Category Archives: nature

Feeling alive. Or, thank you Gwen Frostic and Mary Oliver (yet again).

I’ve been wanting to write about one of my favorite parts of summer, and since I just finished making my way through Mary Oliver‘s New and Selected Poems: Volume 1, I figured it was the perfect time. One of the conclusions I’ve come to about maintaining sanity while busy is how necessary it is to slow down and connect with the things that make us feel alive. I’ve written a lot about the stress of my last year (school-year time, not calendar) and the different ways my summer helped me crawl out of that anxiety-ridden time.

In the middle of August I drove some friends to northern Michigan to where one of them has spent time every summer since childhood. The five days of our trip were spent doing all the things I love: driving on country roads with good music, buying copious amounts of produce and cider donuts from road side stands, the sounds of the woods, starring at water, riding in a boat, cooking and drinking wine, and being amazed at nature.

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The Cottage Book Shop, Anna’s boat, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Cherry Republic

One of the highlights was going to the studio of local artist Gwen Frostic, who passed away in 2001, but whose studio has been kept up and running. She created woodblock prints inspired by the landscape around her, and their stunning simplicity was a perfect pairing for my love affair with the words of Mary Oliver; both are inspired by not just nature, but nature’s capacity for healing and reflection.

From “Morning Poem” 

each pond with its blazing lilies

is a prayer heard and answered

lavishly,

every morning,

whether or not

you have ever dared to be happy,

whether or not

you have ever dared to pray.

Two of the dozen Gwen Frostic woodblock prints I couldn't walk away without.

Two of the dozen Gwen Frostic woodblock prints I couldn’t walk away without.

From “Starfish”:

It never grew easy,

but at last I grew peaceful:

all summer

my fear diminished

as they bloomed through the water

like flowers, like flecks

of an uncertain dream,

while I lay on the rocks, reaching

into the darkness, learning

little by little to love

our only world.

A few weeks later, I drove upstate to Windflower Farm for their CSA campout with a dear friend and along the way we ate at my favorite restaurant of all time, dropped in on a show by the inspiring artist Lisa Congdon, and drank up the farmlands around the Hudson River Valley. We spent so much time talking about how it was worth it to go out of our way to see Lisa’s show, and to talk to Maggie at her cafe, and to be with Farmer Ted on his land: being around people who create inspires creation.

Maggie's Krooked Cafe, artist Lisa Congdon, Windflower Farm

Maggie’s Krooked Cafe, artist Lisa Congdon, Windflower Farm

Insert school and grad school starting right after the farm trip. Needless to say, I rareIy had time to slow down and create. I’m tired of this being my story of a school year. When I felt tired, I sat on the couch and tried to catch up on The Good Wife in the name of “relaxation”. Nothing against The Good Wife (you know I love my shows), but even though I was technically relaxing, my soul didn’t feel alive. Thankfully, Daniel and I went on a walk to Prospect Park this morning and talked almost the whole time about art (please look at his work) and cultivating a life that helps create it. I found myself snapping pictures of leaves and trees I wanted to draw. It’s amazing how if I do the things I truly love, my desire to create increases. And in turn, I feel more full. And relaxed. And alive.

So, my goal for this favorite season of my life is to choose to spend time walking to the park or to the river. To not let tiredness or busyness be an excuse for the kind of relaxation that doesn’t really relax in the end. I’ve been reading a lot about the art of attention: being present and noticing the beauty of life around me. Hopefully that will weave its way into it all, too.

The magic of paying attention: Mary Oliver’s "A Thousand Mornings"

{photoshop image, The Octopus Garden}
wrote about my favorite album of the year, Over the Rhine’s Meet Me at the Edge of the World, back in September, which became an anchor for my soul this fall: an album I returned to countless times to be reminded of beauty and truth and the way I wanted to live. I also shared a link to an article I loved about their writing process.  In it, I found we shared a few common inspirations, which led me to check out some of the writers they mentioned, including Mary Oliver.
Oliver’s work is rooted in observing nature and cultivating a sense of place and in a quest to feel more grounded and aware, I took to reading her poetry collection A Thousand Mornings one poem at a time each day with my breakfast throughout October and November.  What I found while reading her work was that I began to look at the world around me in a different way.  Even though I live in a city, my eyes were sharpened and my breath deepened as I watched the rhythms of autumn and early winter around me.  I found myself staring at the patterns of leaf veins, and letting falling snow calm me down.
I came across the image I included above while researching Oliver, and it has become a guide for me in pursuing a watchful spirit and a creative life.  Looking for reasons to be amazed, and living a life filled with wonder–especially when they don’t cost a dime–is a game changer.

Everything was safe and good: transitioning from childhood adulthood

I recently finished The Round House by Louise Erdich, which is the story of 13-year-old Joe who lives on a reservation in North Dakota in the late eighties whose mother is brutally attacked and changes everything he held to be true.  On a large scale, this book brought to light the inane politics and laws surrounding crimes  against Native Americans by non Native Americans, both on and off the reservation land.  And on a smaller, it shows how people move from being the protected and defended as children to wanting to be a protector and defender.

If you’ve been reading here lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about living with a sense of rootedness–so when life gets busy or difficult, I am able to remember deep truths about life–and this lens is informing my entire reading life and what stands out to me in a text, and this book is no different. There is a moment mid-story when Joe hears his parents come home and instead of his father sleeping in the guest room, as he had been doing on request since the attack, they both went into their shared room: “I heard them shut their door with that final small click that meant everything was safe and good (210).”

There are things as children that enable us to feel secure and be able to rest.  (I’ve written about it before here and here.)  Part of growing up is becoming aware that life is fragile and often uncontrollable.  I often miss the sweetness of being young and thinking that everything “was ok” once both my parents made it home from work and we were all safe in the house.  And yet, I’m convinced that there is still truth behind feeling safe: resting in the fact that I am not in control, seeing patterns in the natural world, and knowing there is something bigger beyond that holds us together as humans.  It’s a sense of safety that allows me to breathe deeply and not live in fear.

My school had our “Quality Review” last week and in the months, weeks, and days leading up to it, life at work was tense and stressful–a constant balancing act of hearing about the politics of education and things I needed to check off my list to play the game and remembering to look at my students and see them as people and remembering why I love my job in the first place.  On the second morning of the review, it started to snow pretty heavily.  My stomach was still in the knots it curled into since September, so I decided to take a minute in each class and turn off the lights and direct my students’ eyes outside.  We sat in silence and watched the snow fall for a few moments and took deep breaths.  It was amazing.  And healing.

I am trying to cull my inner Mary Oliver (more on her poetry soon) and allow the both the tradition of family and rhythms of nature (yes, even here in the city) to remind me that there are seasons, there is beauty, and within each there is safety: here is the snow that comes every year.  It is cold, but it is beautiful.  Thinking I am “safe” it does not come quite as easily as it did when I was a child, but it is there, still.
In the story, in a moment when he needs it most he wears his father’s shirt to gather strength.  As an adult he wears his father’s ties.  He is able to draw strength from tradition and memory and pattern and move forward, even when safety can’t be defined as the click of a doorknob.  And this is what I am thinking on as I get ready to go home for Christmas: the strength I can draw on from the rhythms my family has created and the beauty and truth that lay hidden beneath.

The Gift of Solitude: applicable to all adults, as described in a young adult novel.

If there is one thing I try to share with my students throughout the year, it’s the idea that each one of them has a story: that you can never know someone’s story just by looking at them, that it is one of life’s greatest gifts to get to hear other people’s stories, and that it is a privilege for me to get to know theirs throughout the course of the year.  My hope is that they will take the time to really know one another and build a community of understanding, respect, and kindness.

And then I had a moment where I met a protagonist I wanted every student to know:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: We all want everything to be okay (page 6).

The only way I can navigate through my life is because of the 98 percent that every life has in common (page 77).

In my experience, desire is desire, love is love.  I have never fallen in love with a gender. I have fallen for individuals.  I know this is hard for people to do, but I don’t understand why it’s so hard, when it’s so obvious (page 142).

A handful of my students were raving about Everyday by David Levithan in our weekly “Friday Favorites” five minute share and after hearing the premise, I knew I wanted to check it out.  The protagonist, A, is essentially a soul (without a gender): s/he wakes up in a new body everyday while maintaining a fully developed sense of self–just no physical body with which to express him/herself.  This is one of the most thought provoking and creative young adult books I’ve ever read.  It touches on so many young adult emotional-development issues, but not in a preachy way: the protagonist authentically brings them up and because his/her life experience is so different than the average human, and based on what I’ve witnessed in my classroom, I think young adult readers will just soak it in.

But I also found a section that spoke into everything I’ve been thinking about lately: maintaining a sense of self, of peace, of purpose.  He falls for the girlfriend of a [horrid] guy whose body he occupies for a day and then ends up maintaining a relationship with her–his/her first ever–though each day s/he is in a new body. S/he sees the stress she deals with and the broken, hurtful relationship she is in.  When s/he unexpectedly wakes up in her body one day, he decides to try to give her the gift of peace in solitude and goes for a long hike.  The description he uses is amazing:

I’ve decided to give Rhiannon the satisfaction of being fully alone.  Not the lethargy of lying on the couch or the dull monotony of drifting off in math class.  Not the midnight wandering in a sleeping house or the pain of being left in a room after the door has been slameed shut.  This alone is not a variation of any of those.  This alone is its own being.  Feeling the body, but not using it to sidetrack the mind.  Moving with purpose, but not in a rush. Conversing not with the person next to you, but with all of the elements.  Sweating and aching and climbing and making sure not to fall, not to get too lost, but lost enough…When no one else is around, we open ourselves to the quieter astonishments that enormity can offer (197-198).

I meet monthly with some friends and we talk about the creative pursuits in our lives and what we are learning about ourselves in the process.  It has become a treasured time for me.  My November wasn’t as creative as I planned: I made some substitutions for painting and calligraphy in the name of stress and exhaustion and travel, which at the time seemed justifiable.  I realized, though, that my substitutions weren’t the same, even though I was technically “doing nothing.” I realized once again that I need to spend intentional time opening myself “to the quieter astonishments that enormity can offer”–whether that enormity is staring at sky behind the branches of newly leafless trees, breathing in the scent of my Christmas tree, or taking out my paints and ink to let go and create.

Here’s to a beautiful winter season filled with beauty amidst the darkness.

(And here are some other winter thoughts in case you, too, struggle with the fact the sun goes down at 4:30, or just need some context and/or hope from someone who is often winter-hopeless).

I think I need a secret garden.

www.akindoflibrary.blogspot.com

As much as I anticipate the glory of spring after the hated season, as much as I revel in late summer evenings, there is nothing that compares to the fall in my mind. Perhaps this is so because the house I grew up in was neighbors with three enormous, ancient maple trees and our backyard was yearly carpeted with the best piles to jump in EVER (which I’m sure my dad was not thrilled about…after all this is before his discovery of leaf blowers, snow blowers and electric pumpkins…ha…the good, old days). Maybe it was because my birthday was in the fall and for years we went to Hidden Valley Farm for hayrides and pumpkin picking. Maybe it was because I spent a fair amount of my childhood romping through the woods and the colors added a whole new element for my imagination.

This year’s fall has been rainy nearly every weekend. My perfect fall moments have become few and far between and my midwestern heart is not quite sure what to do with the lack of romping through the leaves this year. Even though its been at Prospect, Central or Riverside Park the past seven falls, there is still plenty of space for proper frolicking.

I just finished rereading The Secret Garden and, not surprisingly, found myself longing for countryside. Mary and Colin start off the book as spoiled, selfish and neglected children who are ultimately healed emotionally and physically by spending time inside a garden untouched by adults and expectations, being changed by its magic.

As I read, everything inside of me wanted to run off to the woods and just be. Or be driving down the rural part of State Route 73 in southwest Ohio. Or laying in a pile of leaves in my backyard. Stuck in a long, frozen moment of crisp fall air and open spaces. I realized that I count on the fall to renew my spirit before the winter begins and in between the rain and the craziness of the first quarter at school, it just hasn’t happened this year. This is not ok. So. Since there isn’t a cloud in the sky today and since the high is 68, I am off.