One of the things I do in my crazy, cobbled-together career is to speak about writing, art and creativity at educational conferences. In this part of my life, there are few things that feed my soul and ego more than a room full of educators smiling and nodding their heads in response to my message. I love the energy of big crowds and the enthusiasm that can take hold when a lot of people start to… well, agree with me, of course! It’s incredibly validating. I walk away from a big, successful presentation feeling just right. These experiences make going forward, whether onto another speaking engagement or into my studio, easy and light for me. The “performers” of all kinds out there will know exactly what I am talking about… Gwyneth Paltrow said it perfectly: “The adrenaline of a live performance is unlike anything in film or theater. I can see why it’s so addictive.”
This past Friday and Saturday, I was one of the author/illustrators at the NJ Librarians annual conference. On Saturday, I gave a workshop on poetry writing in the school library. It was the last time slot on the last day. O.K., then, it’s like I always say: you get what you get and don’t get upset. As I pushed my cart of presentation equipment and workshop goodies to my room, I passed the exhibitors hall where the vendors were already breaking down the booths. This isn’t a good sign, I thought to myself. Librarians in the hallway were already saying their good-byes and planning their drives home. Stray programs and crumpled up name tags strewn about made it clear that whatever had happened here wasn’t happening any longer. I arrived to an empty room. The table at the front of the room was scattered with half empty water glasses and cellophane mint wrappers. Within a couple minutes, my facilitator showed up and then there were two of us. My session was to begin in about three minutes. I could feel my mojo shrinking.
A weird thing happens when your mojo shrinks… at least for me, anyway. As the two people (that’s right, two!) who attended my workshop floated in– commenting, by the way, that they were wondering why they’d stayed when everyone else had left–I started to have trouble getting ready for something I’ve done hundreds of times. My usual, organized self couldn’t find the dongle for my MacBook, the “playlist” for my session, the pack of construction paper for the hands-on portion, or the remote control for my slide show. I became flakier by the minute! One of the two librarians looked stern and impatient and I could feel her eyes boring into me. This is going to be a disaster, I thought. So, I quickly began to set up my projector and, as I lifted it from its case, I saw a little piece of paper with an animal print. I must have received it from a kid at a school visit sometime last year and shoved in the bottom of the case.
It was folded in half and glued all the way around the edges. Nevermind that my two (well, three including the facilitator) attendees were waiting, I was curious about what was inside. Equally compelling was the outside message, “Help the earth, Dar Hosta,” but I’ll get back to that part. I carefully opened the folded note so as not to rip the paper.
It was a heart, cut into pieces, and accented with gold glitter, with each word of “I Love you, Dar Hosta” written onto each piece. A personalized, handmade puzzle. A quirky, on-the-spot delivery of love. It made me smile. In the words of Kahlil Gibran, “The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the greatest intention.”
I put the note away and launched into my slide show. I like to begin my sessions with an inspirational section– to forget about all the bureaucracy that rules school districts these days and get to the real reasons we all became teachers… kids and the joy of curiosity and learning. I have a bunch of very colorful, visual slides that I show while I talk– my attempt at a TED-esque delivery– and I read a poem by my favorite poet, Shel Silverstein. This particular day I read every child’s most favorite piece, “Sick,” and followed up with a funny poem I’d written called “Squeaky Clean.” It’s a brand new poem about my dog that I’d written last week after he ate a bar of soap during the frantic, morning rush hour in my house, to illustrate the way we can all find poems in our day to day lives. In this section of my presentation, I also have a carefully aligned trio of slides that show a candle being lit, then a lit candle and, finally, a smoking wick from a candle that has been blown out. I’m counting on the metaphor to be obvious here.
But, sometime in the middle of all this intended goodness and inspiration, the stern and impatient librarian interrupted me to say, “Are you ever actually going to show us how to write poems?” Well, I guess this is where I break out the lesson plans. O.K., then. Mojo still a little shaky.
So, we wrote poems together, the four of us, my facilitator, the two librarians and I. We wrote a gooey poem about really sweet, sugary things that we all love to eat, we wrote color poems, nature poems and personification poems. We read them aloud and started talking about the possibilities of each lesson plan. The facilitator was a high school teacher in a very poor urban district where her sophomore students read on a fourth grade level and 98% of the school qualifies for free lunch. She thought that these simple, template based poems could open up all kinds of possibilities for her students. I agree. And, I think that, perhaps, the stern and impatient librarian was maybe just really eager to get to the writing part because her poems were quite lovely and inspired and I quickly realized that poetry was in her veins. She also told me later that, at her school, each teacher eats in the cafeteria with a table of students where they have conversations while they have lunch. If you read my blog, you know I totally dig that.
Presentation mojo aside, it’s a hard time for freelance artists right now, especially if you’re a freelancer who relies on educational funding for your livelihood. Many of the authors and illustrators at this year’s conference told me that times are lean for them right now, particularly with the holiday season right around the corner. There was a lot of uncertainty about what the future holds for book creators and I’ll admit that I’m not always sure what my own future holds. But between the happy outcome of my very humble workshop and the time I spent laughing with good, creative friends, I think that I’m going to work hard to face this week with an attitude that is easy and light. During my humbled-mojo-Saturday, a few of us even made a video together. If you’ve ever wanted to know how to make a six-page book in less than a minute, you need not wait another second!
As for the message on that little scrap of giraffe-printed paper, maybe it was a child’s way of reaching into my future to remind me what I already know and continually work to never forget: that good friends, laughter, generosity, poetry, love and a bit of humility can, in fact, help the earth.
And then, I have to tell you, I was humbled again this morning. I took today’s picture rather early and the sky was putting on her own presentation for anyone who cared to attend. Mojo immeasurable.
TRY THIS WEEK: Make a Six-Step-Sixty-Second-Squish-Squash-Book and, in it, write down six things that make your life easy and light. Go on and try the book, you know you want to.