“The plant people have taught me to be generous and not be shy about blossoming, that it is our nature. I think when others see us, it can inspire them to open up and blossom too and we can be a field ablaze with dignity and beauty together.”
My friend Polly mentioned a writing retreat she saw an email for through a local university, Empowering Leadership Through Writing: A Courage to Lead Retreat with Kim Stafford. Kim Stafford is a local poet and writing teacher. I heard him read from his new book of poetry recently. I liked what I heard. He tells stories in a way that makes you feel like you have known him forever and you’re sitting around a fire. The retreat was the same day as my 37th birthday. I signed up. I took a day off work. I drove up to Menucha a retreat center in Corbett, Oregon. I spent my 37th birthday, like I did my 36th with a bunch of strangers who became friends. This time I didn’t tell any of them it was my birthday.
The retreat was part writing, part circle of trust approach. A long time ago, when I was working as an educational assistant, in my first job out of college, I entered a graduate teaching program at Portland State. A retired teacher who subbed often in the class I worked, loaned me a book one day after she heard I was accepted into the program. Stories of the Courage to Teach, the foreword written by Parker J. Palmer, who started the circle of trust approach. I never read the book or returned it. The other day I found it, address label on the front and all. But I feel like I have lived it over the last 13 years as an educator. Parker J. Palmer wrote another book called The Courage to Teach. With quotes like:
“If we want to grow as teachers — we must do something alien to academic culture: we must talk to each other about our inner lives — risky stuff in a profession that fears the personal and seeks safety in the technical, the distant, the abstract.”
“Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves.”
“When I forget my own inner multiplicity and my own long and continuing journey toward selfhood, my expectations of students become excessive and unreal. If I can remember the inner pluralism of my own soul and the slow pace of my own self-emergence, I will be better able to serve the pluralism among my students at the pace of their young lives.”
“To those who say that we need weights and measures in order to enforce accountability in education, my response is, yes, of course we do, but only under three conditions that are not being met today. We need to make sure (1) that we measure things worth measuring in the context of authentic education, where rote learning counts for little; (2) that we know how to measure what we set out to measure; and (3) that we attach no more importance to measurable things than we attach to things equally or more important that elude our instruments.”
“Every profession that attracts people for ‘reasons of the heart’ is a profession in which people and the work they do suffer from losing heart. Like teachers, these people are asking, “How can we take heart again so that we can give heart to others?”—which is why they undertook their work in the first place.”
Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach
I feel like I should have read this book. I definitely have been living it. I have a feeling I will pick it up now.
We sat in circle the whole retreat. We built community in less than 48 hours listening and sharing with each other, while sometimes just listening to our own inner voice. The Touchstones that defined the clear boundaries of our time in the circle of trust I found very restorative as well.
We had time to share writing and create images of art for each other based on the work shared. The images others saw in me, made me realize the heart I try to representing while living in the world.
We walked together in pairs practicing the art of questioning. Asking questions that are open and without judgement, allowing the one sharing to dig into deeper understanding. I have craved this type of dialogue. Not a moment of advice or trying to fix, but really a broader look at the possible through self-reflection assisted by others questions. We practiced this in more depth in small groups, during the evening. A clearness committee, one of the best types of committees I have sat on. A person presents their problem or dilemma and after a time of their sharing the other committee members ask open questions. The goal is for the person who shared to gain some inner clarity about their dilemma. At the end we may mirror back some of what the person said. It is this beautiful echoing back, reflecting ones own words to them. I have been hungry for this type of processing in community, but with an openness that allows my own journey of understanding to happen. It fits with the restorative way of questioning allowing someone to own the process of repair, instead of what so often happens is the stealing of problems and the pushing of solutions.
It is beautiful how close we can become with strangers when we sit together for a while and listen to each other with a care. A care, knowing each of us vulnerable and that sharing life together is a sacred thing.
One of the poems I started while at the retreat, well it was two and I combined it into one.
I was born October, 4th 1982. I am the one who rapidly entered this world in the hospital hallway.
In the year of my birth my father’s arms delicately cradled me as he waited for unemployment to end, it was the beginning of many economic recessions, the era of capitalist growth.
I am the one who sat at the dinner table all night refusing to eat my broccoli. When alone I would hid it in the garbage. I don’t remember the day, but I grew to love broccoli.
Happily my brothers and I played kickball on Commercial Street with our neighborhood friends, stepping aside for the occasional passing car. Today the cars rule the street and children virtually play indoors.
My mother washed, brushed, braided my blond curls, so different from her own night black locks. Her hands always busy, always taking care.
At home our house, the same one my father grew inside, held tears, shouting, laughter, and dreams, lives knitted together.
Records spinning daily, the voices of Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Linda Ronstadt, the radio playing Friday Freeway Blues or Classical, my dad strumming the guitar while I sing along to playful Raffi Lyrics, the beginning tracks of my life. What songs will make Volume 37?
I am the one who plucked my violin at orchestra and made my debut as a folk singer.
On Sundays, I’d wander downstairs to fold the waffle batter alongside my father, his coarse scarred carpenter hands showing me the way. I still drive over, late in the afternoon, on Sunday to eat his waffles. The recipe has changed and so has life.
I walked into the place of knowledge, a sacred space of learning in community, our differences, our stories, our growth happening with each other because our names were placed on the same list.
I am the one teachers called bossy or a leader. Perspective matters.
Some days my 4th and 5th grade teacher would throw erasers at me for reading during class, maybe it was just once or twice, that is all it takes to remember. I could read for hours escape into another life.
I sat still in the rose garden near our house, imagining the possible, year after year, among the soft pinks, yellows, and reds, an assembly of blossoms. My own city of roses.
When I stepped on the plane taking me south, I learned more places held the magic of the world, of myself, of who I could be, my privileged giving me the chance to jump borders into the unknown.
I am the one who dabbles in art, poetry, a maker of color and words.
Watching the sunrise at the end of the world after the joys of dancing all night, snacking on empanadas, I felt the stillness after the storm.
I am the one who rode a horse in a Mexican circus, after arriving in a town in the middle of the night, praying someone would answer the door after the taxi dropped me off into darkness.
The language of love, what I wanted it to say, who was speaking, how little or how much, has eluded me to this day.
I am the one who loves the wind and waves while diving into the deepest of blues. The one who played mermaid at swim practice and told my mother I was no Olympian.
The tides ebb and flow, calls me to far off shores, I carry pieces of them home in my pockets.
I am the one who joins the march, shouts against injustice, and takes on the bosses.
Laughter, late nights with our hearts wide open we trust our stories to each other, this sisterhood we have chosen.
I am the one who laughs the loudest. Laughs to lighten the mood. Laughs to keep from crying.
When I look into a child’s eyes, our secret language of understanding, the pain of knowing they are not my own, makes me wonder if I am selfish? Or just blessed to know my own freedom?
I am the the one who looks through the view finder ….. CLICK …… I see ….. CLICK ….. capture life ……. CLICK …… a moment, an image with a story.
I have been reading the book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by Adrienne Maree Brown. There is so much goodness in this book. So much that is grounding me and rooting me in how, if we are going to sustain any sort of change, it will be change that we create together. That weekend in Corbett in a Circle of Trust, with unknown others who became known, it reminded me of our possibility, our shared journey, and our great challenge to walk with each other along the way. I also wholeheartedly recommend a Circle of Trust retreat to all.
“Life is a matter of a miracle that is collected over time by moments, flabbergasted to be in each other’s presence.”
Timothy “Speed” Levitch, “Waking Life”