Presence

I’m currently seated alone on a bench in the middle of the Central Garden at the Getty Center–a bit of calm in the midst of the whirlwind that is chaperoning a class trip to Los Angeles. It’s a pretty slow afternoon here so rather than being surrounded by troops of school children and scads of tourists, I’m instead engulfed by tender tweeting of the birds, water dancing lightly over boulders and idle chatter of intermittent museum guests walking the path beside me. The sun is beaming down from a cloudless sky accompanied by a light breeze tempering the heat…a perfect afternoon.

And for the first time in months, I am truly still…momentarily at peace…existing simply in awestruck wonder of the beauty that surrounds me. Beauty, when we stop to examine it and appreciate it, had this effect…drawing us in, holding us nearer to its perfection and then sending us away again changes. Here, in this moment, I am not needed or in need. There is nothing else I should be doing or would rather be doing. The magic of this garden and its serenity has dissolved the rest of the happenings of this day and I exist solely in this place, in this moment. My heart rate has slowed and my eyes feel opened to a world beyond the immediate moment.

The immediate moment, replete with daily stressors of work and home and kids and bills and health and airplanes I’m not so excited about boarding in the current situation, began to dissolve the moment I sat down and inhaled for the exhalation that followed let it all go—blown towards the mountains in the distance already encased in fog (seems like they could handle a little more).

This larger moment contains being amid the gift of creation that surrounds us and truly seeing it, hearing it, and then pausing to really be here and not everywhere else.

Presence. How often are we this present in our lives? How often do we dismiss preoccupation to live into the moments we are blessed with? I know my struggles with this reflect a life that is too busy, a mind too cluttered. But I also can’t always see my way through the fog of it all of the time. And let’s face it, I’m not in the Central Garden of the Getty everyday…

And so, presence becomes a Lenten promise of sorts. A renewed dedication to being present for my kids, for my husband, for myself, for my life. There is no expedient means of repair for the till modern life has taken on my ability to live free from the weight of the rest. Restoration will require mindfulness and effort–as all important endeavors do–but the quality of life that will resound as a result…transformative.

“I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud” by William Wordsworth never felt more appropriate:)

A rough start

(The following is the start…a very rough one as the title implies…of a piece I am working on. It’s been a long day and as midnight nears, I know I can’t do this topic justice this evening. Planning to polish and complete it tomorrow. Just didn’t want to miss a day of writing and given that I’m writing about patience, I think that being patient and working my way through this one exemplifies my point.)

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Missing:

the ability to sit still, to wait (with grace), to wonder in the waiting.

Patience has fallen out of practice and become nearly obsolete. Technology grants us immediacy. Answers to just about every conceivable question reside just a google search away, we can mobile order coffee or fast food to lessen the wait time, packages can be ordered and delivered overnight, if desired. And these options, in bringing ease to our life, make us comfortable and lull us into believing everything requires swiftness…that we should be living our lives at a faster pace…that if we aren’t moving quickly, moreso than those around us, then we are falling behind.

(Day 35–almost didn’t happen. Grateful for just a little perseverance to get even just a little writing in!)

ask

So, I’ve spent the weekend with teachers from around the country talking about and considering the importance of inquiry and literacy for kids. Even though we have all come from different places, it just so happens that this institute is being held in my home town, New Orleans. However, despite being in my actual hometown, I have found myself confronted and surrounded by more thoughtless stereotypes about this city that I love and about what it could mean to be from here than at any other point in my life–which has also heightened my realization that the number of people who buy into these over generalizations and the number of people who label the residents of this city based on those assumptions is far larger than I might have originally thought.

I suppose I sort of insulate myself–wrap myself in the belief that surely people know there is something more to the fabric of this richly historic town, something more to its culture and to the people who cling to it fervently than just raucous drunkenness. More than just a Southern drawl (that actually doesn’t even exist here). More than the sort of grotesque caricature shown in film and on television that is fun to imagine but denies the complexity of reality.

I just assumed that people would know better. I felt like if nothing else, the resilience and spirit the people of this city displayed in the aftermath of Katrina should have helped to erase some of the broad brush strokes. People weren’t just clinging to a city in those days; they were clinging to their home. But time has passed and I suppose those images have become blurry, maybe a little forgotten.

So, as I attempt to absorb and understand the nature of these predispositions, as I attempt to inform without sounding too defensive, I recognize that as frustrating as this bias has been, I don’t have to face it everyday. On any given day, I am mostly surrounded by native Louisianians. But, there are far too many people in this world who have been walled in by stereotypical expectations and who live every single day of their lives trying to break free from that prison of sorts. I have come to realize that just as teachers at this institute  have been breaking away from their assumptions by working through an inquiry process, through a question asking process to uncover some truths about this city and its people, we need to be conducting inquiry every single day of the week in every week of every year to uncover the truth of those around us. We need to take the time to ask the questions that will scratch past the facade we have created with our simplistic assumptions.  We need to ask questions that show interest in actually understanding rather than gathering ammunition to further judgement. We need to ask questions so that we can listen and consider the information and then reconsider our original thoughts. We need to ask questions without fear of having to admit we were wrong–because that admission is where the change begins.

I’ve lived in or near this city my whole life and felt like I didn’t really need this inquiry group study. Except in asking questions on our topic, I realized there was still more to uncover. I was reminded that my story and understanding of this city is just one of many and that I haven’t paid nearly enough attention to some of the threads that make the fabric of this town so rich, so vibrant. In acting as though we know the truth of a person or community or faith or country without ever asking or seeking to know more, without ever hearing the narrative of the person or people living the reality, we will live our lives ignorant of the vibrance of the whole story. And that loss is profound. That loss is dangerous.

Ask.

(Day 15 of the king cake season writing challenge–this could have easily been about the Saints playoff game instead…figured I would channel that energy here instead…can’t win them all I suppose…)

 

inquiry

This weekend, I’m attending a Heinemann Professional Learning Institute in New Orleans on Curiosity across the Curriculum with teachers from across the country and I’m totally geeking out over the opportunity to sit and wonder and have my thinking pushed to the far reaches. I think that is something that so many of us as teachers–wait, what am I talking about…this is universal…I will rephrase–I think that is something that so many of us as humans are afraid of these days. We cocoon ourselves in the thinking that feels comfortable and safe in order to shield and protect ourselves from ideas and questions that might challenge what we are currently doing, feeling, or believing. I think this is part of what has led to the deterioration of discourse. It is, after all, easier to hide from or to yell over new ideas rather than to listen and consider them.

This institute is not only putting adults of varying backgrounds and viewpoints in a room together and asking them to question, consider and wonder, but the presenters are asking the teachers in attendance to help our students do the same thing. To allow students entry into their own education. To grant students permission to hear not just the teacher’s opinions on what is most important to know and how to learn it, but also permission to voice their own opinions and wonderings about the world…to invite students to be heard and to be seen in this moment as they are for who they are. If we preach acceptance of others to our kids, then we have to start living into that and that means accepting the kids in front of us too.

Instead of denying their thinking (and its validity/quality) and their curiosity because it doesn’t fit the curriculum, let’s start listening with ears that build bridges between their thinking and that mandated curriculum instead of with ears that only hear the disconnect. The concern that the curriculum offers no place, no time for wonder and for student driven inquiry is a valid one because often times it does not. So, we have to be creative and push ourselves to think beyond what has been handed to us in order to see further possibilities. We need to consider how much deeper the learning will be when the kids have taken ownership of it and are invested in a very real way. Make that concern your next wonder, your next curiosity and let it drive your next personal inquiry. If we are the lead learners in the room, we also have to be the lead wonderers. So, dig in, ask the questions, tell your kids about them and then figure out a means to experiment and play around with how to enact this in your classroom. And by all means don’t be afraid to push the boundaries of what you have always done. That is, after all, what we ask kids to do every single day that they enter our space to learn!

At some point today, I realized that I hear all of this as a mom as well. It is so easy to get caught up in the day to day actions and jobs of taking the boys to school, carting them to activities, ensuring homework and studying are completed, feeding everyone, and so on that I lose sight sometimes of asking them what is on their minds…and then also really listening when they share that with me. It is easy to get caught up in the need to clean rooms and to be on time and to ask the questions that I want to know the answers to that I forget to find out what questions are brewing in their brains. And I am certain there must be a zillion of them. It is so easy for me to pontificate on what to do in the classroom with other people’s kids when it comes to wonder and curiosity but when I consider if I have actually enacted that in my own home, well, I’m pretty guilty of not always being able to find the time. So, there’s that…

As I sit and listen this weekend…as I sit and enact an inquiry project, I am not only thinking about how this applies in my classroom but also in the world at large and in my home with my own family. Always important to remember that out of the cocoon, the caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Hoping to break out of my cocoon of comfort this weekend and spread my newfound wings as I reach for new understanding and begin to live it out.

(Day 14…this might be more of a rant than anything, but it just kind of flowed naturally so I let it happen instead of stopping to craft and edit along the way…a fun change. Many thanks to Sara Ahmed, Smokey Daniels, Steph Harvey, Nancy Steineke, and Kristin Ziemke for pushing my thinking this weekend! You guys are amazing!!)

impact

Ask any student who has set foot in my classroom and they will tell you “Mrs. Clark is super passionate about words…words matter after all.” And they would be right, I am sort of constantly in awe of what we as humans are able to do simply in the arrangement and selection of the words we wield. We can brandish them dangerously, carelessly damaging others with rancor and vitriol. Or, we can employ them meaningfully, intentionally provoking thought with depth and weight.

One of the reasons poetry resonates with me the way that it does is that I find myself in constant wonder of the poet’s word craft–of their ability to be so precise in their execution of word economy, while at the same time creating gorgeous imagery or intensity or moments to pause and wonder or heightened emotion or all of these and more. It is the surprise in the organization that gets me, the arrangement I would never have considered that drops my jaw. I love the form that creates the content as much as the content itself.

~~~“Breakage” by Mary Oliver~~~

I say all of this because Mary Oliver died today. Mary Oliver was a poet that I believe, honestly, could reach anyone as she wrote honestly and simply yet somehow in her simple language led readers into the complexity of human emotion and experience. She didn’t require fancy forms or intricate language; she didn’t write beyond her experience, no matter how simple the moments may have been; she didn’t reach for what wasn’t true to her and in maintaining that sincerity, her readers were able to find their true selves in her work.

~~~ From “The Journey” by Mary Oliver~~~

“…

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly recognize as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save.”

In the natural world Mary Oliver sought solace and God and understanding of life and its proverbial mysteriousness and through the natural world she brought the rest of us solace and God and an understanding of life. She opened my eyes to not just the beauty in the world around me but to its nuance and to a new way of paying attention to it. Her words, her insight, her description all still my soul.

~~~“Fall” by Mary Oliver~~~

(the last stanza here is just perfection and will alter your perception of rain forever)

And then there are the Mary Oliver poems that walked me through grief at times where grief felt heavier that what I could shoulder alone. Except, I wasn’t alone. She had shouldered it already. She had walked this path and she recorded it in her writing–with hope, with honesty and with love. Through loss, through illness I have almost religiously turned to Mary Oliver’s work as a sort of prayer when my prayers were sort of lost in the wilderness. I turned to her work to restore my hope and my faith, and she never failed me, not one single time.

 “Praying” by Mary Oliver

“It doesn’t have to be

The blue iris, it could be

weeds in a vacant lot, or a few

small stones; just

pay attention, then patch

 

a few words together and don’t try

to make them elaborate, this isn’t

a contest but the doorway

 

into thanks, and a silence in which

another voice may speak.”

 

“…the doorway/into thanks…” Mary Oliver’s work will continue to be a part of my daily reading, my daily stillness, my daily search for peace in the chaos of the world. My gratitude is without bounds–not just for a life well lived, but for a dedication to sharing that life with others through her words…for the impression she has made in my heart and the impact she has made in my vision and in my life. Mary Oliver may have left the physical world today, but she has also left behind her words–a wealth, a storehouse of beauty and reminders of goodness. And that is forever.

(Day 12…I was so sad to hear about Mary Oliver’s passing today, but in writing about her work, I found so much more. Glad for this outlet that allowed for that to happen)