Earth Air Fire Water
Contemplating the four elements has been immensely important for me as a writer, artist, and teacher. The elements offer instruction and delight, educate our imaginations, and nourish our bodies and souls. The elements get together and separate, recombine in endless vivid combinations and conversations.
Sometimes when I am writing, I feel like I am listening to the Wind, listening for inspiration that is almost in words, listening for a language that I almost know. The Wind is a writer, a translator, a traveler, an ally, a friend. The Wind is the messenger who comforts, catalyzes, soothes and challenges. Like her friend The Rain, The Wind wraps herself around us, whispers into our ears, sings in our dreams, messes up our hair, rearranges our moods.
On the file box on my desk I keep a folder labeled Water, filled with all kinds of articles about river restoration and the importance of crying, polluted waters, Hawaiian names for rain. I am not sure why I save articles about water. After I finished editing my anthology Changing Light, I worked on a children’s story that personified The Rain, though I never finished it. A boy named Jamie, accompanied by a frog named Sara, goes off in search of Rain. When no one can cajole or entice Rain to leave her house in the clouds, Jamie accompanied by his frog friend, goes to find Rain’s himself, directed by a network of frogs. The Rain is restless and calm, impatient and patient, moody as any of the other writers I know.
I don’t think I have ever burned a painting in utter frustration but I have made several fire collages, tearing up old pieces that were not working, adding red ribbon and bits of that elusive blue that lives at the center of the flame. Some years ago I covered a page with warm yellows and brushed in abstracted letter shapes in oranges and reds. I painted over most of those colors, with deep blues and blacks, and the painting became a picture of a house at night, dark and silent but bright inside. Light pours out the windows. Recently, I named the painting The Alphabet of Night and Day.
One day when I was painting at the Sight/Insight studio in Marin, I collaged a leaf to the page and it became the torso of a man. Leaf people have been in my art ever since. Green beings, plant spirits spiralling through my notebooks, I draw them but they draw me deeper into the world. I don’t have to go to Muir Woods, even the backyard flowers and trees are calling me out of the house and into the garden.
Leaf shapes becomes the shapes of wings and flames and teardrops, raindrops.
Working with the elements seems like a basic part of the tool kit for a Poet in the Schools. Many children know that each element has a healing face as well as a destructive force. We talk about tornadoes and floods, earthquakes and fires. We talk about the renewing qualities of water and how fire keeps us warm. We observe how we depend on the elements and celebrate their gifts. Sometimes we make lists of water words and earth words, blazing words and words that breathe. Waves of water words on long sheets of paper. Add “ing” to all of them--nouns and verbs alike. The waters are rhythming, rhyming, streaming, flowing, currenting, weeping, shouting, drizzling, pouring, misting, waving, laking, rivering, oceaning.
In a fifth grade class last fall, we combined writing “identity” poems with poems about the elements. One girl expressed her passionate and calm nature declaring “I am like a blazing hot fire but usually I am the cool and clear water that runs away.” Another divided her paper into four rectangles and drew her mother as red and orange flames, her brother as the green blue earth, her dad as a tornado, her sister as the sunset in the ocean.
One of the first poems I wrote as a teenager was a poem about candles. We had just read Wallace Stevens “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” I carefully constructed my three and four line stanzas alternating religious images of lighting candles at the beginning and end of Shabbat with stanzas filled with romantic candlelight.
Some years later I recognized that I had written small poems about air, water, and earth and set out to write a fire poem. To my surprise I became the candle.
I drink the wind like cool wine
you say cheers
Tell the ocean,
tell the Mother,
tell her your heart's desire.
foot to earth
earth to ruth
dirt to earth
root to ruth
I am a white candle
The fire is in my head
I am making notes
while a white candle burns
The flame is burning
words into paper.
The paper is not burning.
The words are on fire.
Dancing at midnight, in firelight by the ocean,
teaching in daylight, I am always Your student.
Praying and begging I can only ask in whispers.
Tell me and tell me the truth inside the truth.
About J. Ruth
Causes J. Ruth Gendler Supports
Poets in the Schools
River of Words
Friends of the Earth
Doctors Withour Borders