A poet, artist, therapist, and educator, Dorothy Jardin has touched many lives. She was a well loved teacher at Dunn Middle and Upper Schools in Los Olivos,  and is currently a group facilitator and counselor to individuals. She has published a book of poems called Light's River and is now preparing for a local exhibit of her paintings. Graceful as a dancer and creative to her bones, Dorothy is a person who has never stopped learning and exploring, and her insights are valuable and eloquent.  Everything inspires her, and she in turn inspires.

You know what makes a good human being. It doesn’t take that much: you don’t hurt other people, you’re honest, you cooperate, you’re loving, you take care. It’s pretty simple, really.


This interview took place on December 8, 2014 at Dorothy's home in Los Olivos, California. 

CCW: What do you consider your sources of strength? How do you get through hard times?

DJ: I talk to my friends. I reflect. I take walks. I hang out with the trees and the plants. I get into nature. I write. I dance. I move. Movement.

And I’ve been fortunate not to have had too many hard times. I’ve had a very good life.

But I try to understand what’s going on. I reflect. What is this? What’s happening? What’s going on? Because I’m so verbal, talking it through helps me get clear. Being alone with myself doing that, and with others…moving, and allowing it to go… I can reflect, “Okay that’s what this is?”  Or “This feels terrible, but it isn’t going to last forever.” That’s the advantage of being older. You realize that things come and go. Right now it’s this. Tomorrow it will be different. Or in a month, or six months, I’m gonna feel different. It’ll be different.  And just really accepting there’s suffering in human life. There is suffering. And sometimes I’m suffering.

And then, to be kind. To be kind to myself, and to let people be kind to me.

CCW: You’re also very kind to others. You’re a very giving friend. And you pay attention.

DJ: And I think that helps me get through my own hard times. I do what makes me feel good, and it makes me feel good to be in any way helpful to someone else.

I will also go shopping! I can hear “I need something”, and I enjoy it. I go look at something pretty. I touch things. And sometimes I buy it, and I’ll feel a little bit better. Because there’s an emptiness. When there’s hard times I feel empty, and it feels dark, so I go looking for some light, for anything that’s beautiful.  Walking along the ocean, anything that sparkles. It gives me energy.

Or read a good book. Go hang out with some wise ones in the books. That makes me feel better. 

It’s the human condition. It’s going to be hard sometimes.

CCW: Yes, you have to hold those things in balance somehow. There’s the suffering, but there’s also the beauty and the wonder.

DJ: There’s so much joy, and so much wonder. And I really have been very fortunate. I haven’t had any long, horrible things. I have close friends who have been through really, really hard things.

CCW: I admire that you are fortunate and you know it. There’s something to be said for being aware of one’s own good fortune and appreciating it.

DJ: I am very fortunate. I have been given great gifts, great resources, beautiful places to be. I’m mentally healthy, physically healthy. And I have such good people in my life. Good husband…I have a lot of safety and stability. And my family wasn’t too screwed up. I’m not coming into this life with a great amount of suffering from my family. I don’t live in a war zone. My God.

CCW: How about the creative aspect? I think of you as a poet, and obviously you are a visual artist too. What inspires your creativity?

DJ: Everything inspires me. It’s all there. It’s the mystery. I don’t know what I’m going to write ‘til I write. I don’t know what’s going to be on the canvas until I start making marks. And then I might say, “Oh, this is terrible, and now what?” And then an idea will come to me.  It’s a trust thing. It’s trust. And it’s mostly looking at other people’s art, or reading other people’s writing.

CCW: Do you intentionally make time every day to do something creative? To write?

DJ: Every day. Now I can. It’s amazing. I have this time.  Finally, after not teaching for a while, I have a routine. I floundered for a while. I wake up. I read. I read a lot in the morning. I should write more, but right now I’m not into writing. I’m into painting. And then I’ll go take a walk. Every day. Usually just up and down the road. And I look around and just take in, notice what I notice…just being a creature in the world.

And I know that whatever is noticed is valuable. I don’t have to work it necessarily, but when I’m painting I might think...well, I want to just look at the greens today. I might be aware of something in particular like that. But mostly I’m just open.

For writing, it’s sit down, shut up, and write. It’s okay. There’s always something that comes. It’s not necessarily any good, and it may not be anything that I’ll ever re-read or anything will happen with it, but you know, it’s exercise. I should keep fluid.

CCW: So you are able to keep that inner critic at bay? That doesn’t discourage you too much?

DJ: Not too much.  Because I don’t show it to anybody.

CCW: But there’s value in the practice.

DJ: It’s the process. It’s the writing process. It’s the way I’m awake.  It’s how I pay attention. It’s how I hear. I’m looking and I’m listening and I’m thinking and I’m smelling…it’s the kind of species I am. I’m a human. This is what humans do.

You know, I’m picking up sticks, and arranging the towels, and all that…I’m doing all those physical things too, but this other part of me is just playing. It’s noticing. It’s awake. It’s combining. 

If I start to think about “Is this any good?” –and I do– then I’ll be critical. And that’s okay. At this point in my life, and I’m really trying to get this, I don’t have to impress anybody! I’ve spent a lot of time in my life trying to be impressive.

CCW: Successfully, I might add.

DJ: But now it doesn’t really matter. And I’ll probably do better work than I ever have, if I can just stay with this. When I go to paint, there’s some part of me that thinks it’s fantasy, the idea that I’m painting, because I, Dorothy Jardin, don’t really know that much about it. I’ve never taken a painting class. I’ve seen a lot of art, but I don’t want to take a painting class. I don’t want to get rules. You’re supposed to do this and that. I don’t have any perspective. For me, there’s just this sense of okay, just paint. The way a kid paints. You get the brushes, you get the colors…”Oh, I like that blue!” and then you smear some of that. I’ve been painting with my hands. I’ve been painting with sticks. I’m just letting it happen.

CCW: You’re playing.

DJ: I am playing now.

CCW: You’re lucky that you can go to that place.

DJ: I am lucky. It comes from a lot of study of creativity.  I have studied creativity for years. Most of my Master’s work, psychology…what is it that makes a fully actualizing person? I am interested in the highest functioning of our human-ness, and I have to try stuff out with myself, and I know the conditions of creativity. I applied them as a teacher, I applied them as a parent…and I mean studied and consciously applied. To move the critic aside, to be comfortable with ambiguity, to be intrigued, curious, don’t prematurely judge.

But I’m not very wild. I think it would be interesting to let myself get a lot wilder as I become an old lady. I think it’s going to be very interesting if I can just let those old personas stand aside now, because nobody expects that much from an old lady. You can be funny, you can be a bit goofy, I can be like my name Dottie…I can be slightly dotty.  And it can be much more freeing. I’m looking forward to that, kind of a beginning old lady stage. But I don’t feel very old yet.

CCW: Since we’re talking a little bit about age, I want to backtrack for a moment. I’m very interested in this season of life that you and I are both in. We’ve stepped away from our career type work, our children are grown and gone…it’s a luxurious sort of challenge, but I feel like I’m having to invent a life. So I’m interested in how you have navigated this time. Has it been difficult for you? Do you think you’ve got the hang of it now?

DJ: I think I’ve got the hang of it now. I didn’t at first, and I felt really sorry for myself and really confused. Loss of identity, and who am I, and what’s my meaning going to be in life, and will I ever be of value to anybody else, ‘cause that’s a big thing in my life.  I went to Catholic school, was taught by nuns and priests, and it was about being of service to others. And I totally absorbed that. Plus I’m a woman. Women are supposed to be of service.  

So being of service…at first I thought, “How am I going to do that?”  But I’ve also got other parts to my life besides teaching. I’ve been a therapist for years and years now. I facilitate a women’s group. Those things continued in my life, and I’ve been able to give them more of my attention. I don’t have a big practice, but when I have a client, I’m excited and I’m present and I prepare, and I keep studying and reading books that are brilliant, so that I can be helpful. So I’m seeing I can still be of service, and it won’t be to so many people at once, and what a relief!

It was hard what we did.  It was fun and intense, but there were a lot of them. You know, when I first started teaching, I was at the public school, and I had almost 200 kids. That’s a lot of people to pay attention to, and now I have fewer people, and it’s luxurious. And I have more time to pay attention to myself. 

So I’m not floundering anymore, but it was tough at first. Even physically, where am I going to be? After all those years of setting an alarm, getting up, putting my lipstick on and going out the door, and it’s first period, second period, third period, lunch, now it’s Thanksgiving…the day was all laid out, the calendar was all laid out. Now it’s not.

CCW: It’s disorienting almost. But I often feel embarrassed even kvetching about it. We’re so privileged.

DJ: So privileged. I have plenty of money to be comfortable, a great home. The trees are old. I can travel. It’s a great stage of life. The whole thing now is to stay healthy.  I have to give more time to that. I’m going off to the chiropractor, I’m going for a massage, blah blah blah, but it’s okay. I have time to do it. To be able to have a doctor’s appointment at 10:30 in the morning…we could never do that! When would we go to the dentist? Now we can do it.

CCW: And I like the idea that you’re connecting with people and being of service more one-on-one.

DJ: One-on-one. And you know I’m noticing younger people want to have some older people in their lives who they admire and think are still cool.

CCW: You’re that person for me. I mean you’re not that much older, but I think of you sort of like the big sister I never had. I always was the big sister.

DJ: I love mentoring. I can walk to Los Olivos, meet somebody at the post office, and just have a beautiful exchange. And that’s what it was about when I was teaching too.

CCW: Are these former students?

DJ: Maybe, or just new people, like there’s a lady who has a great little gallery in Los Olivos. Inez. She’s fabulous, a young woman, full of energy. It’s like you said: I like to encourage people. And it’s fun.  And many of them are encouraging me back. That’s why I’m having that show at Wendy Foster. It’s from a young friend who said, “Oh, somebody should see these paintings. I think you should have a show here.” And she works there.

So I’m feeling reciprocity. The young kids we worked with, the teenagers, they didn’t know how to give much to us. We picked it up ‘cause we could see how they looked, and if they were happy, but they were kids. And now I have mature friends, and they know how to feed back. Like you and I. We have this kind of relationship.

CCW: So that’s definitely helped you to not feel so rudder-less.

DJ: I realized I’m still myself. That I was employed at a school because they wanted to use my resources, but when I left the school, I still had those resources. So those resources are available to me and to others. That was a pretty simple awareness, but I didn’t have that awareness immediately because I was so identified with the job and the school.

CCW: You’re still Dorothy.

DJ: I’m still Dorothy, and I want to be able to give. I’d like to be able to give more. I’d really like to make a difference. We have so many world problems right now. I feel, as everybody does, frustrated, like maybe I should start marching. Let’s just start walking with placards. But I’m not sure that would make any difference.  There are such serious challenges right now for our survival.  I mean, I do a lot of signing of petitions, and I send a little money here and there, but it’s not enough. It doesn’t feel like enough. And it doesn’t feel like I can touch enough people.

I know that I can articulate things. I know that I can be inspiring.  But poetry doesn’t do it. Not enough people read it. I don’t know. If I see a clear opportunity, and it feels like I’m up for it…

But maybe these small one-on-ones do make a difference, and I believe they do, because it ripples out. We each touch so many other people, so the better off any individual is, the more people are better off.

CCW: I like to think that, because if you look at the big picture, it’s very overwhelming.

DJ: I worked so long with other people in a leadership position that I want to have a time to not do that.  I haven’t joined any boards or committees. I don’t want to do that right now. I had so many years of organizing, and being a leader. This is my time of life to go in and deepen. I know that. And I haven’t had a lot of years in my life to have the time to do that, but I think I need to do that in order to bring out more richness and more wisdom. I can’t skip this, because otherwise I’ll just be rehashing the same old stuff. And maybe I’m still gonna rehash the same stuff, but it will at least be more examined.

CCW: We’ve acknowledged that there are a lot of depressing and discouraging issues in the world today, but what gives you hope? What do you feel good about?

DJ: What gives me hope is how intelligent and how good we are. I mean our species, humans. I believe in our capabilities to be creative and solve problems. We can take care of world hunger. We can stop having wars. We can clean up our air. We can clean up our water. I don’t know the specifics. But I know we have the capability. We can do these things. 

There’s a tremendous counter-pull of fear and denial and being overwhelmed, there’s all of that. But we have the capability to take on big problems, and there are many people who are doing that: the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh. There are many, many leaders, and quiet people. Jean Shinoda Bolen. All these people I read. It’s happening. It’s influencing enormous numbers of people.

So there is a sizable group of people who are really innovative, compassionate thinkers and doers right now. That’s where I find my hope.

CCW: Earlier you made a reference to your Catholicism. I’m just curious: can you share with me anything about how religion or some kind of spirituality played into your childhood?

DJ: Well, it was just always there. It’s like being French, Irish, German and Swedish. It’s just a part of my life. We’d go to church on Sunday.

CCW: And you went to Catholic school.

DJ: I did. I got the whole thing, including one year of college. It shapes you in some way. And what happened in college was Vatican Two. I mean, there have been a lot of changes in the Catholic Church. I’m not a Catholic now. I don’t go to church. I’m not anti. I’m not angry.  I’m not damaged or hurt. I don’t feel abused. I’m just not Catholic. Part of it is the group thing. And I don’t like the patriarchal system. I can’t buy into it. It’s wrong. I can’t go there without getting angry. That’s what I realized. I can’t go to church without getting mad. I’m so tired of this. I can’t do it.  This isn’t spiritual.

I’m more into Buddhism now. I know there is...not one deity…I know there is a great cosmic order that is continuously moving. That’s what I try to show in my paintings. It’s way beyond my knowing, and yet I know it, because I’m not separate from it. Because the highest consciousness that I experience––and it’s hard to use the word “I” because there isn’t any “I”, it’s just our language, what consciousness calls itself, I guess––and I really have incorporated this. My values are basic Christian values, basic Buddhist values, I don’t know much about Islam, so I can’t say, but I suspect they are, or basic Jewish…you know, what makes a good human being. It doesn’t take that much: you don’t hurt other people, you’re honest, you cooperate, you’re loving, you take care. It’s pretty simple, really.

CCW: Has there been an important mentor, someone who comes to mind as having been especially kind to you or influential in your life?

DJ: Everybody. Everybody has contributed something. Some have inspired me more than others. I would say my son has been very inspiring to me. I get tears when I say that, but it’s true. Matthew has inspired me because he is so full-blast, being who he is.

CCW: You must be so incredibly proud of him. I mean, every parent is proud, but he even has the endorsement of the world. (As an artist.)

DJ: Well, let’s hope he continues. He’s a very interesting human being. He inspires me, how he works and how he thinks, how deep he is.

CCW: Was he always like that? I know you did a lot of things with him to encourage creativity, but I still think kids come to you wired a certain way.

DJ: Absolutely. The first time I held him and he looked in my eye, I thought, “You’re you. I’m me. I’m gonna do my best to take care of you. I’m not gonna be confused about you being me. You were in my body, but you are you.” He was a little guy, and he just always was himself.

CCW: Did he have a serious demeanor? Was he sketching and scribbling when he was little?

DJ: A lot of Legos.

So he inspired me. And there was also Elsa Jordan, who was a dance teacher.  I didn’t really feel that I had big mentors outside of my family, until I was in my 30s. Well, I had John Hancock, who was a professor in college, who encouraged me to do independent honors work. That was the first influential teacher I had, and he was a wonderful man. He was handsome and smart. He was an American Studies professor, and I wanted to study American literature, because there wasn’t that much offered. I was an English major. So I would meet with him one day a week and he said initially, “What do you wanna do?” And I said, “I want to study American literature.” He said, “Okay. Start with Moby Dick.” I said, “All right.” So we went through great literature… Walt Whitman…we just had a conversation. I didn’t write papers.  I remember just sitting across the table from him talking about Walt Whitman’s view of the world.  He was a really good teacher! He knew I was motivated. He didn’t have to crack a whip on me.

And then Elsa Jordan. When I met her, she was probably in her late 60s or 70s. She looked like my grandmother. She looked like my grandmother’s other side. Instead of being a woman who had seven kids in Minnesota, Elsa Jordan was delicate and artistic and single and lived a very different life as a dancer, and she was full of joy. Beautiful movement. I said, “Do you think I’m too old to dance?” ‘Cause I’d never had any dance classes. I was thirty-something. She just laughed at me. So I took dance lessons for a long time with her. I danced with her. There were four or five of us, and it was great to be with her. She was so cute, and so fun, and great music…

CCW: Did you ever tell her how important she was?

DJ: I think I did.  I wrote her some poems, and we wrote some letters for a while.

CCW: Dancing seems like a big part of who you are.

DJ: I love dancing.  I danced at the beginning of rock ‘n roll. And my mother liked to dance, those old country people. We had dances. And then in high school, it was rock ‘n roll.

CCW: I’m trying to remember now when you left Minnesota.

DJ: When I was 21.

CCW: So you really had the Minnesota upbringing.

DJ: From the age of two…I was born in California…and when the war was over, they moved back to Minnesota. I was born in ’43. They moved back in ’45.  I was not quite two.

CCW: So what are your earliest memories? Do you have a little Minnesota slide show in your head?

DJ: Snow. Big trees. We lived down in the woods addition. And I miss the river. And the lakes.  Minnesota is full of water.

CCW: Which river was it?

DJ: That was the Red Lake River. And it floods often.  Goes through Grand Forks. It’s one that goes from north to south.  Yeah, big trees…

CCW: Is there a sort of Midwestern, Minnesota sensibility?

DJ: Well, I grew up in a small town, 10,000 in the northern part. I’m not a city kid. Lakes and forests.  But there was that small town neighborliness. In a small town, you know everybody. You’ve seen ‘em. And if you don’t say hello, they’re gonna talk about you. Including the kids. So there was that.  And a lot of safety.

My family wasn’t so Scandinavian. There were a lot of Scandinavians there. But my father’s family was French, and we would go twenty miles in this direction, and I’d hear French spoken all day long. And the first church we went to was in French, until my mother said, “I’m sick of this.” She didn’t speak French.  And she did not like the priest. And she yanked us out of there and we went several blocks away to Cathedral, where they spoke English and they had decent books, and she took us out of the school we were going to, and it was really kind of shocking.  My mother inspired me. She was very strong, and very smart. She was a country schoolteacher, and she was quick.

And I was interested in either going East or West.

CCW: So in a way, you’re living a life you imagined. Or has it turned out very differently than what you imagined?

DJ: No, I’m really fortunate. I remember my sister and I shared a bedroom, and we used to imagine. She wanted kids and cats and dogs.  I wanted a sophisticated apartment that was mostly black and white. And I didn’t want a lot of kids. I think I wanted a child, and I had one child.  She has three, and they all had kids, so there’s a big clan. For me, I imagined something artistic. I didn’t have any training. There were no art classes. It was just what I was drawn to. Any time it was music or dance, I was drawn to it. It’s taken me much of my life to be able to grow into it. It wasn’t my family background at all.

CCW: What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment?

DJ: I feel really good about creating a wonderful school, Dunn Middle School. I was part of that early on. We created a fantastic school, and it continued, and I feel really good about that.

I feel good about my professional life as a teacher. I know that I was a good teacher. I had a lot of fun. It was inspiring to me. I had good relationships with my colleagues and students. That was a wonderful accomplishment. I touched a lot of lives, and they touched mine.

And I think building. This property is an accomplishment. Tom and I have built two houses now.

And writing. Coming up with a book of poems. That feels good.

And having an art show. It’s not a gallery, it’s nothing impressive, but that I will be able to put together enough paintings for a show. That feels good. That’s an accomplishment.

And I think my relationships with people. Tom and I have a really good marriage, good relationships with our kids and daughters-in-law, granddaughters…I have wonderful friends, wonderful friends.

I just have to create world peace. (laughter)

CCW: Let me wrap up with one question.  Is there any wisdom, advice, or philosophy you would like to share? The theme of this website is gathering wisdom, and I’m just real interested in what are the big lessons that accrue.

DJ: I think the big lesson, really, is just keep learning. Keep learning.

Be curious. Seek knowledge. Let go of what’s done. Let go of what you no longer believe, or is no longer appropriate in your life. Listen. Listen deeply to yourself and to other people.

And read. Read the brilliant people. Seek. Seek knowing from others who have done this work, who are here on the planet to be contributors. To me, reading has been my life. There’s no way I would be sitting with all these people other than through a book, and I have sat with the most magnificent people: poets, and fiction writers, and philosophers. And Carl Jung! I’ve spent a lot of time with Carl Jung. And James Hillman. My God. James Hillman. Adrienne Rich…

And it isn’t always just what they say, it’s that they’re trying to find out something. It’s that quest. 

I know I’m going have to leave the planet very unfinished, just in terms of what I have to learn and what I’ve been able to accomplish. I’m going to be unfinished. Maybe there are many lives that we all have, and if so, I’m sure I’m gonna have to have some more. 

CCW: But you’ve done your best with the quest.

DJ: And I’m not done yet.