Before I could write, I loved to tell stories. I told stories to anyone who would listen. I loved to listen to other people’s stories too. I was a master eavesdropper by the time I was four. I loved the warp and weft of the words people told. It seemed like pure genius. Words came together and made people laugh, surprised them, and sometimes made them cry. Words were a way for me to express my emotions, and I had so many emotions rushing at me when I was a child. The way I managed them was to write. The way I could understand my world was to write. The way to make order and feel safe was to write.
As soon as I could hold a pencil in my hand, I drew stories and then eventually began to write. I wrote all the names of the people in my family, made lists of all my stuffed animals, wrote poems, and then wrote stories about everything and everyone. I never ran out of ideas. I always had something to say. If I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t thinking; I wasn’t living. But I was an undisciplined writer. I wrote sporadically as if some kind of divine intervention had to happen. The poem would just plunk itself down from the sky. And I would be satisfied for a week or so until another poem would fly in from the open window. I have boxes and boxes of half-written in journals. Throughout my school experience, I was praised as a writer. It was a place where I could shine. I never felt afraid when I was writing. I had some success at having some poems and articles published through the years.
However, it wasn’t until two years ago, when Ruth Ayres invited me to join SOS: Sharing our Stories that I began to write consistently. I would post every week and that was so good for me. I read other bloggers and began to make connections. Last year, I came across Stacey Shubitz’s TWT: Slice of Life March Challenge. And honestly I thought, “Are they crazy? I can’t write every day!” So, I tried but I only posted 5 or 6 times. I wondered, “How on earth could anyone write every day? Didn’t they know I was busy?”
This year, something changed. I got rid of “busy” and started to focus on what is most important to me. When this year’s SOL Challenge came, I was ready. I set my invention to sit and write every day. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I did. I learned so much from this experience. I created pieces that would never have been written because I wrote every single day. I plan to keep this up past March. I don’t think I will post every day, but I will certainly write every day.
I am so grateful to Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz for providing platforms where teacher-writers can share their work. I’ve learned so much from them and so much from fellow bloggers. I love connecting with people who share my passion for the pen (pencil, keyboard) – for the wild, poignant stories.
I wrote a poem years ago as part of a poetry novel I hope to finish this year, since I think I’ve finally made a break through with my battle with consistency. It expresses how much writing is a part of my life. I don’t know how people get through the day without reading, writing, or art. It doesn’t seem possible to me.
Like Breathing When we are alone, My mother hands me a present Wrapped in brilliant blue. I rip it open to reveal A brand-new journal. It’s suede, the color of new earth, It smells of earth too, comforting, Tied together with strong leather strings And small brass beads. I look up at my mother to thank her, She puts one arm around my shoulder, Holds me close and whispers, “Just keep writing - Just keep writing,” she says. But she does not say it Like my teachers would, Not just keep writing because I have to, It’s an assignment – I will be graded. Punctuation counts, spelling counts, Not just keep writing – like it’s good for me, Like it’s medicine or spinach - But just keep writing because it’s part of me, Like breathing in air and exhaling, Because it keeps me alive, Because it connects me to the world, Because it keeps me sane It is my life – I need to live it, My feelings count, Memories count.
The sun is shining, birds gather to sing, and spring is finally here. This morning, my heart is a bit lighter; my mind a bit clearer. I can push world events away for just a little while. I can revel in the time when the earth becomes renewed. The woodland animals are coming out of their winter stupor. I am beginning to feel a little more hopeful. I too can turn my face to the sunshine and feel restored. It is a day to celebrate. Go out into nature, find beauty, and rejoice.
A little song to celebrate this day and the earth’s resilience. Welcome spring!
Awaken the Peas Upon the earth, the sun shines down Each ray, a warm delight. Each tiny seed rests and waits Until the time is right. The sun’s steady light Begins to warm and spread, Awakening each little seed From its frosty bed. Awaken the peas from their round green beds Remind them spring is coming, Tell each raindrop to kiss their heads And set the bees a-humming.
Courage, sacrifice, determination, commitment,
toughness, heart, talent, guts.
That’s what little girls are made of.– Bethany Hamilton, Soul Surfer
For almost twenty years, I have worked in an all girls school. Every morning I wake up, get dressed, drive to work, grab a cup of coffee on the way, and arrive at school. When I walk down the corridors, I am greeted by a variety of girls, ages three to eleven. They wear colorful leggings, light-up sneakers, unicorn headbands, wild curls and long twisted braids. They come in all shapes, shades, and sizes. And they are the hope we need in this world, especially right now. These girls dance, make marble mazes out of masking tape and construction paper, solve fraction problems, and write poetry. These girls paint with bright splashy colors, read graphic novels, make oozy green slime that sparkles, and sing like angels. They are creative, curious, and athletic. They are cheerful and face the world unafraid. They will try anything and laugh while doing it. They are the reason I come to school each and every morning.
Today I celebrate girls. Back when I was a little girl, girls were supposed to be “sugar and spice and everything nice.” I didn’t always fit that description. I was always on the move, both in mind and body. I did not sit still at all except when I was reading or writing. Then my mind would wander off into amazing places. A few years ago, I came across a book of poetry, A Maze Me by Naomi Shihab Nye. It is a wonderful collection of poems that captures the essence of being a girl. I love this collection and often share the poems with my students. I was so inspired by Ms. Nye’s work that I thought I’d try my hand at some poems about girlhood. I started to put together a small collection called – What Girls are Made of. Here is a selection.
Blue Mohair It’s funny how a piece of clothing Can hold a memory - My blue mohair sweater With large, shiny blue buttons, A hand-me-down from my sister - So fuzzy and soft, the shade of blue I imagine Heaven to be. That mohair sweater I wore when I was ten, The day my father brought me To the ASPCA, Bought me a seven dollar dog - A little black and white terrier with a curly tail, I’d yearned for - for years! The look of surprise on my mother’s face When I came home with my new puppy Nestled in my arms, His wet nose peeking out from that Warm mohair sweater - Surely I was in dog heaven. Babysitter’s Blues When Barbara, our babysitter, comes We are so happy, She plays with us and NEVER tires, She makes us spaghetti With tiny meatballs And let’s us have An extra cookie. Tonight we play Go Fish, Old Maid, And Hangman, She brings art supplies: Paper and bright blue ink She says we have to Be CAREFUL, We dip our brushes in Gently paint the paper. I am so ecstatic The blue glides Across the paper: Blue sky, Blue snow, Blue house, Blue trees, My excited hand Knocks the bottle over Soon there is a Blue puddle Blue pond Blue lake Blue river Blue waterfall FLOWING Down the table Onto the white carpet. Barbara dives For napkins, sponges, Paper towels, My sister and I Blot the table Toss our blue worlds Into the trash We scrub the table And chairs until There is no trace of blue We look at Barbara Blotting the blue pool That remains on the carpet It gets lighter and lighter But will never be white again. I cry blue tears, And so does my sister, And so does Barbara. Oh woe is me - For woefully Mom will soon Be home to hear and see, Our babysitter’s blues. Sleepless Summer sleepover Eight girls crammed Into a camper Parked in Kathy’s backyard So we won’t disturb Her neighbors, her parents, Her baby brother. The camper rocks with excitement As we roll out our sleeping bags And claim our spaces We crowd around The tine kitchen table Filled with chips, dips, pretzels, Salsa, soda, and candy. Crunching and slurping Talking and laughing Telling scary stories Playing Truth or Dare Dare you to run around The outside of the camper Alone at midnight Flashlights cast an eerie light Making our faces ominous. I step bravely outside alone In my pajamas and bare feet, Run around the camper panting Inside girls are giggling The neighbor’s dog growls From behind the hedge I let out a blood-curdling scream, Seven girls inside shrieking Lights come on! Neighbors waking, Parents yelling, It’s late, go to sleep! We finally quiet down, Huddled together, Whispering for hours, Never sleeping.
This week, my thoughts came in quick, short phrases. They begged to be placed into poetry. January is a perfect month for reflection, and I am able to get to the center of my thoughts when I compose poetry. Everything seems to fall into place, and I feel comforted by the rhythm of my thinking.
Recently, my husband and I traveled south to visit family for the holidays. As he has done on all our road trips, my husband curates music, radio shows, and intersperses his own running monologues critiquing economics, art, fitness trends, and politics as I drive.. He is indeed a Renaissance man. As he talked, he mentioned Icarus in passing. At once, words popped into my head, and I recited to him: “Falling, falling, falling – down through the distant sky – like Icarus on melted wings – Never asking why.”
“Oh, that’s good,” my husband replied, “Where’s that from?”
I laughed, “From me. I wrote that in college. It’s part of a longer poem. But I had forgotten all about it until now.”
My husband went on with his story. I tried to pay attention, but my lost poem kept rolling around in my mind. It had been published in my college literary magazine, Cul-de-sac. At the time, I thought being published in the Cul-de-sac and being part of the editorial board was the height of literary success. I had kept several clippings but had lost them all in subsequent moves. This was long before the Internet and all things digital, and I had tossed out all my college notebooks on some impetuous whim. In my twenties, I was not aware of the need to keep memories. Now, in my sixties recalling memories and emotions is a sacred, almost devotional act.
I began recreating the poem silently in my head as I drove. It was had three stanzas maybe four. I couldn’t remember the exact words, but as I recited it my head, I got closer and closer to the original poem. The rhythm of the road helped me to remember. As the words came to me, in a short time so did my emotions. I thought about why I wrote that poem; all the loneliness and insecurity I felt came rushing back. Though being sixty-five is certainly not a cakewalk, I don’t think I would want to be twenty again. Don’t get me wrong. I would like to have my twenty-year-old skin, hair, knees, and back but not my twenty-year-old self-loathing that I have worked forty-five years to overcome.
My twenty-year-old poet-self wanted so much out of the world, wanted to do so much, and I felt so unprepared. I was so desolate and so hopeful at the same time. I guess that’s the nature of twenty-something. At the time, I was taking a course on Ibsen. We read one of his early poems as a prelude to his play, The Master Builder. I was struck how his poem, written thirty-four years earlier, connected to the essential message of his play.
I was very painfully aware of how ambition and desire were a dangerous mix. I was not at all sure how to build a strong artistic identity. I think I am still struggling with that. I create work – sometimes hiding it and sometimes presenting or publishing it. However, I think I have used teaching as a safety net. If I fall, teaching could always save me. Now, I’m facing the end years of my teaching career. The art and writing are still strong within me. And that poem that I wrote forty-five years ago, still remains true.
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.
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.
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.
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!