Today was an ideal Sunday for going to the beach with my camera.
Years ago I read Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” The book had such a profound affect on me that I read all her other books too. Creative people know that there is an energy to creativity. Like other forms of energy there are things that will help it to expand and things that will cause it to shrink. We learn over time how to feed the energy, control the flow of energy, and how to maximize the energy while creating.
Cameron recommends going on artist’s dates as a way to boost creative energy. These are scheduled, intentional solo outings designed to spark insight and connection. So this March Break I decided to spend four days in Toronto on the ultimate artist’s date.
On the train from Cobourg to Toronto, rather than listen to my usual coffee house playlists, I listened to jazz. Within two songs I felt my creative soul opening up. It was all I could do not to spring up into the aisles and sing with my whole body. When had I stopped listening to jazz? A year ago? Five years ago? How does a person lose something as big and as wonderful as jazz?
My days and evenings were filled with artist’s dates while I was in the city. A night at the ballet. An afternoon at a musical. A trip to a museum. A gallery. Time with people who inspire me. Each date stirred stories that long to be written and songs that cry out to be sung.
And now I’m at home bursting with ideas and possibilities and projects. I feel awake again.
So I greet my laptop like a beloved old friend, snuggle in my favourite chair ready to begin. And that’s when the doubt creeps in…the worries…the fears. What if I get distracted again? What if I’m too tired to create when I’m back at work? What if I’ve forgotten how to do this?
When we’ve fed our creative force well it has the strength to overcome our dragons. And so my questions start to pass by like moving clouds. The story is stronger than the doubts. The song is louder than the worries.
It is so nice to begin again…Thank-you Julia Cameron.
One winter a student posted a status update on social media that went something like, “I hate that fat girl in the yoga pants.”
For two weeks, streams of girls came to me upset to be the target of harassment. Most of the girls didn’t know the ‘bully’ personally but were certain it related to their yoga pants. When I interviewed the one who wrote the comment, she revealed the target. It was a slam against her former best friend to hurt her, nothing to do with the many girls who cried themselves to sleep for weeks after it was posted. It broke my heart. 15 different girls had told me 15 different stories about self image and belonging.
I think of those yoga pants sometimes and I wonder about what else is going through the individual minds of young girls while they are alone on social media.
I also wonder how girls are affected by the #MeToo hashtag that’s going around. And then I think about the many girls in schools who have shared their stories with me over the years. I wonder what they are doing now. I wonder if they’ve found a way to heal, to take charge of a new narrative that builds them up rather than lingering in one that makes them feel torn down. I wonder about the subtext of #MeToo, the underlying emotional pulls, the accompanying memories, the what’s next…. As an adult, the subtext of #MeToo can be empowering, a symbol of solidarity and strength, or it could be an invitation to seek help. Does a teenage girl interpret it in these ways too? How does it affect her sense of belonging and self image?
And so over the past month I’ve thought a lot about many of the girls in the schools I’ve worked in over the years. I’ve remembered that the pain and scope can stretch far and wide. This isn’t a story about one girl, but about many girls over many years. It was important to me to write this post to show their courage and resilience, to use writing to reflect on the complexity of the situation for girls today. I want to remember how necessary it is to listen to their individual stories and how something essential could be missed if we don’t.
Warning: The content is sensitive and may be upsetting.
It’s a Tuesday morning. Ms. L shows up at my office door. She has that look, the look that tells me something big has happened, the look that says, Take a deep breath, Jessica.
“Kate came to see me this morning. She shared something. She wants to tell you too,” she says.
Then Ms. L lets it out fast, as if the speed will lessen the impact, make it all seem more manageable.
Kate comes into my office. She casts her eyes to the floor. The energy surrounding her looks contained like she’s struggling to hold it in, like a held breath in a bad-smelling room.
“What happened?” I ask.
Kate sighs—and then her story comes tumbling out with a burst of air. She talks about how she had a fight with her boyfriend. A bad fight. They threw things at each other. The apartment they shared in town was no longer safe. Things had been getting worse. Sean hit her. She yelled. And then “it” happened. She was raped. When she could escape, she ran to a friend’s house, stayed the night, decided to tell the us about it now, weeks later. “I haven’t been sleeping,” she said. “I’m still living at Sean’s. I think I should move. Maybe. It hasn’t happened again, so maybe it’s okay. He was so sorry.”
In this moment, Kate is so open, so trusting, so desperate for peace that her truth is raw. Kate and Ms. L and I cry together.
We call her mother. We ask her to come to the school immediately. Kate hadn’t seen her mother in a week.
Kate asks us to stay in the room with her when her mother arrives. When Kate tells her mother about the event, her mother falls to her knees and sobs. Kate stands and holds her mother’s head against her leg, soothing her. Then Kate’s mother reveals she had been in an abusive relationship too. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” she says. Kate had grown up witnessing her mother’s struggles with love and domestic violence.
The women stand holding each other, crying. Then we all hug and cry together before Kate and her mother go to the police station.
Six months pass. Kate is living at home again. Sean misses her and regularly tries to win her back.
The police come to the school. Kate is in the hospital. Kate is 18 now. She asked the police to call the school instead of her mom. Kate had tried to take her own life.
A couple weeks later, Kate returns to school and we develop a plan with the help of a social worker. Kate identifies three caring adults at the school who she feels safe going to when she feels distressed. Kate says she wants to heal, to feel like herself, to reconnect to life. Somehow she remembers hope, she says. A tiny crack in her dark world lets in the light, expanding each time she trusts us with a story, an insight, a goal, a worry. The social worker and the teacher work with Kate to help her find safe housing, to help her rebuild her life again. Kate works so hard.
Kate has now graduated from high school and a college program. She works full time. She is engaged. She is excited to have a daughter of her own one day. She says that she didn’t start to feel safe until the police issued a restraining order preventing Sean from contacting her. Kate is still working things out with her mom, but every year it gets easier.
And I could share “Sean’s” story too. Sean is also one of my students. He has been in foster care since he was three. He has lived in 11 different homes. When he turned 16, his worker decided it would be easier for Sean to live in his own apartment than with a family. Sean struggles in school sometimes and has not made any connections with the staff. He started skipping classes in Grade 9 because he didn’t want his peers to know he couldn’t read. He steals things sometimes even though he has enough money for rent and groceries. It’s tough because there is no one to call when Sean is struggling. His worker’s office is 3 hours away. Who is raising Sean? Who is teaching him how to love?
Sean loves Kate. She is the only person he has ever felt love for in his whole life. He plans to marry Kate. It scares him when they fight. He is afraid of losing her.
Sean has an explosive temper at school sometimes. He bruised his fist punching the door when he was mad. When I talk to Sean about his temper he pulls his hoodie up around so it covers most of his face and says, “I don’t eff-ing care.”
Kate didn’t charge Sean at first. She told the police her story but decided not to press charges. She said she didn’t want all the drama. Sean dropped out of school when he turned 18 a few weeks later. He had 16/30 credits. Kate said, “he won’t be at school so I’ll be fine.”
When Kate was in the hospital, he tried to visit her. She found the strength to advocate for herself. Soon there was a restraining order in place.
As Kate put her own life back together, Sean’s life continued to fall apart. He lost everything. He got in some big trouble with the law and within 6 months was arrested and imprisoned. He still has no family.
Before I started listening closely to students I would have found this story too extreme, but every year I meet students with stories as complex as Sean’s and Kate’s. I hope all the “Kates” out there are reaching out to people they trust. I hope all the “Seans” out there have people who they can call family who will teach them how to love. Everyone has a right to feel safe.
And these are just two stories. Each time I see someone post the #MeToo to signal that they have been a victim of sexual harassment or sexual violence, I know there is an individual, complex story. The first step is sharing. Awareness. Then we need to plan…
In a school, our number one priority is that students feel safe. How can we do this better? How can we make our communities safer? Our world safer? How can we prevent harassment and violence? What do we need to teach our children and teens? How will school, home, and community work together for change?
“It takes a village…”
Thank-you to all the educators out there who provide a safe haven. Each school I’ve worked at over the years has had a team of caring adults who quietly help many “Kates” and “Seans” each week.
I wish I had more answers. For now I continue to work on listening…
* Confidentiality is important to me. Therefore, this is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Some people might call it the woods, but our family has always called it the bush. Rolling granite, moss, and long grasses topped with juniper bushes, birches, maples, and pines extend for many kilometres from my parents’ place across Crown land.
Fall is the best time to go for a hike in the bush. The deer flies, horse flies, and mosquitos are gone. The bears are preparing for winter and most have gone deeper into the bush, beyond where our feet would take us in a day. I’ve never seen a rattle snake in the fall but we have seen other kinds of snakes–grass snakes, water snakes, fox snakes. We know there are wolves in the area but we’ve been lucky. It’s rare to see a wolf during the daytime. Usually it’s winter when the wolves are spotted by the residents. The most worrisome is the hunters. Dad always encourages us to wear bright colours when we go out in the bush in the fall.
Our hike is about 45 minutes each way. It follows a one-lane path or dirt road that cottagers use to get to their remote places. When my dad was a kid he had a family camp at the very end of the path. He remembers when the narrow road was made in the 1960s. Before that they would hike in, walking 45 minutes to an hour with their food and gear.
Sometimes at Thanksgiving it’s just dad, my brother Colin, and I making the trek out into the bush. Other years we have a big group of 15 going. It all depends on the weather, who is visiting, and the timing of Thanksgiving dinner.
Yesterday there were five of us. We decided to drive most of the way. Not everyone is able to hike that far these days.
Usually when we get to “our spot” it is quiet and the silence is the kind that fills you from your feet up through the top of your head. But yesterday was different. As we approached the beaver dam we heard gunshots. Lots of gunshots. Too many to be hunters.
Dad and Colin got out of the car to investigate. I shouted, “I have First Aid but we didn’t cover gun shots!”
Dad said, “Don’t worry. I’m wearing a red hat. They will see me.”
It was skeet shooters. Across the marsh was a big group of young people, as disks shot up into the air they shot at them with a rifle. We could see them. They could see us. They were shooting out in the other direction. It was safe to explore. But the sound of gunshots changed the peaceful silence I love.
Eventually the skeet shooters were done. We were able to soak in the beauty uninterrupted–just as it should be.
Not everyone has a chance to go for a hike in the bush on Georgian Bay in Fall. So I put together a slide show to share some of the photographs I took yesterday:
I remember going blueberry picking in the bush near the cottage in Britt when I was eight or nine. Mom carries baskets. Dad carries peanuts in shells. We always bring Princess with us, my great-Aunt Irene’s German Shepherd. Princess leads the way over the granite and moss, into the desolate, dense back bushes on the coast of Georgian Bay, guarding us from the possibility of walking into sleeping black bears or sunning massasauga rattlers.
We find a clearing with smooth, warm rock bordered by thick, low blueberry bushes. Mom gets to work right away, kneeling by a bush, filling the basket with only the good luscious blueberries, not the shriveled or mangled ones.
Dad lays on his back on a rock in the sunshine, his arms spread, soaking in the fresh air, settling in for a nap. My little brother, Colin, runs around the area with Princess. He carries a big beaver-chewed stick that he uses like a bat, whacking piles of rocks and dead, grey trees while Princess barks with excitement.
I sit near Mom, eating the berries she places in the basket—too scared to put my hand in the bush and pluck them, imagining fanged snakes will chew my arm to bits.
“Do I need to tell you the story of the Little Red Hen?” Mom notices I’m eating her berries. “These are for pies.”
So I make a fist, plunging it into the bush real fast, hoping to punch the imaginary snake in the fang.
“You do it like this,” Mom says. She reaches into the bush with her right hand, holding some leaves back with her left hand. She gently plucks the berries off one by one, carefully placing them in the basket.
I don’t like moving so slowly, being so gentle. It takes too long to feel like we are making progress.
Dad starts to shell peanuts, still lying in the sun, throwing the shells by the tree line. Colin and I run over to Dad and grab a handful too, pulling the shells off. We sit side by side, waiting with anticipation for Chippy the chipmunk to appear while Mom works steadily in the bush, filling the basket with berries for pie.
Eventually I return to sit by Mom, picking berries and placing some in the basket, but mostly I eat them.
Mom grew up picking blueberries. Grandma would send her out into the bush in the morning with a basket and say, “Don’t come home until it’s full.”
Mom said she often got distracted in the bush too. She spent most of her time in the bush making houses out of moss by peeling up layers of moss off the rock and repositioning them, making floor plans on the granite, then playing ‘house.’ She waited until the last minute before frantically filling her basket with blueberries for Grandma.
I like to think that distraction is a natural part of the process of getting things done.
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?