Be the Flower

This has been a heartbreaking week, a gut-wrenching month: senseless violence in Buffalo and Uvalde.  Teenage gunmen destroyed lives while people shopped at a grocery store and children and teachers were busy in their classrooms teaching and learning. The rage in the minds of these individuals is unfathomable to me.  And though this blog is about literature, art, and education, I cannot let this week go by without addressing the terrible loss and helplessness I feel due to this horrific tragedy.  There must be solutions: stiffer gun control regulations, better mental health care, and stronger protection for our school and public spaces.  This saddens me deeply. What is happening to humanity?  Are we all to live locked away in our private residences with limited social contact?  What will happen to us then? As these thoughts buzzed around my mind this week, I turned to nature, as I always do, for solace – for an answer.

Connection to nature, I believe, is a source for hope, well-being and mental health.  This spring has been filled with flowers.  There are flowers blooming around our school campus,  flowering trees in my yard, and a plethora of flowers casting their spell over many local gardens.  I pass by wild irises on the roadside, their purple tongues dotted with raindrops.  I concentrate on their color and form. I wonder at such beauty, such grace, such an exquisite being, and I want to transform myself into that flower.  I want to grow where I’m planted, feel the soil beneath my feet, spread roots, shoot up tall, and blossom. 

When I began my teaching career, I worked with preschool children.  We spent much of our time outdoors in both good and inclement weather.  The children dug in the garden and were surprised when they pulled up carrots and radishes, believing there was magic in the soil.  They loved to weed, water, and harvest.  They felt control and accomplishment.  Flowers served as a respite for us, a signal to stop and take in beauty, to breathe.  The children would gather small bouquets for me of dandelions, clover, and buttercups. They would string flowers in each other’s hair and make magic potions from the bits of vegetation they collected.  Life outside was a necessary part of their growth and development.

I remember a time, when one girl brought me a lovely red tulip.  She had dissected it, separating its stem, leaves, petals and stamen.  There were tears in her eyes as she held out her hands to me, “Put it back together,” she commanded.  I looked at the flower and wondered, at first, how I could reassemble it for her.  I took the pieces from her hands and placed them on the ground making a tulip mosaic.  I knew this was not what my student had in mind.  She thought I could mend it completely and make it whole again. When I explained to her that it couldn’t be brought back to life, she cried, and I consoled her. She learned that the flower was a delicate and fragile thing, something to care for, something to admire and cherish.  And maybe flowers are part of the answer.  They have been powerfully and wonderfully made. They are a gift from God to humanity to give us strength and make us resilient.

As often happens, a book popped out a me from our school library shelf wanting to be read.  It was a new Caldecott Honor medalist, Have You Ever Seen a Flower?  by Shawn Harris.  It is brilliantly illustrated using simple tools: pencil and colored pencil. It is childlike and surprisingly powerful in its simplicity.  The girl in the story asks the reader to really think about flowers: look deeply, take in their smells, watch them with a microscopic wonder.  Watch them so closely that you can imagine what it feels like to be a flower: to grow roots, take in water, and bloom. The book reminds us to use the flower like a resource – to grow, thrive, and blossom.  Flowers help us reflect, turn inward, and respect life.

I went searching for solace this week.  I went hunting for answers.  I found them in the form of flowers and poetry. Once destroyed, lives cannot be put back together.  Some things cannot be made whole again. But I believe that the solution for violence must be in a turn towards nature, towards beauty, towards the preciousness of life.  Consider the flower.

Embracing the Process

During the last two weeks, I have had the good fortune to get back into the Wonder Studio with students.  The Wonder Studio is a little swathe of space formerly the lobby of an old Victorian building that houses some of my school’s classrooms and offices.  I created the space to give children a place to craft and have agency over their own imaginations.  I gather junk, art and craft materials, and recyclables, and then stand back to see what the girls do with them.  Wonder Studio is not a class, though the girls have begged it to be.  Studio time is granted two days a week during recess on the days that I don’t have meetings at lunchtime.

This spring, I invited the 5th graders to come back into the Wonder Studio.  They love to make messes. Today, they sang the “Clean-up Song” to me that they learned in Pre-K. They sang so sweetly and earnestly,  however they didn’t quite clean everything up.  Some of them tried to skip out without cleaning brushes or throwing away paper scraps.  I get it.  I was twelve once.  I was, I assure you – and I too loved to make messes, create, build, and imagine. And I still do.

Last week, while Laila was working on yet another new project, I observed aloud that she often created things and then abandoned them.  She looked up at me grinning.

“I know,” she said, “I love the process.” 

I laughed and agreed.  Then I asked her if I could dismantle her massive seashell sculpture so others could use the shells. She gave me her permission.  As I worked ungluing the shells, Laila started looking around the room at my materials.  She often finds things I didn’t know I had.  Soon, Laila held up a small pink plastic bowl, which was serving as a container for someone else’s small project.  I looked at her skeptically. 

“They won’t mind.  It’s not part of the project.” Laila promised. “Here,” she said as she held up a small box, “They can use this.”  And off Laila went with bowl in hand to create her next project. 

The other girls in the group spend time making bracelets, sewing patchwork pillows, decorating small boxes, or making little rooms decorated with paint, glue, and cotton balls.  Everyone is quiet and very intentional in their constructing.  I do not offer advice unless asked, and I help with construction only when the student needs assistance.  I keep my distance and my humor. Wonder Studio time is actually my time to relax and let joy come to me.  It always does, and it’s worth the mess and the cajoling to clean up.

Laila got out her favorite tool, the hot glue gun and began to adhere things to the small plastic bowl.  She found that the plastic forks did not stay on properly and then peeled them off. Next, Laila took some fat pink yarn and began to wind it onto the bottom of the bowl. She wanted to use counting bears from the math lab closet, but I told her that we couldn’t use math materials.  She frowned and began hunting for a replacement.  She found small wooden objects: an alligator, a bear, a snail, a leaf, and a heart.  As I watched this process, I was fascinated by how quick she worked and how undaunted she was when she encountered failure.  In fact, Laila didn’t think of it as failure, she was enjoying the challenge. Laila would just try something new if the first thing she thought of didn’t work.  At one point, I asked her what she was making.

With a smile, she turned and said, “A centerpiece for your desk!”

I laughed and said, “Laila – when I’m old and in the retirement home I hope you will stop by and show me photos of all the sculptures you have on exhibit all over the world.”

“I will,” Laila said cheerfully and got back to work. When it was time to clean up, she was reluctant.  I put the bowl in my office and told her that it would be waiting for her when she returned to the Wonder Studio.

Today, Laila finished her project.  She put a wooden pedestal in the center of the bowl and turned it over.  Then she glued the pedestal to a jar lid and turned it upside down.  She came over and handed it to me.

“The centerpiece for my desk?” I asked, taking it carefully into my hands.

“A lamp for your desk,” Lalia replied.

I laughed, “Of course, a lamp.  It looks just like a lamp. I am going to put it by pink teapot. Thank you.”

And with that, Laila turned back into the Wonder Studio and started another project, this time with beads.  She took hot glue and put it at the end of some string.  “This way, I don’t have to make a knot,” she said.

Human imagination continues to surprise me. After forty-two years of teaching. I’m still not sure how to teach this kind of ingenuity. The only thing I do know is to make space and step out of the way.  I know that I have to be quiet and listen.  My students always show me the way.  They know what they need.  They know when they are stuck. They know how to change their circumstances and make something new. The process is the learning, and they are totally engaged and in the flow of creating. The key is to embrace the process.

May Posies

Early spring showers have turned the landscape green with dots of pinks, yellows, and lavenders.  My corner of the world is alive with flowers, and I am immersing myself in their glory and hopefulness.  This year more than any other I need flowers and the promise of spring.  I need something to celebrate.  I am in search for beauty.

I am ever grateful to the flowers of Moggy Bottom.  It is my secret garden in close proximity to where I live.  I saunter down its gravel paths and savor the colorful sights and fragrant smells.  Walking there reassures me that spring is surely here, and summer is on the horizon.  It will be soon time for my yearly respite from school.  And though I love teaching and learning, I am in much need for a hiatus from busy. 

When I was a child, I loved preparing impromptu spring bouquets for my mother.  I’d gather them from the wildflowers that grew on the hill at the side of our home: black-eyed Susan, sweat pea, daisies, cornflowers, and buttercups.  I’d gather them in simple arrangements in jam jars or wrapped in damp paper towels tied with string.  I can still see their colors, smell their perfume, feel the calm their beauty brought to me.

Lately, I have been reading about Emily Dickinson’s life of poetry and gardening.  I hadn’t realized that the Belle of Amherst was an ardent and accomplished gardener.  Re-reading her poems, I recognize how integral a role flowers played in Dickinson’s experience of the world around her.  The garden was a metaphor for life and its complexities. She delved in deeply as a gardener would: tending plants, encouraging growth, and intimately noticing the shift of seasons. 

I wanted to delve deeply this week, focus on the flowers of Moggy Hollow, listen to what they were saying, and find a way to express what I was feeling.  I created a posy of flowers to share: trillium, lily of the valley, magnolia – delicate and fleeting like this time in spring when the first flowers bloom and then give way to summer’s abundance.

April Poem # 8 – Blessed April

After four days of constant rain and widespread flooding, the storm passed leaving the bluest of skies and sunshine. The air warmed, raindrops pooled on bright petals, and birds shook out their wet feathers. I marvel at how changeable April weather can be. April is a moody child. I understand. I was born in April. Even though she storms and rages, I am drawn to her springtime glory. I am in awe of blessed April.

Blessed April

Petulant and capricious,

Your moods shift

To suit the day –

Both golden and cloudy.

Here come the soaking rain,

Rivulets transform into rivers,

Thunder sounds, lightning flashes,

Illuminating the midnight sky.

Early daybreak,

Sunlight streams through,

Clouds drift and part,

Blue sky appears once again.

Birds perch on the rooftops,

Commence their joyful songs

All the colors of the world

Saturated with springtime.

© Joanne L. Emery, 2022

The Silly and the Sublime

Last week, after a day of wild rain and wind, my husband and I ventured out on the last day of our South Carolina vacation.  We biked along lush paths, sat by the pool to soak up some sun, and then drove to one of the beaches we have come to love.  We walked down the long path to the beach. On either side there were dunes and a creek and scrub pines laden with huge pinecones.  As we approached the fencing, we saw the vast expanse of sand, sea, and sky.

The sky was decorated with amazing clouds.  I gasped  and thought, “This is what sublime is.  Sublime is the surf and sky dotted with this dramatic cloud cover in shades that run from bright white to cream to pale blue to pink to lavender.  I said to my husband, “This beach is never the same twice. There is always something new and beautiful.  Just look at that sky!”

I started to laugh remembering a time I spent last year with a group of three-years-old children, who were observing the cloud formations and commenting on all the shapes they saw.  Some saw turtles and pirate ships, others saw castles and giraffes. Of course, one young pragmatist clearly proclaimed, “Don’t be silly!  They all look like mashed potatoes!” I wrote more about this here.

As a poet, photographer, and teacher, I am attracted to the elusive nature of clouds. They represent creativity and possibility.  They can shape-shift.  If I was a superhero, I think that’s the superpower I would like – to change my structure – to become something else and then something else again.  Clouds break apart and come together; they change color and shape and quality.  They embody what it means to be creative.  They are the definition of sublime. I wrote more my connection with clouds as inspiration here.


Doors and Windows

When my husband and I take photo trips, whether near or far, I am often attracted to doors and windows. I like exploring small quaint towns that have been revived by artisans and documenting what I see. Maybe I am drawn to doors because they signify possibility to me: “one door closes, another opens…” I am curious by nature and enjoy imagining what might be behind each door. Who”s inside? What stories do they bold? If the door is painted, why did the owner choose that particular color? How does that color reflect the mood and personality of the inhabitants? The door is like a dressed up package. Untie the bow, knock at the door, and find out what’s in store for you. There are so many choices – all is possible. Hope is at hand.

In the same way, I am also intrigued by windows. Where doors are solid and impenetrable, windows are translucent and reflective. I can see through, into the building and also see a collage of images in the reflection. To me, windows represent both the past and the future. I can look both back and forwards in time. What is created in the photograph is a connection been the past and future – what I left behind and what still awaits me. Photographing windows gives me the opportunity to play with color and light. I am able to compose and create a unique collage. Below are some examples of the photographic play I did on a recent trip to South Carolina.

Much Loved: Stuffed Animals & Their People

I am a lover of stuffed animals. I collected many as a child and even more as an adult. My husband didn’t have many stuffed animals growing up because his parents thought stuffed animals were not a “boy thing.” They were not bad parents, just very misinformed. We began our animal collection soon after we began dating. At one point, we had a menagerie of seventy-two stuffed animals. As we moved from place to place, we had to narrow down our tribe, and I made many a child happy with my animal gifts.

A few years ago, when I was at my favorite bookstore in Manhattan, The Strand, I came across Mark Nixon’s book, Much Loved. Mr. Nixon took photographs of people’s stuffed animals and wrote about their origins and stories. It was such a sweet and comprehensive look at the importance of stuffed animals in people’s lives, both young and old.

Four years ago, I created community writing project to celebrate my school’s Young Authors’ Week. The project asked students to write about and take a photo of their favorite stuffed animal. I then compiled all the submissions into a big book that we keep in our school library. Both children and teachers loved this activity.

I thought I would immortalize some of my own personal collection. I realize that many of my stuffies are getting up there in age, as am I, and I want to make sure I preserve their memories.

Thank you to TWT: Slice of Life and SOS: Sharing Or Stories
for inspiration and encouragement.

Consider the Pomegranate

When I was a kid, my favorite treat was fruit, and my favorite fruit was apples.  I loved trying new varieties.  I loved to cut them in boat-shaped wedges, rounded triangles, and circular disks. The disks always revealed a star.  I thought apples were magical.

Then my mom introduced me to the pomegranate, which we called a Chinese apple back then.  Pomegranates were actually native to Iran and Northern India.  They were so exotic to me.  I soon learned that you did not bite into the skin of a pomegranate.  It had to be peeled starting from its petals, stripped in pieces, exposing, not white flesh, but rather sparking ruby and garnet seeds.  The juice stained my fingers, lips, and chin.  What a wonderfully beautiful, messy fruit.

Because they were expensive, my mom judiciously meted out when I could have the luscious pomegranate.  She would wait for them to go on sale.  When they were ninety-nine cents, we could buy one and share it.  I used to head right to the produce aisle when I went grocery shopping with my mom. I’d run ahead and find the wooden crate in the center of the fruit section.  If the sign said: 99¢, then I would take my time to choose the biggest, roundest pomegranate. I’d hold two, one in each hand, weighing them by their heft. Once chosen, I’d bring it back to my mom’s cart smiling.  I had found my precious treasure, and I couldn’t wait to get it home.

When we got home, my mother washed the leathery red skin, dried it off, and handed it to me in a large shallow bowl with plenty of paper towels.  I would meticulously peel the skin and the yellow-white membrane.  I loved exploring each section of the pomegranate and pulling out groups of seeds.  This adventure in eating was also a close scientific observation.  Held up to the light, the seeds were translucent, the membrane was imprinted with the image of the seeds it encased, the skin looked almost hand-painted in shades of red that ran from blush to deep crimson.  What a glorious fruit!  Only God could create such a thing. 

Later, I learned that it was the pomegranate that was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.  I empathized with Eve.  The pomegranate was hard to resist.  As I opened each membraned section, plucked the seeds, and placed them in a bowl.  I played a little counting game with myself. Pomegranates are supposed to contain 613 seeds, which relates to the 613 commandments in the Torah.  Six hundred thirteen – what a large number, but I set out to count each one.  I never counted exactly 613, but I got close – 598… 605… 586. One fruit with hundreds of seeds that must be the reason why the pomegranate symbolizes fertility, life, immortality,  and wisdom. 

As a child, the Greek myth of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone captured my imagination.  I was born in April, so I loved the idea of spring being personified.  The drama of Persephone being taken to the Underworld by Hades made me sit up and pay attention.  Zeus warned Persephone not to eat anything while in the Underworld, but being an impetuous youth, she tasted a few pomegranate seeds. This event explains why Persephone finally returns to Demeter, who was in such despair losing her child that she made winter descend on the land.  Since she didn’t eat all of the fruit, only a few seeds, Persephone was allowed to return every year, just like springtime.

A few days ago, I found myself all grown up and in the produce aisle.  I spied the familiar wooden crate. Pomegranates were piled high. They were much larger than I had ever seen.  They were as big as grapefruits, instead of navel oranges. I reached out to select one.  Then I noticed the price – $4.95. I frowned and pulled my hand back.  I stopped and paused to gaze upon the lovely Fruit. “My mother would yell at me,” I thought to myself. But my mother is in heaven now, and I think she would approve in the end.  She was the one whose mantra to me was “Be good to yourself.”  So I carefully selected the largest fruit with just the right amount of mottling.  It was a beautiful object.  I would bring it home, write about it, photograph it, and then taste it.  Well worth the four dollars and ninety-five cents.

Want to read more about the pomegranate?

After the Fall: The Demeter and Persephone Myth in Wharton, Cather, and Glasgow by Josephine Donovan

Pomegranate Seed by Edith Wharton

The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo

Thank you to TWT: Slice of Life and SOS: Sharing our Stories
for providing support and inspiration.

March Snow

“March comes with a roar.

He rattles your windows and scratches at your door.

He turns snow to mud, then tromps across your floor.”

These lines come from the picture book, In Like a Lion, Out Like A Lamb by Marion Dane Bauer.  It perfectly captures the variable nature of  March weather.  I was hoping to escape spring snow this year. This year, I desperately need spring to come early.  I am through with gray, cold, and drudge.  One more morning, using an ice scraper is going to put me over the edge.  No more mittens or gloves, scarfs, or hats.  March needs to get its act together and bring on the warmth, the sun, the flowers, the bees, and the songbirds!

And so… of course, I woke up yesterday morning to freezing rain, which quickly became snow.  It came down heavy and wet.  It stayed all day long.  The flakes formed on the first crocuses, on the about-to-bud trees, on the wings of birds huddled under the trees.  The wind whipped up freezing cold and fierce.  I think it thought it was still January.  I went to my closet and pulled out my heaviest coat and my  double-thick mittens, and my Nordic woolen hat. I pulled on my snow boots and headed outside to brave this March snow – I hope it’s the last one.  I decided to embrace the lion and make its path of frozen snow and wicked wind  into art.

March Snow

Flakes fall and fall
On roads, lawns, meadows,
And tall stands of trees.
Black birds crouch
Beneath the pines,
The mourning doves meditate,
Puffed-up and quiet
On bare, gray branches.
Snow continues – all day long
Straight and steady from the sky,
Collecting on every single surface.
A winter wind asserts itself
And whips around and around,
Stinging my cheeks and fingers,
Winter does not want to let go.

But I need winter to up and leave.
I need pink and yellow petals,
I need blue sky and white clouds,
I need the golden warmth
Of the springtime sun.
I desperately need to see
The fresh face of Persephone:
Grass beneath my feet,
Daffodils swaying
In the soft, warm breeze,
The fragrant smell of
Green and growing,
The songs of the chickadees,
The squawks of the jays.
All the world welcoming spring.

Nurturing Creativity: Sing-a-Song

I was sitting in the hallway of my school trying to get myself organized for the day.  I posted my first Slice of Life entry and was wondering how I was going to write every day in the month of March.  That’s when our art teacher came and sat down beside me.  “I have a story to tell you,” she said.  At first, I was thinking, “I have no time for stories.  I wish I didn’t sit in the hallway. I have so much work to do!”  But here I was, and I knew the art teacher always has such funny stories, so I took a deep breath and made myself present. I turned to the eager art teacher and listened.

Yesterday was the worst day! Everything I had planned had to be changed.  The classes I thought were cancelled, actually came without warning.  I was so disorganized and distracted that I didn’t know how I was going to get through the day.  Then the 2nd grade class came into the room at the end of the day.  They all started to paint, but then someone was singing in a very high voice “la… la… la… LA… la…” over and over again. I didn’t know who was singing, and I thought that high pitch was going to send me over the edge.  However, I didn’t want to stop the singing because it seemed to me that someone was using the tune to help them work.  Later on, I realized it was Madison.  She came up to me after class and said that she had written a song while she painted and proceeded to sing it to me. It was quite a long song and had the same cadence that she had been singing.  I am so glad that I hadn’t stop her singing process.  What started as irritation became a joyful occasion.

We laughed together for a moment, and I vowed to find Madison a have her sing her song to me.  This small moment made it again so clear to me how important it is to honor student’s imagination, to be present to these moments which nurture student growth.  Later that day, Madison sang her song high and sweet and clear.  I held back tears.  She handed me a colorful picture and on the back was part of her song. 

The simple breeze flies through my hair,

The wind is soft like a wind,

Itself the flowers are like a beautiful bloom,

The river flows carrying water.

The trees will swing through the wind.

La… La… La… La… La…

I must add that Madison is an EAL student, and it is even more important to me that we celebrate her use of English.  I wonder what this song would sound like in Mandarin.  I think I will ask her tomorrow.