Every year except for the last COVID year, my husband and I spend a week each summer photographing Acadia National Park and the Down East Maine Coast. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The confluence of ocean and mountain is just breathtaking – climbing mountains with views of islands and sailboats dotting the water – bringing me such peace.
No matter what current state of tumult the world is in, Maine brings a clear sense of purpose and serenity. It is a solid reminder of how important the natural world is for one’s sense of well-being.
Little Long Pond
Clear Mountain pond
Floating lily pad
Opening to yellow centers
And sparkling sunlight
Mountains stand ont he horizon
Perfect summer day
The gulls hover
Over Seal Harbor
Surveying the boats,
Looking down into the water.
A blue heron steps gracefully
Among the seaweed covered rocks
His agile neck curves and darts
Piercing the water’s surface,
Ready for a fish dinner.
The seagulls circle and squawk
In the evening air
Salty and cool
Sweet sunset fishing.
Old yellow lobster pots
line the edge of the harbor,
Topped with piles of ropes
and brightly colored buoys.
No lobster is trapped inside
Now - just dented soda cans,
Blue rubber work gloves,
And bricks crusted with barnacles.
The lobster boats float
Ready to glide along the ocean
As lobstermen to set
and recover their traps
Pulling heavy ropes hand-over-hand
Seawater rushing and gushing out
Bearing shining treasure:
This week, I cannot write about education, travel, or art. This week I have to address world events. The disaster that is Afghanistan has weighed heavily on my mind and heart. When disturbed and rattled, I usually turn to poetry to make sense of my feelings. I thought and thought about how I could express the immense sadness I feel about our great country, our amazing America. Not our perfect America, but our promising, hopeful America.
Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” and Langston Hughes’ poem “I, Too!” reverberated in my head this week. Written in 1867, Whitman’s poem celebrated America’s work ethic. Then in 1926, Hughes’ demanded that Blacks be recognized as an essential part of America. With COVID, racial unrest, discrimination, limited rights and freedoms, rising inflation, the Afghan crisis – America is not singing now. Never, in my lifetime have I felt so frightened and so worried that our country is slipping away. But my strong belief is that America is worth saving, and we must find a way to heal and regain our strength and standing.
I Hear America Weeping
I hear America weeping,
No longer brave,
No longer beautiful,
No longer united.
Land of industrious immigrants,
Once strong and diligent,
Now at odds with each other:
Vaccinated, not vaccinated;
Black brown, red, yellow, white.
Great cities burning,
Flooded by drugs and violence,
Open to looting, and shootings.
America, I hang my head
Sorrowful and ashamed,
Who will heal America?
I hear America weeping,
No longer noble,
No longer resolute,
No longer the shining city
Upon the hill,
Beacon of hope.
Once the world leader,
Once the honorable democracy,
Now disgraced and embarrassed,
Open to terror, disorder, and chaos,
We have lost the world’s trust,
Abandoned our citizens and our allies.
We no longer stand for freedom.
America, I’m weeping,
The eyes of all people
Are truly upon us.
We are coming upon the last days of summer. For me, there is something bittersweet about that. I find myself holding on to the warm golden promise of summer. I don’t want it to end. No matter, how much I enjoy the fall, summer is a time that signals renewal and hope. There is so much I wanted to accomplish, so much joy I wanted to breathe in and make last. I don’t want that feeling to end. I need to find a way to sustain summer’s promise. I find it in the fields of wildflowers that I’ve encountered. I remember a poem I wrote many years ago. I keep reflecting on the power of that wild beauty. Something colorful and unexpected, something to surprise and comfort the faithful.
I come upon a field of wildflowers -
Poppies, cornflowers, Queen Anne’s Lace -
I walk across the field
Almost on tiptoe so as not to
Disturb a single petal.
I capture with my camera
Oranges and yellows,
The surprise of blue, the blush of pink.
As I travel the meadow.
I find a bunch of wild daisies -
“He loves me, he loves me not,”
I say to myself and shrug.
I wonder where that game began.
Each daisy petal holds a fortune,
Which way will it end?
I take hold of its bright face,
Count each white petal,
Lucky 13 – I take a chance.
He loves me, he loves me not -
He loves me, he loves me not -
Until the last petal is plucked:
He loves me!
I look down at the sad yellow center,
The white petals, like torn paper
Fall from my hand.
I came across a wonderful graphic book for young readers by Ricardo Liniers Siri called Wildflowers. It is an imaginative journey through island jungle by three heroic sisters. Liniers based the story on his three daughters’ creative play. It is a pure celebration of how creativity and sisterhood can save the day! Liniers notes that Tom Petty’s song, “Wildflowers,” served as an inspiration. I had not heard of Petty’s song before, so I took a listen and began to weep. What simple beauty!
You belong among the wildflowers
You belong somewhere close to me
Far away from your trouble and worries
You belong somewhere you feel free
You belong somewhere you feel free
What a powerful message for young readers! Historically, I have not been a huge fan of graphic books/novels, but that it not to say that I have not found pure genius in some of them. Graphic books for young readers seem to be a perfect way to motivate and engage children. The combination of picture and text support fluency and comprehension. I know our young K-3 readers gravitate to graphic books, as do our older elementary readers. The vivid descriptions that I enjoy as I read are encoded in a different way in graphic books. Here, the pictures serve as description and the readers must use their growing inferring skills. The rich visuals beckon children to question, wonder, and explore. Thank you, Liniers and Toon Books, for making me a fan!
Something about water that is so pure and calming whether it’s in the form of river, pond, lake, waterfall, or ocean. The flow of water fills me with possibility. Water is smooth and easy. It can carry itself anywhere. It is versatile and resilient. And water is strong. It can sweep you away and wear great rocks smooth. Water is a force to be reckoned with. I try, in my daily life, to emulate the qualities of water. I want to adopt its beauty, tenacity and strength. I want to achieve its clarity and purpose.
Being close to water always puts me at ease and allows me to center myself. Whatever trouble I face or obstacles I encounter has always been set right with time spent by the water. August calls me to come to the water, and so I obey. Salt water and sand – just what I need to slow down, reflect, and write. I take my camera along to record the images that stand out to me.
Brave children stand
At the edge of the sea,
While watchful waves
Tug at their tender feet.
Come in, come in
The wind whispers,
But the children run,
Scattering shells across the sand.
Their laughter lifts in to the air,
Bounces on the shimmering sea,
The roar of the waves
Closer the children creep,
Tan limbs in pools of white foam,
Ready, watching for
That next wave.
Scooping up sea glass,
Small shells, smooth stones,
The children splash,
Dancing with the sea.
As giant clouds climb
Over the slate-blue horizon
Like dangerous pirates
Waiting to snatch their treasure.
Come away, come away
To a distant shore,
While the sun sinks in the western sky
Washing everything with gold.
Book Lists: Seven by the Sea
Come Away from the Water, Shirley by John Burningham
Flotsam by David Wiesner
Hello Ocean by Pamm Munoz
Home for Hermit Crab by Eric Carl
Mister Sea Horse by Eric Carl
Stella, Star of the Sea by Mary-Louise Gay
Wave by Suzy Lee
Middle Grade Novels:
A Swirl of Ocean by Melissa Sarno
Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk
Fish Girl by David Weisner and Donna Jo Napoli
They Eyes of the Amaryllis by Natalie Babbitt
The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler
The Wanderer by Sharon Creech
Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm
Books for Adults:
Gift of Sea by Anne Morrow Lindberg
Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
The Hungry Ocean by Linda Greenlaw
The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island by Linda Greenlaw
The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure by Jacques-Yves Coustea
The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson
Turtle Summer: A Journal for My Daughter by Mary Alice Monroe
I believe there are places on this beautiful planet that are meant to heal, that are God-given. They bring wonder and awe. They summon peace and calm. I am fortunate throughout my life to have experienced many of these places. The natural world has always given me solace.
During COVID, it was near-impossible to travel far from home. Last spring, I found myself driving out into the countryside near my home, taking in the rolling hills, passing herds of grazing cows, horses, goats, sheep, llamas, and the occasional donkey. The animals had no idea of the death and stress that the human population was facing. They just left the warm comfort of their barns and sauntered out onto the sunny fields to feast. How I longed to have their innocence. Watching them and being in the greening world helped me to focus on what is important in my life.
Finally, this summer we can travel again. As we planned our first trip, my mood shifted, and I noticed my husband’s mood also became more hopeful. It was evident that both of our spirits needed to roam. Our first journey took us to Stowe, Vermont. Something about the Green Mountains makes me all at once calm and joyful. The rolling valleys dotted with farms and the graceful sloping mountains in the distance give me space for my soul to soar.
When we visit Vermont, we go to Stowe for much needed rest and relaxation. This trip, I vowed not to turn on my laptop and to only check my phone twice a day. I wanted to be completely present to the river, mountains, trails, and blue sky above me. Even better, I wanted to take in the afternoon mountain rain without distraction. I wanted it all to soak in and restore my body and mind.
Stowe is the perfect place for photography and poetry, so I indulged. I noticed and wondered, and made myself available to the nature all around me. These happy surroundings made it easy to create. I placed no judgement on myself. I just looked around me and recorded what I saw and how I felt. These excursions helped me to regroup and refuel. I am ever grateful.
The golden meadow
Laced with wildflowers,
The stand of pine trees
Gently sloping along
The quiet ridge,
The mountains rise
One after the other
A play of light and shadow,
Silver clouds drift
Dusting the mountaintops,
Dark Daubs of clouds
Paint the early evening sky
Above the green mountains,
Which rise like enormous waves.
Silent and still in the distance,
A sliver of moon appears
Through the mist,
A sideways smile
Brightening the dark
Step into the garden,
A flute plays lilting
Through the air,
My feet find the gravel path,
I begin to wind around
The plants and flowers:
Day lilies, raspberry thickets,
Feeling the pebbles
Under my feet,
Breathing in the flowers’
Listening as the chickadees
Compete with the flute music.
My shoulders relax,
I close my eyes.
Feel my way round and
round the circle to its center.
I do not fall,
I am held,
Small and quiet
In the calm.
This summer, I am setting my intentions on listening: listening to my body, to my friends, and to the awesome nature around me. I am being mindful of my surroundings. I am paying close attention to what is important. All around me over this past year was noise: people talking, talking, talking and me worrying, worrying, worrying. So I decided to turn everything off – no television, no radio, no endless chatter. I am becoming more discerning of what I listen to. I want beautiful noise: great books, beautiful music, uplifting messages. To do this, first I had to get very, very quiet.
I had to pay attention to life with little sound. I had to cue into my other senses and learn to become present to vibrant colors, fragrant smells, and soft textures on my skin. I found myself being grateful for these simple wonders. I began to slow down, listen to my body, become kinder to myself. I paused and learned to nourish myself with, not only good food and exercise, but with positive media. So much of the media is intended to distract and cause anxiety. I turned away from the constant barrage of news and information. I decided I should be the curator of what I wanted to listen to and take in.
In the last six weeks of using this approach, I have found calm and contentment. I don’t need the noise to keep me company. I can just look up or out or down and be present to my surroundings. I can better tune into what my husband and friends are saying. The more I listen with attentiveness, the more calm I have become. It feels good be present to others. I don’t need to talk. I don’t need to do anything. I just need to listen. Listening is enough.
As I think about returning to teaching in the fall, I think about how I will talk to children about the importance of listening. I’ve been thinking about ways to teach them to center themselves, ignore distractions, and concentrate on the thing or person right in front of them. I continue to reflect on the best ways to do this, and so this will be my summer project for school this year: tuning out the unimportant and tuning in to what is essential, to what nourishes, to what gives us positive outcomes and peace.
Recently, I went to a nearby organic market and found a colorful mural on their cafe wall. It is a perfect example of placing importance of what’s necessary for meaningful communication. I am reflecting on how I will share this with my students as a way to help them develop more thoughtful speaking and deeper listening.
Books about Listening For Adults
Emotional Intelligence: Mindful Listening by The Harvard Business School
How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish
I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships by Michael S. Sorensen
Just Listen by Mark Goulston
Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What is Sacred by Mark Nepo
The Art of Listening in a Healing Way by James E. Miller
The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction by Adam S. McHugh
The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships by Michael P. Nichols and Martha B. Straus
The Zen of Listening by Rebecca Z. Shafir
You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why it Matters by Kate Murphy
Picture Books about Listening for Children
Listen, Listen by Phillis Gershator
“I Have a Problem,” said the Bear by Heinz Janisch and Silke Leffler
The Other Way to Listen by Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnall
I am as curious about color as one would be visiting a new country, because I have never concentrated so closely on color expression. Up to now I have waited at the gates of the temple.– Henri Matisse
This summer, I am color-curious. I look out my living room window to the meadow and woods beyond. I congratulate myself for getting through the drab, bare winter into the spring that exploded with golden forsythia, and now unfolds to summer surrounded by all shades of verdant green. I watch the jays flit and dip from branch to branch and then to the rail fence. How did they get so blue? Who decided this would be a good color for them? And the cardinals – bright red males and the beautiful dusky red females – who created that hue for them? Are the sparrows, crows, and doves jealous? Do they yearn for a splash of bold color? After a little research I found that blue jay feathers contain melanin, the brown pigment which is also responsible for human skin tone. The blue color we see is caused by light scattering through cells on the surface of the feather barbs like magic. For the cardinals, their color also comes from melanin, but their red hues come from the chemical compounds, porphyrins and carotenoids. I was so mesmerized by the science of color that I wondered about humming birds – how can that miracle be explained color-wise? Well, the hummingbird have special melanosomes, structures within a cell that store and synthesize melanin. The hummingbird’s melansomes are shaped like pancake and contain many tiny air bubbles, which create a complex and multifaceted surface. When light reflects and bounces off those surfaces, it produces iridescence. And this, along with nature’s abundant wonders, is what makes humming so much more colorful than other birds.
I have always been color-curious. As a little girl, I’d marvel for hours at a new big box of 120 Crayola crayons. I wouldn’t want to use them and dull their points. I just wanted to ponder their lovely colors, sort them by hue, pair them with shocking opposites. I loved the special names given to the colors. They were like poetry to me.
The whole world, as we experience it visually, comes to us through the mystic realm of color. Our entire being is nourished by it. This mystic quality of color should likewise find expression in a work of art. – Hans Hofman
This summer, I have found myself attracted to a local garden. I am lucky that I can return again and again each week to witness the radiant changes. I’ve been taking early morning walks along the gravel paths trying to spy new vegetation. Each time, I am surprised. Abstract Expressionist artist, Hans Hofman, had once said,“ In nature, light creates the color, in the picture color creates the light.” As a photographer, I am continually playing with how color and light fill the picture, how shadows play upon surfaces, how the color is muted or brightened, how it pleases the eye.
White, black, gray
What if the world
Was just that clear?
White, black, gray.
No diving jays,
No swaying tiger lilies,
No yellow heads
Of the dandelions
Emerging from cracks
In city sidewalks.
Only a world
of shadows and light
Until we see
Until we pause to ponder
The tiny hummingbird
From wild lupines and
Until we see beyond
White, black, and gray.
In two previous blog posts, I wrote about celebrating a zen, self-care mindset: How Does Your Zen Garden Grow? and Zen Toolbox Redux. My busy life, like the lives of all modern women, scream out to me from time to time to pause, to ponder, to notice and wonder, to take a deep breath and focus on myself. What is good for me and me alone? What do I need. How can I nourish myself?
This COVID school year posed many stressors: masks, plexiglass barriers, six feet distancing, virtual, hybrid and in-person learning, weekly COVID tests (we lovingly called “Spit Tests”) and finally the vaccine. The would also posed many stressors – political upheaval and social unrest with no signs of resolution any time soon. All these things have made my students anxious, angry, and worried. So all year, I focused on helping them find calm and purpose . Right around May, I realized I had forgotten to focus on myself. I forgot to pace myself, to keep focus on creativity and nature – two areas that restore my sense of well-being. But I did hold on to faith.
We are now hurdling towards the end of June. I am trying to put the reigns on summer: “Hold up, Summer! Don’t go running wild. Slow and steady, now!” I cajole as if speaking to a spooked horse. I am just beginning to unwind, just beginning to take a long slow breath, look up into the impossibly blue June sky and be grateful for this season, for this time away from work, for this time to spend with friends, family and myself.
I’ve been telling my friends that I’m naming this summer – Project Jojo. I’m planning to do things that restore and replenish my body and spirit. When I reached the end of the school year, I found myself completely exhausted. I usually make lists of all the professional development courses I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the school projects I need to get done by August. “No!” I breathe out. No frenetic pace this summer. This time I will return to the lazy summer days of my childhood: sleep late, make beautiful salads with treasures from nearby farm stands, brew peach tea and let it steep in the sun, read nothing that has anything to do with education – a romantic novel, a mystery, a memoir, a cookbook perhaps.
I’ve been frequenting our local botanical garden and nature preserve. I am grateful that I live in a place with these natural resources. I miss walking among the trees and flowers, watching the birds flit from branches to branch and bees sip summer nectar. Immediately my shoulders drop, my heart rate slows, I find myself smiling. Slowly, ever so slowly I am re-learning the zen of summertime. And I know it is necessary. And I know it is sweet and brief.
Today, I came to the garden
And walked the gravel paths,
Among the white rhododendron
And soft pink hydrangea.
I follow the path to the burbling creek,
Which flows into the pond laden with water lilies.
This morning I face my lone and tired shadow,
Let it sink into the grass to be restored.
I continue along the path in the noon sun,
Swollen bumble bees sip nectar from the peonies.
I try to capture them with my camera;
They are too fast, dipping from flower to flower.
White clouds drift slowly in the blue,
Reflecting on the surface of the pond.
The weight of my body lifts,
Free from earthly troubles,
What cares can vex my mind?
Clear water sparkles like crystal over the rocks
You can see through easily, right to the bottom.
My mind is free now from every thought,
Nothing can ever move it.
I am here in the present forever.
The sweet summer outside has come in,
I have regained calm, I welcome peace.
Especially in these COVID days, months, years – I see an increasing need for mothering all around me. I am very attuned to people who are in need of mothering. I always have been. And I try to fill that gap. Isn’t that what we are here for? To spread some loving-kindness: to be a shoulder, an ear, a cup of tea – some sympathy. I had a world-class mother, and she taught me the first rule of mothering: “Be good to yourself.” She’d repeat it over and over again. It was the last words she’d say to me before we’d depart. Now seven years after her death, I repeat her mantra to myself, my friends, and my nieces. If you ever are going to be able to offer true loving-kindness to anyone else, you first have to give it to yourself. Listen to yourself, reassure yourself that “everything will be okay,” give yourself a hug (and maybe a piece of chocolate), and then go ahead with your day confident in the knowledge that you have your own back. You are your own best mother.
I am still in the process of perfecting this attitude. There are days that I so deeply miss my mother. I long to see her smile again. I need her skillful ear to indeed just listened – no advice, just that quiet, calmness, that deep closeness, that love. Some days I feel untethered. I don’t know how I’m going to continue this uphill journey. I push away the anxiety with small firm shoves, but it comes back. It always comes back. The only remedy I find is my mother’s whispering voice: “Be good to yourself, Jo. Be good to yourself. Remember.” So I think about all the ways I can be good to myself, and I follow them. I am learning to be gentle with myself, to be in the moment, to enjoy the small things, and to be open to tiny miracles. They are indeed all around me, and I’m beginning to follow contentment.
When I was a child, I’d fret about what I could give my mother to show her that I loved and appreciated her. I spent entire Aprils trying to figure out what I could say, do, or buy that would show her my love. In the end, I think all she wanted was quiet, calm – somebody to listen. I should have given that to her more often. I should have been a better mother to her. So now, I sit with myself quietly, and I find moments in the day to mother other people – to listen, to offer support, to remind them to be good to themselves. It is the best way I can honor my mother’s memory.
I take another glance
at my alarm clock,
It's four in the morning.
Panic sets in -
I take a breath,
Remember it will be okay,
I am not in danger,
I will not die yet,
I breathe in
And out deeply,
Slowly curl on my side.
I miss my mother, my Vivian.
Ninety-one years was too short a time:
I want her back,
I want her with me,
These thoughts will not
Put me back to sleep -
I count memories.
Happy memories of my mother:
Her beautiful smile,
Her laugh, her twinkling eyes,
Vivian playing solitaire on the couch,
Vivian reading Louis L'Amour,
Vivian cutting dress patterns,
Vivian taking her daughters out to lunch
Munching on little tea sandwiches...
All is suddenly dark and calm.
I'm in a familiar restaurant,
Eating chicken salad with my mother.
She is in her mid-forties,
Always when I dream of her,
She's in her forties and happy
And beautiful and alive.
We are talking and laughing,
Walking together down a hallway
With glass on both sides.
We can see green trees
And pink blossoms.
I am so happy
Walking beside her.
She pulls out a small bag
Of green jelly candies
And offers me some.
I can taste fresh lime,
We walk and talk and laugh.
We come to a dark hallway, which opens
To a bright conference room,
I'm to give a presentation
In front of a lot of people.
I can feel the butterflies
Rise in my stomach.
I look around to get my bearings:
Giant chaffing dishes of food are set
On long tables covered with white tablecloths,
The school's director walks in
Shaking her head solemnly,
Suddenly I notice there are
no spoons for the food,
I start to panic -
I was in charge of the spoons!
My mother pats my hand
"It's alright," she says,
"We will figure out something."
Suddenly, I wake up -
I know Vivian is there
Watching over me,
I know she won't leave my side,
I see her beautiful face,
I taste fresh lime,
Take a deep breath,
Roll over and return to sleep.
This post is dedicated to my cousin, Jeanne, who is like a sister to me. This past year, she had taken care of her husband who lost his battle with cancer last week. It has been a long painful journey and though I tried to provide comfort, I knew there was little I could do to truly help her, so I did the only thing left to do – I listened. My mother would always tell me how kind and considerate Jeanne was. She appreciated Jeanne’s cards and visits. My mother made me promise to watch over her. I would have done so anyway. Jeanne has the most compassionate heart. She is one of those people who are earthly angels. Jeanne encourages me with my writing, lifts me up when I am feeling almost hopeless, and tells me stories to make me laugh. She is the best friend-cousin-sister anyone could ever have! The best offering, I can give her now are my words and my pictures. I hope this small offering brings her peace and makes her know that she is greatly loved.
Walking up the steep,
Through the cathedral
I breathe in
their vivid color
And let out a slow
I am present
To God’s glorious
Here in the garden
Spring has arisen
All is right with the world:
Squirrels feast on seeds
In the undergrowth,
Birds on the branches sing,
My soul takes flight.
The following poems are in a form I hadn’t known about until last week. Fellow blogger, Ramona, had written a recent post containing a lovely golden shovel poem, which spurred me to try this form. It is a very comforting form because the writer takes a short quote that is meaningful to her and then use it as the base of her poem. It is a seed from which the poem grows. It also takes brain power to puzzle out how to combine one’s ideas with that of the original writer’s words. The last word in each line of the poem reveals the original quote from top to bottom. I think this is a form that I will continue to play with and have my students play with.
Three Golden Shovel Poems
The Earth Laughs in Flowers. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Daffodils, hyacinths, and the
Tulips brightly bloom upon the Earth
All the green garden laughs
Exuberantly, right out loud in
A brilliance of flowers.Where Flower Bloom so Does Hope. – Lady Bird Johnson
April turns to May where
raindrops become flowers
pink, yellow, orange, purple bloom
up through the green so
quietly, so spontaneously does
this garden restore my hope.With the Coming of Spring, I am Calm Again. - Gustav Mahler
Dark clouds fill the sky with
An abundance of rain, the
Drops fall to the ground, coming
Faster and faster, all of
A sudden it’s spring -
Green and glimmering, I
Turn my face to the rain, I am
Suddenly peaceful and calm
Spring is within me again.