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.

Finding Paris

A Paris State of Mind

This summer, not being able venture far away as I normally do, I have become very aware how important place is to my identity.  My identity has been definitely shaped by being born, growing up, and aging in New Jersey. But it was also shaped by my travels throughout this country and abroad.  The geography, natural resources, diverse people, food, and architecture have all impacted my sense of beauty and adventure.  I’ve been missing that sense of adventure this summer, and so I’ve found that I have been traveling in my mind through reading books.  For the past several weeks, I’ve been in Paris by way of Hemingway.  First, I read his memoir of Paris in the 1920’s, Moveable Feast.  After I finished the book, I was missing Paris so much that I found the novel, Paris Wife by Paula McLain, which is a fictionalized account of Hemingway’s time in Paris with his first wife, Hadley Richardson.  What so intrigued me about this book is that the author describes the same events from Moveable Feast, but from Hadley’s perspective.  It is clear that Paris in the 1920s shaped the identities of so many American writers and artists.  As a young couple, Hem and Hadley moved to Paris so that Hem could concentrate on his writing.  There, he met Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and countless others.  I traveled along with the Hemingways through the Boulevard de Montparnasse, past the many cafes they frequented: La Closerie des Lilas, Le Dôme, Le Select, La Coupole, La Rotonde, and The Dingo Bar. I envision their tiny tenement apartment on the rue Cardinale Lemoin. I can see the brown water of the Seine, I can hear the music of the dance halls, I can smell the sawdust of the nearby lumber mill.

When exploring cities, I love waking up early and taking long sensory walks, getting a feel for the people and culture.  Camera in hand, I focus my lens on the shop windows, the man sweeping the sidewalks, the young woman setting out trays of bakery treats, the pigeons swooping down on small crumbs scattered at the curb. I go down side streets, trying to find the secret places, the soul of the city. Many times, I’m surprised by the treasures I’ve found: a tiny shop with skeins of bright colored wool in the window; the brightly striped awning of a café, which serves a fragrant and rich mochaccino; the young, homeless family walking in slippers down the street with their daughter in tow, who is holding a large conch shell to her ear, which her father had retrieved from the garbage. These discoveries are what sustain me.  They are times of uncovering raw beauty that keeps me to connected to my place in the world.  I travel with a poet’s heart, always observing, always seeking the essence of the place to express its truth in that very moment.

Paris at 13

When I was thirteen years old (1969), I was able to travel to Paris with my family. When looking back, I remember the food first and foremost. We stayed in a six-story narrow pensione, which served continental breakfast every day: loaves of warm, crusty bread wrapped in white linen, glass jars of homemade thick strawberry jam, and strong steaming tea.  And some mornings we had eggs – deux oeufs frit – the first French words I learned to say.

I remember the Paris attractions: the Eiffel Tower, The Arc de Triomphe, the Pantheon.  I can see myself climbing the steps of Notre-Dame and Sacre-Coeur. I was astonished to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. It was exquisite – small and dark.  And I remember the walking through the Tuileries, down the Champs-Élysées, through the neighborhoods and narrow winding cobblestone streets.  I was mesmerized, walking slowly behind my family taking it all in like it was some lovely misty dream. I loved stopping into all the cafés: the long elaborate bars, the marble tabletops, the waiters in crisp white aprons, the blackboards with the daily menus etched in chalk.  I tried everything – croissants, raclette, croque monsieur, coq au vin, pot-au-feu, and even escargot. But it was the simple meals that made a lasting impression.  On our last night in Paris, we stopped at a small café, and I ordered jambon aux épinards, which was a small plate of cheesy creamed spinach with a paper-thin slice of ham on top.  It was the most sumptuous thing I ever tasted.  I could have eaten two more platefuls.  I vowed to come back to Paris one day when I was all grown up.  I have yet to go back.  But I know that the Paris today cannot compare with the Paris of my memory.

Paris in Montreal

Though I have yet to return to Paris, my husband and I have ventured to Montreal every summer for the last six years.  It was the place we also honeymooned thirty-six years ago.  Montreal is our North American Paris.  We have spent many a summer day walking the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal taking photographs, window shopping, and stopping to rest at sidewalk cafés.  My favorite patisserie is Cookies Stefanie because all their treats are gluten-free, which means I can sample pain au chocolat, apple and maple muffins, and rich gâteaux, worry free.  Another favorite spot on Rue Saint Sulpice is a lovely teahouse call Ming Tao, where the busy street life fades away with every steaming cup of tea.

One night, my husband and I stopped into a café on Rue McGill, and I coaxed him to try something new on the menu – halloumi, which we thought was fish and were surprised when the waitress set down our plates of farm-fresh sautéed vegetables topped with a firm square of grilled white cheese. We both had a good laugh together about that!

One of my favorite places to photograph is Jean Talon Farmer’s Market in Montreal’s Little Italy.  It is filled with fresh produce, honey, cheeses, bread, and pastries. It also has a creperie, which I must indulge in every time we visit.

Paris Metro

Standing on the platform –

Gleaming white tiles,

Everything clean and fresh

Even though we are underground.

It is a busy time in the morning,

The train screeches in –

I take a step back,

My father urges us into

A packed car and motions us

To get off again and then on again.

I get lost in the confusion.

They are on the train,

I am on the platform,

The doors slide shut.

My mother’s face is agony,

My sister’s face is amusement,

My father’s face is serious,

His hands motioning,

Wait for the next train!

Get off the next stop!

We will wait for you!

The train pulls out

Taking my family away.

The platform is empty now.

Just one lone American teenager.

I sit on a bench and lean

Against the cool tiles

I look at the bright billboards

I imagine myself in a new life

What would it be like

To stay in Paris?

I can see myself at school

Becoming fluent in French

Creating a new life.

The places I’d go,

The food I’d eat,

The person I was meant to be.

I hear a low, slow rumble

The next train arrives

Pushes the daydream

Out of my mind

I step aboard.

How Does Your Zen Garden Grow?

As I look towards the end of August, cognizant that my new school year is on the horizon whether it is virtual or in-person, I am committed to keep cultivating my own garden.  By this I mean I want to keep in the forefront of my mind, my health, my writing, my artistic expression, and my connection to friends and family.  It has not always been easy for me to have clear boundaries between work and my personal life.  For decades, I put my work before everything else.  Oh sure, I talked about balance, but I really didn’t know how to achieve it.  How do I juggle a great jumble of responsibilities?  How do I prioritize?  What do I need to do to be successful?  I struggled and struggled with these questions.  I read about how to reduce stress.  I practiced tai chi and yoga.  I drank gallons of steaming chamomile tea.  I smiled. I sang several choruses of, “Let it Go” loudly in the shower.  Still, I felt like the sword of Damocles was constantly dangling over my head. I talked to family. I talked to friends.  Everyone felt the same way.  Everyone had the same strategies. They worked on the surface, but I still felt stressed and anxious.

I turned towards my faith. I prayed for wisdom and insight. I knew that if I didn’t find a way to deal productively with my stress, I would continue to damage my health and relationships.  I’ve watched the failing health of my parents and in-laws as they aged, and I know life is so fragile, so short, so precious.  By continuing to load up my life with endless activities and packed schedules, I was playing a dangerous game.  I was slowly and surely depleting my quality of life.  On the outside, I looked like I was handling my hectic life quite well.  But I knew I wasn’t.  I knew I was over-eating, not sleeping, constantly worrying. I knew if I really loved myself that I had to stop.  Stop immediately, stop without question.

So that’s what I did little by little, I learned to focus on myself, I began to write more consistently.  I read books that interested me, not just books for education.  I made an effort to eat nourishing food and get daily exercise.  In the months that followed, I felt more and more in control.  I stopped worrying about what people thought of me.  I asked myself:  What makes you happy?  What do you want to create?  What is important to you?  And as I pondered these questions, I stopped juggling all the unimportant, distracting minutia.

Even though I haven’t had a chance to travel as I normally would this summer, I have been productive.  I connected with old acquaintances, read books that I have wanted to read for a long time, began to draw and paint again, and began to organize my copious files of photographs. I also made time to walk and bike. I feel I’m ready for the gauntlet that will be this school year.  I’ve been thinking about how to ensure this inner peace I’ve sown will continue.  I want to stay mindful and positive.

I started compiling books and materials that will help me remember to keep my health first and to prioritize what’s most important to me in my life at this very moment in time.  I call these items my Zen Toolbox. If you’d like, take some time and create your own toolbox to help keep you calm, centered, and in the present.

ZEN TOOLBOX

1. The Little Book of Joy by Bill Zimmerman
A terrific little journal where I record my thoughts and insights to the writing prompts.
2. The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
A wonderful book by Ryan Holiday on ways to surmount obstacles and make problems into possibilities.
3. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg                           
An invaluable book about how to write using the mindful, Zen approach getting to the heart of the story.
4. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse by Charlie Mackery
A wonderful children’s book, but really a book for all ages about the resilience needed to live a joyful life.
5. Write the Poem (Piccadilly)
A little journal I found in a thrift store which has a poem topic and suggested vocabulary on each page.  It is a more structured way to approach poetry, and I was pleasantly surprised by the practice.
6. Drawn to Nature by Holly Ward Bimba
A journal and sketch set that focuses on drawing the natural world.
7. Buddha Board
A small painting easel that allows you to paint with water, so your masterpiece is fleeting, but very enjoyable.
8. Joy of Zen Tangles by Marie Browning
A way of doodling that is systematic and teaches how to create various perspectives.
9. A Collection of Notebooks
I love collecting beautiful notebooks.  I’m making a commitment to writing in them more consistently and thoroughly.
10. Music & Meditation: My favorites – King & Country, Lauren Daigle, Andean Flute music, and Guided Mindfulness Mediation – Jon Kabat-Zinn 

Zen Garden

Sitting low on a wooden bench

Looking out on the Zen garden,

My thoughts circle and release,

Circle and release,

Circle and drift

Around the islands in my mind.

A young girl runs to the edge of garden,

“What’s a Zen garden, Dad,” she asks.

Her father looks out,

Shrugs his shoulders and says,

“A Bunch of rocks…

A bunch of rocks.

His teenage son smirks,

Glancing at the garden and declares,

“They did a nice job making the rocks.”

And slouches away.

My mind settles on the center stone,

I take in its contours,

I memorize its lines and creases,

Its cracks and crevices,

Its shape, color, texture –

Every wrinkle.

I exhale one long, low breath.

Two young women walk in front of me,

Look out and pause for a moment,

“Do you feel Zen?” one says to the other

“Nope,” says the other with a giggle

And they bounce off.

I open myself to the sea of sand,

Perfect concentric circles,

A solitary island

at peace.

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.

Someday Soon

My good friend, Molly, never fails to send me wondrous things via email.  Sometimes it is a photo of her hennaed hand, sometimes it’s a poem she wrote, sometimes it’s an image of the woods she is walking through, and many times it is an educational idea, activity, or concept.  Today, it was a link to Kids for Peace: Uplifting our World Through Love and Action. As I scrolled through the website, something struck my eye:  The Someday Soon Jar activity. As soon as I saw it, I knew what I was going to blog about. 

Yesterday, I was complaining to Molly that I had writer’s block.  I didn’t know what to write about – too many ideas were swirling in my head, and none seemed inspirational.  I’ve been pulled down by torrential rain and a flood of increasingly bad news.  I haven’t had nightmares in a very long time, but last night I had a terribly helpless one that recurred all night long!  I was walking on my school’s campus. It was winter and snow was piled high. I was looking at the mounds and mounds of snow.  I realized that the mounds were actually cars covered with snow and a thick layer of ice.  On one car the ice was beginning to melt and slip from the back window.  When I looked through the back window, I saw a child’s face submerged in icy water.  I screamed, but there was no sound.  I took a shovel and started hacking through the ice and snow, but I could not get to the little boy.  Then I realized there was a whole line of cars with people trapped in them submerged in icy water covered in mounds of snow: a female college student, a family with young children, a young man with a beard – all looking at me with frozen screams.  I run from one to the next, helpless.  There was no one else around to help me.  It was too late.  That’s when I wake up. My heart is racing. I calm down and tell myself that it’s just a dream.  I go back to sleep and dream the same exact dream again.  This happens three more times until it is morning, and I’m too exhausted to go back to sleep.

I get out of bed.  Make a cup of tea.  Check my email. And there it is:  the email from Molly waiting for me like a gift – The Someday Soon Jar.  It’s exactly what I need right now – HOPE in bright glowing rainbow colors. Hope that the ones I love will stay healthy and strong.  Hope that America will be a place of inclusion and peace.  Hope that I can make a difference with my words, images, and stories.  Hope that we are not all frozen in anger, fear, and anxiety. Just plain, old-fashion, childlike hope.

The idea behind the Someday Soon Jar is that children write out all things that they wish or hope to do someday soon. It could be taking a trip, visiting friends and family, collecting rocks or sea shells. It could be baking a treat, eating ice cream, watching the sunset.  It could be playing a game or laying in the shade of a beautiful oak tree, reading a good book.  I love this idea of happy anticipation.  I definitely need more happy anticipation in my life right now, so I created my own Someday Soon Jar and will start to write my ideas down.  Of course, my jar is an empty tissue box instead of a beautiful glass jar, but I don’t think that matters.  What matters is hope and the joy of happy expectation.

Someday Soon

Someday Soon

I will sit at my window

Looking out into the pouring rain,

Fat drops against the panes,

Thunder grumbling, a crack of lightening,

Then sheets drenching the trees –

Green-leafed umbrellas,

Shelters for the squirrels

And a pair of soft gray doves.

A cup of steaming tea, a good book

I am warm and dry.

Someday Soon

We will take a long drive

Out into the country

Out into the mountains

Rising to meet us,

Green and welcoming.

My husband riding shotgun,

Telling wild stories,

Laughing as we ride along.

Rows upon rows of hilltops

On the summer horizon.

Someday soon

I will walk along the shore,

Sand beneath my feet,

Salty bubbles between my toes,

The waves casting out shells

And pulling them back in –

A rhythm close to breathing.

Bending down to reach

The slippers, scallops, and clams,

Pearl-pink and shiny

In my grateful hands.

Someday soon

I’ll walk back across

The Sant Angelo bridge

Lined with ten graceful angels.

Ornate wrought-iron lamps

Curve brightly at dusk.

Lovers linger, peering down

Into the murky waters of the Tiber.

Walking between the angels

Into the park strewn with twinkling lights,

Music plays, and I begin to dance.

Summer Mindset: Unwind to Rewind

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

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

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

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

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