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—
It’s my second year teaching high school. I work in a big school with about two thousand students. In Grade 11 Advanced English we study Macbeth.
“Miss, do we really have to write another essay?” a lanky boy in the front row asks.
“What are you proposing? Do you have another idea?”
“We should make a play,” a girl suggests.
Another girl says, “We could invite other classes to watch!”
The students slouched in the back of the room adjust, leaning into the discussion.
“How would we begin?” I ask.
The students talk at once, shocked that the idea of substituting an essay is possible. The volume in the room grows.
“We’d have to decide how much of the play we want to do,” a girl says.
“And we could have jobs—”
“—I could do costumes!”
“I want to be a witch!”
“Everyone can do something backstage too.”
“We can turn our portable into a theatre—”
“What if I brought in lights my dad uses at Christmas for our stage?”
“—and I can bring in a cauldron.”
“Jo can make a head for the end!”
I stand by the board at the front of our portable, trying to capture their thoughts in chalk as they fire them out one after another. They brainstorm until the board is full.
“So does this mean we can do it?” a boy asks.
I pause for dramatic effect, squinting my eyes, squishing my lips up into a thinking face. “Hmmmm,” I say. “You make a really good case. I would love to support you on this—where does the writing fit?”
A girl stands up, talking and moving her arms. “I know! We can write a reflection on our characters or a reflection about what we learned.”
Working with teenagers I witnessed creativity every day. We staged Macbeth in our portable that semester. Students collaborated to make props, to paint large sheets of paper to use as a backdrop taped to our chalkboard. Students decided which scenes to include. From directing to acting to finding an audience for the work, the students engaged in every step of the creative process. We had some challenges with meeting deadlines, getting along, balancing different levels of enthusiasm for the project—but the students persevered. Our audience (another Grade 11 class) surprised us by showing up in Elizabethan-inspired costumes. We all learned a lot about how to bring an idea into being, about how to create.
Creativity is the swirling energy that starts with an idea and expands with each new connection, idea by idea, until the ideas land somewhere, turning into something to be shared. Creativity is about process, the ways of bringing an idea into being, the act of creating.
To begin take some time each day to capture ideas–as many as you can. And then when it feels right, try some of them on.
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?