Reflections about creativity, the writing process, and the writing life.
What if we captured our learning in jars, exploring questions and details and ideas through glass walls…
…like a child collects caterpillars in a jar.
Children treasure their collections. They check in on them. They poke holes in the lid to make sure the collections can breathe.
What if we collected experiences and insights and feelings in the same way? A jar of travel. A jar of gratitude. A jar of story.
When we hold a jar up to the light for a better look, what do we see?
How can I make space to capture the lessons learned in a day, a month, a year?
There is freedom in a metaphor. I love its openness to possibility.
When creativity flows well writing is as easy as taking the lid off the jar, grasping streams of inspiration as they swirl above, and then sprinkling words onto the page. Sometimes it can feel like confidently singing a song you’ve known for a long time. Often when I write poetry the story appears all at once and catches me by surprise.
Over the years I’ve noticed that I like to write about what I’ve learned. Through the act of writing my learning deepens, my understanding shifts, and my wishes clarify. We can learn from every experience. When we look at things in different ways, we can see differently. When we allow our intuition to guide us and we give permission for the voice deep inside to rise and fill the page, we find our story. We find ourselves. As much as creative expression can offer us soaring freedom it can also offer us deep-rooted connection to our values.
Writing the poem “Open the Jar” transformed my understanding of sunshine in a jar to include gratitude and generosity. I learned that this light isn’t a beacon of happiness but a symbol of hope.
I remember the day I wrote this poem.
When the idea to write the poem appeared I leapt out of my chair, wanting to avoid it. But the idea followed me down the hall. I took a deep breath, returned to the chair, picked up my pen, and wrote a poem about some of my most difficult moments as a young teacher.
There is so much we are not prepared for when we begin our teaching careers. Sometimes we are growing up alongside the students we are teaching. I was in my mid-twenties. My students faced challenges I couldn’t imagine. The students taught me about resiliency, grit, and perseverance through challenge.
I learned the importance of community and building a school culture where all students feel safe.
I learned about the strength of my colleagues and the value of having a mentor.
I learned that by listening to the students we could better identify the issues and work toward change.
I learned how even in the face of challenge and tragedy schools can be models of courage, truth, love, and wisdom.
Open the Jar
Last night I opened the jar and it whispered to me,
“a piece of the story is missing.”
I wished the thought had stayed in the jar,
wished to rewind,
go back to the moment before
I released the latch and
eased the lid.
Open the jar.
Blue dot days glued to glass,
days of Sylvia’s bell jar and
cobwebs and fatigue and
frustration and sleep and
drowning my calendar,
covering my day book—
a giant blue bruise.
You should know,
I teach outside the city
in a nice suburban
Open the jar.
A morning swarming at 7:45
two hundred teenagers
chase a grade ten
push against glass,
she calls for help.
Open the jar.
chairs, clocks, and computers…
A toxic shot
in the head.
Later, a fifteen-year-old boy
and not the kind from his joke store.
Open the jar.
Racism, bullying, homophobia,
illiteracy, drugs, eating disorders
spiralling around bells
passing days and
Take the lid off the subtext.
Open the jar.
A friend defines “suddenly”
when our student
dies…and then another.
hearts frozen in crowded hallways.
Open the jar.
Julie whispers of last night’s rape
twenty-first century tracking of
Open the jar.
I pass Tina her graded work and
she asks if she should visit her boyfriend,
he was charged:
only yesterday she smoked pot, drank vodka, slept with
Tonya, and cut herself on her left arm for the sixth time.
Jars lined up like child soldiers
down a long corridor of black-hearted
steel lockers collecting
souls. We all felt it
clouds building chains around teen dreams.
We forgot the taste
lid twisted tight
within the glass grooves.
But in time we learned
to gently turn the lid,
open the jar
and sometimes we found something
and in time we learned to capture sunshine.
Open the jar—
For the love of sunflowers
This morning I am reading about sunflowers. It’s on my bucket list to grow them in my yard. I’ve read the best time to plant the seeds is in the spring, two weeks before the last frost. Maybe a reminder on my calendar would help?
This is a great time of year because I can find sunflowers everywhere. On Labour Day weekend I was driving through the Warkworth area with a friend when we noticed a farm having a sale. The sign read something like “Neat old creative things.” The lawn was a collection of antiques and paintings on repurposed wood–all of the paintings were sunflowers. The fields surrounding the farm were also scattered with sunflowers. Such an inspiring setting! I could have explored all day.
In my home, I have something with a sunflower on it in nearly every room. The kitchen is painted sunflower yellow. A sunflower wreath hangs on my door. One day I’ll wake up and like the lady who doesn’t realize she’s acquired so many cats, I’ll notice that the sunflowers are everywhere. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Or maybe I’ll be living inside a sunflower. Can you imagine? A circular, spiral home with rooms placed like seeds.
(Okay…I know. Imagining a sunflower home may be going too far? I googled “sunflower architecture” and found this amazing house in Spain designed to optimize the views and the light. Wow. If I win the lottery I want one of these!)
Inspired to paint
This winter I want to learn more about sunflowers. I want to be ready in the spring so I don’t miss the opportunity to plant them. I’d also like to be more like the man in Warkworth and paint sunflowers, lots of sunflowers, sunflowers for everyone. My first step will be to learn how to draw a sunflower. Any tips?
From standing in a field of sunflowers in Tuscany to gazing on their complexity through Van Gogh’s art in Amsterdam and Paris to driving past sunflowers every day on my way to work, I’ve been lucky to find sunflowers in many places.
Cheery, complex, beautiful sunflowers.
Which flower has found its way into your imagination?
The mathematical poetry of sunflowers
Leonardo Pisano Bigollo was a prominent Mathematician in the Middle Ages who was born in Italy and educated in North Africa.
He was known by his nickname, Fibonacci, a name made famous for a sequence of numbers that demonstrates spiral patterns in nature, including those in shells, pineapples, pine cones, and sunflowers.
The head of a sunflower has many spirals moving to the right and to the left, clockwise and counterclockwise, with seeds growing in logarithmic shapes that get wider as they move away from the centre. If you count the spirals in each direction of a sunflower you will find they often add up to numbers in the Fibonacci sequence (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…).
The Fibonacci pattern is simple, each number is the combination of the two numbers before: 0+1=1, 1+1=2, 2+3=5, 3+5=8, and so on. Each new seed appears in relationship to the one prior. A sunflower could have thirty-four spirals clockwise and twenty-one spirals counterclockwise; or maybe fifty-five spirals clockwise and eighty-nine spirals counterclockwise. The number of spirals changes as the sunflower grows.
Everyone has a story.
From our first cry out of the womb we communicate our insight and experience as humans. It is natural. Each new insight and experience for the rest of our lives offers opportunity for story. As we learn, our stories multiply. When we share a story we share our learning. When we receive a story we mix it into our personal collection so the narratives become tangled, sparking new insights and altered versions of their story, our story.
Writing is about capturing our voices and sharing them through the page. We transform through communication. It is no coincidence that the words communicate and community originate from the same root: common. Regardless of economics, education, religion, politics, or geography we are joined as human beings in the common need to be connected to another in some way.
To be fully human, we need to share our thoughts and feelings, and we need to speak our truths.
We write who we are—we are what we learn. (Or don’t learn. Or unlearn.) Who we are influences what we are saying and how we are saying it.
Learning and writing can spin, buzzing with energy like an image of DNA. Learning and writing can be codependent and stringy and jumbled and conjoined. They can move fast and slow. Up and down, in and around our daily events.
Or learning and writing can move naturally, like the seeds of a sunflower; as we get closer to our centre we may become more expressive and creative.
Mary Catherine Bateson, a writer and cultural anthropologist, introduced me to the idea of learning as a spiral in Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way. She demonstrates how learning moves through themes. We move through lessons, we pick up from them what we need, we move on, and then loop back to the theme in another ring of the spiral to deepen our learning.
We learn before we write. We learn as we write.
The spiral represents what is happening on the inside of the writer as the words take form on the page. And after we write, the learning continues.
I often wonder how many people continue writing after they leave school. Not for any purpose, but to reflect and to learn and to express.
Do you write for writing’s sake? How does it impact your learning now that you are not a student?
I didn’t write much last year.
I miss it. The quiet. The adventure. The unknowns. I don’t know why I stopped writing. It wasn’t intentional. It just happened. And then one morning I woke up and it seemed my creative voice had slipped away and had gotten lost in the noise of everything else.
Earlier this week I went to a great talk by Dr. Greg Wells. He talked about the difference between engaging in social media passively vs. doing it with intention. He reminded us about the importance of managing our priorities rather than managing our time. He reminded us about the importance of self-care.
Then, as part of my back to school reflection process I took some time to create a Tree of Life. It helped me to refocus, reconnect.
It reminded me of Sunshine in a Jar.
This metaphor has been with me for a long time now. I realize now it is a touchstone for how I need to be in the world and who I want to be too. How did I forget?
Creativity is essential. It is the heart of innovation. It is part of being human. A creative pursuit is a mindful pursuit. I always feel at my best when writing is part of my life.
Creativity is about connectedness: to self, to others, to the world. Creativity in action documents, captures, shares, interprets, reflects, and shines a light in all corners. Creativity changes our lives and changes our world.
Are you wanting to learn more about creativity? Are you looking to reconnect with your creative spirit?
My goal is to post once a week for the next year writing about creativity, the idea of sunshine in a jar, and reflections on learning.
Some people find meditation or yoga excellent strategies for leading a mindful life. My rock is creativity. By connecting to sunshine in a jar, finding time to write and reflect, sharing with all of you, I hope to bring sunshine in a jar to life. I don’t think this metaphor is done its work yet. There is more to do. It has more to teach all of us.
I thought a lot about the type of writing I want to do. I love blogging. I love its ability for engagement through comments and sharing. I love that the posts are shorter and easier to fit into the spaces of our busy lives. I love that blogging is about the process and not about an outcome (like book sales). Blogging is about community. My post about Ezekiel Solomon has shown me the impact of one post. It now has 130 comments. It has connected so many people. So I am letting go of books for now. Turning my attention to this, to you.
So my big overarching question for the next year is:
What can I learn from sunshine in a jar?
And I hope along the way (since I am by nature a teacher) you will learn from sunshine in a jar too.
On trusting my GPS…
Every time I drive into the Ottawa Valley area my GPS navigation device surprises me, transforming a simple road trip into an epic journey.
I begin with the destination, an address for a remote retreat-house. After three tries the GPS reveals a route and I select “Start Guidance,” trusting that the system will choose the best route, relieved that I can focus on singing to the radio and not on watching for the road signs. I let the GPS do the thinking for me.
Every time I drive into the Ottawa Valley area I trust my navigation system–and I get lost.
One summer, the GPS leads me down a one-way dirt trail. Rather than question the route, I trust the path will end shortly, miss the signs along the way, and end up on an old deserted railway trail, too remote for cellphone service.
Joy in the woods…
The woods are dynamic, peaceful, alluring, eerie. I splash through puddles the size of dinosaurs’ footprints on suffocated, narrow, washed-out roads lined with towering leafy green trees on one side and sprawling marshes on the other. It’s impossible to turn the car around. I can either go forward or backward. When I pass a number of old rusted abandoned cars, with flat tires and busted windows, wedged between trees or half-sunken in the marsh, I finally wonder if I made a wrong turn. Then I notice a crooked yellow sign: “Use at Own Risk.”
I am lost in the bush in my car for nearly three hours. It feels like time stands still, like I’ve slipped through a wormhole into an alternate universe.
Part of me is scared to be stuck, to be unsure of how I got here or how to get out of the woods. Part of me enjoys the experience of being lost in such a beautiful, still place—a place between my home and my destination. Thankfully I trust that the universe will eventually conspire to help me find my way, that an idea of how to turn my car around on this narrow trail will come to me when it needs to. I stop the car, put down the windows, turn off the engine, and sit on the old Kingston & Pembroke Rail Trail, drinking water and eating carrot sticks.
Why does this isolation feel both comforting and worrisome?
Like I’ve arrived at the place Shel Silverstein calls “where the sidewalk ends?”
I sit alone in the void and feel peaceful, connected, vulnerable, brave, and curious.
Then I start to ask questions. I wonder how it will play out if I get a flat tire? Will I walk back to the main road? Will I sleep in my car waiting for help? Will I cry? Can I die on this road?
When will I start to feel really scared? Why do I trust that it will all work out, that I will find my way, that this is just a temporary detour? I wonder if it’s normal to be feeling so at peace, to want to stay in-between, sitting in a void. I wonder if it’s normal to start writing this scenario in my head as I’m experiencing it, visualizing the lines of text, placement of punctuation, use of metaphor. Is this a weird writer thing to do?
I resist leaving this eerie comfortable place, but finally choose to drive forward. I reach a small clearing and with some careful manoeuvring I’m able to turn the car around and retrace my path back to the road where I made the first wrong turn.
Relieved to be on a main highway, tired from my reflection in the woods, I trust the GPS again. It consistently reroutes me to dirt trails and unconventional roads. After another couple of hours, I realize I will have to find my own way.
I stop the car, pull out the bag of maps from the trunk, determine my location, and begin to retrace the route to Highway 7 from some back roads near the town of Ompah. I regain control.
Sometimes life is symbolic
Then I see the first wild turkey on the side of the road. A few kilometres later I see another. Then another. Turkeys saunter out of the bushes like feathery, waddling breadcrumbs leading me to my destination for the next hour and a half. As I giggle about the sight of so many wild turkeys after the day I’ve had, and I think about the significance of turkeys as birds of thanksgiving, I drive through a town called Brightside. It’s a true story.
Learning can feel like being lost. Whenever I learn there is a point in the process where I feel misplaced, where I need to find my way through trial and error or asking for help or trusting wild turkeys.
Deep learning is rarely a simple road trip.
How do you know that you are learning something deeply?
This summer I decided to attend as much theatre as possible. I wanted to reflect on how audiences responded to diverse titles, how directors used the space, how designers created a visual feast, and how the actors conveyed story in a way that connected with me. What impressed me in this quest was the vitality of theatre, the energy of the performers, the enthusiasm of the audience, and the magic created by the production crews. Theatre in Ontario is dynamic and alive.
The Spirit Garden, Cold Springs
My adventure started in June with The Spirit Garden, composed by R. Murray Schafer and presented by SONG. I’ve always loved outdoor theatre. This show was outstanding. Imagine walking through a path in a farmer’s field in the rolling hills of Northumberland as story and music envelops you from many directions. The show was set at Fifth Wind Farm in Cold Springs and the panoramic views provided the most beautiful backdrop. Schafer’s composition performed by a range of choirs and musicians was so moving to hear outdoors, the sounds echoing those I’ve heard in nature. I had goosebumps for nearly the whole show. This was certainly a special theatre experience and although it was the first show I attended this summer, it is the show that affected me as an audience member most deeply.
The Capitol Theatre, Port Hope
Next I went to see Crazy for You at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope in early July. I first saw this production in the mid-1990s in Toronto (Mirvish). My parents took me for my birthday. In high school I had deconstructed musicals for a major research project, looking at how the story is told through song in both of the acts, and tracing the trends in story structure in musicals from Gilbert and Sullivan to Andrew Lloyd Webber.
I remember watching Crazy for You years ago and thinking about the writing–but only after watching it this summer when I ended up thinking about the writing again. This time I wasn’t thinking just about story structure, but about humour too. I loved how the audiences laughed out loud at the cheesiest puns. It was as though we were looking for a moment to laugh, probably to release the joy inside us from watching the dancing. So as the high energy show rolled on, I had a wonderful time reflecting on comedic timing (in the writing, directing, and acting). I’ll return there at the end of the month to see Mamma Mia.
Driftwood Theatre Group
In the summer of 1999 I worked with Driftwood Theatre Group touring Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night around southern Ontario. It was an incredible experience. So I always try to find time to attend a Driftwood show each summer. There is something almost sacred about outdoor theatre. The breeze, the setting sun, and the open sky all heighten my senses, bringing my whole body into the theatre-space, rather than just my mind. My friend Shelly and I loved this summer’s Taming of the Shrew.
From the talented cast to the fun use of music to the exploration of theme (1980s Pride Week), the show was among my favourite Driftwood plays. The use of the stage fascinated me too: multiple entry points, shaped-boxes as furniture, audience sitting on three-sides. I loved the intimacy this created between the cast and the audience.
The Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake
My big theatre adventure this summer was to attend The Shaw Festival. I had only been once before as a chaperone on a school trip in 2006 to see Saint Joan. I remember being captivated by the town and Shaw. In university I took an Irish Drama course and studied a number of Shaw’s plays. I love how Shaw can go for the jugular in his writing. He tells a story that is entertaining while provoking the audience to see or think or feel differently.
So I booked a small trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake and brought my 15-year-old nephew with me. Four plays in two days at The Shaw Festival. As he said, “That’s going to be exhausting.” And it was! But we both found it exhilarating too! And the town was also a highlight. Great dining, beautiful flowers, and according to my nephew it was a hotbed of Pokemon Go stops.
First we saw Our Town by Thornton Wilder. We had never seen it before and I felt it was important for our theatre education. I loved the simplistic set, the storytelling to the audience, and the way the play sneaks up on you for an ending that leaves your spine tingling. You know, that whoa moment. Thornton Wilder is a playwriting genius. I get that now. I can see why this play deserves a spot in the theatre canon. At first I was resistant to enter this world of Grover’s Corners. I wasn’t prepared for the simplicity, the pace, the details. By the end of Act One I was hooked. Then by the end of the show I was disappointed to leave this town and these people. The story provides the audience with big spaces for reflecting. Shaw staged a compelling production that continues to haunt me nearly a month later.
Next we went to see The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God. It was adapted for the stage by Lisa Codrington from Bernard Shaw’s short story. This play was a highlight of the festival for both my nephew and I–and our favourite of the four plays, which was a surprise to us both. It was a lunchtime one-act with the running time of about an hour. I had selected it because I’m curious about adaptations and I wanted to see something that was done by a current playwright. From beginning to end this show was outstanding. Natasha Mumba was AMAZING! Truly.
After lunch we attended a matinee performance of Alice in Wonderland. Kudos to the Shaw Festival and Peter Hinton for blowing our minds with the visual splendour of this show. Our jaws dropped many times from the gorgeous sets to the amazing effects. The beginning of the show is highly engaging, however most of the wow moments happen within the first hour so as the story progressed our interest waned a bit. I think it’s the classic story structure idea of building–when a show starts at such a high point of engagement (and for such a lengthy time–nearly an hour of visual surprises) our mind comes to expect it. So when the story is told through ways we expect in theatre (after an hour of surprise) it feels flat. We were glad to see the show and I still recommend it.
Finally, we watched an evening preview performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street–the play that led us to the Shaw Festival in the first place. I’ve been taking my nephew to plays since he was three. Literally. We’ve seen many productions together over the years. Each year I ask him, “So of all the plays we’ve seen, which is your favourite?”
And he always answers, “The one with the blood.” Macbeth. It was a Driftwood Theatre Group production we attended on the grounds at Trafalgar Castle in Whitby years ago, The Complete Works of Shakespeare: Abridged. Sabastian was probably six or seven…very young. He LOVED the Macbeth scene. He NEEDED to see Sweeney Todd.
First we loved that Benedict Campbell played the Stage Manager in Our Town and Sweeney in Sweeney Todd. (In fact, we loved seeing many actors in multiple productions over the two days.) Sabastian also commented on the dramatic transformation of the stage from Alice in Wonderland. It was a fascinating sharing of worlds that you can only get from festival productions.
We were both very tired when the show began (from already seeing three shows…haha!) but within minutes of the show Sabastian turned to me and whispered, “Whoa. I won’t be falling asleep in this one.”
Sweeney Todd was new to him and he loved it (we sang all the way back to the hotel).
My favourite performance was by Marcus Nance who played Judge Turpin. His presence, voice, intensity–all were of Broadway calibre. Sabastian loved Kyle Blair who played an energetic Adolfo Pirelli.
It was an excellent production and our favourite of the big shows we saw at Shaw Festival.
So what is the big take-away from a summer of adventures at the theatre?
Ontario has no shortage of talented theatre-makers, choice of shows, and theatre audiences. Each performance was well-attended. In an age of Netflix and ubiquitous entertainment, I am thrilled to see so many people going out to watch live theatre. Theatre is alive and well in Ontario. I barely scratched the surface on what’s out there. Which shows did you enjoy this summer?
For many years I went away for a week each summer on a writing retreat with friends. Those were special days filled with writing, naps, and in-depth discussions about plot, character, and story. Each day we aimed to write twelve pages before lunch. At first it was hard. Sometimes I’d cheat and start writing a day or two early so I could keep up with the pace. By mid-week I was fully immersed in writing, in expression, in freefalling into a story and seeing where it lead. In the summertime I crave intense arts experiences.
It’s the middle of July and I’m still dreaming of school every night. The last four mornings I’ve sprung out of bed to escape a dream about being unprepared, about being disrespected, about being wrong. I still haven’t unpacked the complexities of the school year and released them. Last May and June were the most intense for me so far in my career. Is the work getting more difficult? Or am I getting more easily overwhelmed?
A week ago I made a list of everything I wanted to learn before the end of August. I want to enter the 2016/17 with solutions to all the unsolved problems from 2015/16. I want to show up on my first day of work a new person, a refreshed person, a smarter, more capable leader. It’s not that I made a big mess last year. It’s not that I was bad at my work. It’s more that I lost my innocence as a new principal. I saw the scope of responsibility of caring for staff, students, and parents in its entirety. I felt the desperation of those I was trying to support and my own desperation in trying one thing after another to help. School leadership is hard work.
At the writing retreats we often engaged in a type of writing called freefall. It’s a lot like it sounds, you figuratively lean into the page, and let the words appear as they must without criticism or censor. It feels like unleashing the wild animals within. It feels like bellowing from the top of a mountain. It feels like purging all the bits and pieces that are clogging up the path to inner peace.
I am freefalling now. I am using this blog as a way to reconnect with my voice, to reflect on the year, to move me into my artist-mind. Balance. When I think about balance I think about a couple I saw on America’s Got Talent who took their audition outside. The woman walked along a tightrope, high above the crowds, while her husband climbed onto her shoulders. She balanced them both on the thin wire as she walked across the area. When they were finished one of the judges commented about how precise they must need to be to ensure they don’t fall. Each step is made with intention. Carefully planned. I wonder if balance is about planning.
If I were to lean in to where my energy is right now I would end up back on Twitter reading about GAFEs or making notes on self-regulation or listening to the end of the latest Sir Ken Robinson book I downloaded. My energy is still at work. My mind is still all twisted around the issues there, seeking answers, reaching for ideas, knitting together possibilities. I could easily spend my whole summer ‘playing’ school. Working.
But I know that I need to cut school loose for a while. Let it drift into the background. When work is engaging it can be hard to detach. But I must. We all need to step away from the work. Writers know it creates clarity, shifts perspective, and changes realities. For example, we’ve all finished a draft feeling proud of its brilliance, only to return to it after a break to see gaps, areas for growth. Principals can learn from writers by putting school work in the bottom drawer for a little while.
I need some time to be a writer, a creator, a thinker. Some time to reclaim my voice and mind and compass. Some time to be free. Whenever I went on a writing retreat there was a profound sense of freedom. I gave myself permission to walk and dream and above all lean into solitude. And even now that’s where I’d like to end up at the end of this writing session…in a place of quiet and stillness and clarity and peace. I want to reclaim my voice and value whatever it has to say.
My list of summer activities is ambitious. There are so many things I want from this time. My time. It’s bigger than thinking of this time as a vacation. It’s a time of reconnection, reflection, rejuvenation, and redefinition.
I give myself permission to fully embrace my inner artist, to write a lot, and to check back in with work in a month from now…