Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

meeting in our good intentions ~

While on vacation, I kept having what my elder son & I used to call baby enlightenments — epiphanies, a Joycean scholar might say. But targeted towards growing, finding balance. Some were brought on by the way I think (metaphorically): seeing a river, and its shores, and all the ways that speaks to me inside. Or hearing my breath deepen as I climbed a hill.

Mostly, I found myself ‘eldering.’ As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I subscribe to Friends Journal, a wonderfully thoughtful exploration of complex contemporary belief — not only for  Christians, but for all of us who seek to nurture peace & compassion in today’s fragmented world.

That sounds pretty hokey, doesn’t it? But it’s what most of us want, I think, despite what often seem like insurmountable differences. I’m pro-choice, but I’m not pro-abortion. You may be anti-choice, but unless you’re far more anti- than most of the people w/ whom I have contact , you may temper your dislike of abortion w/ an ‘except when’: rape, incest, the life of the mother.

That said, eldering involves just such difficult conversations, sometimes. I find myself talking through my positions on politics, faith, law, and poetry (and yes, I put that right up w/ politics and faith)  on Facebook, trying to explain why I still — despite the bad PR — am proud to call myself a progressive.

But more often, eldering is simple reassurance. At least it seems to be these days. It’s unsettling when I practice what seem to me everyday good manners and the coffee barista, or the waitress, or the guy next to me in line says ‘THANK YOU!’ effusively. As if I had done something worthy of note. Hello! Treating each other kindly shouldn’t be that unusual!

A woman at a coffee shop I frequent in Portland gives me a free coffee,  because I compliment her on her amazing foam art (truly exceptional!). A waitress brings out extra goodies. Over & over, people respond to kindness with kindness. It’s a kind of given… And who doesn’t need some extra TLC these hectic, wearing days?

Former students ask me about graduate schools. Friends from long ago reconnect with poems, and gifts, and celebrate a retirement that so far, at least, seems far more official than actual. :)

It’s a gift, the last 1/3 of our life. I may go a bit beyond those years (I have longevity on my side :)), but I can’t promise I won’t be loopy, as so many of the women in my family have become. So I’m practicing up to be a better elder, with what the Friends Journal tells me is, in part, the job description: being a better listener (not always my strength).

It sounds so simple, and yet it’s key to why the nice barista gave me a free cuppa. I heard her. And I saw her, as the Na’vi would say in Avatar. Perhaps because I’m a poet, I find people fascinating. My husband swears it’s why I became a journalist: so I could ask folks nosy questions. I try hard to make eye contact, if they wish to (but sometimes I forget, and hug folks who are not comfortable w/ the contact! Ack!). Whatever it is they’re doing/ saying/ going through, it’s just good manners to be be part of it. Even if (ouch!) I sometimes blow up and say some dumb thing (to virtual strangers!) like…kick his butt out! You do NOT have to be someone’s punching bag!! (I really did say that to a woman on the bus…)

In other words, I am part of their stories. I watched as the barista rocked the foam across my cup’s surface, carefully focused so that the perfect heart would form. And the man behind me in line? Hello — he only had four things! Why  wouldn’t I let him go ahead of me & my return-from-vacation buy-out??

And while I sometimes wish folks wouldn’t tell me, well, everything (TMI alert!), I’d rather be the ear they need than close down the conversation. If I don’t agree — and being the highly judgmental person I’d rather not be…), I work to meet them in their good intentions. You want to talk about how bad teachers are? I won’t agree. But I will meet you in your fear for your child’s schooling, for education in America. And we can go from there.

Do you feel that the country is going to hell? I don’t — or at least almost certainly not in the way you do. But I can meet you in that place where all the changes and media and in-fighting and corruption are just overwhelming. And we can agree that this is not the middle age we signed up for.

That’s not too much, it seems to me — simple good manners and an effort to move beneath the surface of  rhetoric to the heart. I think it has to be a critical lesson I’m supposed to learn. It just keeps coming up so often ~ beginner’s heart in the middle years.

teachers & bodhisattva vows ~

A comment on an earlier post, from Dasha, reminds me why teaching is so much more than test scores. Why the teacher may be, next to immediate family, the most important person in a child’s life. And why teachers are so often the nicest people I know.

Dasha notes that her students can be annoying. For those of you who don’t teach, think about this: as a teacher you can’t have favourites. An you can’t just ignore the annoying kid. You don’t have that option. I want you to imagine a student who tries every bit of your patience. And you have them all year. And, if you’re a good teacher — as far more are than aren’t — you have to try to help him or her.

Think that the whiney person in the next office, who won’t shut up, shares waaaay too much personal info, and is a walking pig pen, is a pain? Try teaching math, or history, or Spanish to that person. Try reaching out, over & over again, to become friends. It’s not easy.

And it doesn’t always work. But as Dasha notes, it’s so necessary. Parents are so busy. This isn’t new, although certainly two-career families, hard financial times, and just life make it seem even worse these days. A teacher who affirms a child (of any age), helps that child ‘find’ his or her voice? Such teachers are saints.

Or, as Buddhists would say, bodhisattvas. To become a teacher, and stay one — in the face of so much of today’s horrible PR — is to take the professional equivalent of the bodhisattva vow, saying you’ll be there always. And today’s teachers — as you can see from Dasha shares with us — do just that. They’re in for the duration.

I miss teaching. I miss talking about writing, and hearing from students, and loving them. But the part that I really miss? The hard lessons I learn from what it takes out of me. The part you hear loud & clear in Dasha’s story ~

revisiting microagressions and social justice (and what white people get out of both) ~

 I spent most of June this summe, in a graduate Institute with teachers of all grade levels (k-university), in several content areas, and from varied backgrounds. The seminar lasts for three weeks. During week 2 we discuss cultures: what each of us — teacher & student alike — bring to a classroom.

Of this year’s 15+ participants, we brought many demographics to the table: male, female, young teacher, older teacher, black, white, Native American,  Asian American, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, atheist. We’ve spent time discussing gay rights, the Holocaust, the Tulsa Race Riot, and many other touchy, culture-based topics. We’ve even had presentations on how to best engage in these hard talks. But despite the very clear challenges for women, men, gays, Muslims, Native Americans, Jews, & others in today’s U.S., we kept coming back to race.

In this country, race has always been the subtext. Sometimes, not even the ‘sub’ text — perhaps race is  the Ur text of American culture. Written so deeply into who and what we are, the result of assuming a highly populated area is ‘empty’ because the inhabitants don’t look like us — how convenient, when what we want is their land — that we never escape it. We are born into this text. It is imprinted indelibly on us, encultured from birth. We have to fight HARD to resist its insidious poison.

From the very beginning of European conquest of the Americas, race has been a trump card. Religion, class, gender — race trumps most of them. In the early days of slavery, the Papal bull Dum Diversas made  it just fine to ‘subjugate’ and make slaves of anyone felt to be a pagan, a heretic or an ‘enemy of Christ.’ Again, how very convenient for Europe, just beginning to feel the stirrings of social justice as the Renaissance danced. Let’s call it ‘religion’ to define everyone who looks different, disagrees with us, or has something we want as ‘soul-less infidels’ and either kill them or enslave them. And let’s say God — however we (white Christians) define ‘him’ — is on our side, when we do so.

We (white folks) like to point to Obama with pride, and pat ourselves on the back about  how far we’ve come from ‘those’ days. Never mind the ‘achievement gap’ (and yes, I hate the term too, but I don’t have another term for the way the US educational system fails so many students of colour). Never mind the inequities of the so-called justice system, which incarcerates more black males than attend college. And never mind our own unconscious participation in this biased, skewed system.

This past June, the 15+ teachers in  Institute talked for hours  about what teachers can do — what each of us, individually as well as together — can do to change the stats. To change the world :). Help students learn, obviously, so that they can join the conversation. Be part of the system, should they choose. But over & over, what I heard when I listened (which is far harder than it should be!) to dear friends & colleagues was this:

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a garden, a scholar, a couple of hours ~

Something there is about a garden… Particularly a Chinese garden. With a Chinese scholar’s room overlooking the quiet courtyard, a row of clean brushes awaiting the writer’s hand. Each turn is another perfect vista, an image to be sketched, framed with words and translated to a blank page. In Portland, the Lan Su Chinese Garden hides in the city’s busy downtown area like a geo-cached treasure.

Its high walls surround an island of carefully pruned trees, moving water, and the song of happy birds. In the teahouse, you can order Snow Dragon tea, served in a lidded gaiwan. You can buy a small plate of candied mango slices, and sit in a carved chair, feeling the stress & pressure of ordinary American life fall like petals to the raked gravel beneath the open windows.

As Richard Louv argues so convincingly, our brains are hardwired for the greens & blues of outside spaces, the places of growth we build around ourselves. Humans need trees. We need the music of moving water, the whisper of leaves, the tissued fragility of a white blossom on a stone path. And at the end of the path, an open pavilion, where a black desk sits in silhouette.

As a child, the scholar’s desks at the VAA library fascinated me. And perhaps — as many things from childhood — I remember them in spite of their possible non-existence :). Memory is a trickster — not always loyal to reality.

Still, what I remember is space for thought. A desk w/ only writing implements, laid out in an aesthetic order that invited even a young girl to write. Brushes hanging from a stand, an ink stone awaiting water. My own desk is nothing like this, of course. There’s a screen — ubiquitous writer’s tool; a keyboard, a glass of tea, a pen holder, too many small pieces of paper needing attention. The Zen-like calm space of the Chinese scholar’s desk…? Not so much. :)

But in a Chinese garden, where the rocks create miniature windows into another world, and even the birds seem to sing more lyrically, everything seems slower. More possible. And I find myself remembering what ‘this moment’ is all about.

I’m not good at just being. Are you? Does anyone have a secret they’d like to share, beyond the hard time of sitting and following the breath, or moving one foot beyond another, w/ attention fixed to the quiet swoosh of air & movement? Perhaps that’s the allure, for me, of a scholar’s garden: the idea that once there was time enough and space enough and that beauty was the thread connecting it all.

Inspired by my respite, I’m trying to simplify my desk. I figure: start there. One small victory, right? Then who knows? I may even create my own garden haven…

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