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.

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.

When All Else Fails – Finger Paint!

Whenever I’m stuck in my writing, whenever I feel like I’m not sure what to write about, I look on my bookshelf, choose a title, and start reading.  Then in the quiet, after a little while, a miraculous thing happens – I begin to get ideas.  I begin writing in my head.  Sometimes there are so many ideas that I don’t know which one to focus on first. 

This happened to me last week, while I was reading Jordan Shapiro’s book, A New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World. He is such a fast thinker – going from one idea to the next, making connections at lightning speed – Greek philosophy, gaming, systems theory, divorce – they all go together in one wonderful coherent whole.  How does he do that?  He uses metaphors and makes images in readers’ minds so they remember concepts.  He brilliantly persuades us that there is nothing to fear about our children’s obsession with technology. In fact, it is a crucial tool that will continue to evolve. Throughout the book, he makes a case for viewing digital devices as beneficial rather than toxic.  He quotes Heraclitus of Ephesus who asserted that “Life is flux,” or the only thing humans can count on is that everything changes. And so for those of us who are confounded by the new technology our children are pursuing, think about that during Socrates’ time, he considered the written word as cutting-edge technology.  Socrates believed that words on the page were going to ruin peoples’ memories. We all have nostalgia for our childhoods, we all want to return home, and pursue simple pleasures.  The thing is that our children are creating their own simple pleasures and much of it revolves around technology. And that is okay – that is what makes the world go round – that is change – that is life.

In his chapter, “The New Language Arts,” Shapiro connects prehistoric cave painting, the invention of finger paint, Aristotle’s concept of the soul, and Steve Job’s realization that everything will be within reach of our fingertips. I loved this section of the book, because as an ELA Curriculum Coordinator, it made me think about teacher reading and writing in a new way.  What exactly can technology add to learning to read and write?  How is the process of writing enhanced?  What can students do with technology that engages their imagination and creativity.   I especially enjoyed reading about Ruth Faison Shaw, who invented finger paint.  Yes, a woman invented finger paint! When I did a bit more research about Shaw, I found out that we had something in common! We both worked at the Dalton School in New York City.  Ruth was there in the 1930’s, and I worked there in the 1990’s and early 2000’s – about sixty years apart.  I wish I had known about her work then, I would have scoured the archives and found out more about her.  From my small amount of recent research, I found out that before she taught at Dalton, Ruth set up a school in Rome in the 1920’s, and that’s when she got the idea for her finger paint by watching a child smear iodine on a wall.  Ruth believed that “Creative work must come from the imagination and personal experience. Your imagination, which directs your hands, will lead you to produce something individual and representative of you.” She came back to the states, taught at Dalton, and wrote a book in 1934 called Finger Painting: A Perfect Medium for Self-Expression.  (I immediately scooped up a copy and was lucky that I found one in good condition.  I am eagerly waiting for its arrival!) Shaw’s ideas on the creative process inform education for the future.  As Shapiro states, parents and teachers should view educating children with a Both/And Mindset. In the 20th century children smeared paint as a means of self-expression, and now in the 21st century – children, with a swipe of a fingertip against a screen, can also express themselves in productive and meaningful ways.

Several years ago, I wrote an article about fostering curiosity and imagination. I described how I went through the process of integrating visual arts, music, movement, and drama into curriculum for early childhood and elementary students. I truly believe that creative expression, in all forms, nurtures growing minds and helps children develop a sense of self that allows them to become independent learners and critical thinkers.  Today, I would include all the ways technology has become another tool children can access from their creative toolbox.  Instead of having a fixed mindset about the limitations of technology as a means of self-expression, let’s open it up. Let’s ask ourselves: How can coding lead to poetry? How can Scratch help tell a story?  How can Procreate make our learning visible?

This summer, I decided to give myself sometime in the Painting Playground.  I have created space in my week where I can experiment with paper, pencils and paint. The emphasis is on play not product. This week, I painted with my fingers to return to the process of creating on the page. Then I added some designs with black markers.  They are not perfect works of art, rather they are representations of playing on the page.  I was so focused while doing this work, I dove in and was in the flow for a good hour and half: I made “mistakes,” ripped up paper, spilled water, got my fingertips dirty. It was the most self-fulfilling activity I did all week.  I cannot wait to return!

If you are interested in finding out more about finger painting, try this book by Iris Scott – Finger Painting Weekend Workshop: A Beginner’s Guide to Creating Brush-Free.

Summer of Hummingbirds and Frogs

It is summer, and I am vowing to play: play with my colored pencils and play with my words. It is easy for me to play with words and share them. I’ve been doing that since I was four-years-old. It is warm and comfortable. It is more difficulty for me to play with drawing because I’m still at the beginner stage. Being a beginner takes boldness. Being a beginner one must cast away the trepidation and dive deep into play with abandon. Like the hummingbird, it all starts with a flash of color, like the spring frogs – I’ve come out of hibernation and am ready to sing!

Hummingbird Dream

A vibrant flash darts across my window,

The hummingbird simply

Mesmerizes me with his colorful,

Iridescent fluctuating feathers.

I cannot even fathom

His true loveliness,

I cannot detect all the colors,

All the wonders in nature.

Trichromatic, people are

receptive only to spectral hues:

Blue, green, and red.

But birds are tetra-chromatic,

They witness a broader range of colors:

Ultra-violet, non-spectral hues.

Suddenly the humming bird swoops,

Taking a sweet sip of nectar.

A blur on a yellow blossom,

I can only imagine what he sees.

I can only dream.

Frog Hymn

Days of torrential rain —

River and woods become one,

The meadow becomes a pond,

The pond is now a lake,

Murky and muddy

Filled with strange voices,

A melody of squeaks and grunts.

The frogs have returned

To praise the rain in unison –

Bass and baritone,

Alto and tenor

Rise in harmony.

From deep within the reeds,

A soprano whistle trills,

The tempo builds, faster and faster,

Then rests… and builds again.

The verdant rhythm

Of spring singing.

Summer Mindset: Unwind to Rewind

I’ve been a teacher for forty-two years.  I’ve worked in five different schools.  I’ve worked with children from four to eighteen years old.  An no matter what circumstances, I have always yearned for summer.  I love teaching.  It is my passion.  I am lucky to have taught for forty-two years.  I have purpose and satisfaction. But summer is part of the plan.  Summer is the natural consequence of teaching and learning.  Summer is the built-in reflection spot – a time to regroup and regain perspective, imagination, and energy.

After this spring of remote learning, I’ve found that I need summer even more.  I need that time to unwind to rewind.  Usually my husband and I plan many summer trips so I can achieve this.  Last year, we went to Bar Harbor, Maine for fourteen days.  It wasn’t until day ten that I felt I had successfully divested myself of “school mindset.”  School mindset is crammed with planning, doing, re-planning.  It runs counter to writer’s mind or imagination mindset. I often have allowed school mindset take over and run things.  But I’ve learned that when I find my mind constantly running, checking emails, waiting for the next meeting, making lists of the next seven projects – it is way past time for an unwind-rewind.  Summer must be on the near horizon, and I find myself running to meet it.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been driving out to meet it.  I wander the country roads of western New Jersey (Yes, there are country roads in New Jersey). I drive out past the meadows, horse farms, sheep pastures, and farm stands with rolling hills on either side.  My shoulders drop; I start to breathe; I smile to myself.  I am content: summer has finally come.

Since long summer trips will be impossible to do this summer, I find myself thinking of the beach.  The Jersey girl in me thinks about the endless summer days I spent as a child and teenager down the shore.  I long to return.  This spring, I started to organize my countless photographs.  I came upon some photos I had taken a few years ago at Asbury Park.  I love the gritty beauty of that place. Looking back has taught me to take my time, explore places closer to home, write, draw, and wonder.  Open my mind and welcome summer.

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Getting Wild in the Wonder Lab

 

I don’t think I have a very wild life, but I do have a wild mind.  A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to be allowed to create a hands-on maker space in my school called the Wonder Lab.  It is a place where elementary students come to work on independent projects and make stuff out of recycled materials.  It has been my dream to be able to create this space.

Now that we are remote learning, the Wonder Lab lies dormant, but my mind is still wildly imagining.  I’ve created lots of Wonder Lab ideas for remote learning these past 3 months.  This weekend, I tried my hand at building a cereal box vehicle from an idea I got from this Ultra Creative – General Mills video.

Step 1: Okay, so what if you don’t have a cereal box?  Use what you have!

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I used 4 small boxes:

1 cracker box

2 tea boxes (1 tea box is inside the cracker box).

1 oatmeal box (cut in half and slid together so it is the same width of the cracker box).

I stacked the boxes on top of each other and taped them together with clear tape.  I made a basic truck shape.

Step 2: Building my Monster Truck

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I needed axels for the wheels.  I didn’t have any wooden dowels, so I used 2 unsharpened pencils.  I punched holes with a sharp pencil. I made sure they were in the place I wanted them to be before I punched through to the other side.

Step 3: WHEELS!

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I needed wheels!  And it’s a good thing that my husband likes to eat a lot of oatmeal.  I had an empty container of oat and grits.  I took the tops off and had 2 wheels.

But wait!  Don’t truck have 4 wheels.  I cut the bottoms off both containers and made another 2 wheels. 2+2=4 wheels!

Step 4: Two Types of WHEELS

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The narrow wheels would be the front wheels and the wider wheels would be the back wheels.  Then I punched a hole with my pencil in the center of each wheel.

Step 5: Try, Try Again!

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I slipped on my wheels and tried them out.  My back wheels were too wide.  The truck did not run smoothly. The back wheels kept getting stuck on the truck body.  So I took the back wheels off and trimmed them.  There are the trimmings under the scissor.  I had to trim a couple of times until it was just right!

Step 6: Wheel Caps

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Here you see that I took the wheels off again to make sure they fit just right.  I added caps to the end of the pencil, so the wheels did not fall off.  I had lots of little water bottle caps.  I poked a hole into the caps with a pen and then pushed a pencil through the hole until it was just right.

Step 7: Designing the Cab

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The tea box on top is the cab of the truck.  I drew a diagonal line across the front of the tea box and then I cut it off.  I made a hood from the cut piece and added aluminum foil headlights and cut a small rectangle from a plastic baggie for the windshield.

I LOVE MY TRUCK!

 Step 8: Ready to Roll!

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WHAT I LEARNED:

Making vehicles out of boxes is fun!

I had to try again and again to get it to work.

Making wheels is harder that I thought.

Next time, I will create all the body first BEFORE I make the wheels.

I want to make another one!  I must start saving more boxes!

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