Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

Dan, the couple in the car beside me, and seeing with new eyes ~

On my way to pick up groceries for a family-full weekend, I pulled up to a stop light. As is my usual habit, I watched the people around me (I’m a die-hard people-watcher :)). In the car next to me was a couple, laughing, obviously happy together in the way that new couples often seem, although neither was young.

They also were signing rapidly. Faces creased in laughter, their fingers were weaving intricate patterns in the air, I couldn’t follow the conversation any more than I could have heard them speaking.

For some reason, this completely normal moment in the life a couple I will never know made me very happy. I liked seeing the signing, the laughter, and the couple in their 40s learning each other.  The whole thing seemed romantic, but romance through new eyes. There was a tangible quality to signing that talking lacks — as if talking was a choice, and not simply a habit…

On a recent flight in to  Tulsa, I sat beside Dan. Actually, Dan sat by the window in bulkhead. I took the aisle, nursing my knee. Dan was thrilled. He was sitting by the window! “Before I sat in the middle,” he said me. “But he,” (pointing to the taller of two flight stewards), “told me I could sit by the window after we stopped in Phoenix.”

Dan is probably my age. He has a more-salt-than-pepper moustache, and was wearing a neatly tucked-in polo shirt and chinos, w/ obviously new tennies. He looked like any of a number of business casual lawyers :). Except that Dan could never be a lawyer — he has the exuberance and understanding of a 6- or 7-year-old. While I would have sat next to him regardless of this ostensible ‘handicap,’ I thought he was probably a businessman when I sat down next to him. I did, however, notice the two flight attendants eyeing me. Later I realised they were concerned for Dan, whose happy lack of timidity meant we spent most of the two-hour trip talking.

He told me about every airport he’d ever been to. (Fayetteville is about his favourite, because he has family there :)) And he told me more than once, so I would remember. He told me that Southwest had asked him to choose them next time, so he would try to. “They asked me!” he said w/ round eyes.

Throughout the flight, he looked out the window, noting the clouds and the landscape below, two of my favourite activities :). He asked if I thought we were turning (we were). And wasn’t the river beautiful in the sunset (it was amazing…).We discussed the peanuts (He got extra ones! “They like me,” he smiled, gesturing to the two stewards. And he was right :)). I complimented him on his new shoes (his mother bought them for him). He told me his sister was picking him up at the other end of the trip (she did).

But mostly I thought about the serendipity of sitting next to Dan. Of how the people in the row next to us were curious about his voice (louder rather than softer). And his vocabulary (not that of the  middle-aged man he appeared). I was glad for both our sakes that I sat next to him. I like stories, and Dan had several. And I like children a lot. Dan, moustache neatly trimmed and all, is more child than man.

I was glad, too, when I saw the taller steward walking with him to the arrivals gate, where Dan’s sister met them. Dan was trying not to skip from excitement. I smiled in sympathy, remembering how many times I’ve tried not to show how excited I am.

And then I wondered: who cares? What does it matter if Dan and I show how happy to see you we are? Or how nice it is to get the window? Or how wonderful it is to know the flight attendant likes us (and showed it by giving us more snacks :)).

Thanks, Dan. Thanks for the stories. I hope your trip to see your sister was as much fun as you reminded me all of us can have. Thank you, happy couple in the car beside me. Thank you for reminding me how lucky I am to have my wonderful husband. And thank you all three for reminding me that difference is only that. That each of us is nothing like the person sitting next to us. And that’s part of what makes it all so interesting ~

clean slate/ past ties ~

This is my current journal — nothing fancy (I’m being a bit stingy using the beautiful rose-pink Italian leather journal a former student gave me :)). Just a black Moleskine. I like the blank pages — they beckon to me. Infinite possibilities ~ :)

But the pen is something special. A gift from my generous, thoughtful sister-in-law. Her grandfather’s green celluloid Parker fountain pen. 14k nib, beautifully broken in already (and yes — you have to break in fountain pens :)) The ink just flows from it.

If the blank pages are each a clean slate, suitable for a complete change of subject, voice, even heart, then the pen is like a ribbon that ties me oh-so-gently to the past. To history. To my husband’s family, so much  my own after so many years…

I collect fountain pens. At least I used to. Now, what used to be their appealing quirks seem over fiddley. I don’t like the way they blow up in my purse when I’m flying. Or run out of ink when I’m nowhere near a bottle of ink.

So I use rollerballs instead. If you write a lot — and I do — and actually like how it feels, a rollerball is verrry close to what writing w/ a fountain pen feels like. But it’s nothing like writing w/ your husband’s grandfather’s green celluloid fountain pen. It’s nothing like knowing this dear man, almost the stuff of saintly legend, held it in his hand and did his accounts, his letters, his doodling with it. More than 70 years ago…

So today I’m writing w/ sienna brown ink on the lines of the creamy pages in my journal. And thinking how grateful I am for small pleasures…The kind rife w/ both possibility & history :) ~

weddings and dreams ~

Our family doctor’s son married in June. I wouldn’t know this, but he was talking weddings to my husband after our return from our son’s wedding. And what Dr. X said seemed rather sad, to me. Digression — are doctor/patient conversations privileged on BOTH sides?

Dr. X asked if my husband became ‘emotional’ at or after the wedding. If it made Glen re-evaluate his life. At least that’s how I heard it, 2nd-hand. Because, Dr. X said, his son’s wedding had thrown him for a loop. Sent him in to a kind of tailspin. Metaphors of losing balance, of upheaval…

Dr. X said  his son’s & daughter-in-law’s vows were so beautiful that he thought: no woman has ever loved me like that. And ~ their life is just beginning, and mine is over. Please note: my doctor is married, a very nice man. We visit when I go for checkups, or the occasional problem. Sometimes I suggest books, and we talk about writing. I like and trust him.

So it worries me that he sounded — at least 2nd-hand — unhappy. Dissatisfied. He’s very well-liked at his clinic. And at other doctor’s offices — specialists whom he’s recommended for eyes, or joints :) — the office staff there knows who he is. Often he’s their doctor too. And they like him. He’s that kind of guy — quietly funny, very smart, dedicated and professional.

Our son’s wedding to a wonderful woman was possibly the most beautiful wedding I’ve ever attended. Including all three of my sisters’, my brother-in-law’s, and my own. And their vows were transcendently lovely. Most of us sat, misty-eyed, as these two beautiful people plighted their troth (I love that phrase :). What it did for me — and for my husband — was remind us of life’s cycles. How this lovely young man, standing so tall and happy beside this beautiful young woman, had been our baby boy. Long-sought and welcome. And now he was getting married.

But for Dr. X, it reminded him — he said — that his life is over. That it has not turned out the way it might have. And that he will not live to see his grandkids grown.  Mind you, this guy is my age. So I don’t get it — that is sooo not what I thought watching N&E’s wedding…

This story, passed on from my husband, reminds me of what I’m learning from Buddhism. That nothing external will satisfy us forever, if we’re not happy inside. And that such happiness isn’t derived from a successful job (he has one). Or marriage (he has that too). Or even being a very nice person (which he is :)). It comes from something else… Many religions believe you only find ‘real’ happiness in faith. I don’t know about that — call me a Buddhist agnostic :).

What I do know is that for me, at least, happiness comes from the moment. From feeling the rush of blood as I stretch. From the fragrance of wet wood as I sweep the deck. From the bristly-but-soft fur of my dog’s coat as I pet him. From trying w/out trying (if that makes sense :)) to be present.

This is pretty Buddhist, I realise :). But it’s also good advice for all of  us. And I wish I could somehow convince dear Dr. X that his life is not over. It begins new & fresh, infinitely possible, every minute. Honest.

public education & teaching teachers ~

This is how teachers learn best: caffeine & reflection :). Well,  at least the teachers I know ~

This week I helped with a two-day workshop with teachers in a town near here — one of the many small Oklahoma towns (population about 2,000 or so) that are fighting lack of funding as they try to keep their rural schools open.

The research is pretty clear that students do better in smaller rural schools than larger consolidated ones. But that doesn’t ‘save money’ ~ it just keeps kids in school. And even as I say that, I realise how negative it sounds. Like a song I was listening to  yesterday says, when negativity surrounds/ I know some day it’ll all turn around. But it won’t if I don’t help it :). I have to make the effort to remember that most of us have good intentions. It’s the ones who want to abolish public education whom I don’t understand ~

I went to both private and public schools. Overseas, English-speaking schools are usually private, paid for by a parent’s employer. But when we lived in the US, I attended public schools. And despite their many warts, that’s the decision my husband & I made for our own two sons. We talked it over seriously, and realised that public schools are much of what makes America American :).

So I do not understand the current discussion of all that’s wrong w/ public schools. People jump on the ‘bash schools & teachers’ movement w/ very little idea of what’s actually involved in teaching, or in education overall. They’ve read none of the research — something unheard of when we speak of medicine, or energy or other professions. Is it because more than 75% of teachers are female? (NEA — 2007-08) Does that make us think that teaching is like parenting, and anyone can do it? (I don’t believe that either, just for the record :))

Around the world, those countries trying to move towards democracy are envious of our public school system. We try to educate all comers: you can enroll in a public school regardless of your background, your abilities, even your language capabilities. And I absolutely support that. Charter schools pick & choose, and still don’t beat public schools, research confirms. In fact, more than 1/3 of charter schools under-perform, compared to public schools, while only 17% out-perform. That’ doesn’t strike me as confidence-inspiring :).

Back to the teachers this past week: They spent the two days before they began school working on how to be teachers. They heard research, tried new classroom strategies, and used each other as resources for the difficult challenges they face daily: one-parent families where the parent is working 3 jobs to make ends meet (Oklahoma is a very poor state); lack of money for resources (teachers spend on average $356.00 annually, each, out of their own pockets — a whopping 1.3 BILLION dollars per year). On the pittance salaries most make…

But most people who blame the problems with contemporary education do not read research. They don’t know that consolidating schools may save money, but it harms real live kids. They don’t understand that classes of 60 online students is not a good idea for many research-based reasons. Ask them if they want their child traveling 20 miles to a school, or studying only online, and they may hem & haw. But usually? Americans look at the ‘bottom line’ — the dollar$ :(.

As I’m always asking — what does this have to do w/ beginner’s heart? :) Perhaps, if we take the time to study issues, we will see at the heart of each ‘other’ a person much like ourselves, struggling to make it in increasingly complex daily lives. Working hard to help the people around us (including our students :)). And not always managing, certainly. But trying. As public school teachers do, day in, day out.

Perhaps we should place human beings above dollars, trying to find solutions that are ones we ourselves would buy into, for our children, for ourselves :).

And maybe we should offer each other a smile and a pat on the back for our efforts :). Or at least buy a teacher you know a cup of coffee (preferably an iced mocha, these hot summer days!) and maybe a pretty journal ~ It’s little enough :).

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