Sketchnoting: Making Thinking Visible

I love to doodle.  Whenever I am sitting and people are talking, I am drawing.  I never got in trouble for this.  In fact, teachers encouraged me to sketch while I was listening. It was the only way I could still myself and really listen to what was being said.  Instead of tuning out, I tuned in. Making pictures helped me to remember.  If I couldn’t understand a word problem, I drew out the little story in front of me, and all of a sudden the solution jumped out at me.  I drew graphs, T-charts, and clocks to better understand mathematical concepts.  Drawing helped in science too.  Making pictures of cells and plants and chemical reactions helped me to ask questions and learn more. When reading on my own, I often draw in the margins, not just underline or highlight. If something is really important to me, I draw it so I can deepen my understanding.  No one taught me to do this.  I just experimented and found my own way to represent my thinking.

The first time I heard about sketchnoting as a teaching technique was several years ago in a book called Comprehension Connection by Tanny McGregor.  It was an integral part of the reading strategy of visualization. Since then, Tanny has published other books with her sketchnotes:  Ink and Ideas, and Harvey Daniels’ The Curious Classroom.  Last month, I attended one of Tanny’s webinars offered by The Rutgers Center for Literacy Development. It came right at the right time because the following week I was planning to teach sketchnoting to our 4th grade students.  Tanny showed lots of examples of where sketchnoting can be used to help students see concepts and help teachers see what exactly their students are thinking. 

The emphasis is not of the art but rather on the ideas, and I wanted to be sure I expressed that understanding to our students.  I didn’t want the girls who do not see themselves as proficient artists to check out of the lesson.  I wanted them to feel empowered, to want to take a chance and create. To do this I focused on having students visualize an object or a scene first, and then showed them how to use shapes to convey ideas.  First, I showed them some short video clips of sketchnoting. Then, I shared a slideshow I had created introducing all the elements they would need to sketchnote: banners, arrows, call out boxes, thought bubbles, shapes, lettering, and people. As I shared each element, I asked the girls to create their own version of these elements.  It was a safe space to try things out and make mistakes.  I drew on a whiteboard to model that my drawings did not have to be perfect – they were quick sketches. Once we had all the elements in place, we were ready for our first project.

I wanted to start with something familiar and nonthreatening, something the students know very well: themselves.  As soon as I explained what I wanted them to do, they grabbed their pencils and started to sketch.  The room was completely quiet, illustrating the fact that when students are completely engaged in creating, they can concentrate and bring themselves into the flow of learning.  I was able to step back and watch: They didn’t need reassurance; they weren’t off task;  they weren’t bored; they were thinking and drawing.

After the girls finished their sketches, they added color if they wanted and then shared their work.  They not only shared the content of their drawings and ideas, but also described their design process, which was marvelous. They were doing more thinking about their thinking than I had imagined!

For the next lesson, I wanted to incorporate sketchnoting while reading.  Before my lesson, I visited the 4th grade English classes and sketchnoted in front of them, while their teacher read aloud from a class novel.  I was sure to incorporate the elements they had learned the week before. Then, I asked the girls to critique my sketchnote.  What did they notice?  What did they wonder?  What did they feel? Was there something important I missed? What else might I have included?

When it was time for our second sketchnoting lesson, I chose Jane Yolen’s book, Owl Moon to read aloud because her language is so rich and visual.  Before I read, we again went over the design elements used in sketchnoting, the girls got out their papers and pencils, and they were ready to begin.  Once I finished reading, the girls continued to draw. Some asked me to reread specific parts in the story.  The rereading helped them to add more details. It was another quiet session with total concentration.  At the end of the lesson, they each had a creation they were proud of and were eager to share. As we shared, the students began to see that even though we all listened to the same story, our sketchnotes were very different.  They also noted similarities, places in the text where the message stood out to many students.  This is such a strong way to show main idea and figurative language.  The week after this lesson, during our winter break, I received a holiday card from one student noting: “I’m practicing my sketchnoting.  I hope we do more when we return. It is so much fun!”

Well, how can I ignore that?  My next lesson will be sketchnoting using nonfiction texts both social studies and science.  I cannot wait to see their results.  I cannot wait to keep learning alongside them!

Books About Sketchnoting

Draw Your Big Idea by Nora Herting

Educated Design by Michael Cohen

How to Sketchnote: A Step-by-Step Manual for Teachers and Students by Sylvia Duckworth

Ink & Ideas by Tanny McGregor

My Pencil Made Me Do It: A Guide to Sketchnoting by Corrie Boughcum

Sketchnoting in the Classroom by Nichole Carter

The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde

Visual Note-Taking For Educators: A Teacher’s Guide to Student Creativity by Wendi Pillars

Visual Thinking by Williemien Brand

Resolution: Free the Hand

There is no must in art because art is free. – Wassily Kandinsky

The best way to describe my educational approach is – Hunter-Gatherer. I get an idea from reading, listening, or just being in the world, and something sparks my curiosity.  That little something leads to something else, and something else, and something else until I’m not quite sure how I got onto the path I’m currently going.  I love the journeys I’ve taken. I hadn’t thought of them as a learning process. I didn’t really think about them at all; I just naturally follow my thinking. When I work with children, I teach them this process to get them interested in reading. We talk about things that interest them, and I invariably will find something more they can read about the subject.  After reading about the topic, I encourage my students to write or create something from what they’ve learned.  I continue to nudge them:  What inspires you? What does that make you think or feel?  How do you want to express yourself?

This method has worked well with students over the decades.  If reading is hard or uninteresting at first, it is the ideas which must grab the child, the ideas that call for her to act and learn.  Often while reading novels with children, we will come across an idea that we want to try out.  A few years ago when I read The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs and Knee-Knock Rise by Natalie Babbitt with one of my private students, she got interested in how clocks work. We read some articles about clock mechanics and decided that we should try to make a clock.  I had no idea what I was getting into.  Maren wanted to make the clock that was described in Knee-Knock Rise.  It was a cuckoo clock made my Uncle Anson and was described like this:

“But not like any other clock you ever heard!” warned Uncle Anson, his mild face beaming with pride.  He wound it carefully and set the hands near twelve. They stood and listened as the clock began to tick toward the hours. Even Ada, with Sweetheart in her arms, came up to watch. Suddenly, there was a whirring and a click. The egg in the nest opened like a door and out came a little bird.  Jerkily it spread its wings, wings made of real red feather tipped with black.”

Maren and I read and re-read these lines carefully as we planned to make the clock.  In the story, Sweetheart the cat pounces on the clock-bird and destroys the clock smashing to bits of springs and feathers. As Maren read about the clock, she was determined to restore it by making a clock of her own.  And indeed, for about a month we worked on making the clock.  I bought a basic wooden clock kit, and Maren and I set about to create a clock with fancy numbers, a pendulum, and a nest with a bird and eggs at its base.  It does not exactly tell precise time and it cost me what I usually charge for a tutoring session, but it was money well spent, because it is something Maren still keeps next to her bed and treasures because she made it.  She read, she got an idea, she read some more, and she created something beautiful.  This is a lesson she will never forget and so she goes on reading.

My hunter-gatherer approach is my foolproof idea box.  Whenever I get worried that I may develop writer’s block, I start reading, observing, listening and I find that the ideas coming rushing towards me.  I then have to decide which one I will act upon first.  Last week, I was just scrolling through some blogs and one led to another and then to another.  I came upon the 99% Invisible website, which highlights the creative thought that goes into ordinary objects.  It celebrates the people and things that have been forgotten.  From this site I learned about the Japanese-American sculptor, Isamu Noguchi.  Specifically, I became intrigued by Noguchi’s idea of Play Mountain, an abstractionist playground for children. Noguchi expressed his relationship with sculpting this way:

 To search the final reality of stone beyond the accident of time, I seek the love of matter. The materiality of stone, its essence, to reveal its identity—not what might be imposed but something closer to its being. Beneath the skin is the brilliance of matter.

These words led me to further journeys viewing images and videos of The Noguchi Museum in Queens, the Moerenuma Park in Sapporo, Japan, and his California Scenario in Costa Mesa, California. The parks are beautifully simple sculpture gardens and playgrounds allowing visitors to use the structures in imaginative ways.  I had never heard of Noguchi before this, and I wondered how someone so accomplished, so in tune with the way I see art and play, could have escaped my attention.

This excursion of Noguchi’s life and work made me think about how I express myself artistically.   Lately, I have been sketching and I’ve faced some obstacles since what is in my mind hasn’t translated to what I put down on paper.  I’m quickly frustrated with my level of skill and then get mad at myself for not letting myself just create and not worry about the product. Over the years when creating, I love building with scraps of cardboard, handmade paper, twine, beads, wire, and buttons. I let the objects form the art work. I come out of my head and into my hands. 

Clockwork (banana parchment, handmade paper, string, and cardboard)

I started to search for something to read that would help me build on this idea, and I came across Cathy Weisman Topal.  Cathy is an art instructor at Smith College who created a teaching approach called Thinking with a Line. Using simple straight and curved cardboard pieces, Cathy designed art lessons to help children explore the elements of design and structure.  Using these basic printmaking objects, children are able to create and express what they feel and see in their minds’ eye.  Cathy has written many books about teaching art to children and has gathered inspiration from Friedrich Froebel and Rudolf Arnheim, as well as the Reggio Emilia teaching approach.  Her books, Beautiful Stuff and Beautiful Stuff from Nature show children ways to use found objects to create art.

As I started to play with line printing, I thought about how I have always loved to doodle, not intentionally making a shape or object, but just allowing my hand to wander across the page.  Then I asked myself:  What if every day I wrote a meditation and then let my pen travel across paper? I decided to make a resolution this year to keep a journal of line meditations.  I start with writing some thoughts down usually reflecting on my relationship with nature.  Then I use a gel pen to loop its way over the paper without thinking. I have even closed my eyes while drawing because it helps me not to be representational.  I also have drawn to classical music which helps flow and production.  I don’t lift my pen; it is one continuous swirling line. At times, I pause and draw in the air extending my arm moving with the music something similar to what I do when teaching small children handwriting.  We call it skywriting, and I’m think I’d like to try it again using a large sheet of paper with charcoals.

I wanted to see what would happen when I did lift my pen to make a series of lines, and I was pleased with those results too.  They reminded me of the marks I would make as a young child before I knew about how to form letters and words. I used to sit for hours at the kitchen table and write, giving my mother note after note and composing fantastic stories, which would change after each retelling. I think that in doing these daily meditations, I will get closer to that childhood wonder and openness. I hope that over the next year, these line meditations will help me focus on the process of art making and not get preoccupied on artistic merit.  My goal is expression and play because it’s only through play that we can fully learn.

Further Reading:

For Children:

A Line is a Dot that Went for a Walk: An Inspirational Drawing Book by Sterling Children’s

Art and Max by David Weisner

The Dot by Peter Reynolds

Dog Loves Drawing by Louise Yates

Going for a Walk with a Line: A Step into the World of Modern Art by Douglas and Elizabeth MacAgy

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

Ish by Peter Reynolds

Lines that Wiggle by Candace Whitman

The East-west House: Noguchi’s Childhood in Japan by Christy Hale

The Squiggle by Carole Lexa Schaefer

What if… by Samantha Berger

When I Draw a Panda by Amy June Bates

For Adults:

Beautiful Stuff! Learning with Found Materials by Cathy Weisman Topal

Beautiful Stuff from Nature: More Learning with Found Materials by Cathy Weisman Topal

Children and Painting by Cathy Weisman Topal

Children, Clay and Sculpture by Cathy Weisman Topal

Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky

Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi by Hayden Herrera

Point and Line to Plane by Wassily Kandinsky

Thinking with a Line Teacher’s Guide by Cathy Weisman Topal

Thinking with a Pencil by Henning Nelms

Poems in a Small Space

Acceptance.  I think that is the gift that I give myself when there are a multitude of things that are out of my control on both a personal and global level.  My small hands, my curious mind cannot solve any of it.  I can accept and move forward.  I can accept and be content that I am whole; I am safe in my own small space.

Poetry has always given me that small space to crawl into – to journey down into a deep, welcoming hole and find myself in an open field at the other end, a field of possibility. It is a place to try out new combinations of words to express what is in my inside because my inside is the only thing I can control.  How will I approach this situation?  How will to react to that setback?  What can I do to right myself again?

Words help me know what I’m feeling.  Words record where I have been, who I was at that moment of time.  They are a snapshot of myself.  They help me reflect and grow.  They allow me to navigate the world and keep me on a steady course.

Every morning I remind myself why I am here.  Mary Oliver’s wise words whisper in my ear: Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?  I am here to write.

 Winter’s Coming
  
 Softly lace crystals dance
 On the chill wind whispering
 Winter’s coming
 Three deer play hide and seek
 With the trees– leaping
 Winter’s coming
 Rabbit in her brown-fur burrow
 Safe and warm dreaming 
 Winter’s coming
 Alder trees arch with the weight
 Of new fallen snow creaking
 Winter’s coming
 Squirrels frolic in the snow
 Fluff their silver tails chattering
 Winter’s coming
 A flock of Canada geese glide
 Across the frigid sky honking
 Winter’s coming
 Meanwhile beneath the deep white
 The steadfast garden lies silent
 Till spring – Hush now
 Winter’s coming 

 
 
 
 Swamp Oak in Winter
  
  
 Silver-white swamp oak
 Stands alone in the clearing
 Branching up and up
  
 Gracefully curving
 While each slender stem embraces
 Curled copper leaves
  
 Like snow-capped cocoons
 Silently contemplating
 Silver-white swamp oak 


 
 
 Hibernation
  
                                      I                                  
  
 Following the path
 Through the woods
 Walking in other’s footprints
 In the shallow snow,
 I feel the tug from the earth,
 A call from the bare branches
 To come rest in the soft snow,
 Sleep till spring.
  
                                       II                                
  
 The woods are silent,
 The sun is iced-over,
 Each branch, each leaf
 Is frozen in space and time,
 A lone woodpecker lands
 Rendering a hollow sound.
  
                                  III                               
  
 The elm stands bare-boned,
 I rest my cool cheek
 Against its smooth trunk,
 Take comfort from its
 Immense strength,
 Sturdy persistence,
 Acknowledging the life within. 

If you are not yet a writer of poetry, I urge you to try.  Observe what’s around you, calm your mind, and narrow your focus. Settle down and relax. You can start small.  If I haven’t convinced you to write, then read poetry.  Fill your mind with its music. Fill your heart with its knowledge. Begin.

Poetry for Adults

  • Aimless Love by Billy Collins
  • A Thousand Morning by Mary Oliver
  • Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay
  • Devotions by Mary Oliver
  • Nine Horses by Billy Collins
  • Selected Poems by E.E. Cummings
  • Twenty Love Poems by Pablo Neruda
  • The Princess Saves Herself in This One by Amanda Lovelace
  • The Undressing: Poems by Li-Young Lee
  • The Wild Iris by Louise Gluck

Poetry for Children

  • All the Small Poems and Fourteen More by Valerie Worth
  • A Pocketful of Poems by Nikki Grimes
  • Beautiful Blackbird by Ashley Bryan
  • Bookjoy, Wordjoy by Pat Mora
  • Creature of Earth, Sea, And Sky by Georgia Heard
  • Everything Comes Next by Naomi Shihab Nye
  • I am Loved by Nikki Giovanni
  • Let it Shine by Ashley Bryan
  • One Last Word by Nikki Grimes
  • Twist: Yoga Poems by Janet Wong

Books as Breadcrumbs

Last April, I began writing this blog consistently every week upon the invitation of Ruth Ayers.  It was April 10th to be exact – my 64th birthday, and Ruth invited me to join her  SOS – Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog  group, because I had replied kindly to one of her blog posts. This is my 37th blog post since then, and I’ve been thinking about connections.  Specifically, how do people connect us to ideas and how do those ideas make us grow – give us hope and courage? On my blogging journey, I discovered many fellow-bloggers with many amazing, funny, and heart-wrenching stories. I’m indebted to all of them because their experiences help me take on new perspectives and make me see the world in ways I had not yet imagined. One such blogger is Julie K. Cox who writes about family, teaching, writing, and most of all reading. I have found that whatever books Julie recommends, I immediately seek them out. 

On Julie’s recommendation, I have read Emily P Freeman‘s A Million Little Things and am currently halfway through her book, The Next Right Thing.  I find her voice both calming and enticing. She beckons her readers to take action gently.  And though she is much younger than me with a totally different lifestyle, I find myself following and considering and feeling like I’m following the right path. Emily talks about the time when she and her husband were in the midst of trying to figure out the next right vocational step.  She talked about how instead of following answers, they began to follow arrows – signs that would lead them to the right decision.  I smiled to myself when I read that. I thought, That’s what I have been doing with my students these past forty-two years!” Only instead of arrows, I’ve laid down some breadcrumbs in the form of books, which they follow until they set down their own breadcrumb trail of books that lead them to new adventures and interests.

Much of my teacher life has been working with struggling readers and writers.  They would choose to do anything else in the world rather than sitting down to read or write.  They would even consider cleaning their rooms or doing the dishes!  But just as Lorraine Skovron, my 5th grade teacher, set me on a path as a lifelong reader with her first breadcrumb, Misty of Chincoteague, I knew I could find the right book to set my students onto their own reading paths.  I knew if I listened very closely and got to know my students as people with unique interests and desires, that I could find books that would connect them to their experiences and to new ideas. 

A number of years ago, I worked with a little girl who was Dyslexic. Reading came hard to her, but she was tenacious and resilient.  I admired her spunk and courage and kept feeding her books.  One day while she was working hard to decipher a text, she slammed the book shut and declared, “I hate reading!”  I took her hands into mine and said, “Oh no, you don’t hate reading!  Reading is hard, but the stories are worth it. You LOVE stories.”  She smiled and nodded, “Yes, I do love stories. Can you read to me?”  And that’s what I did for the rest of the session. I read to her and filled her mind with questions and wonder, helping her restore her energy for reading.  I will never forget that day.  I learned how to help struggling readers balance the focus needed to read the words with the joy those words presented in the form of story.  The story was the key, the story was the breadcrumb or arrow that would lead to a rich life of unbridled ideas.

This year, I work with both struggling and gifted readers and writers.  The arc of my work keeps me on my toes and makes me reflect on what moves I make to push my students forward.  What arrows or breadcrumbs am I laying down?  The first thing I do when working with students is to listen to them and give them space for them to tell me who they are. As Parker J. Palmer says, “Teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability.”  Sharing my struggles and successes with students help them to open up and share what is easy and difficult for them.  Then together we plan next steps to reach our goals.  This is true for students who have learning differences and students who find academics easy and are searching for more and more challenges. 

Last week, one of my gifted 5th grade students who is reading at the 8th grade level reached a plateau in writing.  She had written a twenty-seven-page mystery and was spent.  Usually, she has a wealth of ideas from which to draw, but for the past few weeks, she didn’t want to write.  She said she was empty.  I let it be because as her tutor and not teacher, I could give her that luxury for a bit.  However, I felt the time had come to nudge her, but nudge gently.  So I asked myself, how exactly I should do that. And as often happens the answer came in the form of poetry.  I asked Maren if she’d like to write a sensory poem about winter.  She eagerly agreed, and I breathed a sigh of relief. After some discussion and revision, Maren wrote this final poem.

Winter Joy

 The snow falls hard outside my window.
 The ice makes the roads slick and cold.
 Neighbors grab their sleds and laugh 
 As they tumble down the hillside.
  
 A large SUV slips down the road, 
 Its roof piled high with skis. 
 An eager little face peeks out from behind the window, 
 A baby doll clutched in her small hands
  
 A toddler, too excited to wait until spring,
 Toddle-bikes down his driveway. 
 His mittens, attached to his coat by yarn,
 Sail behind him like tiny woolen kites.
  
 A woman in a thick coat 
 Passes out warm hot chocolate
 To shivering little faces
 That light up with joy. 

Then I thought, let’s take this poem of which she was so proud and turn it into a story. I asked Maren to choose one stanza that stood out for her the most.  She chose the last stanza. From this stanza, she started a new short story project. This is how she began:

A woman in a thick coat passes out warm hot chocolate to shivering little faces that light up with joy. Sitting down on sleds, they laugh and joke with one another as they drink. A teenager with dark brown hair poking out from under his patterned hat throws a snowball into the trees. The wind whips through the trees, as if calling the children. They put their cups onto the porch banister and zoom down the hill. Faster, faster, faster, until they fly through the air and land in one big pile, laughing and shaking snow out of their boots. 

A small boy in an old camouflage patterned jacket watches from the top of a tree a few meters away, his sandy hair tousled, a content little smile on his face. His own sled, duct-taped and patched in more places than the sled actually shows, lay at the bottom of the tree. Unable to resist, he ignored his mother’s constant reminders to stay away from the other kids and found himself swinging off the branch. He took the frayed rope in his hand and ran up the hill. His small voice was hardly heard among the loud children, but he was accepted into the tight-knit group without any problems. Up and down they go, flying faster every time as they developed new paths and balanced different ways on the sleds. 

I am so eager to see how this story will unfold.  What choices will Maren make?  How do the books she’s reading influence her writing style?

This week, I worked with a gifted 1st grade girl who reads at the 3rd grade level.  We have read two books in the Paddington series:  A Bear Called Paddington and Paddington Abroad.  She loves them!  It is hard to find books for a gifted 1st grade reader which will support both her intellectual and emotional growth.  A Peruvian bear dressed in a funny hat who gets into all kinds of trouble was just the ticket.  After reading the books, I asked Lily to write a sequel.  She chose to write Paddington in China because she knew a lot about living in China.  She dictated the story to me as I typed.  It has two chapters so far and is fifteen slides long.  Her choice of vocabulary was amazing and her style of writing shows just how much attention she gives to author’s craft. Lily is a deep thinker.  I asked her to write a bit on her own when we were not meeting together.  When I looked at her work I found this portion:

“I don’t know,” said Mr. Brown.  “The only way to know is to ask the pilot.”

Judy and Mrs. Bird ran up to the pilot and asked when their conversation came to a stop, “Paddington, why did you run over here to talk to the pilot?

The pilot and Paddington exchanged mysterious glance. “Nothing,” the pilot said,” We were just talking about when the plane was going to take off. It has been delayed a little because the engine broke!”

What the pilot said was true, but it was not all.  What they were really talking about was the best places to go in China because what Paddington really wanted to see was a Chinese person speaking Shanghainese.

“Fine.” Mrs. Bird answered.   In her mind though, her suspicions were raised; almost nothing at all did her eagle eyes miss, and she had seen the glance that was passed between them.  She still didn’t want to offend Paddington so she didn’t say anything.  Almost everyone was depending on her eagle eyes except Paddington so without her saying anything the matter was soon forgotten, at least for the time.  The pilot hurried over to the plane engine and checked it several times before rushing back to the Browns and declaring, “THE ENGINES ARE FULL OF MARMALADE!”

I am getting used to her incredible use of language and her agility with dialogue.  What surprised me was her use of a semi-colon. I asked Lily who taught her how to use a semi-colon.  She said, “I read a lot and I noticed authors using that mark when they had two sentences and wanted to put them together.  It can be used instead of and.”  I chuckled.  I told her that she was indeed correct.  Then she asked me what the mark was called again. I told her it was a semi-colon.  I am in awe of not only how much Lily can retain, but of how much she can figure out all by herself.  When I was in 1st grade I was still trying to decode the mysteries of the alphabet!

Yesterday, we had ten inches of snow, and we got a much hoped for Snow Day.  Bright and early, I received an email from Lily asking me for another book series recommendation. Here is a natural reader.  She is a reader for life. On her snow day, she is asking for books!  In fact, when I asked her what she thought she was going to be when she grew up, she told me that she did not have to be one thing.  She intends to be a doctor, an artist, and a writer.  I have no doubt that Lily will achieve these goals.  I also wish for her days of playing in the snow and the sun. I hope I can lay down some brilliant breadcrumbs to make her journey sweet.

Belonging

Oxford defines belonging as an affinity for a place or situation. Webster says it means a possession or a close or intimate relationship.  I’ve been reflecting on what it means to belong this week. I am getting older.  I could and have said this at any age, but now approaching sixty-five, now it is a very true statement. I feel it, especially with the holidays upon us and my family members quarantined and scattered across the country. Actually, I have yearned to belong since I was quite young.  It’s a human thing.  We all need connection.  And I have found innumerable ways to do it.  Teaching was the perfect profession for me.  I am very grateful for that. This week, I sent off a small army of 4th grade girls with shoe boxes filled with junk for them to explore.  For the last few days, I’ve been receiving emails and even a video recounting the fun they have had and the wonderful inventions they created from their personal trove of junk. This is what is important.  Creativity connects us.  Imagination is key.

I’ve also had time this week to reflect on just how I belong in the world.  This place, this place I’ve known for six and a half decades is becoming increasingly complex and enigmatic. I try hard to make sense of it, but I feel the world’s tug. I feel it pulling me down.  Then I realize the political and social world is just a human construct.  It is not the true world.  Our Earth is the true world, and I’ve lost the connection to it a bit allowing myself to get too busy teaching and managing daily life.   So I reminded myself that I must go back to the woods: search for the turkeys, gaze at the ravens wheeling in the gray sky. Nature has always been a healing place for me; a place that encourages my curiosity.  And this too I will share with my students.  Maybe we will collect items for a nature box: acorns, sticks, smooth stones, dried flowers and leaves, and a wild assortment of other bracken.  I have already spent the better part of an hour this week standing in a parking lot in the dark under some honey locust trees collecting their long, gently curving, velvety, deep purple seedpods. I’m imagining all types of things the children can make with them. 

It’s more critical than ever that we help children connect to the living world. It is integral to them becoming whole, healthy people who can manage stressors and show compassion.  I’ve been a long-time proponent of eliminating nature-deficit disorder,” a term coined by author Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods. Over the years, I’ve provided experiences with nature to my students, even my students who lived in New York City.  I made sure they had regular contact with trees, flowers, and animals.  I knew that these connections were important for both their intellectual and social-emotional growth. Indeed, one parent quipped one day that the best part of 3rd grade for her son was that he learned to climb a tree! The once timid boy became intrepid and had a powerful sense of himself.

More books by Richard Louv:

  • Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life
  • The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life int he Virtual Age
  • Our Wild Calling: How connecting with animals can transform our lives and save theirs

A Dozen Nature Picture Books for Children:

  1. A Stone Sat Still by Brendon Wetzel
  2. Butterfly Park by Elly Mackay
  3. Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
  4. Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
  5. Pax by Sara Penny Packer
  6. Rocks in his Head by Carol Otis Hurst
  7. The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
  8. The Hike by Alison Farrell
  9. The Hugging Tree: A Story about Resilience by Jill Neimark
  10. The Keeper of Wild Words by Brooke Smith
  11. The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes
  12. The Tin Forest by Helen Ward

In our regular weekly phone conversations, my friend, Molly and I ponder the possible. We talk about teaching, art, and healing.  She tells of a walk she recently took with her brother at a nearby nature preserve.  She describes an old bathtub she found on the trail, and my poet mind start running.  I’m already composing as she speaks.  Then she says she has taken photos of it and would like me to use it as a prompt for writing with her Kindergarteners.  I promise to do so, and we ponder why a bathtub would be sitting serenely in the middle of a trail. When I get off the phone with Molly, I know the bathtub poem is in me and will come out in a couple of days.  It sits in my mind, constructing itself in various ways: a branch here, a new shoot there, a winding vine curving and turning until it is ready to come out onto the page.

 We Belong Here
  
 For Molly
  
 I
  
 At the nature preserve
 Right in the middle of the cleared trail -
 The red path, not the blue one,
 There is an old white rusted bathtub,
 My dear friend tells me.
 Right there in the middle of the path,
 Right there with nothing else around it
 Just woods on either side,
 Thick, thorny undergrowth,
 Mounds of fall leaves
 Now becoming muddled and colorless,
 Skeletons of themselves really.
 What is the bathtub doing there?
 Who would leave a tub in the woods?
 We ponder and wonder.
 There is a small shack nearby,
 But it stands on the bank of the river
 And the bathtub sits squat
 In the middle of the trail
 On a ridge overlooking the river.
 Most times the tub is filled
 With a puddle of rainwater
 Or an assortment of leaves, seeds, and acorns.
 It has been there a very long time.
 It has no intention of moving.
 It has planted its rusty feet 
 firmly in the ground.
 It belongs there.
  
     II
  
 I have a sudden urge
 To run full tilt down the path -
 The red trail, not the blue one,
 Breathing in the trees,
 All the musty ancient smells,
 Hear the gurgle burbling of the river.
 I rush down the path,
 Leap with all my might,
 Hurdle myself toward the tub,
 Landing gently into its abundance:
 Soft pine needles and dusty leaves,
 Landing softly in the autumnal spa,
 Covered in its natural warmth
 Almost up to my chin,
 Sinking down into the tub
 Soaking in the woods, the air, the river
 My head tilted up to the blue sky,
 Every one of my muscles relaxing.
 I have no intention of moving.
 My feet are firmly planted.
 I belong here.
   

Magic & Imagination in a Box

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

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

Tender Buttons

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

GLAZED GLITTER.

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

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

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

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

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

THE WORLD IN A BUTTON

The world in a button,

Spherical and hard,

Sometimes shiny,

Sometimes tarnished with age,

Holes and embellishments,

Disappointments and surprises,

Ocean blue and earthy red,

Buttons in my hands

Slipping through my fingers

Making imaginary music,

Listen.

Signs of Fall – Listen, Look

This has been a stressful week to put it mildly: a heated election cycle, COVID rising in New Jersey and across many parts of the U.S., pending lock-downs, the seventh anniversary of my mother’s death.  I try to put things in perspective.  I concentrate on my work, my art, my friends, my family, and my faith. I try, in small places, to cultivate hope.  

I relish my time teaching immersing myself in reading and writing with young children.  I marvel at students who seek me out for help.  I do not have to convince them; they come eagerly with fresh ideas.  We develop stories together, we organize desks and homework, we think about spelling like it is an art instead of a chore, and we read together. Indeed, one of the most rewarding times in my day is reading A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond with a gifted first grader.  The naughty bear appeals to her and the British vocabulary intrigues her.  We talk about queues, lifts, lorries, mackintoshes, and marmalade.  She is all ears listening for new words that she does not yet know.  She gasps as Paddington stumbles into one predicament after another, and she enthusiastically anticipates outcomes. This time with her is pure joy.  I cannot clearly say whether I’m teaching her or she’s teaching me.  Our conversation, this exchange of ideas, is reading in its purest form, and I am grateful.

I turn to nature for solace, observing the season’s steady change: her flamboyant turn from green to scarlet to amber to tangerine, and the final turn to gray and rusted brown. I seek beauty in the decay.  I watch for patterns: geese and wild turkeys combing the fields for seeds, squirrels and chipmunks storing seeds and acorns, the deer’s coats turning from golden to tawny brown. The earth is preparing herself for after the harvest; she is ready for a long meditative sleep. This past week, I took some photographs and wrote a poem as I contemplated this change.  I tried to listen and look carefully to all that was around me.  I took notice, reflected, and attempted to capture the feel of this season.

 Early November
  
 The early November wind arrives
 Sounding a symphony of
 Rushes, whooshes, and shushes,
 Rustling leaves, rattle seed pods,
 Whispering softly in the grass.
  
 Black wings tattooed against blue sky,
 A cadre of crows circle
 Above the old golden oak,
 Caw-calling, caw-calling,
 Lamenting winter’s return.
  
 Damp earth and leaves – 
 Mottled brown, orange, yellow,
 Cover the bare garden ground,
 A protective patchwork
 Waiting for next year’s harvest.
  
 A lone crow lands on an old post,
 Surveys the garden no longer green.
 The wind rustles his black feathers,
 He cries of fall’s ending
 And then takes flight. 

Add. Change. Remove.

Add. Change. Remove.  This is a strategy we use in our 2nd grade writing workshop to explain the revision process.  In the lesson, which I think originally was an idea from a Six Traits lesson, the students create with Play-Doh and then at various intervals are asked to add something to their creation.  Then they are asked to add another feature or two.  Eventually, the students are asked to change something, and finally, they are asked to remove something they created.  The children are allowed time to talk through their creative process.  Usually, this has been done through a gallery walk. This year, during our COVID structure (remote, hybrid, in-class), we used a document camera and asked students to explain their thinking.

Bear at the Beach
Family of Snakes
Crabs at the Beach

As I reflect on this activity, I realize that Add. Change.  Remove.  is not only a revision or creative process, it is the cycle of life.  We are born. Many people, places and events are added to make our lives rich and interesting. Then people, places, and ideas change. Over the years things are removed from our lives until ultimately we are removed.  Instead of this being a morbid anxiety producing thought, it has become a comforting thought.  We all are going through a natural process, and I need to be mindful of the powerful and wondrous journey we are on.  Sometimes, I am so intent on adding, adding, adding that I forget to sit back and enjoy all I have.  Sometimes, I am either so desperate for change or so anxious about change that I forget to think about what lessons I can learn from these changes.  I forget to ask myself:  How have I grown? And finally, I am aware of what has been removed from my life – both positive and negative.  I am learning to be grateful for what I have and what I have lost.

Add. Change. Remove.  – such a valuable skill for students to utilize in their writing; such a powerful life force to embrace.  This week, I decided to apply this strategy to my art and poetry.

My collage below is in process of play.  I am creating, adding, changing, and removing until I am satisfied with the composition.  I am not sure how the final product will turn out, but I am enjoying the process.  I think this method allows me to not get so set on the final image.  It doesn’t have to be perfect.  I can play until I am pleased.

Simple Watercolor
Watercolor Cut into Strips
Woven Watercolor

If I extend this idea to my poetry, I encourage myself to think more fluidly.  The words and images can be played with. They don’t have to be set in stone so quickly.  I can create many versions, read them aloud, stand back to appreciate their impact and choose what expression I want to publish.

Sparrows Gather I
 
Dusty-feathered bodies
                      In constant motion
Heads turn, wings flutter,
                     Eyes blink, feet twitch
Hopping from one
                    Place to another
The birdbath, the bench,
                    The old stone toad
All-a-flutter, all-a-chatter
                    Recalling memories of summer
Warm sun, sweet rain
                    They sing of worms and seeds
Just plain brown birds
                    So numerous, so common
 
Sparrows Gather II
 
Just plain brown birds,
So numerous, so common,
In constant motion.
Dusty-feathered bodies:
Heads turn, wings flutter,
Eyes blink, feet twitch.
Hopping from one place to another:
The birdbath, the bench, the old stone toad.
All-a-flutter, all-a-chatter,
Sparrows sing of worms and seeds.

As I begin a new school week, I think about using this poetry idea with our curious 2nd graders.  I plan to use the William Carlos Williams’ “As the Cat” and have the children recite it, visualize it, and the write their own versions. 

Some questions to help students to re-imagine the poem could be:

ADD.

What color is the cat?

Where is the jam closet?  

What does a jam closet look like?

What color, size, shape is it?

Is it empty or filled with jam jars?

What color, size, shape is the flowerpot?

Change.

Make it a different animal.

Make a different place the animal climbs.

Make a different place the animal steps into.

Show another way the animal walks.

Remove.

Reread your poem.

Remove any words you think would make the poem stronger.

I am so curious to see what the children will create.  I hope they begin to understand the awesome pleasure and power of Add. Change. Remove.

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

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.