Jessica Bell’s Icasia Bloom Touches Readers With Happiness

Review: How Icasia Bloom Touched Happiness (Vine Leaves Press), by Jessica Bell

Scheduled for release 21 September 2021

By Rus VanWestervelt

***NO SPOILERS***

I don’t know about you, but I have a full shelf of books that I return to often. Sure, I love the plots, and they are entertaining in a way that makes me want to keep reading to the very end, even though I know every plot twist and turn as if I had written them myself. I come back to them time and time again because I need to remember a certain message about life: believe in yourself, don’t get too caught up in the world’s drama, the power of love. You get the picture.

Jessica Bell’s newest novel, How Icasia Bloom Touched Happiness, now has a permanent place on that shelf.

Here’s why.

The storyline is simple enough. Four characters find themselves in various stages of paradoxical oppression, as they face the challenges of a dystopian-ish leader who requires the acquisition of perpetual happiness to be guaranteed eternal harmony in what Bell terms a “Second Life Phase.” When “The Globe” is getting a little crowded, leadership thinks it’d be a bright idea to chop a few decades off the life span of those still pining for that happiness.

Bell delivers in two key areas: complex character development and story structure.

First, Bell builds characters that are immediately accessible to us as readers. Icasia and Selma are young moms who have fought against the system and don’t believe they are destined for Globe salvation. Jerome, Selma’s husband, is just months away from his Death Inducement, and he struggles to find happiness in every aspect of his life – in his job, with his wife Selma, and especially with Selma’s daughter, Leila.

Each of these four characters is on a unique but relatable deadline – none more terrifying than Jerome’s – to discover truths about themselves and about life itself, despite the governmental gaslighting that seems to have the world convinced that their way is the only way to eternal happiness.

Through an intricately woven tale told from multiple perspectives, Bell grabs us by the wrist in the first chapter and doesn’t let go until after we’ve turned over the last page, desperate for more.

The structure of the story is as intriguing as the plot line, including a volley between chapters titled, “Listen” and “Watch.” Even more compelling are Icasia’s first-person entries in the “Listen” chapters, addressed to a character named Eve who is not even part of the story as it is being revealed. Yet, Icasia writes to her as if she is talking directly to her – in the same space – as she is sharing the story with us.

Like the situation the characters find themselves in, Bell’s approach is equally paradoxical, a crossing of boundaries between characters and readers that is hard to pull off. Bell does the job, though, delivering a meta-experience for the reader that keeps you thinking through the entire read.

Just one example: We do not know how much time separates the telling of the story to the actual events unfolding. Every time we read a new “Listen” chapter, we are reminded that there is a deeper sense to this plot. Bell delivers on this promise in the end in one of the many twists. It’s this simple: the structure mirrors the storyline at every turn.

I have to say it: Icasia Bloom is a meta-novel crafted to make you think beyond the story. It will work your mind without you even realizing it.

Without giving away any spoilers, this is what I was thinking as I was reading the novel (and this is why it is a top-shelf book in my library): Don’t believe everything you are told, or even that you see. The path of truth leading to authentic happiness lies deeper within, for each of us. No rules, no mandates, not even any life secrets heralded in the best of self-help or spiritual books can determine that truth for any one of us.

By the time we get to the ending, we realize that we are strapped in to a roller coaster of twists and turns, all highly unexpected.

There is urgency at the end, no doubt driven by the countdown to Jerome’s scheduled Death Inducement, and at times I wanted the converging plot lines to slow down. Bell does such a great job developing suspense through the evolution of her characters that I could have easily enjoyed another 50-75 pages of the climax and resolutions at the end.

Regardless, the reader is left with a good reason why Bell’s story is – and must be – told often. And why we must never tire of tales of hope, redemption, self-love, and of course, the essential pursuit of perpetual happiness.

56 Things I Have Learned

I turn 56 on March 3, so I offer you 56 things I have learned in these 56 spins around the sun. Which of these resonate with you?

1. We are the gatekeepers of the origins, the overtures, of our lives. No one knows us better than we know ourselves. The wisdom that resides within us from a lifetime of experiences deserves a longer listen, a deeper patience, to understand and embrace the beauty in each step we take. 

2. You never get “over” anything. Rather, you absorb it and consider what to do with what is now in you, a part of you.

3. The ebb and flow of tides, of life, of matters of joy and despair, are born out of chaos and the ancient battles between Gaia and others; such clashes are necessary to sustain a balance – tense and fragile as that may be – in our respective journeys.

4. All-Natural, no-stir peanut butter is the constant; chocolate, jelly, marshmallow fluff, among other tasty swirls merely build on what is already perfection.

5. Fall in love early and often; savor the sweet taste of innocence as if every day were spring’s first.

6. Read everything: poetry, short fiction, novels, essays, plays and make every line about you. Find the personal in every page.

7. Tell your story today and every day, wherever and however you can. As you evolve, so do your stories.

8. Creativity was never the end game; it is, and will always be, the spark that ignites unique imaginative and innovative thinking and action that only you can achieve.

9. Take nothing – absolutely nothing – personally.

10. The people you think you hate have origin stories no different than our own. You don’t really hate anyone; you hate the metaphorical coat they wear that hides the hurt, covers the scars, and keeps them safe from feeling compassion and self-love.

11. Music soothes; stillness calms; transcendence fulfills.

12. Integrity, equality, simplicity, community, stewardship of the earth, and peace – all Quaker values – are the pillars of our individual experiences and contributions to a good greater than the span of our own lifetimes.

13. Technology does not define you; circumstances do not define you; you define you.

14. Smile and laugh every day to bring levity and light along your path, to you and to others.

15. It’s okay to be selfish; embrace the WIIFM Principle (what’s in it for me) and make every dewdrop of the universe relevant and meaningful to your existence.

16. The sun always rises, no matter the clouds or darkness that might dim its light. 

17. “Dear Prudence,” as performed by the Jerry Garcia Band at Calderone Concert Hall in Hempstead, NY on February 29, 1980, is the best cover of a Beatles song ever played.

18. You are capable of doing so many things with dreadful mediocrity. The wisdom lies in choosing the few which you will do in greatness. 

19. Thoreau’s words: “Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!” and Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us” were penned generations before the world of digital immediacy consumed us. There are lessons in a pre-technology world that mean as much to us today as they did centuries ago to the authors who penned them.

20. Always remember to see the elephant swallowed whole by the snake, and not some silly Bowler hat lying on the ground. 

21. Jack Delaney and Mike DeVita were the two best teachers I had while in school because they pushed me to the brink while never losing faith in me. Since the first day they met me (and I met them), they believed in me the writer, the actor, the individual. If it weren’t for them, I would not be doing the things I love. Teachers, man. They do that to you. Believe in you. So you can believe in yourself. 

22. Third grade teachers have the worst job ever, where they have to break out that red pen and break the hearts of writers who thought their words were special, perfect, moving. Third grade teachers who become your friends 45 years after those come-to-Jesus classroom moments are mentors, gifts of the wizarding world, and all-around God-sends as you are still trying to figure everything out. Jane Gordon is my Dumbledore, my Gandalf, my Glynda.

23. Many of my closest friends today are from high school, but surprisingly not the ones who were closest to me then. That saddens me. My every moment was spent with these lovely few people in years 11 and 12, and they have “grown out” of me, they say. The ones with whom I am closest today are genuine, sincere, authentic, life-embracing individuals that I should have spent more time with 40 years ago. I am sorry about that.

24. When there are no expectations or desires, all things are at peace.

25. I spent a lot of time in junior and high school sticking up for the bullied, but I crossed that line a few times myself. Stones, glass houses, all that stuff. I’ve made amends with most of them, but those scars run deep. I will never be able to undo those hurtful things no matter how many times I apologize. I’m human; we’re all human. The pain still lingers, though, and I will carry that to the end. 

26. Cheap mint-chocolate ice cream by the pint soothes any illness, any heartbreak, at least temporarily. Add some Hershey’s syrup and Cool Whip, and soon you’ll be wondering if you ever had a trouble in your whole life. 

27. I embrace the various parts of me that want to do different things at different times: teach, write, paint, sketch, color, take photos, solve math problems, be alone, be with a big crowd, play music, listen to music, act, direct, spectate. To deny myself of any one of these things, at any one time, is to deny who I am as a human being: complicated, simple, outrageous, quiet, loving, happy. 

28. I have learned more from spending a day in the woods than I have spending a week in the library. 

29. The first book I remember reading, all by myself, was “Just Only John,” about a boy who wants to be somebody else, and finds himself turning into a pig and an old man, among other things, until he finally is, “just only John.” From the very start, because of my mother and our shared love for books, I have learned that we cannot be anybody but ourselves. It is what we are best at doing, and nobody can do it any better than we can. 

30. Sometimes I mourn the loss of friendships like I mourn the passing of loved ones. How can they ‘outgrow” me? What did I do in my older, wiser years, that turned them away? I am grateful for who is in my life today; together, we are growing older, and if not wiser, than simpler, together. 

31. Chocolate really does make everything a little better. Trust Professor Lupin; I think he knows more than any of us, being a werewolf and everything. 

32. I have never believed more in our future than I do today. I have seen the infancy of what is to come, through my treasured students, and I drift into these golden years knowing we’re all going to be okay; they are going to be okay; the world is going to be okay.

33. The first time I put a music CD in my car, I could not believe the difference in the quality of the sound. It was so crisp, so digitally perfect, and so wrong. I will never forget the era of the cassette mixtape, traveling with me like a lover to New England, Ocean City, and everywhere else I went. The sound quality was perfect for blaring as we became singing duets on the rise and fall of the mountains in Western Maryland, the smooth flats of the ocean dunes, and the rural roads of sleepy New England towns. Elton John, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, and so many more. We spent summers in concerts together along these American roads, and I long for their scratchy serenades, all jammed on 31-minute sides of magnetic-coated, polyester plastic film that rolled in rhythm to the rolling roads we journeyed. 

34. Maybe I value “space” as much as I do because it is what I grew up with. Not indoors, but behind our house, where a thin trickling stream separated our large back yard from the spacious, magical woods. There, we built tiger traps and bike ramps of dirt and discarded tree branches, spied on Ol’ Man Emil’s broken-down house looking for ghosts and other apparitions just beyond the dirty, cracked windows, and crouched among thorny bushes waiting for somebody to pass us, and nobody to notice us. We had space to create, fight, play, imagine, grow, become independent. We were granted space, and we made much of it in our childhoods. 

35. Carpe Diem once meant to me: do whatever you please; now, it means seizing the beauty in the day as only you can. It took me decades to learn this, but I wouldn’t change a thing. There is great growth in our failings, our misinterpretations, our blunders. May we all seize the ifs, whens, and possibilities around us as we do our best to manage our faults and misgivings. 

36. The 1980 Snickers campaign for that 2:30pm pick-me-up with a fist-full of peanuts in every bar was brilliant. Even today, mid-day, I will buy a Snickers over any other product because I am convinced it is what i need to get me through to dinner. But more seriously, it made me a better writer, for the more I make my stories immediately relevant to my audience, my readers, the better they are received (and, I hope, remembered).

37. I am forever amazed by this: The more artificial light you extinguish from Earth, the more natural light you see in the sky filled with ten-million stars. Sometimes, the darkest moments reveal the most bountiful pin-pricks of light, sewn wonderfully in a sky of black.

38. There really is no place like home.

39. “Home” is synonymous with “Querencia,” or your wanting-place where you feel invincible and safe. I first realized this when reading a book called “Writing Toward Home” by Georgia Heard. It’s a good accompaniment to Lisa Knopp’s collection of essays titled, “The Nature of Home.” I’ve always gravitated to such reflections, as I have felt “invincibly home” in the strangest of places, including the auditorium in my high school. There’s even a song in the broadway musical, A Chorus Line, “At The Ballet,” that alludes to the feeling of invincibility in creative spaces like a theater, or a dance studio, or even an old garage converted to an art workspace. Home is any place where you feel loved, invincible, creative, yourself, and there really is no place like it. 

40. Find what calms the mind, and do it often. For me, it is the coloring of Mandalas and Tessellations. More stories have been born, more problems resolved, in the simple process of coloring in methodical, sometimes tedious patterns where the mind takes a deep breath and exhales all the worry, the stress, the fear.  

41. James Taylor sings, “The secret o’ life is enjoying the passage of time,” and it has been a personal mantra of mine since I first heard this song while camping at one of the local campgrounds within an hour of our home. The only electronic I had with me was a battery-operated cassette deck, and I played that other White Album, JT’s Greatest Hits, with lyrics in one hand and a pencil in the other to respool the tape when it got caught in the machine. Odd that I was more attracted to listening to the song instead of abandoning the tape player for the boundless woods and running streams around me.  

42. It was in the connection with music: the lyrics, the soft plucks of guitar strings, the long-held single notes on the piano that captured me. And when I would eventually break away to go exploring in the woods, these songs stayed with me. Why do I feel such a bond with the solitudinal sounds of soft chords, raw vocals, and a love song founded in loss?

43. I am not a musician, nor a singer, despite decades of trying to be one, the other, or both. I’m not okay with that, yet I keep finding reasons why I shouldn’t just plow through and practice hard enough to get beyond this riptide of fear.

44. I say “I Love You” with sincerity and ease to a level that is sometimes uncomfortable to others. But it is born out of childhood goodbyes to my father when he left to fight fire in Baltimore City. Some of his best friends never came back home the next day, as they were Killed In The Line of Duty. His death came three years following the call that eventually killed him. And on that night when he died, I wasn’t afraid to tell him I loved him just one more time. 

45. Love can never be diminished in how many times we say it, share it, embrace it. Like a cherished but tattered doll, the love that makes it so cannot be undone or taken back. In the words of Margery Williams, the author of The Velveteen Rabbit, “Love matters, and that’s for always.”

46. Self-love is just as important as the love we offer others. How can we be devoted to others if we cannot be devoted to ourselves? 

47. “Ish” and “Less” are synonymous in their give and take, when you really think about it. If I am self-less and give somebody all the love I have, but never be self-ish in refilling the well with love and care for myself, how can I expect to love others as strongly ever again? “Boundless Love” means you get some, too. If it really is boundless, there’s plenty to go around for all of us, even you and me.

48. It’s sometimes hard being an introvert in a world where I have placed myself, demanding strong performances for the masses, either on stage or in the classroom. And yet, I know extroverts who don’t do well in either of those settings. 

49. Why must we put labels on anything, really? I’m kind of an extrovert, or I’m sometimes this, or I’m predominantly that. Boxes don’t look good on anyone. We are too much like our brains, trying to figure things out so we can move on to the next thing to be boxed and put away. Sometimes it’s a pretty powerful thing to let the unknown be just that, a label-less, mysterious, beautiful, unidentified whatever that we don’t need to contain or solve. 

50. We can be connected not by labels but by appreciation; respect; acceptance. Yes! I stand with an identity you declare, but I also give equal praise to the unidentified, the unlabeled, the unboxed. 

51. If I had a superpower it would be to enter the hearts of the lonely and let them know it’s okay. That people can be lonely together. That the ideas and the feelings that isolate us can also bring us together. 

52. I live every day thinking of the friends and students and loved ones we have lost to suicide. I still believe in them, and I hope they feel that, somehow, for the multitudes who think and feel and mourn and love for them every single day. 

53. There is as much illumination in a single flame as there is in the roaring bonfires that we sometimes build. It isn’t in the ferocity of the fire; it is in the oxygen we share around it, the bonds of friendship that weave tightly in the wisps of wind-blown smoke, the sudden glowing of embers in our collective sighs, the moments where we cannot distinguish gravity-defying sparks from newborn stars. 

54. We lit individual candles for the children and teachers who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012; I carry with me their names held in the soft flickers that blurred through our tears. The power of light, the offerings of love, the communion of souls in such ceremonies of connection will always remind me that what we hold in the deepest origins of who we are cannot be questioned. We are the very embodiment of love, and that love has always been meant to be shared. 

55. It’s hard to remember sometimes that those who reject love so adamantly are the ones who need it most, not just from us, but from themselves. We might be able to offer it, but in the end, they need to accept it, see it in themselves, and embrace it.

56. “The End” is the last song recorded by The Beatles where all four of them played together. It was Paul’s brainchild, and his line, “And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make” is probably one of the most powerful and simple mantras that we can carry with us. I have learned that this reciprocal, circuitous, boundless, unconditional thing called love is the universal energy for all living things. It not only connects us, it is us. 

Lovedigger

A work of creative nonfiction by Rus VanWestervelt.

I originally wrote this piece in 2011 and submitted it for publication. It was not picked up, but as I read it now 10 years later, it has some lasting, sorrowful quality to it, which is why I am sharing it with all of you here.

The rain begins to intensify, and I no longer brush the dirt from my hands; it rolls down my fingers, along the shovel’s stem, and into the grave. I fill the blade with heavy dirt and hold it over the open space.

“Everything we do today will clear the way for a better tomorrow….”

I let the dirt slide down the blade and land on the box with a hollow thump.

“We can correct all the wrongs if we band together….”

I use the tip of the blade, a flat edge that we have used countless times in the yard to trim weeds growing between the patio bricks in summer, and chip ice accumulating on the driveway in winter – to pat the dirt between the sides of the box. I am careful not to puncture the makeshift coffin, which was sealed tightly just moments ago with black duct tape to keep the excess moisture and earthen creatures from getting inside, at least immediately.

“Don’t give up the fight.”

I thrust the blade back into the mound of dirt

Everything we do today . . .

Lift the heavy, wet soil

Will clear the way. . .

And throw it in the grave

For a better tomorrow.

Again. And again. And again.

*          *          *

Thirteen hours earlier, when I had not yet begun to think about shovels and duct tape and when the rains had not yet come, I wrap up writing my morning pages and turn to the latest news stories online.

It is the first time I have shown any interest in the protestors occupying Wall Street.

What catches my eye is a video of penned protestors who were maced by police officers for doing nothing but exercising their right to free speech.  I become obsessed with watching the video, over and over again, pausing at the defining quarter-second when the white-shirt cop raises his arm and sprays the small group like they are an offending swarm of wasps.

The difference here is that these were not insects threatening to attack; they were peaceful protestors practicing civil disobedience to make some kind of ripple in the unjust waters of society.

Maybe things don’t have to be this way, they thought. Maybe we can make a difference.

I replay the video — a mere 40 seconds — so many times it blurs in me the three beats: peaceful protestors resist being pushed back by dark blue uniform officers, the approach and then the outstretched reach of the officer in white, Anthony Balogna, exterminating the pesky protestors with pepper spray, and finally the writhing, the wails, the turn-aways and tears as protestors and police alike wipe their eyes in momentary desperation and agony.

Resist. Repel. Retreat. . . .Resist. Repel. Retreat. . . .

Out of disbelief I close the laptop. Standing in front of me is my wife, holding our little black cat. He droops in her arms like an old, comforting blanket—tired, loved, at peace.

“I don’t think he is going to hold on much longer,” she whispers. “I’m doing everything I can for him, but it’s just not enough.”

We retreat to the basement and she places Old Taz in his makeshift bed, stroking his coat as he falls asleep. He has been with us since the days we dated more than 17 years ago. Taz has been a constant in our lives mere days after we first stated dating.

I don’t think I can hold on much longer, I think.

Watching the video of Balogna pepper spraying the protestors stirs within me something about an execution a few weeks back.

David. . .David Troy. . .Davis—

“Troy Davis.” I whisper his name under my breath as I run back upstairs and flip up the laptop lid. Within seconds I am back online, watching the reports filed just after his execution on September 21st.

I believe him. I believe in his innocence and his life and his message. I believe it all, and nothing more plainly, more simply in my life, makes me feel more like I need to vomit. 

What’s happening to us?

But it isn’t just now. Not just here in the present. It is a timeless discrimination, a warped deus ex machina where what we have created over three milennia still serves as the sovereign rule. Damn the individual; damn the truth. Let our man-made machine reign over all!

I immediately send a flurry of emails to my closest thinkers, trying to dump some of my guilt and seek out understanding all at the same time.

I just can’t believe what I’m seeing, and there’s little to no coverage about this in the mainstream media. This is sparking something in me that has been lying dormant for many many years. I’ve always shied away from opening up about social injustices; always played the passive role, not even balancing myself on the fence but rather white-washing it, tending to it, somehow encouraging a stand-back, no-vote position. This is what I have suppressed. This is what I have avoided weighing in on. But this topic, and this video… maybe it is just a passing thing for me, but I haven’t felt this stirred since my second year in college.

And there it is: a confession of sorts, an outing of this ignorance and the turning of my eye all these years. I feel ashamed and awakened all at the same time, a washing of the sins but with tainted blood. I just can’t feel good about any of this.

Within minutes my friends reply with support. While one encourages me to let out my “Yawp,” another goes deeper with his own concerns. Dylan, deep in the quicksands of social injustice in New Orleans, reminds me how big this problem really is.

“. . .Social determinants [are] becoming a HUGE issue in public health now that we’re starting to realize just how much the social, political, cultural environment (easily changeable external factors) are shaping how unhealthy we’ve all become. . . .”

As I read Dylan’s comments, my mind replays the video, beat by beat.

Resist. Repel. Retreat. . . .Resist. Repel. Retreat. . . .

The mantra is too much within me, and I feel the bile touch the back of my throat.

He is right, though, and all I need to do is look around me to see the impact this recession has had on my brother working the midnight shift at Wal-Mart, on my neighbors with their four children being evicted after failing to find the money to pay back rent, on my colleagues finding it impossible to retire after losing so much of their life savings in the recent stock market rollercoaster rides.

It’s all backwards, I think. All of it.

Resist. Repel. Retreat. . . .Resist. Repel. Retreat. . . .

I want to mix it up. Retreat before I resist, perhaps, but every time I rearrange the beats, it is just as ugly.

It is more than all backwards. This is bigger than I can grasp.

In 1989, when my father died from hepatitis that he contracted in the line of duty as a firefighter, I swore that I would march to my own drummer and seize the day, live life fully, and capture the essence of each moment experienced. It was a good initiation in taking my life more seriously; the problem was that, in living for myself, I cast aside all injustices around me and focused instead on the brilliant rays that blinded me with bliss. I started reading Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau, and  gleaning their ideas and notions for a more sensible way of living our lives.

I close my laptop and head downstairs to my study, where I flip through my old copy of Walden and turn to one of Thoreau’s essays, “Life Without Principle,” printed in the back of the book. I find the passage that struck me over 20 years ago.

When we want culture more than potatoes, and illumination more than sugar-plums, then the great resources of a world are taxed and drawn out, and the result, or staple production, is, not slaves, nor operatives, but men, — those rare fruits called heroes, saints, poets, philosophers, and redeemers.

Despite all the belief I had back then in such emphatic statements, the problem was that my philosophic whirlwind lacked substance, commitment, maybe even desire to face the hard facts. It is one thing to recognize; it is entirely another to act.

Hours later, after running some mid-afternoon errands and taking the kids out for some playtime, I am back on my laptop when my wife runs from the little kitty hospice room we had set up and cries for me at the bottom of the stairs.

“Taz is gasping. He’s dying, Rus. He’s dying.”

I run to her, take her in my arms, and she sobs into my shoulder.

“I don’t want him to die,” she pleads. “I don’t want him to go.”

Three minutes later, we return to Taz. My wife, with gentle love and kindness, strokes his coat as he takes his last breaths.

You are not alone. We surround you with love. . . .

And then, it is over. Taz is dead. We both sob in this new moment of a life alone that we have never known.  

In the minutes that follow we allow the shock to settle in, the truth of his passing, our life beyond his death. We eulogize him with memories that are as constant as the passage of day into night. He was a cat that knew no judgment, practiced no prejudices, and loved without condition. His life and message were simple—above all things, a love shared is a love received.

An hour later, we say our final words, place Taz in his final resting home, and head outside to bury him.

The rain is heavy now as I grab the shovel from the shed and thrust it deep into the earth. The wet soil seals a grip around the blade, and I struggle to fight the suction and lift the dirt from the ground.

Resist. . .Repel. . .Retreat. . .

I free the first clump of wet soil and toss it to the side, quickly striking a rhythm in the rain that, in just a few minutes, creates a hole deep enough, wide enough for the small cardboard casket.

 I think of Troy Davis. I think of innocence trumped by revenge, a sheep thrown to the hungry pack, a life extinguished without due process or prevailing common sense.

I think of the protestors on Wall Street. I think of freedoms denied, of abuse born out of fear, of the failure of a simple test of our Constitutional rights to speak freely and peacefully against a government corrupt, so deeply ensconced in the machine created long before any of us were born.

And I think of You. I think of us as individuals, struggling to love and live a life free of corruption and inequalities. How ridiculous we look next to the simple, yet abundant joys of a cat’s life, where love and loyalty, a life lived free of judgment, trump everything else.

I, you, we—diggers of love, purveyors of peace, warriors for rights. This is what we must do.

When I come back inside and wash away the dirt and sweat, I change my clothes and take a moment in my study to reflect on the day. On my desk is the copy of Thoreau’s works, and I seek out the passage in “Civil Disobedience” that won’t leave my mind.

There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.

Maybe things don’t have to be this way anymore, I think. Maybe I can make a difference by practicing the power of love unconditionally. I don’t need to wait for the invitations of a government or anybody else to open my eyes to the injustices and step into the mud, get all dirty in fighting for what I believe, and loving even more unconditionally as any battle might rage on.

I close the book, return it to my cluttered desk, and join my wife upstairs. We say nothing, but we are together, and we are grateful.

Everything we do today. . .

We know that this will not be easy,

Will clear the way. . . .

but we know we are not alone,

For a better tomorrow.

and we know that we must not retreat. Not now. Not ever.

Not if we really do want to dig for that better tomorrow.

Electric Christmas, 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago, I wrote, and published, “Electric Christmas” in Baltimore’s Child. It was my first sold piece as a freelance writer, and it kicked off a career in submitting my original work to share with the world.

Now, 20 years later, we are still taking rides during the holidays to look at your lights. But instead of my daughter in the back seat, it’s my grandson – Holland’s beautiful son. The years have passed quickly, but the traditions I wrote about 20 years ago continue on. Now he is the one sharing his “wow’s” from the back seat as we all marvel at the timeless beauty of Christmas and family traditions.

I thank each and every one of you for providing your light shows, your celebrations of reds, greens, and whites, for all of us to enjoy. You’ve proven, once again, that no pandemic, no tragedy, will ever stop the joyful and spiritual expressions of the holidays, a spirit borne deep within the true core of who we are as human beings.

And now, I share with you, the unedited, published essay, “Electric Christmas.”

Electric Christmas, by Rus VanWestervelt (2000, originally published in Baltimore’s Child)

It is the last Friday in November, just after our dinner of leftovers and well after sunset. We leave the house with food still on our plates, lights left on. We have little time left.

“Hurry,” I say to them. “Into the car! We’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Did I remember the tapes? Oh no! Don’t tell me I forgot the tapes!” My wife double-checks our daughter’s booster seat belts, then double-pats her coat pocket with confidence.

“I have both of them, right here. Let’s go.”

Always a step ahead of me; thank goodness!

She slides into the seat next to Holland Grace’s booster, shuts the door tightly, and straps herself in. I turn over the motor and adjust the rearview mirror. My wife and I lock eyes.

“Ready?”

She nods, and Holland Grace confirms our status. “Let’s Go, Daddy!”

I ease out of the driveway, synchronously getting a tape in handoff from my wife and inserting it into the player. The leader tape seems interminable.

“Daddy? Time yet?”

Just then, the leader ends, and Bing Crosby’s silky voice stills the air.
I’m dreaming, of a White Christ-mas….”

A chorus of sighs fills the car, and we are on our way.

No, we’re not the Von Trapp Family Singers fleeing our homeland; we’re just a Baltimore family continuing our own holiday tradition, taking to the streets and looking for beautiful displays of lights and seasonal celebrations while our daughter “oohs” and “aahs” as we pass by your creations.

When I was just a bit older than Holland Grace, who is now four, I would come downstairs from my bedroom long before daybreak replaced the streetlights in Towson, and I would wake my sister¾six years my elder¾¾with a gentle nudge and a flashlight pointed in her eyes.

“Cindy, are you awake?”

“No,” she’d grumble. “I’m sound asleep. Now leave me alone before I kill you in my dream.”

“But it’s time for Christmas,” I’d whisper, nudging her again, then peeling up an exposed eyelid and shining in a beam of light in a desperate attempt to wake her.

“No,” she’d say. “It’s time to turn off the flashlight.”

“Then you’ll get up?”

“If it means you’ll stop blinding me.”

“Cindy, it’s Christmas!”

With that said, I’d run down the hall, plug in the tree lights, and kneel before the miracle.

Wow,” I’d whisper. This was the most magical of moments, sitting alone with that illuminated tree and the multicolored wrappings, enveloped in a darkness that sealed the spirit of Christmas all around me. I could not have felt warmer, fuller of that magic.

My memory was not strengthened by what was in those boxes wrapped in the multicolored paper. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to name you more than three or four toys I received in all of those childhood Christmas mornings. What I do remember is that first smell of brewed coffee mingling with the scent of the pine cones on the tree; the rustling of wrapping paper  as Dad finished wrapping a few last gifts; Cindy and I touching each package, shaking them gently and deciding which  we’d open first and which seemed mysterious enough to open last; our dog Toby sniffing out his own stocking filled with puppy crackers. These memories of Christmas mornings  never seemed to change because this was our tradition. 

Years may pass, but traditions stand the test of time. One Christmas, my sister gave me a game called “Operation,” and we thought we were on the cutting edge of space-age technology. This year, I’d like to finally return the favor and give her a virtual surgery game that puts the scalpel in your hand and lets you know if you’ve removed the wrong organ and have sent the patient into V fib. Not that there’s anything wrong with this change in what’s under the tree. We were in as much awe with an electronic board game as we are now with a virtual computer game.  But let’s face it. Gifts break, small parts disappear, and the novelty loses its luster after the lights have been taken down and the tree has been tossed on the corner for recycling.

Traditions don’t break down or lose their parts or dull over time. That’s what makes them traditions, and they end up being the greatest gifts we can pass along to our children.

When I knelt down before that great, plastic, flame-retardant tree as a child on Christmas morning, I wasn’t thinking too consciously about what it all meant. I was too overwhelmed. Rather, I thought nothing but felt everything. It was in me, radiating as much inside as outside, an electric glow which would remain forever that, someday, I would share with my own family.

As adults, we all share these memories with the ones we love. We sit over a cup of coffee or we lie in bed a few minutes longer in the morning and ask what Christmas was like as a kid. He might say it was the memory of feeling a bit older with his dad when they would go to cut down a tree, always on the second Sunday in December. She might say it was trying to stay up all night with her older brother every Christmas Eve to hear Santa rustling through his sack downstairs and drinking the soured milk that had been sitting out for hours.

It’s that electric glow that we remember, a tradition that our parents and family either continued or created for us in childhood.

Wow….”

I adjust the mirror in the car to look at my daughter, eyes wide open, a finger touching the window as she points out another display to her mom. “Bee-Youtiful!” she says, a duet with Crosby, both of them crooning in the back seat.

So, this is our tradition. Every night following Thanksgiving, we take a drive to look at the lights that all of you string up around your trees, your houses, your lamp posts. We look at the brilliant displays of candy canes and holly bushes and snowmen, and then we’ll head down to Baltimore’s own 34th Street, where miracles and holiday spirits (not to mention electric bills) could never be greater.

And as each night’s route becomes longer and more fulfilling than the previous evening’s drive, we hear from the back seat of our car—over and over again—that unmistakably wondrous whisper of a child experiencing yet another magical discovery, the sound of a child beaming electric inside and out, the sound from which traditions are born.

The Dangers of Transactional Academics

When my students and I were in week 5 of digital learning during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, we had already established a good routine, where some students would log on a little early, and we would chat about the last few days and how we were all getting through. Then, at the conclusion of our session, others would stick around for some familiar chat time like we used to do in the physical classroom, just before the late bell would ring. Online, we would chat just seconds before the next virtual class began; we were searching for normalcy while checking in on each other. Built into the foundations of our classrooms was a relational experience that established trust, respect, and a desire to embrace learning at an autonomous level.

Not everybody was handling the sudden switch to virtual learning, though. In the final weeks of school in early June, it was easy for teachers to recognize a student in need, whose patterns of behavior were inconsistent with what we had experienced in the first three quarters while in our classrooms. We were quick to contact counselors and administrators to let them know that something wasn’t quite right with a particular student, and we should follow up to see how they were doing.

Those three quarters that we shared together in the classroom was what made learning from a distance possible in that final, fourth quarter; it served as a grounding in relational experiences that, in the past, have been a natural part of the teaching process. As teachers, we had the opportunity to know our students as human beings early on; we recognized who they were and what they were capable of doing. We also understood that each child has a background that reaches much deeper than the content we’re covering in class.

It is this relational connection that allowed us to be better teachers for the individuals in our classrooms at the end of this school year. And, in understanding each child a little better, we were able to find ways to deliver curricular content despite the challenges they may have faced, whether that had been on an ongoing basis or due to the disruption of everyday life. The pandemic caused all of us to respond in ways we could have never imagined; for young children who no longer had that chance to meet with their friends, or their teachers, on a daily basis, school still served as their foundation, their normal grounding that gave them the confidence to grow and evolve into young adults.

We were fortunate to have that foundation established over those last three quarters of the 2019-2020 academic year; what concerns me is what happens if we begin the new school year in September without that opportunity for relational experiences to occur. The real danger exists that, if we are not careful, education will become nothing more than a transactional experience, where students and teachers become focused on percentages and point values rather than how the content relates personally to each of them.

I am not advocating for in-person schooling to occur if it cannot be done safely. Our first priority must be on the safety of our students and our educators. My argument is, simply, we cannot forego that familial foundation at the beginning of the year that is crucial to effective student engagement and ownership of learning.

Without it, a transactional education will allow many of our students to become mediocre participants in learning, and it will also put minorities and poverty-stricken children in an even more dangerous place. The absence of in-person, or relational, academics only contributes to the gap in learning in these at-risk groups. According to an article posted in January 2019 at Inside Higher Ed, titled “Takedown of Online Education,” online education fails when teachers and students have no real-time contact.

However, when there are opportunities for greater interaction with an instructor, especially in hybrid teaching models, students perform better and hold themselves more accountable for the work they produce.

Without that relational element, even on a small scale, online learning is transactional, at best.

We must find ways to have students own their learning, especially with there being limitations in our face-to-face meetings.

At the beginning of each year, I introduce the acronym WIIFM to my students, and I encourage them to embrace a very selfish “What’s In It For Me” mentality in everything we do. It invites them to own the material we discuss in class and make it relevant to their own lives: where they’ve been, who they are, and where they are going.

Throughout the year, my students tell me they are “WIIFMing” the material, or the point another student is making, or the epiphany they are experiencing in synthesizing content between English and other classes.

The question for teachers in my neighborhood, in my county, in our state, and across the nation is clear: How do we have our students embrace a WIIFM approach to education when the relational component established at the beginning of the school year is clearly missing?

In my other class, journalism, the students knew each other well, even though their ages spanned the four-year spread of high school. They understood their needs, their nuances, their strengths because they had worked closely together for 6 months in an environment that encouraged mutual trust and respect. They thrived in those last two months simply because the team dynamic was already firmly in place. It’s the relational foundation that made this possible.

If and when our classes begin outside of the classrooms in the fall of the new school year, and as teachers are meeting their students for the first time in little video boxes on aging school-issued laptops, we will need to be mindful of how we make education a relational experience. Some students will step up, embrace the WIIFM mantra, and take good care of themselves. But many will rely on a solely transactional relationship of points and deadlines, based on bare minimums in playing the game of pass and fail. We might be able to figure out the logistics and schedules of making sure everybody gets an equitable, educational experience, but the bigger issue we all need to consider now is how we make those experiences relational from the beginning.

An ideal scenario would be having students somehow meeting their teachers – in person – prior to or in the first week of classes. Even though the meet-and-greet will be an event that upholds all the measures of social distancing and the use of face coverings, we need an opportunity to meet our students, and they need the opportunity to meet us.

I’m throwing around a hundred different ideas that all seem ideal on paper, like each child sharing a 60-second infomercial on who they are, and what they look forward to in the coming year. But I know that this doesn’t work for all students, for many valid reasons. Technology, privacy issues, and home environments all lead to limitations that can’t easily be fixed for short home movies, not to mention the challenges we might face with authenticity and truth.

But we must find a way for that community to be built not on a screen but in real time, in a real place face to face (or even mask to mask). Our learning environment established early in September must be genuine, where we all have the courage to WIIFM the experience and take our learning seriously, and for all the right reasons.

We cannot allow the pandemic to derail our educational goals; instead, we must rise to the challenge of becoming better teachers in providing the opportunities our students need to own the education they deserve.

Life’s Labyrinth in Embracing Our Creativity

Last night, I was gifted with the opportunity to read for Howard County Poetry and Literary Society (HoCoPoLitSo)’s Wilde Readings series. I read an excerpt from the third chapter of my novel, Fossil Five, where Cassandra reads a letter she wrote to herself five years ago.

Personally, it’s an incredibly ironic moment, as my own seniors are now writing their letters to themselves, to be opened in 2025. I had some of my seniors watching the event last night, and some even offered questions to me. How paradoxically wonderful it was to be in both the present and in the future with my reading and my own students – most certainly a highlight of my career that I will hold on to for many years.

Anyway, I shared reading time with Diane Wilbon Parks, a poet and artist who lives in Prince George’s County. I was so honored to read with her; her poetry and presentation are both deep, abstract, and powerful.

Here are the first few lines of her poem, “Music to My Ear” from her 2016 published collection of poems, The Wisdom of Blue Apples:

You play inside musical notes

that slip away to have coffee,

then linger at the base of crescendos

like drums leaving tunnels inside me.

The chord of my vein is

traced with legends of you

slanted in prepositional phrases – of love,

crooked like elbows, misplaced on purpose,

hanging out of shelves, and sentences, and me.

I can just hear Diane reading these words, silk slipping from her lips as she brings this poem to life. Yet, as much as her poetry was transforming, it was her artwork behind her that mesmerized me.

Before the event even began, I complimented Diane on her artwork, a collection of colorful and black-white creations framed and on display behind her. I expressed my failed attempts at art, and how I, for some inexplicable reason, freeze up when it comes to letting go with creating on a blank canvas.

Then, during her question-and-answer session, one of the participants (and readers during open mic) asked her if there was a creative relationship between her artwork and her poetry. Diane was quick to answer, saying that her abstract paintings were an extension of her metaphorical poetry. It makes sense, right? She writes in the abstract, so why wouldn’t she paint in the abstract?

To me, this was epiphanic in every way imaginable. My own blocks, my own origins of fear, have been based on a great deal of self-induced pressure to paint and draw in the literal sense, recreating baskets of fruits, partially opened windows, and small children picking flowers in an untended garden.

I’m not a literal person, though, and to be a re-creator of such images, to replicate life as closely as possible with the stroke of a brush or pen, is just not who I am.

It took a walk through Life’s Labyrinth, along with a lot of patience and remaining wide open, to receive such a gift as I did last night.

So, today I pick up a pen and put it to a blank canvas, and I let go of the fears of creating works that are nowhere near who I am as a writer and as a person.

And, if I am so bold, I will share my abstract and metaphorical creations with you here.

Thank you, Diane. And thank you, HoCoPoLitSo, for gifting me this freedom to grow as an artist.

 

Celebrating Poetry In April: 30. The World Is Too Much With Us, William Wordsworth

Hello, everyone.

Well, we are at our end. 30 days of sonnets celebrating National Poetry Month brings us to my favorite sonnet that I’ve been using in my classrooms and citing in my writing for decades. I’m happy to end this journey by sharing William Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us.”

As I say in the preface of the reading, I’ve been so honored to share these sonnets with you. And if I have learned anything (but I have learned so much in these 30 days), it is that the emotions, thoughts, and reflections that we have today are not unique to the generations and centuries of individuals who have faced their own tragedies, hopes, and triumphs. Universally, we have love to get us through, even when it can break our heart. Universally, we have each other to lean on, when the world just gets too much. And universally, we have hope in getting through our greatest challenges together, both in the words and strength of our friends and loved ones in the present, and in the whispered words shouted to us through poetry from those long past.

Thank you for enduring these daily posts. 🙂 Here’s to poetry, and here’s to you. ❤

as always………………………vw

The World Is Too Much With Us, by William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Celebrating Poetry in April: 29. Sonnet 23 by William Shakespeare

Hello, everyone.

Today, for our second-to-last sonnet in honor of National Poetry Month, I have chosen Sonnet 23 by William Shakespeare. It’s one of my favorites for so many reasons. Primarily, though, I appreciate Shakespeare’s play on words, using them to describe his inability to put into words the love he has for another. As we have seen with other sonnets, poets have expressed a “transcending love” that goes beyond the boundaries of our earthly existence. In this case, Shakespeare is talking about a love so transcending that he has no words to describe it. In the end, Shakespeare suggests that hear with our eyes love’s fine wit. 

Beautiful. 

For those of you who have had me as your teacher (past and present) or who have already read Fossil Five, I bet you can guess what sonnet I’ve saved for the last day of this 30-day celebration…. We shall see!

Without further ado, here is Sonnet 23, by William Shakespeare.

Sonnet 23, by William Shakespeare

As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharged with burthen of mine own love’s might.
O! let my looks be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.
O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

Celebrating Poetry In April: 28. How Do I Love Thee? By Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Welcome, all.

For the third-to-last sonnet that I will be sharing with you during National Poetry Month, I chose to read to you Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s classic Sonnet 43, “How Do I Love Thee?”

It’s such a simple poem that’s been parodied as much as it has been praised. As we have seen in so many of the sonnets that I have shared with you this month, the topic of love transcending an earthly experience is expressed in the final lines. This transcendence, I believe, is the true understanding of a greater love that reaches far beyond the limits of an earthly existence.

Enjoy… It’s one of my favorites. 🙂

Sonnet 43: “How Do I Love Thee?” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Celebrating Poetry In April: 27. O Solitude! by John Keats

Good afternoon, all.

Today is April 27, and we are now in our final four of sonnets for National Poetry Month.

Today’s selection is a return to Keats, one of my favorite romantic poets. Like all the good romantics, it finds the beauty in nature and, in this poem, solitude.

“O Solitude! If I Must With Thee Dwell,” by John Keats

O SOLITUDE! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,—
Nature’s observatory—whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
’Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.