Miss Miller draws a tree

Another of my earliest posts– inspired by one of my many walks along the riverbank.

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I looked at a tree today and was reminded of my fourth grade teacher. Miss Miller was pretty memorable on a number of counts, not the least of which was her purple pantsuit.  The year I was in grade four was the year that the school board relaxed the staff dress code, and for the first time female teachers were allowed to wear pants instead of skirts and dresses. But they had to be pant SUITs. And Miss Miller, clearly happy to embrace this brave new skirt-less world, frequently sported  the purplest of purple pant suits you could possibly imagine.

Miss Miller seemed ancient to me, but looking back now I think she must have been in her 40’s. She was a little exotic because she was most adamantly Miss Miller—whereas all my other teachers to date had been Mrs. so and so. (This was before anybody I knew was called Ms!) She was tall and lanky, and she taught very difficult fourth-grade things like long division. To tell the truth I was a bit scared of her at the start.

But what I remember most about Miss Miller was the day she taught us how to draw a tree.

I knew this lesson was especially important to her, because she cancelled Math to do it.

A small forest of lollipop trees
A small forest of lollipop trees

“All right class, today I’m going to teach you how to draw a tree that actually looks like a tree. I’ve been seeing a lot of you drawing trees that look like lollipops sticking up out of the ground.” And she drew some examples on the chalkboard.

“Hands up if you’ve ever seen a tree that looks like a straight stick with a perfectly round ball perched on the top? I thought not.” She vigorously erased the offending drawing.  “ When you draw a tree you need to think about how it grows…”

And then she proceeded to draw a real tree, all the while talking through how she was doing it—how the trunk forked out into large branches which in turn diverged into smaller branches, and so on. How you would never have a large branch growing out of a smaller branch. How the tree branched out to reach the light.

“Every part of the tree has to be connected back to the trunk—you can’t have branches just sticking out at random. And if you could see under the ground, you would find that the roots of the tree branch out in just the same way.” At which point she drew an elaborate root structure for her chalkboard tree.

It was beautiful. I wanted nothing more than to be able to draw a tree like that. She handed out art paper and instructed us to draw a tree. I laboured over that assignment with greater sense of purpose than I ever had for long division. I drew a passable tree, and I have conjured Miss Miller every time I have ever had occasion to draw a tree since.

My latest attempt at a Miss Miller tree
My latest attempt at a Miss Miller tree

But what I realized only recently is that the best part of Miss Miller’s lesson was that she taught me how to SEE a tree. She taught me to pay attention to how things grow. She taught me that things in nature are shaped the way they are for a reason. She taught me that creating art was a way of learning about the world.

The long division was useful too, but I think the lessons I learned from drawing that tree had a deeper impact.

Slow Down

Today’s Daily Prompt poses: Your entire community — however you define that; your hometown, your neighborhood, your family, your colleagues — is guaranteed to read your blog tomorrow. Write the post you’d like them all to see.

bank 1Although, as this blogger observes, I thought that’s what I was doing already, this one did give me pause. And here’s why—

This morning I decided to check out another walking venue that I haven’t  seen in many years. South of the city, along the same wiggly Seine River that winds past the old monastery, is a wooded area called La Barrière Park. It’s at least 25 years since I last set foot in this park. Then, I was a young teacher supervising a school picnic, surrounded by noisy teenagers. Today, aside from the maintenance crew and a couple of dog walkers, I pretty much had the place to myself.

But before that I got lost. To get to the park I had to drive through a new development that has been going up in the south end of the city. There are roads that are so new they aren’t on my map. And there are no meaningful landmarks—just acres and acres of huge, beige and grey boxes. At one point I ended up on a brand new stretch of road that ended abruptly in a massive dirt field. I came very close to just giving up and backtracking my way to a more familiar haunt, when suddenly I found myself on what I knew to be the right road, going in the right direction. Phew.

When I finally found my way into the park, I left my car alone in the parking lot and set out along  a rough maintenance road, past the picnic shelters and the baseball diamonds, over a solid footbridge, and into the woods.

pathThe forest was quiet. The sound of fallen leaves crunching softly beneath my shoes was occasionally punctuated by the rustle of a bird or squirrel moving through the branches above. The path was wide and well-maintained, but in such a way that it didn’t feel like a human construction. The only litter on the forest floor was the natural forest litter of fallen trees and broken branches, many of which were thick with moss. In one spot someone had perched a split log atop two adjoining tree stumps to fashion a primitive bench.

Something about the forest felt safe. Safer, I realized, than I felt driving around lost in the new subdivision.

Tomorrow is the last day of my leave. Monday I will be back at work. Back in the “real world” after many days spent walking and thinking and writing. It’s time to go back; the muscles around my new hip feel strong and my leg feels stable. When I step on the bus on Monday morning I won’t be carrying a cane.

forestBut I’m going to miss the slow rhythm of these days. I know I am going to have to fight to maintain the sense of equilibrium that I have found with all this time to squander. I’m going to have to be very intentional about making time to walk in the woods. Time to think. Time to write.

And the thing that bothers me most is that as a community we seem to accept that that will be the case. We accept that life is hectic. We accept that “busy” is the norm.

I want to continue to challenge that notion as my own “busy-ness” ramps up again in the coming weeks. I am determined to keep wandering in the woods, and not to get lost among the boxes.

And I want to challenge you, my community, to slow down. And go for a walk in the woods.

seine 2

If a tree falls

When you live your life on the riverbank, you are always at risk of losing the ground beneath your feet.

fallen treeThe fallen tree was once a tall oak. Seldom do you get to see a whole tree, roots and all. This tree would have been a great object lesson for my grade 4 teacher—no leaves to obscure the systematic forking of the branches, and not much soil to obscure the mirroring root structure. Just a clod of riverbank clay to which the roots have clung, but to no avail. When the riverbank crumbles it crumbles, and if you happen to be standing on the broken bit, you go with it.

Sometimes we can read the warnings. The ground cracks. Fissures appear in the grass and loose soil tumbles down the bank. There are human-made warning signs too. But even if you could warn a tree it wouldn’t help. Because the tree can’t take a step back.

A healthy tree can bend and flex to withstand the force of tremendous winds. But it has no defense against the force of erosion. And if a tree falls, there’s no getting it back up on its feet. It’s pretty hard to transplant a fully grown oak.

erosion signFortunately, when the ground beneath my feet gives way, as it has more times than I care to contemplate, I am not bound by the force of my own roots to succumb to the collapse. At the core of my resilience is the knowledge that I can take a step back and regroup when I see the warning signs. I may slide and lose my balance for a while, but I can head off the big fall with evasive maneuvers.

Most of the time. There are still moments when the ground beneath me opens up without warning and I find myself suspended over nothing, like Wile E. Coyote sprinting past the cliff’s edge. The secret, of course, is not to look down. Wile E. only falls when he looks down. You won’t always notice when I’m travelling across the void, because the years have taught me to keep going forwards until eventually my feet touch solid ground again on the other side. And take root in new soil.

Know the signs...
Know the signs…

Lately I’ve been noticing some cracks in the soil around my feet. Some things that mattered a great deal to me seem less important now, and other things are gaining prominence. I can feel my universe start to slide. In my sixth decade am coming to a new realization—now that I have learned to cross the void when it comes, I don’t need to wait until I lose my footing. I can step off the edge and navigate the air to a new solid ground. Because you can transplant a fully grown person.

This post has been entered in a weekly writing challenge. Click the button below to read other entries, and on Thursday vote for your 5 favourites.

Leaves

red 2    The leaves are changing colour. I used to think it was sad that the beauty of the autumn foliage signaled the end of the leaf’s life, until it occurred to me that the tree is not dying. It’s just shedding some worn out bits, the same way I shed my hair and skin cells. It’s getting ready to rest. To go on leave, as it were. To take a break for a while from its work of photosynthesizing until the snow melts and the sun warms the earth and the new growth emerges.

If I chase that thought of photosynthesis as work, it makes me think differently about the diverse colours of the fall leaves. It makes me think about the green sameness of the foliage when it is hard at work in the spring and summer of its life. Come fall when it stops working—when it goes on leave—is when it shows its true colours.

yellow 1I’m feeling that way these days. I’m on leave, but just for a brief season. Still, I’m feeling like I have finally been able to shake the green sameness of my work day out of my head and spend some time feeling, and being, my true colours. And now I’m wondering what it will be like when my leave is over—when I go back to my photosynthesis factory with all the other green leaves, doing the things that make us blend together.

Now that I’m over the hurdle of the immediate post-surgical period, this part of my leave feels a lot like retirement. I still have lots of exercising to do to build up the muscle around my new hip; but honestly, needing to go for lots and lots of walks hardly constitutes work in my universe. Going for a long walk every day is one of my true colours. So is having lots of open-ended time to listen to the aspens rustle in the wind while I play away at my creative writing and reading. So is having long stretches of solitude.

red 1When the time comes, I’m going back to a desk surrounded by concrete. To reading emails and writing reports. To meetings and more meetings and meetings about the meetings. It’s a good job, and all, but I think I need some different colours to shake up the green sameness of it all.

The seasons change. Spring will come back and the trees will once again be a riot of green. In a few weeks my own leave will be over and I will have to put some of the things I want do on the back burner to focus on the things I need to do, at least until it really is time to leave.

Perhaps in the meantime I could be one of those trees that sports purple leaves all summer long.

Miss Miller draws a tree

I looked at a tree today and was reminded of my fourth grade teacher. Miss Miller was pretty memorable on a number of counts, not the least of which was her purple pantsuit.  The year I was in grade four was the year that the school board relaxed the staff dress code, and for the first time female teachers were allowed to wear pants instead of skirts and dresses. But they had to be pant SUITs. And Miss Miller, clearly happy to embrace this brave new skirt-less world, frequently sported  the purplest of purple pant suits you could possibly imagine.

Miss Miller seemed ancient to me, but looking back now I think she must have been in her 40’s. She was a little exotic because she was most adamantly Miss Miller—whereas all my other teachers to date had been Mrs. so and so. (This was before anybody I knew was called Ms!) She was tall and lanky, and she taught very difficult fourth-grade things like long division. To tell the truth I was a bit scared of her at the start.

But what I remember most about Miss Miller was the day she taught us how to draw a tree.

I knew this lesson was especially important to her, because she cancelled Math to do it.

A small forest of lollipop trees
A small forest of lollipop trees

“All right class, today I’m going to teach you how to draw a tree that actually looks like a tree. I’ve been seeing a lot of you drawing trees that look like lollipops sticking up out of the ground.” And she drew some examples on the chalkboard.

“Hands up if you’ve ever seen a tree that looks like a straight stick with a perfectly round ball perched on the top? I thought not.” She vigorously erased the offending drawing.  “ When you draw a tree you need to think about how it grows…”

And then she proceeded to draw a real tree, all the while talking through how she was doing it—how the trunk forked out into large branches which in turn diverged into smaller branches, and so on. How you would never have a large branch growing out of a smaller branch. How the tree branched out to reach the light.

“Every part of the tree has to be connected back to the trunk—you can’t have branches just sticking out at random. And if you could see under the ground, you would find that the roots of the tree branch out in just the same way.” At which point she drew an elaborate root structure for her chalkboard tree.

It was beautiful. I wanted nothing more than to be able to draw a tree like that. She handed out art paper and instructed us to draw a tree. I laboured over that assignment with greater sense of purpose than I ever had for long division. I drew a passable tree, and I have conjured Miss Miller every time I have ever had occasion to draw a tree since.

My latest attempt at a Miss Miller tree
My latest attempt at a Miss Miller tree

But what I realized only recently is that the best part of Miss Miller’s lesson was that she taught me how to SEE a tree. She taught me to pay attention to how things grow. She taught me that things in nature are shaped the way they are for a reason. She taught me that creating art was a way of learning about the world.

The long division was useful too, but I think the lessons I learned from drawing that tree had a deeper impact.

Suckers

IParking lot weed #1 have a great deal of admiration for things that grow where they aren’t supposed to. In the paved lot in the old golf course weeds force their way up through tiny cracks and make bigger cracks. Elsewhere in the golf course, a stealthy thistle pokes through the decking of a small footbridge.  And the roots from the aspen tree that came down in the wind this spring are sending up suckers to interrupt the uniform surface of the lawn next to my parking spot.

I like things that grow opportunistically. Because they sneak in and grab a toehold in a tiny spot of soil and soak up some sun and photosynthesize their little hearts out when no one is looking. Because they thumb their metaphorical noses at the forces that said, “Oh no, you can’t do that here. This is a lawn (or a parking lot, or a garden) and the likes of you don’t belong here…”

Twenty-seven years ago I signed a rental agreement for a house with two mature, stately trees in the front yard. The trees were one of the things that drew me to the house.   A few weeks later, on moving-in day, I pulled up in front of the house and was horrified to see two big tree stumps. The landlord pulled up behind me and jumped out of his car to hand me the keys. He was beaming with delight.

sucker
Aspen tree–the sequel. This one will be harder to preserve, at least if I want to continue to plug my car in on cold winter days.

“I got rid of those trees! I think you’ll find it much brighter now—and we won’t have to worry about the foundation. I’ll have a guy around next week to grind out the stumps.”

I mourned those trees. A few weeks later, the unseen root network started pushing up suckers all over the lawn. I rebelliously chose one and started avoiding it with the lawnmower.

I drove past that house today. My little sucker is a huge tree—actually a cluster of four trunks rising from a single base—towering over the two story house.

I like it when the little guys win.

Wading in

River view from UI live in a city named after muddy water. Two slow and silty rivers meander across the Manitoba prairie and meet up in the centre of town. I grew up on the bank of one river, and have recently found myself living on the bank of the other. I knew I missed the water, but I was surprised by the degree to which it felt like my soul had come home.

The water really is muddy. But the riverbank that rises from that mud is full of life and beauty. Full of trees.

Life is pretty muddy too. I am always looking for greater clarity. Trying to wade through the murk and muck to see what’s important. Trying to get somewhere in spite of the meandering. Trying to get somewhere simpler and more authentic than where I started. Hoping, once in a while, to pull something as beautiful as those trees out of my own foundation of silt and clay.

The river and the trees and the prairie sky are my muse. This blog is an attempt to share my musings.

What I hope you find here is a glimpse into what it means to seek clarity when one is a single, working mother, trying to carve out more hours in the day for the things that feed her soul. Like writing. And reading. And long, leisurely walks along the riverbank.