Of Cherry Blossoms and Tulips

Today, we were privileged to have our sixth Chinese poetry session with our poet in resident Steven Ratiner.  Even though I have been participating in these workshops for seven years, I always learn something new from Steven each time he comes.  Today, the children participated in a simulation of Orchid Pavilion Gathering,
a tradition that has been around in China for many centuries.  In a Preface to the Poetry Composed at the Orchard Pavilion written in 353 CE by famous poet Wang Xizhi, he writes:

On this late spring day, the ninth year of Yonghe (353 AD), we gathered at Orchid Pavilion in Shaoxing to observe Water Festival. High mountains and luxuriant bamboo groves lie in the back; a limpid, swift stream gurgles around. We sat by the water, sharing the wine from a floating goblet while chanting poems, which gave us delight in spite of the absence of musical accompaniment. This is a sunny day with a capful valley breeze. Spreading before the eye is the beauty of nature, and hanging high is the immeasurable universe. This is perfect for an aspired mind.

Though born with different personalities – some give vent to their sentiment in a quiet chat while others repose their aspiration in Bohemianism – people find pleasure in what they pursue and never feel tired of it. Sometimes they pause to recall the days lapsed away. Realizing that what fascinated yesterday is a mere memory today, not to mention that everyone will return to nothingness, an unsuppressible sorrow would well up. Isn’t it sad to think of it?

I am often moved by ancients’ sentimental lines which lamented the swiftness and uncertainty of life. Since the nature of man remains the same regardless of the change of times, later generations will probably feel the same when they read these poems. This gives comfort.

Steven today went down a different route — he talked about the Cherry Blossom Festival that has just been celebrated in Japan.  He spoke of a discussion between he and his wife about a tree to purchase for their front yard.  Should it be a brilliant Japanese Red Maple tree, whose delicate leaves stay beautifully crimson all year or should it be a Weeping Cherry tree, who enjoys a spectacular five to ten days of extreme beauty but then looks rather ordinary?

For the Japanese, the cherry blossom reminds all that this beauty passes all too quickly and that you need to pay attention or you will miss this beauty.  It’s a reminder to all about the need to slow down and appreciate those moments of passing beauty.  I did a little more research on this festival also known as “Sakura” and learned from http://www.tokyotopia.com that

“Japanese people believe the Japanese cherry blossom captures and defines all that is vulnerable about being human. The sakura season gives us a timely reminder, once a year, that life is fleeting and time is precious.

This is a time to take stock and evaluate what you have achieved, and what you are going to do next, on your own life path. In essence, the cherry blossom cycle is seen as a metaphor for life.”

There is a connection between this definition from Tokyotopia.com and what Wang Xizhi had to say.  Spring is a time of rebirth, a time to slow down and appreciate the little buds popping out on trees, the pea plants coming to life in the dark soil, and buds planted in the fall finally showing their true colors.  As I know from losing my baby sister seven years ago, life is uncertain as Wang Xizhi said and that time is precious as is explained in the definition of Sakura.  As the years tick by for me as well, I too lament on the swiftness of time.  The two little boys in fire hats are now both halfway through their college careers.  Even though I do not have a Cherry tree in my yard, this spring for me has most definitely been a time to evaluate what I have achieved and to think about what I will do next on my life path.

One of my tulips

So, where do the tulips fit in?  Last Columbus Day weekend, I planted 100 bulbs.  On this cool, brilliant October afternoon, I carefully placed the 100 bulbs into holes that I had carefully dug into the mulch and the dirt.  After placing each one into the hole, I sprinkled some bulb food on top and gently covered them up with the dirt.  All spring, I have been going over to see what was happening with my bulbs.  Would they come up at all?  I didn’t remember what type of  bulbs they all were.  Green leaves started to pole through in late March and I was hoping that the still cold temperatures and April Fool’s Day snow would not kill them.  More leaves kept unfurling.  I noticed other people’s daffodils had bloomed, but still nothing from mine.  I was worried that mine would not bloom.  Finally one day after school, I noticed some color.  Slowly but surely, I started to note some oranges peering out from the green leaves that cradled the bulb.  Then, some red-orange flowers, and finally today, some pink tulips had revealed themselves to the world.  Being in a very mindful mood after the poetry lesson today, I went in and got my camera.  Despite some light rain, I looked carefully at each of them.  They were all different.  Just like my students.  In the fall, I planted and nurtured them.  Throughout these past few months, I have prodded them to reach higher.  Over the past two months, I have been so pleased to see how they have broken through the ground and soared to a new zone.  Just like seeing my tulips, I have delighted in seeing them grow in ways that I didn’t think possible when I planted them in the fall.

Spring for teachers is often a time that is so hectic that there isn’t time to stop and really look at neither flowers or our students in a slow, mindful manner.  Today’s lesson inspired me to take comfort in the everyday beauty that passes by all too quickly.  Sometimes lessons aren’t just for the students.


Taking the Time to Be Open-Bowled


"Leaf Litter"


Too often, our days go by and by and by.  During our school day in Room 305B, we often move from one thing to the next without any real “down time.”  Yesterday, our Poet-in-Residence, Steven Ratiner started with an assembly for the entire fourth grade.  He started off with a story about how when he was driving to Thoreau, a bright yellow leave landed momentarily on his car windshield before soaring off to its next location.  He talked of “should I have pulled over and written a poem right there and then about the beauty of this leaf?”  After a few comments from the students, he began to address the concept of “Open Bowl”.  Even though I have heard this talk many times before, I always take away something different each time.

Picture your mind as a bowl.  According to Taoist theory, there are three types of bowls.  The first one is when your mind is like a turned over bowl.  You can’t store anything in it and the world can’t get in.  The second type of bowl is right side up, but has cracks and holes in the bottom.  You could fill it up, but it would leak out the contents.  Things might enter and leave right away.  The third way is a true Open Bowl — empty, yet complete.  This bowl is so taken with the world around you that the world will fill you up.  The interesting point is that you need to let your bowl be empty for this to happen.


Rocky Bottom


After hearing Steven’s story, two things came to mind from the past week.  The first was an instance of when I was “open bowled” during the week.  My husband and I went up to our cottage in New Hampshire to pull our boat out on Monday.  Last Columbus Day, the foliage was beautiful up there, but this Columbus Day, it wasn’t as spectacular.  But, I was in an open-bowled frame of mind.  Walking on the dock, I noticed some beautiful leaves in the water.  Just like Steven had said, my bowl suddenly became filled up with the beauty of these leaves and I quickly began shooting pictures of them.   On our boat ride, my husband kept obliging my need


Blue Duck


for him to stop the boat so I could take more pictures.  Because I was in an open bowl state of mind,  I was appreciating all the beauty around me and letting it soak in.  On a day to day basis, this doesn’t always happen.  I am too busy to notice how beautiful the world is every day.


Leaf on its branch


In the classroom, I try to incorporate time for the students to be Open Bowled.  Our trips to the river are designed to be an open bowl experience.  This past Thursday, it was a rather gloomy and cool trip down to the river’s edge.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from the students’ writing.   It wasn’t that colorful or interesting to my eye initially.  But, one by one, each student brought me over their field journals.  I was blown away by the depth of their writing. One student compared the falling leaves to their traveling to a warmer climate.  I was immediately reminded of the folks who travel to Florida each year.  Another student created an imaginary journey for these leaves.   One student was fascinated with the above leaf on its branch.  At a quick glimpse, it doesn’t look all that interesting, but because this child was truly open-bowled, he was able to look at it in an entirely different way.  I asked them to reflect about why their writing was so fabulous during this trip and they said, “there was just a lot to write about.”  Too often, we take the changing of seasons for granted.  We don’t slow down and appreciate the beauty of a fallen leaf.  One of my goals this year for my students is to allow them that time to become truly open-bowled.  One of my goals for this teacher is also to allow herself the time to also be open-bowled as well.

“It’s All About Qi”


One of my favorite songs by Billy Joel is “It’s All About Soul”.  During this school year, I’ve decided to change the title to “It’s All About Qi (Ki in Japanese).  Earlier in the year, I blogged about “Feeling Genki” after learning the true meaning to the word Genki in Japanese class.  A lot of the Japanese calligraphy originated from China, so it makes good sense that the Chinese word for “the flow of energy that sustains living beings” (Wikipedia) or qi (older spelling is chi) was formally introduced to the students during our last fall Chinese Poetry Workshop.  It’s also interesting that in Korean, this energy is “gi” and in Vietnamese, it’s “khi”.  This week during our workshop, Steven Ratiner introduced this workshop as “The Way of the Brush”.  He went on to explain the difference between clerical style calligraphy, which is beautiful, neat, and clear to painting with qi.  Painting with qi means that it is spontaneous, on the spur of the moment, making it up on the spot.  You need to be so open-bowled that the energy flows out of you and into your brush.   A mistake or error in this type of painting is seen as a positive thing.    Throughout these workshops, students have learned poetry associated with different dynasties and philosophies.  Today’s lesson was centered on Zen Buddhism.

Steven Ratiner demonstrates the beauty of the calligraphy brushes

After discussing the four essential elements for producing this type of art — brush, paper, ink, and inkstone, students first practiced strokes that make up all of the symbols before moving onto practicing writing some symbols.  Then, “Autumn Reflections at the Dressing Table” was played to the class.  When they felt something, their ink-loaded brush was put onto the rice paper.  Stepping back, they evaluated their first stroke and decided what to do next.  This went on until the students felt they were complete.  Now, looking at their drawing, students created a poem to go with the drawing.  These poems will be edited, and then written onto the scrolls.  This will all be mounted and we will have a wonderful memory of this workshop.

Back to more “Qi” — several weeks ago, I started to do a blog after the mile run.  I’ve been meaning to get back to it, so here’s the beginning:

“This class totally energizes me on most days.  However today, another verb can be used: inspires.  Today was our mile run at the Emerson Track.  I always love to go along, being a former track athlete and coach, to watch the students run.  Today, all 19 students participated in this activity.  For most, they were finished in the eight to nine minute range, some below that range, and some above it.  But for one student, it took 42 minutes and 37 seconds to do 1/4 of that distance.”

Here’s the end now to this unfinished entry.  “The “qi” that I felt in participating in that full 42 minutes and 37 seconds once around the track was incredible.  This student truly personifies the utmost qi of anyone I’ve ever met.  Never complaining, never saying “I can’t do this.”  Nearing the end of this 400 meters, the two 4th grade classes lined both sides of the track, cheering this student on.   The energy present was simply incredible.  Tears were streaming down my face as we neared the finish line.  To say this was a moving experience doesn’t do it justice.

Last thought on “qi” as I finish this entry up.  A colleague said to me late Friday afternoon over a cup of tea, “I heard you and your class singing on the way to lunch.”  A student had put on a pair of “Skeleton-like” gloves and we all spontaneously broke out into “Bones, Bones, Bones, Rattle-Rattle.”  I thought back on what Steven said about painting with qi and thought this is what “qi” is all about — the spontaneous collection of just doing anything with joy (I knew I could get back to my Billy Joel song) — whether it be singing a song from Monster Madness, cheering on a classmate, or being totally engaged in learning.  There’s a good abundance of “qi” going on in Room 305B these days and this makes every day a delightful experience!

Hope everyone is getting healthy or staying healthy!