This week, I entered a 4th grade classroom to see students at their desks silently moving their lips and quietly tapping their fingers. I heard a hum, “5-7-5… 5,7,5…” and then tapping, clapping, and snapping. I knew immediately what they were busy creating. They were constructing haiku.
In the last two weeks, the teacher introduced haiku as an accessible way for students to get to know each other. She asked them to write haiku which described who were without giving a physical description. First, she had laid the groundwork reminding them of the haiku form and reviewing background information, sharing examples of haiku from the Japanese poets, Basho, Shiki, and Issa. As I listened, I learned something I had not know before. In Matsuyama, Japan and its surrounding prefecture, they have built special mailboxes expressly for the purpose of sharing haiku. They are beautiful works of art in and of themselves, and as I saw the pictures of the mailboxes placed all around the city, I had an idea. I asked the teacher if I could construct a haiku mailbox for the 4th grade. She thought it was a wonderful idea and reported that her students have been happily depositing their work into the mailbox. I am looking forward to the time when we share our poems.
The school year began in a rush and is continuing at a frenetic pace. I have been trying to pause throughout my day and catch a breath. I’m finding that this is not enough. I am making it my intention to pull away on the weekends and devote time to poetry, photography and art. Photography helps me get into the flow of the moment. When I am walking in the woods, gardens, or parks, I direct my attention to what I see. It is like going on a treasure hunt, and my camera records my beautiful or surprising sights. When I am looking through my camera lens, I am not thinking of anything else. I am only concentrating on the object. I let it tell me how it wants to be captured and remembered. I experiment with angles and exposures until I feel I have expressed the object’s mood and essence. Immediately, a sense of calm permeates my spirit. I have entered a fall flow. After I have collected several photographs, I sit quietly and let the words come to me. They come tapping into my mind – “5-7-5,… 5,7,5…” The rhythm relaxes me. I can continue to flow.
We are entering the second half of September. School has started. My busy life has begun. I reluctantly shift away from summer – the beach, the mountains, my independent reading time, the sun. And slowly I enter September already weary from thoughts of all I have to do, all I must do, all the little things that await me.
School to Do
Get the Dresses
Out of the closet.
Buy the notebooks,
New pens, paperclips,
Get the class lists,
Start putting names
With eager faces,
Put dates on calendar:
Student Support Meetings,
Set the kettle on the stove,
Brew a steaming
Cup of vanilla chai.
Breathe in the spice,
Exhale the stress.
In this moment
School can wait.
August to September
Of my own choosing:
Big road trips,
The sea and
Ready to learn.
On old walls,
A new school year.
This past week, I have been thinking of ways to energize myself for my school year. I have been going to school for sixty-two years. I have been teaching school for forty-three years. This year will be the twentieth anniversary of working at my present school. All of these years could feel like a very heavy weight, if I let them. School could finally become monotonous instead of fresh. School could become just another long and tedious “TO DO” list. Maybe instead of looking at all I have to do; I reframe my thoughts as all the wonderful thing I get to do. One day I won’t be able to do these things; one day soon I will be retired; one day soon I will not be on this marvelous blue planet. So, in this moment, why not appreciate all the things I get to do at school, at home, in my daily life.
I Get to...
Wake up this morning
To green out my window
And blue, blue sky.
Canada Geese on the field,
The verdant woods beyond.
I Get to...
Crack open a brown
egg for breakfast, sunny-side -
Multigrain toast, fig jam,
Strong Irish tea.
I Get to…
Set this day before me
With a devotion to the real,
With a disposition, sunny-side.
I Get to…
Create space and opportunity:
Laughing with loved ones,
Painting the sunset
With words and brushes.
I Get to…
Choose the day I make,
The one that was
Gratefully given to me,
The one I am blessed with.
I have been teaching for over four decades. That’s amazing to me because as a young girl my interests flittered from one thing to another. I never thought I would do one thing for so long, but this one thing has brought me so much joy. I really can’t imagine a time when I won’t be doing it, but I know that day will come. And it is approaching more quickly than I want it to. I push that thought away, and I focus on the children. This year, I am teaching study skills to three groups of 4th grade girls. They’ve learned about time management, planning, organization – all those essential executive function skills. Now it’s May. They are tired and distracted, and so am I. I call it PES – Plexiglass Exhaustion Syndrome. This year has challenged us to stay focused and on task even with masks on that distort our speech and breathing and plexiglass that distorts our view and interactions. A couple of weeks ago, I bent down and peered through a plexiglass-lined desk and said, “Girls, I am so proud of you. I know this year has been hard learning like this. So, for the last few weeks of school we will be doing a project on play. You all will get to create something that shows why play is important. It can be a game, some artwork, a persuasive essay, a brochure, a model of a playground, a video, anything you can imagine. The girls were intrigued by the idea and asked many questions. It took some a while to believe that I was serious. That we were, indeed, going to study PLAY.
Behind the scenes, I was as excited as my students. I quickly put together all the important information I wanted the girls to know about play. I found video clips of animals playing, psychologists talking about play as a human right, and children giving TED talks on the importance that imagination and recess has on learning. I created a wonderful slideshow to start off our project-based study of play. I couldn’t wait for my first class.
Tuesday came quickly, it was a beautiful warm sunny day. I was so excited to start my presentation, but when I got into the room, the girls clamored around me begging to go outside for a five-minute recess. I couldn’t in good conscience say no to them when the whole essence of my lesson was how important play is to learning, so they went out and rolled on the grass, hung from monkey bars, and pretended to be dragons. Our five minutes turned to fifteen by the time we got back to the classroom. That was okay. I still had time to show most of the slideshow. That is, I had time as long as the technology cooperated. And of course, as these things go, the technology didn’t cooperate. I couldn’t get the sharing screen to work to begin the presentation. I pressed all types of buttons. Nothing worked. The girls began to lose focus, and the room became loud. Several of them rushed up to me asking all kinds of questions. I put my hands up and said quietly without thinking, more to myself than to them, “I am overwhelmed.” This is something they understood – this overwhelmed feeling – this year. They returned to their seats. The got a little quieter. I asked them to go to the link that I had posted so they could watch the video individually. This is not what I had planned. My lesson was falling apart. I wanted it to be a group experience, but it might be able to be salvaged a little. I sat down and continued to fiddle with the share controls. Then one of the girls came up to me and handed me a bottle of spring water and a little packet of iced tea mix. “Open the water. Put in the packet of tea. Shake it up. I do this all the time for my mother when she feels overwhelmed. It works.” I looked up at her in wonder. “Go ahead,” she said, “You will feel better.” So, I did. I followed her directions and took a deep breath. I fiddled with the controls once more, and of course as luck would have it, they finally worked. But alas, it was too late to view as a class. The girls were all watching on their own gasping in surprise and laughing. I had a chance to sit back, observe, and sip my mango-flavored tea. My students were engaged in the content, commenting as they went along. Some students told me that they often get overwhelmed and that it was okay. Everything had worked out. I thanked the student who provided the magic tea, and told her that it did, indeed, work. “I know,” she said confidently with a smile.
Play is important, but so is compassion, understanding, and empathy. That day, the girls understood this deeply. And I began to understand also. I could have focused on all the things that went wrong with this lesson, all the content I did not get to share, all the things I should have done. Instead, I reframed those thirty minutes as the room I made to show loving kindness and compassion. Something that is in increasing short supply in our world. I told the girls that I am very lucky because my work – teaching them – is my play. If you love the thing you do and are passionate about it, then it is play and you can do it forever. When you play passionately, others feel your joy too – and it spreads – that is the silver lining.
Spring approaches. It seems to be coming from underground this year. I look out on to the field behind my home, and I can see the warmth spreading: the green tenderly returning… slowly, ever so slowly as to be almost imperceptible. But it is there. It is no doubt there. This week, I have some respite from work, a spring break of sorts: a little time to reflect, relax, do some spring cleaning. It started with my heavy woolen winter clothes, but then I read fellow blogger Stuart M. Perkins’ post, “One Man’s Trash,” and I turned my attention to my junk drawers. Stuart recalled his mother keeping a junk drawer in the kitchen full of things, which she left intact for years. He vowed not to have one himself but to no avail. After reading his post, I went into my kitchen and realized I had not one, but two junk drawers full of things I have not used in months and in some cases years. Why do I keep these bits of things. Apparently, I have a thing for collecting plastic bottle tops. I think I’m going to use them with the kids on some school project, but that never happens, or hasn’t to date. Then there are the pens, the pens that are out of ink, or whose springs are lost. Why am I keeping those? And at some point my husband bought a gross (144 packs!) of rubber bands. Some of those are shoved at the back of the drawer threatening to make it stick shut forever.
The kitchen is only the half of it. I have two more junk drawers in my art table in my bedroom. I pulled them open tentatively to survey the damage. There, I found more pens, dried up markers, dusty finger splints, a little rubber ball, a book of prayers and affirmations among the assorted bric-a-brac. How can I transform this junk into something artful? How can I make it something not to leave and forget, but something I want to return to? I want to make it more than spring cleaning, more than an executive function organization project. Seven years ago, when Marie Kondo’s first book was published, I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up cover to cover and back again. I went to my closet lifted each item and asked myself “Does it bring me joy?” I ended up giving away at least half of my clothing. Then I attacked my sock drawer. Truth be told, I am obsessed with socks. Somehow I always lose one of them, and I do not have the gumption to toss it out because somewhere in my heart I hold out hope that the other sock will return. Ever the optimist. I even bought a sock drawer organizer, so that it is the only drawer in my house that is neat and perfectly aligned. My socks are mostly black, maybe navy, with some simple gray and as Marie Kondo teaches, folded tightly. It is beautiful. It is a little boring.
What if I took my junky art drawer and treated it as a piece of art? What could I make? How could it become a pleasing aesthetic part of my art space? All my life, I have loved to make collages and assemblages, to build something or make sense of the pieces. I could now do this with my art drawer. I took some of my favorite small bowls and baskets and started to play with the arrangement. I tried many different variations. I had fun thinking about color and shape and placement within that three-inch deep rectangle. I chose blues and green because those are my favorite calming colors: the colors of the woods and fields around my house, the color of the sky and the sea. I mixed squares, rectangles, and circles. There was suddenly possibility instead of mess.
With the superficial things in order, it was time to think about my mind. What clutter was I carrying that I could let go? Usually, I push away not clear out. Push all the doubt and anxiety to the edges and make a simple clearing. Lately, the doubt, anxiety has been creeping in more and more quickly with a ferocious tenacity. I remembered Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a powerful testament to memory and the Vietnam War. I’ve read it a few times over the years with high school students. The power in the listing of items at the beginning of O’Brien’s tale is evident:
The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake.
I can see all these items clearly. I can imagine those young soldiers’ faces. I can smell the jungle and hear the mosquitoes whining. I can begin to grasp their pain. Though I have not experienced the unbearable cruelty of war, I think all humans carry things deep inside of us: joyful things and things that bring untold despair. I’m especially thinking of some of my students who are trying to wrap their minds around this pandemic. They smile, they laugh, they play, they keep their desks in order. But I know inside they are struggling to understand all the death and restrictions. They move less and stress more. We all do. I do. And so in coming to terms with the state of our world, I think about how to reframe the things I carry into creativity and play. How can I take those things, both good and bad, both seen and unseen, and shape them so they live together harmoniously? Is it possible to re-organize and transform an assortment of objects and words, and in the process transform yourself? I believe so.
Old rusted key
To something I’ve
Forgotten how to open,
I cannot remember.
It is locked in my memory
And I know it was terrible,
I can feel it
And I want to run,
I want to
Hide my eyes,
I want to forget.
I collect things:
Keys, bottle tops, bits
Of paper, broken pens,
Little boxes of
I can store away,
Safe and protected,
Safe and unnoticed,
Safe and forgotten
Until I open the drawer
And see those things
With new eyes.
Those old things
And rusted things
Useless to everyone,
When I put a pen in my hand
I have the power
To transform things.
I can rewrite the tragedy,
I can illuminate the dark places
With bright colors,
I can make things whole.
When I put a brush in my hand
I have the power
To transform things.
Sweep cobalt into the blue harbor,
Place a line of crimson at the horizon
Of a glorious sunset,
I can create beauty.
When I move through a space
I have the power
To transform things.
Reach up confidently,
Twist and sway,
Breath in and out,
Be in this single moment -
Heart open, mind free.
I have been thinking about sewing lately – mending specifically. A couple of weeks ago, I came across a book that caught my eye, Mending Life A Handbook for Repairing Clothes and Hearts by Nina and Sonya Montenegro. It’s cover is patterned and embossed. I have always been attracted to that type of patchwork – collage style. Something about the tactile diversity calls to me. The book is as much poetry and personal narrative as it is about actually sewing. It is so inventive – weaving equal parts of story, poetry, drawings, and sewing together. I had never seen a book quite like it. I was enticed and started reading. The authors’ words calmed and centered me. I began recalling my history with thread and needle. Funny how some things you loved to do in the past fade from memory, and then are quickly rekindled with a smell, an object, or a phrase.
Before my mother became a teacher, she was a seamstress. She worked to contribute to her family and put her two brothers and then her husband through college. She was amazingly gifted. She could look at a piece of fabric, fold it, pin it, cut it without a pattern and produce a blouse, a skirt, a dress, or a jacket. My sister and I would watch her as if she were a magician – and she was. She taught me to hem, put on a button, attach a zipper and sleeves. I became interested in embroidery in my early teens. I’d spend hours making designs on pillows, t-shirts and many of my jeans. I wish I had kept those pieces and repurposed them. I have one faded light green burlap pillow that made for my mom. It is not my best work, it was one of my first, and I will always treasure it.
I continued with embroidery into college and young adulthood. Embroidery helped me to stay centered. It calmed my mind. It helped me focus. I entered the flow of the stitches, the lines and curves of the pattern, the feel of the needle sliding through the fabric. One of my English professors invited us to create an artwork instead of a paper on Chekov for one assignment. I took a big risk and embroidered a scene from The Cherry Orchard. It wasn’t a perfect piece, but it did show that I took tremendous time to create the design and execute the stitches. I got an A+, and the professor showcased it at our next session. To my surprise, no one else had taken the art challenge that is why he added the plus. He wanted to reward risk-taking. His message was loud and clear, and my classmates started to be bold and creative. More inventive projects came pouring in that semester.
In my twenties, I went to see Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum. I was astounded by her ceramic designs and needlework. At the end of the exhibit, there was an announcement about Judy’s next endeavor – The Birth Project. She was looking for quilters and embroiderers. I quickly wrote down the information, went home and began producing embroidery samples to submit. To my great surprise, I was accepted and I worked on a piece called “The Crowning,” for over a year and a half, meeting periodically with the other quilters and Judy when she visited New York. That was a great experience for me. I found a community of stitchers from all walks of life. I also wrote a poem called “Power,” that Judy included in The Birth Project book. And I began to think that my life would turn toward the arts and crafting.
But it did not. Like my mother, I turned toward teaching. I continued to create with my students. I kept containers of threads, needles, fabric, embroidery hoops, yarn for my students to experiment with. For all the years I taught 2nd and 3rd grade, my classes would create story quilts. We’d readTar Beach by Faith Ringgold and a whole cavalcade of picture books about quilts and quilting. Yes, it is chaotic to stitch with twenty 7 and 8-year old children, but it is joyful too. We’d sit in a large circle and attend to our stitching, everyone concentrating, everyone quiet. We became a community in a way that we hadn’t been before. We were creating something together, something that would be joined together. When the quilts were completed, we presented them to the parents and our school community. I still have a couple of the quilts, but the majority of them were stolen from my car one year. I always wondered what the thief did with a pile of children’s quilts. There’s a story in that!
For the last twenty years, I’ve been stitching on paper using embellishments of buttons and beads and shells. I enjoy taking a traditional art and seeing what I can do to change it, to make it my own. I do these projects purely for myself. I love choosing the colors and textures of paper. I pour over the many different threads and floss I marry into the design. The buttons and beads are a particular favorite. One year, while vacationing I Vermont, I found a woman who made her own clay buttons. They were rustic, asymmetrical, and perfect.
I don’t embroider or mend as much as I would like to. It seems there never is enough time. I’m usually rushing and sewing is a slow activity. I guess that is why I was attracted to Mending Life. It was that object that sparked the memories that are in my hands. Embroidery is an integral part of my life almost like writing is, but I didn’t realize that until this week, until I read the Montenegro sisters’ words:
Making something whole again is also a form of healing, and we humans have a deep desire to heal what is broken. Learning to mend gives us a new lens through which to problem solve. A garment or belonging we thought was beyond repair is now stitched back together by our own two hands and we discover we are more resilient than we thought.
That’s what kept me reading – that desire to heal myself and our country. I wanted a blueprint on how to mend, how to put pieces back together, how to repair something, extend its life, make it last.
One of my favorite parts of the book is when the Montenegro’s talk about “A Spirit of Play.” They recount how their father who was a carpenter and an artist, repaired everything in their home. He used bright red thread to repair watches, baskets, spoons, chairs, and his old brown leather belt. By using the bright red thread he was celebrating rather than hiding the flaw. I love this idea. Don’t be bashful, bring attention to the old and broken – create it anew.
Mr. Montenegro’s red thread was its own version of the Japanese ceramic repair process called kintsugi. Broken pottery is repaired with gold lacquer, which highlight the mend instead of trying to make it invisible. This makes the piece unique and beautiful in its own right. Kate Roberts also speaks of the healing power of kintsugi in her book, A Novel Approach: Whole-Class Novels, Student-Centered Teaching and Choice. She artfully and thoughtfully explains: The metaphor is an easy one: we embrace the flaws in our lives; we make beauty of the breaks. The reality is harder. My father couldn’t do it. His cracks grew over the years and even as he saw his life breaking apart, all he could do was lament what could have been. I have tried to learn from him. I have tried to use my cracks to become more open than I was, more empathic… I have tried to fill the breaks with gold.
I love this idea of repairing, mending, stitching together with “gold,” so the broken thing becomes beautiful and whole again. Maybe that was why I was drawn to sewing and embroidery all along. Maybe I was trying to repair my broken parts, trying to make something new and useful and unique.
Clothes sit in a pile
On the edge of my bed,
Waiting for attention.
I sit down next to them:
The khakis with the torn hem,
The sweater missing its button,
The shirt that split it’s seam,
The sock with a hole in its toe,
The old pair of worn-out jeans
With a huge tear in one knee.
I take a deep breath,
I rather be doing something else,
I inhale again… and exhale,
I refocus my attention,
Pick up the pants,
Examine the hem,
Thread the needle with
As close a khaki colored thread
As I can find – and start.
I pierce the supple surface
Down and up, down and up again and again
The thread slides through the fabric
Until the hem secured.
My hands take up the sweater
It is my favorite: black, red, and white
Thick and warm from Norway
With embossed silver buttons
One is missing now
I find another in my button box
It is not quite the same
Will anyone notice?
Does it matter? Do I care?
I snip off the top button
And put it in the place of the missing one
Then I take the mismatched button
And place it on top in full view
Like that’s where it was meant to be
I wrap heavy black floss around and around
The button shank keeping it
Snug - sure not to fall off.
My husband’s blue striped dress shirt
With it’s tiny split seam is next
I hold it up to my nose
It smells like him
I take a deep breath,
I’m doing something for someone I love,
I inhale again… and exhale,
I refocus my attention,
I find delicate white cotton thread
And another sharp needle
I concentrate on make tiny
Identical stitches one after another
After another until it is complete.
There’s my old worn sock
I take it in hands and examine it
Is it worth keeping?
The hole is quite large
But the rest of the sock is perfect
And they are my warmest
They make my feet happy
I search for charcoal gray yarn.
But find only Prussian Blue.
I begin to knit with my darning needle
Chains of wool connecting loops
Upon connecting loops
This work is different
I am not so much as attaching
As I am creating more material
I am making a toe-shaped space
Prussian blue, all its own.
My mending pile is gone
Only my worn jeans are left
The tear is huge and threatens
To extend mid-shin.
The fabric is flimsy and thin
I think a patch is possible.
I place a pretty blue and pink print
Underneath the tear
Stitching it quickly in place
Then I take up an abundance
Of pastel floss and create blossoms
Around the knee and down
Along one side of my pants leg
I keep adding flower upon flower
Pink, yellow, blue, pale peach,
A vine of mint green winds in and out
My needle pokes and pierces,
Loops and slides until it is picture perfect.
My mending is done for the day.
I take a deep breath.
I inhale again… and exhale,
I refocus my attention.
Books About Mending
Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy by Rebecca Burgess
Fix Your Clothes: The Sustainable Magic of Mending, Patching, and Darning
by Raleigh Briggs
Joyful Mending: Visible Repairs for the Perfectly Imperfect Things We Love by Noriko Misumi
Mend! A Refashioning Manual and Manifesto by Kate Sekules
Mending Life: A Handbook for Repairing Clothes and Hearts by Nin and Sonya Montenegro
Mending Matters: Stitch, Patch, and Repair Your Favorite Denim & More by Katrina Rodabaugh
Modern Mending by Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald
Slow Stitch: Mindful and Contemplative Textile Art by Claire Wellesley-Smith
The Geometry of Hand-Sewing by Natalie Chanin
The Hand-stitched Surface by Lynn Krawczyk
Wear, Repair, Repurpose by Lily Fulop
Wild Dyer by Abigail Booth
What Will These Hands Make? by Nikki McClure
Quilt Books for Children
Cassie’s Word Quilt by Faith Ringgold
Early American Patchwork Quilt Designs by Susan Johnston
Eight Hands Round: A Patchwork Alphabet by Ann Whitford Paul
Sam Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Quilt by Lisa Campbell Ernst
Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson
Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold
Texas Star by Barbara Hancock Cole
The Bedspread by Sylvia Fair
The Josefina Story Quilt by Bruce Degen
The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco
The Patchwork Farmer by Craig Brown
The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom by Bettye Stroud
Oxford defines belonging as an affinity for a place or situation. Webster says it means a possession or a close or intimate relationship. I’ve been reflecting on what it means to belong this week. I am getting older. I could and have said this at any age, but now approaching sixty-five, now it is a very true statement. I feel it, especially with the holidays upon us and my family members quarantined and scattered across the country. Actually, I have yearned to belong since I was quite young. It’s a human thing. We all need connection. And I have found innumerable ways to do it. Teaching was the perfect profession for me. I am very grateful for that. This week, I sent off a small army of 4th grade girls with shoe boxes filled with junk for them to explore. For the last few days, I’ve been receiving emails and even a video recounting the fun they have had and the wonderful inventions they created from their personal trove of junk. This is what is important. Creativity connects us. Imagination is key.
I’ve also had time this week to reflect on just how I belong in the world. This place, this place I’ve known for six and a half decades is becoming increasingly complex and enigmatic. I try hard to make sense of it, but I feel the world’s tug. I feel it pulling me down. Then I realize the political and social world is just a human construct. It is not the true world. Our Earth is the true world, and I’ve lost the connection to it a bit allowing myself to get too busy teaching and managing daily life. So I reminded myself that I must go back to the woods: search for the turkeys, gaze at the ravens wheeling in the gray sky. Nature has always been a healing place for me; a place that encourages my curiosity. And this too I will share with my students. Maybe we will collect items for a nature box: acorns, sticks, smooth stones, dried flowers and leaves, and a wild assortment of other bracken. I have already spent the better part of an hour this week standing in a parking lot in the dark under some honey locust trees collecting their long, gently curving, velvety, deep purple seedpods. I’m imagining all types of things the children can make with them.
It’s more critical than ever that we help children connect to the living world. It is integral to them becoming whole, healthy people who can manage stressors and show compassion. I’ve been a long-time proponent of eliminating nature-deficit disorder,” a term coined by author Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods. Over the years, I’ve provided experiences with nature to my students, even my students who lived in New York City. I made sure they had regular contact with trees, flowers, and animals. I knew that these connections were important for both their intellectual and social-emotional growth. Indeed, one parent quipped one day that the best part of 3rd grade for her son was that he learned to climb a tree! The once timid boy became intrepid and had a powerful sense of himself.
More books by Richard Louv:
Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life
The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life int he Virtual Age
Our Wild Calling: How connecting with animals can transform our lives and save theirs
A Dozen Nature Picture Books for Children:
A Stone Sat Still by Brendon Wetzel
Butterfly Park by Elly Mackay
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
Pax by Sara Penny Packer
Rocks in his Head by Carol Otis Hurst
The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
The Hike by Alison Farrell
The Hugging Tree: A Story about Resilience by Jill Neimark
The Keeper of Wild Words by Brooke Smith
The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes
The Tin Forest by Helen Ward
In our regular weekly phone conversations, my friend, Molly and I ponder the possible. We talk about teaching, art, and healing. She tells of a walk she recently took with her brother at a nearby nature preserve. She describes an old bathtub she found on the trail, and my poet mind start running. I’m already composing as she speaks. Then she says she has taken photos of it and would like me to use it as a prompt for writing with her Kindergarteners. I promise to do so, and we ponder why a bathtub would be sitting serenely in the middle of a trail. When I get off the phone with Molly, I know the bathtub poem is in me and will come out in a couple of days. It sits in my mind, constructing itself in various ways: a branch here, a new shoot there, a winding vine curving and turning until it is ready to come out onto the page.
We Belong Here
At the nature preserve
Right in the middle of the cleared trail -
The red path, not the blue one,
There is an old white rusted bathtub,
My dear friend tells me.
Right there in the middle of the path,
Right there with nothing else around it
Just woods on either side,
Thick, thorny undergrowth,
Mounds of fall leaves
Now becoming muddled and colorless,
Skeletons of themselves really.
What is the bathtub doing there?
Who would leave a tub in the woods?
We ponder and wonder.
There is a small shack nearby,
But it stands on the bank of the river
And the bathtub sits squat
In the middle of the trail
On a ridge overlooking the river.
Most times the tub is filled
With a puddle of rainwater
Or an assortment of leaves, seeds, and acorns.
It has been there a very long time.
It has no intention of moving.
It has planted its rusty feet
firmly in the ground.
It belongs there.
I have a sudden urge
To run full tilt down the path -
The red trail, not the blue one,
Breathing in the trees,
All the musty ancient smells,
Hear the gurgle burbling of the river.
I rush down the path,
Leap with all my might,
Hurdle myself toward the tub,
Landing gently into its abundance:
Soft pine needles and dusty leaves,
Landing softly in the autumnal spa,
Covered in its natural warmth
Almost up to my chin,
Sinking down into the tub
Soaking in the woods, the air, the river
My head tilted up to the blue sky,
Every one of my muscles relaxing.
I have no intention of moving.
My feet are firmly planted.
I belong here.
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.