Circumstance and Plot

I can’t remember how my fascination with trains began. My brothers and I used to watch for smoke from the steam engine that pulled train cars along tracks that made their way just beyond the hills to the southeast of our farm. On a clear day, you could hear the train chugging its way between Custer City and Clinton, Oklahoma. And, if you climbed to the tallest hill on the farm, there was an outside chance that you might see the train—sometimes we did. 

I was a member of the Speech and Debate Club at Grays Harbor College in Aberdeen, Washington. In the spring, we took the train from Portland, Oregon to Weber College (now Weber State University) in Ogden, Utah for the Phi Rho Pi National Junior College Speech and Debate Tournament. We were routed through Green River, Wyoming and down to Ogden. I found myself staring out the window, awestruck by the stark beauty of the country we passed. I’d traveled it by car, but seeing it from a train window was an altogether different experience.

The picture is of my granddaughter and me at the Railway Museum in Sacramento. As we climbed on board the Santa Fe Chief at the Museum, I couldn’t help thinking about my Uncle Frank and his little brother making the trip from Kansas City to Sacramento every summer. 
 
 

I’d traveled the route by car many times over. I invariably wondered what would happen if the car broke down or by some stroke of bad luck we were stranded in a remote area. It was new food for thought: what would happen if a couple of boys got off the train and were stranded in the desert between Kansas City and L.A./Sacramento? Coincidently, about the same time, I read an article about luxury train cars. (You can find out more about private railroad cars at the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners website.) Who knew you could rent or buy your own train car? I clipped the article and put it in the little black marble notebook where I kept ideas. (Yes, for those of you who have read it, it is probably why Robert has a black marble notebook in The Last Crystal.) So what might happen if Uncle Frank and little Clyde stumbled into a private railroad car. Who would they find there?  

Life intervenes. I’d been busy enough as a mother and elementary school teacher. But the idea had to go on hold when I was admitted to a doctoral program at Teachers College, Columbia University (TC) in the late 1980s. After the doctoral program came the Assistant Professorship and the drive for tenure. I was teaching, indulging my bent for historical research, and writing—not about train rides and quests for something for some unknown reason.

Years later, after retiring from TC, I picked up the idea again. The black marble notebook in which I’d kept careful notes and clippings before graduate school days, had disappeared. But the idea hadn’t. My granddaughter was approaching eight-years-old and we shared stories together. I knew she’d be a willing accomplice. But it had to be ready for her. I wondered about who might be in that private car and what would be a motive powerful enough to drive a quest.

As chance often dictates, an unrelated set of circumstances gave me the motive I’d been looking for. I accepted an assignment to serve as a Senior Curriculum Specialist for the USAID Teacher Education Project in Pakistan, a collaborative venture between The Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, and USAID, with Michigan State University (MSU) as a partner. I began working with MSU. Later, TC became a partner. I stayed on, making trips to Pakistan, usually for three or four weeks every other month or so.  

 

Here I am meeting with two long-term friends in Pakistan. We’re at one of the many workshops we had with Pakistani University faculty colleagues. An article in the TC News tells of how Hareem (left), who was my student at TC, and I met again in Islamabad. Rana Hussain, gifted curriculum specialist and another Senior Curriculum Specialist, is at the right. Rana is from Karachi and retired from the Institute of Educational Development, Aga Khan University, Karachi.

Early on, a colleague introduced me to a lovely jewelry and curio shop in the Super Market Shopping Center in Islamabad, Sector F6. The Punjab Museum carries artifacts and exquisite jewelry made by local artisans. Over the three years I worked on the project, I bought several gifts at The Punjab Museum. I loved chatting with the young man who ran the store on those rare occasions when the shop happened to be empty. One day he invited me to see something he had just acquired. “What do you think about this?” It was a beautiful egg-shaped stone that had been polished smooth. Inside a bubble of water was trapped in the middle—you could see through the translucent part of the stone. We speculated about the unusual formation and how old the water was—maybe as old as time.  

Water as old as time—when the earth was new. Such water would surely have magical healing powers. The lure of the Fountain of Youth, the quest for eternal life—such is the stuff of quest stories. What might such water do? And what might one give to possess it?  All the disconnected pieces began to come together: a train ride, a private car, a quest.

Next time, I’ll talk about how the setting and characters developed.  

Mist, Children, Poetry and Times Past

Mist marches across the valley.
Down a long slope the mist marches.
And then up a long slope the mist marches.
from Carl Sandburg, Mist Marches Across the Valley

Last week I was in a beautiful old farmhouse on the Choptank River where I focused entirely on writing. The first few days were rainy. The river ran high. I loved the wet mornings, watching the mist rise from the river. 

Carl Sandburg talks about how mist moving across the valley carries everything with it, armies, kingdoms, guns. The rhythms of nature, like mist, are timeless, indifferent to our triumphs and failures.

When I taught in elementary school, I always looked forward to the first really misty, foggy morning. It was the perfect time to introduce Carl Sandburg’s little haiku (as he referred to it) to the children:

The fog comes on little cat feet, It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches And then moves on.  

I never asked children to memorize a poem. I invited them to join me in saying a line that stood out for them. They knew “Fog”almost immediately after I introduced it. By the end of the year, whether I was with kindergartners or fifth grade, we had a reperitorie of a couple of dozen favorites that we knew by heart and we enjoyed together. 

Fall was a great time to invite children into the Walter de la Mare’s Someone, too.  It is a perfect poem for this season. There is such a mysterious, haunting quality to it, inviting imagination. “I’m sure, sure, sure,”and “At all, at all, at all.”Were great places to join in at first. 

Some One

Some one came knocking
At my wee, small door;
Someone came knocking;
I’m sure-sure-sure;
I listened, I opened,
I looked to left and right,
But nought there was a stirring
In the still dark night;
Only the busy beetle
Tap-tapping in the wall,
Only from the forest
The screech-owl’s call,
Only the cricket whistling
While the dewdrops fall,
So I know not who came knocking,
At all, at all, at all.

We used to speculate about who came knocking and whether or not they knocked at a fairy door.  Could have been, if you have imagination.

I talk more about how I taught poetry in the classroom and the connection between peotry and children’s spirituality in an essay I wrote for the Teachers College Record a few years ago: 

Only Those Who See Take Off Their Shoes: Seeing the Classroom as a Spiritual Space,  Teachers College Record Volume 111, Number 12, December 2009, pp. 2713–2731 

The writing retreat was productive. Wet October mornings brought back memories of mist, children, poetry and times past.