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

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.

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.

CLOUD PLAY