Writing Community

I have seen myself as a writer ever since I could hold a crayon.  I drew and wrote letters, telling stories to anyone who happened by. Usually, that person was my mother. She was a teacher and always encouraged me. She’d look at my scribbles and pictures and ask me to tell her about them.  And that would be the only invitation I needed.  I’d start rattling off some adventure with animals, the woods, and a tea party with cake. My stories always ended with cake. My father would also encourage me.  He was a poet and a writer and I think he was so proud that I loved the pencil as much as he did.  He’d read stories to me that were way above my understanding, but somehow I would take snippets of images and make them my own.  Today, my father is ninety-four years old, and he continues to send me texts telling me to read this article, or that book, and sometimes he writes me text-sized poems.  So I guess I was very lucky to have grown up with a built-in writing community.

As I grew, I often received praise and awards for my poetry.  It was the one thing I did well.  The one thing of which I could be confident.  I loved to share my writing with classmates and often teachers would showcase my stories or poems.  When I became a teenager all that changed.  I still wrote, but I didn’t share my work with anyone.  I separated myself from my parents as all teenagers must do, but I also felt that I could not share my writing and feeling with my friends. No one else in my circle wrote.  They danced, or skated, or played softball.  I felt that they would not understand.  So I wrote for myself.  It wasn’t until college that I found another community of writers.  These were women like me: English majors, readers, passionate about the world around them, full of ideas and dreams.  In my junior year, I was selected to be part of Adrienne Rich’s year-long poetry seminar.  I was excited and terrified at the same time. This was a whole new level of community.  This community was going to judge me, my writing – Was I actually the writer I thought I was?  Class after class was inspiring, Ms. Rich always pushing us to think and go beyond ourselves.  I received praise at first, and then I was summoned to Ms. Rich’s office one day.  She had been reading my work and judged it to be not serious enough.  It was full of college angst, unrequited love, and misplaced desire.  She knew I could do better, but I would have to read more widely.  I sat there small in her office.  I could not speak.  I just listened and nodded. I wrote down the people she told me to read, I stood up, I walked out the door, head bowed.  I left deflated but determined. I began to read. The one person she told me I must read – Edna St. Vincent Millay – I did not read as my single act of youthful rebellion.  I read and I wrote, but I would not read Millay. I published lots of poems in the college literary magazine, and I started a literary magazine with a group of friends when I was in graduate school, and then in my late twenties the writing began to fade away and teaching took its place. 

As a teacher, I made lots of room for my students to write.  They would fill journal after journal of their ideas and stories.  Some could write easily, filling blank pages with chapter after chapter of childhood adventure and fantasy.  Some sat there, staring at the blank page, terrified.  They were the ones who became my personal mission to support. We would start by drawing pictures first.  Then labeling the pictures.  Then telling about the pictures out loud to a friend.  Then writing something down.  We would slowly build detail, problem and solution, character’s feelings and motivation.  Slowly… slowly… slowly… For the few who had all the ideas but the pencil was their foe, I would listen to them and write down their words.  I asked high school students to become scribes to these students in their free time and watched as those relationships grew and blossomed. I began to see again the power of community.  Having someone to listen was as important to having the desire to write.  If I was encouraging countless students over the years to write, why wasn’t I writing anymore?

My answer was always TIME but I knew that wasn’t a good answer and that TIME would indeed run out.  I was forty-years-old at the time, and I knew I had to become more consistent in my writing.  I began to write children’s books and send them out to publishers.  I got rejected.  I got rejected again and again.  I got good rejections.  It didn’t matter.

I stopped writing. Or rather, I kept writing but I stopped sending out my work.  I didn’t share my work with anyone.  I became guarded.  Then when I turned fifty, I decided to return to poetry.  My husband and I would hike in the woods and he’d take photographs and I would write poetry.  It was a lovely time.  I felt good and confident about my poetry.  It came back like an old friend.  I could always count on it. And then I started reading Millay.  First, I read her biography, Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford, and then I read every one of her poems.  Adrienne Rich had been right.  And I was so wrong.  I laughed at myself.  I wish I could have tea and cake with Adrienne and tell her but she had probably known all along.

For the last fourteen years, I’ve been writing for myself and sometimes for family.  I wrote a collection of poems about my Grandpa Charlie for my mother just two years before she died.  We hugged and cried together as she read them, and I was so happy I took the time to create them.  I wrote poems for my each of my friend’s children when they were born.  I created a picture book for my cousin’s young daughter about my Aunt Jo (her grandmother) who she had never met.  I wanted her to know what a powerful person her grandmother was. I continued to write poems, took up photography too, and was generally satisfied.  Kind of. Not really. I knew I needed connection.  I started this blog a couple of years ago.  I wrote.  No one read it.  Well – yes – one person read it, my friend Molly because I knew she would be positive and encouraging.  But still I wasn’t consistently writing. 

It wasn’t until this past April that I began to write consistently. I had been reading Ruth Ayers’ blogs and books for years.  Last March, I commented on one of her posts.  I wanted to show support.  I wanted her to know there was a stranger that understood.  To my surprise, Ruth responded to my comment and invited me to be part of her online writing community, SOS – Sharing our Stories. That day happened to be my 64th birthday. I wrote Ruth back and told her how much her words and invitation meant to me, and I began to write.  To write consistently.  To think of myself as a writer again.

And I began to step out and share my writing.  Each week, when I publish a post, I send it to a small group of friends and family. The women who post on SOS have also become my readers and I am so thankful for them.  I love reading their posts and am inspired by them.  We are a group of strong women who love to write.  We write about family triumphs and tragedies, we write about gardens and the discovery of grass spiders, we write about the joy of playing at seaside with a beloved nephew, we write about teaching, we share favorite recipes, and we write about our dogs and our favorite shoes.  We write and that is what’s important.  We write, and I am so grateful.

A Writer’s Dilemma

What is a simile

For the rainbow that forms

Beneath the waterfall

At the light of day?

What is a metaphor 

For the red bird

That hops hopefully

Among the bare brambles?

How to personify 

The indomitable, presence

In the morning sky

Announcing the day?

How to alliterate

The spider’s web glistening

High between forked branches

Overlooked and undiscovered?

The writer is left with ancient, brittle words

Which fall to her feet

And break and crack

Into sharp, uneven pieces.

Bending, she tries to salvage

One rough fragment,

One simple thought 

To set free upon the page.

The next poem was written as a response to e.e. cummings’ poem, Song I.

I love his work. He helps children think about and gives them permission

to play with words.  And as I’ve said before, it is always a good idea

to end with cake:

I have joined an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

Song of the Sky: Some Thoughts on Clouds

When I was a child, I spent long summer days looking up at the sky watching the clouds shape-shift.  I loved gazing up at what I thought looked like the continent of Africa slowly drift and pull apart until it became a magnificent ocean schooner sailing across the blue, then only to turn and twist to become a white serpent with a long, forked tongue.  To me clouds represent possibility.  What can I come?  What adventures await beyond the blue?  How can I stay quick, nimble, active.

When I taught young children, I always read to them the pattern book, It Looked Like Split Milk by Charles G. Shaw. The book starts off with the refrain: It looked like spilt milk, but it wasn’t spilt milk.  Sometimes it looked like a rabbit, but it wasn’t a rabbit. It steadily progresses, changing shape from page to page.  The repetition and simple graphics silhouetted against the bright blue background were easy for the children to remember and read.  In fact, I have taught many children to read using that book.  They felt successful and loved creating their own versions with endless possibilities.  And they read, and read, and read.

Maybe my connection to clouds is poetic in nature.  Metaphor. Simile. The cloud was a gossamer cloak ready to take me in and render me invisible. The dessert was topped with whipped cream which was as light and soft as a cloud.  Indeed, clouds often resemble whipped cream.  Maybe it’s not so much a poetic connection as it is a connection to food! Heaps and heaps of heavy cream whipped into lovely fluffs of all shape and shades. One wishes she could just reach out and scoop up a healthy handful.

One day recently, I escaped to the beach to take photos of the clouds rolling in to capture that sense of wonder.  Looking out towards the horizon, the sky and sea seemed infinite. Maybe that’s what intrigued Alfred Stieglitz about clouds: their ever-changing shape above Lake George and reflected on its surface. For over a decade Stieglitz photographed clouds. He first called his cloud work, Songs of the Sky, after the music he could surely hear as they drifted.  Later, he called his work Equivalents, noting the clouds reflected his own inner emotions.

Stieglitz created the first completely abstract photographs. He was influenced by abstract painter Vassily Kandinsky’s ideas and his belief that colors, shapes, and lines reflect the inner, emotive “vibrations of the soul.”  Self-expression and development of the spirit were key to Kandinsky’s approach and greatly affected Stieglitz work. Being abstract and dynamic, these elements have a very musical quality. Although Stieglitz’s work was in black and white, I wonder if the viewers’ response would be the same for color photography.  Does the tones of blue and white alter the message?  I’m not sure.  I’m still gazing up at the clouds.

Song of the Sky

Stieglitz photographed the clouds

Looming over Lake George,

Snapping hundreds of frames for hours:

Stratus, cumulus, or nimbus,

Stark white against deep blue,

Billowing out on a summer’s day.

Georgia! Get my camera!

He’d bark at O’Keefe.

Dutifully she’d place the Graflex

In his cold hands,

And sit with him on their porch

Looking out over the lake,

Watching massive thunderheads

Loom on the horizon

Shifting and rolling

Unfolding like flowers

Open to the grace of heaven

And then the rain came

Pouring down, relentless,

Dancing on the surface of the lake,

Soaking the dry earth,

Drenching the tall trees,

Reviving her weary spirit.

Some Thoughts on Geese

I’m taking some time to think and wonder about the world right outside my window. Since I live near the Great Swamp flyway, I get to witness lots of birds.  I am so lucky to look out my window and see hawks, vultures, turkeys, and all manner of songbirds.  It is the Canada geese who most grab my attention.  Geese are monogamous.  When they are two or three years old, they find a partner and mate for life.  Their loyalty has always intrigued me.  When I was young, Canada geese were a rare occurrence, but now they are common and are usually viewed and an annoyance.  A whole industry has been created to get rid of them: Birds Beware, Bird B Gone, Goosinator, and GooseBuster – to name a few. But I think geese are beautiful, graceful, and devoted friends.  They are bold and forthright. There is nothing deceptive about geese.  They are unapologetically simple and true.

Commitment

The Canada goose decided

To lay five perfect shiny white eggs

On the curb near the busy road

She did not choose the meadow

At the edge of the woods,

Or the thick grass by the pond.

No, she decided to lay her eggs

In the middle of the housing development

Where she would have no end

Of Human contact.

Cars whizz past and

Suddenly slow down to gawk,

Children screech from their car seats.

A middle-aged woman

Trots out of her apartment

With a plastic container

Full of cool spring water,

The goose hisses and flaps her wild wings,

The water spills, the woman retreats,

The children clap and laugh.

An hour later workmen come,

Cordon off and caution

With bright yellow tape.

The goose settles down softly,

Turning her eggs regularly,

Waiting so patiently.

We keep our distance, we wait.

Days and days pass, almost a month.

She does not eat, she does not drink,

She is vigilant.

Suddenly one day without fanfare

Five perfect fuzzy yellow heads emerge

From their steadfast mother

Peeping, peeping, peeping,

Their mother bends her

Sleek, graceful black neck

Tenderly caressing,

No longer waiting,

She stands, ruffles her feathers,

Her yellow brood following behind her.

Freedom

I draw open 

The heavy drapes 

In my bedroom

Look out to the

Shrubbery and thorny flowers

There he stands

A dark-headed sentinel

Staring with one black beady eye

Quiet and still

His webbed feet 

Providing sturdy balance.

He looks in my direction

And meets my gaze.

He rustles his sleek feathers,

Moves towards the adjacent patio

To stare intently through

The sliding door windows 

At the neighbor’s

Orange tabby cat,

Who suns himself

On the worn blue ottoman.

The goose unmoving watches

The cat stands, circles,

And shape-shifts –

All the while his 

Massive tail twitches.

This interests the goose

And he steps closer

To the window.

What creature is this?

What predator behind

Clear, strong glass?

The cat pretends not to notice

And turns his back.

The goose returns to his place

Under the cool pine tree.

He stands proud  

lifting his wild wings slightly

Catching the wind

Knowing he is free.

Finding Paris

A Paris State of Mind

This summer, not being able venture far away as I normally do, I have become very aware how important place is to my identity.  My identity has been definitely shaped by being born, growing up, and aging in New Jersey. But it was also shaped by my travels throughout this country and abroad.  The geography, natural resources, diverse people, food, and architecture have all impacted my sense of beauty and adventure.  I’ve been missing that sense of adventure this summer, and so I’ve found that I have been traveling in my mind through reading books.  For the past several weeks, I’ve been in Paris by way of Hemingway.  First, I read his memoir of Paris in the 1920’s, Moveable Feast.  After I finished the book, I was missing Paris so much that I found the novel, Paris Wife by Paula McLain, which is a fictionalized account of Hemingway’s time in Paris with his first wife, Hadley Richardson.  What so intrigued me about this book is that the author describes the same events from Moveable Feast, but from Hadley’s perspective.  It is clear that Paris in the 1920s shaped the identities of so many American writers and artists.  As a young couple, Hem and Hadley moved to Paris so that Hem could concentrate on his writing.  There, he met Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and countless others.  I traveled along with the Hemingways through the Boulevard de Montparnasse, past the many cafes they frequented: La Closerie des Lilas, Le Dôme, Le Select, La Coupole, La Rotonde, and The Dingo Bar. I envision their tiny tenement apartment on the rue Cardinale Lemoin. I can see the brown water of the Seine, I can hear the music of the dance halls, I can smell the sawdust of the nearby lumber mill.

When exploring cities, I love waking up early and taking long sensory walks, getting a feel for the people and culture.  Camera in hand, I focus my lens on the shop windows, the man sweeping the sidewalks, the young woman setting out trays of bakery treats, the pigeons swooping down on small crumbs scattered at the curb. I go down side streets, trying to find the secret places, the soul of the city. Many times, I’m surprised by the treasures I’ve found: a tiny shop with skeins of bright colored wool in the window; the brightly striped awning of a café, which serves a fragrant and rich mochaccino; the young, homeless family walking in slippers down the street with their daughter in tow, who is holding a large conch shell to her ear, which her father had retrieved from the garbage. These discoveries are what sustain me.  They are times of uncovering raw beauty that keeps me to connected to my place in the world.  I travel with a poet’s heart, always observing, always seeking the essence of the place to express its truth in that very moment.

Paris at 13

When I was thirteen years old (1969), I was able to travel to Paris with my family. When looking back, I remember the food first and foremost. We stayed in a six-story narrow pensione, which served continental breakfast every day: loaves of warm, crusty bread wrapped in white linen, glass jars of homemade thick strawberry jam, and strong steaming tea.  And some mornings we had eggs – deux oeufs frit – the first French words I learned to say.

I remember the Paris attractions: the Eiffel Tower, The Arc de Triomphe, the Pantheon.  I can see myself climbing the steps of Notre-Dame and Sacre-Coeur. I was astonished to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. It was exquisite – small and dark.  And I remember the walking through the Tuileries, down the Champs-Élysées, through the neighborhoods and narrow winding cobblestone streets.  I was mesmerized, walking slowly behind my family taking it all in like it was some lovely misty dream. I loved stopping into all the cafés: the long elaborate bars, the marble tabletops, the waiters in crisp white aprons, the blackboards with the daily menus etched in chalk.  I tried everything – croissants, raclette, croque monsieur, coq au vin, pot-au-feu, and even escargot. But it was the simple meals that made a lasting impression.  On our last night in Paris, we stopped at a small café, and I ordered jambon aux épinards, which was a small plate of cheesy creamed spinach with a paper-thin slice of ham on top.  It was the most sumptuous thing I ever tasted.  I could have eaten two more platefuls.  I vowed to come back to Paris one day when I was all grown up.  I have yet to go back.  But I know that the Paris today cannot compare with the Paris of my memory.

Paris in Montreal

Though I have yet to return to Paris, my husband and I have ventured to Montreal every summer for the last six years.  It was the place we also honeymooned thirty-six years ago.  Montreal is our North American Paris.  We have spent many a summer day walking the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal taking photographs, window shopping, and stopping to rest at sidewalk cafés.  My favorite patisserie is Cookies Stefanie because all their treats are gluten-free, which means I can sample pain au chocolat, apple and maple muffins, and rich gâteaux, worry free.  Another favorite spot on Rue Saint Sulpice is a lovely teahouse call Ming Tao, where the busy street life fades away with every steaming cup of tea.

One night, my husband and I stopped into a café on Rue McGill, and I coaxed him to try something new on the menu – halloumi, which we thought was fish and were surprised when the waitress set down our plates of farm-fresh sautéed vegetables topped with a firm square of grilled white cheese. We both had a good laugh together about that!

One of my favorite places to photograph is Jean Talon Farmer’s Market in Montreal’s Little Italy.  It is filled with fresh produce, honey, cheeses, bread, and pastries. It also has a creperie, which I must indulge in every time we visit.

Paris Metro

Standing on the platform –

Gleaming white tiles,

Everything clean and fresh

Even though we are underground.

It is a busy time in the morning,

The train screeches in –

I take a step back,

My father urges us into

A packed car and motions us

To get off again and then on again.

I get lost in the confusion.

They are on the train,

I am on the platform,

The doors slide shut.

My mother’s face is agony,

My sister’s face is amusement,

My father’s face is serious,

His hands motioning,

Wait for the next train!

Get off the next stop!

We will wait for you!

The train pulls out

Taking my family away.

The platform is empty now.

Just one lone American teenager.

I sit on a bench and lean

Against the cool tiles

I look at the bright billboards

I imagine myself in a new life

What would it be like

To stay in Paris?

I can see myself at school

Becoming fluent in French

Creating a new life.

The places I’d go,

The food I’d eat,

The person I was meant to be.

I hear a low, slow rumble

The next train arrives

Pushes the daydream

Out of my mind

I step aboard.

How Does Your Zen Garden Grow?

As I look towards the end of August, cognizant that my new school year is on the horizon whether it is virtual or in-person, I am committed to keep cultivating my own garden.  By this I mean I want to keep in the forefront of my mind, my health, my writing, my artistic expression, and my connection to friends and family.  It has not always been easy for me to have clear boundaries between work and my personal life.  For decades, I put my work before everything else.  Oh sure, I talked about balance, but I really didn’t know how to achieve it.  How do I juggle a great jumble of responsibilities?  How do I prioritize?  What do I need to do to be successful?  I struggled and struggled with these questions.  I read about how to reduce stress.  I practiced tai chi and yoga.  I drank gallons of steaming chamomile tea.  I smiled. I sang several choruses of, “Let it Go” loudly in the shower.  Still, I felt like the sword of Damocles was constantly dangling over my head. I talked to family. I talked to friends.  Everyone felt the same way.  Everyone had the same strategies. They worked on the surface, but I still felt stressed and anxious.

I turned towards my faith. I prayed for wisdom and insight. I knew that if I didn’t find a way to deal productively with my stress, I would continue to damage my health and relationships.  I’ve watched the failing health of my parents and in-laws as they aged, and I know life is so fragile, so short, so precious.  By continuing to load up my life with endless activities and packed schedules, I was playing a dangerous game.  I was slowly and surely depleting my quality of life.  On the outside, I looked like I was handling my hectic life quite well.  But I knew I wasn’t.  I knew I was over-eating, not sleeping, constantly worrying. I knew if I really loved myself that I had to stop.  Stop immediately, stop without question.

So that’s what I did little by little, I learned to focus on myself, I began to write more consistently.  I read books that interested me, not just books for education.  I made an effort to eat nourishing food and get daily exercise.  In the months that followed, I felt more and more in control.  I stopped worrying about what people thought of me.  I asked myself:  What makes you happy?  What do you want to create?  What is important to you?  And as I pondered these questions, I stopped juggling all the unimportant, distracting minutia.

Even though I haven’t had a chance to travel as I normally would this summer, I have been productive.  I connected with old acquaintances, read books that I have wanted to read for a long time, began to draw and paint again, and began to organize my copious files of photographs. I also made time to walk and bike. I feel I’m ready for the gauntlet that will be this school year.  I’ve been thinking about how to ensure this inner peace I’ve sown will continue.  I want to stay mindful and positive.

I started compiling books and materials that will help me remember to keep my health first and to prioritize what’s most important to me in my life at this very moment in time.  I call these items my Zen Toolbox. If you’d like, take some time and create your own toolbox to help keep you calm, centered, and in the present.

ZEN TOOLBOX

1. The Little Book of Joy by Bill Zimmerman
A terrific little journal where I record my thoughts and insights to the writing prompts.
2. The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
A wonderful book by Ryan Holiday on ways to surmount obstacles and make problems into possibilities.
3. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg                           
An invaluable book about how to write using the mindful, Zen approach getting to the heart of the story.
4. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse by Charlie Mackery
A wonderful children’s book, but really a book for all ages about the resilience needed to live a joyful life.
5. Write the Poem (Piccadilly)
A little journal I found in a thrift store which has a poem topic and suggested vocabulary on each page.  It is a more structured way to approach poetry, and I was pleasantly surprised by the practice.
6. Drawn to Nature by Holly Ward Bimba
A journal and sketch set that focuses on drawing the natural world.
7. Buddha Board
A small painting easel that allows you to paint with water, so your masterpiece is fleeting, but very enjoyable.
8. Joy of Zen Tangles by Marie Browning
A way of doodling that is systematic and teaches how to create various perspectives.
9. A Collection of Notebooks
I love collecting beautiful notebooks.  I’m making a commitment to writing in them more consistently and thoroughly.
10. Music & Meditation: My favorites – King & Country, Lauren Daigle, Andean Flute music, and Guided Mindfulness Mediation – Jon Kabat-Zinn 

Zen Garden

Sitting low on a wooden bench

Looking out on the Zen garden,

My thoughts circle and release,

Circle and release,

Circle and drift

Around the islands in my mind.

A young girl runs to the edge of garden,

“What’s a Zen garden, Dad,” she asks.

Her father looks out,

Shrugs his shoulders and says,

“A Bunch of rocks…

A bunch of rocks.

His teenage son smirks,

Glancing at the garden and declares,

“They did a nice job making the rocks.”

And slouches away.

My mind settles on the center stone,

I take in its contours,

I memorize its lines and creases,

Its cracks and crevices,

Its shape, color, texture –

Every wrinkle.

I exhale one long, low breath.

Two young women walk in front of me,

Look out and pause for a moment,

“Do you feel Zen?” one says to the other

“Nope,” says the other with a giggle

And they bounce off.

I open myself to the sea of sand,

Perfect concentric circles,

A solitary island

at peace.

Listen to Their Songs

A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer.

It sings because it has a song.

– Maya Angelou

Last week, I attended yet again another professional development webinar.  This summer they have run the gamut from strategies for reopening given the new pandemic reality, to antiracism, from identifying and reducing anxiety to techniques for project- based learning.  All were informative, helpful, necessary, but as we drift into August, I am beginning to get weary of learning.  I desperately need a respite before the tsunami of teaching in a pandemic begins to swell again.  This latest webinar feature A.J. Juliani as the keynote.  I have heard this dynamic speaker before, and I was eager to hear what he had to say.  What I didn’t expect was his final words of encouragement to teachers in the form of a video from Clint Pulver, a motivational speaker.  Clint is an author, musician, and employment retention expert. He helps companies and organizations retain, engage, and inspire their workers. Clint believes that a single moment is transformative, and he demonstrates this in a video about his school experience about his interactions with his teacher Mr. Jensen – here.

I was blown away by Clint’s story and was lucky to have champions like Mr. Jensen throughout my school career.   Clint’s story reminded me of the story of Gillian Lynne described by Ken Robinson in his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. Robinson explains that as a young girl growing up in the 1930’s, Gillian was thought to have a serious learning disorder, and school officials recommended that her mother take her to a psychologist.  Gillian’s mother complied, answering the psychologist’s questions as Gillian sat on a chair listening.  When Gillian’s mother and the psychologist left her alone in the room, the psychologist deliberately turned on his radio.  As the music played, Gillian got up and began to dance.  As Gillian’s mother and the psychologist watched from the doorway, the psychologist asserted that Gillian did not need to attend a school for the learning disabled.  Instead, he proclaimed that Gillian was a dancer, and he recommended that she attend dance school.  She went on to become a famous British ballerina and choreographer.  Gillian Lynne is best known for her choreography of the Broadway hits, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. (Robinson, 2009).  It is this shift in perspective that is necessary for connecting children with possibilities.

This was best illustrated to me a number of years ago, when I was teaching 2nd grade.  One of my students, Michael, was a talented violinist.  Although, I gave my young learners many creative arts experiences, true music integration was more difficult for me, since I had no background in music.  However, Michael was eager to weave music into his day. It was an integral part of who he already was at the tender age of seven.  During whatever we were learning, Michael was humming.  He created songs throughout his day, even during quiet working times.  This caused consternation among his classmates.  Michael’s humming disrupted their thinking, no matter how quietly he hummed. One afternoon after dismissal, Michael stayed behind to speak to me about this problem.  He wanted me to know that he wasn’t being disruptive on purpose. The songs, he explained, just came into his head. I reassured Michael that I knew he wasn’t humming to annoy his classmates.  That afternoon, we came up a solution that involved rearranging desks, which would allow Michael to continue to softly hum, while also enabling his classmates to work in quiet. 

That year, I began to develop my own intrepid spirit when creating musical experiences for my students.  As Carolyn Hildebrandt, a professor of psychology at the University of Northern Iowa, wrote, “… teachers do not need special training to foster creativity in music.  The only thing we really need is an interest in children’s music and a willingness to listen to their songs.” In the coming months, I deliberately found space in the day to add music: playing music that reflected what the children were learning, collaborating as a class to write a song about taking care of the earth, showcasing various students’ instrumental abilities by asking them to demonstrate their talent at musical show and tell sessions.  The children also made a variety of string, wind, and percussion instruments.  While constructing various musical instruments over many months, my students experimented with sound and progressed from producing various noises to creating music.  In its simplest form, the children made string instruments with rubber bands and milk cartons or created tambourines with paper plates to aluminum pie pans and dried beans.  While working on their musical instruments, students began to collaborate, making several iterations, and finally coming together to perform in duets, trios, and full bands. These open investigations were the foundation of whole class instruction: we created rain sticks while studying the rainforest, constructed panpipes while learning about Andean culture, and built water xylophones while experimenting with sound and pitch.  Step-by-step, the children began to see themselves as composers of their own lives.

Although, I was not musically inclined, I did realize the need to hold all children’s talents in high esteem.  I remember vividly times as a child when a poem would pop into my head as if by magic. I’d repeat the words over and over again, as not to forget until I got home to a paper and pencil.  As a teacher, I knew I had to nurture students’ passions and allow them to create.  Instead of silencing Michael’s nascent musical abilities, I thought of ways to honor them and connect them to the classroom culture. And what did Michael grow up to be?  A concert violinist, of course, who has performed at Carnegie Hall.

A Song in my Head

Sometimes I need my own space

I lie on the floor in my room

Surrounded by pillows

Listen for my own voice

Wait for the poetry 

To play like

A song in my head

That dances

That makes my curls ring

The swaying of trees 

on a spring day

The sun skipping across

 Sparkling deep water

A restless stranger

On a lonesome beach

Watching waves come in

And go out far

Far to sea

Reaching blue beyond

Poetry to me

Experience of Place

For the past thirty-six summers, my husband and I have been fortunate to be able to wander and travel around the country – our beautiful diverse country: mountains, plains, deserts, and coastlines. Most summers are now spent in the Green Mountains of Vermont or the White Mountains of New Hampshire, or the rocky coastline of Maine.  This year is different.  Very different.  This year is a summer of home and schoolwork. As I look towards the fall, I yearn for those wondrous summer places.  I look back at photographs and remember.

Place is so important to an individual’s identity.  It shapes so much of who we are and who we choose to become. Right after college, I worked in a small publishing firm in New York City.  It was there that I became familiar with Roger Hart’s work on psychological geography and his book Children’ s Experience of Place, a study of eighty-six children in a small town in Vermont and their playtime experiences. (You can listen to Roger Hart’s interview with Ira Glass on This American Life – Act Three: “The Geography of Childhood”). Almost every child had a secret outside hiding place where he could discover new things and imagine. Hart explains how important it is for children to explore freely to develop a sense of self and strong identity.

When I became a classroom teacher, I brought that sense of wonder to the children I taught.  I carefully and deliberately brought their attention to the world around them whether I was teaching reading, writing, social studies, or mathematics. No matter where I taught, the children and I would go out exploring our environment.  In the suburban school, we fished in the river near our school and set up a fish tank with the creatures we captured: tadpoles, minnows, and an eel. In the city school, we adopted trees in Central Park measured their circumference to determine their height and sketched them throughout the seasons. We wrote a letter to the Parks Commissioner with a plan to help the trees on our school’s street to grow.  The children began to see themselves as integral to their environment. And I began to notice the social and emotional affects the outdoors made on children.  They became less stressed, more curious, and definitely more confident.  One parent wrote me at the end of the school year thanking me for all I had done. This was not the first thank you letter I had received, but it was the first letter I received that thanked me for teaching her child how to climb a tree.  This parent understood how important a child’s connection to his surroundings could be.  And that shy, hesitant boy left his third-grade year feeling brave and able to meet any challenge. 

The most profound experience I have had with how the environment fosters a child’s sense of place was when I was a 2nd grade teacher.  One of my students, Brianna, was exceptionally shy and displayed signs of selective mutism.  She spoke in barely audible whispers and continually hunched her shoulders and ducked her head.  I spent the year trying my best to bolster her self-esteem and encourage her to take small risks.  She remained mostly silent.  That is until one spring day when we went on a field trip to a local farm.  We were taking a tour and visiting all the farm animals.  Our guide gathered the children in a circle and asked for a volunteer to gather eggs from the chickens.  To my surprise and delight, Brianna raised her hand.  I caught the guide’s eye and motioned for him to pick Brianna.  He did and handed her a basket.  Brianna bravely skipped to the chicken coop and went in.  Immediately, she came running back without any eggs and her head bowed. 

I walked over to her and said, “You were so brave to volunteer.  Do you want me to go with you and we will gather the eggs together?” 

She nodded her head and we turned around quickly towards the coop.  It was dark and musty and smelled like chickens. I was going to model for Brianna how to reach under the chicken and grab an egg, but all of a sudden I had an amazing realization.  I was absolutely terrified to put my hand under a pecking chicken! 

I expressed this aloud:  “Oh my goodness.  This is scary.  I hope she doesn’t peck me.  I don’t want to do this, but I want the egg.  Okay…  I’m going to do it…  Don’t peck me… Here I go…  Oh, it’s so warm…  I have it!” 

All the while, Brianna began to giggle and then laugh loudly.  I looked at her and smiled.

“Do you want to gather the next one with me?” I asked. Brianna giggled and nodded.  I put my hand over her hand, and together we picked another warm, brown-speckled egg. We put them in the basket and walked out of the coop into the spring sunshine.

Brianna ran ahead shouting, “We gathered two eggs.  Mrs. Emery was so scared.  She was so funny!”

From that day on, Brianna chattered easily with me and her classmates.  Taking that one risked changed everything for her, and it taught me the power of place, how interactions with nature can truly heal.

That was many years ago. I’ve heard from colleagues that Brianna grew up to become an actress.  And when I think of her, I smile and remember that spring day when we gathered eggs together.

Often my poems express that connection between the natural world and human identity. Now that I’m stationary this summer, I use my backyard and our surrounding parks for solace.  I know these days of August are precious, and I intend to keep wandering close to home.

Camouflage

The dark-eyed junco

Flits under the thorny

Brambles and black mulch,

Her blue-black body

Camouflaged among

The twisted branches,

She is well hidden

Only her sharp, quick

Movements betray her.

How many years have I been

Sitting on awkward hands,

Head bowed wishing,

Wishing to be hidden?

If I could make my body

Small enough, dark enough

I could hide away and

Be forgotten.

The dark-eyed junco

Perches on tender branch,

Ruffles her slate-gray feathers,

Contemplates the summer green,

Her white tail feathers flash

As she takes off

Into the cloud-filled sky,

Daring to be fearless

Suddenly, she’s gone.

Dandelion

Your golden head rises

Out of the rusty rubble

Just another weed –

You push your way out

Between cracks in the sidewalk

Among rocks, bricks, bits of broken glass

You grow strong –

Impervious to your surroundings

Your leaves, jagged toothed

Spread green along the old gray ground

You are not discouraged –

You’ve never depended

Upon rain or fertilizer

You provide your own sunlight.

Memory is Hunger

Memory is hunger. When I read this recently, I paused, I underlined it, I wrote notes beside it in pencil. I’ve been concentrating on Hemingway this summer, and this quote came from his memoir, A Moveable Feast, about his time in Paris in the 1920s with his first wife, Hadley.   It is Hadley who says these words as they reminisce about shared experiences: “There are so many sorts of hunger.  In the spring there are more. But that’s gone now.  Memory is hunger.”

This summer, during this COVID crisis, my sister, cousin, and aunt often have running text dialogues that start in the morning and span into the afternoon, since we have not seen each other in months. These conversations always begin with a memory.  Often about our childhoods.  Often about my grandfather, Charlie.  The memory starts simply with one of us stating, “I remember thus and so.” Then each of us takes turns filling in details.  Most of the time, I read their descriptions one after the other, after the other, responding last.  Being the youngest, I find that their memories trigger my own, and I’m able to paint a more sumptuous picture of those times with him. 

Charlie had a large yard with a huge cherry tree, a grape arbor, a small garden, and several fig trees.  As with everything, he took meticulous care of these treasures.  Often when I’d visit in the summer, Charlie would be sitting in the shade.  A low table would be set before him with a fat watermelon, a platter, and a knife.  He would cut thick wedges and offer them to us as we sat to join him and talk.  Cherries, concord grapes, fresh figs, melons – all these remind me of Charlie and influence the way I cook and eat. All of these bring me comfort.  Summer would not be summer without these.

Indeed, both of my grandfathers kept gardens.  My Grandpa Tony had an amazing green thumb.  He had an apple tree on which he grafted a pear branch so that he could have two fruits on one tree.  I always thought he was magic. On his postage stamp-sized garden, he grew corn, tomatoes, squash, beans, cucumbers, spinach, lettuce, and all manner of herbs: rosemary, mint, oregano, and basil.  It is the basil that triggers the most memories for me.  Every time I smell basil, Tony’s face comes into my mind.  The smell of basil makes me smile, and I am home again. Ah…Tony! There he is bending to pick the ripest tomatoes, snapping off some long beans, taking a basil leaf and rubbing it gently, holding his hand up to my nose. “Smell,” he commands, and it all comes flooding back.

This summer, my 94-year-old father (Tony’s son) and I have weekly phone conversations.  We talk about his health, bad news, good books, but it is food that dominates our conversations.  My father does not keep a garden, but he still lives by himself and cooks his own meals.  In fact, he cooks for his housekeeper, his guitar teacher, and his young neighbors.  As much as he loves to read and write, I think he loves cooking more.  He is always inventing new recipes. Some of my most joyous memories of my father are our conversations about food. I want to write a cookbook with him where we start with basic ingredients like chickpeas and black olives. Then each of us would make recipes from these simple ingredients and see how diverse and inventive our meals could be. 

Usually, my summers consist of traveling north to New England and Canada. Always, they consist of finding and trying new foods.  Last summer in Montreal, I found so many wonderful places: gluten free bakeries, cafes, and tea shops (The Art of Cookies and Ming Tao Xuan). I miss traveling and making new food discoveries. So besides concentrating on Hemingway, I have been concentrating on many memorable meals for myself and my husband – always starting with simple, fresh ingredients. Here are three recipes inspired by three simple summer fruits: figs, watermelon, and apricots.

Fresh Fig, Ricotta, & Honey Toast

 Ingredients:

4 slices of your favorite bread

½ cup part-skim ricotta cheese

2 fresh figs sliced lengthwise

2 teaspoons honey

Directions:

  1. Toast bread.
  2. Spread ricotta cheese on toasted bread.
  3. Top with sliced figs.
  4. Drizzle with honey.

Note: The figs I use in this recipe and which are the most popular where I shop are Brown Turkey figs.  They are brownish-purple in color. Choose soft, plump fig with bent stems.

Watermelon Summer Salad

Ingredients:

¼ cup fresh Basil

4 cups Watermelon, scooped into 1-inch balls

¼ cup olive oil

2 teaspoons lime juice

1 cup Ricotta Salata, crumbled

1 ½ tsp salt

Directions:

  1. With a melon baller scoop watermelon into 1-inch balls.
  2. Place basil leaves on top of each other and roll tightly into a log. Slice lengthwise into thin ribbons.
  3. Combine basil slices and watermelon in a large bowl.
  4. Mix lime juice, olive oil and salt together in a small bowl
  5. Pour over watermelon and basil. Toss to combine.
  6. Chill salad before serving, at least 30 minutes.

Note: Ricotta Salata differs from ricotta in that it is a hard cheese from Sicily.  It has the consistency of feta cheese, but with a milder, creamy texture and a nutty taste.

Apricot Crisp

Ingredients:

4 cups apricots, coarsely chopped 

2 Tbsp granulated sugar

¾ cup light brown sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

¾ cup old fashioned oats

¾ cup almond flour

½ cup sliced almonds

½ cup cold unsalted butter, diced into small cubes

pinch of salt

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.  Butter square baking dish.
  2. In a mixing bowl, add chopped apricots and granulated sugar. Stir to combine, then transfer to prepared baking dish.
  3. In a separate mixing bowl, add topping ingredients (brown sugar, cinnamon, oats, almond flour, sliced almonds, salt, and diced cold butter).  Use a pastry cutter to cut the butter into the oat mixture.
  4. Spread topping over apricots in baking dish, and gently pat to even it out.  
  5. Bake 40-50 minutes, until golden brown and bubbly.
  6. Serve warm, top with ice cream if desired, and enjoy!

Note: One summer in Rome, while staying with friends, I took total advantage of their apricot tree, which happily supplied me with a surfeit of this golden fruit.

Most Likely to Create

Humans are social animals and as such we seek community.  We yearn for communication and understanding.  We want to be seen and most definitely heard. There are all kinds of communities to which I have belonged.  I have been part of a community of quilters, dancers, painters, teachers, cooks, readers, martial artists, and writers. As part of those communities, I was able to build strong bonds with others who shared similar interests and passions.  These alliances deepened my understanding and helped me express my ideas and support my fellow members.  I experienced valuable interactions and connections.  I learned and thrived by being part of all these communities.

As a teacher, I’m a natural collaborator. I enjoy standing back and observing students working in small affinity groups on various projects.  Engagement is the key to empowerment, and I’ve witnessed formerly detached children flourish. In these types of circumstances, children begin to recognize what interests them and learn how to make important contributions to their groups and to their common projects.

Recently I watched the documentary, Most Likely to Succeed created by Ted Dintersmith, a professor of engineering and the author of Most Likely to Succeed and What Schools Could Be. The movie chronicles students from High Tech High in San Diego California, which is a project-based high school. Project-based learning is a method of teaching where students work on a project over a period of time that entails solving real-word problems or answers a complex question.  Students work collaboratively, building skills and knowledge, and ultimately showcasing their project or presentation to a target audience. The movie follows the students through their freshman year.  We watch as students gain more and more confidence and knowledge.  They support each other and develop leadership skills. The year culminates with a school exhibit where students showcase their work be it art, theater, or engineering.  We revel in their successes, but we also get a glimpse of failure.  One student fails to finish his engineering project on time.  However, instead of wallowing in despair, his peers, teachers and family rally around him. He is able to reflect on the reasons he was unable to make the deadline. Clearly this student had a keen innovative mind.  His teachers knew that proper reflection and determination would lead to eventual success.  And they were right.  The student worked through the summer and was ultimately successful. His project was very intricate and displayed a high level of thought and expertise.  By failing, he was able to fail forward and create a complex piece that reflected his vision.

            After watching this film, I saw that there was another documentary with the same title – Most Likely to Succeed directed by Pamela Littky.  This documentary followed four high school seniors who have been voted “Most Likely to Succeed.”  The film follows these young adults over a ten-year period following their dreams of college and desires for career success and happiness.  The teenagers come from very different backgrounds and the film accurately portrays the trials and tribulations that arise given gender, race, and socio-economic status.  It is an incredibly powerful film, and I find myself wondering what has happened to those adults.  Viewers cannot help but create a strong connection with the characters, and one has to keep reminding oneself that these are real teenagers, with real problems, and real dreams. It is with community and connection that they are able to successfully navigate their lives and set a stable course.

            I have the honor of supervising my school’s make space called the Wonder Lab.  It is a multi-age community of elementary school girls.  They come voluntarily and work on projects of their choosing.  So often they tell me how important the lab is to them.  So often they beg to stay the whole afternoon.  It is so rewarding to see them take risks and work together; share ideas and challenge each other.  As we return to school this fall, I wonder how I can offer this space to them.  How can we still be a community of movers and makers?  I’m sketching out all types of plans because I know how essential this work is to their development.  I know it’s not just kids playing with duct tape and cardboard.  I know I have inventors, engineers, astronauts, entrepreneurs, artist, actors, musicians in front of me.  I know it is imperative to provide them space and foster community.

Most Likely to Create

Little girls gather

Forfeiting their recess

To spend time in the Wonder Lab,

A spacious room

Filled with light and

All manner of treasures:

Cartons, boxes, tubes,

String, nails, hammers,

Paints, tape, paper,

Wires, beads, gears…

What do you wonder?

What can you create?

Away they go –

The younger ones bound off

And start right away,

The older ones hang back a bit,

Talk together, write down plans.

The young ones have already

Started building with tubes

Taller than themselves.

And decide to begin

The older ones look on

Very carefully,

Very deliberately,

Soon there is a busy hum,

A flow of energy,

We forget the time.

Now older ones praise younger ones,

And younger ones help older ones,

And the quiet girl in the corner

Who builds by herself

Astounds everyone,

And is soon imitated.

They borrow, bend, cut, and paste,

They sketch, paint, and measure,

They lend a hand; they exchange ideas,

They construct a community of makers.

Every child needs a champion.

Ernest Hemingway famously wrote, Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. This is mine: Every child needs a champion.  As the world seems to be spinning off its axis, this statement is especially true.  Children need champions – people who help them feel safe, cultivate their curiosity, and instill hope.  I became a teacher because I wanted to be a champion for young people.  I have been blessed that I have been able to do this important work for the last forty-two years. So blessed.

But I am by far not the only one. Rita Pierson was an energetic, dynamic, educator, who spoke passionately about being a teacher champion.  Her TED Talk – Every Kid Needs a Champion – is so inspiriting.  She exclaimed, “Every child deserves a champion: an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists they become the best they can possible be.” As I listened to her speak, I nodded my head in agreement.  Yes, yes, yes, that is such a powerful statement!  I believe that connection is the strongest foundation we can provide to students and their parents.  When building that connection during my years of teaching, I was never disappointed; it always paid off – parents trusted and students blossomed.  Rita quoted Dr. James P. Comer, Associate Dean of the Yale School of Medicine. Comer stated that, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”  Comer developed the School Development Program (SDP) model that helps teachers understand the link between development, academic learning and the preparation of students for adult life.  Rita explained, and I can attest to the fact that, kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.  I purposefully created positive connections with my students, making them and their own learning my central focus for the year, and sometimes that focus would last many, many years.  I am still in contact with some students I’ve taught over thirty years ago.  It is so rewarding to see them grow into happy and creative adults. 

This approach is what I call an “I SEE YOU” mindset, a term taken from Leon Logothetis, who created the Netflix series, The Kindness Diaries.  I had the opportunity to hear Leon speak in person this winter, pre-COVID.  He was so inspiring.  What struck me was his one true sentiment: “As a kid I felt very disconnected.  I felt very depressed.  I felt no sense of purpose and to be quite honest, I didn’t feel seen at all.” Despite that, Leon grew up to become a successful London broker. Although he had financial success, he continued to feel unmotivated and depressed. Leon decided to turn in a new direction. He quit his job and began to travel all over the world connecting with people through the sheer simple act of kindness. His life work is now to talk about the importance of connection. He attests that human interactions have an amazing healing power.  Throughout his presentation, I cried – because he would look out into the crowd, and I swear he was looking right at me, and he could “see” who I was.  I know it seems preposterous, but I instantly felt connected and inspired.  Kindness was a tenet I knew well, and it was affirming to be reminded of its importance.

Early in my life, I was lucky to have a champion.  He was my maternal grandfather, Charlie. He was the model of quiet, caring and unconditional love.  Charlie looked after me full-time when my mother made the decision to go back to school to become a teacher.  I spent wonderful long days at my grandfather’s house.  He never once got impatient.  He was a tall man with a soft deep voice, and he always, always expressed how much he loved me.  He told me all the things I was good at doing, and he helped me to learn things I did not yet know.  I didn’t have to be anything or anyone else.  I was me, and Charlie let me know that that was enough.  It is those experiences with Charlie that shaped me as a teacher.  He was an incredibly strong and positive role model. I was fortunate to have him in my life, even if it was for just a short time.  That short time made its mark indelibly on my heart and my path in this world.

Breakfast of Champions

According to Grandpa Charlie,

The breakfast of champions

Consisted of black coffee,

Rye toast and butter,

And a soft-boiled egg

In a mint green egg cup –

Tap, tap, tap..

He sliced off the top of the egg,

Dipped his spoon into the golden goo

And smiled.

Looking over at me

Above his dark rimmed glasses,

Grandpa handed me a tall glass of Tang,

The astronaut’s orange juice,

Two soft-boiled eggs –

Chop, chop, chop…

He crumbled buttered saltine in a small white bow,

The delicate rim decorate

With petite blue flowers and a tiny chip.

Grandpa turned the smooth side toward me,

Pushed it gently across the table,

Then he returned to his newspaper,

As I took an inventory of the kitchen:

Trying to remember every warm inch,

Then I’d take account of the textures and flavors

On my spoon: salty, sweet, crunch, smooth –

We’d sit together reading, thinking, eating,

Just an old man and his granddaughter

Starting the day off right.

Red Plaid Hunting Cap

The cold’s set in,

My grandfather shrugs on

His heavy red plaid hunting jacket,

Pulls on the matching cap,

And take my small mittened hand.

We head out the door

And walk towards town.

Grandpa points periodically

To the broken sidewalk,

So I won’t trip.

This is our morning walk

To buy the paper or milk,

Or a crusty loaf of bread,

Down tree-lined streets

We go hand in hand.

Watermelon Summer

On a hot summer night,

Fireflies float through the yard

Like stars you can hold in your hand.

A large, wooden table

Is set under the willow tree

And the big, green-striped

Melons lie ready, waiting.

As Grandpa Charlie slices

Thick, red wedges.

Eager hands grab two at a time,

Soon the table is covered

With sticky, pink juice.

Seven cousins sip and slurp,

Tossing rinds into a pile,

Spitting the shiny, black seeds

At each other and laughing,

The sweetness of summer

Dripping from our chins.

Too Soon Taken

When I was seven

Charlie died.

I still don’t understand

How and why he died.

Too soon take from us –

He was my superhero,

He was my champion,

I was his curly-head Josephine,

His beloved granddaughter.

All these long years

I’ve missed him,

Glimpses of memory

Float by like wispy dreams,

I try to hold one –

Thick, shining silver hair,

Large, rough gentle hands,

Quiet love,

My eternal protector.