The Living Prayer Shawl

      The Holocaust Monument, The Musicians, and The Loaves of Bread

         Passersby strolling through the park regard me as a discarded shawl tossed carelessly onto the ground. They pause for a moment then turn away. The more curious stroll around the wrought iron fence enclosing me. I am grateful when the most thoughtful pause to read the bronze plaque explaining what I symbolize. Although they cannot hear me, I beseech them to remember me as they pass by. Why you ask? Because the lessons of history tell no lies.

Holocaust Monument
For decades I’ve lain on my platform unable to move or speak. To entertain myself, by night I watched the stars whirling through the heavens. By day, I observed snails sliding along my fence, birds flitting in the overhanging branches, squirrels scampering for acorns, children skipping rope, college girls sunbathing, the old ones resting on the benches. I heard the wind moaning, the cricket’s chirring, and the ancient brooding voices of the dead. All the while the season spun from summer to autumn, winter to spring.
         I observe the ugly and the beautiful, the kind and the cruel, the rich and the poor. The downtrodden are the ones I cannot stand to look at, yet I haven’t the ability to turn away. Which brings me to the story of Leia, a willowy wisp of a woman, with pale skin coarsened by the sun and tired dark eyes reddened by weeping, her delicate features framed by a tangle of uncombed dark hair. A ghost of what was once loveliness.
         Wait a moment! Before I go on, I need to apologize. I’ve forgotten my manners. I should introduce myself.  I’m a talllus
a Jewish prayer shawl, worn by men at prayer in the synagogue. According to custom I can be used to wrap the dead for burial. In life, I was made from pure white silk highlighted with black stripes. Elegant knotted tiztzit or blue fringes were attached to my four corners. Their blue color came from murex sea snails, yielding dyes in shades from reddish to bluish purple. These snails do not produce colored compounds to satisfy human vanity, they use them to ward off predators. The compounds that are prized for their ability to dye fabrics with stunning colors have flavors so bitter that predators learn to leave the snails alone. But I digress.

Charlston Park

So, here I lie draped on the concrete platform as if discarded by someone in a frenzy to escape death itself. As for the fence enclosing me, my creator designed it to symbolize a synagogue, a prison, or even a gas chamber. I represent things left behind, lost memories, life cut short, the rites of proper burial denied to the victims of the Holocaust. But please remember, I am cast in cold, hard bronze. People cannot feel the softness of my folds or see my distinct colors. I felt indifferent to living and to the life around me. I was numb, without a soul until Leia brought me back to life.
         I can still see Leia emerging from the shadows lengthening across the park. She walked with her head down and yet she had the graceful stride of a dancer. When she came upon me tucked away in a corner of the park, she halted like a frightened deer. Her face drained of color, she stared at me as if I were a ghost from her past. Hands clenched at her side, she bent to read the plaque anchored to a low wall. Her cracked lips trembled as she read the names of the Shoah, survivors of the catastrophe, in a hoarse whisper. When she came to the last name, she let out a long, sorrowful sigh.
   She sank to her knees, keening, “Bubbe, Bubbe vu bistu?” Grandmother where are you? “Ikh bin deyn eynikl, Leia.” I am your granddaughter, Leia. Her cries rattled like the broken bones of the murdered, penetrating my cold metal shield.  Shivering in her threadbare coat, Leia crawled under the magnolia tree nearby, to shelter beneath the branches, spreading low to the ground. Resting her head on her worn backpack, Leia tossed and moaned, dreaming unfathomable dreams.
         As I gazed at her, a strange sensation shot through me. I felt as if fierce flames were piercing my armor, returning me to the fiery kiln that gave me birth. In that moment, I was gripped by panic that I would melt into a formless puddle. Instead, I rose slowly, silently from the concrete floor, as a mighty wind lifted me up and over the fence. As if I were riding on King Solomon’s silk carpet embroidered with gold and silver and studded with precious stones, I willed myself, or perhaps I commanded the carpet, to fly to Leia, shivering and afraid beneath the magnolia tree. As the gust died to a gentle breeze, I hovered over Leia. Then with a swish and whoosh, the gust spread me over her gently.        
         In the warmth I provided, she slept as peacefully as a child suckled on mother’s milk. A warm glow suffused me, knowing that I had performed a mitvah. In case you aren’t familiar with Hebrew, a mitzvah is a religious commandment to do good deeds. That night marked a new beginning and a new end for Leia—and for me.
         But I digress. Let me get on with the rest of the story.
         As the moon, now low in the sky, swam toward the west, the quick rhythmic tapping of feet as if someone were fleeing from danger, disturbed the silence. Before I could figure out what was happening, a shadow ducked under the magnolia tree and stumbled over Leia and me. By the light of the moon, I saw the face of a young woman contorted with fear.
         Without fully waking, Leia reached for the fugitive and covered her with my shawl. Curled around one another for warmth they slept like two mice snuggled in their nest.
         Before the first light glinted on the magnolia’s glossy leaves, I willed myself to lift upward. Hovering in the air, I prayed that no one would notice me floating to my platform. The girl’s one eye shot open, while the other remained closed in a dream. It was a bright green eye. Then she screamed, a high-pitched scream of fear. It echoed around the park and into the buildings along the street. It woke people slumbering in the soft hotel beds, caused then to spill their coffee in the cozy coffee shop, and the cats in the alley to arch their backs and hiss. I almost curled up and dropped to the ground, but for that friendly gust that caught me and carried me back to my designated place.
When the earth drank in the morning sun, I heard whispers. At first, I thought the leaves were rustling in the wind, until I heard Leia ask, “Kyla, will you play for me?” In the morning light, the young woman’s face had the appearance of a white mask, with small, bright eyes and a delicate mouth, and yet, somehow she was as beautiful as a China doll. I watched Kyla reach into her backpack with trembling hands. She drew out a musical instrument. Running her fingers over its smooth surface, she brought it to her lips. With each breath she released melodies that seemed to dance in the shafts of light. The notes intertwined with the morning chorus of birds trilling, warbling, chirping, and whistling underscored by the peaceful yet sad cooing of mourning doves.
         With a voice weathered by life’s cruelty, yet resonating with strength and resilience, Leia began to sing.
Her song spoke of loneliness and longing, of despair and darkness, of joy and hope. What was left of my heart, if a monument can be said to have a heart, connected to each note, stirring lost memories.
         Their duet echoed through the park. A brown sparrow, perched on a branch tilted its head to listen. Pigeons roosting on the church spire took flight and circled overhead. Drawn to the music, an early runner, his worn T-shirt soaked with sweat, halted in his tracks. An unshaven young man with tattoos running down his skinny arms, a woman with missing teeth. A silver-haired man with a long beard Advocating for Authentic Middle Grade Literature

The gale force winds of climate change are calling. They’re calling to scientists, writers, and artists to weave stories that will inspire young people to dream up a brighter future. After decades of misinformation, denial, and inadequate attempts to reduce the dire impact of climate change, the youth around the world are troubled, angry, and frustrated.
They are searching for ways to understand, and then take action. That is why writers, and artists need to dig deep to find ways to connect truthfully and authentically with the youth. Sadly middle graders and tweens have fewer age-appropriate books, relating to their lives and issues, to choose from. That is why I strive to write compelling stories interwoven with science that can educate, inspire, and empower them.
The epiphany that inspired me to begin writing Eco Adventures struck me one morning driving to work down the road winding through a wooded hillside. As I approached the bottom of the hill, I yelled out loud, “How dare they!” Overnight, a swath of red dirt had replaced a verdant forest. A forest of oak, hickory, poplar, and pine, which had sustained a rich diversity of life, had been bulldozed to a barren patch of clay. Just one ancient white oak, standing like a tower of hope, had been spared. The birds, possums, and squirrels had all fled for their lives.
After that aha moment, I imagined the oak, which I named Alba Maizie, telling its story to the neighborhood’s children. Nine months later, The Adventures of The Sizzling Six: The Lone Tree became the first Eco adventure to blossom into a stand-alone series of nine books published over the past decade.
Woven into these entertaining stories about six feisty girls, determined to save animals and the natural environment, is a serious theme. While my adventures do not sugar coat the truth, they are hopeful. I weave in scientific knowledge into my adventures to create plausible and inspiring endings in place of gloomy ones. A caveat: as environmental writers we have a responsibility to thoroughly research the scientific underpinnings of our stories. Pseudoscientific claims that appeal to ingrained fears and long-standing assumptions can become widely accepted, hampering action to reduce the harmful effects of climate change. Denial and book banning also prevent teens from becoming wise future stewards of our planet.
Following The Lone Tree, I created stories for The Sizzling Six series woven around North America’s disappearing freshwater mussels, the endangered Red-cockaded woodpecker in the longleaf pine forests, the threatened diamondback terrapins native to the coastal tidal marshes of the eastern and southern US, and the Cahaba lily found only in streams of Alabama and Georgia.
My focus widened to the international sphere with The Case of the Missing Piping Plovers, which chronicled the exciting discovery of the winter nesting grounds of Piping Plovers on a remote coral reef in the Bahamas. Monarch Mysteries (Book 6), follows the migration routes of the threatened Monarch butterflies from North America to the special Oyamel forest in Mexico. With Vanishing Birds (Book 9) I expanded my stories to include the entire length of the Atlantic migratory flyway from the Arctic to a remote island on the southernmost point of South America.
Recently, I completed the first two books in a climate fiction stand alone trilogy Red Flag Warning: An Eco Adventure and The Gray Whales Lament, An Eco Adventure, broadening the stories to global issues. This middle-grade climate fiction trilogy was sparked (pun intended) by the devastating wildfires, and sea level rising around the globe. The stories are told through the eyes of culturally and ethnically diverse teenagers, brought together by a powerful gift—the ability to communicate with animals.
Now, more than ever, I am convinced that scientists, educators, and artists need to use their talents to inspire students to see the interconnectedness of their world—to understand what happens in their town or country may impact other distant places on our planet. Now more than ever, I am committed to keep writing science-based environmental fiction that will ignite the imagination and show middle graders (and the young at heart) they can take wise action that makes a difference.

Looking back, I realize from my earliest childhood memories I’ve always been “in love” with the amazing natural world. That passion is what drives my stories. Back in the 1990s when I was teaching at in Birmingham, Alabama, public school, my students and I built a nature trail on the school grounds. One of my students recently penned this letter to me:

I remember when we started working on the Nature Trail. At first, I was excited to get out of the school building for any reason, but soon fell in love with being in the woods and learning about the plants and animals that we saw. I remember the invasive species Mrs. Datnow pointed out. This was my first introduction to the importance of native plant species on the continuing existence of native wildlife. Even now, as I hike and backpack with my own four children, I think fondly of the time as I point out the mayapple, trillium, the liverwort, and other plants . . . I often walked over to the trail with my best friend, who was part of the project, after school and on weekends. It was a wonderful place . . . to be free of our troubles and worries. The peace we found there has inspired me to teach my children about our world and how to preserve what we have been given, and to become wise stewards of nature.
Just recently I was thrilled to learn that the Alabama Audubon Society was restoring that trail and were naming it The Audubon Datnow Forest Preserve.
A lone voice can make a small difference to young people; however, many united voices can persuade the powers that be to do more to spread the message of environmental conservation. I know it’s not easy, but I hope to encourage writers and artists, scientists, and technologists to communicate their stories and their knowledge to the next generation.
In the not-too-distant future, young people in our neighborhoods and schools will have joined the workforce. Some will find themselves working as scientists discovering and studying creatures and plants on our planet’s highest mountains, deepest oceans, driest deserts, wettest rainforests, and in the concrete jungles of cities. Others will find themselves working for corporations, sitting behind desks, caring for patients in hospitals, standing on podiums, in classrooms teaching students, or running for political office. All of them will be making decisions, voting for leaders, and for actions that will, for better or worse, affect the health of our planet and the survival of life on this planet. That’s a huge responsibility for the older generation to place on their shoulders. So, what can we do to help them?
I am certain that students studying the natural sciences, from kindergarten to college, will blossom into the next generation of environmental leaders. They will understand the science and the issues underpinning society’s challenging ecological problems. And they will apply their knowledge to create a stronger connection between what must be done and how to get things done. Still, they need something more to close the chasm between cognition and action. They need something to electrify them, move them, to spur them on.
Science and literature can cross-fertilize one another. Storytellers need to understand the powerful methods of science which provide solutions to pressing problems. Scientists need to apply the building blocks of powerful writing and art to become better communicators. Although science and storytelling employ different methods, they share the WOW or the wonder that drives their vision, because curiosity and perseverance are at the heart of both disciplines. Science asks: how can we explain this WOW? Storytelling asks: how can we tell compelling narratives about this WOW?
I’m committed to keep writing science-b
Pasted Graphicsed environmental/climate fiction especially for middle graders. As storytellers, we hold the keys to touch their hearts, to ignite their imagination to build a bridge to tomorrow, and to empower them to act for the greater good of humanity and the well-being of the Earth. We need to reject narratives of division. We need storytellers from all disciplines to blur boundaries, expand empathy, and stretch our capacity for caring. The winds of change are calling for narratives that will illuminate our vital connection to one another and to this precious blue planet on which all life depends.

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