we walk on hell,
gazing at flowers.”
― Kobayashi Issa
Issa and I share this sensibility that our feet must keep moving even when tired. There is much beauty to distract and engage us, to keep us going. I recently discovered a beautiful thing in an unlikely place.
Last week I found myself at a salvage yard in North Minneapolis searching for cheap chalkboards to use as signage for a work event. They had tons of chalkboards. They were just unsuitable for our purposes. We need portable signage. These chalkboards were real slate, carved from quarries and polished for classrooms 100 years ago. They were all large and heavy as — rock.
I impulsively bought a chalkboard for myself, the smallest one they had, about seven square feet. It probably weighs close to fifty pounds. I brought it home and washed it and got out my pastels. I couldn’t wait to write on it. It was cool and smooth to the side of my hand as I drew with a piece of blue chalk across the inky dark surface. It held my chalk line, thick and bright.
The experience, the peaceful pleasure of drawing on a chalkboard, takes me back to my school days and the excitement of getting my turn to write on the chalkboard. There was an exciting novelty to drawing on a large, vertical surface. It was a giant page that required an adjustment from tight, controlled writing to a free and bold gesture to make bigger shapes. The chalkboard was a public wall that everyone in the room could see. I liked that too, an audience for my writing and drawing.
I loved to volunteer to erase the chalkboard. Maybe, I felt, the teacher would forgive me for being a terrible math student by taking care of the chalkboard and nobody would notice my deficits because I could make a fabulous show of my excellent spelling and writing skills. It was a process that started with energetic brushing with felt erasers and then finished with paper towels soaked in water. The clean, dark surface that emerged was a fresh invitation to fill it all in again.
As a teacher, I loved the classroom chalkboard. I used it to create morning greetings, funny pictures (a beaver in a top hat when we studied the American fur trade) and I often invited students to enjoy the chalkboard as a space for their creative expression. It was a natural medium for community art projects. We could create a garden where every student drew in their own flower.
There is even an old family story about a chalkboard ordered for the one room school house my grandfather attended in rural Wisconsin. It arrived on the train cracked. Because my great grandfather was on the school board, It ended up in the farmhouse, a great treat for the kids.
I’m not sure what the future holds for my beautiful chalkboard except for one thing, on days when I need to gaze at flowers, it will give me a place to find them.