We Are All Storytellers

A storyteller, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, is a:

a. a relater of anecdotes
b: a reciter of tales (as in a children’s library)
c. liar, fibber
d: a writer of stories

I’m a bit aghast as I read the definitions.

I talk to the dictionary webpage “That’s all you have to say about storytellers? A relater of anecdotes? A reciter of tales – as in a children’s library? A fibber? A writer of stories?”

Yes, I know they are — technically — definitions of storytellers. But, in my humble opinion — with all due respect to G&C Merriam and Noah Webster —  they are such pedestrian, dry, uninspiring, and perhaps even, incomplete definitions.

What is a storyteller according to me, you ask? So glad you’re wondering.

A storyteller, is:
a. a wielder of power
b. a connector of seemingly unconnected things
c. one who deals in possibility, magic, truth, inspiration, hope. 
d. a teller of stories — written, spoken, shown, lived — to children and adults.
e. me, and you

Are you suprised by my definitions? Are you thinking, “I’m not a storyteller. Storytelling isn’t my thing, I’m a teacher, a doctor, a parent, a crossing guard — I’m just me, I don’t tell stories.”

Ah, but it is your thing. Storytelling is our thing as humans. We are all storytellers. We craft our own stories, and we help others craft theirs.

Maybe in the place of the definition, the dictionary should just have a mirror, or the instructions: To discover what a storyteller is, find your nearest mirror and peer inside.

Still not convinced? Read on.

As you read, listen for the stories being encouraged and told.

Scenario #1

I’m in for an MRI. I’m feeling all the classic nervous symptoms, but I’m, doing my best to use positive self-talk, prayer, and my breath as anchors to peace and hope. 

I’m greeted at the door with hand sanitizer and a scanning thermometer. “Any cough, fever, recent loss of taste or smell?” “No,” I reply, adding, “Woo hoo and praise God! Have a good day.” She looks at me as though not quite sure how to respond. We make eye contact during her brief moment of hesitation. Finally she says “You, too.” before turning to the next person who has come through the door. 

Arriving at imagining I’m handed paperwork to fill out. It includes a laundry list of “have you ever …” Except for the fact that I’m able to answer no to many of the questions, this doesn’t do much to assuage my anxiety. Now I wait. The only noise is the TV which fills the silence of the waiting room with less than positive banter of some news broadcast.

My name is called and the tech takes my paperwork. Looking at the paperwork rather than me, she asks me some questions as she walks quickly — ahead of me — down the hall. She points to where I am required to change out of the clothes I specifically chose to increase my sense of personal power, courage, and fantabulousness, into a significantly less than attractive, dull, hospital gown that seems to mock me by incessantly whispering “you are most certainly not well.” I quiet its voice with my new baby Yoda hat and mask. They speak to me with the optimism of the child who gifted them to me. “Keep breathing. You can do it, Ms. James. You ARE fantabulous.”

As I walk into the MRI room, my tech matter-of-factly hands me the panic button, as I lie down on the machine.  She says, quite casually, “it’s going to take 35-40 minutes.” I do my best to control my voice so as  not to yell at her as she disappears behind a door.  “THIRTY TO FORTY MINUTES?!?!!!” 

I close my eyes and take a deep breath as the table slides inside the remarkably small tube. I remind myself of my dad’s words as I left the house “Remember, even though it’s small, there’s plenty of room for some angels in there with you.” My tech’s voice, as though from some far off land, jolts me from that space of safety. “Ok, the first one’s going to be about 3 minutes.” 

Scenario #2

My oncologist’s office and infusion room is on the second floor. No matter how tired I am, I eschew the elevator, and head to the stairs. Today is no different.

As I start up the stairs, I unzip my coat. My eyes fall upon the hot pink superman emblem on my tech-shirt. With each step, I focus on my breathing, and repeatedly run through a set of affirmations. “I am safe. I am sound. I am well. I am whole. My body is working for optimal health. Life is good. I am good. God is greater.”

I refrain from even thinking “I’m nervous or anxious.” I’m feeling nervous and anxious – but they are most certainly not what I am.  As I open the door at the top of the stairs, I borrow an affirmation from my kindergartners  “I am peace.” My hand closes on the rosary in my pocket as I walk down the hall from the elevator. In the office, I laugh as I’m greeted “Good golly, Miss Molly! How are you today?” 

Scenario #3

I’m holding a plethora of cardboard tubes as some of my young Kindergarten architects and builders work to secure them with duct tape. They decided our classroom supermarket needed a door, and after studying a few, they have enlisted me — and my hands — to help with the construction. 

The room is buzzing with voices and bodies, as  Kindergartners do their best to move without knocking into anything, or anyone. In the corner I see two builders in some sort of power struggle. One face is angry, the other timid. Unkind words come from the angry one’s mouth. Unable to extricate myself from the door, I raise my voice to get the angry one to stop. 

When my task with the door creators is done, I go check on the formerly angry and timid builders. We chat for a bit and settle the dispute that had precipitated the problem. 

I then ask the owner of the formerly angry face if I might chat with her. 

We find a quiet spot and sit together. I ask her if she understands why I raised my voice. “I was being mean.” she says. “Yes,” I reply, “You were.” She didn’t completely meet my gaze. I asked if she would please look at me. She did. 

I proceed. “How did I sound when I spoke to you?” “Mad,” she whispers. “Yes,” I say in agreement, “and maybe even a little mean, right?” Now she is really looking at me. “I was right to ask you to stop.” I explain. “I wasn’t right to be mean when I did it. I’m sorry.” 

Scenario #4

I finally finished zipping the remarkably long zipper on my comforter-like winter coat as I walk out the door for recess. As I slip on my mittens, I notice my boots have come untied. “Drat!” I say to myself, or perhaps even out loud. I take a breath and remind myself it will only take a minute to tie them, no worries.

Out of nowhere two Kindergartners appear — eyes wide, faces glowing — “Do you want us to tie your shoes for your Ms. James? We can tie them!” 

I chuckle and refrain from saying “No, that’s ok. I can do it!” Instead I smile and say “Thanks! That would be fantabulous!” 

Did you notice the stories that were being told in each scenario? Not just the events themselves, but the stories being told. What stories did I tell? What stories did others tell me? What stories did I help others to hear, and hopefully, to tell? What stories did others encourage me to tell? 

We tell stories by the things we think and say, the way we speak, our body language, the clothes we wear, the things we have in our spaces, the way we do or do not look at one another, the background noise we have in our environment, the relationships we encourage, and so much more. We tell stories with each little piece of our everyday lives. 

Sometimes the stories we tell are very purposeful and intentional. Sometimes they are not. Sometimes we tell stories without thinking about the stories we’re telling. Sometimes — as in the case of Doug Dietz designer of MRI  – we tell stories that we never intended to tell. If Doug is any example, and I think he’s a great one, that’s ok. We always have the opportunity to be intentional, and to change the stories into the ones we want to tell.

So my fellow humans, my fellow fantabulous storytellers, remember, we always tell a story. And, others always listen.

Let’s be intentional. Let’s tell the best stories possible. And, let’s help others hear, tell, believe, and live, their best stories too.

Oooh, A New Brush!

I broke out a new watercolor brush today. It was so much fun! If you’ve never tried it, you really should. It doesn’t have to be a new brush — any new tool will do. It’s especially fantabulous if the new tool has unique or unusual characteristics compared to your other tools.

I discovered this type brush a few months ago. Can you imagine?! I’ve been an artist of sorts my whole life, and here’s a brush I’d never heard of before.

The brush is a rigger, and the hair is remarkably long compared to a similarly sized round brush.

I read it’s called a rigger because it was originally used to create the straight lines of the rigging of boats. The idea being, I believe, that the long hairs allowed for the shaking in your hands to be less noticeable in the line. And yet, what I loved as I used it, was the fact that very slight movements of my fingers/hands created beautiful, non-straight, organic lines. I’m thinking there’s a connection between those two competing uses. I can’t yet express it, but I feel it’s there. I need to play a bit more.

Finished for the moment, I imagined my Kindergartners saying, “That’s so nice, Miss James. How did you do that?” Implying “How can you do that but I can’t?” I usually respond to that query by reminding them how long I’ve been playing and practicing. But today, I’d have to add, “And I used a really cool brush called a rigger. I’ll have to bring it in so you can try it”

Creativity on St. Brigid’s Eve

I was scrolling through my feed last night and came upon this poem.

St. Brigid’s Eve
This night,
they would hang the cloths
for birthing and healing
over the thorn branches
for her blessing,
that as she walked the land
the divine dew, twice sanctified
by the dawn and the day both,
might soak them sacred again
and enrich them with this vigil’s virtue
for the passing of all pain.
This night,
they would sweep the hearth and house
and bless the barn and the beasts,
settling the kine as Queens
in the golden hay of gratitude
for their animal alchemy.
This night,
they would leave out
the old gifts of grace,
the milk and the salt and the bread,
and light the lamp in the window
with love for her,
their princess, passing in peace.
This night,
the stranger that knocked
would be welcomed and warmed,
invited to stretch their feet
before the fire
and offer a story to the circle.
This night,
as the Moon rose over the mountains
the old songs were sung,
and the women watched and waited
plaiting the rushes and the reeds
into ancient patterns of power.
This night,
as all surrender to sleep
she walks the land lightly,
breathing blessing,
over barn and beast and babe,
she who fears no dark,
goddess named and God re-born,
by water and fire and blood,
in the Three who are One.
This night,
our ancient Abbess
and lady of the Light,
of Kildare’s
Oaken cell,
she whose cloak enfolds
the land she loves
comes by.
For this night,
is Brigid’s
night.

When I read it then, and when I read it now, I am filled with a desire to know this princess who fears no dark, receive her blessing, feel the power of the plaited cross, and be enfolded in her cloak. I’ve been praying to Saint Brigid for some time now — introduced to her by lovely Irish priests we’ve been watching preach online during the pandemic.

Providentially last night was the St. Brigid’s eve. I wanted very much to make St. Brigid’s cross.

Typically the cross is made with reeds — which interestingly enough are pulled rather than cut. I have yet to discover why, but, I liked the idea of pulling some from one of our hiking jaunts. It was, however, cold and beginning to snow, so, my mind turned to what I had in my home that might work instead. Nothing organic immediately came to mind.

The acrylic paint lying by my chair caught my eye and imagination. I could paint a sheet of watercolor paper, cut it into strips, and plait my cross with these handmade paper reeds. I chose various shades of greens and some metallic gold, and set to work with an old gift card as my painting tool.

I placed the paint with joyful abandon — layering colors one on top of another. The blank page didn’t give me the least worry. But the finished product felt so lovely I didn’t immediately want to cut it.

Instead, I pulled another sheet from the pad and began to experiment. Should I cut long-ways or short-ways? Would the construction of the paper influence how each strip laid? How thin should I make each strip? How many do I need to create the cross? Would the longer strips be more appropriately proportioned for the task? After a bit of playing and noticing, I decided on long strips. I grabbed some tools — a bone folder, and a doubled pointed knitting needle – and set to plaiting.

I almost immediately discovered a downfall of paper versus actual reed. Reeds are three dimensional which makes them lie nicely next to one another. Not so the paper.

The strips paper constantly move out of place and make it difficult to maintain the cross shape. I tried gluing the center of each fold. It worked, but gave too rigid a look to the cross. I made the first strip twice as wide as the others and folded it to give it more 3D heft hoping it would act as an anchor for the rest of the work. It worked only minimally well.

As I manipulated the strips for a longer and longer time, I realized I could use the structure of weaving to aid my quest. Since each strip is folded in half, the back part could be woven and give structure, while the front piece stayed long and free mimicking the actual reed. Success!

The next dilemma I encountered was how to secure the ends of each arm of the cross. Wanting to maintain the integrity of the paper reeds, I experimented with thinner strips of my hand painted paper. I needed them to be thin enough to tie, but not so thin as to break.

Turns out watercolor paper is quite strong and malleable. After a few tries I found the size that allowed me to create a knot that was effective and artistically pleasing to me.

I finished the cross in the wee hours of the morning. I’m really pleased with the result, and the increased connection to Saint Brigid.

Today I stumbled upon a speech by Irish President Michael Higgins for St. Brigid day.

As he spoke, words and phrases jumped out at me:
~ creativity, genius, courage
~ Brigid is patroness of, among other things, healing, and the arts.
~ St. Brigid was a woman who dedicated herself to innovation in the realm of education
~ She had to summon an extraordinary courage
~ (She had to) transcend obstacles
~ (She had to) not just survive, but put a new version of things in place.
~ We invoke her
~ We seek strength together in such values as solidarity, care, compassion and kindness.
~ We prepare to move into the brighter, warmer days of Spring, with renewed hope
~ (As we move) through moments of darkness, it is important to celebrate the light.
~ (May we all find) rebirth, rejuvenation, renewal, resurrection and regrowth.

Creativity. Courage. Education. Hope. Faith. Surely I have found a kindred spirit in this strong woman. She is a patron of many things. I think she should be my patron as well. I’m adopting Saint Brigid as my elder Irish sister — or am I just accepting her invitation to be her younger non-Irish sister?

So happy to have found Brigid, and to have had the moments of joy-filled creativity in her honor. The cross hangs on our door, blessed with this prayer: May the blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost be on this Cross and on the place where it hangs and on everyone who looks on it.

Happy St. Brigid day!

It’s More Than Jigsaw-puzzling

I borrowed the idea for my title from the Genius of Play organization. When you have a moment, check out their website. The Genius of Play’s mission is to provide families with the information and inspiration they need to make play an important part of their child’s day. Their website is filled with great information for parents, teachers, caregivers, and anyone interested in play.

I had the pleasure of working with the Genius of Play when they sponsored a panel at the Smithsonian Institute. I wrote a bit about it here. I plan to revisit that night, but for now I just mention my definition of play:

Play is a fun and powerful way of interacting with the world — with people, things, thoughts, and ideas. The fun of play is a large part of its power. When we play we laugh, we let go of worry, we fret less, and we breathe more.  This helps our brains — regardless of our ages or tasks — be more open and able to explore possibilities, entertain new ideas, and learn. When we play we are so much more willing to take risks — and even when we fail, we discover that failure isn’t the end, instead it’s the opportunity to begin the game again — stronger and smarter!

I was reminded of that definition today as I began a new jigsaw puzzle. While sorting pieces, I laughed out loud as I recalled another thing I said about play that evening. Play allows us to do things over and over again in joy. Often these are tasks that, done outside of play, might be devoid of joy, and sometimes so awful we’d just as soon stick a pencil in our eye! Oh my!!!

Back to the more about jigsaw-puzzling-play. I noticed a ton of more today, but I’m sure there is even more more that I’ve not yet discovered.

I begin my jigsaw-puzzling with a huge first sort usually oriented towards the fact that I have 6 sorting bins and the two parts of the puzzle box. I don’t look for pieces that go together, but happily accept the connections that show themselves without my help. I separate the edge pieces, and then sort the middle ones by color. My sorting becomes more refined as I construct the puzzle.

I’ve always seen the sorting as a connection to mathematics. After all, I’m looking for and finding patterns and colors; I’m rotating and orienting pieces; and I’m constantly considering spatial information and problems. But today I noticed the connection to literacy — writing, revising, spelling, reading, main ideas, noticing, thinking, wondering, joy and awe.

The scrap copy of a writing piece, or even the first attempt at spelling a word is a lot like my first sort. As writers or puzzlers, we put our pieces where they seem to belong.

Ever time I work a puzzle, I make mistakes. I’m convinced a piece is lost. I sort incorrectly. I find a piece containing something I hadn’t noticed before. I lose a piece under my sorting bins.

What to do? Fret? Berate myself? Decide I’m really bad at puzzling? Give up? No! The playful nature of puzzling helps me react with patience, amazement, and joy. I am continually surprised at what my eyes and brain are able to perceive as I become more familiar with the puzzle. I begin to see gradients of colors I hadn’t noticed before. I find pieces I was convinced were missing the day before.

Frequently, I relook at what I have, rethink, and make some tweaks. Today I was able to make a powerful change when I realized I didn’t have to put green, brown, and red together because I actually have a red bin that I had overlooked. So simple, so silly, and yet, so valuable. Isn’t this like what happens as we, or our students, revise and edit our writing?

As I sort, I make a plethora of decisions. At first I might make my decisions by which color is most prominent. Does this piece have more red or more yellow? As I examine more and more pieces, I begin to get a better feeling for the puzzle. Then, I start to wonder what is most important. What might be a really important detail as I continue to construct the puzzle? Might those blue lines be helpful? I wonder if that small area of green will be a key bit of information to help me place that piece? Should I keep all the pieces with circles in the same space?

This thought process is very similar to the thinking that goes into understanding a story. I notice some things as I begin to read. Then, as I read more, I learn more, interact more, wonder more. What’s the main idea? Who’s the main character? Is she kind or does she just seem like she’s kind? Is my understanding that she is mostly brave causing me to miss that one pivotal and powerful moment of weakness? What does that one fact (one puzzle piece) remind me of? Often I don’t just move forward in the text — or the puzzle – sometimes I retrace my thinking and doing. A new understanding or noticing makes me recall a detail, thought, idea — puzzle piece — that I saw eons ago, and had, until this very moment, not realized I needed, so, back I go.

I chuckled as I took photos to share on this post. How difficult is it to distinguish a straight edged piece from a piece with no straight edges? Clearly, quite difficult! I noticed I had an edge piece in the red bin, then when I went to photograph it, I noticed another! Then upon closer investigations I noticed that the two edge pieces looked like they might fit together. They did! I felt a bit of glee at this unexpected gift.

That experience made me think about my K girls working on spelling words, or forming their letters correctly. They place and form the letters with the information and understanding they currently possess. Things that may seem obvious to us, or will become obvious to them later on, are now overlooked. As they become more familiar with the puzzle pieces — the letters themselves as well as the many sounds they make — they notice new, more accurate and helpful ways to put them together. It’d be fantabulous if I could help them to react to their new realizations – not as weaknesses or moments for embarrassment — but instead as gifts and moments for awe at the remarkableness of their big beautiful brains!

There is an abundance of opportunity in jigsaw-puzzling. The possibilities for joy, learning, and conversation abound. Here are some conversation starters:


How might we begin?
Wow, I never thought of that. Tell me more.
That’s very interesting, how did you make that decision?
What are you thinking?
Wow! Did you see that?
You changed your mind? Awesome. I’d love to know why.
How did you find that piece so quickly? I’ve been looking forever!
Where do you think I should sort this piece?
I wonder if the red color, or the white circle is more important? What do you think? Hmmm, why do you think that?
Gosh, did you notice all these colors in the mountain? At first it looked black to me, now it seems filled with colors. What colors do you see?
I wonder why I didn’t see all the colors at first.
Oh that’s awesome.
So amazing that we couldn’t figure that out for days, and now you/we did!
Your big beautiful brain is fantabulous!
Thanks.
I love puzzling with you.

Play — of all kinds — is a powerful, profound, and fun tool for learning. Let’s be brave, open, and creative. Let’s discover the more, and use it.

A Little Something

A few weeks ago I got a message from a former colleague.

Hey wonderful woman. Would you mind sending me your address? I have a little something to send you.

I chuckled at her beautifully affirming greeting, and sent my address without delay. I felt the delight of a child who knows a little something is in the works.

The package arrived the other day. It was a good size, but extremely light, and made no noise as I moved it into a space for quarantining. I wondered what it might be, and with all the patience I could muster, I waited for its quarantine to end,

Yesterday was the day. Eyes wide, I opened the box. As I folded back the flaps, a smile burst forth on my face, and I laughed out loud.

It was a veritable flock of paper cranes!

That flock is the perfect little something!

I often make paper cranes to share with friends, or leave for others to find. And here they were — with all the hope, joy, love, and wishes I try to infuse into mine — flying back to me. It was fantabulous to pull them out of the box.

My kids made the paper cranes — a symbol of healing — for you. You are always in my prayers.

Wow!

If you’ve ever wondered if kindness matters, wonder no more. It does. These cranes. Notes and thoughtful gifts from Kindergarten alums and their families. Zoom call check ins. Showing a friend how to use her sewing machine via zoom. Praying for and with one another. Listening, laughing, crying together. Chatting on the porch (over 6 feet away) bundled up with masks and a heater. Affirmations sent through WhatsApp. Appreciating one another. Breathing before reacting. Saying thank you. Sharing positive news stories. Walking slower or faster to keep up with your walking partner. Kindness matters! It all matters.

The cranes fly peacefully next to my chair. They accompany me with their wishes and whispers of health, happiness, resiliency, wisdom, beauty, strength, hope, gratitude, and kindness. When I see them out of the corner of my eye, they draw my gaze. Looking at them I wonder about the folding session. Often I reach out and touch them — enjoying the rustling of their paper wings and the shiny bead holding them together.

One more time. Kindness matters. Go be kind.

Beautiful One You Can Do Hard Things!

I got a wonderful gift from my friend Jojo. A bracelet that says “Beautiful girl, you can do hard things.” It’s fantabulous! It isn’t inked so it’s not screaming the message, just whispering into my eyes and my ears.

Beautiful girl, you can do hard things! There’s so much power in that little phrase. It felt right to use it in my latest inspirational journal post. I loved placing the words in my own handwriting and art-writing. I illuminated and elucidated them to capture the remarkable fullness of the things — or at least some of them — a beautiful one (me and others) can do. Hard things, yes! But not just just hard, difficult, painful things. Yes, hard difficult, painful things, AND hard, profound, awesome, creative, life changing things. And, lest I forgot, easy things as well.

It was a great creative endeavor. I took inspiration from a few journal prompt ideas, and then mish-mashed them with some of my own loves. It was — all at once — fun, refreshing, peaceful, and challenging. Perhaps because I was quiet and in the moment, I noticed a lot of thoughts, feelings and actions as they occurred.

MANAGING MESS
Mess and I are friends! I embrace it as a part of my creative process. I know there is great power, potential, and possibility in mess. And yet, I also know at times, I need to clear my space — and my mind — so I don’t become distracted by it.

I found notes, and photos to be helpful as I managed the mess, or to be more positive, the plethora of ideas and materials I had. They kept the spirit of fullness with me, allowed me to manage many things at once, and assured me that my ideas would not be lost or forgotten.

Funny how both full-exuberant-mess, and cleared-expansive-emptiness are both beautiful and generative.

CONVERGENT AND DIVERGENT THINKING
It was fun to allow my thinking to work as a team — collaboratively and freely informing one another. If I were going to illustrate what I experienced, I’d depict them as two beautiful humans, working in peaceful, profound partnership, with lots of conversation, observation, aha moments, and laughter.

COLOR, COMPOSITION, SPACE, SHAPE CONSIDERATION
When I began, I had a vague idea and structure I was playing with, but that was all. I didn’t have a clearly defined color palate or composition. As I chose papers for the collage element, I was open to every piece of paper that spoke to me in any way. I didn’t worry if I couldn’t figure out the connection, I just chose. Only after I had gathered all that I loved, did I then begin to consider the path I wanted to take — keeping some while returning others to the box. Once I surrendered to the process it was quite liberating and enjoyable.

The negative space was the most interesting and complicated. Where should I put it? How big should each space be? Will I fill each space? What will I put in the space? Should I connect the spaces? Keep them similar? As with the paper choosing, I endeavored to be both intuitive and reasoned.

COURAGE, EMOTIONAL REGULATION, RISK TAKING, SEEING AND EMPLOYING MY GIFTS
It was almost funny to experience the amount of courage and emotional regulation I had to employ — or at least be aware of — as I worked on this piece. It happened as I made new connections, tried new things, or old things in new ways. made mistakes, and even thought of filling the blank space.

I managed it a bit with the use of pencil before permanent ink, and experimenting on other pages first. The saying on the bracelet came in handy now as well — I can do hard things! I’m talented, experienced, able to take risks, learn and grow!

PLANNING, REVISING, ENGINEERING, CHOOSING
It was wild to notice the plethora of decisions I was making as I planned and produced the piece. There were tons of problems I noticed as I went along, as well as an abundance of opportunities and ideas I hadn’t thought of in my original plan. All these things required, or enabled, re-planning. Funny isn’t it, how revision can be seen as a problem — an ugly must do — or a wonderful opportunity.

As I worked to fit the pieces of paper, as well as the words, and then doodles, onto the page I was amazed by the amount of spatial manipulation going on in my brain and hands. I was comparing widths and lengths. I was imagining how a particular shape could be split into two or three other shapes. I was comparing percentages covered with those uncovered to find the sweet spot for my piece. I felt a bit like an engineer planning some sort of complicated structure.

The agency in all of this was at times overwhelming, and at others completely exhilarating. Thankfully the overwhelm was momentary and easily foiled with a pause, look, and breath.

DISCOVERING, UNDERSTANDING, LEARNING ABOUT MYSELF – WHO I AM, WHAT I DO, WHAT IS IMPORTANT AND ESSENTIAL AND LIFE GIVING … AND THINKING OF MY STUDENTS

I noticed how my choice of words, and font was incredibly important. I was making meaning with what I said and inked in my own handwriting and art. I tried various fonts, and used the thesaurus to see if there were synonyms that seemed more wonderful in meaning, sound, or feeling. I played with the word order to give me the rhythm I wanted. And, even when finished I kept looking at the piece wondering if I had missed anything. Turns out that little word yes, at the bottom made it complete.

I did my best to be open and honest about myself. I embraced and proclaimed what is true about myself. It’s not that I’ve arrived, not that I’m all I can be, but it is what I am. I am beautiful. I can do hard things, easy things, profound and awesome things, kind, creative, and life changing things. And, in all these ways I can continue to grow.

Now, my students. So many of the things I experienced as I worked are things I want my students to experience — planning, revising, social emotional regulation, finding their voice, speaking their truth, loving words, creating fonts, finding their beautiful and unique handwriting, courage, consideration of composition and all its parts, reflection, agency, creative and critical thinking, and above all, an understanding that each one of them is a beautiful one. Each one of them is beautiful — in all ways — capable of hard things, easy things, profound and awesome things, kind, creative, and life changing things.

I want to take these realizations into my teaching practice. Some of my students have a hard time telling one story at a time. Perhaps it is not that their thinking is a mess as some might suggest, instead, their thinking is remarkable and their brain is incredibly full with ideas and possibility. Perhaps they need a photograph, or a notebook to store and protect their ideas. And, perhaps they need to be applauded for their mind that has so many ideas. My students who are more fearful may need the opportunity to play with all their ideas of story line, character, and setting, before settling on one. Opening them to possibility in the safety of a scrap copy might be incredibly freeing and joy-filled.

The learning and growth that I did through a creative endeavor was remarkable. My students can do the same. They can do it because they are beautiful ones. And, they can do it if I am intentional and help to guide them, be present to them, provide tools they might need, and marvel at their beauty. It doesn’t all happen in purely academic endeavors.

I am a talented, beautiful, competent, capable, and relatively confident adult, and yet it was powerful to receive those words from Jojo. When as an educator, I speak them to my students, imagine the power they have. When they learn to speak it to themselves …. wow!

Beautiful. It’s a good word. A word to see and embrace in myself. A word to see and be in the world. A word to encourage and affirm in others. Might we all be, act, believe, affirm, think, do, beautiful. Surely the world will be better for it.

It’s a Good Day

I haven’t added anything to my inspirational art journal lately. For some reason I’ve been feeling uninspired, and frankly, unconfident. As I experienced this lack of inspiration and confidence, I thought of my Kindergarten girls and all I ask them to do. Sometimes they are uninspired and unconfident, too. I don’t let them stay in that uncomfortable spot, or use it as an excuse. So, I figured I wouldn’t let myself do that either.

I didn’t immediately make an entry, but at least I noticed what was what, and agreed to make one soon.

As I waited to make an entry, I distracted myself by sorting through my rather large collection of books. I found a few books I am ready to let go, a TON of books I want to read, and an old journal.

I flipped through the pages of the journal. This page stopped me mid-flip.

I’ve always admired people who are calligraphy stars, but haven’t yet found my groove with that. Hand-lettering is a different story. I enjoy it, and I’m pretty pleased with my ability.

I remember this hand-lettering adventure. Much like when my kindergartners learn handwriting, I worked to accurately replicate an already created font. It wasn’t simple. I needed to really look at the letters. I endeavored to notice shape, size, angles, relationships between the various components of the letter, and the general feel of the font. Then I took what I noticed, let it inspire me, and created my version of the font. I like it!

There’s a strong connection between my hand-lettering work, and the handwriting work my Kindergartners do. It’s important for me to acknowledge that, and even more important for me to share that with them.

I see at least two reasons to share it with them.

One is to encourage them to really look at the letters. I think sometimes the curiosity that might increase their learning, interest, and enjoyment, gets pushed aside for the rote “learn the steps” method.

The second reason I want to share this with them is to elevate their opinion and understanding of their own work. Rarely do our students see us struggle, practice, or learn new things. Perhaps even worse, the work we ask them to do — writing letters repeatedly — is often perceived as something only for children, or the less skilled. When we share the times our learning looks very much like theirs, we end up elevating their learning, work, and struggle. We normalize it as the way we all learn, become more proficient, and make things our own.

I think it would be amazing if we encouraged our students to create their own hand-lettering. It could be an extension of handwriting, and might even help them become more adept at forming the letters correctly.

Imagine the conversations you could have together about their created hand lettering. They could point out the things they noticed about the various letters, the things they kept the same, the things they emphasized or de-emphasized, what they were thinking, what was easy, what was hard, what they did to overcome various struggles, how they hoped to use the lettering they created, and much more. We could marvel at their noticing, thinking, and creativity. We could notice things about their lettering — how it resembles the handwriting letters, and how it doesn’t, how it makes us feel, and how it inspires us. We could even ask them to teach us how to make it. So much potential for amazing interactions, learning, and growth.

Back to my lettering. I remembered the joy of creating it, so I decided to let that be my ticket back into my inspirational journal. I wrote just one word:

Then I added a few bits of advice for myself. God is love. Be love. Be loved. Beloved. It’s sitting next to my chair, reminding me of the importance and place of love in my life. One might think it’s hard to forget about love. But, I think, sometimes, it’s pretty easy to forget. I want to stop forgetting, and really live love and all its remarkable power.

I flipped a few more pages in my old journal, and noticed this:

and then this:

Have I mentioned lately that I LOVE writing in pencil? Especially a wonderful pencil like the one in the photo — a Faber Castell graphite grip pencil. It is sweet! And no, I don’t receive any free pencils from Faber Castell for recommending them — but boy that would be pretty fabulous!

Again, my thoughts go to my Kindergartners. I understand there are reasons we ask our students to write with particular pencils. But if I love writing more when I use particular pencils, and I know I like my handwriting better with certain pens, mightn’t my students as well? And if they might, shouldn’t I sometimes give them the opportunity to write with tools they love? Yes, I should.

These two pages reminded me of another practice I’d like to incorporate into my day with my students. I like making lists of words — words that inspire me, words that are things I love, words that are things I want to do, or be, or feel. I find joy as I combine the words into phrases – in this case simple two word phrases that are easy to remember and might become mantras. And it’s fun to experiment with various combinations, and imagine things to create with them. Mmm. So good. Fantabulous, even!

So, I’m back on track with my inspirational journal. I am excited to continue my hand lettering work. I’m reminding myself to love, allow myself to be loved, and remember I am the beloved of a God who is love. And, I have some great ideas I want to bring to my fantabulous, big-beautiful-brained Kindergartners!

It’s a good day.

Sit, Sip, Breathe, Look

PART ONE:

I love to sit on my back porch. I sit, sip delicious green tea, breathe, and look.

One tree is particularly attractive to me. It stands in my neighbor’s backyard, and greets me from above their fence. I first noticed it as its leaves turned from green to brilliant gold. Its trunk and branches stood in spectacularly stark contrast to the blazing leaves.

I began to wonder if I could capture it in art. Each time I’m on the porch, I look at this tree. I study it. I admire it. I imagine how I might capture its shape and structure. I wonder what colors and techniques I might use to create the fiery leaves glistening in the sun.

Then, one day, in a remarkably unexpected turn of events, I noticed the tree was bare. All its leaves had fallen to the ground …

… and I saw the sky.

Wow!

Same tree. Same sky.

And yet, completely new.

New perspective. New information. New understanding. New love.

It’s amazing isn’t it?

I’m contemplating doing a study of this tree and sky. Can you imagine? Each day, maybe more than once a day, I would capture this tree and sky in my journal. Every page the same, and yet wildly different! Even if two pages end up being the same, I will grow in my understanding of the tree, the sky, my materials, and my process. And, who’s to say I have to make the sky blue, or the clouds white? It’s my journal, my study, my discovery, my process, my learning, my joy!

I’m excited … and a bit nervous.

PART TWO:

While I wonder if I have a watercolor journal lying around, and where it actually might be, my thoughts turn to my Kindergartners.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if I did this tree and sky study, and then shared it with them? Not as an art project, but as a way to be, and as a powerful way to learn!

I should copyright and market this as a new pedagogical practice – The Sit, Sip, Breathe and Look, Method of Learning. Sit, Sip, Breathe, and Look — Increased learning through relaxation and curiosity. For short I could call it the SSBL Method of Learning.

I started writing the paragraph above with a chuckle. I thought, typed, deleted, and thought some more as I crated a title for my learning method. My chuckles — and clarity– increased as I typed the quick explanation and abbreviation. Naming it seemed to enhance the legitimacy of this as a fantabulous pedagogical practice! Hmmm. I think there’s an article, or some coaching possibilities here.

Until then, back to my students. How would I present my study and the SSBL Method to them? What would I want to them to know?
*It’s good — and important — to sit, sip, breathe, and look.
*Our brains learn best when we, and they, are relaxed.
*Noticing, thinking, and wondering are fascinating, fantabulous, and fun.
*Be curious.
*Be open to more — more noticing, more thinking, more wondering.
*Look, and then look again.
*Even when you think you know something, look again.
*Especially when you think you know something, look again.
*Be willing to be surprised. Expect it, even!
*It’s ok to not know, yet. It’s actually kind of exciting!
*It’s ok to be a little nervous.
*Keep looking.
*Keep learning.
*Be inspired by others.
*Share your noticing, wondering, thinking, ideas, with others.
*Create a study.
*You can do it.

And, there’s no point in telling them all of this, if I don’t also help them do it.

So what might I do to help them embrace the SSBL method of learning?
*Create the infrastructure they need to be successful.
*Talk with their parents and invite them into the SSBL method and concept of learning.
*Explain some of the brain science the supports this method of learning.
*Encourage the parents to create opportunities for the children to sit, sip, breathe, and look.
*Inspire the parents to join their children in their sit, sip, breathe, and look sessions.
*Gift parents with their own study journal.
*Incorporate this form of inquiry and learning as a regular part of our school day.
*Provide time for students to sit, sip, breathe, and look — for their own interests, and curricular purposes.
*Create journals for them to use to record their studies.
*Teach them how to make journals that they can make for their studies.
*Join them in their studies, and invite them into mine.
*Model curiosity, wonder, and awe.
*Value their study and make time to let them share it with others.

I can’t wait to give this a bit more thought, and then give it a go with my girls! Oh, (wink) and market it!






Reflections on Month 6 and Beyond

Last week this happened.

I had my 6 month infusion, and after 6 hours in the chair, I was able to ring the bell.

The infusion itself was exhausting – physically, mentally, and emotionally. And ringing the bell? That was a swirl of all sorts of emotions. I had finished at the infusion center, but my last month of at home meds started the next day. Phew.

I’ve been expecting this last month to be easy. I was mistaken.

The level of difficulty has me feeling distressed, and a tad bit guilty. Perhaps that’s a lack of humility. Or perhaps it’s a misunderstanding of the process and gravity of it all. I’m the queen of relentless positivity and possibility. That’s good — fantabulous even. But, sometimes I need to remember that the positivity and possibility are happening against a backdrop of struggle, and endurance.

Those two photos speak to me of this dicotomy.

I purposefully captured the struggle amidst the positivity in the first photo. My face is to the sun — and the Son. Simultaneously an IV is pumping a plethora of medications into my vein. That is fantabulous and awful. Fantabulous because they are helping me crush the cancer. Awful because they are pummeling my body, mind, and spirit. It’s often remarkably difficult to keep them from vanquishing me.

In the second, I am ringing the bell — indicating the end of my infusion treatment. I’m laughing with my awesome nurse, as she and others cheer me on. Immediately after, we embraced in tears. It was a moment of exhilaration, joy, and relief; as well as a moment of exhaustion, sadness, trepidation, and some disconnect.

Perhaps that sounds odd. Why wouldn’t I just be relieved and happy?

I was! But, those infusions, and those remarkably wonderful, brilliant, and caring nurses have become part of my life. There’s an intense comfort knowing those fantabulous nurses are waiting for me each time I go in. There is security knowing their expertise, and those meds they give me, are keeping me alive and helping me thrive. It’s difficult to leave them, and nearly impossible to express my depth of gratitude.

Add to that the current status of my cancer as incurable, and the emotions intensify. That nagging negative voice in the back of my head complains and points out that it’s not really the end. There will be more.

It is only now, over a week later, that I can take a breath, acknowledge the truth the voice raises, and remind it that even so, for the moment, I am done with the infusions, and that is good.

Meanwhile, I push on with my home medications. They are working their own particular magic. They press on against my cancer, giving it no rest. For that I couldn’t be more grateful. And yet, they continue to press on me as well, and that is not pleasant. Thankfully, they too will soon end, at least for this session. And that too will be a victory worth celebrating. They are no easier, and no less important than the infusions, so their conclusion shall be celebrated as well. (smile)

As I sit here with an pounding head, aching chest, and overall malaise, I chuckle thinking, “Perhaps we should all do more daily bell ringing!”

We took the time to meditate and pray? Ring a bell!
We pause for some breathing and positive thoughts? Ring a bell!
We see the beauty in the little things? Ring a bell!
We are the recipient of unexpected kindness? Ring a bell!
We have patience, and don’t crank at the person who accidentally stepped on our last nerve? Ring a bell!
We notice the miracles and gifts of every day? Ring a bell!
We don’t vomit — even though we feel like we might? Ring many bells! (laughter)

When my last infusion was finally finished, and my nurse excitedly said “Wait! You get to ring the bell! Give me your phone, I’ll take a photo!” I chuckled. The photographer in me thought “Where shall we take it?” I momentarily considered good backgrounds. Then my aching head and ridiculous exhaustion got the better of me, and my thoughts morphed into “Oh my gosh, let’s just take it anywhere!”

In hindsight, the background is perfect. Behind me are all the little infusion pods. Behind me are my six months of infusions.

BEHIND me.

They are behind me. Finished.
At least for now.

They are behind me. Making me cancer lighter.
That is miraculous

They are behind me. Exhausting me.
That’s something I have to remind myself.

These 6 months have not been easy. My body, mind, and spirit have worked hard, and had more bad days than good. They have been pummeled. They are fantabulous for sure, but they are going to take a bit of time to recover. When I talked with my Dana Farber oncologist in October he said “You should be feeling great (pause) by sometime in January.”

Sometime in JANUARY?!?!?!??? Eee gads. If I recall correctly, I thought to myself “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Did he just meet me?!?!” But, now, I realize the wisdom of his words. This isn’t a little sprint. This isn’t an easy workout. This is an endurance event. And no matter how fantabulous I am, as with every endurance event there is preparation, execution, and recovery.

Now I need to respect the final push, and the recovery.

With that in mind, I remind myself this final push of medications and side effects, as well as my recovery are supported by all the things I do in the background.

Where I am, and who is there with me — in person, prayer, and spirit — matters!

How I eat supports me and all my work.

The things I do, and the ways I think, fuel me.

I always tell my Kindergartners about the importance of the struggle in our lives and learning. One year, one of them reminded me with great conviction “The struggle is real, Ms. James, and it’s important!”

Yes, my sweet, courageous, determined, girl — you are right. The struggle is real and supremely important. So too are these things. They overflow with life, energy, hope, joy, possibility, and power. They enable me to endure, survive, advance, and thrive.

So, with a big breath, I remind myself (and perhaps you) sometimes angst is just part of the process. But guilt? Guilt is inappropriate. Patience, peace, and acknowledgement of all I am, all I do, and all I have accomplished (with the help of so many) — that is appropriate. Let the bell ringing continue.

But first, I must collapse for a nap.