Writing Community

I have seen myself as a writer ever since I could hold a crayon.  I drew and wrote letters, telling stories to anyone who happened by. Usually, that person was my mother. She was a teacher and always encouraged me. She’d look at my scribbles and pictures and ask me to tell her about them.  And that would be the only invitation I needed.  I’d start rattling off some adventure with animals, the woods, and a tea party with cake. My stories always ended with cake. My father would also encourage me.  He was a poet and a writer and I think he was so proud that I loved the pencil as much as he did.  He’d read stories to me that were way above my understanding, but somehow I would take snippets of images and make them my own.  Today, my father is ninety-four years old, and he continues to send me texts telling me to read this article, or that book, and sometimes he writes me text-sized poems.  So I guess I was very lucky to have grown up with a built-in writing community.

As I grew, I often received praise and awards for my poetry.  It was the one thing I did well.  The one thing of which I could be confident.  I loved to share my writing with classmates and often teachers would showcase my stories or poems.  When I became a teenager all that changed.  I still wrote, but I didn’t share my work with anyone.  I separated myself from my parents as all teenagers must do, but I also felt that I could not share my writing and feeling with my friends. No one else in my circle wrote.  They danced, or skated, or played softball.  I felt that they would not understand.  So I wrote for myself.  It wasn’t until college that I found another community of writers.  These were women like me: English majors, readers, passionate about the world around them, full of ideas and dreams.  In my junior year, I was selected to be part of Adrienne Rich’s year-long poetry seminar.  I was excited and terrified at the same time. This was a whole new level of community.  This community was going to judge me, my writing – Was I actually the writer I thought I was?  Class after class was inspiring, Ms. Rich always pushing us to think and go beyond ourselves.  I received praise at first, and then I was summoned to Ms. Rich’s office one day.  She had been reading my work and judged it to be not serious enough.  It was full of college angst, unrequited love, and misplaced desire.  She knew I could do better, but I would have to read more widely.  I sat there small in her office.  I could not speak.  I just listened and nodded. I wrote down the people she told me to read, I stood up, I walked out the door, head bowed.  I left deflated but determined. I began to read. The one person she told me I must read – Edna St. Vincent Millay – I did not read as my single act of youthful rebellion.  I read and I wrote, but I would not read Millay. I published lots of poems in the college literary magazine, and I started a literary magazine with a group of friends when I was in graduate school, and then in my late twenties the writing began to fade away and teaching took its place. 

As a teacher, I made lots of room for my students to write.  They would fill journal after journal of their ideas and stories.  Some could write easily, filling blank pages with chapter after chapter of childhood adventure and fantasy.  Some sat there, staring at the blank page, terrified.  They were the ones who became my personal mission to support. We would start by drawing pictures first.  Then labeling the pictures.  Then telling about the pictures out loud to a friend.  Then writing something down.  We would slowly build detail, problem and solution, character’s feelings and motivation.  Slowly… slowly… slowly… For the few who had all the ideas but the pencil was their foe, I would listen to them and write down their words.  I asked high school students to become scribes to these students in their free time and watched as those relationships grew and blossomed. I began to see again the power of community.  Having someone to listen was as important to having the desire to write.  If I was encouraging countless students over the years to write, why wasn’t I writing anymore?

My answer was always TIME but I knew that wasn’t a good answer and that TIME would indeed run out.  I was forty-years-old at the time, and I knew I had to become more consistent in my writing.  I began to write children’s books and send them out to publishers.  I got rejected.  I got rejected again and again.  I got good rejections.  It didn’t matter.

I stopped writing. Or rather, I kept writing but I stopped sending out my work.  I didn’t share my work with anyone.  I became guarded.  Then when I turned fifty, I decided to return to poetry.  My husband and I would hike in the woods and he’d take photographs and I would write poetry.  It was a lovely time.  I felt good and confident about my poetry.  It came back like an old friend.  I could always count on it. And then I started reading Millay.  First, I read her biography, Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford, and then I read every one of her poems.  Adrienne Rich had been right.  And I was so wrong.  I laughed at myself.  I wish I could have tea and cake with Adrienne and tell her but she had probably known all along.

For the last fourteen years, I’ve been writing for myself and sometimes for family.  I wrote a collection of poems about my Grandpa Charlie for my mother just two years before she died.  We hugged and cried together as she read them, and I was so happy I took the time to create them.  I wrote poems for my each of my friend’s children when they were born.  I created a picture book for my cousin’s young daughter about my Aunt Jo (her grandmother) who she had never met.  I wanted her to know what a powerful person her grandmother was. I continued to write poems, took up photography too, and was generally satisfied.  Kind of. Not really. I knew I needed connection.  I started this blog a couple of years ago.  I wrote.  No one read it.  Well – yes – one person read it, my friend Molly because I knew she would be positive and encouraging.  But still I wasn’t consistently writing. 

It wasn’t until this past April that I began to write consistently. I had been reading Ruth Ayers’ blogs and books for years.  Last March, I commented on one of her posts.  I wanted to show support.  I wanted her to know there was a stranger that understood.  To my surprise, Ruth responded to my comment and invited me to be part of her online writing community, SOS – Sharing our Stories. That day happened to be my 64th birthday. I wrote Ruth back and told her how much her words and invitation meant to me, and I began to write.  To write consistently.  To think of myself as a writer again.

And I began to step out and share my writing.  Each week, when I publish a post, I send it to a small group of friends and family. The women who post on SOS have also become my readers and I am so thankful for them.  I love reading their posts and am inspired by them.  We are a group of strong women who love to write.  We write about family triumphs and tragedies, we write about gardens and the discovery of grass spiders, we write about the joy of playing at seaside with a beloved nephew, we write about teaching, we share favorite recipes, and we write about our dogs and our favorite shoes.  We write and that is what’s important.  We write, and I am so grateful.

A Writer’s Dilemma

What is a simile

For the rainbow that forms

Beneath the waterfall

At the light of day?

What is a metaphor 

For the red bird

That hops hopefully

Among the bare brambles?

How to personify 

The indomitable, presence

In the morning sky

Announcing the day?

How to alliterate

The spider’s web glistening

High between forked branches

Overlooked and undiscovered?

The writer is left with ancient, brittle words

Which fall to her feet

And break and crack

Into sharp, uneven pieces.

Bending, she tries to salvage

One rough fragment,

One simple thought 

To set free upon the page.

The next poem was written as a response to e.e. cummings’ poem, Song I.

I love his work. He helps children think about and gives them permission

to play with words.  And as I’ve said before, it is always a good idea

to end with cake:

I have joined an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

Song of the Sky: Some Thoughts on Clouds

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

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

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

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

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

Song of the Sky

Stieglitz photographed the clouds

Looming over Lake George,

Snapping hundreds of frames for hours:

Stratus, cumulus, or nimbus,

Stark white against deep blue,

Billowing out on a summer’s day.

Georgia! Get my camera!

He’d bark at O’Keefe.

Dutifully she’d place the Graflex

In his cold hands,

And sit with him on their porch

Looking out over the lake,

Watching massive thunderheads

Loom on the horizon

Shifting and rolling

Unfolding like flowers

Open to the grace of heaven

And then the rain came

Pouring down, relentless,

Dancing on the surface of the lake,

Soaking the dry earth,

Drenching the tall trees,

Reviving her weary spirit.

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.

Memory is Hunger

Memory is hunger. When I read this recently, I paused, I underlined it, I wrote notes beside it in pencil. I’ve been concentrating on Hemingway this summer, and this quote came from his memoir, A Moveable Feast, about his time in Paris in the 1920s with his first wife, Hadley.   It is Hadley who says these words as they reminisce about shared experiences: “There are so many sorts of hunger.  In the spring there are more. But that’s gone now.  Memory is hunger.”

This summer, during this COVID crisis, my sister, cousin, and aunt often have running text dialogues that start in the morning and span into the afternoon, since we have not seen each other in months. These conversations always begin with a memory.  Often about our childhoods.  Often about my grandfather, Charlie.  The memory starts simply with one of us stating, “I remember thus and so.” Then each of us takes turns filling in details.  Most of the time, I read their descriptions one after the other, after the other, responding last.  Being the youngest, I find that their memories trigger my own, and I’m able to paint a more sumptuous picture of those times with him. 

Charlie had a large yard with a huge cherry tree, a grape arbor, a small garden, and several fig trees.  As with everything, he took meticulous care of these treasures.  Often when I’d visit in the summer, Charlie would be sitting in the shade.  A low table would be set before him with a fat watermelon, a platter, and a knife.  He would cut thick wedges and offer them to us as we sat to join him and talk.  Cherries, concord grapes, fresh figs, melons – all these remind me of Charlie and influence the way I cook and eat. All of these bring me comfort.  Summer would not be summer without these.

Indeed, both of my grandfathers kept gardens.  My Grandpa Tony had an amazing green thumb.  He had an apple tree on which he grafted a pear branch so that he could have two fruits on one tree.  I always thought he was magic. On his postage stamp-sized garden, he grew corn, tomatoes, squash, beans, cucumbers, spinach, lettuce, and all manner of herbs: rosemary, mint, oregano, and basil.  It is the basil that triggers the most memories for me.  Every time I smell basil, Tony’s face comes into my mind.  The smell of basil makes me smile, and I am home again. Ah…Tony! There he is bending to pick the ripest tomatoes, snapping off some long beans, taking a basil leaf and rubbing it gently, holding his hand up to my nose. “Smell,” he commands, and it all comes flooding back.

This summer, my 94-year-old father (Tony’s son) and I have weekly phone conversations.  We talk about his health, bad news, good books, but it is food that dominates our conversations.  My father does not keep a garden, but he still lives by himself and cooks his own meals.  In fact, he cooks for his housekeeper, his guitar teacher, and his young neighbors.  As much as he loves to read and write, I think he loves cooking more.  He is always inventing new recipes. Some of my most joyous memories of my father are our conversations about food. I want to write a cookbook with him where we start with basic ingredients like chickpeas and black olives. Then each of us would make recipes from these simple ingredients and see how diverse and inventive our meals could be. 

Usually, my summers consist of traveling north to New England and Canada. Always, they consist of finding and trying new foods.  Last summer in Montreal, I found so many wonderful places: gluten free bakeries, cafes, and tea shops (The Art of Cookies and Ming Tao Xuan). I miss traveling and making new food discoveries. So besides concentrating on Hemingway, I have been concentrating on many memorable meals for myself and my husband – always starting with simple, fresh ingredients. Here are three recipes inspired by three simple summer fruits: figs, watermelon, and apricots.

Fresh Fig, Ricotta, & Honey Toast

 Ingredients:

4 slices of your favorite bread

½ cup part-skim ricotta cheese

2 fresh figs sliced lengthwise

2 teaspoons honey

Directions:

  1. Toast bread.
  2. Spread ricotta cheese on toasted bread.
  3. Top with sliced figs.
  4. Drizzle with honey.

Note: The figs I use in this recipe and which are the most popular where I shop are Brown Turkey figs.  They are brownish-purple in color. Choose soft, plump fig with bent stems.

Watermelon Summer Salad

Ingredients:

¼ cup fresh Basil

4 cups Watermelon, scooped into 1-inch balls

¼ cup olive oil

2 teaspoons lime juice

1 cup Ricotta Salata, crumbled

1 ½ tsp salt

Directions:

  1. With a melon baller scoop watermelon into 1-inch balls.
  2. Place basil leaves on top of each other and roll tightly into a log. Slice lengthwise into thin ribbons.
  3. Combine basil slices and watermelon in a large bowl.
  4. Mix lime juice, olive oil and salt together in a small bowl
  5. Pour over watermelon and basil. Toss to combine.
  6. Chill salad before serving, at least 30 minutes.

Note: Ricotta Salata differs from ricotta in that it is a hard cheese from Sicily.  It has the consistency of feta cheese, but with a milder, creamy texture and a nutty taste.

Apricot Crisp

Ingredients:

4 cups apricots, coarsely chopped 

2 Tbsp granulated sugar

¾ cup light brown sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

¾ cup old fashioned oats

¾ cup almond flour

½ cup sliced almonds

½ cup cold unsalted butter, diced into small cubes

pinch of salt

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.  Butter square baking dish.
  2. In a mixing bowl, add chopped apricots and granulated sugar. Stir to combine, then transfer to prepared baking dish.
  3. In a separate mixing bowl, add topping ingredients (brown sugar, cinnamon, oats, almond flour, sliced almonds, salt, and diced cold butter).  Use a pastry cutter to cut the butter into the oat mixture.
  4. Spread topping over apricots in baking dish, and gently pat to even it out.  
  5. Bake 40-50 minutes, until golden brown and bubbly.
  6. Serve warm, top with ice cream if desired, and enjoy!

Note: One summer in Rome, while staying with friends, I took total advantage of their apricot tree, which happily supplied me with a surfeit of this golden fruit.

Every child needs a champion.

Ernest Hemingway famously wrote, Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. This is mine: Every child needs a champion.  As the world seems to be spinning off its axis, this statement is especially true.  Children need champions – people who help them feel safe, cultivate their curiosity, and instill hope.  I became a teacher because I wanted to be a champion for young people.  I have been blessed that I have been able to do this important work for the last forty-two years. So blessed.

But I am by far not the only one. Rita Pierson was an energetic, dynamic, educator, who spoke passionately about being a teacher champion.  Her TED Talk – Every Kid Needs a Champion – is so inspiriting.  She exclaimed, “Every child deserves a champion: an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists they become the best they can possible be.” As I listened to her speak, I nodded my head in agreement.  Yes, yes, yes, that is such a powerful statement!  I believe that connection is the strongest foundation we can provide to students and their parents.  When building that connection during my years of teaching, I was never disappointed; it always paid off – parents trusted and students blossomed.  Rita quoted Dr. James P. Comer, Associate Dean of the Yale School of Medicine. Comer stated that, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”  Comer developed the School Development Program (SDP) model that helps teachers understand the link between development, academic learning and the preparation of students for adult life.  Rita explained, and I can attest to the fact that, kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.  I purposefully created positive connections with my students, making them and their own learning my central focus for the year, and sometimes that focus would last many, many years.  I am still in contact with some students I’ve taught over thirty years ago.  It is so rewarding to see them grow into happy and creative adults. 

This approach is what I call an “I SEE YOU” mindset, a term taken from Leon Logothetis, who created the Netflix series, The Kindness Diaries.  I had the opportunity to hear Leon speak in person this winter, pre-COVID.  He was so inspiring.  What struck me was his one true sentiment: “As a kid I felt very disconnected.  I felt very depressed.  I felt no sense of purpose and to be quite honest, I didn’t feel seen at all.” Despite that, Leon grew up to become a successful London broker. Although he had financial success, he continued to feel unmotivated and depressed. Leon decided to turn in a new direction. He quit his job and began to travel all over the world connecting with people through the sheer simple act of kindness. His life work is now to talk about the importance of connection. He attests that human interactions have an amazing healing power.  Throughout his presentation, I cried – because he would look out into the crowd, and I swear he was looking right at me, and he could “see” who I was.  I know it seems preposterous, but I instantly felt connected and inspired.  Kindness was a tenet I knew well, and it was affirming to be reminded of its importance.

Early in my life, I was lucky to have a champion.  He was my maternal grandfather, Charlie. He was the model of quiet, caring and unconditional love.  Charlie looked after me full-time when my mother made the decision to go back to school to become a teacher.  I spent wonderful long days at my grandfather’s house.  He never once got impatient.  He was a tall man with a soft deep voice, and he always, always expressed how much he loved me.  He told me all the things I was good at doing, and he helped me to learn things I did not yet know.  I didn’t have to be anything or anyone else.  I was me, and Charlie let me know that that was enough.  It is those experiences with Charlie that shaped me as a teacher.  He was an incredibly strong and positive role model. I was fortunate to have him in my life, even if it was for just a short time.  That short time made its mark indelibly on my heart and my path in this world.

Breakfast of Champions

According to Grandpa Charlie,

The breakfast of champions

Consisted of black coffee,

Rye toast and butter,

And a soft-boiled egg

In a mint green egg cup –

Tap, tap, tap..

He sliced off the top of the egg,

Dipped his spoon into the golden goo

And smiled.

Looking over at me

Above his dark rimmed glasses,

Grandpa handed me a tall glass of Tang,

The astronaut’s orange juice,

Two soft-boiled eggs –

Chop, chop, chop…

He crumbled buttered saltine in a small white bow,

The delicate rim decorate

With petite blue flowers and a tiny chip.

Grandpa turned the smooth side toward me,

Pushed it gently across the table,

Then he returned to his newspaper,

As I took an inventory of the kitchen:

Trying to remember every warm inch,

Then I’d take account of the textures and flavors

On my spoon: salty, sweet, crunch, smooth –

We’d sit together reading, thinking, eating,

Just an old man and his granddaughter

Starting the day off right.

Red Plaid Hunting Cap

The cold’s set in,

My grandfather shrugs on

His heavy red plaid hunting jacket,

Pulls on the matching cap,

And take my small mittened hand.

We head out the door

And walk towards town.

Grandpa points periodically

To the broken sidewalk,

So I won’t trip.

This is our morning walk

To buy the paper or milk,

Or a crusty loaf of bread,

Down tree-lined streets

We go hand in hand.

Watermelon Summer

On a hot summer night,

Fireflies float through the yard

Like stars you can hold in your hand.

A large, wooden table

Is set under the willow tree

And the big, green-striped

Melons lie ready, waiting.

As Grandpa Charlie slices

Thick, red wedges.

Eager hands grab two at a time,

Soon the table is covered

With sticky, pink juice.

Seven cousins sip and slurp,

Tossing rinds into a pile,

Spitting the shiny, black seeds

At each other and laughing,

The sweetness of summer

Dripping from our chins.

Too Soon Taken

When I was seven

Charlie died.

I still don’t understand

How and why he died.

Too soon take from us –

He was my superhero,

He was my champion,

I was his curly-head Josephine,

His beloved granddaughter.

All these long years

I’ve missed him,

Glimpses of memory

Float by like wispy dreams,

I try to hold one –

Thick, shining silver hair,

Large, rough gentle hands,

Quiet love,

My eternal protector.

When All Else Fails – Finger Paint!

Whenever I’m stuck in my writing, whenever I feel like I’m not sure what to write about, I look on my bookshelf, choose a title, and start reading.  Then in the quiet, after a little while, a miraculous thing happens – I begin to get ideas.  I begin writing in my head.  Sometimes there are so many ideas that I don’t know which one to focus on first. 

This happened to me last week, while I was reading Jordan Shapiro’s book, A New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World. He is such a fast thinker – going from one idea to the next, making connections at lightning speed – Greek philosophy, gaming, systems theory, divorce – they all go together in one wonderful coherent whole.  How does he do that?  He uses metaphors and makes images in readers’ minds so they remember concepts.  He brilliantly persuades us that there is nothing to fear about our children’s obsession with technology. In fact, it is a crucial tool that will continue to evolve. Throughout the book, he makes a case for viewing digital devices as beneficial rather than toxic.  He quotes Heraclitus of Ephesus who asserted that “Life is flux,” or the only thing humans can count on is that everything changes. And so for those of us who are confounded by the new technology our children are pursuing, think about that during Socrates’ time, he considered the written word as cutting-edge technology.  Socrates believed that words on the page were going to ruin peoples’ memories. We all have nostalgia for our childhoods, we all want to return home, and pursue simple pleasures.  The thing is that our children are creating their own simple pleasures and much of it revolves around technology. And that is okay – that is what makes the world go round – that is change – that is life.

In his chapter, “The New Language Arts,” Shapiro connects prehistoric cave painting, the invention of finger paint, Aristotle’s concept of the soul, and Steve Job’s realization that everything will be within reach of our fingertips. I loved this section of the book, because as an ELA Curriculum Coordinator, it made me think about teacher reading and writing in a new way.  What exactly can technology add to learning to read and write?  How is the process of writing enhanced?  What can students do with technology that engages their imagination and creativity.   I especially enjoyed reading about Ruth Faison Shaw, who invented finger paint.  Yes, a woman invented finger paint! When I did a bit more research about Shaw, I found out that we had something in common! We both worked at the Dalton School in New York City.  Ruth was there in the 1930’s, and I worked there in the 1990’s and early 2000’s – about sixty years apart.  I wish I had known about her work then, I would have scoured the archives and found out more about her.  From my small amount of recent research, I found out that before she taught at Dalton, Ruth set up a school in Rome in the 1920’s, and that’s when she got the idea for her finger paint by watching a child smear iodine on a wall.  Ruth believed that “Creative work must come from the imagination and personal experience. Your imagination, which directs your hands, will lead you to produce something individual and representative of you.” She came back to the states, taught at Dalton, and wrote a book in 1934 called Finger Painting: A Perfect Medium for Self-Expression.  (I immediately scooped up a copy and was lucky that I found one in good condition.  I am eagerly waiting for its arrival!) Shaw’s ideas on the creative process inform education for the future.  As Shapiro states, parents and teachers should view educating children with a Both/And Mindset. In the 20th century children smeared paint as a means of self-expression, and now in the 21st century – children, with a swipe of a fingertip against a screen, can also express themselves in productive and meaningful ways.

Several years ago, I wrote an article about fostering curiosity and imagination. I described how I went through the process of integrating visual arts, music, movement, and drama into curriculum for early childhood and elementary students. I truly believe that creative expression, in all forms, nurtures growing minds and helps children develop a sense of self that allows them to become independent learners and critical thinkers.  Today, I would include all the ways technology has become another tool children can access from their creative toolbox.  Instead of having a fixed mindset about the limitations of technology as a means of self-expression, let’s open it up. Let’s ask ourselves: How can coding lead to poetry? How can Scratch help tell a story?  How can Procreate make our learning visible?

This summer, I decided to give myself sometime in the Painting Playground.  I have created space in my week where I can experiment with paper, pencils and paint. The emphasis is on play not product. This week, I painted with my fingers to return to the process of creating on the page. Then I added some designs with black markers.  They are not perfect works of art, rather they are representations of playing on the page.  I was so focused while doing this work, I dove in and was in the flow for a good hour and half: I made “mistakes,” ripped up paper, spilled water, got my fingertips dirty. It was the most self-fulfilling activity I did all week.  I cannot wait to return!

If you are interested in finding out more about finger painting, try this book by Iris Scott – Finger Painting Weekend Workshop: A Beginner’s Guide to Creating Brush-Free.

Magic in the Middle

 

I am in love with words.  I don’t know when it happened.  It might have started with “Mama.” Words held meaning, and I was eager from the beginning to express myself. Writing is like breathing to me – I cannot differentiate one from the other.  When I go long period without writing, it’s like I’m holding my breath and turning blue.  And I am.  I am literally turning blue.  I am suffocating.  A little piece of my spirit dies when I don’t write.

Here are fifteen of my favorite words right now:

  1. Aquamarine
  2. Acrobat
  3. Always
  4. Breath
  5. Curious
  6. Journey
  7. Lopsided
  8. Magical
  9. Mud-luscious
  10. Perpendicular
  11. Puddle-wonderful
  12. Puzzlement
  13. Serendipitous
  14. Tangential
  15. Whisper

Number 9 and 11 are words invented by the poet E.E. Cummings in his poem “in just,”which is one of my favorite poems because it is clear that words are Cummings’ playground, and he loved swinging and sliding from one to the other. I’m intrigued when poets/writers create new words to show unique images.  As I grow older, I sometimes forget a word I need for a moment.  I start thinking and thinking and thinking. And I come up with a word, but it isn’t the word I intended.  Then all of a sudden, the right word pops into my head and I realize that both the right word and the wrong word rhyme.  I chuckle instead of becoming upset, because I take it as a sign that I am a true poet and words matter, even – especially the wrong words.

Ruth Ayres wrote recently, “Finding magic in the middle of living.”  When I read her words, I said aloud, “YES, YES, YES!  That is what POETRY is to me!” It is pure magic and it begins with stringing words together: working and playing and putting them together like an intricate puzzle. You set that last piece in place, sit back, smile, and see the whole wonderful image before you.

Number 14 – TANGENTIAL. I have so many thoughts in my head at the same time that sometimes I think I may explode.  Nothing is tangential in my mind, but to others it may not appear so.  Everything, for me, is connected to something else.  This is a wondrous world, and we are connected in ways that are both mysterious and serendipitous.  When we least expect it, someone reaches out – a stranger, a poet, a friend, someone you knew long ago – and steps into your story. Words are the placeholder, the keeper of memories.  They allow you to make sense of your surroundings and uncover the magic.

 

Invitations to Wonder…

Last week, Ruth Ayers invited her online writing group (SOS: Sharing Our Stories) to write about 7 small things.  Instead, I chose to write about anger.  Anger is not a small thing.  Anger is a big thing, an explosive thing.  It starts small and then grows.

As I read some members’ blog posts this week, I was reminded about the importance of simple joys.  All week, I  kept turning lists of small things over and over in my mind.  I have always been attracted to the small seemingly insignificant things: stop to notice the dandelion blooming between the cracks in concrete.  I’m a photographer, and so as I make my way through a mountain pass or a city street, my eye is always on the small things that most people would miss.  Those small things aren’t always aesthetic or beautiful, they were just common, ordinary things.  In their ordinariness lies their unique importance.

Poet, Valerie Worth, wrote a book for children called All Small.  I’ve used her poems to teach children to notice the wonders of small things.  Small IS beautiful.  The world consists of countless small things and those small things are what what makes the world an incredible place of wonderment.

As I made those lists in my mind of small things, as I reflected on a selection of small items, I thought about the work of Basho, the 17th century Japanese poet who was a master of haiku – the 3 line poem of 5-7-5 syllables.

                                                  The old pond.                                                                                                                                           A frog leaps in.                                                                                                                                        Sound of the water.

                                                   **************

                                              Their own fire                                                                                                                                          Are on the trees,                                                                                             the fireflies Around the house with flowers.

 

I decided to try my hand at some haiku for this last week of April, focusing on the small all around me.  I offer these seven small things to you now.

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Apple blossoms pink                                                        Branches tap on my window                                        A burst of bright spring

 

 

 

 

 

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Here pinecones scatter                                   

Among the gray-green bracken                     

Thorny and silent

 

 

 

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Petals on petals

Circular meditation

Center holds beauty

 

 

 

 

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Salt, sand, surf meets shore

Shells in pink light perfect                                         

Curves – one to another

                                                                                                             

 

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Perfect sculpted fur                                            Squirrel’s not camera shy                                   Swishes his puffed tail

 

 

 

 

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Egret stands alone

Graceful curved neck – peaceful

Alert – swish of fish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poet Found: Ross Gay

Back in February, I bought a slim volume of poetry because I loved the cover – a bright floral abstract and the title, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay.  I flipped to the first page – a poem about figs.  Figs – my Grandpa Charlie’s favorite and my favorite too.  I often splurge and buy a basket of them when they are in season, slice them in half and enjoy them twice as long, not sharing a single one of them with anyone!  All to myself – those figs are my treasure.  So yes, I knew I would love this book.  But of course, in my true inconsistent fashion, I forgot about the book before I read all of it, and it became wedged between my countless notebooks on my my bookshelf.

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude

Last week, as I was ready to go off on vacation, I was looking for a sweet summer read. I pulled out the book, returned to the figs and was mesmerized. I read on and on trying to uncover the rhythm, welcoming the repetition, wondering how this young, gay, Black professor from Youngstown, Ohio composed words in lines I wished were my own. I invite you to dip into the nectar of his words.

Gay takes mundane things: buttoning his shirt, sleeping in his clothes, drinking water from his hands and creates a cadence you can’t help but read aloud and wonder: “How does he do that?” Something about the arrangement of his words and the sounds he created encouraged me to read his words aloud.  There is something so powerful – not just in the images, but in the sounds in composed. I read the book cover to cover, and over and over, trying to get his genius to repeat in my brain. Rereading his words opened the floodgates of sorrow and beauty, and I began to write poetry again. For this, I am grateful.

Room 109                                                                                                                                                by Joanne L. Emery

The hotel used to be a sturdy and elegant bank,

On a street corner in Old Montreal:

A historic landmark, a fortress now for art:

Warhol, Indiana, Hirst, Magritte, Miro –

And there in the gilded frame

Against the pale yellow wall,

Monet’s garden peaks out:

Corner of Garden at Montgeron

Peaceful greens and blues,

Speckled pinks and dappled yellows –

Century-old paint

Brushed into being

To soothe me as I sit

In the yellow chair by the window

Anticipating sunlight.

 

 

 

 

 

Being Present to Joy

My colleagues worry about not having time enough to teach.  They have so much content they need and want to cover.  As a curriculum coordinator, I create tons of documents – benchmarks, scope & sequences, lists of standards by grade level to make sure we don’t miss teaching one single skill or strategy.  This is all well and good.  In fact, this is our job: to give our students a quality education.

However,  as I observe many classrooms, I’m realizing that we certainly cover lots of material and teach a myriad of skills, but we often forget the joy of learning.  Often, we cannot find time for stopping and laughing and celebrating what we’ve accomplished.  Many of us squeeze in as many skills and strategies as we can and are grateful that we complete them so we can check them off our lists, our every increasingly long lists.  We’ve forgotten how to be present to a children’s sense of wonder, a student’s newfound knowledge, someone’s struggle with a difficult concept and then – click – her instant understanding.  When we are in a constant hurry, we miss these things.   This view was noted in an October 12, 2013 blog post by Pernille Ripp: “I stopped telling them what to do and waited for them to figure it out.  Sure I ended social studies 4 minutes before I normally do, but we still got through it, they still had the time they needed, and at the end of the day we walked out as the first group in our building with smiles on our faces.”  It is crucial that when students and teachers walk out of their schools that there are smiles and a feeling of achievement – a day well spent.”

Recently,  I was witness to classroom joy during an activity I designed.  Every November, we read aloud Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet to our 2nd grade students.  The book is about the work of Tony Sarg, who was the first person to create the Macy Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons. After the students listened to the story and watched a slide show about Sarg’s life and accomplishments, the girls were tasked with creating their own parade balloons using paper, glue, scissors, and lots of imagination.  Each year,  I marvel at the ingenuity of these young students as their balloons take shape: unicorns, pandas, a cube, floating ballerinas, griffins, and more imaginative creatures.

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During our balloon making workshop, as the girls were cutting, glueing, and revising their designs, they spontaneously broke into song,  singing in harmony “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music. No one told them to start singing.  They just were happy creating their balloons and began to sing as they worked.  Their classroom teacher and I smiled at each other and watched as they continued to work productively.  It’s in these moments of joy that children truly learn.  There were so many skills and strategies that the girls were applying and using.  They were right in the midst of what Lev Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development (ZPD), and what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow.” It is this optimal condition that we want all students to attain for it promotes independent thinking and motivation.  As Ellin Oliver Keene notes in her book, Engaging Children: Igniting a Drive for Deeper Learning K-8, “Engagement…  is characterized by feeling lost in a state that causes us, on one hand to forget the world around us, to become fully engrossed. On the other hand, when engaged, we enter into a state of wide-awakeness that is almost blissful. We want to dig more deeply into our reading or listening or learning or taking action; we allow emotions to roll over us; we’re eager to talk with others about an idea—we’re even aware of how extraordinary or beautiful those moments are.”

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I urge all teacher to be open to those joyful moments.  Embrace them, make time for them, and realize that within joy lives true engagement, motivation, and life-long learning.

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Books for Teachers:

Mindfulness for Teachers by  Patricia A. Jennings

Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators by Elena Aguilar

Practicing Presence by Lisa J. Lucas

Teach Happier by Sam Rangel

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu

Books for Children: 

All My Treasures: A Book of Joy by Jo Witek

Anna Hibiscus’ Song by Atinuke

Augustus and His Smile by Catherine Rayner

Double Happiness by Nancy Tupper Ling

Every Little Thing by Bob Marley

Happy by Pharrell Williams

If You’re Happy and You Know it by Jane Cabrera

Joy by Corrinne Averiss

100 Things that Make me Happy by Amy Schwartz

Perfect Square by Michael Hall

Taking a Bath with the Dog: and Other Things that Make Me Happy by Scott Menchin

The Jar of Happiness by Alisa Burrows