Small Wonder

September is more than half-way over.  I am beginning to settle in to my school routine: getting up early, working long days organizing student support, and coming home exhausted only to organize some more.  It sounds tedious and parts of my job are very routinized, but then there is the wonder that sneaks in every day.  The wonder from young children engaging with their world.  That I would not trade to witness for all the money the in world – honestly.  Wonder is what sustains me, what pushes me through, what is on the other side of the routines and everyday drudgery. 

I realized that I have been either going to school or teaching in a school for sixty-two years, more than half a century, most of my life!  That is indeed a long time, and I know when the time comes for me to stop doing school, it will be a hard transition.  I absolutely love school.  I love getting up in the morning, picking out a school outfit, getting to school and seeing friends,  going through my way and learning, going home to think about all that has happened in the day, and then doing it all over again until summertime greets me at the end of the school year.

Every day there is a new surprise. Every day, something I didn’t expect happens.  This is sometimes positive and sometimes negative, and whichever it is – it is always a learning experience.  My days are electric, and that’s how I like them.  This is not to say my day are frenetic and haphazard.  No, the electricity comes from learning alongside children.  I get to see the world again through that childlike lens of wonder and discovery.  It fills me with joy, and I am reminded how exciting learning something can be.

One of the best ways I know to spend my time is visiting the JPK classroom, which is home to our three-year-old students.  I started my career teaching three-year-old children, so when I enter their classroom, it is like going back in time, and I feel young again. Three-year-olds are the friendliest people I know.  They engage you from the minute they meet you and want to be your friend.  They like to share information and will tell you without any hesitation what they are doing and how it is going in their world. Even if sometimes they are shy, they are still willing to come up and quietly share what they are thinking.  They thrive on connection.

I came to help out on the first day of school.  As parents were separating from their children, I noticed one little dark-haired girl, Avery, was having trouble letting her mom go.  I sat next to her at the playdough table and engaged her in a conversation long enough for her mom to say good-bye and leave.  We continued to play with our pink playdough balls, and I asked Avery if she’d like me to make a snowman. Her face lit up with an exuberant nod.  She requested that I make snowman after snowman in various sizes. She giggled and clapped all the way through.  I encouraged her to make a snowman, but she just shook her head and said, “You do it.” We played and chatted at the table until it was time for the children to clean-up and for me to get on with the rest of my day.

The following week, I came into the JPK room to find Avery once again sitting with pink playdough.  I sat alongside her and said hello.  She gave me a big smile and commanded me to make a snowman.  I started to make one ball and stopped and said, “You know you can do this.” She shook her head.  “Yes, you can,” and I said, “I can show you.”  Avery looked up at me, and I showed her how to move her hands to make a ball. She took some playdough and tried to form a ball.  She moved her hands back and forth.  When she opened her palms, she looked down and frowned.  “It’s a snake,” she said.  I smiled and explained, “When you move your hand back and forth it turns into a snake.  When you move your hands around in a circle like this it becomes a ball.”  I made a snake and then a ball. Then I helped Avery to move her hands in a circle. I told her to put the playdough on the table and move one hand on top in a circle.  She followed my instructions and slowly removed her hand uncovering a perfect little pink ball. Her face lit up like she had just witnessed magic.  Her face was a glow of delight that spread to me and to all the other children at the table.  I wished I had taken a photo of her.  Her expression was pure joy and happiness.  I tucked that image away with me and will keep it with me to use at times when I need a boost.

A few days later, I returned to Avery’s classroom.  When I walked in the door, she looked over her shoulder and beckoned me to come see what she was doing. When I saw, my heart over-filled with complete joy.  Avery’s playdough mat had a long line of pink balls lined up one after another and stacked one on top of another like a great pink snowball wall.  I laughed and said, “Oh, you have been busy!  You know how to make snowballs now!  You don’t need me.”  Avery smiled at me, patted the chair next to her. “Sit down,” she said, “Come play.”  Who could argue with that?

I know this seems like such a small thing: a child playing with playdough, learning to make shapes.  Some people might say, “This is the way you spend your day?  You get paid for this?” And I will proudly declare, “Yes – I spend my day in joy and wonder.  I spend my day cultivating play and creativity because it is through these little joy-filled interactions that people learn and grow and invent new ways for our world to be a better place. And so to all of you I say, “Sit down. Come play.”

Avery playing practicing her new skill: PlayDough balls!

A Wall of Wonder

Reading in Wildness

I took this photo while on vacation in Maine.  I was walking by a favorite lily pond and happened upon this mother-daughter reading team lounging in a nearby meadow. The mother was reading with much gusto, taking on the voices of each character.  I don’t know what book it was that she was reading, but her young daughter was totally entranced by the story.  “Surely,” I thought to myself, “this child will grow up to be a fearless, wild reader.”  They brought a smile to my face and joy to my old teacher heart.

As a child, reading was difficult for me. I painstakingly sounded out each letter and then tried my hardest to blend the sounds into a word. Sometimes it worked, but sometimes it didn’t, and the whole process left me exhausted. However, I loved stories.  I listened to epic poems that my father would recite and fantasy classics that my mother would read to me.  I found stories to be mesmerizing.  It took me a long time to say that I loved reading. Reading was slow work, and I was a fast kid. I did not like to sit still.  I wanted the words to come fast and furious, but my mind kept me at a slow and steady pace.  I was labeled a “slow reader.”  I wasn’t dyslexic, just slow.  One of the reasons for this, I think as I look back, is that I was in love with words, so I would dawdle over passages and wonder how the author constructed such a scene.  If the author left some things to the readers’ imagination, then I would float off creating whole other scenarios in my head.  Slowly, I would land back to the book and continue where I had left off.  This certainly was not efficient, purposeful reading, but it did afford me the ability to read like a writer.  I was not a spectator as I read, I was a participant.  I took in all the words to use them again in a different way in a story of my own. Eventually, I learned to savor the slow and to know that the kind of reading I was doing was helping me become a better writer.

Recently, I found Hudson Talbott’s A Walk in Words.  Talbott was also a slow reader and in this book he explains his reading journey.  It is through drawing that Talbott came to love reading and writing.  He found that his love of drawing lead him into stories, and he began to think of reading as “word painting.” As he grew, Talbott’s curiosity won, and he was able to read at his own pace. At the end of the book, he created a Slow Reader Hall of Fame including: William Shakespeare, Joan of Arc, Babe Ruth, Sojourner Truth, Alexander Graham Bell, to name a few. Thankfully, Talbott became a picture book writer. He said that he mined books for words to use in his stories and that the ability to lose himself in books helped to spark his imagination.

When I think of it, many of the book I adored as a child were based in the wild. The book that taught me that I loved reading was the classic, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry and after that was Jean Craighead George’s masterpiece, My Side of the Mountain.  Those books helped me see past myself and to envision the kind of reader who takes chances and doesn’t give up. I slowly picked my way through the words and in the process found lifelong friends and exciting adventures.

Reading in Wildness Suggestions:

Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits by Donalyn Miller

Picture Books:

A Walk in Forest by Maria Dek

Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner

Slow Down: 50 Mindful Moments in Nature by Rachel Williams

The Hike by Alison Farrell

Tiny, Perfect Things by M.H. Clark

Wild by Emily Hughes

Chapter Books:

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha lai

Pax by Sara Pennypacker

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Wanderer by Sharon Creech

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

Forest Bathing

I have taken some time off to be in Vermont.  It is a place my husband and I  have gone for the last thirty years. I need this time to relax, heal, and ease my pain.  I am so grateful for this place.  As soon as I see the Green Mountains in the distance, I breathe deeply and feel something release inside of me.  This may be due to the wide expanse of greenery, the clouds sitting gently on the mountain tops, or the roadside laced with an assortment of wildflowers.  There are acres and acres of distance between neighbors and people still put their wash up on clotheslines.  This is a slow and peaceful place.  My eyes tell my body that I am safe; I can rest now.

I have been reading about a Japanese practice called Shinrin-yoku, or Forest Bathing. The idea is the connect with nature by walking in the woods.  By bringing all your senses to that place and being mindful, your body begins to heal itself and you feel restored.  I am practicing forest bathing every day while in Vermont.  My body is beginning to ache a little less and my mind is certainly in a better place.  I so needed this respite, and I am grateful that there is such a beautiful place nestled in the mountains.

Flowery Thoughts

These past three weeks, I have had to put my life on pause a bit to deal with pulled muscles in my lower back.  Needless to say, I am trying to develop a better relationship with pain.  My first reaction is panic, which only tightens the muscles more.  So, I breathe deeply, think of beautiful places, and try to compose poetry out of the pain.

I have needed to talk short, slow walks throughout the day to keep the muscles happy.  The more I walked, the better I felt.  Of course, I had to recognize my own limitations and not walk too long, otherwise I would be back in the pain place, and panic would set in once again.

Nature is always good medicine, and I seek to be among trees and flowers as much as I can. Nature makes me more mindful of the short time we have to enjoy this miraculous earth.  It makes me grateful to be among the flowers.  It makes me feel like I am part of something much bigger than myself.

I have what I call the “Emily Dickinson Syndrome.”  I have a habit of writing lines, stanzas, or whole poems on scraps of paper, napkins, old journal pages, or whatever is at hand. Then I forget about them and find them at a later date, often surprised by my own thinking.  I found a stanza today in a 2018 calendar in the June 25th space.  It was like my previous self was sending me a message she did not want me to forget.

The pale ,yellow tulips

On your bedside table

Bow their buttery heads,

Delicate and fragile,

Their blooms fleeting.

My thoughts turn to flowers.  They help me recover and create a more positive approach to pain.  Poetry allows me to recall times when flowers have given me momentary joy.  This settling of spirit is welcome and necessary.

Friday at the Farm

This past Friday was my last day of school and my first day of vacation.  I decided to celebrate by meeting my friend, Karen, at a local gardening shop aptly named, The Farm at Green Village.  It has a pond, acres of trails and foliage, an enormous greenhouse, and even a resident peacock.  I am not a gardener, but I love going to The Farm.  It is my Zen place, my place to unwind and breathe; my place to meet a friend and laugh.

When I arrived, Karen was already picking out plants.  She is the gardener. Her home is surrounded by flowers.  I love visiting her; sitting out on her back deck surveying her flowers, watching  bees and hummingbirds pause by the blossoms, and scolding her cat, Pepe, as he tries to catch butterflies in his claws.  It’s like a wonderful summer ballet.

We walked the aisles looking for the right flowers and hanging baskets for Karen’s home.  We marveled at the colors and types of flowers.  Karen knows many more flower names than I do.  I would love to be more garden-knowledgeable. I love reading the names off the garden tags: salvia, hydrangea, echinacea, begonia, petunia, impatience, zinnia.  Lots of lovely rolling syllables. Lots of bright and cheerful colors. We filled up two carts with flowers for Karen’s garden and planters.  I felt my body relax as I roamed the aisles of flowers, taking in their fragrance. It was like spending a morning in Eden with a friend.  It made me so happy.  What better way to start the summer.

My new favorite flowers were the Lantana.  I have admired them but didn’t know their name.  They have delicate little flowers that grow in little bunches in a variety of complementary colors. I especially loved the Sunburst Lantana.  They just make me happy when I look at them.  They remind me of flowers you would arrange for a summer tea party for the fairies or a wedding for garden gnomes.

After a couple of hours, we sat among the flowers and chatted, soaking in the morning sun. Then we headed inside to look for houseplants and planters.  This is another happy place for me.  While Karen, selected two small houseplants, I went hunting for colorful pots with my camera.  I don’t have room to collect such things, but I collect them with my camera, and that means I can keep them forever and never worry that they may break.

I roamed among all the beautiful things, clicking away in wonder of each little object: pots, statuettes, vases, mirrors, and baskets in an array of colors.  If I had a grand mansion, I would fill one wing like this full of plants and light and love.  Instead, I choose two small ceramic objects: a bunny and a turtle.  The bunny will grace my desk, and the turtle will be a present for my husband.  He loves turtles because they remind him to slow down and concentrate on what’s truly important. 

I am glad I slowed down today. I am grateful for this time with Karen, for this day among the flowers. I cannot wait until our next trek, but for now the flowers are enough.

Alone by the Sea

It’s June.  I live in New Jersey.  It’s time to “go down the shore,” as we Garden State residents say.  It’s beach time!  The last three weeks, I have trekked to the Atlantic, which is only an hour and. Half away.  The past two weeks have been crowded: throngs of people in the water, on the beach, on the boardwalks, and lining up at restaurants.  That was not the beach escape I was craving.  I am in much need of ocean meeting sky, of a blue expanse, and a summer of possibilities.

I have been fortunate in my life to have had a career that allowed me to have my summers free.  Of course, I do not count the twenty or so summers that I taught remedial English or directed summer camp.  Instead, I count the twenty summers that I had the whole twelve weeks free to explore, gather, and breathe.  I traveled, read, wrote, and met with friends. The twenty summers seem like a bright blue blur.  I’m not sure I will get the gift of twenty more summers.  This summer, I want to remember keenly: what I am thinking, what I am reading, and what changes I made happen. I know this sixty-sixth summer is important for me.

This weekend, I came to the beach on an overcast day.  The sand was wet with recent rain. Just stalwarts were laying out on bright blankets.  But there was the sea and quiet and a space for thinking.  I just finished reading Katherine May’s memoir about walking Britain’s southeast coast path, The Electricity of Every Living Thing: A Women’s Walk in the Wild to Find Her Way Home. I love her writing.  Much of what she expresses, I feel so deeply.  She wrote about the “value of being in places you love and knowing them and coming back to them.”  I have always loved the Atlantic coast (on the American side).  I have lived close by all my life. This place I know well. Some of the surroundings have changed but the sea remains the same: the salty smell, the sounds of the waves, the glint of light on the ocean. The Atlantic is where I feel most at home.  It is comforting and makes me feel connected to something larger than myself.

Alone by the Sea

It is my turn 
to walk alone
Along the boardwalk.
I am here to collect images,
To put together
My life story.
The day is quiet and clear.
After a recent rain,
The sand is dark and wet.
Some beach goers remain
On their bright blankets.
Lifeguards jog together,
Racing and playing tag 
with the waves.

I slow my steps,
Pay careful attention.
A redwing blackbird perches
above the beach roses
And sings loudly.
I bid him good-day
And continue on,
Past the reed-covered dunes,
Past the mother and young daughter
Sharing a picnic together,
Feet dangling over the boardwalk,
Holding triangles of pizza in their hands
As it drips with cheese
Into their happy mouths.

I remember moments like these.
My mother, sister, and I 
at our beach bungalow -
Sand, sun, surf.
Sinatra playing in the background
Mingled with the laughter of children.
Sailboats gliding across the bay,
Fresh laundry flapping on the line,
Lazy summer days,
Spread ahead of us 
And we took them in,
Soaked them up,
Were grateful for them,
Knew they were precious.

I look out to the Atlantic
Try to see to the end,
Where ocean meets the sky.
The horizon is dotted with clouds.
Below, there is a thin azure line.
I imagine heaven to be
in this precise place,
Somewhere out there,
Just beyond reach for now
And I am content,
Truly content.
All I need is sand, sky, sea
And an overcast day
In serene solitude.

Embracing the Process

During the last two weeks, I have had the good fortune to get back into the Wonder Studio with students.  The Wonder Studio is a little swathe of space formerly the lobby of an old Victorian building that houses some of my school’s classrooms and offices.  I created the space to give children a place to craft and have agency over their own imaginations.  I gather junk, art and craft materials, and recyclables, and then stand back to see what the girls do with them.  Wonder Studio is not a class, though the girls have begged it to be.  Studio time is granted two days a week during recess on the days that I don’t have meetings at lunchtime.

This spring, I invited the 5th graders to come back into the Wonder Studio.  They love to make messes. Today, they sang the “Clean-up Song” to me that they learned in Pre-K. They sang so sweetly and earnestly,  however they didn’t quite clean everything up.  Some of them tried to skip out without cleaning brushes or throwing away paper scraps.  I get it.  I was twelve once.  I was, I assure you – and I too loved to make messes, create, build, and imagine. And I still do.

Last week, while Laila was working on yet another new project, I observed aloud that she often created things and then abandoned them.  She looked up at me grinning.

“I know,” she said, “I love the process.” 

I laughed and agreed.  Then I asked her if I could dismantle her massive seashell sculpture so others could use the shells. She gave me her permission.  As I worked ungluing the shells, Laila started looking around the room at my materials.  She often finds things I didn’t know I had.  Soon, Laila held up a small pink plastic bowl, which was serving as a container for someone else’s small project.  I looked at her skeptically. 

“They won’t mind.  It’s not part of the project.” Laila promised. “Here,” she said as she held up a small box, “They can use this.”  And off Laila went with bowl in hand to create her next project. 

The other girls in the group spend time making bracelets, sewing patchwork pillows, decorating small boxes, or making little rooms decorated with paint, glue, and cotton balls.  Everyone is quiet and very intentional in their constructing.  I do not offer advice unless asked, and I help with construction only when the student needs assistance.  I keep my distance and my humor. Wonder Studio time is actually my time to relax and let joy come to me.  It always does, and it’s worth the mess and the cajoling to clean up.

Laila got out her favorite tool, the hot glue gun and began to adhere things to the small plastic bowl.  She found that the plastic forks did not stay on properly and then peeled them off. Next, Laila took some fat pink yarn and began to wind it onto the bottom of the bowl. She wanted to use counting bears from the math lab closet, but I told her that we couldn’t use math materials.  She frowned and began hunting for a replacement.  She found small wooden objects: an alligator, a bear, a snail, a leaf, and a heart.  As I watched this process, I was fascinated by how quick she worked and how undaunted she was when she encountered failure.  In fact, Laila didn’t think of it as failure, she was enjoying the challenge. Laila would just try something new if the first thing she thought of didn’t work.  At one point, I asked her what she was making.

With a smile, she turned and said, “A centerpiece for your desk!”

I laughed and said, “Laila – when I’m old and in the retirement home I hope you will stop by and show me photos of all the sculptures you have on exhibit all over the world.”

“I will,” Laila said cheerfully and got back to work. When it was time to clean up, she was reluctant.  I put the bowl in my office and told her that it would be waiting for her when she returned to the Wonder Studio.

Today, Laila finished her project.  She put a wooden pedestal in the center of the bowl and turned it over.  Then she glued the pedestal to a jar lid and turned it upside down.  She came over and handed it to me.

“The centerpiece for my desk?” I asked, taking it carefully into my hands.

“A lamp for your desk,” Lalia replied.

I laughed, “Of course, a lamp.  It looks just like a lamp. I am going to put it by pink teapot. Thank you.”

And with that, Laila turned back into the Wonder Studio and started another project, this time with beads.  She took hot glue and put it at the end of some string.  “This way, I don’t have to make a knot,” she said.

Human imagination continues to surprise me. After forty-two years of teaching. I’m still not sure how to teach this kind of ingenuity. The only thing I do know is to make space and step out of the way.  I know that I have to be quiet and listen.  My students always show me the way.  They know what they need.  They know when they are stuck. They know how to change their circumstances and make something new. The process is the learning, and they are totally engaged and in the flow of creating. The key is to embrace the process.

May Posies

Early spring showers have turned the landscape green with dots of pinks, yellows, and lavenders.  My corner of the world is alive with flowers, and I am immersing myself in their glory and hopefulness.  This year more than any other I need flowers and the promise of spring.  I need something to celebrate.  I am in search for beauty.

I am ever grateful to the flowers of Moggy Bottom.  It is my secret garden in close proximity to where I live.  I saunter down its gravel paths and savor the colorful sights and fragrant smells.  Walking there reassures me that spring is surely here, and summer is on the horizon.  It will be soon time for my yearly respite from school.  And though I love teaching and learning, I am in much need for a hiatus from busy. 

When I was a child, I loved preparing impromptu spring bouquets for my mother.  I’d gather them from the wildflowers that grew on the hill at the side of our home: black-eyed Susan, sweat pea, daisies, cornflowers, and buttercups.  I’d gather them in simple arrangements in jam jars or wrapped in damp paper towels tied with string.  I can still see their colors, smell their perfume, feel the calm their beauty brought to me.

Lately, I have been reading about Emily Dickinson’s life of poetry and gardening.  I hadn’t realized that the Belle of Amherst was an ardent and accomplished gardener.  Re-reading her poems, I recognize how integral a role flowers played in Dickinson’s experience of the world around her.  The garden was a metaphor for life and its complexities. She delved in deeply as a gardener would: tending plants, encouraging growth, and intimately noticing the shift of seasons. 

I wanted to delve deeply this week, focus on the flowers of Moggy Hollow, listen to what they were saying, and find a way to express what I was feeling.  I created a posy of flowers to share: trillium, lily of the valley, magnolia – delicate and fleeting like this time in spring when the first flowers bloom and then give way to summer’s abundance.