Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

it’s just school/ work/ a relationship…NOT LIFE ~

I had a note from a former student today. This isn’t unusual — I’m fortunate to have contact w/ many of my wonderful former students. But this was a bit different. It was a thank-you note. Because of you, it said, I graduated alive.

Wow. I shiver thinking about it even now. Because this student never gave any sign of being desperate. She showed regularly. Handed in good essays. Was a pleasure to have in class. Funny, smart, a gift. And yet something I did in class made (apparently quite literally) a life&death difference to her.

Digression: every semester for many years of my teaching career I gave what I call ‘the Beth lecture.’ More than 15 years ago I had a wonderful student named Beth.  Had her in at least 2 classes. And then worked with her on the literary journal I helped edit. Like the student who wrote yesterday, she was funny, smart, a pleasure in all ways. Twice, when she was contemplating suicide, she called me. And I was able to talk her out of it. The third time she didn’t call. Anyone. Ever again.

Beth was worried her mother would be disappointed in her grades (she wasn’t making straight As…). Her mother, Beth  said, had told her she was fat. And that was all it took, coupled with the usual loneliness, erratic schedule, and just general young adultangst. That is NOT to in any way diminish the searing pain of any of these. But note: they do not make a life.

After Beth killed herself, I promised myself I would never again lose a student for lack of trying. So every semester from then on, I gave the ‘it’s just school’ lecture.  And to prove to my students that I really meant it, I would share bits of my son’s story: acute depression, semester of Fs. And two parents who are so very glad it was no worse than that.

It’s just school, I would tell my students. And I would make them repeat it. It’s just school. Loudly. Make them YELL it. IT’S JUST SCHOOL. I would tell them that no one (outside of a grad school application) would ever ask their grade point average. It will not capture the permanent interest of the right kind of partner. It will not save your child from early death. It will not ensure success — financial or personal — but it will not bring on disaster, either. Even in a grad school application, performance and recommendations far outweigh grades. My wonderful niece had a sketchy undergrad GPA, but amazing recs. She begins a highly competitive Master’s program this coming spring.

I also would tell my students about Beth. We would talk about how her parents must have felt when they heard. And how I felt. And  about the unrealistic expectations most of us have of ourselves…

I have no idea if that is what made a difference to my student. But I will say this: when former students contact me later, it’s often to tell me how much ‘it’s just school’ meant to them. It isn’t an excuse: I still held them to high standards. It isn’t a panacea: there are conditions that are grievously difficult for us to get through. But it does lighten one bit of the load. As does remembering that every person you meet or interact with is a fragile human heart…

It sounds hokey, I know. But it’s true, and we forget it. The surly guy at the dry cleaner’s? Perhaps he was up all night at the hospital, watching a beloved parent fade into a ghost. The idiot in the grey Nissan who cut you off at the light? What do you know about her life? Perhaps she just heard that her husband was shot in Afghanistan… Each of us drags behind us a twisted mess of baggage: what happened yesterday, what we remember from 10 years ago, who is hurting and how it affects us… And so much more.

The point? None of that is life. And it’s NOT forever. Death, on the other hand, is forever. At least so far as everyone on this side of that line is concerned.

There is no moral to this story. Only a heartfelt plea that you tell everyone you meet that they are important. That you find a way to let the car repair guy, the cashier at Best Buy, the stylist who cuts your hair, the man who repairs your dryer KNOW that you see them. That the human hearts beating inside each of us are not alone.

It’s important. It may well save a life…

 

time like a river ~

I’ve always been short on time. At least since I was small.  Then, there were summers. But even as a child, being the eldest meant watching sisters (and they know how easy that was!), or walking the dog, or washing the car, or playing Scrabble with my grandmother (who was not above cheating…). I  rarely set my own schedule.

But lately, with a few exceptions — happily agreed to — I’m free to do just that. And it’s beyond addictive. In fact, despite having virtually limitless stretches of time rolling away before  me like a ball of ribbon, I’m pretty protective of it. Ask me to do something, and I’m pretty sure to say ‘let me check my calendar.’ Because I really don’t want three, or four, or sometimes even two things to do in one day…

Yesterday, for instance? I knew I had to do the laundry from the wonderful camping weekend I spent w/ my niece. And check email that wasn’t available at camp. And water plants, feed birds, do dishes… normal maintenance. AND teach class tonight. So anything else?  Seemed like too much…

For me, a broken hour glass doesn’t mean the sands have run out, but that there’s no longer a measurement of time passing. I don’t have to worry about ‘spending’ time. It’s no longer a commodity. When things go a  bit awry — traffic in front of me, or an unexpected phone call that needs attending to at that moment — it’s okay. I have time. Finally I know what that means. Time is mine.

If I want to sit on the deck in the cool morning air, and drink tea while I watch birds, I can. And not feel a deadline hovering over my shoulder. This week is absolutely to be looked forward to, to be lived moment by moment. The moments become almost liquid, time like a river…

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to figure out; it’s kind of the whole meditation thing in a nutshell. Maybe that’s why my little old ladies always seemed so patient with me when I was small. They knew this secret: time really is infinitely expandable and contractable. Kind of like love ~

back to camp ~

A room of more than 40 women, aged 18 – 75. Or more. Talking, laughing loudly, yelling in delight over a good hand of cards… This is Camp Waluhili, and the Becoming an Outdoor Woman weekend workshop. There are well over 100 women enrolled in canoeing, blacksmithing, archery, Dutch oven cooking, and arts & crafts from screen printing to letterboxing. It’s beyond amazing.

SaturdayI learned how to make food in a Dutch oven. GOOD food — BEAUTIFUL food (cranberry orange scones, I’m talking about you). Lunch was totally unnecessary afterwards: who wants okay tacos when you just feasted on apple tart and monkey bread and corned beef hash and…? :)

After lunch, it was off to screenprinting. We still have to actually ink the shirts (the lights here don’t have UV, and there’s no sun during this rainy foggy weather), but I have a lovely raven & bee to go!

Sunday? Birding 101. Did you know that turkey buzzards fly w/ their wings vaguely in a V, while raptors (which most of us like to look at, compared to buzzards…) fly with wings held relatively straight? Yeah, me neither… That’s useful!

And here’s the clincher: it’s all women. There’s no way to explain just how free that makes the interactions. No one bothers about makeup (well, maybe a few…:)). Showers aren’t in the early morning unless you feel like it, and ball caps sub for blow-outs. It’s beyond comfortable & free.

That’s my point: you need time to be as much yourself as you can be comfortable with. And given the current sexual axis in so much of contemporary culture, it’s nice — at least sometimes — to just chill w/ your buds. Your girlfriends. Whoever lets you have a hat day w/out giving you grief.

Plus, it’s outside. There’s something brain-clearing about being outdoors, even when it’s rainy, windy, and so overcast that the photo-sensitive emulsion on the screen printing doesn’t work. It’s also healing. Nowhere near the pretense I find in other groups, which while predominantly female, still have men present.

I’m already looking forward to next year. When I won’t be a raw beginner. Just my usual beginner’s heart…

 

 

follow the Yellowstone road ~

At the Mammoth Hotel in Yellowstone Park, elk have forgotten that they are wild. They  graze on the tidy front lawn, sometimes causing traffic jams in the parking lot and the adjacent streets. Tourists have to be kept from walking up to these totally NOT domestic animals, and trying to pose with them. Bear in mind: the bull elk outside my window yesterday can get up to  800+ pounds, and 5 feet at the shoulder. BIG animals, in other words.

But Yellowstone is a magic place. Bear become not the fierce predator they can be, but Smokey’s cousin. And elk become a kind of native cattle, in this place where tourists crowd the highway to spot a single wolf through a scope. Remember wolves? Demonised by the early Catholic Church as the devil incarnate? Still hunted by many ranchers to this day? In Yellowstone, wolves are entertainment.

In Yellowstone, ravens partner with wolves. Literally ‘train’ them — the wolves — from cubs. They will play games with the young cubs: holding a stick in beak, and laying it tantalisingly close to the cub. Then, when the cub comes to pick it up, the raven will snatch it from the cub’s reach, and move away, luring the cub with the stick-toy. Some ravens will even let the younger cubs tackle them, a dangerous game for wings that break easily…

I love this wolf lore, learned on my current trip to Yellowstone. This partnership — ravens will even point out injured animals to wolves, flying back & forth between the injured animal & the pack, to show the way — is so unexpected to me. But one way wolf naturalists find packs feeding is to look for a large (35+) number of ravens. What used to be called ‘a conspiracy of ravens.’

I spent 11 hours yesterday touring Yellowstone. In a bus, on my feet, clambering over fallen logs beside Slough Creek, walking the meadows and hiking sagebrush hills. There is an infinite variety of landscapes — from the thermally baked white & ochre earthscapes to rolling hills that spread across the entire horizon, to mountains cutting through the sky — it’s all so hard to quantify w/ words. No wonder Thomas Moran spent so many days sketching Yellowstone, and his entire subsequent life painting it.

Today, coincidentally, I stumbled on a small Moran exhibit, at the Mammoth Visitor Centre. Field sketches, his chair & easel, a few paintings. Such a bonus — totally unexpected and great for a girl who grew up visiting his paintings at Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum. Yellowstone Canyon (spelled in the Spanish fashion, cañon), falls, streams and rivulets and landscapes. All familiar from his style, now familiar from this visit.

What is it about us — human beings — that responds so viscerally to the soar of mountains, the spill of water, the greens & greys & tawny golds of this landscape? This park? Since before Roosevelt…

And of course all the wildlife: a bald eagle eying us from a tall snag, ground squirrels flicking tails in the parking lot of Slough Creek, hawks against blue sky, and bison spread across the undulating hills. A red bison calf — so new s/he hasn’t darkened to brown; the three bears foraging for rose hips & pine nuts; the elk walking down the street across from the hotel grill; a coyote watching a gopher hole like a cat w/ a mouse; a pocket gopher’s head snaking in & out of its small hole, watching us watching him. Pronghorn in a meadow, a lone male herding his wandering females, echoing the colours of African gazelle cousins. Not to mention all the learning!

Our guide John citing stats, quoting data, naming packs and individual wolves; so familiar with the park. E.g., I didn’t know that aspen grow (only?) in cleared areas. Or that 64% of the park’s forests are lodgepole pine.. No wonder they’re so concerned about the pine beetle… The new knowledge that marmot hibernate so early (already); that bear look for snow cover for their winter dens (more insulation); that wolves eat 20 or more pounds of meat at once. That ravens can eat enough to clean a carcass — that conspiracy of 35+ ravens, working in tandem with their wolves.

This kind of learning — outside, in the unfiltered Wyoming sunlight, saturated in the sharp fragrance of sagebrush — is the best possible school for awe. And humility. If ravens can play with rambunctious wolf cubs, and partner with their elders, surely I can navigate my own fears and weaknesses….

 

 

Previous Posts

the other side
You will notice, if you look at the picture, a dearth of men. There are the outlaws, w/ the exception of grandchildren, and a cousin. That's it. Mine is a family of women, mostly. We talk about 'the aunts' -- my mother and her three sisters -- and 'the sisters' -- my three sisters & me. My grand

posted 6:41:49pm Dec. 18, 2014 | read full post »

it doesn't have to be perfect (the enemy of good)
  Last night's dinner was brought to you by some obscure soup company. Canned clam chowder, w/ the addition of cracked pepper & white corn. YUM! Served w/ water crackers, & a side of tabbouleh

posted 12:59:47pm Dec. 17, 2014 | read full post »

of waiting, and childhood impatience
As I wrap presents, write out menus, email to find out who's bringing what to the holiday feast, I can't help but think of my mother. She was NOT organised, nor was she an organiser. Tell her what to do, and she did

posted 9:35:25pm Dec. 15, 2014 | read full post »

love (and happiness) like ribbon
Love is, I think, like ribbon. It's beautiful, for one thing (I adore pretty ribbon!). But it tangles, gets easily wrinkled and needs care to last. At the holidays, when I'm going through SKEINS of it, I find myse

posted 10:21:22pm Dec. 13, 2014 | read full post »

the curse of the holiday meltdown
All the ornaments are on the tree. The newest riff on the family tabbouleh is chilling, waiting for us to taste-test it after the flavours meld. The three packages needing mailing -- well, the ones that have arriv

posted 6:43:01pm Dec. 11, 2014 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.