Resolution: Free the Hand

There is no must in art because art is free. – Wassily Kandinsky

The best way to describe my educational approach is – Hunter-Gatherer. I get an idea from reading, listening, or just being in the world, and something sparks my curiosity.  That little something leads to something else, and something else, and something else until I’m not quite sure how I got onto the path I’m currently going.  I love the journeys I’ve taken. I hadn’t thought of them as a learning process. I didn’t really think about them at all; I just naturally follow my thinking. When I work with children, I teach them this process to get them interested in reading. We talk about things that interest them, and I invariably will find something more they can read about the subject.  After reading about the topic, I encourage my students to write or create something from what they’ve learned.  I continue to nudge them:  What inspires you? What does that make you think or feel?  How do you want to express yourself?

This method has worked well with students over the decades.  If reading is hard or uninteresting at first, it is the ideas which must grab the child, the ideas that call for her to act and learn.  Often while reading novels with children, we will come across an idea that we want to try out.  A few years ago when I read The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs and Knee-Knock Rise by Natalie Babbitt with one of my private students, she got interested in how clocks work. We read some articles about clock mechanics and decided that we should try to make a clock.  I had no idea what I was getting into.  Maren wanted to make the clock that was described in Knee-Knock Rise.  It was a cuckoo clock made my Uncle Anson and was described like this:

“But not like any other clock you ever heard!” warned Uncle Anson, his mild face beaming with pride.  He wound it carefully and set the hands near twelve. They stood and listened as the clock began to tick toward the hours. Even Ada, with Sweetheart in her arms, came up to watch. Suddenly, there was a whirring and a click. The egg in the nest opened like a door and out came a little bird.  Jerkily it spread its wings, wings made of real red feather tipped with black.”

Maren and I read and re-read these lines carefully as we planned to make the clock.  In the story, Sweetheart the cat pounces on the clock-bird and destroys the clock smashing to bits of springs and feathers. As Maren read about the clock, she was determined to restore it by making a clock of her own.  And indeed, for about a month we worked on making the clock.  I bought a basic wooden clock kit, and Maren and I set about to create a clock with fancy numbers, a pendulum, and a nest with a bird and eggs at its base.  It does not exactly tell precise time and it cost me what I usually charge for a tutoring session, but it was money well spent, because it is something Maren still keeps next to her bed and treasures because she made it.  She read, she got an idea, she read some more, and she created something beautiful.  This is a lesson she will never forget and so she goes on reading.

My hunter-gatherer approach is my foolproof idea box.  Whenever I get worried that I may develop writer’s block, I start reading, observing, listening and I find that the ideas coming rushing towards me.  I then have to decide which one I will act upon first.  Last week, I was just scrolling through some blogs and one led to another and then to another.  I came upon the 99% Invisible website, which highlights the creative thought that goes into ordinary objects.  It celebrates the people and things that have been forgotten.  From this site I learned about the Japanese-American sculptor, Isamu Noguchi.  Specifically, I became intrigued by Noguchi’s idea of Play Mountain, an abstractionist playground for children. Noguchi expressed his relationship with sculpting this way:

 To search the final reality of stone beyond the accident of time, I seek the love of matter. The materiality of stone, its essence, to reveal its identity—not what might be imposed but something closer to its being. Beneath the skin is the brilliance of matter.

These words led me to further journeys viewing images and videos of The Noguchi Museum in Queens, the Moerenuma Park in Sapporo, Japan, and his California Scenario in Costa Mesa, California. The parks are beautifully simple sculpture gardens and playgrounds allowing visitors to use the structures in imaginative ways.  I had never heard of Noguchi before this, and I wondered how someone so accomplished, so in tune with the way I see art and play, could have escaped my attention.

This excursion of Noguchi’s life and work made me think about how I express myself artistically.   Lately, I have been sketching and I’ve faced some obstacles since what is in my mind hasn’t translated to what I put down on paper.  I’m quickly frustrated with my level of skill and then get mad at myself for not letting myself just create and not worry about the product. Over the years when creating, I love building with scraps of cardboard, handmade paper, twine, beads, wire, and buttons. I let the objects form the art work. I come out of my head and into my hands. 

Clockwork (banana parchment, handmade paper, string, and cardboard)

I started to search for something to read that would help me build on this idea, and I came across Cathy Weisman Topal.  Cathy is an art instructor at Smith College who created a teaching approach called Thinking with a Line. Using simple straight and curved cardboard pieces, Cathy designed art lessons to help children explore the elements of design and structure.  Using these basic printmaking objects, children are able to create and express what they feel and see in their minds’ eye.  Cathy has written many books about teaching art to children and has gathered inspiration from Friedrich Froebel and Rudolf Arnheim, as well as the Reggio Emilia teaching approach.  Her books, Beautiful Stuff and Beautiful Stuff from Nature show children ways to use found objects to create art.

As I started to play with line printing, I thought about how I have always loved to doodle, not intentionally making a shape or object, but just allowing my hand to wander across the page.  Then I asked myself:  What if every day I wrote a meditation and then let my pen travel across paper? I decided to make a resolution this year to keep a journal of line meditations.  I start with writing some thoughts down usually reflecting on my relationship with nature.  Then I use a gel pen to loop its way over the paper without thinking. I have even closed my eyes while drawing because it helps me not to be representational.  I also have drawn to classical music which helps flow and production.  I don’t lift my pen; it is one continuous swirling line. At times, I pause and draw in the air extending my arm moving with the music something similar to what I do when teaching small children handwriting.  We call it skywriting, and I’m think I’d like to try it again using a large sheet of paper with charcoals.

I wanted to see what would happen when I did lift my pen to make a series of lines, and I was pleased with those results too.  They reminded me of the marks I would make as a young child before I knew about how to form letters and words. I used to sit for hours at the kitchen table and write, giving my mother note after note and composing fantastic stories, which would change after each retelling. I think that in doing these daily meditations, I will get closer to that childhood wonder and openness. I hope that over the next year, these line meditations will help me focus on the process of art making and not get preoccupied on artistic merit.  My goal is expression and play because it’s only through play that we can fully learn.

Further Reading:

For Children:

A Line is a Dot that Went for a Walk: An Inspirational Drawing Book by Sterling Children’s

Art and Max by David Weisner

The Dot by Peter Reynolds

Dog Loves Drawing by Louise Yates

Going for a Walk with a Line: A Step into the World of Modern Art by Douglas and Elizabeth MacAgy

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

Ish by Peter Reynolds

Lines that Wiggle by Candace Whitman

The East-west House: Noguchi’s Childhood in Japan by Christy Hale

The Squiggle by Carole Lexa Schaefer

What if… by Samantha Berger

When I Draw a Panda by Amy June Bates

For Adults:

Beautiful Stuff! Learning with Found Materials by Cathy Weisman Topal

Beautiful Stuff from Nature: More Learning with Found Materials by Cathy Weisman Topal

Children and Painting by Cathy Weisman Topal

Children, Clay and Sculpture by Cathy Weisman Topal

Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky

Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi by Hayden Herrera

Point and Line to Plane by Wassily Kandinsky

Thinking with a Line Teacher’s Guide by Cathy Weisman Topal

Thinking with a Pencil by Henning Nelms

Kitchen Literacy: Comfort & Joy & Gingerbread

Ahh… breathe in the sugar and spices, smell the vanilla. My memories of the winter holidays always take me back to the warm sunny kitchen of my childhood with my mom standing in front of the sink reaching for soapy dishes. My parents were both very good home cooks, and I loved watching them prepare meals.  In fact, when I got to college and made meals for myself, my roommates would marvel, “How do you do that?”  I was a bit surprised that they thought cooking was some type of magic trick; I shrugged my shoulders and responded, “I watched my parents cook.”  Cooking was like brushing my teeth.  I didn’t think about it as some kind of complicated skill that I couldn’t attain.

December always meant cookie baking time in my house and my father would experiment with making different shapes and flavors of Italian cookies:  biscotti, torcetti, pignoli, cuccidati, strufoli, and the sesame studded giuggiulena.  Just saying their names make me happy and hungry. Crowned with nuts or filled with figs, these cookies are the hallmark of my childhood Christmases.

When it came to holiday baking, my mom, sister, and I would lean toward more traditional American cookies: sugar, shortbread, and gingerbread.  I loved those times spent in the kitchen mixing, pouring, cutting, and creating. My sister and I would stand opposite each other cutting out trays and trays of dough, invariably ending up with throwing some scraps of dough at each other and giggling, signaling to my mother that it was indeed time to clean up.

When I became a teacher and integrated cooking activities into my curriculum, I eagerly awaited the winter when I could make gingerbread everything with my students.  It’s amazing to me that my former students often contact me to say that it was the cooking activities that they liked and remembered best.  These activities, they tell me, made them feel connected to their classmates and made them feel successful.  “I made that!” are three very important words.  I think “I made that!” is the essence of being a fully creative and content human.

For the last several years, I created a gingerbread curriculum for our 1st grade students. We have made soft gingerbread cakes in gingerbread-shaped pans, both small and large.  The soft cakes are an easier approach to making gingerbread if you are working very young children and you don’t have a lot of time..  They are able to scoop, pour and mix, but they do not have to do all that cutting.  They can, however, still decorate their individual cake.  We have also made the traditional gingerbread dough, and the children able to choose the type of cookie shapes to make – boys, girls, rabbits, stars, snowmen, etc.  We would cut, bake, and decorate with each child able to taste a cookie and take home a little bag for her family. One year, the grade had students with many allergies so we made a batch of gingerbread-scented salt dough to cut and decorate.  The children still had the experience of making and baking with the added pleasure that their gingerbread creation would last for years!  Gingerbread baking always accompanies playing gingerbread board games, making gingerbread puppets, and decorating giant cardboard gingerbread houses.  The children also read many great gingerbread stories. Every year, I find more and more creative versions, which keeps the ideas fresh.  After reading lots of gingerbread stories, the children write their own version, which they read aloud to each other as we enjoy our gingerbread cookies.

With the holidays approaching, I encourage you to slow down and be mindful of the traditions you are creating whether at home or in the classroom. Relish the preparation and process.  Taste the success.  Know that kitchen memories are sweet and last a lifetime.

Gingerbread Recipes:

Gingerbread People

Ingredients:

  • 5 cups all-purpose flour 
  • ½ lb. butter or margarine, softened 
  • 1 Tablespoon ground ginger 
  • 1 Tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 Tablespoon cardamom 
  • 1 Tablespoon cloves             
  • 1 ½ cups sugar 
  • 1/2 Tablespoon baking soda 
  • 1 Tablespoon molasses
  • 3/4 cups water

Directions:

  1. Measure the flour into a mixing bowl and set aside. 
  2. Combine butter and sugar in another large bowl and set aside. 
  3. In a saucepan, combine the water with the remaining ingredients, bring to a boil and pour over the butter and sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves. 
  4. Add the flour one cup at a time, blending well with each addition. Store, well-covered, for several hours in the refrigerator. 
  5. Dough will be quite soft but will stiffen in the refrigerator. 
  6. Let come to room temperature.  Then roll out on a lightly floured surface to 1/4” thickness. 
  7. Place in gingerbread shaped pan.
  8. Bake at 375º for 15-17 minutes or until browned. 
  9. Let cool and decorate with icing and candy of your choice.

Favorite Old-Fashioned Gingerbread

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup molasses
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup hot water

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour a 9-inch square pan.

In a large bowl, cream together the sugar and butter. Beat in the egg and mix in the molasses.

In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Blend into the creamed mixture. Stir in the hot water. Pour into the prepared pan.

Bake 1 hour in the preheated oven, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool in pan before serving.

Gingerbread Man Literature:

 1.     A Christmas Cookie Exchange by Sheri Wall
  
 2.    A Gingerbread Wonderland by Elise Rian Cunha
  
 3.    Can’t Catch Me! by John and Ann Hassett
  
 4.    Catch That Cookie by Hallie Dumand
  
 5.    Georgie the Gingerbread Fairy by Tim Bugbird
  
 6.    Gingerbread Christmas by Jan Brett
  
 7.     Gingerbread Cowboy by Janet Squires
  
 8.    Gingerbread Friends by Jan Brett
  
 9.    Gingerbread Mouse by Katy Bratun
  
 10. Kolobok by Natasha Bochkov 
 (in 4 languages: Russian, Chinese, Spanish, & English)
  
 11.  Maisy Makes Gingerbread by Lucy Cousins
  
 12.  Senorita Gordita by Helen Ketteman
  
 13.  Snow Dude by Daniel Kirk
  
 14.  Stop That Pickle! by Peter Armour
  
 15.  Ten Tiny Gingerbread Men by Fhiona Galloway
  
 16.  The Cajun Cornbread Boy by Dianne De Las Casas
  
 17.  The Cajun Gingerbread Boy by Berthe Amoss
  
 18. The Gingerbread Baby by Jan Brett
  
 19.  The Gingerbread Bear by Robert Dennis
  
 20. The Gingerbread Boy by Richard Egielski
  
 21.  The Gingerbread Boy Who Didn’t Run Away by Vickie King
  
 22. The Gingerbread Girl by Lisa Campbell Ernst
  
 23. The Gingerbread Girl Goes Animal Crackers by Lisa Campbell Ernst
  
 24. The Gingerbread Kid Goes to School by Joan Holub
  
 25. The Gingerbread Man by Paul Galdone
  
 26. The Gingerbread Man 2: What Happened Next by Stephen Dixon
  
 27. The Gingerbread Man on the Loose at Christmas by Laura Murray
  
 28. The Gingerbread Man Loose on the Fire Truck by Laura Murray
  
 29. The Gingerbread Man Loose at the Zoo by Laura Murray
  
 30. The Gingerbread Pirates by Kristin Kladstrup
  
 31.  The Gingerbread Rabbit by Randall Jarrell
  
 32. The Gurabia Man: The Armenian Version by Talent Dadia White
  
 33. The Horribly Hungry Gingerbread Boy by Elisa Kleven
  
 34. The Jalapeno Man by Debbie Leland
  
 35. The Library Gingerbread Man by Dotti Enderle
  
 36. The Matzo Ball Boy by Lisa Schulman
  
 37. The Musubi Man: Hawai’i’s Gingerbread Man by Sandi Takayam
  
 38. The Ninjabread Man by CJ Leigh
  
 39. The Runaway Latkes by Leslie Kimmelman
  
 40. The Runaway Pancake by Mairi Mackinnon
  
 41.  The Runaway Rice Cake by Ying Chang Compestine
  
 42. The Runaway Tortilla by Eric A. Kimmel
  
 43. The Runaway Wok by Ying Chang Compestine
  
 44. The Sourdough Man: An Alaskan Folktale by Cherie Stihler
  
 45. Three Pigs and a Gingerbread Man by Hilary Robinson
  
 46. Tough Cookie: A Christmas Story by Edward Hemingway 

Belonging

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:

  1. A Stone Sat Still by Brendon Wetzel
  2. Butterfly Park by Elly Mackay
  3. Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
  4. Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
  5. Pax by Sara Penny Packer
  6. Rocks in his Head by Carol Otis Hurst
  7. The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
  8. The Hike by Alison Farrell
  9. The Hugging Tree: A Story about Resilience by Jill Neimark
  10. The Keeper of Wild Words by Brooke Smith
  11. The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes
  12. 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
  
 For Molly
  
 I
  
 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.
  
     II
  
 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.
   

Signs of Fall – Listen, Look

This has been a stressful week to put it mildly: a heated election cycle, COVID rising in New Jersey and across many parts of the U.S., pending lock-downs, the seventh anniversary of my mother’s death.  I try to put things in perspective.  I concentrate on my work, my art, my friends, my family, and my faith. I try, in small places, to cultivate hope.  

I relish my time teaching immersing myself in reading and writing with young children.  I marvel at students who seek me out for help.  I do not have to convince them; they come eagerly with fresh ideas.  We develop stories together, we organize desks and homework, we think about spelling like it is an art instead of a chore, and we read together. Indeed, one of the most rewarding times in my day is reading A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond with a gifted first grader.  The naughty bear appeals to her and the British vocabulary intrigues her.  We talk about queues, lifts, lorries, mackintoshes, and marmalade.  She is all ears listening for new words that she does not yet know.  She gasps as Paddington stumbles into one predicament after another, and she enthusiastically anticipates outcomes. This time with her is pure joy.  I cannot clearly say whether I’m teaching her or she’s teaching me.  Our conversation, this exchange of ideas, is reading in its purest form, and I am grateful.

I turn to nature for solace, observing the season’s steady change: her flamboyant turn from green to scarlet to amber to tangerine, and the final turn to gray and rusted brown. I seek beauty in the decay.  I watch for patterns: geese and wild turkeys combing the fields for seeds, squirrels and chipmunks storing seeds and acorns, the deer’s coats turning from golden to tawny brown. The earth is preparing herself for after the harvest; she is ready for a long meditative sleep. This past week, I took some photographs and wrote a poem as I contemplated this change.  I tried to listen and look carefully to all that was around me.  I took notice, reflected, and attempted to capture the feel of this season.

 Early November
  
 The early November wind arrives
 Sounding a symphony of
 Rushes, whooshes, and shushes,
 Rustling leaves, rattle seed pods,
 Whispering softly in the grass.
  
 Black wings tattooed against blue sky,
 A cadre of crows circle
 Above the old golden oak,
 Caw-calling, caw-calling,
 Lamenting winter’s return.
  
 Damp earth and leaves – 
 Mottled brown, orange, yellow,
 Cover the bare garden ground,
 A protective patchwork
 Waiting for next year’s harvest.
  
 A lone crow lands on an old post,
 Surveys the garden no longer green.
 The wind rustles his black feathers,
 He cries of fall’s ending
 And then takes flight. 

Add. Change. Remove.

Add. Change. Remove.  This is a strategy we use in our 2nd grade writing workshop to explain the revision process.  In the lesson, which I think originally was an idea from a Six Traits lesson, the students create with Play-Doh and then at various intervals are asked to add something to their creation.  Then they are asked to add another feature or two.  Eventually, the students are asked to change something, and finally, they are asked to remove something they created.  The children are allowed time to talk through their creative process.  Usually, this has been done through a gallery walk. This year, during our COVID structure (remote, hybrid, in-class), we used a document camera and asked students to explain their thinking.

Bear at the Beach
Family of Snakes
Crabs at the Beach

As I reflect on this activity, I realize that Add. Change.  Remove.  is not only a revision or creative process, it is the cycle of life.  We are born. Many people, places and events are added to make our lives rich and interesting. Then people, places, and ideas change. Over the years things are removed from our lives until ultimately we are removed.  Instead of this being a morbid anxiety producing thought, it has become a comforting thought.  We all are going through a natural process, and I need to be mindful of the powerful and wondrous journey we are on.  Sometimes, I am so intent on adding, adding, adding that I forget to sit back and enjoy all I have.  Sometimes, I am either so desperate for change or so anxious about change that I forget to think about what lessons I can learn from these changes.  I forget to ask myself:  How have I grown? And finally, I am aware of what has been removed from my life – both positive and negative.  I am learning to be grateful for what I have and what I have lost.

Add. Change. Remove.  – such a valuable skill for students to utilize in their writing; such a powerful life force to embrace.  This week, I decided to apply this strategy to my art and poetry.

My collage below is in process of play.  I am creating, adding, changing, and removing until I am satisfied with the composition.  I am not sure how the final product will turn out, but I am enjoying the process.  I think this method allows me to not get so set on the final image.  It doesn’t have to be perfect.  I can play until I am pleased.

Simple Watercolor
Watercolor Cut into Strips
Woven Watercolor

If I extend this idea to my poetry, I encourage myself to think more fluidly.  The words and images can be played with. They don’t have to be set in stone so quickly.  I can create many versions, read them aloud, stand back to appreciate their impact and choose what expression I want to publish.

Sparrows Gather I
 
Dusty-feathered bodies
                      In constant motion
Heads turn, wings flutter,
                     Eyes blink, feet twitch
Hopping from one
                    Place to another
The birdbath, the bench,
                    The old stone toad
All-a-flutter, all-a-chatter
                    Recalling memories of summer
Warm sun, sweet rain
                    They sing of worms and seeds
Just plain brown birds
                    So numerous, so common
 
Sparrows Gather II
 
Just plain brown birds,
So numerous, so common,
In constant motion.
Dusty-feathered bodies:
Heads turn, wings flutter,
Eyes blink, feet twitch.
Hopping from one place to another:
The birdbath, the bench, the old stone toad.
All-a-flutter, all-a-chatter,
Sparrows sing of worms and seeds.

As I begin a new school week, I think about using this poetry idea with our curious 2nd graders.  I plan to use the William Carlos Williams’ “As the Cat” and have the children recite it, visualize it, and the write their own versions. 

Some questions to help students to re-imagine the poem could be:

ADD.

What color is the cat?

Where is the jam closet?  

What does a jam closet look like?

What color, size, shape is it?

Is it empty or filled with jam jars?

What color, size, shape is the flowerpot?

Change.

Make it a different animal.

Make a different place the animal climbs.

Make a different place the animal steps into.

Show another way the animal walks.

Remove.

Reread your poem.

Remove any words you think would make the poem stronger.

I am so curious to see what the children will create.  I hope they begin to understand the awesome pleasure and power of Add. Change. Remove.

Relentless Hope: The Power Of an Avocado

For the last couple of weeks, I have been reminded of the fragility of the human spirit and the power of hope. But it is more than hope.  Hope seems more passive to me now.  I hope I will be healthy and happy, but how do I going about putting that hope into action.  What craft moves can I make to have a positive, affirming life?  I used to think that if I worked hard everything would fall into place.  I would just work harder and hard and harder.  Sure, I received some positive results but at what cost?  I was working so hard until I was soon completely exhausted.  I not only was exhausting my body; I was exhausting my mind and spirit.  I was depleting all my reserves.  Then I realized that my dogged tenacity could be used in a different way.  I could relax into the difficult parts.  I could begin to trust myself.

This week, I read Ruth Ayres’ article in the Choice Literacy Newsletter called “Slightly Alive.”  In the article Ruth talks about her tenacious belief that a houseplant would heal and revive.  With consistent watering and care the plant did begin to grow again. Ruth declares, “It wasn’t complicated to restore, but it did take relentless hope and a belief that the things I knew it needed would be enough in the end.” I love the idea of relentless hope – that belief in eventual positive outcomes. It is what has always pulled me through.

My friend and fellow blogger, Molly James, also wrote about restoration this week in her post, “Nourishing Me and My Creativity.”  Molly described a recent journey into her garden: “The chard was hidden beneath zucchini plants that grew to an enormous size. When we finally removed the behemoths, the chard was there, a bit worse for wear, but still there. I’ve been watering it, admiring it, and encouraging it to grow. Amazingly, it’s producing beautiful new leaves.” I embraced the idea of worse for wear but still there. I think of myself that way. I am have some visible and invisible battle scars but I’m still here. I’m still growing and can produce beautiful leaves.

I smiled when I read Ruth’s and Molly’s words. I have had a similar mindset and experiences.  When I was in college I grew an avocado tree from a pit.  It grew lush in a corner of my dorm room.  Mr. Avocado became my great green friend.  It felt so good to grow something from a seed. The plant grew and grew and grew he became over three feet tall in a very short time.  When it was time for winter vacation, I shared a ride home with a friend of mine and her boyfriend. I took my beloved avocado with me wrapped in blankets.  On the way home we stopped at my friend’s house for a few hours.  I wanted to bring Mr. Avocado in the house with me.  My friend’s boyfriend laughed at me.  He thought I was silly and said the plant would be fine in his car.  In knew he was wrong, but I didn’t argue, and I left Mr. Avocado out in cold.  Of course, the plant got frostbite.  When I got Mr. Avocado to my house, his leaves drooped dried and turned brown.  After mourning the loss of Mr. Avocado for a few days, I cut his stem back and hoped he would revive.  I stayed hopeful for months, I watered and fertilized him well into the summer.  Mr. Avocado was not slightly alive, he was totally dead; he was not coming back. But I never forgot him.

Many years later, I gathered the courage to grow another avocado plant.  This time, I started the project at school to show the children how plants grow.  To my delight the pit began to sprout and soon there were leaves.  A second Mr. Avocado was born and began to flourish.  I was so happy.  Year after year, I brought the avocado plant home for winter and summer vacation.  I was determined that this one would not suffer the first one’s fate.  Then one January weekend the furnace at school broke, and it was ice cold when we returned on Monday morning.  I ran to my plants.  The small ones looked a bit wilted but seemed like they would recover.  Mr. Avocado’s leavers had fallen to the floor.  I was in despair.  This could not be happening again.  This time, I had a partner to help me.  Benita, the woman who cleaned my office every night was an avid gardener. Benita and I often talked about our grandfathers: hers from Colombia, mine from Italy.  Both men had amazing green thumbs. Benita had helped me care for my plants over the years.  When I showed her the avocado, she clicked her tongue and shook her head.  Together, we cut down the stem and watered the soil.  Then Benita suggested to put the plant in the window of another office with a southern exposure.  I agreed and tried to hope.  Every couple of days I would check Mr. Avocado.  I found the same thing: a stem sticking out of the dirt.  I was disheartened.  I didn’t visit him as much.  Then one afternoon, Benita came to my office with the large pot in her arms. “Mira… look,” she said.  I jumped up, “It’s growing?”  I asked.  Indeed it was! A bright green shoot was poking out of the dirt! Soon it was growing strong.  Today, it is six feet tall, and I’m trying to figure out what to do when it hits the ceiling.  It’s funny how such a simple living thing can give such hope.  I firmly believe in restoration.  So many times when we face obstacles we think it’s all over, there is no hope, all is lost.  However, if we are patient and stop to reflect, we can find a way for hope to overcome and bring little joys.

This reminds me of all my work with students over the years.  I have always been drawn to the kids who were facing obstacles either academically or emotionally.  Maybe it’s because I see myself in them.  Maybe it’s because I have not abandoned hope and believe everyone can recover and thrive.  On the surface, they may be Dyslexic, Dysgraphic, have ADD or ADHD, anxiety disorders, or any number of learning differences, but way down underneath there are strong roots taking hold that will keep them upright and allow them to grow.  As a teacher, I feel that it is my responsibility to take a breath, keep an open mind, and look beyond the surface.  What tools can I use to nurture these tender beings? I know that if I am relentless and keep my sense of humor, these children will grow and flourish.

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

Room to Read

This school year, I have taken on two positions rolled into one: curriculum coordinator and learning specialist.  Yes, it is a lot of work.  Yes, it is good I have a monkey mind and enjoy spinning lots of plates on long wobbly sticks all at the same time.  But the best part of my job is that I am the one teachers call upon to solve student puzzles.  I love having the opportunity to read and write with children and figure out why they are having trouble. I calm my monkey mind and I focus in on the student reader.

This week, a fourth grader confided to her teacher that she couldn’t understand any of the passages that she had been assigned.  She started to panic.  There were tears.  Then her teacher called me.  The next morning, I came to Lindsay’s class. As I entered the doorway, she jumped out of her seat and was eager to come with me.  I was surprised by her response because the year before, Lindsay tried her best to avoid me.  But now she was ready.  She wanted help. She wanted to read better.  We walked together down the long, bright hallway chatting about the summer and the best flavors of ice cream. Then we went out the door, through the courtyard, up the stairs to another building where my office is located.

Lindsay and I settled into our seats in front of a large picture window.  I was glad the room was large and cheerful with lots of light streaming in and a view of beautiful trees and flowering shrubbery.  I could tell Lindsay was a little apprehensive, so I kept the conversation pleasant and positive.  I asked her about what she had read during the summer, and she confessed that she read only two books. Instead of focusing on quantity, I asked her what the books her about.  She could not remember the titles or the topics.  This told me that she was definitely not connecting with books.  She had not yet entered the story and become part of it.  I knew that was going to be my job this year, and I was energized by that knowledge.

I told Lindsay that I had not always liked reading.  I told her that my dad was a writer, my mom was a teacher, and I had an older sister.  They were all readers.  I wanted to be different.  I wanted to do something else.  Then, when I was in 5th grade, Mrs. Skovron was my teacher.  She helped me to learn to read better.  She told me that I did indeed love stories and that together we would find the right ones for me to read.  And that’s exactly what she did, and that’s exactly what I promised Lindsay we would do together.  I looked at her and she was smiling.  She was ready to take the first step.  First, I taught her strategies for when you come across an unfamiliar word. We broke several words apart syllable by syllable, and her shoulders relaxed.  She read a passage silently and made a key comprehension error.  I pointed to a part in the passage, and I asked her to read it aloud.  She did and her eyes lit up. 

“Oh, I was wrong!” she said.  “I understand now!” 

We both laughed together.  I told her that for now she should read aloud so that she can hear the story unfolding and can pay better attention to it.  I talked about making pictures in her mind as she read.

She read the next passage aloud to me. I stopped her when I knew her understanding was breaking down, and we talked about what was happening in the text.  Little by little, slowly we make our way through the text.  When she reached the end, I could tell by her facial expression that she really understood the story and could retell it confidently.  She had worked hard. It was time to return to class.  Lindsay saw a colorful box on the windowsill and asked me what was inside.  I opened the box to reveal a collection of seashells. 

“Pick two,” I said. She looked up at me,

“Really? They are so beautiful.” 

“Yes, you worked hard.  Take two,” I told her. 

I knew that I had made a reading partner, we were ready for a year of adventures.

Room to Read
 
I was not a born reader
For me, reading was work
Long, hard work,
Words stretched out
Each and every sound
Slow... slow... work,
Work that required patience and precision,
Which, at times, I had a short supply.
 
 
Everyone in my family was a reader
All my friends were readers
I would rather be running
Swinging, swimming, biking
Hiding in the woods, skipping stones
Reading was slow
Reading was done inside in a quiet room,
Reading required singular attention.
 
Then I entered 5th Grade,
Loved my teacher at first sight,
And I knew she like me.
Very soon, she realized I was not a reader.
I read aloud in a staccato monotone,
I gulped, sighed, and struggled my way
Through sentence after sentence.
When I was done, I had no idea what I had read.
 
My teacher didn’t give up,
She was patient and precise,
She helped me unlock the sounds
And read more smoothly.
She held out book after book to me,
I shook my head – no, not this one –
Or that one – or that one –
None held my interest
 
Until Misty of Chincoteague.
I loved horses, and wild ponies
Piqued my curiosity.
That day I brought the book home,
I filled my bathtub
With pillows and blankets
and climbed inside - book in hand,
Snuggled down and began to read.
 
I was there on the island surrounded
By sand dunes, tall grass, the smell of salty air.
My mother knocked on the door
Wanting to know what I was doing.
“Reading,” I responded.
She peaked in to see me
Reading in my reading nest
And quietly closed the door.
 
Those ponies, those words, that book
Unlocked reading for me.
I read horse book after horse book,
Then books about ancient Egypt,
After that, I read about a girl named Harriet
Who got into a lot of trouble.
Now, I was a reader.
Now, I was ready for another story.

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.

Listen to Their Songs

A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer.

It sings because it has a song.

– Maya Angelou

Last week, I attended yet again another professional development webinar.  This summer they have run the gamut from strategies for reopening given the new pandemic reality, to antiracism, from identifying and reducing anxiety to techniques for project- based learning.  All were informative, helpful, necessary, but as we drift into August, I am beginning to get weary of learning.  I desperately need a respite before the tsunami of teaching in a pandemic begins to swell again.  This latest webinar feature A.J. Juliani as the keynote.  I have heard this dynamic speaker before, and I was eager to hear what he had to say.  What I didn’t expect was his final words of encouragement to teachers in the form of a video from Clint Pulver, a motivational speaker.  Clint is an author, musician, and employment retention expert. He helps companies and organizations retain, engage, and inspire their workers. Clint believes that a single moment is transformative, and he demonstrates this in a video about his school experience about his interactions with his teacher Mr. Jensen – here.

I was blown away by Clint’s story and was lucky to have champions like Mr. Jensen throughout my school career.   Clint’s story reminded me of the story of Gillian Lynne described by Ken Robinson in his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. Robinson explains that as a young girl growing up in the 1930’s, Gillian was thought to have a serious learning disorder, and school officials recommended that her mother take her to a psychologist.  Gillian’s mother complied, answering the psychologist’s questions as Gillian sat on a chair listening.  When Gillian’s mother and the psychologist left her alone in the room, the psychologist deliberately turned on his radio.  As the music played, Gillian got up and began to dance.  As Gillian’s mother and the psychologist watched from the doorway, the psychologist asserted that Gillian did not need to attend a school for the learning disabled.  Instead, he proclaimed that Gillian was a dancer, and he recommended that she attend dance school.  She went on to become a famous British ballerina and choreographer.  Gillian Lynne is best known for her choreography of the Broadway hits, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. (Robinson, 2009).  It is this shift in perspective that is necessary for connecting children with possibilities.

This was best illustrated to me a number of years ago, when I was teaching 2nd grade.  One of my students, Michael, was a talented violinist.  Although, I gave my young learners many creative arts experiences, true music integration was more difficult for me, since I had no background in music.  However, Michael was eager to weave music into his day. It was an integral part of who he already was at the tender age of seven.  During whatever we were learning, Michael was humming.  He created songs throughout his day, even during quiet working times.  This caused consternation among his classmates.  Michael’s humming disrupted their thinking, no matter how quietly he hummed. One afternoon after dismissal, Michael stayed behind to speak to me about this problem.  He wanted me to know that he wasn’t being disruptive on purpose. The songs, he explained, just came into his head. I reassured Michael that I knew he wasn’t humming to annoy his classmates.  That afternoon, we came up a solution that involved rearranging desks, which would allow Michael to continue to softly hum, while also enabling his classmates to work in quiet. 

That year, I began to develop my own intrepid spirit when creating musical experiences for my students.  As Carolyn Hildebrandt, a professor of psychology at the University of Northern Iowa, wrote, “… teachers do not need special training to foster creativity in music.  The only thing we really need is an interest in children’s music and a willingness to listen to their songs.” In the coming months, I deliberately found space in the day to add music: playing music that reflected what the children were learning, collaborating as a class to write a song about taking care of the earth, showcasing various students’ instrumental abilities by asking them to demonstrate their talent at musical show and tell sessions.  The children also made a variety of string, wind, and percussion instruments.  While constructing various musical instruments over many months, my students experimented with sound and progressed from producing various noises to creating music.  In its simplest form, the children made string instruments with rubber bands and milk cartons or created tambourines with paper plates to aluminum pie pans and dried beans.  While working on their musical instruments, students began to collaborate, making several iterations, and finally coming together to perform in duets, trios, and full bands. These open investigations were the foundation of whole class instruction: we created rain sticks while studying the rainforest, constructed panpipes while learning about Andean culture, and built water xylophones while experimenting with sound and pitch.  Step-by-step, the children began to see themselves as composers of their own lives.

Although, I was not musically inclined, I did realize the need to hold all children’s talents in high esteem.  I remember vividly times as a child when a poem would pop into my head as if by magic. I’d repeat the words over and over again, as not to forget until I got home to a paper and pencil.  As a teacher, I knew I had to nurture students’ passions and allow them to create.  Instead of silencing Michael’s nascent musical abilities, I thought of ways to honor them and connect them to the classroom culture. And what did Michael grow up to be?  A concert violinist, of course, who has performed at Carnegie Hall.

A Song in my Head

Sometimes I need my own space

I lie on the floor in my room

Surrounded by pillows

Listen for my own voice

Wait for the poetry 

To play like

A song in my head

That dances

That makes my curls ring

The swaying of trees 

on a spring day

The sun skipping across

 Sparkling deep water

A restless stranger

On a lonesome beach

Watching waves come in

And go out far

Far to sea

Reaching blue beyond

Poetry to me

Experience of Place

For the past thirty-six summers, my husband and I have been fortunate to be able to wander and travel around the country – our beautiful diverse country: mountains, plains, deserts, and coastlines. Most summers are now spent in the Green Mountains of Vermont or the White Mountains of New Hampshire, or the rocky coastline of Maine.  This year is different.  Very different.  This year is a summer of home and schoolwork. As I look towards the fall, I yearn for those wondrous summer places.  I look back at photographs and remember.

Place is so important to an individual’s identity.  It shapes so much of who we are and who we choose to become. Right after college, I worked in a small publishing firm in New York City.  It was there that I became familiar with Roger Hart’s work on psychological geography and his book Children’ s Experience of Place, a study of eighty-six children in a small town in Vermont and their playtime experiences. (You can listen to Roger Hart’s interview with Ira Glass on This American Life – Act Three: “The Geography of Childhood”). Almost every child had a secret outside hiding place where he could discover new things and imagine. Hart explains how important it is for children to explore freely to develop a sense of self and strong identity.

When I became a classroom teacher, I brought that sense of wonder to the children I taught.  I carefully and deliberately brought their attention to the world around them whether I was teaching reading, writing, social studies, or mathematics. No matter where I taught, the children and I would go out exploring our environment.  In the suburban school, we fished in the river near our school and set up a fish tank with the creatures we captured: tadpoles, minnows, and an eel. In the city school, we adopted trees in Central Park measured their circumference to determine their height and sketched them throughout the seasons. We wrote a letter to the Parks Commissioner with a plan to help the trees on our school’s street to grow.  The children began to see themselves as integral to their environment. And I began to notice the social and emotional affects the outdoors made on children.  They became less stressed, more curious, and definitely more confident.  One parent wrote me at the end of the school year thanking me for all I had done. This was not the first thank you letter I had received, but it was the first letter I received that thanked me for teaching her child how to climb a tree.  This parent understood how important a child’s connection to his surroundings could be.  And that shy, hesitant boy left his third-grade year feeling brave and able to meet any challenge. 

The most profound experience I have had with how the environment fosters a child’s sense of place was when I was a 2nd grade teacher.  One of my students, Brianna, was exceptionally shy and displayed signs of selective mutism.  She spoke in barely audible whispers and continually hunched her shoulders and ducked her head.  I spent the year trying my best to bolster her self-esteem and encourage her to take small risks.  She remained mostly silent.  That is until one spring day when we went on a field trip to a local farm.  We were taking a tour and visiting all the farm animals.  Our guide gathered the children in a circle and asked for a volunteer to gather eggs from the chickens.  To my surprise and delight, Brianna raised her hand.  I caught the guide’s eye and motioned for him to pick Brianna.  He did and handed her a basket.  Brianna bravely skipped to the chicken coop and went in.  Immediately, she came running back without any eggs and her head bowed. 

I walked over to her and said, “You were so brave to volunteer.  Do you want me to go with you and we will gather the eggs together?” 

She nodded her head and we turned around quickly towards the coop.  It was dark and musty and smelled like chickens. I was going to model for Brianna how to reach under the chicken and grab an egg, but all of a sudden I had an amazing realization.  I was absolutely terrified to put my hand under a pecking chicken! 

I expressed this aloud:  “Oh my goodness.  This is scary.  I hope she doesn’t peck me.  I don’t want to do this, but I want the egg.  Okay…  I’m going to do it…  Don’t peck me… Here I go…  Oh, it’s so warm…  I have it!” 

All the while, Brianna began to giggle and then laugh loudly.  I looked at her and smiled.

“Do you want to gather the next one with me?” I asked. Brianna giggled and nodded.  I put my hand over her hand, and together we picked another warm, brown-speckled egg. We put them in the basket and walked out of the coop into the spring sunshine.

Brianna ran ahead shouting, “We gathered two eggs.  Mrs. Emery was so scared.  She was so funny!”

From that day on, Brianna chattered easily with me and her classmates.  Taking that one risked changed everything for her, and it taught me the power of place, how interactions with nature can truly heal.

That was many years ago. I’ve heard from colleagues that Brianna grew up to become an actress.  And when I think of her, I smile and remember that spring day when we gathered eggs together.

Often my poems express that connection between the natural world and human identity. Now that I’m stationary this summer, I use my backyard and our surrounding parks for solace.  I know these days of August are precious, and I intend to keep wandering close to home.

Camouflage

The dark-eyed junco

Flits under the thorny

Brambles and black mulch,

Her blue-black body

Camouflaged among

The twisted branches,

She is well hidden

Only her sharp, quick

Movements betray her.

How many years have I been

Sitting on awkward hands,

Head bowed wishing,

Wishing to be hidden?

If I could make my body

Small enough, dark enough

I could hide away and

Be forgotten.

The dark-eyed junco

Perches on tender branch,

Ruffles her slate-gray feathers,

Contemplates the summer green,

Her white tail feathers flash

As she takes off

Into the cloud-filled sky,

Daring to be fearless

Suddenly, she’s gone.

Dandelion

Your golden head rises

Out of the rusty rubble

Just another weed –

You push your way out

Between cracks in the sidewalk

Among rocks, bricks, bits of broken glass

You grow strong –

Impervious to your surroundings

Your leaves, jagged toothed

Spread green along the old gray ground

You are not discouraged –

You’ve never depended

Upon rain or fertilizer

You provide your own sunlight.