Your Own Best Mother

Especially in these COVID days, months, years – I see an increasing need for mothering all around me. I am very attuned to people who are in need of mothering. I always have been. And I try to fill that gap. Isn’t that what we are here for? To spread some loving-kindness: to be a shoulder, an ear, a cup of tea – some sympathy. I had a world-class mother, and she taught me the first rule of mothering: “Be good to yourself.” She’d repeat it over and over again. It was the last words she’d say to me before we’d depart. Now seven years after her death, I repeat her mantra to myself, my friends, and my nieces. If you ever are going to be able to offer true loving-kindness to anyone else, you first have to give it to yourself. Listen to yourself, reassure yourself that “everything will be okay,” give yourself a hug (and maybe a piece of chocolate), and then go ahead with your day confident in the knowledge that you have your own back. You are your own best mother.

I am still in the process of perfecting this attitude. There are days that I so deeply miss my mother. I long to see her smile again. I need her skillful ear to indeed just listened – no advice, just that quiet, calmness, that deep closeness, that love. Some days I feel untethered. I don’t know how I’m going to continue this uphill journey. I push away the anxiety with small firm shoves, but it comes back. It always comes back. The only remedy I find is my mother’s whispering voice: “Be good to yourself, Jo. Be good to yourself. Remember.” So I think about all the ways I can be good to myself, and I follow them. I am learning to be gentle with myself, to be in the moment, to enjoy the small things, and to be open to tiny miracles. They are indeed all around me, and I’m beginning to follow contentment.

When I was a child, I’d fret about what I could give my mother to show her that I loved and appreciated her. I spent entire Aprils trying to figure out what I could say, do, or buy that would show her my love. In the end, I think all she wanted was quiet, calm – somebody to listen. I should have given that to her more often. I should have been a better mother to her. So now, I sit with myself quietly, and I find moments in the day to mother other people – to listen, to offer support, to remind them to be good to themselves. It is the best way I can honor my mother’s memory.

Dream Mother


I take another glance 
at my alarm clock,
It's four  in the morning.
Panic sets in -
I take a breath,
Remember it will be okay,
I am not in danger,
I will not die yet,
I breathe in 
And out deeply,
Slowly curl on my side.
I miss my mother, my Vivian.
Ninety-one years was too short a time:
I want her back,
I want her with me,
These thoughts will not
Put me back to sleep -
I count memories.

Happy memories of my mother:
Her beautiful smile,
Her laugh, her twinkling eyes,
Vivian playing solitaire on the couch,
Vivian reading Louis L'Amour,
Vivian cutting dress patterns,
Vivian taking her daughters out to lunch
Munching on little tea sandwiches...
All is suddenly dark and calm.

I'm in a familiar restaurant,
Eating chicken salad with my mother.
She is in her mid-forties,
Always when I dream of her,
She's in her forties and happy
And beautiful and alive.
We are talking and laughing,
Walking together down a hallway
With glass on both sides.
We can see green trees
And pink blossoms.
I am so happy
Walking beside her.
She pulls out a small bag 
Of green jelly candies
And offers me some.
I can taste fresh lime,
We walk and talk and laugh.

We come to a dark hallway, which opens
To a bright conference room,
I'm to give a presentation
In front of a lot of people.
I can feel the butterflies
Rise in my stomach.
I look around to get my bearings:
Giant chaffing dishes of food are set
On long tables covered with white tablecloths,
The school's director walks in
Shaking her head solemnly,
Suddenly I notice  there are 
no spoons for the food,
I start to panic -
I was in charge of the spoons!
My mother pats my hand
"It's alright," she says,
"We will figure out something."

Suddenly, I wake up -
I know Vivian is there
Watching over me,
I know she won't leave my side,
I see her beautiful face,
I taste fresh lime,
Take a deep breath,
Roll over and return to sleep.
Happy Mother’s Day: Be Good to Yourself

Spring Offering

This post is dedicated to my cousin, Jeanne, who is like a sister to me.  This past year, she had taken care of her husband who lost his battle with cancer last week.  It has been a long painful journey and though I tried to provide comfort, I knew there was little I could do to truly help her, so I did the only thing left to do – I listened. My mother would always tell me how kind and considerate Jeanne was.  She appreciated Jeanne’s cards and visits. My mother made me promise to watch over her.  I would have done so anyway.  Jeanne has the most compassionate heart. She is one of those people who are earthly angels. Jeanne encourages me with my writing, lifts me up when I am feeling almost hopeless, and tells me stories to make me laugh.  She is the best friend-cousin-sister anyone could ever have!  The best offering, I can give her now are my words and my pictures.  I hope this small offering brings her peace and makes her know that she is greatly loved.

Spring Prayer

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

The following poems are in a form I hadn’t known about until last week.   Fellow blogger, Ramona, had written a recent post containing a lovely golden shovel poem, which spurred me to try this form.  It is a very comforting form because the writer takes a short quote that is meaningful to her and then use it as the base of her poem.  It is a seed from which the poem grows.  It also takes brain power to puzzle out how to combine one’s ideas with that of the original writer’s words.  The last word in each line of the poem reveals the original quote from top to bottom. I think this is a form that I will continue to play with and have my students play with.

Three Golden Shovel Poems

The Earth Laughs in Flowers. –  Ralph Waldo Emerson


Daffodils, hyacinths, and the
Tulips brightly bloom upon the Earth
All the green garden laughs
Exuberantly, right out loud in
A brilliance of flowers.



Where Flower Bloom so Does Hope. – Lady Bird Johnson

April turns to May where
raindrops become flowers
pink, yellow, orange, purple bloom
up through the green so
quietly, so spontaneously does 
this garden restore my hope.



With the Coming of Spring, I am Calm Again. - Gustav Mahler

Dark clouds fill the sky with
An abundance of rain, the
Drops fall to the ground, coming 
Faster and faster, all of
A sudden it’s spring -
Green and glimmering, I
Turn my face to the rain, I am
Suddenly peaceful and calm 
Spring is within me again.

Fidget to Think

I have never been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder.  It wasn’t even a known condition when I was in school.  I wiggled, I daydreamed, I doodled and constantly fidgeted with my hair, my pencil, the pink eraser in my desk, scraps of paper wrappers, paperclip, or anything small that could go undetected or be quickly hidden.  My mind was and is constantly moving.  I am a great multitasker. It doesn’t seem right to me to just be doing one thing.  I notice that when I do concentrate on just one task at a time, a great wave of calm washes over me, and I feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment.  This usually happens on Fridays when I work from home.  In the early morning, I sit at my kitchen table and I just focus on one item at a time.  Okay, to be completely truthful, I sometimes listen to a podcast and check my email in between, but for the most part, I have learned to tame my monkey mind.

This has taken many years and lots of practice.  I still have difficulty sitting and meditating.  I was so happy to hear that one can meditate while moving.  That is when I feel most comfortable.  There is a large circular garden maze where we vacation in Vermont.  I love winding my way through the flowers, following the path over and over until my mind is clear and my body is relaxed.

This school year, I am designing and teaching a Study Skills class for 4th grade girls.  Part of the curriculum leans heavily on giving the girls time to practice executive function skills:  planning, initiating, organizing, prioritizing, self-monitoring, flexible thinking, impulse control, and time management.

I had not planned to create lesson on fidgeting, but the girls kept talking about their need to move and how teachers often become upset by their fidgeting.  Though I have a high tolerance for my own fidgeting, I often get distracted by students’ fidgeting.  I have had to become keenly aware of this and learn to tune out a certain amount of that type of distraction. And I have had to have quiet, honest conversations with students about how best to navigate their need to fidget and others’ needs for sustained attention.

I wanted to honor students’ need to move. I also wanted to create a space for them to really think about why they fidget and what strategies they could use to both keep moving while also actively listen. This week, we read an article about fidgeting: 9 Constructive Fidgets that Promote Focus. As a student read aloud the article, she came across the words doodling and pacing.  Everyone in the room stopped and looked at me.  I was on my fifth journey around the room.  Pacing was fidgeting!  I hadn’t ever considered that.  We all had a good laugh, and I said, “I guess I fidget as much as you all do!”  I thought pacing was a teaching strategy.  Who knew it was really fidgeting?

Then we created pencil fidgets using a pipe cleaner, some beads, and Washi tape.  While the girls were busy working, the room was absolutely silent.  They were all concentrating on the task at hand.  I brought their attention to this, and they responded that the fidgets help them focus and didn’t distract them from listening.  While the girls worked on their fidgets, I showed them Jessica McCabe’s video, Classroom Friendly Fidgets with Special Guest Bailey. The girls immediately connected with Bailey, the ten-year-old girl who was being interviewed about her collection of fidgets.  Sitting back and observing, I realized how important it was for children to learn from their peers.  They were intent on Bailey’s words and actions.  The video got me thinking about giving girls choices of fidget and having them try out different types to find the one that is right for them.  McCabe emphasizes that fidgets should be simple, quiet, and able to be use without being looked at.  In the coming weeks, my classes will be able to test this out and decide whether and when to use fidgets.

Caroline’s Fidget Pencil

During this lesson, we also wrote acrostic poems as a collaborative class activity.  The poet, Janet Wong, visited virtually in the morning and had showcased many poems that expressed the need for movement.  I thought it was a good time to bring movement and poetry together.  As the girls shared their ideas, it was interesting to see the word choices they employed to construct meaning. 

When composing poems, I often take long walks or pace around the room to the beat of the poem.  I understand now that maybe I chose poetry as my main artistic outlet because it allowed me to move.  I was able to make the words move. And I made myself smile with the realization that I named this blog, Word Dancer.  That says it all.  Movement is totally part of my nature. It is clear that my students are also passionate about their need to move in order to learn. They want to learn how to tune in and not shut down. They were so passionate about and motivated by this subject. It is something we will continue to explore. And I am ready to move!

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.

Room to Read

This school year, I have taken on two positions rolled into one: curriculum coordinator and learning specialist.  Yes, it is a lot of work.  Yes, it is good I have a monkey mind and enjoy spinning lots of plates on long wobbly sticks all at the same time.  But the best part of my job is that I am the one teachers call upon to solve student puzzles.  I love having the opportunity to read and write with children and figure out why they are having trouble. I calm my monkey mind and I focus in on the student reader.

This week, a fourth grader confided to her teacher that she couldn’t understand any of the passages that she had been assigned.  She started to panic.  There were tears.  Then her teacher called me.  The next morning, I came to Lindsay’s class. As I entered the doorway, she jumped out of her seat and was eager to come with me.  I was surprised by her response because the year before, Lindsay tried her best to avoid me.  But now she was ready.  She wanted help. She wanted to read better.  We walked together down the long, bright hallway chatting about the summer and the best flavors of ice cream. Then we went out the door, through the courtyard, up the stairs to another building where my office is located.

Lindsay and I settled into our seats in front of a large picture window.  I was glad the room was large and cheerful with lots of light streaming in and a view of beautiful trees and flowering shrubbery.  I could tell Lindsay was a little apprehensive, so I kept the conversation pleasant and positive.  I asked her about what she had read during the summer, and she confessed that she read only two books. Instead of focusing on quantity, I asked her what the books her about.  She could not remember the titles or the topics.  This told me that she was definitely not connecting with books.  She had not yet entered the story and become part of it.  I knew that was going to be my job this year, and I was energized by that knowledge.

I told Lindsay that I had not always liked reading.  I told her that my dad was a writer, my mom was a teacher, and I had an older sister.  They were all readers.  I wanted to be different.  I wanted to do something else.  Then, when I was in 5th grade, Mrs. Skovron was my teacher.  She helped me to learn to read better.  She told me that I did indeed love stories and that together we would find the right ones for me to read.  And that’s exactly what she did, and that’s exactly what I promised Lindsay we would do together.  I looked at her and she was smiling.  She was ready to take the first step.  First, I taught her strategies for when you come across an unfamiliar word. We broke several words apart syllable by syllable, and her shoulders relaxed.  She read a passage silently and made a key comprehension error.  I pointed to a part in the passage, and I asked her to read it aloud.  She did and her eyes lit up. 

“Oh, I was wrong!” she said.  “I understand now!” 

We both laughed together.  I told her that for now she should read aloud so that she can hear the story unfolding and can pay better attention to it.  I talked about making pictures in her mind as she read.

She read the next passage aloud to me. I stopped her when I knew her understanding was breaking down, and we talked about what was happening in the text.  Little by little, slowly we make our way through the text.  When she reached the end, I could tell by her facial expression that she really understood the story and could retell it confidently.  She had worked hard. It was time to return to class.  Lindsay saw a colorful box on the windowsill and asked me what was inside.  I opened the box to reveal a collection of seashells. 

“Pick two,” I said. She looked up at me,

“Really? They are so beautiful.” 

“Yes, you worked hard.  Take two,” I told her. 

I knew that I had made a reading partner, we were ready for a year of adventures.

Room to Read
 
I was not a born reader
For me, reading was work
Long, hard work,
Words stretched out
Each and every sound
Slow... slow... work,
Work that required patience and precision,
Which, at times, I had a short supply.
 
 
Everyone in my family was a reader
All my friends were readers
I would rather be running
Swinging, swimming, biking
Hiding in the woods, skipping stones
Reading was slow
Reading was done inside in a quiet room,
Reading required singular attention.
 
Then I entered 5th Grade,
Loved my teacher at first sight,
And I knew she like me.
Very soon, she realized I was not a reader.
I read aloud in a staccato monotone,
I gulped, sighed, and struggled my way
Through sentence after sentence.
When I was done, I had no idea what I had read.
 
My teacher didn’t give up,
She was patient and precise,
She helped me unlock the sounds
And read more smoothly.
She held out book after book to me,
I shook my head – no, not this one –
Or that one – or that one –
None held my interest
 
Until Misty of Chincoteague.
I loved horses, and wild ponies
Piqued my curiosity.
That day I brought the book home,
I filled my bathtub
With pillows and blankets
and climbed inside - book in hand,
Snuggled down and began to read.
 
I was there on the island surrounded
By sand dunes, tall grass, the smell of salty air.
My mother knocked on the door
Wanting to know what I was doing.
“Reading,” I responded.
She peaked in to see me
Reading in my reading nest
And quietly closed the door.
 
Those ponies, those words, that book
Unlocked reading for me.
I read horse book after horse book,
Then books about ancient Egypt,
After that, I read about a girl named Harriet
Who got into a lot of trouble.
Now, I was a reader.
Now, I was ready for another story.

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.

Someday Soon

My good friend, Molly, never fails to send me wondrous things via email.  Sometimes it is a photo of her hennaed hand, sometimes it’s a poem she wrote, sometimes it’s an image of the woods she is walking through, and many times it is an educational idea, activity, or concept.  Today, it was a link to Kids for Peace: Uplifting our World Through Love and Action. As I scrolled through the website, something struck my eye:  The Someday Soon Jar activity. As soon as I saw it, I knew what I was going to blog about. 

Yesterday, I was complaining to Molly that I had writer’s block.  I didn’t know what to write about – too many ideas were swirling in my head, and none seemed inspirational.  I’ve been pulled down by torrential rain and a flood of increasingly bad news.  I haven’t had nightmares in a very long time, but last night I had a terribly helpless one that recurred all night long!  I was walking on my school’s campus. It was winter and snow was piled high. I was looking at the mounds and mounds of snow.  I realized that the mounds were actually cars covered with snow and a thick layer of ice.  On one car the ice was beginning to melt and slip from the back window.  When I looked through the back window, I saw a child’s face submerged in icy water.  I screamed, but there was no sound.  I took a shovel and started hacking through the ice and snow, but I could not get to the little boy.  Then I realized there was a whole line of cars with people trapped in them submerged in icy water covered in mounds of snow: a female college student, a family with young children, a young man with a beard – all looking at me with frozen screams.  I run from one to the next, helpless.  There was no one else around to help me.  It was too late.  That’s when I wake up. My heart is racing. I calm down and tell myself that it’s just a dream.  I go back to sleep and dream the same exact dream again.  This happens three more times until it is morning, and I’m too exhausted to go back to sleep.

I get out of bed.  Make a cup of tea.  Check my email. And there it is:  the email from Molly waiting for me like a gift – The Someday Soon Jar.  It’s exactly what I need right now – HOPE in bright glowing rainbow colors. Hope that the ones I love will stay healthy and strong.  Hope that America will be a place of inclusion and peace.  Hope that I can make a difference with my words, images, and stories.  Hope that we are not all frozen in anger, fear, and anxiety. Just plain, old-fashion, childlike hope.

The idea behind the Someday Soon Jar is that children write out all things that they wish or hope to do someday soon. It could be taking a trip, visiting friends and family, collecting rocks or sea shells. It could be baking a treat, eating ice cream, watching the sunset.  It could be playing a game or laying in the shade of a beautiful oak tree, reading a good book.  I love this idea of happy anticipation.  I definitely need more happy anticipation in my life right now, so I created my own Someday Soon Jar and will start to write my ideas down.  Of course, my jar is an empty tissue box instead of a beautiful glass jar, but I don’t think that matters.  What matters is hope and the joy of happy expectation.

Someday Soon

Someday Soon

I will sit at my window

Looking out into the pouring rain,

Fat drops against the panes,

Thunder grumbling, a crack of lightening,

Then sheets drenching the trees –

Green-leafed umbrellas,

Shelters for the squirrels

And a pair of soft gray doves.

A cup of steaming tea, a good book

I am warm and dry.

Someday Soon

We will take a long drive

Out into the country

Out into the mountains

Rising to meet us,

Green and welcoming.

My husband riding shotgun,

Telling wild stories,

Laughing as we ride along.

Rows upon rows of hilltops

On the summer horizon.

Someday soon

I will walk along the shore,

Sand beneath my feet,

Salty bubbles between my toes,

The waves casting out shells

And pulling them back in –

A rhythm close to breathing.

Bending down to reach

The slippers, scallops, and clams,

Pearl-pink and shiny

In my grateful hands.

Someday soon

I’ll walk back across

The Sant Angelo bridge

Lined with ten graceful angels.

Ornate wrought-iron lamps

Curve brightly at dusk.

Lovers linger, peering down

Into the murky waters of the Tiber.

Walking between the angels

Into the park strewn with twinkling lights,

Music plays, and I begin to dance.

Remember

I have been writing this blog every week since April 11th.  That is three months and that is a record for me. I love to write, but I have always written in fits and starts.  I have hundreds of beautiful notebooks with 3, 5, or 20 pages written in them, but I have rarely filled a notebook up page by page.  I have files of stories written, but they sit for years collecting dust, get dusted off, and only to collect dust again.  So how and why did I change?  I changed because one person showed me she cared.  One person invited me to join her in writing.  That’s all it took.  One person.  Again, thank you Ruth Ayres for changing my writing life.

I now have begun taking an online writing course – the famous Writing Down the Bones with Natalie Goldberg.  In the first lesson, Natalie explained how to center yourself  with meditation before you write.  This could be done walking, sitting, or laying down. Then Natalie said something that both surprised and comforted me. She said that we will all go out of this life laying down and we will go out meditating or writing.  I just loved this image because like most everyone in the planet I’m afraid of dying – but if I could go out writing – yes that’s is the way I will choose to go.  I will be writing in my head till my last breath and I will be at peace.

These last few weeks, I have been remembering Catherine and Henry – those days, weeks, and months of taking care of him after Catherine’s death.  I had stored them all up for the last 36 years, keeping them safe for Henry so he would someday know of that time.  I wrote 33 pages in 5 days.  I just kept writing and more old memories came. I wish  I could remember more about Catherine, but what I remember the most was her kindness.  She always wanted to know what I was thinking, so ready to guide and comfort.  She never made me feel like my ideas were simple or ridiculous.  Catherine always encouraged me.

Remembering is painful and sweet – both are necessary to grow.  I think I was put here to remember and record – to witness life and to take it all in for myself and for others. The pain my father caused – those memories are part of my fabric.  I used to want to unravel those threads, but I came to know that the pain was part of the design.

And as I reflect on remembering, I am drawn to what I’ve forgotten.  I’ve forgotten what my mother’s faces looked like.  I need to look at photographs to really remember.  She died only six years ago but still my memory of her is fading. Why can’t I remember her exact looks?  All the images, all the expressions melt into one collage: my mother at 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 91.  My mother at 91 was all soft folds and brown spots, curled over not taller than me anymore.  I think I remember my mother best at 50.  I was 16 then.  That is the mother I remember because that is the mother who took me shopping for fancy earrings when I was heartbroken about some boy whose name I’ve long forgotten.

Every once in a while lately, I can look in the mirror and get a glimpse of her. That used to horrify me, but now it makes me feel reassured.  I know where I came from.  Vivian is still with me, inside me. I remember.

My Mother’s Things

My mother’s things 

Sit upstairs in the little brick Cape

With the gray shutters

Somewhere in New Jersey.

Her things,

The things she left behind:

Old worn white bras,

Soft and comfortable – 

Pastel flannel nightgowns trimmed in lace,

The black and red snowflake sweater

I gave her one Christmas,

Lots of small boxes with cheap jewelry –

Little plastic treasures –

Shiny bits of memories.

 

My mother’s things

Folded and packed away:

Her address book scrawled with

Her eloquent handwriting,

A book of prayers,

A class photo – 1983 –

Her second grade class,

Mom in the middle – the doting teacher –

A moment of pure happiness.

My mother’s things taken away,

Taken by family, taken by strangers.

My mother’s things – 

All her self taken –

Gone, gone, gone.

 

One or two things –

My mother’s things

I squirrel away:

Her laugh, her smile,

The way she’d touch my arm,

The memories of her love

Kept safely, so carefully,

So gently, kept with me.

Her self remains with me

Until I’m gone.

 

 

 

A Pause for Celebration

“Sorrow comes in great waves…but rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us, it leaves us. And we know that if it is strong, we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain.” – Henry James

 

After the events of the past weeks: the COVID pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, rioting and looting in many of our major cities, it is difficult to think of celebration.  There is so much I worry about, so much anger that needs to be healed, so many problems that need to be rectified.  It seems insurmountable.  This country I love is deeply troubled. But today, I find myself having to pause for celebration.

Today, June 4th, is Henry’s birthday.  It is Henry’s 40th birthday.   Recently, Henry and I reconnected after 36 years.  In 1984, Henry was three-years-old and one of my nursery school students.  His mother, Catherine and I became friends that year, and I also took care of Henry three days a week while Catherine worked on her dissertation on Henry James.

Then something unbelievably senseless happened.  One February night, Catherine was killed by a drunk driver.  I did not know how to process this loss.  The only thing I did know to do was to take care of Henry, and that’s what I did.  I became Henry’s full-time caretaker for the next two years.  It was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life and the most rewarding.

Henry and I had many adventures together.  We shed many tears, and we also experienced everyday joys.  Then Henry, as boys have a habit of doing, grew up.  Gradually, we lost touch with each other.  However, I never forgot about him and every June 4th I would say, “Happy Birthday, Henry – wherever you are!”  I hoped that he knew that I was thinking of him and wishing him well.

Henry graduated high school, went to college, created several restaurants, and became a creative adult. I continued teaching and writing.  I hoped that one day, Henry and I would be able to reunite so that I could tell him about those years.  And then it happened, out of the blue. He reached out to me and said that he wanted to know more about his mother.  I was so overjoyed.  We talked over the phone, and the 36 years melted away.  Even though we were actually strangers now, we talked together as if it was a normal, everyday occurrence.

I realized that I had been waiting for 36 years to tell his story.  I sat down for 5 days in a row and wrote and wrote and wrote.  I created a 33-page book of memories for Henry. It was such an interesting process because the more I wrote, the more I remembered.  I felt a calm and ease come over me. When I sent the book to Henry, he said that many people had promised to write down memories for him, but no one ever did until now.  That made me sad for him, but also happy.  I am so amazingly happy that I could finally give him this gift, which he will read today on his 40th birthday, June 4th.

This is a poem I wrote a number of years ago about the day Henry and I came home from school to his house the week after Catherine died.  I hope my memories of that time will bring him closer to his mother.

Remember Me

Three days after Catherine died,

I took her young son home from school.

I put her key into her door

As her son pushed ahead,

Running through the house, calling,

“Mommy, Mommy, where are you?

I made a picture for you!”

He was three and didn’t understand

The permanence of death.

I ran after him,

Took him by the hand,

“You remember, Henry, don’t you?

Mommy’s not here.”

He leaned into me,

His face hidden between

The folds of my skirt,

“I remember,” he whispered.

 

We went into Catherine’s kitchen,

Made cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches,

Sat on the floor of her sunny living room,

Built castles out of wooden blocks,

“When’s my mommy coming?”

Henry asked again.

I looked into his eyes,

“Henry, I’m sorry –

Mommy’s not coming home.”

“But I didn’t say good-bye to her,

She’ll be lonely without me.”

I turned my tears away,

Looked out the back door

Trying to find the words

To make him understand.

 

I caught a glimpse –

Something bright from Catherine’s closet,

One of her dresses, the Marimekko

With the bright flowers,

The one she wore the first time I met her.

I took Henry’s hand,

Opened her closet, gathered all her dresses

And laid them on her bed.

I picked up each dress, one by one,

Held them in front of Henry.

He looked up at me and knew what to do:

He hugged each dress,

Nestled his face into the familiar fabric,

“Good-bye Mommy,

Have fun in heaven,

Remember me,” he whispered.

 

 

 

Simple Joy

Music, Poetry, Dance, Art, Nature, Food, Friends, Travel – all of these things have given me joy.  When Nature, Friends, and Travel were curtailed by COVID-19,  I turned to music, poetry, dance and art to keep me joyful in these past bleary months.  And so spring came, flowers blossomed, the sky returned to its blissful blue,  and there was hope of healing.  Now, amidst the present rioting in Minneapolis and the call for even greater racial divide, we all need to choose joy.  To put our minds and hearts together and take notice of the beauty around us, the beauty in each other.

We could choose to give up and give in, but then we are allowing others to take away our creative power.  Each of us was put on Earth for a purpose.  There is a plan for each of our lives, and if we give in to doubt, disappointment, and despair, then we won’t fulfill our purpose, our reason for being on this planet.  We aren’t here to just take and take, and strive.  We are here to give, share, and experience the incredible joy life holds.

While I’m writing this post, I’m listening to the Ode to Joy  (flashmob version). It is a song that throughout my life has inspired me and made me feel empowered to choose my own positive path.  It has helped me through sickness and depression.  Music gives me the strength to go on.

For the last few years,  I have enjoyed the work of  the group, for KING and COUNTRY.  Their song, Joy, always brings me out of my self and into the world.  It reminds me that happiness is a choice.  All I have to do is look around – search for beauty, look out for wonder,  reflect on the bounty all around me.

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Ode No. 9: Simple Joy

Lavender tea in my favorite chipped cup,

News of my nephew beginning to crawl,

Watching my husband practice fencing,

The squirrel on a branch outside my window,

Bunching up his tail and chattering –

Simple things bring joy.

 

Dancing in my socks with abandon,

The radio blaring an upbeat tune,

Curling up with a good book,

Hanging onto the beauty –

Holding onto the magic of words –

Simple things bring joy.

 

My old, heavy mixing bowl,

Whisking eggs, sugar and flour.

The smell of vanilla.

A brief walk in the woods,

Among the lichen-wet trees,

Breathe in the rain-fresh air –

Simple things bring joy.