Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

a single squirrel

hawk with kill2When I took this picture, I was thrilled. Here was a hawk, on our corner, w/ its kill! And a second later, I noticed another hawk — a mature one, sitting atop the fence behind its offspring, watching as the young one tried to figure out how to eat a dead squirrel. How cool!

I confess: I never gave a thought to the squirrel…It’s all about context.

Yesterday, driving somewhere, I swerved to go around a newly dead squirrel in my lane, its creamy belly fur ruffling in the summer breeze. But what almost stopped me wasn’t the  dead squirrel, but its companion on the curb, pacing the cars as they drove past, watching. And no, young squirrel: your companion is not getting up.


So my grief wasn’t for the death — nor is it usually, these days. It’s for those of us abandoned to life, left to remember. Left to grieve, like the uncomprehending squirrel to the side of Riverside Drive, waiting for a small miracle.

Just a single squirrel now. Not part of a family, or a mated pair. Just a living squirrel, watching the wind tousling fur on a dead companion.

And I never even thought about the hawk.


teaching for change

via  The New Yorker

via The New Yorker

Warning: the following material may confuse you, or even make your head hurt. Because who knew it was sooo hard to effect change??

Teachers, that’s who. Especially teachers of young adults. Because when you’re little, learning is still FUN. There are cool toys that teach: blocks, puzzles, word games. And there are crayons, scissors, and little books. It’s all a kind of game.


And then testing and GRADES enter the picture. It’s obvious to students that we care far less about learning than grades. At least teachers — and students, and sometimes parents — know this.

But this isn’t a discussion of how misguided standardised testing is. I wish such a conversation would change policy, but I’ve had similar wishes and they don’t come true. There’s far too many $$ at stake (and yes, I’m that cynical…just follow the money, and you will be too).

Instead, I’d like us to look at a new study. One that examines how minds change. And the bad news: most of the time, they don’t.

We seem to have forgotten that the expression


“a liberal education” originally meant

among the Roman one worthy of free men.

                       ~ Henry David Thoreau

Brendan Nyhan, a professor of political science at Dartmouth who conducted the study, is automatically suspect to many neo-cons. I’ve talked recently about why so many neo-cons are anti-university, but suffice to say that a good education should include critical thinking. And if you think critically, you will eventually question all assumptions — including religious beliefs. Note: I know MANY academics who believe in various wisdom traditions, ranging from conservative Christianity to Islam to Hinduism to Buddhism to Unitarianism to Wicca. And more. Belief needn’t be antithetical to critical thinking.

Here’s what Nyhan’s study found, basically: people don’t change their opinions on things because of facts. Almost ever.


when blue is not the best colour

via National Geographic

via National Geographic

My sister was in a car accident. A BIG truck ran a light, and T-boned her. Driver’s side. She had to crawl from her crushed seat over the console to the passenger door. That alone would leave you sore.

I received a text, while at a writer’s retreat. Safely nestled among friends, and safe in a room of writers, I read: I’m fine. And didn’t believe a word of it. Here’s the problem: ALL my sisters (and I) will lie if we don’t want you to worry. So you can’t reallllly trust us. Sorry, but true. (N.B.: she IS fine. :) )


That incident, coupled w/ friends who are battling cancer, friends whose partners are very ill, and the general creak of my own aging bones reminds that the Buddha is right: we are impermanent.

And THAT (along w/ neglecting good mental hygiene for weeks) makes me blue. A beautiful colour for jeans, sapphires, even hair (my elder son had blue hair for a while — it was startling, but cool). Not for states of square

‘The blues.’ We sing them, play them, write them. But it’s hard to get past them. What do you do when you have the blues? When the basic ephemerality of life and love and all the things that make them both ring like bells feel threatened?


Meds help. :) But we can’t medicate away our innate distrust of much change. And to be fair? Much of beauty’s frisson is the knowledge that this perfect rose will not last, nor will my grandson’s baby smell. Just today I didn’t bother looking at infant things — he’s already too big for them. An entire year — not a nanosecond to a redwood — has changed almost everything about him. Those changes are lovely (he can babble! he can toddle! he can pull up and cruise and roll his own toy car back and forth!), but they are still changes. The stillness of infancy has been traded for the energy of not-quite toddlerhood.


blue sky mindThose are not the changes that infuse me with blue, as if new jeans had bled in some emotional laundromat. Changes that feel like growth we accommodate, often gladly. It’s when the changes feel more like entropy that I rebel. When my joints get stiffer, and I have to go to the eye doctor THREE TIMES in one month. Sheesh.

And then I take a deep breath, and remember: big sky mind, Britt. They’re just clouds, these changes. The sky remains there, behind the changes. It’s just harder these days to remember. And it’s still blue.


a day with teachers


via google

via google

 I spent much of yesterday w/ my favourite people: teachers who write. I confess to a relatively indiscriminate adoration of most teachers, but teachers who write are at the top of any list.

Yesterday, I was back at Writing Project, listening & learning with teachers pre-kindergarten through university. We heard from a teacher who ran a writing center for elementary students (yep: even first graders!), and a Ph.D. botanist who wrote a blog making all kinds of science interesting (even carbon, & the size of the arcane telomere).



via google

This is why I LOVE teaching — you’re always learning. My friend Ben says when he stops learning, he’ll stop teaching. I agree. It’s not even about the students (true confessions!), much as I love them; it’s about the learning.

I’m a learning geek. I don’t even care what it is,: if you know cool stuff about it, I’ll listen. As my wonderful younger son responded to my blog the other day, I don’t play music much anymore, but my old conductor in school used to say he wasn’t training professional musicians, but lifetime lovers of music. I love hearing people talk about their art at that level, even if I don’t understand all of it. Me too, Noah. I get totally involved when people are passionate about art, or science, or engineering, or cooking, or hiking, or… :)


teacher balloonsTeachers are the best at this. Our students teach us daily — through their own passions, their own interests. Through their needs, as well: I knew very little about situated learning until I began to teach adults (although it sure would have come in handy when I was teaching developmental language arts!). I learned about learning styles because I could tell I wasn’t reaching all my students. Sure ’nuff, I had almost an entire classroom of non-traditional learners, many of them needing very different strategies to help them succeed.

That said? Yesterday was, ultimately, about fun. Re-connecting with old friends, making new ones. It was good ol’ community. And again: teachers are some of the best at that, as well.

Here’s to the maligned teachers of America. You sooo rock!

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