Ingenuity

Webster dictionary defines ingenuity as “skill or cleverness in devising or combining,”  while Oxford describes it as “the ability to invent things or solve problems in clever new ways.”  When speaking with children about the word ingenuity, one adventurous student replied, “Maybe it means a new engine.”  And in a way, she is correct.  Ingenuity is like a new engine: it is revved up and ready to go.

This week, I’ve been forced to relax and reflect at home due to a classic head cold. I have not sneezed this much in a long time!  Wandering my small space, I began to think up interesting brews that might make me feel better.  I am a tea drinker, so I like to experiment: mint tea with lemon and honey, black tea with orange and cardamom, green tea with ginger, lemon, and honey, chai tea with extra cinnamon and cider, the list goes on and on.  I sip cup after cup and feel warm and comforted. 

As dinnertime rolled around, I realized I needed more sustenance than tea, so I started thinking about soup.  I didn’t look in my many cookbooks – No!  That would be too ordinary, too mundane, too reliable.  I decided to invent some soup recipes.  I needed strong flavors that would clear up my sinuses.  First, I made a hardy chicken tortilla soup, full of tomatoes and a bit of jalapeños.  The next day, I made a miso broth filled with onions, garlic , ginger, lemon, and snow peas.  It smelled so good, that I kept sticking my face over the pot to breathe in the aromatic steam. Then, I thought back to my Italian roots and made a vegetable-based soup filled with pureed basil and garlic, potatoes, and chickpeas.  The smell of basil always reminds me of my Grandpa Tony.  He was a consummate gardener and grower of basil.  The soups were all wonderful.  I loved creating them from scratch without any compass.  I just let my mind flow and combine the tastes I love.

Feeling a bit better from my soup consumption, one afternoon I took a short stroll around my neighborhood. It was a warm September day – blue skies with a bit of a breeze to let us know fall is surely on its way.  Suddenly, I became aware of wild movement.  I look across the street and a girl, about eleven or twelve-years-old with long dark hair, is sitting at the top of her driveway on a red stool with wheels.  The stool resembles an office chair without a back.  In her hand is a large push broom.  The girl propels herself down the inclined driveway, using the broom as a kind of oar or rudder.  She is whirling and twirling down the drive.  She leans back on the stool and is giggling with delight.  She uses the broom to steer herself back uphill and does the whole swirling motion again and again. I move quickly on. I don’t want her to see me because I don’t want to interrupt her joy. 

As I walk away, I smile to myself.  Witnessing that type of ingenious joy reminds me of when I was eleven and twelve.  My friends and I loved creating games out of things we found in our yards and around our neighborhood.  One time, we made a hammock of old woven rope.  It was a wonderfully intricate invention.  When I hopped in, it enveloped me rolled me around and out onto the ground while still keeping hold of my left foot.  I lay on the ground writhing in laughter. My friends had to rescue me, and that was all part of the experiment.  Another time,  I found an old skateboard with chipped wheels.  I was adamant that it was still useful.  I hopped on it down a steep hill with an old hockey stick for balance.  Thank goodness for that hockey stick.  The skateboard hit a stone and abruptly stopped, and I had to use the stick to break my fall.  Even when my inventions failed, I was not deterred.  I loved the process of experimentation.  I loved thinking up new possibilities.

As I walked back to my home, I saw my young neighbor again.  She was still in the process of creating her red stool ballet.  Her body was staying back and forth in a curlicue fashion.  She was pure poetry in motion. Maybe she was inventing a new Olympic game: a cross between luge and curling or skateboarding and polo. Or maybe she was just having fun!

Small Wonder

September is more than half-way over.  I am beginning to settle in to my school routine: getting up early, working long days organizing student support, and coming home exhausted only to organize some more.  It sounds tedious and parts of my job are very routinized, but then there is the wonder that sneaks in every day.  The wonder from young children engaging with their world.  That I would not trade to witness for all the money the in world – honestly.  Wonder is what sustains me, what pushes me through, what is on the other side of the routines and everyday drudgery. 

I realized that I have been either going to school or teaching in a school for sixty-two years, more than half a century, most of my life!  That is indeed a long time, and I know when the time comes for me to stop doing school, it will be a hard transition.  I absolutely love school.  I love getting up in the morning, picking out a school outfit, getting to school and seeing friends,  going through my way and learning, going home to think about all that has happened in the day, and then doing it all over again until summertime greets me at the end of the school year.

Every day there is a new surprise. Every day, something I didn’t expect happens.  This is sometimes positive and sometimes negative, and whichever it is – it is always a learning experience.  My days are electric, and that’s how I like them.  This is not to say my day are frenetic and haphazard.  No, the electricity comes from learning alongside children.  I get to see the world again through that childlike lens of wonder and discovery.  It fills me with joy, and I am reminded how exciting learning something can be.

One of the best ways I know to spend my time is visiting the JPK classroom, which is home to our three-year-old students.  I started my career teaching three-year-old children, so when I enter their classroom, it is like going back in time, and I feel young again. Three-year-olds are the friendliest people I know.  They engage you from the minute they meet you and want to be your friend.  They like to share information and will tell you without any hesitation what they are doing and how it is going in their world. Even if sometimes they are shy, they are still willing to come up and quietly share what they are thinking.  They thrive on connection.

I came to help out on the first day of school.  As parents were separating from their children, I noticed one little dark-haired girl, Avery, was having trouble letting her mom go.  I sat next to her at the playdough table and engaged her in a conversation long enough for her mom to say good-bye and leave.  We continued to play with our pink playdough balls, and I asked Avery if she’d like me to make a snowman. Her face lit up with an exuberant nod.  She requested that I make snowman after snowman in various sizes. She giggled and clapped all the way through.  I encouraged her to make a snowman, but she just shook her head and said, “You do it.” We played and chatted at the table until it was time for the children to clean-up and for me to get on with the rest of my day.

The following week, I came into the JPK room to find Avery once again sitting with pink playdough.  I sat alongside her and said hello.  She gave me a big smile and commanded me to make a snowman.  I started to make one ball and stopped and said, “You know you can do this.” She shook her head.  “Yes, you can,” and I said, “I can show you.”  Avery looked up at me, and I showed her how to move her hands to make a ball. She took some playdough and tried to form a ball.  She moved her hands back and forth.  When she opened her palms, she looked down and frowned.  “It’s a snake,” she said.  I smiled and explained, “When you move your hand back and forth it turns into a snake.  When you move your hands around in a circle like this it becomes a ball.”  I made a snake and then a ball. Then I helped Avery to move her hands in a circle. I told her to put the playdough on the table and move one hand on top in a circle.  She followed my instructions and slowly removed her hand uncovering a perfect little pink ball. Her face lit up like she had just witnessed magic.  Her face was a glow of delight that spread to me and to all the other children at the table.  I wished I had taken a photo of her.  Her expression was pure joy and happiness.  I tucked that image away with me and will keep it with me to use at times when I need a boost.

A few days later, I returned to Avery’s classroom.  When I walked in the door, she looked over her shoulder and beckoned me to come see what she was doing. When I saw, my heart over-filled with complete joy.  Avery’s playdough mat had a long line of pink balls lined up one after another and stacked one on top of another like a great pink snowball wall.  I laughed and said, “Oh, you have been busy!  You know how to make snowballs now!  You don’t need me.”  Avery smiled at me, patted the chair next to her. “Sit down,” she said, “Come play.”  Who could argue with that?

I know this seems like such a small thing: a child playing with playdough, learning to make shapes.  Some people might say, “This is the way you spend your day?  You get paid for this?” And I will proudly declare, “Yes – I spend my day in joy and wonder.  I spend my day cultivating play and creativity because it is through these little joy-filled interactions that people learn and grow and invent new ways for our world to be a better place. And so to all of you I say, “Sit down. Come play.”

Avery playing practicing her new skill: PlayDough balls!

A Wall of Wonder

Reading in Wildness

I took this photo while on vacation in Maine.  I was walking by a favorite lily pond and happened upon this mother-daughter reading team lounging in a nearby meadow. The mother was reading with much gusto, taking on the voices of each character.  I don’t know what book it was that she was reading, but her young daughter was totally entranced by the story.  “Surely,” I thought to myself, “this child will grow up to be a fearless, wild reader.”  They brought a smile to my face and joy to my old teacher heart.

As a child, reading was difficult for me. I painstakingly sounded out each letter and then tried my hardest to blend the sounds into a word. Sometimes it worked, but sometimes it didn’t, and the whole process left me exhausted. However, I loved stories.  I listened to epic poems that my father would recite and fantasy classics that my mother would read to me.  I found stories to be mesmerizing.  It took me a long time to say that I loved reading. Reading was slow work, and I was a fast kid. I did not like to sit still.  I wanted the words to come fast and furious, but my mind kept me at a slow and steady pace.  I was labeled a “slow reader.”  I wasn’t dyslexic, just slow.  One of the reasons for this, I think as I look back, is that I was in love with words, so I would dawdle over passages and wonder how the author constructed such a scene.  If the author left some things to the readers’ imagination, then I would float off creating whole other scenarios in my head.  Slowly, I would land back to the book and continue where I had left off.  This certainly was not efficient, purposeful reading, but it did afford me the ability to read like a writer.  I was not a spectator as I read, I was a participant.  I took in all the words to use them again in a different way in a story of my own. Eventually, I learned to savor the slow and to know that the kind of reading I was doing was helping me become a better writer.

Recently, I found Hudson Talbott’s A Walk in Words.  Talbott was also a slow reader and in this book he explains his reading journey.  It is through drawing that Talbott came to love reading and writing.  He found that his love of drawing lead him into stories, and he began to think of reading as “word painting.” As he grew, Talbott’s curiosity won, and he was able to read at his own pace. At the end of the book, he created a Slow Reader Hall of Fame including: William Shakespeare, Joan of Arc, Babe Ruth, Sojourner Truth, Alexander Graham Bell, to name a few. Thankfully, Talbott became a picture book writer. He said that he mined books for words to use in his stories and that the ability to lose himself in books helped to spark his imagination.

When I think of it, many of the book I adored as a child were based in the wild. The book that taught me that I loved reading was the classic, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry and after that was Jean Craighead George’s masterpiece, My Side of the Mountain.  Those books helped me see past myself and to envision the kind of reader who takes chances and doesn’t give up. I slowly picked my way through the words and in the process found lifelong friends and exciting adventures.

Reading in Wildness Suggestions:

Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits by Donalyn Miller

Picture Books:

A Walk in Forest by Maria Dek

Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner

Slow Down: 50 Mindful Moments in Nature by Rachel Williams

The Hike by Alison Farrell

Tiny, Perfect Things by M.H. Clark

Wild by Emily Hughes

Chapter Books:

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha lai

Pax by Sara Pennypacker

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Wanderer by Sharon Creech

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

Of Nature, Books, & Faith

I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple. – Mary Oliver, “Upstream”

I am here another week in the Green Mountains.  I came to restore my body.  I have stayed to restore my spirit.  In the valley surrounded by the mountains, I feel safe and secure.  I can explore here.  I can look up in wonder and find birds and butterflies, pink clouds at sunset, and fields of wildflowers in the morning light.

Vermont gives space for thinking and dreaming.  I am not confined here.  There is nothing needing my attention.  I can truly breathe deeply and feel my body finally relax.  And as my body relaxes, my mind sets off wandering.  My pain has lessened some, and I can concentrate on reading and writing.

In addition to mountains, rivers, streams, and stones, Vermont has a wide variety of independent bookstores.  Many of the Indy bookstores in my home state of New Jersey have gone out of business but in Vermont small bookstores thrive.  This week, I walked into Bear Pond Books and found three treasures:  The Summer of June by Jamie SumnerUpstream by Mary Oliver, and The House Without Windows by Barbara Newhall FollettThe Summer of June is an uplifting middle-grade novel about a girl with an anxiety disorder.  When I learned that poetry, petite fours, and gardening were the keys to her cure, I knew that I had to get busy reading.

Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets.  I did not know that she wrote essays and was ecstatic when I found Upstream.  I am reading, rereading, and underlining with abandon. Every word, every idea is precious.  As I read Oliver, I wish I was younger.  I have so much to learn from her.  Her thoughts are so much akin to mine.  I read, and I am gleeful.  I have found a friend.

The House Without Windows will be my last book in this Bear Pond Books trilogy. I found it in the children’s section.  When I read the front cover blurb:  “A lost classic, a free-spirit adventure, a long song to the wilderness,” I thought it would make a perfect companion to Oliver’s essays.  I can’t wait to see if I’m correct.  It was written by a twelve-year-old girl, Barbara Newhall Follett, who was born in 1914.  She wrote another book, The Voyage of the Norman D., when she was thirteen.  In 1939, at the age of twenty-five, Barbara disappeared from her home one evening.  She was never seen or heard from again.  Her disappearance remains a mystery.  I cannot wait to read her first book, which is about a young girl who seeks adventure in the wild.  This book jumped out at me from the shelf, and I know there is a good reason.  I know I will find treasure and meaning in it.

And what better place to read about nature than in Vermont.  Looking up and seeing the solemn silhouette of dark mountains, I cannot help but think of things divine.  In these painful weeks, I have reminded myself of the power of faith.  I am grateful to be able to spend time in this beautiful place.  I have faith that I am being set on the right course.  I am certain in the middle of my sixth decade that I have more to learn.  And I am ready.

Forest Bathing

I have taken some time off to be in Vermont.  It is a place my husband and I  have gone for the last thirty years. I need this time to relax, heal, and ease my pain.  I am so grateful for this place.  As soon as I see the Green Mountains in the distance, I breathe deeply and feel something release inside of me.  This may be due to the wide expanse of greenery, the clouds sitting gently on the mountain tops, or the roadside laced with an assortment of wildflowers.  There are acres and acres of distance between neighbors and people still put their wash up on clotheslines.  This is a slow and peaceful place.  My eyes tell my body that I am safe; I can rest now.

I have been reading about a Japanese practice called Shinrin-yoku, or Forest Bathing. The idea is the connect with nature by walking in the woods.  By bringing all your senses to that place and being mindful, your body begins to heal itself and you feel restored.  I am practicing forest bathing every day while in Vermont.  My body is beginning to ache a little less and my mind is certainly in a better place.  I so needed this respite, and I am grateful that there is such a beautiful place nestled in the mountains.

Flowery Thoughts

These past three weeks, I have had to put my life on pause a bit to deal with pulled muscles in my lower back.  Needless to say, I am trying to develop a better relationship with pain.  My first reaction is panic, which only tightens the muscles more.  So, I breathe deeply, think of beautiful places, and try to compose poetry out of the pain.

I have needed to talk short, slow walks throughout the day to keep the muscles happy.  The more I walked, the better I felt.  Of course, I had to recognize my own limitations and not walk too long, otherwise I would be back in the pain place, and panic would set in once again.

Nature is always good medicine, and I seek to be among trees and flowers as much as I can. Nature makes me more mindful of the short time we have to enjoy this miraculous earth.  It makes me grateful to be among the flowers.  It makes me feel like I am part of something much bigger than myself.

I have what I call the “Emily Dickinson Syndrome.”  I have a habit of writing lines, stanzas, or whole poems on scraps of paper, napkins, old journal pages, or whatever is at hand. Then I forget about them and find them at a later date, often surprised by my own thinking.  I found a stanza today in a 2018 calendar in the June 25th space.  It was like my previous self was sending me a message she did not want me to forget.

The pale ,yellow tulips

On your bedside table

Bow their buttery heads,

Delicate and fragile,

Their blooms fleeting.

My thoughts turn to flowers.  They help me recover and create a more positive approach to pain.  Poetry allows me to recall times when flowers have given me momentary joy.  This settling of spirit is welcome and necessary.

Mindful Style

I have been traveling in southern Maine this past week. While photographing this beautiful landscape, I was struck by how the style of the homes, shops, and public spaces keep a focus on nature. The seaside and its accompanying flora and fauna become part of a peaceful natural decor. The colors: ocean blue, dune grass green, picket fence white, daisy yellow, azalea pink, and cardinal red are repeated in pleasing patterns so restful to the eye and spirit.

I realize that much of the way I design my home and office is with this same emphasis on nature. I often look for ways to bring the outside indoors. I have collections of seashells, sea glass, and beach stones. I bring in wildflowers and make arrangements in jam jars and earthenware vases. In the fall, I will collect pinecones, acorns, and the spiky balls of the Sweet Gum tree and place them in wooden bowls, pottery and baskets. I find comfort in staying connected to my surroundings whether it be ocean, mountains, or forest. I have always found these places a source of relaxation and restoration.

The Maine coast holds a special place in my heart, however. Something about the wide expanse of sand and sea and sky, gives me permission to pause, to breathe in the salty brine, and breathe out all my worries. At the ocean my shoulders relax, and I feel truly at ease. I want to take that feeling with me. I want to create the same mood indoors and keep it all year long. I can bring my seaside escape with me and make it truly part of my surroundings, part of how I feel and who I am.