February 13, 2008
Always Taking The Road Less Traveled
To those who know her from the 10 hours a week of Yoga classes she gives at the Rec Center, Sag Harbor Gym, and East Hampton Senior Center, where she also lectures on nutrition and leads exercise groups, or from the Harvest Gospel Choir, or from seeing her lead services every now and then at the Unitarian Church in Bridgehampton, Jaki Jackson is a Force of Nature, a Presence, an East End "Institution," though she'd laughingly balk at the word for its establishment overtones. If anything, her life and her work have always gone down the road less traveled.
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At 76 she's going strong, stronger, even. What does she do? A loud guffaw – "Which one should I choose?" In addition to an unbelievably rich life, including music, dance, mathematics, chemistry, teaching, bookkeeping (for Stewart Electric and Malone Garage), painting, yoga (there's more), Jaki Jackson is now a children's book author.
Groundhog Day: A Mid-Winter Tale (Xlibris), just out, is a charming and instructive story, also beautifully illustrated by Jackson, that has a wonderful, sly subtext: suppose YOU were to spend four months of your life underground. How would you live, what would you want to know? So many kids know only high rises and plastic, not nature, she says.
Jackson had always been interested in the legend of the groundhog's seeing or not seeing its shadow but felt that the media hype surrounding Punxsutawney Phil diverted attention from essentials. There was nothing out there appropriate for children. She had been musing about doing such a book for years but finally, last June, she gave up her position as treasurer at the Unitarian Church because an inner voice said, "Now!"
The response so far has been wonderful, she reports. She's been reading at schools and libraries and will be the main author at the Bridgehampton Library's Scholastic Fair on March 14. The youngsters seem particularly intrigued by the groundhog's three separate holes – for eating, sleeping and pooping ("it's a potty chamber," one little one cried out).
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The story begins, black type on winter pink: "As night gets longer than day some smaller animals begin digging a burrow in the ground." The diction is simple, the groundhog, adorable, and the ecology up front. People "like you and me" ask if the groundhog's seen his shadow. He didn't, and the story closes with a last page of dark blue sky, yellow moon, bare tree trunks – more winter, but the heart of the story is the groundhog's self-reliance and efficient behavior.
For the illustrations, Jackson used some of the textured watercolor paper from her husband, the abstract expressionist Harlan Jackson, who had lured her out to the East End many years ago, when they lived across the road from de Kooning. Why watercolor? "I'm a quickie, oil takes too long," she laughed.
Groundhog Day relies in some way on all of Jaki Jackson's lives and talents. A graduate of the High School of Music and Art – a pianist who fell in love with the trombone – she was inevitably following the siren call of making music, which had been instilled in her in her parents' home, where nightly entertainment was the heart of family life.
Bach was always a special joy, a reflection as much of her musical interests as an early – and sustaining – love of math. She majored in chemistry and minored in math at Fisk University in Nashville, but a bit shy of credits for her B.S. she elected a couple of humanities courses, one of which turned out to be with Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas who taught her "how to see."
She also fell in love with writing. "But I was dancing, too," she added, recalling that at two, she had been in a church fundraiser performing as a "bride." There never seemed to be a period in her life when she wasn't doing tap, ballet, modern or routines. Indeed, when she was still living in Queens, she started a black dance program in South Jamaica for the kids in the projects but soon adults were taking lessons as well.
Jackson simply accumulated and absorbed interests and activities, never yielding the base. Working in various jobs as a research chemist including one position at Columbia, where her lab mentor was a Haydn Planetarium devotee, she became awed by the macrocosm as she had earlier fallen in love with the microcosm.
Once out in Springs in the early `60s, with her husband, she continued to involve herself in anything that caught her fancy, which was also, in her view, something that needed to be done. She worked for a while as director of a New York Youth Corps Program for high school drop outs, based at Southampton College, always following the beat of her own drum.
She laughed as she recalled giving the kids lessons in anatomy by way of the sand sharks Harlan would bring home from his day fishing. She was also coaching students for the GED and tutoring adults at the Bridgehampton Community Center.
A natural teacher, she was, she admitted proudly, unpredictable. She didn't last too long with the principal of the Queens school where she taught third grade. Given a group that had failed with everyone else, she got her students to behave by rewarding them with a brief recess period every hour!
In Springs, she started a summer camp for underprivileged kids in her own house, Sunnytime Workshop, which then she extended all year round for the local population, teaching them everything and anything, including yoga. She also managed somehow to pursue her love of math, enrolling in the Masters Program in computer science at Stony Brook.
Her next book – of course there's a next book! – will be about a titmouse looking for a comfy nest. One, in fact, landed on her chest, then head, not too long ago, looking for a nest. And voila! The stirring of a new tale. His name is Tyson!