the lightning bug blinked its light four short times. He blinked his eyes three long blinks and it blinked its light three long blinks. Was my brother communicating with the lightning bug? Was such a thing possible? To help me see that I could believe my eyes, he blinked one short, two long, and one short blinks and the lightning bug blinked the same. He finished with one short blink and it gave a final short blink before it took flight and went out the window through which it came. It was at that moment I knew the answers to the two questions we all ask deep in our hearts – How can we be useful, of what service can we be? There is something inside of us, what can it be? I was meant to live life with my special brother and write down what was inside of us.

Just tonight, he stood quietly beside his desk with a magnifying glass in his hand. I looked at him from the splintered pine frame of our kitchen door where I was standing. He turned around slowly, like a person who is in deep thought, and looked at me through the lens of the glass. His magnified eye was astonishingly big and brown – as big as the globe in my second grade classroom and as brown as the turned soil of our farm.

- Carver, why you up? It’s the middle of the night.

- I cain’t sleep.

- What you doin’?

- I’m studyin’ a tomato.

I walked to him and knelt beside him. I turned his magnifying glass around and looked into his eye. I saw clearly the parts of his eye that my teacher taught to me at school – the colored part that is the iris and the black part that is the pupil. But it was Carver, my five-year-old brother, who taught me how these parts work together to give us our sense of sight. It was Carver who helped me understand how we see. His lessons always began and ended with questions and were filled with an amazing assortment of facts that came from God only knows where. Our talk about seeing went something like this –

- Carter, you know the five senses?

- Yeah. Let me think…seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.

-Did’ya know if we divided our brains into three parts, two of the parts would be filled up by seeing?

- Naw, I didn’t know that. Seein’ is that important, huh?

- Yeah. You know what a person who studies the inside parts of the body is called?

- Naw, I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout that.

- Well, that person is called an anatomist. An anatomist is kind of like an artist whose art he’ps us know where those parts are and what they do. Did you know there were artists like that?

- Naw, I didn’t.

- Yeah, there was this anatomist in Africa a long time ago named Rufus. He he’pd us understand the parts of the eye. Do you want me to teach you about the eye?

- Sure

- There’s a thin layer on the inside of the eyeball. It’s the retina. No one could see into the retina until microscopes were invented. When people looked inside the retina for the first time they found millions of rod and cone cells. The rods and cones find rays of light and turn them into signals for the optic nerves. The optic nerves send signals to the brain and it turns them into pictures. ‘Cause of the way lenses work, the picture is upside down. The brain turns it right side up. Idn’ that amazing?

- Yeah, it's amazing. And, you know what? So are you.

He taught me the parts of the eye that helped him see the world as everyone sees it. In that moment, though, deep in the dark of night, I tried to see the parts that I didn’t understand, the parts that woke my brother in the middle of the night to study a tomato while our corner of the world slept, the parts that helped him see the world as only Carver could see it. But those parts remained hidden to me. I gently put my arm around his shoulders and held him close to me.

Monday, May 3, 2010

in our hearts we won them all

in our hearts we won them all

I attended a basketball banquet and a girls team gathered together on the stage. Their coach gave a small speech before she introduced each player. "We didn't win any games this season," she said, "but in our hearts we won them all." Wow! What a quote! "In our hearts we won them all." I'll always remember it and hold it in my heart.

Not long after that banquet I heard a story on National Public Radio about a high school girls basketball team in Texas that lost a game 100-0. I found an article about the game written by Barry Horn for the Dallas Morning News. Horn wrote "Later on the 100-0 night, Civello (the losing coach) told his girls the life lesson they could take from their loss: 'I told them someday they will be on top in a similar situation and they should remember how they felt when some people were cheering for a team to score a hundred points and shut us out. Hopefully, my girls all learned a lesson in sportsmanship that will last a lifetime.'"

In her wonderful book, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L. Konigsburg made this observation about becoming a team, a family:

Something happened at precisely that moment. Both Claudia and Jamie tried to explain to me about it, but they couldn't quite. I know what happened but I never told them. Having words and explanations for everything is too modern...

What happened was: they became a team, a family of two. There had been times before they ran away when they had acted like a team, but those were very different from feeling like a team. Becoming a team didn't mean the end of their arguments. But it did mean that the arguments became a part of the adventure, became discussions not threats. To an outsider the arguments would appear to be the same because feeling like part of a team is something that happens invisibly. You might call it caring. You could even call it love. And it is very rarely, indeed, that it happens to two people at the same time - especially a brother and a sister who had always spent more time with activities than they had with each other.

There are winners and losers in all parts of our world - the social parts, the economic parts, the political parts, the religious parts - all parts. I am hoping and working for a time when we become a team/family/community, when we can cheer for cooperation over conquest, when we can 'give under' instead of 'take over', and when we can say, "In our hearts and in our life together we won them all."