Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

tea, best friends, and beginner’s heart ~

A couple of times a year, I get to see my best friend. She lives in Oregon, I’m in Oklahoma. It’s a long time between visits. But each time we get together, it’s kind of a refresher course in Buddhism (really — bear with me here).

What’s important in our lives? Is it what we do at work? Sometimes — certainly teaching is important in mine. And Buddhism tells us that right livelihood is part of the Eightfold Path. So it’s important enough to merit specific mention.

But in my life, my work is no longer what defines me. Remember me? I’m separating amicably :). Increasingly, what’s important to me is the moment — whatever that may hold. I’m trying to build a more mindful presence

When I visit my best friend, we sit. Like good Buddhists do :) We sit in front of her living room window, looking out over the valley. We practice tonglen both together and apart, breathing for each other’s dark places.

And we have tea ~ sharing the bliss of absolutely-in-the-moment mindfulness. Choosing that day’s tea, watching as it steeps I don’t change much, choosing Keemun. She tries something new every time, today something with fruit. There is the ritual so many women (and men) have found comfort in these many many years: scones and layered sandwiches and a tiny shepherd’s pie. Then tarts and lemon curd and the privileged decadence of decadence of macarons. But it only works if you’re mindful — if you allow the dy’s disappointments, the week’s fatigue, to ride the tea’s steam elsewhere. If you take residence in this moment, pouring amber tea into flowered cups, biting through the sugar crystals on the crust of a scone. Laughing at your best friend (who might be your own sweet self…).

There is history in each of the tiers of plates. As there is history in the contemplation of tea, in the raking of white sand, in the several ways we marry life and practice. It’s what I remember when I swim in the immediacy of being with those I love. What I take with me instead of goodbye. It’s a good lesson — each time I re-learn it — for this beginner’s heart.

privilege, education, and the emperor’s new clothes ~

So this is what learning looks like in America. If you’re middle class or wealthier, your children do pretty well. More than 80% of them will graduate w/ a 4-year degree(see below). If, however, you’re in the bottom quartile (the bottom 25% of American wage-earners), your children have about 1/10 that chance. 8.3% compared to 82.4%. In other words, if you have resources, so do your children. And their children, as it turns out. But if you’re poor? Forget it. THAT is the American reality, folks. And it’s the real naked emperor in the classroom…

I teach, and I work with teachers. But that means I also work with students. For years, I taught ‘developmental English’ at a private, select admissions university. Developmental English for native speakers means you teach first-generation academics: the first college-bound young men and women of their families. They had very low ACT scores — one had an ACT of 8. Rumour is that you can get a 12 just by filling in all the circles under ‘c.’

My students would share stories of their lives — stories about single mothers who worked two jobs, sometimes three. About being left ‘in charge’ of younger siblings at 9, or 10 years old. When I was 12, we lived w/ my grandmother & great-aunt for a year, while my father worked overseas. At 1 in the morning, my mother would wake me up to watch my three younger sisters as she drove downtown to pick my grandmother & great-aunt up from their night of cleaning bank offices.

Demons would crowd the windows — just beyond the drawn shades, I was sure. I could no more have handled an emergency w/ my sleeping sister than I could have raised the blind to confront those imaginary demons. Aside from the terror of sitting alone in the house for the hour it took  my mother to drive downtown, pick up the old ladies, and return, I rarely had an unbroken night’s sleep. It wasn’t my highest performing year of school, needless to say.

My students told stories like these, and others. Stories of bad neighbourhoods where gunshots were the night’s dark refrain. Where drive-bys weren’t rare, but books and help with homework was. Not for lack of interest — please don’t misunderstand. But because both parents were working. Late. Just to make ends meet…

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grading ~

I hate grading. I hate ranking things. I actively dislike hierarchies of most kinds. And yes, I know I shouldn’t use the word hate. I hate that too. :)

I’m not against assessment. It’s very different from grading, at least to me. To assess something — a situation, a condition, even the weather outside — implies you’re just checking it out. Seeing where it’s at. There’s not necessarily ranking & judgement that goes along w/ the assessment.

Grading, on the other hand, means I have judged or been judged. And possibly — almost certainly — someone (me? my students?) was found wanting in some area. But I don’t think my students — or most of us, for that matter — should be defined by lack, by inadequacy.

Once I had a class where I had complete control of the assessment process. So I did away w/ grades on papers and other assignments. I offered to meet at any time, w/ each student, and give him or her a detailed analysis of where they were in the class, what they might want to focus more on, and how to improve their overall outcome.

There was mutiny. Seriously. Students were ready to go to the dean because they weren’t being graded! I repeated the offer to meet. Asked them to think about the one-on-one, face-to-face conversation. PROMISED that I would disclose all they needed to know to ‘get good grades.’ It was a no-sell. And I eventually caved. Even the dean was on my side, but he had to cave too.

Human beings want input, but I don’t think grades — judgment — is the best way to go about it. I’d like to know how I’m doing on so many levels. I wish someone would tell me what my writing is like. I wish my sons would help me understand the outcomes of parenting them. In lieu of that kind of assessment — that kind of check-in — I fall back on reflection. It’s the poor girl’s self-grading rubric :).

But reflection won’t help turn the light back on in my students’ faces when I hand back drafts they’ve slaved over, that don’t achieve the numbers desired… And nothing I can tell them seems to convince them that learning is always hard. That the ‘learning curve’ is, by definition, not  instantaneous.

I’m stuck w/ grades. So are my thoughtful, talented, creative and NOT inadequate students. Unfortunately, ‘grades’ reflect very little of what they’re capable of….

bird epiphanies ~

Anyone who’s read this blog knows our deck (and yard) are like habitat central. We have multiple feeders: nectar for hummers, in the spring; suet & seed blocks for woodpeckers and wrens (and the ubiquitous grackles); small seed for sparrows, etc., and sunflower seed for the three kinds of finches we see regularly.

This means a LOT of bird feeder fetching & toting. And sometimes, when you just want to go downstairs in your comfy jammies, and have a cuppa, feeding the birds is sooo not what you want to do.

Today I had this epiphany (my older son and I call them baby enlightenments :)): life isn’t about efficiency. It’s certainly not for efficiency.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about living ‘in the moment.’ Easier said than done. But today, schlepping the bird feeders from the deck to the garage and back, while staging the laundry, and wondering if I should stop in the laundry room to start it, and REALLY just wanting to go sit w/ my tea, I woke up. This is it, I thought. This is life. I know. Pretty hokey.

But seriously? I was trying to do at least three things at once (more if you count opening two doors). And thinking about two more down the line. And enjoying nothing.

I stopped. Took a breath. Put the bird feeders on the floor. Closed the door behind me. Opened the door in front. And thought about the birds. Really thought about the birds. I walked outside, into the soft grey March day, and did one thing at a time.

No big thing. Except that it was. I spend so much time not HERE. Thinking about what’s coming. Reflecting/ second-guessing what’s passed. And missing all the now.

You’d think I would have learned this by now, right? But here’s the deal: I’ve had to learn it over and over and over. And I’ll probably have to learn it yet again. In the meantime? I’m going to feed the birds. Just that. Just that one thing. And that’s enough.

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