Beliefnet
Beginner's Heart

This is a photo (of me) that one of my students photo-shopped a couple of years ago (no, I wasn’t really wearing a troll mask…). It went out on our class listserv. A private joke — well, not toooo private, I guess, if the whole class is privy. It represents the best things about teaching: the students. Which is why we (teachers) become so incredibly attached to our students.

A dear friend says he wouldn’t continue teaching if he wasn’t always learning from his students. And what I miss most about teaching is just that: learning. Every day, something new. Every class period, a new perspective, new music, a term or a book or an idea. Day in, day out.

Recently I read a meme on Facebook that said students are always ‘our kids,’ once we’ve taught them. Irrespective of their ages, or how they grow, once in my class, you’re my kid.

But a colleague contends that this is one of the problems teachers face in the popular culture: by calling our students ‘our kids’ we infantilise teaching. Turn ourselves into moms/dads & babysitters. I’m not so sure about this… My students never treat me like I’m their mom, nor their babysitter. It’s more like I’m a valued teacher… (gee, ya think?)

This makes me look at my own teachers — spiritual, academic, professional — through a completely different lens, now that I’m fielding the questions I once used to ask. What should I write in my teaching statement? How should I answer this interview question? What should I WEAR?? 🙂 I wonder if the man who told me to follow my dreams even if I didn’t think they would pay would agree with the warnings of penury I offer my students (teaching is NO get-rich scheme — quickly or otherwise!). And what about the teachers who couldn’t believe I submitted A papers for revision? Did they think I was a total OCD nutcase?

And the answers? I have no idea. But somehow, remembering what it was like to be a student is good for the teacher in me. And looking back at the men & women who so generously answered my questions, helped me along my professional path, and took time to mentor me is — still — a kind of learning.

I know not all teachers LOVE their students (I’m thinking of a dear friend & colleague who would be shaking his head in dismay at the thought!). But it’s so very hard NOT to. And nooo fun. 🙂 Lately there has been article after article about what makes a good teacher. And you know what I think? Love. Love maketh a good teacher.  Actually, lovingkindness — Buddhists actually have two words for lovingkindness: metta and karuna.

Metta has the connotative meaning of a state of being — a generally positive attitude towards all beings. Karuna is more active — more of a kindness, even (as some sources say) a kind of pity. I don’t pity my students. Although my heart sometimes aches for the burdens they carry: poverty, depression, abuse… The general travails of today’s messy, complicated world.

What I miss most about teaching is lovingkindness. My own, for them. And if your life is, as dharma instructs us, a kind of theatre for us to polish our buddha natures, I suppose it’s time I figure out a way to translate that feeling of general benevolence into other venues.

Teaching was just a LOT easier. And more fun.

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When you think of people who are useful, poets probably aren’t high on your list. After all, who needs poetry? (Well, I do, but that isn’t typical, I realise 🙂 ) And yet, when there is sorrow, or great joy, or tragedy, or high emotion of almost any kind — a birth, a death, a marriage — what do we want? Words. In the right order. Poetry…

My sisters are always talking me in to things. I have three, which means I’m often over my head in one thing or another. Today, it’s poetry. And yes, I know all my education is in poetry(most of it, anyway). But despite the common perception, poets don’t really write much ‘occasional’ poetry these days.

It used to be that poets were commissioned at all rites of passage. The celebration of birth, the grief of loss. Personal & political, poetry served them both.  War beginning? The poet pens a blessing. War over? Another sings in joy. Part of any self-respecting poet laureate’s job was to write poems for every occasion.  Hence the term ‘occasional poetry.’ 🙂

We don’t do that so much these days. Unless you’re my family, where death is marked with words. Too often mine. Let people hear you’re a poet, and lose a loved one, and you begin to have value. At least of a sort. 🙂 Besides, when it’s your sister’s childhood friend’s brother (not as tenuous a connection as it may appear), from the family that lived once upon a time in your own empty house, how can you refuse?

So here I am: trying to fit words to the shape of a stranger’s life. A man whose life is as  unfamiliar as the shores of death. I don’t know how, really, to pay respect to the unfamiliar dead. My own dead were hard enough to mourn. It took me years to write about my father, my mother.Wondering why words always fail when we need them most.

Tomorrow, I will be offering my own far too inadequate voice for the inchoate grief of a family I have not known in many years. But today, I am thinking — as I discard one hesitant line after another — of the thousands of years poets have sat at words, written on clay, papyrus, scroll & stone. Bearing up to the occasion. This one so very sad.

 

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Why can’t I focus on my meditation like I focus to play with my cat? Sitting in my chair, pulling a red bookmark ribbon sloooowly across my lap desk, I watch as she pounces. I pull the ribbon through her claws, then let it ‘die.’ She prods and I pull it into life.

From the sofa to the left, my dog watches the cat watch the ribbon. I watch both. And we do this for 10 minutes, as I make the ribbon snake across the desk, and the cat follows it.

Ten minutes is interminable when you’re sitting. At least, it can be. It can go quickly, some days, like the quick pounce of the cat. But most days, it moves at snail speed. Far slower than the breaths I count.

Sitting in a chair, w/ all my attention centred on a cat’s sharp claws and the scarlet ribbon between them, time is as mutable as warm wax. It draws out almost infinitely, even a simple moment.

The cat & I can play this game at length. Perhaps tomorrow, as I focus on my breath, I’ll pretend it is a scarlet ribbon. And my skittish mind a cat, watching ~

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Yesterday, we thought we might be godparents to a skein of goslings — tiny yellow-grey fluffballs hatching from the goose we hoped was nesting, not resting, in our front yard. (Note: Canadian geese — at least in our neighbourhood — give new meaning to the term ‘silly goose’ when it comes to nesting in front yards,)

Instead, the wild honking my husband heard late yesterday afternoon was not a celebration of eggs but the last dirge of a dying bird. Perhaps a car hit her — he saw two young men turn around in their car to drive back by her as she flopped into the hollow of the yard. Perhaps, like a sparrow that fell from the sky  onto my windshield one cold day, she simply died. But today, he wrapped the limp body, wet from last night’s rain, in a garbage bag and set it on the curb for dead animal pick-up. There will be no goslings.

Today a dear friend called to tell me he is moving out from his 15-year relationship, into an apartment of his own. The couple I thought would be together until death do us part — even w/out benefit of clergy — has cracked into brittle halves, jagged shards of pain all around them.

And tomorrow, we will drive 90 miles to discuss the sale of my father-in-law’s dreams: the farm he bought piece by piece with the thin savings from two jobs. The house he designed the plans for, and contracted himself. Dad is gone, Mom is a drowsy shadow of her former vibrance, and the farm is no longer anyone’s dream.

Life is full of hairpin turns, a road that may end up anywhere. Love melts like sugar candy in the rain, and even wings can be stilled. Dreams fade like brittle photographs. There is nothing that is permanent.

This is what the Buddha tells us. DukkhaSuffering is how we translate dukkha. But it isn’t that simple. The pain the goose felt as she died? The pain my friend feels at the slipping away of his relationship? The loss of a large part of my husband’s childhood? These are all dukkha. Physical pain, impermanence, dependence. Each one part of a word that doesn’t really fit into English. But that moves like a scarlet fissure through our lives…

Tonight, I breathe for a dead goose, feathers soft & beaded with raindrops. I breathe for my friend, and his partner. And I breathe for my husband, his childhood, the parents I love perhaps as much as he does… And I bow my head to dukkha…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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