Category Archives: thinking out loud

Being Free Now

When the same message arrives from two different women with pretty different world views within a few minutes of each other, it is meant to be shared, I think.

In her Sunday sermon shared via her subscriber newsletter, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber reminds us of Doubting Thomas who questioned the rebirth of Jesus until he saw where the nails had been driven into his hands. The story, Bolz-Weber says, isn’t about not doubting; instead it is about how Jesus reacted to the doubt. He did not judge or condemn Thomas. He showed him his hands and welcomed him as he was. Jesus doesn’t wait until we are perfect to love us.

Because notice that the text doesn’t say “and when they had repented of what complete asses they had been; and when they had perfected their faith and the purity of their doctrine; and when they had achieved the right condition of personal morality THEN they were worthy of receiving Jesus.”

Sebene Selassie practices Buddhism and is one of my favorite writers and meditation teachers. Her newsletter this week was titled We Are Free. She focuses on the present moment and reminds us that we are free. We are not getting free. We are free now.

She encourages us to take a hard look at the beliefs and structures we hold around all the facets of our lives. She and her husband rethought their living space and how beliefs about the functions of certain rooms were keeping them from really using the space for their own needs. She talked about getting off social media for a few weeks and postponing her newsletter, a decision that focused on her self care rather than the needs or expectations of others.

I really needed that. By that, I mean, the autonomous decision to take care of my damn self.

It is entirely up to me to remember this fundamental truth:  I am a grown-ass adult human, and I AM FREE.

Both women, coming from different belief systems and even world views, are preaching the same message. Stop waiting for perfection, for courage, for solutions. I’ll end with Sebene:

We will not get free once everything is resolved; we ARE free, right in this moment… And this one. If we allow ourselves to feel it.

PS I hope the colorful language these women use is not offensive. I have, as I have gotten older, also begun to get a little saltier so that may be why they both speak to me.

Happy Spring!

Silo SunsetThe signs of Spring have been around for at least a month or more if you knew what you were looking for: goldfinches starting to show color, daffodils and snowdrops emerging from dried leaves, bird songs piercing the chilly mornings. And now, Spring is officially here. Margaret Sisler introduced me to the concept of forest bathing:

While our patch of trees around the old silo at the back of the property probably don’t count as forest, they are our bit of woodsy wilderness. With the exception of cutting a few walking paths, we let it be, and it provides cover for critters including our very own MyrtleMyrtle the Turtle that we usually see once or  twice a year. For me, it provides a peaceful retreat. The dogs and I walk there almost every day and yet it never gets dull. Nature works through her cycles around us.

I think, for me, the biggest lesson during this transition has been that idea of looking deeply at familiar landscapes. It’s easy to see the daffodils with their flashy yellow blossoms, but they have been there to be seen and enjoyed for much longer, as we marvel at their strength, pushing up through soil and leaves and mulch. I am always reminded of Dylan Thomas’ poem, The force that drives the green shoot through the flower.

Practicing

I have been practicing meditation for the past several years, beginning at a time when arthritis was ravaging my hip and sitting helped me be with the pain even as I was getting help. Now, it is part of what I do each day, usually first thing in the morning. I sit and know that I am sitting…at least for a few seconds at a time. While I have gotten better at focusing, I still find myself losing awareness of the present, my mind taking me to the past most often, generally reliving the negative events that have turned into stories.

Recognizing the patterns and learning to stop the stories from carrying me down the well-worn paths of critical self-talk is getting easier the more I practice. That word practice is essential. I don’t meditate. I practice meditation. That sense of working towards but never reaching whatever the end of practicing is (perfection? Please, no.) to be incredibly refreshing, a departure from my usual need to always get it right, which leads to more of that critical self-talk.

Lately, I have found myself practicing this present awareness even when I am not formally sitting. I folded the laundry with some level of mindfulness the other day. Normally, I rush through this mundane chore in order to get to the next thing. At that moment, folding the laundry was the thing and the next one could just wait its turn.

I’ve also been exploring different ways that people talk about practicing. I meant to share this interview with the Indigo Girls on Monday for International Women’s Day as their wonderful song Closer to Fine has been a part of my soundtrack since it was first published. They talk about practice and honing our skills, particularly as women.

Finding Space

Today, I announced to a large group of state leaders that I am a daily meditator and that lessons I was learning from that practice were helping me think deeper and ask different questions. I didn’t intend to do it, but I’m also not beating myself up about it. In fact, I encouraged them to read Sharon Salzberg’s book Real Change that I referenced in my previous post.

The book is a guide to making change, written almost specifically for the people in that meeting: advocates and activists who have committed to creating an equitable, accessible, innovative public education system. It is hard work, demanding, and can be all consuming. How can you take a break when you see so much need, when you feel angry and frustrated?

Salzberg argues, and I can speak from personal experience, even a few minutes of meditation each day has helped me find a space within the work where I can rest and then return refreshed. It sharpens my focus and allows me to gauge my reactions in a more thoughtful way.

When I open my eyes after practicing and look out on the world, I know it is the same broken place, I feel the familiar anger, but I also feel as though I have more courage to keep moving forward even as I accept the current circumstances.

 

Asking Deeper Questions

Since the turn of the century, educators have been encouraged to integrate what were called 21st century skills, so-called “soft” skills such creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration and citizenship that were needed to help students learn to thrive in the contemporary world. In a complex world, being able to ask the right questions, examine the underlying systems, and apply creative and critical thinking is the way to find solutions. 

Well, a pandemic that closed school buildings (NOT schools if you equate school with learning) certainly revealed complexity especially in terms of how interwoven those buildings were to so much more than just schooling.  And, in addressing the complexity, it seems to me that officials have chosen to ask only one question: “How do we get kids back into school buildings?” And asking only one question immediately limits the critical thinking that can lead to creative and equitable solutions. 

The other problem with asking only that question is that it conflates school buildings with schooling and assumes that the best and really only way for students to learn is face to face in one location with children of the same age. It’s the model we’ve known, it’s the model around which most of our research is done, and, perhaps most importantly, the model around which we have built lots of systems including extracurricular activities, child care and meal distribution.

The buildings play essential roles in the community beyond schooling. But, and here’s the place where I think we are missing the opportunity to ask deeper questions, the buildings are not essential for schooling, at least for everyone in the one-size-fits-all way we’ve always done it. This narrow focus limits the opportunities for innovative solutions, the kinds of solutions that could meet the needs of all families and children in ways that we haven’t thought of before. 

In her book Real Change, meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg tells the story of a research study designed to see if people who practiced mindfulness were more compassionate to others. It was simple: a waiting room with three chairs, two actors glued to their phones, and a participant. The participant takes the last chair. The third actor enters, walking with crutches, obviously in pain. While it would be nice to think everyone would give up the chairs, they didn’t. But the mindfulness practitioners had a higher percentage of those who yielded their chair to a fellow human being in pain.  While Sharon recognized the need for these personal acts of kindness, she also calls for a wider view:

It can also be helpful to recognize the value of thinking in terms of systems change even as we might be focused on acts of personal goodness. We rely on analysis and conscious reflection to make that distinction. When I heard of DeSteno’s experiment, it made me think in terms of systems. I wondered, for example, if anyone questioned how the people running the lab were allocating resources if they were putting so few chairs in the waiting room? (p. 180)

Right now, we have the opportunity to look deeper and  think in terms of real system change in education. We have the chance to ask more than just one question. Here are the ones I’ve been thinking about:

  1. Who is benefitting from virtual learning? 
  2. Who might benefit from virtual learning if we had better resources including broadband in every home or easily accessible community-based child care? 
  3. How can we take some of the individual solutions that arose in the past year such as learning pods and integrate them in an equitable system? 

Most importantly, how can we make sure that the voices of those clamoring to return do not drown out the voices of those who are not eager to get back in the buildings–teachers, parents, and students alike–because they do not trust the current system to care enough about them to keep them and their families safe?

We must go beyond communicating empty-sounding reassurances about CDC guidelines and open ourselves and the system in order to collaborate with all stakeholders on creative solutions that could finally REALLY customize and personalize schooling for every kid in a way we never considered before the buildings closed.