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.

Be the Flower

This has been a heartbreaking week, a gut-wrenching month: senseless violence in Buffalo and Uvalde.  Teenage gunmen destroyed lives while people shopped at a grocery store and children and teachers were busy in their classrooms teaching and learning. The rage in the minds of these individuals is unfathomable to me.  And though this blog is about literature, art, and education, I cannot let this week go by without addressing the terrible loss and helplessness I feel due to this horrific tragedy.  There must be solutions: stiffer gun control regulations, better mental health care, and stronger protection for our school and public spaces.  This saddens me deeply. What is happening to humanity?  Are we all to live locked away in our private residences with limited social contact?  What will happen to us then? As these thoughts buzzed around my mind this week, I turned to nature, as I always do, for solace – for an answer.

Connection to nature, I believe, is a source for hope, well-being and mental health.  This spring has been filled with flowers.  There are flowers blooming around our school campus,  flowering trees in my yard, and a plethora of flowers casting their spell over many local gardens.  I pass by wild irises on the roadside, their purple tongues dotted with raindrops.  I concentrate on their color and form. I wonder at such beauty, such grace, such an exquisite being, and I want to transform myself into that flower.  I want to grow where I’m planted, feel the soil beneath my feet, spread roots, shoot up tall, and blossom. 

When I began my teaching career, I worked with preschool children.  We spent much of our time outdoors in both good and inclement weather.  The children dug in the garden and were surprised when they pulled up carrots and radishes, believing there was magic in the soil.  They loved to weed, water, and harvest.  They felt control and accomplishment.  Flowers served as a respite for us, a signal to stop and take in beauty, to breathe.  The children would gather small bouquets for me of dandelions, clover, and buttercups. They would string flowers in each other’s hair and make magic potions from the bits of vegetation they collected.  Life outside was a necessary part of their growth and development.

I remember a time, when one girl brought me a lovely red tulip.  She had dissected it, separating its stem, leaves, petals and stamen.  There were tears in her eyes as she held out her hands to me, “Put it back together,” she commanded.  I looked at the flower and wondered, at first, how I could reassemble it for her.  I took the pieces from her hands and placed them on the ground making a tulip mosaic.  I knew this was not what my student had in mind.  She thought I could mend it completely and make it whole again. When I explained to her that it couldn’t be brought back to life, she cried, and I consoled her. She learned that the flower was a delicate and fragile thing, something to care for, something to admire and cherish.  And maybe flowers are part of the answer.  They have been powerfully and wonderfully made. They are a gift from God to humanity to give us strength and make us resilient.

As often happens, a book popped out a me from our school library shelf wanting to be read.  It was a new Caldecott Honor medalist, Have You Ever Seen a Flower?  by Shawn Harris.  It is brilliantly illustrated using simple tools: pencil and colored pencil. It is childlike and surprisingly powerful in its simplicity.  The girl in the story asks the reader to really think about flowers: look deeply, take in their smells, watch them with a microscopic wonder.  Watch them so closely that you can imagine what it feels like to be a flower: to grow roots, take in water, and bloom. The book reminds us to use the flower like a resource – to grow, thrive, and blossom.  Flowers help us reflect, turn inward, and respect life.

I went searching for solace this week.  I went hunting for answers.  I found them in the form of flowers and poetry. Once destroyed, lives cannot be put back together.  Some things cannot be made whole again. But I believe that the solution for violence must be in a turn towards nature, towards beauty, towards the preciousness of life.  Consider the flower.

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.

Happy Haiku to You!

It’s spring.  The first graders are trying their hand at poetry.  They scribble and draw and make images – some silly, some that will take your breath away.  That is the beauty of first graders – the child-mind at work not afraid of making mistakes.  They are intrepid and curious.  I was so excited when their teacher invited me to “teach” haiku to them.  I put teach in quotation marks because the first graders really taught me more about how they construct language than I really taught them.  Their exuberance led the way.  It energized me and made me see things anew.  Isn’t that what poetry and haiku are all about?

At first, I asked the first graders what they knew about haiku. Lots of hands went up: it’s a little poem; it has three lines; it has a pattern with 5-7- syllables.  They had been working all week learning and writing haiku. Next, we talked about how haiku is a Japanese form of poetry usually about nature.  Then, I told them about Basho, a famous Japanese poet and shared some of his poems.

Then,  I read Basho and the River Stones by Tim Myers. The story is about how the fox tricked Basho by giving him three pieces of gold for a cherry tree, but the gold turns into three stones.  Basho out-foxes the fox, because he cares most about nature and poetry.  It’s a great read aloud.  It is a good story to use to introduce haiku. 

After reading the story,  we wrote some group haikus.  First, we listed some natural things we could write a haiku about: seashells, stones, bunnies, flowers, sunshine, rain, etc. Then we made a list of how these things makes us feel: happy, sad, lonely, friendly, curious, excited. I read some of my haiku to them and we counted syllables to make sure I was keeping the haiku form.

Finally, the students got busy writing their own haikus.  They were ready to go.  No one hesitated. They took up their pencils and began to create. It is so gratifying to see how these are able to stretch words out, count syllables and think about meaning and emotion. The haiku form helps them keep focused and since it is short, it is easy for them to write two or three poems in one workshop session.

The best part for me is that I get to witness our students grow as readers and writers. By the time students get to 5th grade, they are putting it all together and coming up with a haiku in three stanzas. This writer lacked confidence when she was a young writer, and now you can see in her composition how far she has come.  Haiku is a celebration not only of nature but of growth and possibility.

April Poem #30: And I, too

My inspiration for “And I, too” comes from  Verse-Love, Ethical ELA, which was created by Sarah J. Donovan. Today’s prompt is the last prompt in celebration of National Poetry Month. Sarah invited us to think about claiming ourselves as writers and poets. Sarah used René Saldaña, Jr’s poetry anthology, I Sing: The Body  as a springboard for this prompt. The anthology contains poets’ thoughts on self-image, self-doubt, and constructing an identity.

When I read the prompt and some samples of other poets’ work, I immediately thought of Langston Hughes’ poem I, too. I used the form of Hughes’ poem to construct my own poem. I have always loved the way Hughes could lay out a strong message in a few words. I thought I would practice this, using his structure as a scaffold. I don’t normally take on other poet’s styles and forms, but through participating in Verse-Love this month, I came to realize how building on others’ work could help budding poets build a body of work and step out of their comfort zones. And isn’t that what poetry is all about – stepping out of your comfort zone and beginning to dance!




April Poem #29: This Poem is Not…

My inspiration for “This Poem is Not…” comes from  Verse-Love, Ethical ELA, which was created by Sarah J. Donovan. Today’s prompt comes from Glenda Funk, who is a retired English teacher and published poet. Glenda challenged us to think about all the things poetry can do and does. In these possibilities there is always hope.

I took an old poem that was sitting there in a pile minding its own business, doing nothing.  I grabbed it, shook it up, and turned it into something new.  My advice is never throw out anything you’ve written.  You never know what it could turn into.  It could be in its chrysalis stage waiting to fly free.  This past month of writing a poem every day has taught me to take risks, to play with possibility, and to be unafraid with the outcome.  Playing with poetry was just what I needed.  It was necessary.

#StandWithUkraine. ©Joanne L. Emery, 2022

April Poem #28: When I’m by Myself

My inspiration for “When I’m by Myself” comes from  Verse-Love, Ethical ELA, which was created by Sarah J. Donovan. Today’s prompt comes from Jessica Wiley, is an Alternative Learning Environment Teacher/Special Education Teacher in Morrilton, Arkansas at Southern Christian Children’s Home. Jessica asked us to think about what we do to transform ourselves.  She took inspiration from Eloise Greenfield’s poem – here.

I enjoy the childlike qualities of poetry.  Playing with rhythm and rhyme often spark the imagination.  With this poem, I did have to ponder deep questions, I could just play with the language and imagery.  It was fun to do, and poetry most definitely should be fun.  Once I wrote the first stanza, I felt it wasn’t quite complete, so I decided to reverse it and make a second stanza.  When I’m by myself, I write poetry and make myself happy.

April Poem #27: Forgiveness

My inspiration for “Forgiveness” comes from  Verse-Love, Ethical ELA. Shaun Ingalls, a high school English teacher pursuing a Ph.D. in Instructional Design, suggested a prompt inspired by the poem, “Drift,” by Alicia Mountain.  Shaun asked us to relook at something from a new perspective, try to re-encounter something we had experienced.

There are so many things in my life I want to re-encounter. There are so many mistakes I’ve made, so much time I’ve wasted on trivial things.  I spent years and years busy worrying, often forgetting that things are in God’s hands. I learned to be present, to find pleasure and beauty in small things, and to appreciate and recognize the people who love me. 

It was hard to choose just one thing to re-encounter. However, this memory of my Grandpa Antonio is so vivid to me.  It was about forty years ago, but it feels like yesterday. I wish I could go back and change every little thing.

Forgiveness

As I turn to leave, you stop me.
A minute, you say –
Opening the refrigerator door,
Taking coins from the butter dish,
Pressing silver dollars in my hand.
For you, you say –
Fold my fingers around the cold coins,
I kiss you on the cheek and leave.

I return an hour later,
Call out your name,
You’re not listening,
Your raspy breath comes as a warning,
I do not enter the room
Where you are lying.
I know what is happening,
But cannot face it.
I pace around and around
Minutes like hours fall away
Until my father, your son, arrives
To rescue you.

“Didn’t you notice your grandfather?
Call 911,” he says.
I stand frozen before the phone,
He pushes me out of the way.
Moments later, the ambulance comes,
Takes you away silently,
Red lights flashing – too late.

At your funeral
I tuck a poem – rough words
An apology
Into the pocket of your suit.
You’re wearing a gray suit,
Starched white shirt, a dark tie.
Had I ever seen you in a suit before?
I look down on your weatherworn face
For some sign of forgiveness.

Three days later, I’m in the den reading,
Suddenly, I look up –
Glimpse your blue bathrobe
Trailing around the corner,
I rise and follow to see you 
Standing at the stove making tea,
Your eyes meet mine and you smile,
I turn away and look again,
But you are already gone.

April Poem #26: Woven Words

My inspiration for “Woven Words” comes from  Verse-Love, Ethical ELA, which was created by Sarah J. Donovan. Dr. Amy Vetter is an associate professor in English education in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro. For today’s prompt, Dr. Vetter suggested that we scour novels and other texts to construct found poetry.  This is one of my favorite ways to invent poetry.  It takes some of the pressure off and allows me to play with words.

A couple of days ago, I wrote a found poem in response to the Verse-Love annotation prompt – here. Many years ago, I came upon teaching annotation through the Annotated Charlotte’s Web. Today, I took an old, worn copy of Charlotte’s Web and found this poem lying within. Thank you, E.B. White, Wilbur, and Charlotte!

April Poem #25: Everything has a Purpose

My inspiration for “Everything has a Purpose” comes from  Verse-Love, Ethical ELA, which was created by Sarah J. Donovan. Today’s prompt was from Linda Mitchell, a Middle School librarian, and her cat, Ira Gershwin.  The prompt had nothing to do with music, but I do love that name for a cat.  Maybe he purrs in harmony.  Linda’s prompt involved writing a poem using the scientific method for inspiration: make an observation, ask a question, form a hypothesis, make a prediction, test a prediction, use the results to form another hypothesis.  Easy-peasy, right?  Well, no.  This prompt took some thinking and some reading of sample poems.

I have been facing mortality lately.  It actually is slapping me in the face, but I refuse to succumb to pessimism and negativity. I spend my of my day, earnestly pondering my purpose.  I know my purpose has to do with children and writing. That might be purpose enough, but is it?  Is it really? I feel very mortal lately, and I want to organize my days with purpose and delight. Purpose may be easier for me to imitate by doing lots of things on my “To Do” list.  But is checking off boxes the way to a meaningful life?  The more I think about it, the more I know cultivating delight should be my life’s work.  So here I go playing with letting go and holding on.

Everything has a Purpose

Everything has a purpose.
What is my purpose here?
If only I work hard enough,
I will find my purpose.
If I follow all the rules,
Write the poem,
Hold the hand,
Paint the picture,
Teach the lesson,
Snap the photo,
Make the dinner,
Fold the laundry,
Read the book,
Listen and listen and listen,
I will find my purpose.
I will be so busy
That I can’t help
But find my purpose.


Consider the data.
What have I learned?
All this busy striving
Did not bring purpose.
Purpose lies deep within,
Something in the distance,
Something curious and resolute –
Between dreaming and waking.


Hold on tight
And let it slip
Through your fingers.
You will find it
Out there one day,
For sure, for certain.
This is absolutely true.