As I finished putting her together, I thought, “She looks pretty good, not perfect, but pretty good.” Since my inner critic was in a talkative mood, I engaged. “True, but is perfection the goal?” I wasn’t being sassy. I was genuinely inquiring. We were both quiet for a bit.
Then I noticed the words “think of all the beauty.” I didn’t specifically pick them to be part of this piece. They fell out of my box as I was choosing other things. But, I noticed them. And, I let them speak to me. Once they spoke, I knew they were the answer, and I knew I had to figure out a way to include them in this piece.
That’s the goal. Think of all the beauty — in art, in life, in ourselves and others. Think of all the beauty.
Learn, be, create, enjoy, and think of all the beauty. Notice it. Acknowledge it. Accept it. Celebrate it. And, preach it.
So, my art and I sit here and preach on. Think of all the beauty.
We are never more than one grateful thought away from peace of heart. Brother David Steindl-Rast
It’s been a long few days with my Kindergartners. It seems like I was constantly having to bring them back, constantly having to ask for their attention, constantly having to scold them in some way. Now, to be fair, it wasn’t actually constantly. There were many moments of marvel, joy, laughter, love, and all around fantabulousness. Those beautiful moments far outnumbered the frustrating angst filled ones. And yet, those moments that were less than I hoped for, those moments when I was less than I hoped to be, weighed heavy on me. I struggled to figure out what I might do, and how to get both them, and me, back on track.
With that on my mind and heart, I headed to my coaching gig. As I entered, I ran into a friend. “Hey!” I said, smiling under my mask. Seeing me she said, “I’m sorry, I just have to …” as she reached in and gave me a hug. I laughed out loud as we embraced before hurrying off to be with my HS athletes.
At the end of the night I popped over to say goodbye and my friend handed me a bag and a lovely vase of flowers. “What’s this?” I asked. “Just a little something to say thank you.” she replied. I thanked her, and gave her a tight squeeze as we got her daughter to take a quick photo. Then, we were both on our way.
My way included having to wait with some athletes whose parents hadn’t yet arrived. I was tired and none to happy to have to wait. But wait I did, and as I waited I opened the bag, read the card, and looked at the gift. In the card, my friend detailed the first time she met met me. She was late to pick up her daughter and I waited, outside, with her daughter. I made sure she got into the car alright, and pleasantly said hello before heading off for the night. She told me how much that relatively small act meant to her. The note, the flowers, and the gift — You make a difference. That’s all. — touched my heart and mind. They were the one grateful thought that allowed me to see the truth, take a breath, and find some peace.
How amazing, right? Her gratitude for my waiting with her daughter came at the moment when I was miffed at having to wait, in my exhausted state, with someone else’s daughter. Her acknowledgement, affirmation, and gratitude for the difference I make in the lives of others — with the smallest of acts — was the one grateful thought I needed. Her gratitude, shared with me, helped me to see the truth, helped me to take a breath, helped me to be present — present to truth, to opportunity, to joy, to peace. As I took a breath, I turned to the athlete still waiting. Instead of expressing any impatience, I simply chose to enter the moment with another human being. The peace and joy were much nicer than the angst.
Later that night, I realized I had received another grateful thought at the very beginning of the day. If you notice in the photo, there’s a bit of a yarn chain nestled in front of the flowers. That was a gift from one of my Kindergartners. I taught them how to finger knit a couple weeks ago. First thing in the morning, Jay came into our learning space, and came to me, as she does every morning, to greet me. It’s a routine I treasure. Today she held the finger knitting up for me to see. I told her it was beautiful. She said, “I made it for you!” I responded, “Thank you so much!” as I placed it on my neck.
That finger knitting chain stayed on my neck all day. I forgot about it until I got home and looked in the mirror. Seeing it, I realized my sweet Kindergartner had shared a grateful thought with me at the very beginning of our day. I love that her grateful thought had rested close to my heart all day. As I placed it by the other gifts for a photograph I again took a breath, embraced the truth, and experienced peace and joy.
Never underestimate the power of gratitude. Never hesitate to express it. Your gratitude — for yourself, your life, and towards others — may be the one thought of gratitude needed to find peace and joy.
There is such power and joy in being able embrace oneself as an artist. An artist able to:
be inspired by other artists
use that inspiration to create your own art
make creative and artistic decisions
carry out your plan or
enjoy the freedom of artistic and creative play and experimentation
speak your truth through your art
embrace your artist-self by choosing your own name (Hundertwasser)
share your understanding and vision by naming your artwork (Thomas)
The power and joy explodes, I think, when you can do all these things as a young child.
Last week my Kindergarten artists explored the work and life of Alma Thomas. She began her career as a representational artist, and later in her artist journey embraced abstract art. Amazingly, at the age of 80 in the early 1970’s she became the first African American woman to have a solo exhibit at the Whitney Museum in NYC.
The kindergarten artists loved Alma’s use of color, and enjoyed trying to guess what she named each of her paintings. They worked hard — first in their sketch books and then on the final watercolor paper — to recreate with crayons, the marks Alma made with acrylic paint. By the way, in case you’ve never tried it, it takes a lot of dedication to fill a 9X12 piece of paper with marks the size of your thumb.
As my artists worked in the classroom, I worked alongside them in my home studio. Like them I made my own crayon marks, and then added layers of watercolor wash. My work was often interrupted by “Hey Ms. James. This is …..,” as they slid their work under the document camera so we could marvel and talk together.
Encouraging them to include all the elements we noticed in Alma’s work, yet at the same time allowing them to make their own artistic and creative decisions and plans, is a delicate line to walk. I often wonder how close their work has to look to our inspirational artist’s work.
As I’ve worked with them this year, I’ve become more convinced that there are four non-negotiables. My fantabulous artists must:
include the elements of the original piece that we notice and spoke about together
be free to use their big beautiful brains and awesome hearts to decide how to incorporate the elements into their art
be allowed, encouraged, and enabled to find joy in their process and product
come to know themselves as artists
So, I work on pointing out what I see — what I see that reflects the elements we discussed, the things I notice are missing, and the many things I wonder about. I do my best to guide my artists to walk that delicate line of agency and requirements with me. Sometimes I set them free to make the decision as an artist, sometimes I request they put the artwork down for a bit and then look at it again to see if they are still happy with it, other times we find a compromise that allows them to have freedom while still following the guidelines.
Here are some of our Alma Thomas inspired works of art. I’m always interested to see how they interpret the current artist’s work, and how they incorporate some of the other artists we’ve explored previously. I’m amazed and edified by their title choices. The titles add to the power of the piece. They speak to the audience to share the artist’s thoughts and understanding, and speak to the artists themselves to affirm who they are.
When I read their titles my heart is full. These Kindergarten artists are perceptive, thoughtful, confident, and invested in sharing what is in their minds and hearts. Everyday I do my best to affirm them “Indeed my young artist sisters, you are masters. You are inspired and inspiring artists. Don’t every believe anything less.”
I shared the book What Do You Do With An Idea with my Kindergartners. Sometimes it’s hard to see them when I’m teaching remotely — especially when I’m sharing my screen. I was a little disappointed in my lesson, wondering if I had been able to spark ideas, and share the amazingly fantabulous idea that we ALL — no matter what — can have beautiful, world changing ideas.
After the lesson I shared 3 videos with my students — how to make a squish-squash book, an accordion fold book, and a silly fold book. I asked that each student make at least one book, put her ideas in it, and then share her book and ideas by video on SeeSaw.
I’ve been looking at the responses and leaving comments, and wow, I’m so happy. They are sharing their ideas, reading what they wrote, explaining their illustrations, and talking about things they wonder about from the book we read together.
Here are some of their ideas:
flying unicorns making a tree to climb when she becomes seventeen ice cream everywhere writing a book about her favorite stuffy sending her ideas to the clouds for them to get stronger looking at the clouds to see what they look like not holding onto her ideas but sharing them with others making a car that goes wherever you tell it reading more books, being a superhero and discovering how to fly stating what she knows, doesn’t know, and wonders, helping others and saying “No problem!” creating a cardboard igloo over the summer making a robot that can help her and others
It might be easy to discount their ideas as childish, sweet, or silly — after all, flying unicorns and superheroes? How is it possible that these ideas are world changing?
Perhaps, for just a moment, imagine those same ideas from the perspective of a scientist, designer, or researcher. I’ll consider just a few but they ALL are equally full of potential.
Flying unicorns can easily become a cure for cancer or other devastating diseases. Much like flying unicorns, a cure seems far off. Imagine if the scientists didn’t engage in their fantastical dreams. Imagine if they didn’t try to attain them. Imagine if they had people around them saying “That’s a sweet idea. Too bad it can’t be done. There are no such things as flying unicorns or cures.”
Ice cream everywhere is a problem of ingredients, process, temperature, distribution, and end users. It’s reminiscent of a remarkable story of creative design thinking shared by Tom Kelley and David Kelley. The Embrace Infant Warmer helps save the lives of premature babies. Similarly to my student’s desire for ice cream everywhere, the warmer was the solution to a problem of ingredients, process, temperature, distribution and end users.
The idea of making a tree to climb when she reaches the age of 17 sounds a bit unusual to our adult ears, but it’s really quite spectacular. Don’t just hope there will be a tree to climb. Work to make it happen. Work to bring your ideas and dreams to life.
I’ve got some ideas and thoughts of how I might improve my next remote read aloud. I’m excited to try them and continue to grow my relationship with my students. But, I’m no longer worried that the idea of having ideas was lost or lessened by the remoteness.
I miss sitting next to them, creating, talking, and sharing. And yet, being able to watch their recordings is powerful. Watching and listening is a gift. It’s great to be able to have a recording of each student as she formulates her thoughts and chooses what to share, and it’s quite fantabulous to have the opportunity to reflect and respond to each one.
I’m hopeful they feel the power and joy of our remote conversation. And, my fingers are crossed that my enthusiasm and ideas about their ideas change the world for them just a bit. They really are fantabulous, and their ideas are game changers!
I’m teaching art with my Kindergartners and that always has me reflecting on my own process, emotions, and thoughts as a creative.
I’ve been painting when I hike for a few years now, but this year, I began working in a watercolor journal. All the paintings — no matter my opinion of them — are there. I’m always kind of surprised by the courage involved to put pen or paint brush to paper — especially when it is in a bound book, or done without pencil sketching first. I wondered it if I were the only one to feel that. Surely not, I thought.
Looking for affirmation for my feelings I set about finding articles linking courage and creativity. As I looked I stumbled upon this quote by Henri Matisse “Creativity takes courage.” Ah, even the master felt it!
And then, as I read more, I nearly fell out of my chair. Matisse — the man whose pencil drawings of the Madonna enthralled me at the Museo d’Arte e Spiritualita in Brescia, and whose Cut Outs took my breath away at the MOMA — said this:
“It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else.”
When I read that, I was amazed and encouraged. If Matisse could be bothered that he didn’t paint like everybody else, why would I be surprised that I feel that way? If Matisse said it, and yet went on to embrace his work — grow, change, re-invent himself when he saw fit — then I could, too.
It’s remarkable how freeing it is to know Matisse was bothered that he didn’t paint like everybody else. Somehow that gave me a great sense of freedom. Just paint, draw, do your thing. Notice, think, wonder, and make creative and artistic decisions. Your thing is yours, it’s beautiful, it’s creative, it’s artistic — but most of all, it’s yours.
What if Matisse had stopped doing his own thing and tried to be like everybody else. Yikes! That would have been awful. So I encourage myself — I am in amazing artistic and creative company, and if a master like Matisse could just say “Hey this brings me joy, and expresses what I see and feel” then so can I.
So I paint on. I draw on. Seeing my work, and the work of others for what it is — us.
I photographed daffodils on a recent walk. Wanting to make some art I grabbed a small piece of watercolor and got to work. Is it perfect? No. Is it good? Yes. Did it bring me joy? Yes. Does it bring me joy now as I look at it? Yes. Is it me? Yes. Is it my style? Yes. What more can I ask for?
For now it sits on my desk to remind myself of the joy and awesomeness that is creative and artistic me — the joy and awesomeness of creating from who we are, where we are, with all we are.
When I work with my Kindergartners I want them to have this freedom — the freedom to know they can make great artistic and creative decisions, the freedom to find joy in their process and product even if it looks different than others, the courage to create with confidence in their own fantabulousness.
From Matisse, to me, to them. Who knows where it will go from there?
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.
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.
What an interesting question. At first my response was, “I really don’t know. I just write.”
But, on further introspection, nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t ever, or rarely, just write. I always write to understand, to teach, or to create the perfect moment. Often I do it to create a space of positivity, affirmation, encouragement, and hope, that can be returned to as often as needed.
Sometimes I do it for me. Sometimes I do it for others. But it’s always the same. It starts with an idea, or a need, and it moves forward through many iterations. It’s a lot like my art making. I do it for the fun of the experience, the process, the flow, and the product.
I write and create art to tell stories — for myself and others.
More and more I am discovering and experiencing the power of stories. I want to fill the world, or at least my little part of it, with stories of goodness, truth, beauty, courage, and kindness.
That is who I am as a writer, artist, creative. Heck that is who I am as a human being. Or at least, it is who I strive to be.
Here is a shot of the latest story I am telling myself, and anyone who needs to hear it.
There is joy and possibility even in the wonkiness. And amazingly enough, sometimes there is great joy and possibility. I am loving the wonkiness of the mandala — created purposefully — and I’m thinking of working on a series!
I breathe best in a space of imagination, curiosity, creativity, possibility, hope, peace, joy, and faith. In some way, my breath supports each one, and each one supports my breath. In an equally powerful way, each moment of imagination, curiosity, possibility, hope, creativity, peace, joy, and faith, grows from, and feeds each other.
IMAGINATION is a mighty force. Sometimes it seems like a playground in my mind.
CURIOSITY often produces a laugh, entices me to exploration, and calls to my creativity.
CREATIVITY (thinking and doing) is looking with new eyes, open to the surprise, uniqueness, and possibility.
POSSIBILITY (thinking and being), is for me, the food of hope, peace, and joy.
HOPE, PEACE, and JOY are everything. They keep me going, and help me impact my world (inside and out) in positive ways.
FAITH – in myself, others, God, things larger than myself, the process, imagination, curiosity, creativity, possibility, hope, peace, and joy – makes it all possible. It encourages me to try when it seems I cannot, to believe when I do not, and to take another breath, and just be.
The other day, as I finished up my 9 hour infusion, a little loopy, and frankly, a little desperate. I didn’t feel like I had imagination, curiosity, creativity, possibility, hope, peace, joy, and faith, but none-the-less, I reached for them, and thankfully they were there!
I hadn’t brought much with me, just a small notebook, and a pen. What could I do with that?
I could occupy my mind and my hands, and fold an origami crane and a simple rectangular box.
I tore out a page, ripped it in half, and began to create. I made one of each. Then I took out another page. I decorated the page before I ripped it in half and folded another.
My breath eased a bit.
They say if you fold a 1000 paper cranes wishes come true, luck, and hope abound.
I say, 2 cranes and two paper boxes, folded with imagination, curiosity, possibility, hope, creativity, peace, joy, faith, and simple presence, might hold the same power. I took a photo to keep with me, and left the cranes, boxes, and any good they hold, for someone else to find.
I had the opportunity to chat with two of my colleagues this morning. It was a great exchange. It was wonderful to see one another (virtually), to listen, and to share. I left feeling connected, encouraged, and uplifted, with lots of things to think about.
One of my colleagues shared that so many people she’s communicating with now have heavy hearts. I could feel the weight as she spoke. People are struggling to feel joy. In the face of so much discord, difficulty, fear, injustice, illness it makes sense to feel a powerful incongruence. How might one legitimately feel joy, or be justified to do so, when so much is wrong around us. Everyone is dealing with such strong feelings – many of them less than positive. It’s a struggle to figure out how to sit with it all.
Thinking about it, I responded. “Maybe it’s because I’m a Kindergarten teacher, but my first thought is to quote Mr. Rogers. — Look for the helpers. There are always helpers.”
For me that translates into look for the good, the positive — there is always good and positive. I thought for a bit and continued. “I think if we don’t look for the good, if we don’t experience, embrace, and celebrate whatever good and joy we find, then evil wins in an even stronger way.”
We must continue the fight. We must acknowledge the things that are not right, the things that anger us, frighten us, or sadden us. We must sit with all those who suffer. We must cry out for justice and mercy. But, at the same time, we must, I think, continue to look for, and find, joy. We must continue to hope.
After talking, I resumed a yoga and mindfulness course I’m taking with Little Flower Yoga. It included a video of children and parents sharing their experiences with mindfulness. I was struck by how much they were speaking to my conversation with my colleagues, and the one I’ve been having with myself as I prepare to start my cancer treatment again this week.
Mindfulness, they said, helps us understand where we are now. It affords us the opportunity to notice everything, and connect with the now, ourselves, and others. It was a real aha moment for me. Sometimes I feel like I need to remind people of how tough things are. Other times I think I shouldn’t feel joyful when things are so uncertain and potentially dangerous. But, as I take a breath and try to see things in my here and now, with kindness and curiosity, I notice that those thoughts and feelings are only part of my now. There is, even amidst the difficulties, many points of light, hope, peace, joy. In mindfulness, I must see and explore everything, give everything voice, light, time, thought — and even in my darkest moments that includes joy, goodness, and hope.
This photo reminds me of some of the reasons I have for joy, hope, peace, gratitude.
There are so many people choosing to help, to love, to pray, to do what is right – in my life and in the world. There are many reasons to be grateful. I am using my breath, my body, and my mind to connect to those truths, and to allow them to inform my feelings and action. I texted a friend that my to do list today includes — see the good, the positive, the blessings, the strength, the safety, and the helpers; speak of them in some way (to myself and others); and let it inform and bless me, and the world.
No matter what, this is my mantra. It is me encouraging mindfulness in myself.
I hope to see the world, and the situations I am in, in the fullness of truth. I know, for myself, it is the only way I will have the strength, courage, and ability to be, and to do, what is best.
This year we ended our time together in Kindergarten without being in each other’s physical presence. That was hard. During the preparation for our end of year celebrations, and during the many goodbyes, I had to deepen my breath, and hold onto their bright eyes in our zoom calls.
True to form, it was a bittersweet moment. My love and respect for them always intensifies the bitter. But this year, their thoughts spoken during our celebration intensified the sweetness, and soothed my aching heart.
Yup the bitter remains, but the depth of bitterness only reflects the depth of our love and the sweetness we shared. We are a community. We love one another. We have shared so very much. To honor all that, I’m choosing to embrace the bitter, and lean into the sweet.
It was wonderful to see each Kindergarten face, and hear their shouts of greeting on our end of year zoom call. But, my favorite part, was listening to them share about Kindergarten — this was a new addition to our end of year celebration.
Each girl shared answers to one, or all, of these questions. What did she LOVE about Kindergarten? How did she surprise herself? What is she most proud of from Kindergarten?
As each girl’s face popped onto the screen, I watched them intently from afar. I leaned into the screen as they spoke. And, I celebrated!
I want to share our celebration with you. Here are just a few of the things that were shared and celebrated.
My favorite part of Kindergarten was dance. I thought I couldn’t do dance moves, but I did it!
My favorite parts of kindergarten was doing math sentences, publishing my writing, coloring, and art.
I enjoyed “play to learn” because it was mostly playing with my kindergarten friends.
I didn’t think I would be able to learn how to count coins, but I tried really hard and I did it!
I thought Spanish must be hard as it is a foreign language. Turns out it is not so hard, and now I know I can do it!
I never thought I could make the art pieces that Ms. James made, but she taught us how to make them, and I did it!
At the beginning of the year, I could only go 1 bar on the monkey bars, but now I can go across the whole monkey bars.
I am most proud of being able to present in front of a crowd of people. I do not get nervous anymore!
I love Science, we did lots of activities, we put the white thing into the cola, then it exploded. And we had safety goggles.
I didn’t think I could, but I learned how to tie my shoes.
I didn’t think I’d be able to do 3D shapes in Math class. It’s hard to remember names of 3D shapes but I did it.
I am most proud of learning to read.
What I LOVED about Kindergarten was being together! Working hard, playing fair and being AWESOME together!”
I am most proud of all the math I learned.
I did not think I could draw, but I can, and l love art
I loved that all my friends were in my class. I loved that I was still able to see my friends on zoom.
I surprised myself by making new friends and writing poetry.
I’m proud that I made it through the whole year of kindergarten!
This year in Kindergarten I am so proud that… I NEVER GAVE UP!
Sharing them here allows me to listen once more to their words. My celebration is even deeper the second time around. I hear their joy, pride, and confidence. I am buoyed by the many ways they have grown, overcome, learned, and discovered — and any part I played in that.
Spring 2020 remote learning/teaching was different, difficult, time consuming, and energy draining. But it was also profoundly wonderful, beautiful, creative, and filled with reasons to celebrate. It was filled with learning, thinking, wondering, joy, discovery, growth, and beautiful relationships.