Member Monday: Grandmother’s Skirt by Alicia McCauley

Welcome back to Member Monday. Today we feature an essay by Alicia McCauley. Alicia is a teacher, a writer and the President of Vigilante Kindness. Her essay, Grandmother’s Skirt, was recently published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Merry Christmas. Welcome, Alicia.

Grandmother’s Skirt

by Alicia McCauley

A tiny crack splintered through my heart when I hung my grandmother’s skirt up in my closet this Christmas.  It’s a red and green plaid skirt that sits perfectly on my hips and floats at my knees, a traveling pants sort of miracle being that I’m six feet tall and my grandmother was five feet tall on her tallest days.

The skirt is one of two items I took from her closet when she passed away.  The other was a bland oatmeal sweater that smelled like her.  I kept that sweater on for days after she died, breathing in her smell even as I laid in bed nights, listening to the sounds that felt all wrong in her house.

But the skirt went unworn.  

The first Christmas season after she died, I couldn’t put it on without crying and so it hung at the back of my closet, its red and green merriment lost in a dark corner.  The second Christmas season after she died, I was able to wear the skirt with only the slightest quiver in my bottom lip when I looked in the mirror.

I paired my grandmother’s skirt with a black jacket zigzagged with zippers and tall, black boots with the skinniest of heels.  For good measure I added my favorite leather studded bracelet.  I remembered my grandmother wearing the skirt, so proper in her heels and pantyhose and a red sweater on top.  She would’ve laughed and shaken her head at her modest skirt paired with my hints of edginess.  

A thousand times I wanted to send her a photo.  I wanted our pictures to stand next to each other, each of us wearing this magical skirt, her red lipsticked mouth smiling next to my own pale grin.

Every single time I took her skirt out for a spin, I was showered with compliments.  I’m not fashionable or trendy in any sense of those words.  I’m gangly and awkward and when I can find pants that don’t look like I’m readying for a flood, that’s a fashion win in my book.

When I stepped out in my grandmother’s skirt, it was a whole new experience.  Compliments were showered upon me.

“I love that skirt.”

That is a fantastic skirt!”

You look radiant in that skirt.  It really brings out the color in your cheeks.”

Needless to say, I felt great in that skirt, so great that I carefully put it in my clothing rotation as often as possible.  I took the skirt to see ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.  I wore it to three Christmas parties.  I wore it to the Christmas sing-a-long on the last day of school.  Finally I donned it for our Christmas morning church service.

As we read the Communion passage, I held the plastic Communion cup, complete with wafer sealed on top, and swirled the grape juice so that it coated the sides of the cup in red.  I thought about how Christ’s sacrifice covers my sins. I savored the wafer on my tongue and washed it down with the bittersweet juice, running red down my throat.

After church and after all the gifts were opened, a knot caught in my throat when I hung my grandmother’s skirt up that Christmas afternoon.  I ran my hand over the wool and slipped the skirt back into the recesses of my closet.  

Later that day I strapped on my helmet and pedaled out for a Christmas bike ride.  Under a blindingly blue sky and with the taste of Communion still on my lips, I thought of all the gifts I’ve received this past year, both tangible and not.

I smiled because somehow in spite of her passing, my grandmother still manages to give incredible gifts.

In her skirt I felt vibrant.

I felt confident.

I felt beautiful.

And the most magical gift of my grandmother’s skirt is that when I took it off and placed it back in the closet, all of those feelings still remained.

A Note from the Webmaster: If you’re a Writers Forum member in good standing and would like to be featured on Member Monday, please send your submission to writersforumwebmaster@gmail.com. Submissions should be 75-750 words, appropriate for all ages and error free. Please include a short bio, a headshot and any related links. The author retains all rights and gives permission to Writers Forum to publish their submission on the website and/or in the newsletter. Thank you!

Member Monday: The Airball Queen by Alicia McCauley

Welcome back to Member Monday. Today we feature an essay by Alicia McCauley. Alicia is a teacher, a writer and the President of Vigilante Kindness. Her essay, The Airball Queen, was recently published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Possible. Welcome, Alicia.

The Airball Queen

by Alicia McCauley

Friday afternoon was our school-wide reading program finale in the gymnasium.  The finale was a series of races and games.  There were jump rope relays, basketball relays, soccer relays, minute to win it games, hula hoop contests, scoot board races and a host of other challenges for my first graders to participate in.   There were times when I was doubled over, laughing so hard that I was crying because of balls escaping, jump ropes tangling, and all my first graders clapping and cheering each other on with abandon.

One of the harder games was a basketball shooting game.  Each kid stood at a line taped in the middle of the key and shot five baskets.  This was a supremely hard task for first graders.  That basket might as well have been in the clouds.  One of my darling little girls-a teeny, tiny breath of a kid-was chosen for this game.  

She was an adorable kid with curls of hair that bounced each morning when she would run to me and wrap her arms around my leg in a hug.  When she got excited about something, her blue eyes opened wide and she flapped her arms.  I’d seen her do this when reading her favorite books, when mastering particularly difficult math problems, when playing at recess and especially when she painted.

She stood at the line, basketball in hand, with a serious expression screwed on her face.  She shot.  Airball.  She scrunched up her face in concentration and shot again.  Airball.  Her third and fourth shots arched through the air and again fell short.  

I bet you’re thinking this is one of those stories where she made the fifth and final shot and ran a victory lap around the gymnasium filled with kids who chanted her name and hoisted her up on their shoulders.

It isn’t that kind of story.

Not one of her five shots even came close to grazing the net.  

Not a single one.

Back in the classroom after the conclusion of the reading program finale, we’d gathered at the carpet to talk about all the fun we had competing and cheering each other on.

My tiny airballer raised her hand to share, “Mrs. McCauley, I was nervous about that basketball game because I’d never played it before.”

She paused and I’d waited, scripting in my mind words of encouragement or some sage advice about perseverance or something, anything to ease the sting of all those airballs.

She continued, the pitch of her voice rose to an exuberant squeal, her arms flapped in wild excitement, “I was nervous at first, but then I played the game and I was AWESOME at it!!!”

Wait, what?  

She explained, “I’d never thrown a ball that high before.  I threw it really high five times.”  She held up five proud fingers. 

My face broke into a huge grin, mirroring the smile on her own precious face.

How silly I was for thinking I needed to pepper her with my “sage advice”.  As is so often the case, I found myself marveling at the unconventional wisdom of my students. 

I can be so hard on myself when it comes to trying new things, so fearful and bound in nerves, so unwilling to try lest I fail, or, worse yet, lest I fail in public.

The next time I’m facing a new challenge, I’m going to remember her face, scrunched up by every ounce of concentration.  I’m going to remember her candor in admitting she was nervous and afraid.  But most of all I’m going to remember her wild, flapping arms and the triumph on her face for throwing the basketball higher than she ever had before.

She didn’t make any baskets that day, and for that I’m grateful because if she had, I would’ve missed the lesson.  She didn’t score any points, but one thing is for sure, my itty-bitty airball queen was a winner.

A Note from the Webmaster: If you’re a Writers Forum member in good standing and would like to be featured on Member Monday, please send your submission to writersforumwebmaster@gmail.com. Submissions should be 75-750 words, appropriate for all ages and error free. Please include a short bio, a headshot and any related links. The author retains all rights and gives permission to Writers Forum to publish their submission on the website and/or in the newsletter. Thank you!

Member Monday: Kijumi is Coming by Alicia McCauley

Welcome back to Member Monday! Today we feature a piece written by member Alicia McCauley during her recent return trip to Uganda. Alicia is the founder and President of Vigilante Kindness, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing education and employment opportunities for students and villages in developing countries. On Saturday, October 17th from 4:30 pm-6:00 pm Alicia will be speaking in the Redding Library Community Room about her most recent trip to Uganda. This event is free and open to the public. Welcome back, Alicia.

Kijumi is Coming

by  Alicia McCauley

I woke this morning to the welcome voice of thunder and the syncopation of rain. I drew back my curtain and breathed in the relief. It hasn’t rained in Gulu in a month and a half, leaving everything and everyone parched and jacketed in ruddy, red dust.

I threw on some clothes-okay, I really just yanked a skirt up under the nightshirt I’d peeled off and thrown on the floor. I didn’t bother with shoes or anything else. I grabbed my camera and iPad. I tiptoed to my mom’s room to see if she was awake to watch the storm with me, but the crack under her door was dark. So with my camera and iPad in hand, I scrambled back down the hall to the balcony outside of my room. The sun wasn’t up yet and I knew I was in for a spectacular lightning show across the dark sky. I sat on the balcony writing and snapping photos.

The storm was behind me, so I didn’t see the fingers of lightning pointing from the sky and touching the ground. Instead the whole of the sky would go from pitch black to electric pinks and yellows all at once, like a camera flash to the face. As my retinas recovered from each flash, I’d count the seconds between the turbulent thunder and the blinding flashes of lightning, counting the miles separating me from the storm, just like I do with my students at home when a thunderstorm rumbles in. To my delight, the increments quickly shrunk from five seconds to one second and then the thunder and lightning were stacked on top of each other, a thrilling assault on the senses.

Not to be outdone by the thunder and lightning, the wind rushed in as well, a welcome reprieve from the stifling, still humidity. The wind whipped at my skirt and splashed my bare feet with rain. My balcony overlooks the once grand Pece stadium and I watched the field puddle.

During my first two nights in Gulu, sleeping was a near impossibility. My jetlagged body struggled to adapt to the correct clock and to the humidity that always sucks the life out of me at the beginning of my trip. At night I’d lay naked under my mosquito net, not the sexy kind of naked, the ugly, sweaty “peel everything off to survive” kind of naked. Mosquitoes buzzed around my net and I laid there sweltering.

I could only imagine what the last month and a half in Gulu had been like. I’ve seen the parched, brown crops and can imagine the utterings from cracked lips praying for rain in this unexpected dry season.

The morning of the storm, I watched the sun peek her pink face from behind the clouds as the spaces between the thunder and lightning counted back up to six, then seven, then ten miles away until the storm held its breath altogether. The soccer field drank the puddles and they vanished almost as quickly as they’d formed. Just when I thought the storm was through, a fresh slashing of rain fell, and a second helping of thunder and lightning filled the sky until the ground was sodden and swollen with rain.

Later that morning, I sat downstairs talking with an old musee. He taught me the Luo name for thunderstorm (mwoc pa-kot) and the Luo names for different kinds of rain. There’s ngito, meaning a drizzle. There’s kot paminilemu, an unexpected rain. But my favorite kind of rain is kijumi, a long, hard rain.

The musee talked about the parched crops and how this mwoc pa-kot and kot paminilemu vanquished his worries of famine.

Famine.

And here I was complaining about the heat because it made it hard to sleep.

Fear of famine had never even crossed my mind. I’ve never known the worrying pangs of impending famine.

While I’ve not known physical famine, I have known the feeling of famine in my spirit, the ugly nakedness of feeling bereft. I know about waiting and praying with dry, cracked lips for some relief, any relief to fall from Heaven. I also know the reprieve of rain and the joy of hearing the cool whisperings of God blow into my life.

Friends, some of you are impossibly parched right now, famished down to brittle bones, praying desperate prayers from cracked, dry lips. I don’t have any pretty, pious words for you, but I prayed for you today during the kot paminilemu, prayed that you’d be absolutely sodden with a first and second helping of refreshing rain. Hold tight, dear ones, in the midst of your dry season, keep looking to the sky.

Your kijumi is coming.

A Note from the Webmaster: If you’re a Writers Forum member in good standing and would like to be featured on Member Monday, please send your submission to writersforumwebmaster@gmail.com. Submissions should be 75-750 words, appropriate for all ages and error free. Please include a short bio, a headshot and any related links. The author retains all rights and gives permission to Writers Forum to publish their submission on the website and/or in the newsletter. Thank you!

Member Monday: Finding Denis, Part 1 by Alicia McCauley

Alicia & some of her Ugandan kidsWelcome back to Member Monday.  Today we feature a piece by Alicia McCauley.  Alicia spends her summers teaching writing and committing acts of Vigilante Kindness in and around Gulu, Uganda.  She will be sharing about her last trip and her upcoming trip at our May meeting.  Welcome, Alicia.

Finding Denis, Part 1

by Alicia McCauley

The boda driver killings in Gulu, Uganda began on May 28th and on May 29th I received a frantic message from my boda driver, Denis, that a rebel group had entered Gulu and was killing boda drivers in the cloak of night.

Denis’ message to me was quick and to the point.  “A group of people are killing boda boda riders in large.  And they are using guns.”

Messages from my other loved ones in Uganda came in frantic bursts.  The number of drivers killed was nearing twenty.  A mandatory curfew was put in place over the town.  The police were vigilant in their pursuit of the rebel group, but drivers continued to be shot and killed.

I called Denis.

And messaged him.

And sent my son, William, out to Denis’ village, Bungatira, to find him.

His phone was disconnected.  He didn’t reply to messages and worst of all, he was nowhere to be found in his village.

For weeks I tried to find him.

Then weeks turned into a month.

Time kept on growing and still no word.

The pit of my stomach felt like it was full of rocks. I thought of the voice in my ear telling me to let go.

No, I would not let go of this.  I would not let go of my friend.

I spewed angry prayers from between clenched teeth.  I am not letting go of my friend, God.  NOT LETTING GO.  So You and your voice are going to have to help me find Denis.

I wondered if Denis was alive.  And if he was alive, why wasn’t he home?  Why was his phone, his life line, not working?

Something was terribly wrong.

Since the summer of 2013 I’d heard from Denis at least every other week.  He regularly filled me in with reports on his pigs and reports about the village treasury.

And now nothing.

I arrived in Gulu and tried calling Denis countless times to no avail.  I planned to go to Denis’ village the following day to figure out for myself where my friend was and whether he was alive or not.

I can’t tell you how happy I was later that day when I picked up my phone and it showed a missed call from Denis’ number.  I kicked myself for having it on silent.

Again I called and didn’t get through.  Later William called and talked to Denis.  Denis was in Te Okot, the land of his clan.  William reported that Denis was walking to Gulu to come and see me.

Again alarm bells sounded in my mind.

Te Okot is 2-3 hours from Gulu and that’s if you go by motorcycle.  Why was Denis walking?  Why was he so far from home?

I called Denis and nearly cried when I heard his voice.  I fired questions at him.

“Where have you been?  You scared me to death.  I thought you were dead.  Why isn’t your phone working?  What are you doing so far from home?  Aren’t you in school?  Where’s your boda?  Why are you walking from so far?”

“I’ll explain it all when I reach you.  I’ll be there around midnight,” Denis replied.

“Why don’t you take a boda?  It will be much faster.”

“It’s expensive.  I can’t pay for it.  My pigs were poisoned and died.  My future has died.”

“What???  Who killed your pigs?  And how much is the boda ride?”

“40,000 shillings.  I’ll explain everything when I get there.”

40,000 shillings is roughly $15.

I told Denis I’d pay the boda driver, that he should just come and come quickly.

Then I waited one of the longest hours of my life.

Come to the May Writers Forum meeting to find out how the story ends.  Can’t wait that long?  Click here to read more.

A Note from the Webmaster: If you’re a Writers Forum member in good standing and would like to be featured on Member Monday, please send your submission to writersforumwebmaster@gmail.com. Submissions should be 75-750 words, appropriate for all ages and error free. Please include a short bio, a headshot and any related links. The author retains all rights and gives permission to Writers Forum to publish their submission on the website and/or in the newsletter. Thank you!

Best of Member Monday #2: A Mile in Their Shoes by Alicia McCauley

A Note from the Webmaster: It’s summertime, the glorious season of swimming, sunblock and sinking your teeth into a fat stack of books.  Alas, it’s also the sad season when Writers Forum goes dark for two months.  Never fear, dear reader, because for the next eight Mondays, Writers Forum will be featuring the Best of Member Monday.  The top eight Member Monday pieces were determined by the number of views each piece received on our website.  We’ll count them down beginning from #8 and ending with our #1 most viewed piece of the 2013-2014 Writers Forum year.  Congratulations to the top eight!  Taking the #2 slot is a piece by Writers Forum member Alicia McCauley, who has just returned from another exciting summer of teaching writing and other adventures in Uganda.  You can read more about her most recent trip on Alicia’s blog.

A Mile in Their Shoes

by Alicia McCauley

After church on Sunday, I stayed at the school for the afternoon and hung out with the kids.  Sunday is their only full day off from school and it was great to spend a little time getting to know them.

These kids are so funny.  Laughter is like breathing here, bubbling out of the easy smiles of the students.  It’s the white noise of the campus.

It never ceases to amaze me what kids will share if you just spend time with them sans agenda.  After church I sat in the shade of one of the outdoor classrooms shooting the breeze with the kids, talking about things like rap music and soccer.

Then the conversation took a turn and the kids started talking about their experiences as night travelers during the terror-filled years when Kony rampaged through the north.

Each night they’d travel the dark road from their houses and huts and into Gulu.  You can’t imagine the pitch darkness of this road.  No glow of electricity.  No flashlights.  Only stars pin pricking the sky and the white face of the moon to watch over them.

The boys walked for miles with their cousins and siblings, an ant trail of children hurrying along the edges of the roads in search of shelter and the hope of safety in town.  One particular boy was ten years old at the time.

I think about my nieces and nephews who are around that age and I imagine them walking that dark road together and I use the corner of my skirt to wipe the agony from my eyes.

The boys talked about family members who were taken; uncles whisked away, fathers snatched out of the potato garden in the early morning hours.  They talked about family members who are still missing and about others who were mercifully released.

They also told stories of children forced into servitude for the LRA, walking for days with heavy loads balanced on their heads.  A single utterance hinting at hunger or fatigue meant a sure and swift death.

The boys told horrific stories that I can’t even bring myself to type because the malevolent inhumanity of it burns in my stomach and causes hot vomit to sizzle in my throat.

It’s fitting to me that the school is built in what was once one of the most violent and unstable areas in Northern Uganda.  The heart of the school is their dedication to love and justice and I can’t think of a more fitting place to make such a declaration.

On my way back to town that Sunday, I walked part of the road used by the night traveling children.  Two of the boys escorted me and I couldn’t help but sneak peeks at their faces, imagining younger versions of them making this walk in the dead of night.  We walked about a mile before flagging down bodas that took us the remaining miles back into Gulu.

Sunday night my heart was heavy, weighing me down in my sleep as the boys’ stories came to life in my nightmares.

Every good teacher learns from his or her students.  Here in Uganda, I’m eager to learn how these children walked the darkest road and arrived at this destination, to a time and place where laughing is like breathing, where love and justice prevail over land once red with the blood of their loved ones.

Member Monday: Drumbeat of Hope by Alicia McCauley

1000738_10200332415140013_830753501_nWelcome back to Member Monday!  Today we feature a poem by Alicia McCauley.  She crafted the first draft at the January Writers Forum meeting with Susan Wooldridge.  Alicia is a local teacher and has spent the last two summers teaching Creative Writing in Northern Uganda.  She will return to her home in Uganda in July.  To learn more about her upcoming trip, click here.  Alicia will be showing some of her photos from Uganda (along with snippets of her stories) at U Top It on Churn Creek from February 22nd-26th.  U Top It is donating a portion of sales on the 22nd toward her work in Uganda.  Alicia invites you to come and see the people and the land that have captured her heart.

Drumbeat of Hope

by Alicia McCauley

Africa constellates my dreams.
At night in the clarity between sleeping and waking
I feel the throwing absence
Of being away.

Bombs chant lightning across the sky
Of my peopled plain
The plain where Musee
Gray with wisdom
Picked the groundnuts
That dried in the sun
In circles like prayer mandalas
On the red earth.

I think of the groundnuts
Peanut cousins
Skinned in pink
The color of the kisses Africa leaves on my nose and cheeks.

War was once a horrific abstraction
Far from my Viewpoint house
Where campaigns of summer ants summitted my naked feet
In the grass that I once thought was green.

There is no green like my home in Bungatira.
I am a person of the forest.

At night I listen for the voice
That quells the trembles and the white fear of war
Fear that dampens the feathers in my pillow.

In the dark folds I strain for peace.
I count beads of praise.
And in the shattered sanctuary of night I feel the ache
Of my promise to return.

To Musee’s groundnut mandalas.
To red dirt.
To green forests.
To my peopled plain.

The voice in the night drowns out thundering bomb ghosts
And ushers me back to sleep.
Africa kisses my eyelids
And into my heart she presses
Her drumbeat of hope.

A Note from the Webmaster: If you’re a Writers Forum member in good standing and would like to be featured on Member Monday, please send your submission to writersforumwebmaster@gmail.com. Submissions should be 75-750 words, appropriate for all ages and error free. Please include a short bio, a headshot and any related links. The author retains all rights and gives permission to Writers Forum to publish their submission on the website and/or in the newsletter. Thank you!

Best of Member Monday 2012 #2

The Webmaster is off to Uganda; great time to re-run past Member Mondays based on fan comments.

Author’s Note:  Every spring I raise dragonflies in my classroom.  It’s a magnificent process to observe as these water creatures take flight and become acrobats of the air.  Just this last week, the dragonfly nymphs arrived in my classroom and so it feels appropriate to start off dragonfly season by sharing this piece with you.  One particular year, raising dragonflies came at a difficult time in my life and the growth of the dragonflies mirrored my own struggles.  As dragonflies begin to take flight this spring maybe, just maybe, you’ll find a little bit of yourself in them as well.

The Thing About Dragonflies
By Alicia McCauley

My favorite insect is the dragonfly.  Yes, they’re beautiful, but that’s not why I love them.  Adult dragonflies hunt by holding their legs together like a basket and scooping insects right out of the sky, but that’s not why I love them either.  Sure they’re the only insect that can fly backwards and while that’s amazing, that’s not why they have garnered my affection.

The thing about dragonflies is that they start out as nymphs.  Ugly, brown nymphs with grumpy faces.  They scoot around in the water and muck, shooting out their masks, catching unfortunate prey.  They spend months, sometimes years, in this stage.  Wallowing in the mire.  Camouflaging, even covering themselves in filth.  To the inattentive eye, it just looks like they’re hanging around being ugly, but what’s really happening is change.  You see, the nymph is busy growing and molting.  It grows and molts, grows and molts, leaving ghost skeletons lingering in the water.

Nymphs mostly molt in the dark of night, so that sometimes the changes go completely unnoticed until one day the nymph crawls out of the water and up a cattail.  It clings to the cattail with hooks on its legs and then a most splendid thing happens.  One last time, the exuvia cracks open and an adult dragonfly flops out of its old self.  It hangs upside down, seeing the world in a whole new way.

The new dragonfly waits.  Waits to fly.  Waits to see the world.  Waits to wheel in the wind.  When blood pulses into the wings, the dragonfly takes off.  At first the flights are clumsy.  The dragonfly bumbles around as if it’s getting acquainted with itself for the first time.  After a few test flights the dragonfly is zipping around, hovering and even jutting in reverse.  The scowl of the nymph is replaced with eager eyes and a jeweled body that shimmers even in the faintest of light.  It’s hard to imagine that the dragonfly feels anything short of joy as it skims the water, reveling in the knowledge that, at long last, it has become what it is meant to be.

At night when sad thoughts creep in and steal the remnants of sleep, I think about the dragonfly.  When I’m covered in sorrow and I can’t escape the muck, I take heart in the fact that growth is happening.  Change is taking place, even in times when I can’t see it.  I have to believe that heartache will someday become an ill-fitting skin that will eventually crack open and give way.  Give way to beauty.  Give way to love.

I think of the nymph and the day it makes the final climb up the cattail.  That must be one scary climb.  In fact the nymph will often fall back into the mud several times while trying to make that climb.  When I feel like all I’m doing is falling, I remember the perseverance of the nymph.I swing my legs over the bed each morning.  I smile at my loved ones.  I breathe in and out.  I tell myself to keep trying.  I know one day strength will break through sorrow, leaving the mire to exist only in my memory.  I wait with anticipation for the day that I’ll soar with wings pulsing with life.

I love dragonflies for their patience.  I love dragonflies for their determination, for their strength.  I love dragonflies because they are tangible proof that ugliness and pain cannot contain the pursuit of joy.

During lonely nights, dragonflies sweep into my mind with their basket legs and scoop away brokenness, leaving room for hope.

And that is the thing I love the most about dragonflies.