Beliefnet
Beginner's Heart

penguin motheringBy now, I’m sure most of America has heard of the two daddy penguins, Roy & Silo, who loved each other and raised little Tango. Who was, just FYI, no blood kin.

And that’s today’s post: mothering beyond biology. Because I have many friends (& family) who feel bruised, ignored, and downright out-of-the-club because they don’t have children. Some of these — men & women alike — have chosen not to have children, for various (highly personal) reasons. Others don’t have children for medical reasons. And a few have biological children whom they gave up for adoption into more stable family units (and what a gift is THAT!).

What my friends & family all have in common is society’s ignorance and cluelessness. Maybe the two are the same…

So this is a heartfelt paean to the many people I know who mother. My sister Jaynie, who mothers her sisters & friends with incomparable love and affection. My friend Dewayne, who ‘mothers’ his students, his mentees, and his friends, is another. My friend Betty Ann, who is a mother to her husband, her many friends (who adore her), and various animals passing through. My friend Ione, who mothered me like the daughter she lost to a hit&run driver.

seahorse father toy

via Etsy

I have so many friends who are slighted, even hurt, by their childless status. Not because they necessarily feel inadequate, but because for women, the culture at large EXPECTS you to reproduce. Period. And to not do so — even in this supposedly ‘post-feminist’ age — is to be, somehow, odd.

And yes, I KNOW this. Because many years ago, I was trying to get pregnant with no success. People would ask: why don’t you have children? Don’t you like them? What’s the problem? No, it wasn’t any of their business. But they STILL felt like it was okay to ask. Why, I’m not sure. It hurt badly enough I wasn’t able to support my dearest friend in her own pregnancy — just couldn’t go there.

There are also those of us whose mothers don’t even recognise us — Alzheimer’s makes Mother’s Day a mindfield for many. Or those of who are unhappily fostered, whose mothers aren’t in our lives in any good way. In other words? Mother’s Day is NOT a happy day for many many of my friends & family.

In the animal kingdom, all kinds of ‘mothers’ exist: seahorse fathers carry the eggs, and take care of the hatchlings. Elephants have aunts (my own helped raise me). Penguin fathers will raise an egg from an unknown donor. And don’t forget cuckoo chicks.

elephant family

via Wkipedia

So just in case you’re unintentionally clueless, pay attention! Having children is great — I adore my own. But it is NOT the only thing in life, and it shouldn’t define any one. There are very good reasons — not anyone else’s business!! — that couples may decide against children. Teachers often do — they mother their students. Gay couples often aren’t allowed to adopt. And then there are the many who can’t have children: do you really want to hurt anyone’s feelings, folks?

So on this day-after Mother’s Day, here’s to my dear friends & wonderful family who don’t have children: you mother me, you mother so many of us. And there is nothing more important than your kindness. Period.

via Google

via Google

Today at the Farmer’s Market I picked up some bronze fennel. I used to have swathes of the stuff, but over the past couple of weird winters it’s died out. Which is sad, because not only is it very pretty, but swallowtail butterfly caterpillars LOVE it.

Which brings me to today’s lesson in beginner’s heartedness:

When I bought it, the guy selling said it was all he would have this year. I said Yeah, the black swallowtail caterpillars eat it up. He said They do — just eat it to the ground. Then he looked it at me and laughed.

You buy it on purpose for that, I guess?

I do, I replied w/ a sheepish grin. I plant it in w/ my parsley, to feed the larvae.  He shook his head.

via Google

via Google

Thankfully they don’t eat my parsley, he said. But it’s not flatleaf; it’s ornamental.

They love my flatleaf, I told him. They can strip a plant in a day.

I know, he said dryly. I know.

And that, folks, is today’s lesson in looking at things from various perspectives. One man’s pest is another’s butterfly…

lefkara laceMy whole family is nuts over housewares. Not just the women, either: my sons both asked for cast iron skillets. They also received teapots/ kettles/ and/or tea sets when they moved into apartments. When I went to my elder son’s last month, I took linens for the new house.

So it’s not just me, my sisters, my nieces. And in ‘sisters’ I also include both my sisters-in-law (who are like sisters to me). We LOVE linens, china, flatware, cast iron skillets, et al. Another reason I have waaay too much stuff!

But we use it, to be honest. Almost every day I make tea in the morning. Which means, as I’ve noted before, taking down one of the tea trays (the small one if I just want a mug, the larger one if I’m making a pot, the bigger wooden one if anyone is joining me) and spreading one of the many ‘tea cloths’ I have. Some are doilies my great-grandmother tatted; a few are singleton placemats I bought here & there. And depending on the time of year, I have some that are holidayish. Several have bees. 🙂2011-05-30 13.42.57

I missed a step. 🙁 We should have already put on the kettle, filled w/ freshly drawn cold water, to boil. There’s a rhythm to making tea, as you can see.

While the water’s boiling, and after you choose the cloth, the teapot, the cup, the creamer & sugar & spoon, and of course THE TEA, there’s just sitting down and breathing. Utterly peaceful, inhaling the fragrance of whatever tea you chose, and drinking it slowly. There’s a reason that tea is a fundamental Buddhist sacrament: it requires patience, attention, and commitment.

So what does all this have to do w/ beginner’s heart, you might ask?

via Google

via Google

One of the many small epiphanies I think of as ‘baby’ enlightenments was when I realised that first & foremost — before anything else — the Buddha was a teacher. As was Jesus.

I know Christians think of Jesus first as the son of God. But for me it’s the teaching thing: he was a rabbi. Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Bahá’u’lláh & other wisdom traditions’ great leaders were teachers. That’s a BIG deal to me.

Because teaching matters, folks. It’s possibly the most important ongoing job a non-parent can have. It’s not as simple as ‘knowing content,’ or even having ‘teaching strategies.’ It’s about (wait for it) teaching practice.

When you teach, it’s about something you rarely learn in education classes. Or in lit, or math, or science, history, phys ed, stats, or anything but an actual classroom. It’s about your practice. How you live your life, what you value. And it’s about love.i love teachers

This is National Teacher Appreciation Week, in case you didn’t know. (N.B.: tell a teacher what a difference s/he made in your life!) If you read this blog much, you’ll know I adore teachers. I am humbled by their energy, their professionalism, their commitment to their students and the communities their students come from. Because you don’t teach a student (at least not in any significant manner) out of context.

Every culture (and micro-culture), every neighbourhood, every state and region of the country, provides a different context for a student’s life and learning. And the two are inextricably tangled (all good teachers know this).

In the same way that your mother tongue colours how you learn a second language, where you grow up, your cultural values, your whole geography shape the way you learn. If mine is a quiet, non-verbal home, I’m probably not going to be the kid who constantly asks questions (safe to say that was NOT the case in my childhood!). And if we all interrupt each other at my house, I’m probably going to forget to raise my hand a lot (yup!).

via Google

via Google

So, to understand that the Buddha stayed in the world (according to the teachings) to teach what he’d learned himself? Wow. I get that. I understand what it’s like to dedicate yourself to a classroom, to the kids in front of you, even if those ‘kids’ are in their 70s, 80s, even 90! But also if they’re only 18. 🙂 Suddenly these centuries dead thinkers are like my friends, only even wiser. And I understand the next point very well:

enlightenment

via Google

Teaching is a sacred trust. Because to learn requires that we bare our vulnerability, our ignorance. Note: ignorance is NOT stupidity. To be ignorant of something means you (the student) need me (the teacher). That’s job security! (As I used to tell my students 🙂 ) But it means that teachers are very special. To help students learn means to make them comfortable. To build a community where each student feels safe to share that vulnerability, and make a learning curve visible.enlightenment

So when did we forget this? That our greatest spiritual leaders — add Gandhi here, add Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Bishop Tutu…and so many more — were/ are TEACHERS.

The next time you hear someone badmouthing teachers (and I still do — grrrrr), say something. Remember the teacher who took time for you, the one who stretched your horizons, who loved you. And remember too: our greatest thinkers? All teachers. How cool is THAT?

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