I took this photo while on vacation in Maine. I was walking by a favorite lily pond and happened upon this mother-daughter reading team lounging in a nearby meadow. The mother was reading with much gusto, taking on the voices of each character. I don’t know what book it was that she was reading, but her young daughter was totally entranced by the story. “Surely,” I thought to myself, “this child will grow up to be a fearless, wild reader.” They brought a smile to my face and joy to my old teacher heart.
As a child, reading was difficult for me. I painstakingly sounded out each letter and then tried my hardest to blend the sounds into a word. Sometimes it worked, but sometimes it didn’t, and the whole process left me exhausted. However, I loved stories. I listened to epic poems that my father would recite and fantasy classics that my mother would read to me. I found stories to be mesmerizing. It took me a long time to say that I loved reading. Reading was slow work, and I was a fast kid. I did not like to sit still. I wanted the words to come fast and furious, but my mind kept me at a slow and steady pace. I was labeled a “slow reader.” I wasn’t dyslexic, just slow. One of the reasons for this, I think as I look back, is that I was in love with words, so I would dawdle over passages and wonder how the author constructed such a scene. If the author left some things to the readers’ imagination, then I would float off creating whole other scenarios in my head. Slowly, I would land back to the book and continue where I had left off. This certainly was not efficient, purposeful reading, but it did afford me the ability to read like a writer. I was not a spectator as I read, I was a participant. I took in all the words to use them again in a different way in a story of my own. Eventually, I learned to savor the slow and to know that the kind of reading I was doing was helping me become a better writer.
Recently, I found Hudson Talbott’s A Walk in Words. Talbott was also a slow reader and in this book he explains his reading journey. It is through drawing that Talbott came to love reading and writing. He found that his love of drawing lead him into stories, and he began to think of reading as “word painting.” As he grew, Talbott’s curiosity won, and he was able to read at his own pace. At the end of the book, he created a Slow Reader Hall of Fame including: William Shakespeare, Joan of Arc, Babe Ruth, Sojourner Truth, Alexander Graham Bell, to name a few. Thankfully, Talbott became a picture book writer. He said that he mined books for words to use in his stories and that the ability to lose himself in books helped to spark his imagination.
When I think of it, many of the book I adored as a child were based in the wild. The book that taught me that I loved reading was the classic, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry and after that was Jean Craighead George’s masterpiece, My Side of the Mountain. Those books helped me see past myself and to envision the kind of reader who takes chances and doesn’t give up. I slowly picked my way through the words and in the process found lifelong friends and exciting adventures.
Reading in Wildness Suggestions:
I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple. – Mary Oliver, “Upstream”
I am here another week in the Green Mountains. I came to restore my body. I have stayed to restore my spirit. In the valley surrounded by the mountains, I feel safe and secure. I can explore here. I can look up in wonder and find birds and butterflies, pink clouds at sunset, and fields of wildflowers in the morning light.
Vermont gives space for thinking and dreaming. I am not confined here. There is nothing needing my attention. I can truly breathe deeply and feel my body finally relax. And as my body relaxes, my mind sets off wandering. My pain has lessened some, and I can concentrate on reading and writing.
In addition to mountains, rivers, streams, and stones, Vermont has a wide variety of independent bookstores. Many of the Indy bookstores in my home state of New Jersey have gone out of business but in Vermont small bookstores thrive. This week, I walked into Bear Pond Books and found three treasures: The Summer of June by Jamie Sumner, Upstream by Mary Oliver, and The House Without Windows by Barbara Newhall Follett. The Summer of June is an uplifting middle-grade novel about a girl with an anxiety disorder. When I learned that poetry, petite fours, and gardening were the keys to her cure, I knew that I had to get busy reading.
Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets. I did not know that she wrote essays and was ecstatic when I found Upstream. I am reading, rereading, and underlining with abandon. Every word, every idea is precious. As I read Oliver, I wish I was younger. I have so much to learn from her. Her thoughts are so much akin to mine. I read, and I am gleeful. I have found a friend.
The House Without Windows will be my last book in this Bear Pond Books trilogy. I found it in the children’s section. When I read the front cover blurb: “A lost classic, a free-spirit adventure, a long song to the wilderness,” I thought it would make a perfect companion to Oliver’s essays. I can’t wait to see if I’m correct. It was written by a twelve-year-old girl, Barbara Newhall Follett, who was born in 1914. She wrote another book, The Voyage of the Norman D., when she was thirteen. In 1939, at the age of twenty-five, Barbara disappeared from her home one evening. She was never seen or heard from again. Her disappearance remains a mystery. I cannot wait to read her first book, which is about a young girl who seeks adventure in the wild. This book jumped out at me from the shelf, and I know there is a good reason. I know I will find treasure and meaning in it.
And what better place to read about nature than in Vermont. Looking up and seeing the solemn silhouette of dark mountains, I cannot help but think of things divine. In these painful weeks, I have reminded myself of the power of faith. I am grateful to be able to spend time in this beautiful place. I have faith that I am being set on the right course. I am certain in the middle of my sixth decade that I have more to learn. And I am ready.
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.
This past Friday was my last day of school and my first day of vacation. I decided to celebrate by meeting my friend, Karen, at a local gardening shop aptly named, The Farm at Green Village. It has a pond, acres of trails and foliage, an enormous greenhouse, and even a resident peacock. I am not a gardener, but I love going to The Farm. It is my Zen place, my place to unwind and breathe; my place to meet a friend and laugh.
When I arrived, Karen was already picking out plants. She is the gardener. Her home is surrounded by flowers. I love visiting her; sitting out on her back deck surveying her flowers, watching bees and hummingbirds pause by the blossoms, and scolding her cat, Pepe, as he tries to catch butterflies in his claws. It’s like a wonderful summer ballet.
We walked the aisles looking for the right flowers and hanging baskets for Karen’s home. We marveled at the colors and types of flowers. Karen knows many more flower names than I do. I would love to be more garden-knowledgeable. I love reading the names off the garden tags: salvia, hydrangea, echinacea, begonia, petunia, impatience, zinnia. Lots of lovely rolling syllables. Lots of bright and cheerful colors. We filled up two carts with flowers for Karen’s garden and planters. I felt my body relax as I roamed the aisles of flowers, taking in their fragrance. It was like spending a morning in Eden with a friend. It made me so happy. What better way to start the summer.
My new favorite flowers were the Lantana. I have admired them but didn’t know their name. They have delicate little flowers that grow in little bunches in a variety of complementary colors. I especially loved the Sunburst Lantana. They just make me happy when I look at them. They remind me of flowers you would arrange for a summer tea party for the fairies or a wedding for garden gnomes.
After a couple of hours, we sat among the flowers and chatted, soaking in the morning sun. Then we headed inside to look for houseplants and planters. This is another happy place for me. While Karen, selected two small houseplants, I went hunting for colorful pots with my camera. I don’t have room to collect such things, but I collect them with my camera, and that means I can keep them forever and never worry that they may break.
I roamed among all the beautiful things, clicking away in wonder of each little object: pots, statuettes, vases, mirrors, and baskets in an array of colors. If I had a grand mansion, I would fill one wing like this full of plants and light and love. Instead, I choose two small ceramic objects: a bunny and a turtle. The bunny will grace my desk, and the turtle will be a present for my husband. He loves turtles because they remind him to slow down and concentrate on what’s truly important.
I am glad I slowed down today. I am grateful for this time with Karen, for this day among the flowers. I cannot wait until our next trek, but for now the flowers are enough.
It’s June. I live in New Jersey. It’s time to “go down the shore,” as we Garden State residents say. It’s beach time! The last three weeks, I have trekked to the Atlantic, which is only an hour and. Half away. The past two weeks have been crowded: throngs of people in the water, on the beach, on the boardwalks, and lining up at restaurants. That was not the beach escape I was craving. I am in much need of ocean meeting sky, of a blue expanse, and a summer of possibilities.
I have been fortunate in my life to have had a career that allowed me to have my summers free. Of course, I do not count the twenty or so summers that I taught remedial English or directed summer camp. Instead, I count the twenty summers that I had the whole twelve weeks free to explore, gather, and breathe. I traveled, read, wrote, and met with friends. The twenty summers seem like a bright blue blur. I’m not sure I will get the gift of twenty more summers. This summer, I want to remember keenly: what I am thinking, what I am reading, and what changes I made happen. I know this sixty-sixth summer is important for me.
This weekend, I came to the beach on an overcast day. The sand was wet with recent rain. Just stalwarts were laying out on bright blankets. But there was the sea and quiet and a space for thinking. I just finished reading Katherine May’s memoir about walking Britain’s southeast coast path, The Electricity of Every Living Thing: A Women’s Walk in the Wild to Find Her Way Home. I love her writing. Much of what she expresses, I feel so deeply. She wrote about the “value of being in places you love and knowing them and coming back to them.” I have always loved the Atlantic coast (on the American side). I have lived close by all my life. This place I know well. Some of the surroundings have changed but the sea remains the same: the salty smell, the sounds of the waves, the glint of light on the ocean. The Atlantic is where I feel most at home. It is comforting and makes me feel connected to something larger than myself.
Alone by the Sea It is my turn to walk alone Along the boardwalk. I am here to collect images, To put together My life story. The day is quiet and clear. After a recent rain, The sand is dark and wet. Some beach goers remain On their bright blankets. Lifeguards jog together, Racing and playing tag with the waves. I slow my steps, Pay careful attention. A redwing blackbird perches above the beach roses And sings loudly. I bid him good-day And continue on, Past the reed-covered dunes, Past the mother and young daughter Sharing a picnic together, Feet dangling over the boardwalk, Holding triangles of pizza in their hands As it drips with cheese Into their happy mouths. I remember moments like these. My mother, sister, and I at our beach bungalow - Sand, sun, surf. Sinatra playing in the background Mingled with the laughter of children. Sailboats gliding across the bay, Fresh laundry flapping on the line, Lazy summer days, Spread ahead of us And we took them in, Soaked them up, Were grateful for them, Knew they were precious. I look out to the Atlantic Try to see to the end, Where ocean meets the sky. The horizon is dotted with clouds. Below, there is a thin azure line. I imagine heaven to be in this precise place, Somewhere out there, Just beyond reach for now And I am content, Truly content. All I need is sand, sky, sea And an overcast day In serene solitude.
This week, one of my former students gave me the happy news that he became a father for the first time on May 4th. This is indeed happy news, but especially joyous because Henry’s mom died suddenly when he was three-years-old as a result of a drunken driver. At the time, I was Henry’s nursery school teacher, and I took care of him full-time for two years following Catherine’s death. Henry and I were reunited about two years ago, and I blogged about his story here: A Pause for Celebration.
I cannot adequately express the joy I feel that Henry and his partner, Maria, are now proud parents of a beautiful little girl, Catherine Nima Maria. A big name for such a little girl. I am so glad that Henry has grown up to be a successful businessman and a loving father. I had prayed for years that Henry would be safe and live happily ever after. My prayers have been answered. His story is both a happy-ending and a new beginning. I am ever-grateful.
I know no other way to express my joy, but to spend the day looking at baby clothes and writing. I am creating a picture book for Catherine. It will be the first of many. This one will celebrate her name and that of her grandmother, who was a good friend, loving wife and mother, taken away too soon.
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.