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Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

Writing with Children

Sketch drawn on-line by my grandson.Micrasterias.jpg

 

Just this last week, my grandson asked me to help him with an article he wanted to write.  He had discovered a pretty colored single-cell plant called Micrasterias in a Smithsonian picture book for children and wanted to learn more about it.

How hard could it be to write up the life of a single-celled plant?

It sounded like fun, so I helped him out by posting articles to him about Micrasterias Denticulata (the name of the cell).

As a joke, I said he was writing an article on “Mike Rasterias and his friend Den Ticulata.”  Mike and Den.

He spent a week writing the article, and asked a number of questions as he went along.  What was its shape, its size, how did it move?  What color was it, and  where did it live? Did it have skin?  How did it eat? We had a great time exchanging ideas on where to find out more information on this little one-celled plant.  I googled and found scientific articles, photos and videos that he earnestly reviewed and summarized his ideas, placing them carefully into his essay.

He discovered some interesting things.  It comes in colors of bright blue and green, turning ponds bright green when it grows in them.  It lives like a plant by collecting sunlight and turning it into energy.   He was amused that it moves via excretion of slime (what a perfect story for an eight year old boy). He also found out how to locate it in ponds and streams and how to make a slide of pond water with micrasterias in it for use in a microscope.

“I want everything on one page,” he told me.  He worked to condense his ideas until they all fit.  He typed it up on his own, learned how to use spell check in the process, and successfully got it all on one page.

After that, I asked him to present it to me first by reading it aloud and then again, by looking me straight in the eye and  summarizing his ideas to me.  I used my I-phone to video him presenting both ways, and then we discussed how his voice and presentation changed according to these two types of visual presentations.  It surprised him to see how his voice and pronunciation changed when he went from reading it aloud, to orally presenting it without any notes.

What started as a simple exploration of a one-celled wonder, became a fun process of learning for us both.  I like what he said in his last paragraph the best.  He said,

“From doing this I have learned how to use a computer better and I even learned that such a little thing can be so complicated and interesting to learn.”

There we have it again, simply complicated.

 

 

 

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Beach Junk for Art

Below is a water color painting I completed on a piece of old plastic found on the beach.
An artist friend asked me to help her find a piece of driftwood she needed for a commissioned art piece she was trying to complete.  She had searched several beaches near her house and couldn’t find the correct size, and asked for help.  

On our beach, I doggedly searched for the piece of driftwood with her specifications and found only some small pieces of wood, along with old shoes, pieces of plastic, an unhinged toilet seat, a few seashells, as well as plenty of seaweed and lots of old, jangled, plastic rope. 

Are you surprised by my description of what I found on the beach?  You shouldn’t be, as most ocean beaches are cluttered with junk.   Much of it is plastic.  

When I told my friend that I couldn’t find anything she wanted, she replied,  “Well, we should just switch to painting on plastic.  There sure is plenty of that laying around.”   

A few days later, while again scrounging around on the beach, I found a rather large piece of blue, eroded, plastic that used to be part of a 25 gallon container.  It was an interesting shape, so i took it home then scrubbed it up and left it outside to dry in the warm sun of our Island of the Abacos.  

Then I painted the plastic, first designing the structure with gesso, a kind of acrylic base, then following up with watercolors.  The roughened and worn plastic surface moved the water colors slowly around in interesting ways. Where the plastic was still smooth, the paint moved about quickly and then mingled and mixed with other colors.  

As I shifted the brush size and character, I started to get some pleasant varied patterns on the old plastic.  

Pretty soon, I was lost in the painting and having a great time.  

The end result has a sort of shiny, porcelain look to it.  

I like finding junk to paint on.  And I sure like the price of the canvas.  

Plus, now there is one less piece of plastic garbage on the beach.

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A big brown office envelope arrived in the mail from an old friend and inside I found, much to my surprise, a bundle of letters written by me fifty years ago when my husband Joe and I were Peace Corps Volunteers in South Asia.

At that time, we were living and working in a deeply rural village that, one might say, rode tight against the earth’s surface.  We felt the tight ride while we experienced several years without electricity, running water or flush toilets, among other things. We encountered food scarcity along with our neighbors, witnessed the horrible power of famine and drought followed by flooding, malnourishment and disease.  We felt this tightness to the earth while simultaneously learning to appreciate our neighbors’ courage, affection, and strong community spirit which helped them to survive and sometimes even thrive, under such tough conditions.

These letters brought it all back, like a flood.

Joe and I felt guilty, knowing our situation was temporary and that we would leave our village after several years.  We worried about what would happen to the many friends and acquaintances we left behind, who did not have the freedom to walk away, as we did.  Our youthful hand-written letters confirmed our affection for our community, told stories of friends we had made, and also pointed out the many frustrations of residing in impoverished circumstances.

In those days, we wrote letters on pieces of paper and sent them via the postal mail.  From our village, roughly half of the letters we sent managed to arrive. We often waited months for a reply and our letters declared our frustration with having to wait so long.  At least half of the letters that family and friends wrote back to us were also somehow mislaid or lost by the postal system.

After several years in South Asia, Joe and I returned to the US, to more schooling, then returning again to Western Asia for several years, then back again to the US for more graduate training and new jobs and responsibilities.

When we returned to the US for the second time, Joe and I had started a family.  On top of our jobs, we had three children over a five-year period, taking up any extra time we might have used for writing letters, especially since during these same five years we moved back into the United States and then back out again, this time to Western Asia.

Once, during an emergency, we were evacuated with our two small children back to the US, due to heavy street fighting.  We were instructed not to return until things quieted down.  Our friend who shared the letters helped our family set up a temporary place to live.  She also helped us locate blankets, pots and pans and spoons and forks to use while we waited for word that we could return.

I owe her many letters of thanks, and I am about to write them.

Each time Joe and I have moved to new places we gathered more responsibilities, gained new friends and lost others.

Although we had the privilege of enjoying technically challenging and very interesting jobs, we confronted complicated administrations and large inter-related bureaucracies that sometimes held projects back, messed up plans and created stress.

During this period of heavy work responsibilities and young children, we wrote few personal letters.

These same complicated bureaucracies gave us the power and support we needed to our family to continue our work in the area of international development, an area we both wanted to work in.

I owe numerous people who worked in these administrations with me, letters of appreciation, too.

I have unfinished letters to write.

Letters of condolence.
Letters of love.
Letters of appreciation.
Letters of thanks.

Letters to my wonderful adult children, expressing gratitude and pride, telling them how much I love them;

Letters to my grandchildren, leaving word tracks for when I am no longer here, to make them smile and trust that life is good.

I owe thank you notes to people who changed my life.

A letter to my husband, thanking him for all the love and affection, fun and adventure, hilarity and frustration, devotion and friendship, for his mightiest protection, biggest debates, most delicious omelettes, ever.

By the way, dear, thank you as well for all those morning cups of coffee.

I owe a letter to myself.  It may be the most difficult one to write.

I owe letters to the people I thought I hated but really didn’t.  Letters to people who suffered unfairly.

Letters to those who reached out and received no thanks.

Letters to the privileged and seemingly spoiled who would not know why I wrote, even if I did.

In addition, I owe a note of appreciation to the small boy, wearing just simple cotton shorts who used a broken branch with leaves to sweep under the sacred banyan tree, making the dirt smooth;

I owe a letter of affection to that little girl who told me her stories of being married at the age of twelve, and the uproarious tales of how she outwitted her husband and got to come home to her widowed mother;

I will send a letter of sorrow to that dead body I saw lying in the streets waiting unceremoniously to be picked up by the early morning carts;

I have written numerous letters of thanks in my head to those men holding machine guns who stopped our bus and who read all correspondence we held in our purses and backpacks and left without killing us;

I owe a letter of amazement to the midwives who delivered village babies on rope-woven wooden beds with no running water and no clean towels;

A letter of love to the villagers who sang all night to us while we sat together on dirt floors and listened to a tiny wind-driven accordion wailing to the moon.

It is time to write a letter to my mother to tell her she is forgiven for not noticing;

A letter to my father saying that I view him with compassion and realize it might have been worse, he could have become President;

A letter to my brother, saying goodbye, sorry it did not work out;

Letters to my sisters reminding them of how much I cared.

A letter to my childhood dog whom I miss greatly, especially since he was my nanny.

Letters to my hair dresser saying thank you for getting me out of the sixties look.

Letters to the grasses and trees that welcomed me on mountain slopes and

A thank you letter to near clear blue lakes and to all bright stars of the night.

Letters of appreciation and awe to the unknown for all that it holds.

Thank you, my friend, for keeping those letters for fifty years and then sending them back to me as a gift.  They are provoking me to write what I had forgotten to write, until now.

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Recently, my sister sent me a small book of Japanese Haiku as a memory of my mother, who passed away several years ago.  

It is a small hard-cover book that my mother purchased as a gift for her beloved aunt, who had cared for her when she was a young girl and needed a place to stay.  The inscription is lovely, and says,

“To Aunt Edith at Torch Cottage – To one who has enriched my life beyond all means of explanation. With all my love for your love which has never failed me.  Janet, Spring, 1964”

It was titled, Japanese HAIKU, published by Peter Pauper Press out of Mount Vernon, in New York in 1955-56 and sold at that time for $1.00.  It offered two hundred twenty examples of seventeen-syllable Japanese poems by Basho, Buson, Issa and other Japanese poets, mostly of the 15th and 16th century.  It was translated by Peter Beilenson.  


The book explains that a haiku poem is comprised of seventeen syllables, looking something like this:
5 syllables
7 syllables
5 syllables.

The tanka has 14 more syllables added to the haiku, for 31 syllables total, looking like this:

5 syllables
7 syllables
5 syllables

7 syllables
7 syllables

This is a grand total of 31 syllables.


Below, is an haiku and tanka that I prepared as an illustration.

5   NIGHT COMES BUT NOT YET
7   THE DIM SKY SPEAKS TO ME NOW
5   BLUE, WHITE, GOLD, ENDLESS.

7   DECLINE TO NEW BLOOMS OF GREY
7   ALL BECAUSE OF THE END GAME.
                                                                   MJC


Historically, I am told, several poets were involved in the writing of a tanka usually with the first poet preparing the haiku and the second poet completing the last two lines, thus becoming a tanka. Small drawings were often added, artistically, to the poem.  

Additional examples of poems and art based on the haiku and tanka are shown here.

Inspired by this little book, I wondered whether it might be possible to paraphrase my mother’s words using the rules of Japanese haiku and tanka poems and here is what I came up with.

TO MY LOVING AUNT
LIFE ENRICHED BEYOND ALL MEANS
BY TORCH LAKE COTTAGE

FOR YOUR LOVE THAT NEVER FAILED

GRIEF ENSNARED BUT NOT BY YOU
                                                               MJC


Although I have never really completely understood why poetry has so many rules and quite often rebelled against them when forced to use them, I find this simple way of playing with words and syllables intriguing.  

Thus inspired,  I think over the next few days, will try to come up with some personal versions of haiku and tanka, with personal drawings illustrating them, just for the fun of it.

Who knows, perhaps a tanka a day keeps the doctor away?

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Celebrate Openly

I do not sufficiently show my gratitude for being alive. What an off chance it all seems to be, what a lucky coincidence.  

I haven’t yet  sufficiently expressed my appreciation for the beauty and wonderment of raw, wild nature.  


I need to celebrate more openly the pleasures of learning, of conducting research, of reading and writing, of painting a picture, of observing shapes, colors, designs and patterns of life.

Alain de Botton recently wrote about the importance of culture in helping us to develop traditions and rituals for celebrating life’s meaning.  

Even in the most dire circumstances, life can be filled with spirit and grace. It can be celebrated. I have witnessed this while living in desolate rural areas and in densely populated urban areas, in villages suffering food scarcity, in places of war, and political unrest.  I have seen life celebrated in many languages and in various ways, through learning in educational institutions, museums and libraries, and in simple community rituals, showing it in the way they line up in meaningful ways on the sides of hills and deep into valleys. sharing traditions of language and culture and song.  

I see ritual and celebration in the way animal herds gallop, the way birds fly in flocks, the way fishes move in the waters.  I see celebration and meaning in cloud formations, and in the many stars that shine in the black night of the sea.

Susan Gubar wrote about ways of seeking the gift of grace by being receptive to a sense of beneficence or loving kindness.  This might be acquired many different ways such as engaging in quiet meditation, through dance or breathing and body exercise, by taking long walks in nature, bike riding, running alongside a road, or while painting a picture, making a craft or playing music,  in the simple act of appreciating literature and the arts.  

It may be felt in the results of a magnificent piece of research, or in the development of a new technology or in the discovery of a new way to do something.  All offer the need for morality, appreciation of spirituality and community; a feeling of grace. 

It may even be felt simply through the execution of routine acts of love and friendship such as a ritual sharing a glass of wine at sunset, or a cup of coffee while watching the sunrise, or hugging a child, patting a dog on the head.

Leaving it at this.  I say, I wish to learn to be positive about all people who celebrate life and who seek to understand its meaning whether they do it through cultural expression, education and learning, scientific discovery and/or religious practices.  


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A Scattered Approach to Dying


“When someone is cremated, can their ashes be strewn around?” I ask. 
“You can place them  anywhere you want” she replied, “after the death is registered.”

“Then in that case,” I said, “Scatter some of my ashes into the winds.  Throw some under that apple tree in front of our cottage and drop the rest into the ocean. Don’t bury me anywhere.  I’m too claustrophobic.”





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Unfinished Official Business




I imagine the work left behind in my old office is still there, some of it piled in the corners, papers spilling over onto the floor, reports clogging up the bookshelves and stacked up in the hall closets, very little of it filed properly, but for some registered items.

Someone picked up the baton where I left off.  Like workers before me finding it always there, never ending, forever needing attention, filling up the desk, spilling onto the floors, clogging up the bookshelves.

The best part of the work day was that early moment in the morning when I took off my coat , sat down at my desk or my workbench and pondered what needed to be done, appreciating the morning quiet before the storm, the steady beat of rain drops on a metal roof,  thunder rolling across the sky, silent slushy winter snowstorm filling up the streets, causing much churning of ice water through guttered curbs, hurried runs for fresh cups of coffee and a sweet roll before the first early meeting.  Quick notes drawn up of ideas to be fleshed out in the coming months. Dreams sketched on chalkboards and paper, typed up in our computers, discussions with a colleague during an early phone call, commitments made, promises offered.

The worst part of the work day was the begrudging moments of administrative matters, pushing for decisions to be unreasonably made by 10am without exception, promptly reporting the irrational results on single sheets of paper and filing them endlessly in alphabetized folders, costing monies that might be better used on people needing real services, rather than to things mattering not at all, but to administration. I’m not sure they even remember why they asked it to be done anymore, once it is properly filed.

I see our results, those steel shards of war, crushed peoples, green phosphorous clogged waters, murderous politics, plague outbreaks, journalistic lies, top heavy unearned wealth.

Work everywhere lies strewn around in offices and on floors, stuck in files, cut into small strips to keep it secret.

It is unfinished. I am not sure that it is yet begun. 


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