Your Own Best Mother

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.

Dream Mother


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.
Happy Mother’s Day: Be Good to Yourself

Spring Offering

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.

Spring Prayer

Sunday morning,
Walking up the steep,
Winding path
Through the cathedral
Of flowers,
I breathe in 
Their fragrance,
Take in 
their vivid color
And let out a slow
Deep breath.
I am present
To God’s glorious
Abundance,
Here in the garden
Spring has arisen
All is right with the world:
Squirrels feast on seeds
Rabbits rustles 
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.

Spring Mosaic

We have traveled the long dark cold tunnel of winter and made it into the light! This year that journey is especially sweet.  My confirmation of spring came this week at school where first and second graders have been busy writing poetry. After reading Kenard Pak’s book, Goodbye Winter, Hello Spring, the first graders tried their hand at writing poems.   The neat and concise form is comforting to beginning writers. All students, no matter their level, felt successful creating images of winter and spring.  Here are two examples.

One of my private students, who is in 5th grade, tried here had at this poem format and created this:

The second graders focused on sound mixed with imagery.  They explored including onomatopoeia in their poems.  First, they brainstormed as a group what they see as winter turns to spring. Then they made a list of the sounds that could be heard in the springtime.  Second graders, in particular, love to play with sound. They like to get silly.  They take risks and there is a wonderful spontaneity to their poems.

The students’ poems inspired me to take a good look at the world transforming from winter to spring.  I decided to take a long deep breath. I made myself pause, look around, and notice.  I wanted to collect images that I could arrange into a collage of sorts or more aptly, a spring mosaic.  Here is what I played with this week.

Spring Mosaic

The moon appears 
Like a pearl in the morning sky,
In the woods, beneath the brown
Undergrowth, skunk cabbage
Pokes its green ears
Out of the soggy ground.
Spring peepers croak out
A morning song,
Yellow buds pop from
Tender tangles of forsythia,
White and lavender crocuses
Quietly bloom 
In their small way.

Bare branches are laced
With pink, white, yellow-green,
Cherry, pear, and dogwoods bloom.
Birds gather and scatter
Swooping here and there
Looping through the blue sky
Up toward the pastel clouds
Then landing lightly,
Visiting feeders and garden gates.
As turtles lounge on logs
Sitting end to end in the pond
Following the sun.

On the fertile surface,
Another spring is reborn.
The Earth is renewed.
A soft rain lightly falls
Slowly forming puddles,
In their reflection,
My spirit is restored.

Five Spring Picture Book Choices

  1. and then it’s spring by Julie Foliano
  2. Spring is Hear: A Bear and Mole Story by Will Hillenbrand
  3. We are the Gardeners by Joanna Gaines
  4. When Spring Comes by Kevin Henkes
  5. Worm Weather by Jean Taft

Possibility of The Blank Canvas

In his latest post, “A Crowd of Me,” Mario Perron writes about the process of beginning a new painting:

Staring at the big (30″ x 30″), white canvas is often the most stressful part of my process. How do I start? Where do I start? That very first mark is so important to me that I find myself in a battle against my fears and insecurities. A multitude of voices clamour for dominance in my head… It’s the same every time! I hear the light-speed and intensely elaborate debate between overthought and instinct, then my hand rises to the canvas and the first mark is there. When I let my mind go, the entire image starts to come into view in my imaginations and muscle-memory does the rest for guiding my hands.

This got me thinking of my own process of creating. I think a blank anything whether it is a canvas, paper, or piece of cloth – gives the artist a moment to ponder and stress.  Something about the purity of the whiteness maybe. We don’t want to put something down that is wrong, ugly, or unintended.  We want the marks, whether words, a painted image, or a quilted line, to be beautiful and meaningful and what we envisioned in our minds in the first place. With writing, the blank page is not so daunting to me.  I create ideas in my head for a good long time, I let them percolate, and then I start placing them on the page.  I’ve been doing this for about sixty years, so with practice comes familiarity and a kind of easy flow.  With canvas or cloth, I am more hesitant.  These I’ve done sporadically over the years; these hold more anxiety for me.  It’s harder to undo a stitch or a painted line.  Typing can be easily deleted, no one will ever know those awkward, ugly, simplistic words were ever there.  But the painted or stitched line is harder to remove.  There is evidence of my lack of ability permanently cast.  So I wonder how to get beyond that.  Abstraction and collage help.  Making abstract images helps free my mind and in doing so it frees my hand.  I don’t worry as much about perfection. I can just flow with the rhythm of what I’m feeling in that moment.

Black Dots on Red
Black Dots on White

Abstraction helps me get in touch with the child inside.  The young child, who hasn’t yet been touched by judgement.  Peter Reynold’s picture book, The Dot, addresses this idea of self-judgement.  In the story a young girl faces desire, hesitation, and ultimate success in making her artistic mark on the world. It’s a wonderful book about creativity and being brave making your mark.  When I do creativity exercises with children, I change the blank paper into a paper with a dot or mark or hole in it.  The paper already has an “imperfection.” Now they don’t have to worry about the first mark, it is already there.  I challenge them to take that mark and use their imagination to create a design, image, or story.  Young children don’t hesitate – they take up the challenge and just draw.  Another activity I’ve done with students after reading Reynold’s book is to have them work together to create a mural using colorful self-sticking dots and.  It is wonderful to see that there was a time we didn’t self-edit.

Start with a dot and then freely explore.
Composing with Dots

I often take an art mistake and incorporate it into a collage.  A couple of months ago, I began dabbling again with watercolors.  What was in my mind did not translate to the page.  I was disappointed.  I looked at the work again and decided I loved the colors, but not the image, so I cut the image into strips and woven them together into two squares.  I liked how the watercolor was transformed and put it a way to use in a collage.  This week, I took a twelve-inch square canvas, painted an undercoat of lemon yellow, yellow ochre, and vermillion.  After that layer dried, I added a coat of green (a mixture of white, sap green and viridian).  While that coat was still wet, I drew on top of that layer with rubber shaping tools creating a design of swirls and dots. I let my hand move freely and added bits of flourish as I saw fit. I let that layer dry and then placed my collage objects: the two woven watercolor squares and six wooden hand-painted buttons.  I spent some time assembling and dissembling until I like the composition. Then I will permanently attach the pieces by sewing the into place of the canvas.

Process of Making Garden Trellis

Instead of focusing on purity, I focus on possibility.  It’s not important to me if the strips are the same width or that the weaving is not perfectly straight.  To me, these imperfections make the work more interesting. What is beyond the canvas, page, cloth that I can imagine into being?  How can I express what I’m thinking and feeling?  How can I connect?

Picture Books That Stimulate the Imagination

Twenty Books and More that Join Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon Creative Tradition:

  1. A Little Bit of Oomph! by Barney Saltzberg
  2. Also an Octopus by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
  3. Art by Patrick Mc Donnell
  4. Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg
  5. David Wiesner Books: Art & Max, Flotsam, Free Fall, June 29, 199, Tuesday…
  6. Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis
  7. How to by Julie Morstad
  8. Hum & Swish by Matt Myers
  9. Journey by Aaron Becker
  10. Lift by Minh Le and Dan Santat
  11. Max’s Castle by Kate Banks and Boris Kulikov
  12. Niko Draws a Feeling by Bob Raczka
  13. Not a Box by Antoinette Portis
  14. Not a Stick by Antoinette Portis
  15. Perfect Square by Michael Hall
  16. Peter H. Reynolds Books: The Dot, Ish, Skycolor, Happy Dreamer…
  17. The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle
  18. The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken
  19. What if? by Samantha Berger
  20. Windblown by Edouard Mancea

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. 

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.
   

Magic & Imagination in a Box

When I was a little girl, my older sister and I would spend hours sorting and playing with my mother’s large tin button box. The buttons were as different as snowflakes.  My sister and I spent hours looking for pairs or triplets. Sometimes we were successful, but mostly we intrigued by the uniqueness of each button – almost the same but just a shade different.  I can still see them in my mind: the round ivory button imbedded with light yellow daisies; the large round pale pink button embossed with small rectangles; the heavy gold ones etched with anchors and ropes; the tiny pastel buttons like delicate seashells. We would line them up, stack them, create mosaics, trade them, and then tenderly scoop them up and put them away for another day.  Tender. That’s a good word for how I feel about those times spent imagining and playing with my sister.  We played like this well into our teenage years.  When we actually used the buttons for sewing projects, I think we both did so reluctantly.  It was like saying good-bye to an old friend.  These small ordinary objects were precious to us.  They signified a magical time, a respite from the real world.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I encountered Gertrude Stein’s poem, “Tender Buttons.”  It is a long abstract, experimental poem that unwinds and wanders in and out of common objects, but there is a certain glittering magic within. Here’s a bit of it.

Tender Buttons

… A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

GLAZED GLITTER.

Nickel, what is nickel, it is originally rid of a cover.

The change in that is that red weakens an hour. The change has come. There is no search. But there is, there is that hope and that interpretation and sometime, surely any is unwelcome, sometime there is breath and there will be a sinecure and charming very charming is that clean and cleansing. Certainly glittering is handsome and convincing…

And then as a young woman working in New York City, I came across a brick storefront one day on the Upper East Side called Tender Buttons.  I spent many a Saturday afternoon gazing at the boxes full of buttons.  I began my own collection of buttons, not to actually use, but merely to sit with and marvel. Diane Epstein, the owner of the shop had once described the buttons as “Each one is like a tiny evocative event.”  And that is precisely how I saw my childhood buttons.  The deep, sea green ones, the tarnished silver ones, the ones in the shape of shiny horns – all told a story – all held a secret. Unfortunately, Tender Buttons closed its doors permanently in 2019.  All the more grateful I am that I have kept a small collection of those buttons.

Thinking about my mother’s button box made me realize how important small common objects are for children: bottle caps, erasers, doodads – all manner of ephemera. They collect a myriad of these things in their desks at school.  I have confiscated thousands of tiny pencils, paper clips, and beads in my time as an elementary school teacher.  These treasure troves are important to children.  They are connectors to the imaginary.  They are a passport from the real world to an imaginary one.  They are indeed important.  In fact, they are essential. This is more and more evident in the time of COVID, as my students are going to school in-person behind masks and plexiglass, having to remain in their seats most of the day.  The urge to play is palpable.  They must sit, but they can still create with their hands. And to my delight they do! They fold paper, link paper clips, use great lengths of tape to transform their school world.  

A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues showed me the great gallery of objects her 4th grade students had created.  I decided the 4th graders each needed a box of objects with which to create.  I talked to the girls about my idea and they enthusiastically gave me ideas of what objects to include in the boxes.  One student dubbed the boxes fidgetneering boxes.  I loved that name and promptly drove to my local dollar store to buy the boxes and label them with the students’ names.  Then I filled the boxes with all kinds of childhood treasures from The Wonder Lab, our school’s maker space: straws, yarn, popsicle sticks, paper tubes, Styrofoam balls, bags of buttons, bags of beads, pipe cleaners, etc. This week, I distributed the boxes to the girls.  It was so gratifying to see them uncover the boxes and sort through the objects.  Their excitement was electric.  It was a rainy day, a great day to play and ponder.  Off they went for fifteen minutes to design and build.  Watching them reinforced my strong belief that children (both young and old) need the opportunity to wonder and imagine on a regular basis.  I told the girls that when the boxes get near empty, I would replenish their stores.  Their reaction was like I was giving them gold.  One student exclaimed, “This is marvelous junk.  Look what I made!”  Yes, just look. Marvelous common junk made magical!

THE WORLD IN A BUTTON

The world in a button,

Spherical and hard,

Sometimes shiny,

Sometimes tarnished with age,

Holes and embellishments,

Disappointments and surprises,

Ocean blue and earthy red,

Buttons in my hands

Slipping through my fingers

Making imaginary music,

Listen.

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. 

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.