Explore China and aunthood with Aunt Boomie

Aunt Boomie


Negative Capability 1

Posted on June 15, 2013 by AuntBoomie

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I spent my last week in Thailand relaxing at The Sanctuary–a true-to-its-name resort tucked away in a cove on Koh Phangan–practicing yoga, meditating, melting into massages, dancing, swimming and eating healthfully. In a short period of time, I was feeling better in mind, spirit and body and my imagination was running wild in that wonderful way it often does.

Yet, after three blissful days of feeling more “connected” with myself, yet somehow “dis-connected” from anxiety and worries, I let things slip by skipping morning yoga in order to email a job application for a high school English position. Clearly, that bliss I was feeling was not part of a regular balanced existence.

After hitting send on the email, I decided to traverse the giant rock outcropping on one end of my cove to go explore the beaches on the other side. I clambered up a steep stone staircase and skid down a muddy path lined with palm-frond-built bungalows festooned with bright flags of Om-printed sarongs hung out to dry.

Once out of the shade of the jungle, I came across even more amazing Thai tropical-jungle-beach beauty–blue, blue waters, white sands and dense green mountains–and I had to remind myself that no one place is more beautiful than another, that it’s all about how we embrace being in that place…yadda yadda yadda. Eager to explore more, I climbed a shaky staircase that led to a long network of hand-strewn bridges made from bamboo, old boat slats and other repurposed slats of varying strength, lengths and widths of wood. What luck! I thought to myself. A charming, rustic mile-long network of hand-crafted bridges built along this rocky, craggy shoreline!

My aim to absorb the views, however, was disrupted by the practical need to watch my step, as the bridge rolled, swayed and seemingly morphed before my eyes. This nifty bridge was Thai-crafted, without a sign of safety in sight. As I inched along, testing slats beneath my post-yoga somewhat-more-weightless-body, I doubted whether the bridge would hold up my farang body.

My growing fears were compounded by my tendency to notice those gaping spaces between the slats, or, rather what lay beneath those gaping holes: rugged rock! sea-foam-licked piles of broken wood and trash! quicksand! I began to imagine myself plunging through the slats and disappearing into the sea, where my bones would be dashed against the rocks and ground into the pebbles glinting meters below me in the frothy, rocky surf.

The fear I felt was a thousand times worse than that I felt as a child, walking across the wide metal grate outside the entrance to the children’s room at the Greenville County Library.

In other words, I seriously started to freak out.

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No worries, no worries, I told myself. I reeled back through the lessons I’d re-heard over the past few days: embrace your fears, let thoughts come and go without holding on to them. Yes, you must, I told myself, alter this terrifying shaky bridge walking experience into a meditative act.

That’s when the brilliant idea hit me: Katharine, don’t focus on the wobbling, ill-matched, loose slats of wood you’re depending on to keep you from plunging from your death. Instead, focus on the spaces BETWEEN the slats! Embrace the idea of negative capability; that which is not there. Instead of doubting the solid pieces of wood before you, think about the spaces between those slats and embrace the idea that it takes a balance of the seen and unseen to balance life. Yes, yes…I was on a roll…the idea was even BIBLICAL: faith is not hope in what can be seen, but what cannot be seen.

I readjusted my Wedge cap, wiped off the sweat trickling down my nose, and tried a reverse tactic on the whole “don’t step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back” routine. Surely, transcendental bliss awaited me.

Right.

Let’s just say my brilliant meditation focus lasted for about three seconds. I forgot about trying to control my breath, and reclaimed the slats as my focus. I walked as quickly as I could without causing the bridge to sway, and gave a universal thanks as I finally jumped off the bridge and onto that pebbly white beach.

Ai WeiWei: Be the Spine You Want to See in The World 3

Posted on May 05, 2013 by AuntBoomie

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My 11-12-year-old students were confused when I introduced them to the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and encouraged them to think critically about his artistic/ political response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

“But Ms. Katharine,” they implored me in confused tones, “you LOVE China! How can you suggest something negative about China?”

I coughed into my hand (pollution, rivers swarming with dead swine, rat meat), wondering if my entire unit on Ancient China had been a waste. Didn’t they at least remember our spirited debate about whether Shi Huang Di was a villain or hero? Were my essential questions that oblique?

It was the week after the Songkran holiday, and I was feeling rattled from the attacks on the Boston Marathon and the major earthquake in Sichuan Province, which occurred in the same area as the 2008 earthquake that resulted in around 80,000 deaths. Instead of carrying on reading from our heavy yellow Language Arts textbook, I decided to turn our focus on Ai Weiwei for the week and ignite a conversation about the intersection of art, social media, social justice and political activism.

For the sake of any potential readers, I’ll pause my own entry and enter excerpts from student essays. Keep in mind that the authors are 11-12-years old and writing in their second language.

Student Writing, Sample 1

Ai Weiwei. Think about that name. You may think of hundreds upon hundreds of backpacks forming a mosaic on the walls of an art museum. You may think of the person who rebelled against the government. Maybe you imagine him doing Gangnam Style with Chen Guangcheng. Or, you may see him as this random guy who simply likes to have fun. No matter what you think, his name sure stirs up a lot. Speaking of names, he had the courage to pursue one of his greatest achievements. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. He arranged that the names of thousands of Earthquake victims to be broadcast at his art exhibition. Now, you must know that this isn’t such an easy task. Ever since the Sichuan Earthquake, the government refused that the names of the children be released. Even if Ai Weiwei got beatings, even if he was watched, he endured it. He endured all of it. Just for the sake of all the devastated parents. Just for getting the message across. He did it. He risked it all. Any second, someone could grab him and put him in jail. Did he care? No! In fact, to exaggerate the fact that he was unaffected by the incident, he BASHED the government on his online blog and twitter. Before you get the wrong idea, I would just like to make it clear that I do not support ALL of his actions. I just simply think that people should start standing up for their own rights for a change. Ai Weiwei could be that first step. That first step to equality. That first step to justice.

Student Writing, Sample 2

He is a man. He is a man who stood up for thousands of Earthquake victims. He stood up against a government that did not even release the names of  the victims. He fought the incompetence of the government in the way he knew best, Art. He is Ai WeiWei.

Before his ideological fight against the Chinese government, he was actually a redeemed artist. The government actually supported his works! He became such an esteemed artist in China, the Chinese government invited him to work on the what-was-going-to-be-called “The Birds Nest”. He worked on the megalithic project with other foreign architects like Herzog & de Meuron. At first he was initially enthusiastic, until an event happened in the South. While the gigantic Olympic stadium in Beijing was being constructed, an event of Mother Nature’s Bidding erupted in the Sichuan province of China. An earthquake erupted on Monday, May 12, 2008 in Southern China of a magnitude of 8.0. It horrifically killed 69,195 people, with 18,392 missing, but what was most sadistic was that thousands of school children were killed, maimed and missing because of the horrible school foundations that did not at all protect the children they were schooling and housing.

Student Writing, Sample 3

For me Ai Weiwei is a person I think I can call my idol proudly,because he is someone who isn’t scared of anything. He doesn’t care what other people think about him. If he doesn’t like something, he stands up for it. He was famous for when he was invited to design the olympic stadium at China (the bird nest). He used his fame to stand up for all the children who died from the earthquake in Sichuan. There are few people who would be brave enough to stand up and say something against the government like him. He used Twitter to tell people about all the people who passed away because of the earthquake. He made a lot of fans, and those fans helped him make a memorial for the people who past away.

 Student Writing, Sample 4

Ai Weiwei’s decision was to make a sort of monument for the victims of the earthquake including (and especially) the schoolchildren who were prey to shoddy construction. I think that his decision was better than just giving a bunch of money to the victims. There are multiple reasons. One is that: If Ai Weiwei was giving the money to the victims, it may look like he was just trying to be nice and then just get over the whole thing. “Yay, I gave the money to the victims, I really care for them.” Alright, anyone can just give a whole load of money to the victims. The government, charity (especially charity) and some millionaires who feel like they need to spend their money on something and just happen to stumble upon this earthquake and think, “Alright, here’s something to spend on.” Not cool. The second thing, if you give the money then the victims would spend all of it. If you give them something else more permanent, that would be better. The third reason, if you make artwork, you put them effort, you waste money on the building of the project, you waste other stuff with money, the workers’ wages, the gas that it takes to get to Sichuan, etc. etc. That makes the victims realize the effort. The fourth one is that you can actually see the message: Chinese people should have a “spine” and take a stand against corruption.  

Blog Post Resumes…Class Process

I welcomed the class back from their Songkran holiday and asked them to tell me about what events had happened around the world that week. Their responses varied: Boston, Syria, their own travels. In both classes, at least one student mentioned the earthquake in China. As it happens, their former LA teacher had been in a serious accident that week, and so we talked about her healing process and how lucky she was to be alive. I then asked the students to open a new Google Doc in their folders and to journal about the following:

1. How does your culture or community respond to death? What traditions are carried out?

2. How does your culture or community honor the death of many people, such as from war or a natural disaster?

3. How do you wish to be remembered when you die?

We discussed their responses for a few minutes and then I assured the children that we were going to leave behind our serious discussion and move on to something more fun. I also warned them that we’d get serious again in a few minutes.

And then I started blasting Ai Weiwei’s spoof on Gangam Style. Luckily, my classes of 44 pre-teens of Thai, Chinese, Indian and Japanese descent were immediately hooked on Ai Weiwei thanks to his spoof. Three annoying beats into the song, and the kids were galloping around the room, anxious to know why that funny looking guy with handcuffs had replaced Psy.

IMG_0337IMG_0336IMG_0335Gangam Style was my hook, but I still needed to lead the kids gently into the big ideas we’d be discussing. With no Lego sets at my disposal, I raided the supply room for various sets of math manipulatives. I chose three types: interlocking, flat and tiny cubes. Back in the classroom, I instructed groups of 3 – 5 to select one type of manipulative. Only one group was allowed to use the set of interlocking units. I gave the groups 4 minutes to see who could build the tallest, 4-sided structure. Students were also instructed to film the building process using their phones or laptops. After four minutes, students were told to step away from their tables and to look at each other’s creations. Then I asked them to identify which structure was a government official’s home and which was a school. Then I surprised them by running up to each table and simulating an “earthquake.” Inevitably, the interlocking blocks mostly survived while structures erected from the tiny cubes completely collapsed. This was my segue into introducing the 2008 earthquake.

I gave a brief talk about the devastation of the 2008 earthquake, and alarmed the students by sharing information about the number of schools that collapsed versus other types of government and privately-funded buildings.

Next, kids watched their videos of their building process and wrote a reflective journal entry addressing the following: how well did we work as a group? what was frustrating? if given another chance, how could we improve our working process and build a stronger structure?

Student Response: at first i thought the lego building would be good for governmental and the school but then i knew our flat building would be much more safer. at first i felt like this would take forever but then i realized that when builders try to build a house or building they would have to stack brick by brick and it will really take this long.

At this point, the children were primed to watch the 17-minute PBS version of Allison Klayman’s documentary (the PBS version is shorter and “kid friendly”). We also listened to Melissa Block’s NPR story about Ai’s creation “Straight” and answered questions (listening skills, comprehension and critical thinking). We watched the Gangam style video again and discussed why a Chinese dissident would cover Psy, and oh who is that guy with sunglasses dancing?

We gathered for story time and I read the children a picture book version of “Tikki Tikki Tembo,” which is about a Chinese boy with a name so long that it almost kills him. Many of the children knew the story and chimed in singing the boy’s name at the appropriate times in the story. This book led to a discussion about the importance of names and naming, which we linked back to our question about why Ai Weiwei wanted to gather the names of the children who died in the earthquake.

Finally, the students embraced their writing assignment, which was to summarize their learning about Ai Weiwei and to express their opinions about “Straight,” which is a 38-ton sculpture made of rebar claimed from the earthquake rubble. Students were asked to consider whether it was more meaningful for Ai Weiwei to spend the money buying and transporting all that steel in order to make a sculpture that thousands of people would see, or if the money would have been better spent if it had gone directly to helping the earthquake victims. (see essay excerpts above)

For Writer’s Workshop, we focused on the 6 + 1 Writing Trait of Organization. Using a Google Doc, we worked on organizing a peer’s paragraph, and then worked independently to organize our own essays. The student quoted here didn’t exactly get her facts straight, but the difference in her organization is quite clear between drafts one and two.

Student Example 

First draft, pre-Writer’s Workshop

  • Ai Wei Wei is an artist who’s from China, but ending up being hit on the head by the police(s) when he visits Hong kong and he’s still ok even though he got hit on the head by the police(s) because he got brain surgery after that.  All these problems cause from him opposing the laws in China and because he wanted to honor the children that died from the earthquake, he made an artwork by using the children’s bag and pile them up and he place the bags that were piled up in front of the museum because he wanted people to think about the children that died during the earthquake.  And when the government see the artwork, they send the police(s) to hurt or arrest him (I think).  Oh, Ai Wei Wei also made another artwork that’s about the earthquake.  The artwork is called “Straight”

Organized paragraph, post-Writer’s Workshop

  • Ai Wei Wei is an artist from China.  He is an understanding person and always stands up for others and himself.  He is also the person who designed Beijing Olympics stadium or “The Bird’s Nest.”  After that when the earthquake hits Sichuan, many children died because the school buildings were not strong so the buildings collasped because there’s just a little rebars.  So Ai Wei Wei decided to make an artwork about the earthquake by using children’s backpacks and pile them up together and put his artwork in front of the art gallery so everyone can see.  When the government saw the artwork, they send the police(s) to beat him up.  Ai Wei Wei got beaten and got brain surgery because he got hit on his head.  After the brain surgery, he did another project called “Straight.”  The materials that are used in the project is only the rebars to represent the school buildings without the rebars.  I think that Ai Wei Wei is a caring person who understands other people but I think the government is mean.

We “published” the stronger essays by arranging them on the bulletin board alongside photos of Ai Weiwei.

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A Gathering of the Gods 1

Posted on March 25, 2013 by AuntBoomie

IMG_1561My attempts to create a fashion-week/celeb-fab backdrop for our Grade 6 “A Gathering of the Gods” failed, but many of my students made quite an impression with the costumes and props they created for their Greek Mythology presentations.

When I gave my students their myth monologue assignment, I took delight in knowing this was one of those presentations that middle school kids across the world encounter, and one they’re likely to remember much later in their lives.

Only a few die-hard fashionistas entirely dressed up (faces intentionally blurred), but most of the students followed through with the prop requirement. Their originality and substitutions made me smile:

  • Hypnos, who kept “falling asleep” during his presentation, arrived carrying a teddy bear
  • Perseus wore a bright blue swimming cap and a seashell-print pillowcase wrapped around his neck, superhero style
  • Aphrodite passed our Hershey’s kisses
  • Achilles strapped a Nerf arrow to his ankle
  • Poseidon donned a shark-shaped plush hat advertising an energy drink
  • Adidas made it easy for Hermes to rock up wearing winged trainers
  • Hades petted a colorful Cerebus he’d crafted from modeling clay
  • Athena cuddled an owl-shaped Ferby, which, oddly, is making a big come back currently in Thailand.

Same old assignment, I know, I know, but it was fun watching the kids get excited as they interpreted the ancient roles for themselves.

Sap’s Rising 1

Posted on March 18, 2013 by AuntBoomie

IMG_1478As I bicycled home this afternoon on my “Burberry” blue two-seater, my Cambodian neighbor flagged me down and convinced me to turn around with the alluring promise of “Mango! MANgo!”

Now, French fries might very well be my favorite food, but even the crispiest French/Dutch variation, skinny and dipped in Siracchi-Duke’s sauce, doesn’t compare to my love for the mango.

Blindly, therefore, here in the suburbs of the Big Mango itself, I pedaled in the wake of my neighbor, my mouth already itching, waiting to be quenched with a juicy, velvety, sun-colored slice of fresh Thai mango.

I was confused, then, when we arrived back at my house, my point of departure, right in front of my immature mango tree, hung heavy with hard green fruits. After some gesturing and confusing word choices, I realized that she was politely asking if she could partake in the bounty of hard green mangos. After a year and a half of living in my house and having never seen a mango orange enough to pick for my own consumption, I hastily agreed. Thai and other Asian people seemed to enjoy a green mango, and I was more than willing to support someone else’s happiness, especially when I knew that the fruit on my trees would never turn that happy orange that I look for in a good, ripe mango.

Readily, I emptied out the plastic bag I’d been carrying and handed it to her. She proceeded to fill said bag with hard green mangos. I thought she was doing me a favor by harvesting the worthless mangos before the myna birds and their annoying song descended upon my garden.

Yet, the more I insisted that she fill the sack, and another, with hard, green fruits, she insisted that I must save more for myself. And in this conversation of various languages, gestures, grunts and ah-has, I finally, FINALLY, realized that mangos must be picked before they turn orange.

The woman wanted to share in my bounty of mangos, yes. But this dear woman also realized that I didn’t know the art of mango picking, and she wanted to teach me to take advantage of my own harvest.

Forget Pimseuler’s How to Speak Thai. Forget Lonely Planet, Fodor’s and all of their tour guide friends. What you need to know when you come to Thailand is this: when to spot a mango when it it meant to be plucked.

As it turns out, last year I wasted an entire harvest, because silly farang (foreigner) me thought I had to wait until the mango turned orange to pluck it.

No. Mai ow.

A mango must be picked, if I understand her correctly (which, again, was muddied by language and hand signals) when it is dark green and freshly striped by signs of sap. Once the sap starts to ooze out of the stem, and the fruit is a dark green, one knows to pluck the fruit and place it in a a cardboard box in the sun (I didn’t quite figure out all the details).

I was amazed and appreciative that my neighbor didn’t just take the mangos, but taught me, a silly western woman, how to cultivate and enjoy the free, organic tropical fruit growing in my own front yard.

Yet also, she didn’t understand why tears flowed down my face when I spotted sap oozing down the hard, curved bodies of comma-shaped, deep green mangos.

I lied and said I was happy to learn a new skill.

Yes, I was happy. No doubt. But I was also reminded of one of my favorite email subject lines from Jim Higgins. It was simply: “Sap rises.” He’d met someone incredibly important to him, and he wanted to share his good news with me.

The relationship he was in wasn’t fully ripe yet, but he recognized when the sap was rising, and that he needed to wait out that relationship and treat it well, waiting for the moment when it was at its sweetest.

I believe my Cambodian neighbor taught me a lesson today that I’m still processing.

The sap is rising. Of that, I’m sure.

A Real Dictionary 0

Posted on March 04, 2013 by AuntBoomie

As delighted as I am to work in a school with a 1:1 laptop program, it’s a daily struggle to keep Grade 6 kids on task when they open their laptops to work. So today, when I gave them a new set of five vocabulary words, I asked them to use the classroom set of dictionaries at the back of the room.

Oh, the protests.

“Can’t we just use our laptops? Can’t we just use our laptops?”

I watched in fascination as my non-native English speaking students, ages 11 – 12, as well as native speakers fumbled with the big brown books. Each time they looked up a word, they would close the book, turn it sidewise, look at the letters on the indented tabs, sing the ABC song, and then flip through at least 20 pages, back and forth, before they landed on the word they sought. It was quite clear that the students had grown up relying on electronic dictionaries. No judgments, just an observation.

In the past, I’ve bemoaned how the use of electronic dictionaries prevents us from stumbling across new words that we might not have come across otherwise. As a kid, I remember flipping through a dictionary and becoming so distracted by the wealth of syllabic combinations and sparse smattering of illustrations of exotic plants and animals that I’d completely forget what word I originally sought to define. I was fascinated by the idea that a photo editor had the responsibility of picking a handful of pictures and illustrations to complement the text. For several years, my DREAM JOB was to be a dictionary photo editor.

So when one kid got distracted by an illustration of a type of South American donkey, I was tickled. But I realized, as I watched them fumble with the books, just how much digital dictionaries have removed us from having to think about letters and words categorically. We aren’t required to sort, spell and categorize when we use digital dictionaries. We don’t even have to know how to spell a word to quickly look it up!

I was also surprised that many of the children called me over to announce that the word flawless wasn’t in the dictionary.

“Can you find flaw?”

“Yes.”

“Well then, what happens if you add a ‘less’ after flaw?”

“Ohhhh!”

But it’s not just the study of English language. One day last month I substituted for the Mandarin teacher, and I was shocked by how “easily” students looked up words using electronic dictionaries. I was also pretty wowed, as I also am very lazy when it comes to counting strokes and struggling to use a Chinese dictionary.

I’m left thinking about the ease and convenience of digital dictionaries, and the skill-sets and discoveries of using a paper dictionary. They both have their advantages, no doubt.

Any other day, I might have been annoyed to catch the two smallest boys in my class looking up the f-word, but today, I was just glad to see them using their dictionary skills.

Personification 0

Posted on February 09, 2013 by AuntBoomie

IMG_0136As part of our poetry unit, we focused on the literary device of personification. After a brief discussion about personification and a reading/identification activity, students broke into groups to trace the outline of one classmate’s body. This kinesthetic activity was designed to enforce the definition of personification–giving human qualities or characteristics to an object or idea. Once the bodies were traced, cut and posted on the wall, students worked on writing personification poems. After a round of revisions, students posted their poems onto the “bodies” on the wall. Then the students voted on the brightest, most interesting examples of personification by placing stickers directly onto the poems.

Here’s an example of one student’s personification poem:

 

“Beyond the Ocean”

By Wow-Wow

The salt-scented waves are dancing Latin for me,

As the crabs scurry with glee,

The puffy white clouds are dancing above my head,

With the golden sun, shimmering red,

I look beyond, far away I see

Look! A seagull smiling towards me

Splish, splash goes the ocean blue

Over here I feel so true.

Confucius Says 0

Posted on January 23, 2013 by AuntBoomie

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As part of our Grade 6 Social Studies unit on Ancient China, we discussed Confucianism. After we watched a brief introductory film and discussed some of the key tenants of Confucianism, students formed groups to read selections from The Analects. I made sure that each group received books that varied in level of difficulty–from the Chinese version to skinny-print translations to thin books with illustrations. Students selected three quotes and wrote them down on a slip of paper bearing Confucius’ picture, then restated the nugget of wisdom using their own words. We then stood in a circle to read our quotes, donning the Confucius moustaches we’d made from popsicle sticks and Christmas tinsel. Finally, we stapled our quotes on the bulletin board for everyone to read.

My favorites:

“Man should be honest unless he is dead.”

“Young organisms should show respect to old organisms.”

“We should calm down the old, be fair and kind to friends and bring happiness to the young.”

 

You Be the Poet, I’ll Be “It” 0

Posted on January 16, 2013 by AuntBoomie

After taking Ann Fisher-Wirth’s graduate poetry seminars at the University of Mississippi, I simply couldn’t teach a unit on poetry–even at the middle school level–without including at least one Gary Snyder poem. “What You Should Know to be a Poet” was clearly inappropriate for pre-adolescents, so I opted for “How Poetry Comes to Me.”

I began by asking the students to define the word blunder. We talked about it as a noun, then a verb, and proceeded to let out our silly energy by pretending to blunder into everyone standing around us. The girls shyly rocked back and forth on their heels, knocking each other’s shoulders with their black hair, while the boys put the blund into blunder by moshing like it was 1990.

We read the poem through three times, with different people narrating, and then took a moment to reflect silently.

Next, we acted it out. Students willingly assumed the roles of boulders, the campfire, the poet, the edge and “it.”

How did I assess this activity? Participation, cooperation and willingness to follow instructions.

What did I want them to understand? That poetry, like prayer, requires taking the risk of being alone and listening–beyond the comfortable familiars of culture, friends and parental expectations–and then being brave enough to take the even greater risk of stepping away from the comfort of the middle school campfire to embrace a greater brightness.

I wanted them to recognize themselves in both the boulders and the campfire, in both the poet and the poetry.

How will I know what they “got?” I won’t.

Do I even understand what Snyder was communicating? I only know what I’ve learned. And even then I must remind myself to listen…wait…and move confidently towards the edge of the light.

How Poetry Comes to Me

It comes blundering over the
Boulders at night, it stays
Frightened outside the
Range of my campfire
I go to meet it at the
Edge of the light

What is Poetry? 0

Posted on January 16, 2013 by AuntBoomie

IMG_0134According to my Grade 6 students, poetry is:

  • an experience you had
  • a rhythm filled with words
  • sentences that stay on topic and sometimes rhyme
  • feelings: sad, happy, angry and even scary
  • a sometimes difficult way of writing
  • a way to link letters into words, connect words into lines and join lines into works of art
  • freedom to create a unique world, a dimension the reader can dive into and drown in an infinite sea of creativity
  • a weapon to defend yourself

And, my personal favorite:

  • Poetry is who you are.

Check Your Bags for Mice and Rainbow Skinks 1

Posted on January 13, 2013 by AuntBoomie

IMG_0717“Wait! Wait!” The octogenarian volunteer grabbed at the cloth grocery sack slung over my shoulder, yanking me back a step on the slippery wooden dock. “Your bag is not sealed!”

It was a rainy-misty-cool morning in Auckland, and the boat to Tiritiri Matangi Island chugged in the choppy waters, ready to depart any minute. I’d read the warnings about checking my bags for stowaway rodents and insects and knew, for a fact, that I carried no miniature hobos in my possession.

Impatiently, I unknotted the bag, revealing a selection of sealed lunch items I’m bought at the corner mart: egg salad in one of those pyramid-shaped sandwich cartons, Blue Diamond Wasabi and Soy Sauce almonds and a cup of chopped fruit. I knew, however, that she was not concerned with the healthiness of my lunch. Her concerns were much more prevalent.

“We can’t take a risk!” she said. “No rats, mice, Argentine ants or rainbow skinks on the island!” She whipped a large, clear plastic bag from her embroidered purse and a plastic tie worthy of sealing off bio-hazardous waste. She jerked the flowered bag out of my hands and thrust it inside of the cloud-sized plastic.

As her arthritic fingers fumbled with the tie, I tried to assure her, “But I’m not going to open the food until I’m on the boat. The boat is right there.” Diesel fumes were in fact tickling my nose and ocean spray pimpled my calves.

No matter. My bag had to be completely sealed, just in case a clever rodent blindsided me on my last five steps to the boat.

Though comically annoying for the moment, the woman’s concern reflects the seriousness, intensity and dedication with which conservationists have poured much money, volunteerism and work into ridding the 220-hectare island of all rodents and pests as part of a larger effort to restore the island to its native ecosystems after 120 years of farming destroyed the habitats of native birds and bush.

The island has been reclaimed as a wildlife sanctuary. Mammals (which are not indigenous to New Zealand) have been eradicated, over 250,000 native trees have been hand-planted, and numerous native bird species have been reintroduced, including the flightless takahe, one of the world’s rarest species, and the tuatara.

One of the most valuable tourist investments I made in NZ was the five dollar donation I offered in return for a guided bird walk. I was grouped with several British women and a trigger-happy Falkland Islander and a very young guide named Simon. Unlike every other volunteer bird guide that Saturday morning, Simon was the only one under the age of 70. I didn’t realize just how young he was until the tour was over, and I asked him what he did when he wasn’t volunteering on the weekends.

A thin, pale, knowledgeable but extremely hesitant boy, Simon had just graduated from high school and was awaiting an acceptance letter into architectural school. It suddenly made sense that Simon, most likely, had been encouraged to lead bird tours in hopes that sharing his passion for wildlife would help him overcome his fear of people and speaking to them.

At one point on the tour, an elderly German guide and his snow-haired Korean sidekick stopped our group and asked if we’d lost our guide. The pain on Simon’s face was evident as he stammered, “I…I am…the guide.”

Along the trail, Simon found the weightless husk of a weta–a rather scary looking insect native to the island that plays a role in stories from the Maori culture. He carefully fiddled with the caramel-colored legs of the insect and positioned it on a tree branch, with the confidence and compassion of a taxidermist or wedding cake decorator.

We saw several birds along the walk and I was excited, by the end of the walk, to be able to identify birds by sight and song. I even spotted a tui’s nest, and watched as a black mama bird fed four babies–one of those moments from nature that moves you no matter where you are in the world. I summoned Simon over to join me in the magical moment. He dug the toe of his blue trainers into the dirt path, balled up the fleece he’d taken on and off a dozen times, and said, “It’s just a tui. Carry on.”

After the guided tour, we were free to explore on our own. A rainstorm came along, soaking everything but the birds’ songs, which carried on in the pitter, patter, sploosh, splish of the summer rain.

At the end of the trail, I sat with other wet bird enthusiasts awaiting the cruise back to the mainland.

A group of grandchildren welcomed the arrival of their British grandmother. “How was your walk, grandmother?”

“Oh it was grand, just grand!” she said, clutching a walking stick and smiling with red lips she must have stopped to reapply. She tugged at the elastic waistband of her capri-cut jeans and frowned. “I wish, though, that I’d worn shorts. My trousers are soaked. But I declared that I’m much too old to go prancing about in short trousers.”

“Nice shoes, grandma,” teased one of her grandchildren. The bottoms of her old-school Run DMC-era chunky Adidas were soiled with red mud.

“Oh these are the most comfortable shoes,” she beamed. “They were on sale at the Number One Shoe Shop. I wish I’d bought a second pair.”

 

 



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