Zen Toolbox Redux

January is almost over.  We have elected a new president.  We have for the first time in history a woman vice president.  The COVID virus has several new vaccines, and they are slowly being distributed.  My family members and friends continue to be safe and healthy. I should feel hopeful.  I do not.  I feel drained. I have taken on two positions at school this year – learning specialist and curriculum coordinator – two giant jobs, and back in August I was certain I could handle both if I kept myself in balance. 

Now, I am not so sure.  It seems that there is premium on students who need support.  I am not the only one feeling stressed, anxious, and in desperate need of a shoulder, outstretched hand, or warm smile. This week, a student cried giant tears, which rolled down her cheeks soaking her mask. “I always get in trouble at school,” she declared. 

When I asked her to explain what happened to me.  She said that she couldn’t but that she could draw it.  So I gave her a piece of paper and some markers thinking she was going to draw the problem she was facing. Instead, her markers created brilliant springtime flowers, deep green grass growing wildly around a happy, fat house, with bright jaunty windows, a crooked chimney and a red door with the number 32 above it.  When I asked, “How is this the problem you are telling me about?” 

She looked at me like I had two heads and replied, “It’s not.  You see it’s 32, not 42 like the school.  I live at 32 Jockey Hollow Road and that’s where I want to be.”

I smiled under my mask.  She was a clear as clear could be. She did something wrong, and she wanted to escape back to safety. And safety to her was to be at home with her parents.  I was so glad she had a safe place.  I needed to help her feel that way at school more often, instead of feeling like the kid who’s two steps behind and doesn’t know where she put her pencil again, and the teacher is waiting, and her classmates are saying her name impatiently. Again. So I listen and I problem solve, and I offer her some kindness. When we get back to the classroom, they are doing art.  She returned to her seat and picked up her scissors and glue.  Her shoulders relaxed.  She had regained a bit of her balance.

I can empathize.  I often feel like that student did:  I’m going to be in trouble.   I can’t keep up.  I’m tossing all the plates, but I cannot catch them.  I try in vain to create pockets of peace and pleasure, but they are fleeting.  I remember my mother’s words: “Be good to yourself.”  I try. I do try. I remember the list I made in August, a Zen Toolbox to keep me content and on track and not to slip into the girl with her shoulders hunched up to her ears, running from task to task, holding her breath.  I look back at the toolbox and see the list of books, art, and music.  They are useful tools, and I have returned to their pages often to gain some inspiration. But now, at this time of year, I need another plan.  A more active direct plan, one in which I can push out the walls of my stress and create an artistic positive and more hopeful space.

I know it is imperative for me to do this.  I’ve read the literature on teacher burn out. According to some recent research, 66% of teachers want to leave education and 41.3% of new teachers leave teaching within the first five years on the job.  Given those numbers, I feel quite successful because I have been teaching for forty-two years.  I must have a secret, some ancient wisdom I can bestow on my fellow teachers. 

This week, I came up with these ideas.  They are not so much RULES, as they are affirmations about who I really am and the important work I do each day with children.  If I am to connect with my students and lift them up, I definitely need to make sure that I am being good to myself.

 1.    Create tissue craft paper collage studies.  Do a couple a week.  Remember to play.
 
2.   Treat myself to flowers at work often.  Do not make excuses.  Buy them on Monday.
 
3.   Whenever I feel stressed at work, pull back, go inside myself, take a walk, write or draw for 15 minutes.  No one needs me for 15 minutes.  Take the time.
 
4.   Remember to stay professional. Be about teaching and not personalities.
 
5.    Continue walking, exercising, stretching every day.  Try to exercise before school – at lunch and after school whenever possible.
 
6.   Make a list of writing projects and finish them.
 
7.    Remember creativity.  If I don’t do writing and art, my spirit dies and I become bitter.  The best part of me is my childlike enthusiasm.  Celebrate that!
 
8.   Make a list of art dates – schedule a day each month to do some extended art dates: sketch, collage, print making, water color, finger paint.
 
9.   Try something new every week: a new vegetable, a new shampoo, a new song, a new way of looking at the same things.
 
10.  Be an observer.  Go out into nature, breathe in calm, write what you   see, write what you feel.
 This is what I played with this week. Some reflections on nature and the healing power of trees, trying to find the quiet places. 
 Forest Senses
  
 The trail is laden
 with rain soaked stones -
 brown, gray, pale green
 and rust colored pine needles
 and last fall’s leaves
 now brown and brittle
 returning to the earth.
 The forest canopy -
 a colossal verdant umbrella
 letting the rays of the sun
 only in certain sacred spots.
 A huge elm has fallen,
 its two main branches
 now rest on its trunk
 like two great arms
 reaching out 
 still seeking salvation. 


 
 
 Shadow Play
  
 Clouds loom over the ridge line,
 Whipped cotton cumulus clouds
 Casting shadows on the hills,
 Dappled patterns,
 Bright patches 
 On the forest floor,
 Moss-covered stones,
 Glints of reflected light
 On the river’s surface.
 Dark green cool spots,
 Rocky crags and uprooted trees
 Hidden in silent repose. 

Poems in a Small Space

Acceptance.  I think that is the gift that I give myself when there are a multitude of things that are out of my control on both a personal and global level.  My small hands, my curious mind cannot solve any of it.  I can accept and move forward.  I can accept and be content that I am whole; I am safe in my own small space.

Poetry has always given me that small space to crawl into – to journey down into a deep, welcoming hole and find myself in an open field at the other end, a field of possibility. It is a place to try out new combinations of words to express what is in my inside because my inside is the only thing I can control.  How will I approach this situation?  How will to react to that setback?  What can I do to right myself again?

Words help me know what I’m feeling.  Words record where I have been, who I was at that moment of time.  They are a snapshot of myself.  They help me reflect and grow.  They allow me to navigate the world and keep me on a steady course.

Every morning I remind myself why I am here.  Mary Oliver’s wise words whisper in my ear: Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?  I am here to write.

 Winter’s Coming
  
 Softly lace crystals dance
 On the chill wind whispering
 Winter’s coming
 Three deer play hide and seek
 With the trees– leaping
 Winter’s coming
 Rabbit in her brown-fur burrow
 Safe and warm dreaming 
 Winter’s coming
 Alder trees arch with the weight
 Of new fallen snow creaking
 Winter’s coming
 Squirrels frolic in the snow
 Fluff their silver tails chattering
 Winter’s coming
 A flock of Canada geese glide
 Across the frigid sky honking
 Winter’s coming
 Meanwhile beneath the deep white
 The steadfast garden lies silent
 Till spring – Hush now
 Winter’s coming 

 
 
 
 Swamp Oak in Winter
  
  
 Silver-white swamp oak
 Stands alone in the clearing
 Branching up and up
  
 Gracefully curving
 While each slender stem embraces
 Curled copper leaves
  
 Like snow-capped cocoons
 Silently contemplating
 Silver-white swamp oak 


 
 
 Hibernation
  
                                      I                                  
  
 Following the path
 Through the woods
 Walking in other’s footprints
 In the shallow snow,
 I feel the tug from the earth,
 A call from the bare branches
 To come rest in the soft snow,
 Sleep till spring.
  
                                       II                                
  
 The woods are silent,
 The sun is iced-over,
 Each branch, each leaf
 Is frozen in space and time,
 A lone woodpecker lands
 Rendering a hollow sound.
  
                                  III                               
  
 The elm stands bare-boned,
 I rest my cool cheek
 Against its smooth trunk,
 Take comfort from its
 Immense strength,
 Sturdy persistence,
 Acknowledging the life within. 

If you are not yet a writer of poetry, I urge you to try.  Observe what’s around you, calm your mind, and narrow your focus. Settle down and relax. You can start small.  If I haven’t convinced you to write, then read poetry.  Fill your mind with its music. Fill your heart with its knowledge. Begin.

Poetry for Adults

  • Aimless Love by Billy Collins
  • A Thousand Morning by Mary Oliver
  • Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay
  • Devotions by Mary Oliver
  • Nine Horses by Billy Collins
  • Selected Poems by E.E. Cummings
  • Twenty Love Poems by Pablo Neruda
  • The Princess Saves Herself in This One by Amanda Lovelace
  • The Undressing: Poems by Li-Young Lee
  • The Wild Iris by Louise Gluck

Poetry for Children

  • All the Small Poems and Fourteen More by Valerie Worth
  • A Pocketful of Poems by Nikki Grimes
  • Beautiful Blackbird by Ashley Bryan
  • Bookjoy, Wordjoy by Pat Mora
  • Creature of Earth, Sea, And Sky by Georgia Heard
  • Everything Comes Next by Naomi Shihab Nye
  • I am Loved by Nikki Giovanni
  • Let it Shine by Ashley Bryan
  • One Last Word by Nikki Grimes
  • Twist: Yoga Poems by Janet Wong

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. 

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

Song of the Sky: Some Thoughts on Clouds

When I was a child, I spent long summer days looking up at the sky watching the clouds shape-shift.  I loved gazing up at what I thought looked like the continent of Africa slowly drift and pull apart until it became a magnificent ocean schooner sailing across the blue, then only to turn and twist to become a white serpent with a long, forked tongue.  To me clouds represent possibility.  What can I come?  What adventures await beyond the blue?  How can I stay quick, nimble, active.

When I taught young children, I always read to them the pattern book, It Looked Like Split Milk by Charles G. Shaw. The book starts off with the refrain: It looked like spilt milk, but it wasn’t spilt milk.  Sometimes it looked like a rabbit, but it wasn’t a rabbit. It steadily progresses, changing shape from page to page.  The repetition and simple graphics silhouetted against the bright blue background were easy for the children to remember and read.  In fact, I have taught many children to read using that book.  They felt successful and loved creating their own versions with endless possibilities.  And they read, and read, and read.

Maybe my connection to clouds is poetic in nature.  Metaphor. Simile. The cloud was a gossamer cloak ready to take me in and render me invisible. The dessert was topped with whipped cream which was as light and soft as a cloud.  Indeed, clouds often resemble whipped cream.  Maybe it’s not so much a poetic connection as it is a connection to food! Heaps and heaps of heavy cream whipped into lovely fluffs of all shape and shades. One wishes she could just reach out and scoop up a healthy handful.

One day recently, I escaped to the beach to take photos of the clouds rolling in to capture that sense of wonder.  Looking out towards the horizon, the sky and sea seemed infinite. Maybe that’s what intrigued Alfred Stieglitz about clouds: their ever-changing shape above Lake George and reflected on its surface. For over a decade Stieglitz photographed clouds. He first called his cloud work, Songs of the Sky, after the music he could surely hear as they drifted.  Later, he called his work Equivalents, noting the clouds reflected his own inner emotions.

Stieglitz created the first completely abstract photographs. He was influenced by abstract painter Vassily Kandinsky’s ideas and his belief that colors, shapes, and lines reflect the inner, emotive “vibrations of the soul.”  Self-expression and development of the spirit were key to Kandinsky’s approach and greatly affected Stieglitz work. Being abstract and dynamic, these elements have a very musical quality. Although Stieglitz’s work was in black and white, I wonder if the viewers’ response would be the same for color photography.  Does the tones of blue and white alter the message?  I’m not sure.  I’m still gazing up at the clouds.

Song of the Sky

Stieglitz photographed the clouds

Looming over Lake George,

Snapping hundreds of frames for hours:

Stratus, cumulus, or nimbus,

Stark white against deep blue,

Billowing out on a summer’s day.

Georgia! Get my camera!

He’d bark at O’Keefe.

Dutifully she’d place the Graflex

In his cold hands,

And sit with him on their porch

Looking out over the lake,

Watching massive thunderheads

Loom on the horizon

Shifting and rolling

Unfolding like flowers

Open to the grace of heaven

And then the rain came

Pouring down, relentless,

Dancing on the surface of the lake,

Soaking the dry earth,

Drenching the tall trees,

Reviving her weary spirit.

Some Thoughts on Geese

I’m taking some time to think and wonder about the world right outside my window. Since I live near the Great Swamp flyway, I get to witness lots of birds.  I am so lucky to look out my window and see hawks, vultures, turkeys, and all manner of songbirds.  It is the Canada geese who most grab my attention.  Geese are monogamous.  When they are two or three years old, they find a partner and mate for life.  Their loyalty has always intrigued me.  When I was young, Canada geese were a rare occurrence, but now they are common and are usually viewed and an annoyance.  A whole industry has been created to get rid of them: Birds Beware, Bird B Gone, Goosinator, and GooseBuster – to name a few. But I think geese are beautiful, graceful, and devoted friends.  They are bold and forthright. There is nothing deceptive about geese.  They are unapologetically simple and true.

Commitment

The Canada goose decided

To lay five perfect shiny white eggs

On the curb near the busy road

She did not choose the meadow

At the edge of the woods,

Or the thick grass by the pond.

No, she decided to lay her eggs

In the middle of the housing development

Where she would have no end

Of Human contact.

Cars whizz past and

Suddenly slow down to gawk,

Children screech from their car seats.

A middle-aged woman

Trots out of her apartment

With a plastic container

Full of cool spring water,

The goose hisses and flaps her wild wings,

The water spills, the woman retreats,

The children clap and laugh.

An hour later workmen come,

Cordon off and caution

With bright yellow tape.

The goose settles down softly,

Turning her eggs regularly,

Waiting so patiently.

We keep our distance, we wait.

Days and days pass, almost a month.

She does not eat, she does not drink,

She is vigilant.

Suddenly one day without fanfare

Five perfect fuzzy yellow heads emerge

From their steadfast mother

Peeping, peeping, peeping,

Their mother bends her

Sleek, graceful black neck

Tenderly caressing,

No longer waiting,

She stands, ruffles her feathers,

Her yellow brood following behind her.

Freedom

I draw open 

The heavy drapes 

In my bedroom

Look out to the

Shrubbery and thorny flowers

There he stands

A dark-headed sentinel

Staring with one black beady eye

Quiet and still

His webbed feet 

Providing sturdy balance.

He looks in my direction

And meets my gaze.

He rustles his sleek feathers,

Moves towards the adjacent patio

To stare intently through

The sliding door windows 

At the neighbor’s

Orange tabby cat,

Who suns himself

On the worn blue ottoman.

The goose unmoving watches

The cat stands, circles,

And shape-shifts –

All the while his 

Massive tail twitches.

This interests the goose

And he steps closer

To the window.

What creature is this?

What predator behind

Clear, strong glass?

The cat pretends not to notice

And turns his back.

The goose returns to his place

Under the cool pine tree.

He stands proud  

lifting his wild wings slightly

Catching the wind

Knowing he is free.

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.

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.