Yesterday I took a walk in the woods, and it turned into a teaching tale relevant to these uncertain times and questions I ponder on a daily basis.
To begin with, I had to turn around after a few minutes because the shallow snow was crusty, hard, and slippery. I realized that I needed to better equip myself before going any further, especially since there were many hills and lots of uneven terrain to navigate. I returned to the house to get some ski poles (thinking that’s the best I could do), but my husband provided me with some crampons and a walking stick instead, which were far more effective.
Properly equipped, I returned to the forest.
After climbing a steep hill, there is an area on the trail in which the sun beckons brightly, drawing me toward it.
Sunlight illuminates the path, and I can’t resist walking in the direction of the light. I love that part of the trail. It makes me think of the importance of following our highest light as we navigate our life’s journey.
A little further along the path, there is a chair, which gives the feeling of a presence of some sort. It feels like a gatekeeper.
Almost immediately after passing this point, I lost the trail. I walked for a couple minutes on what I thought was a trail, but it turned out to be a dead end. Although I had lost the path, I still had my bearings and knew which direction the road was, and the stream. These were the perimeters of the forest. I knew which direction not to go and which direction I needed to travel; the problem was, I had run into obstacles in the form of heavy brush. And I was not in the mood to bushwhack (which in this case felt like forcing my agenda on the forest).
I became frustrated and perturbed that the trail wasn’t more clearly marked. I even called my husband and told him exactly what I thought of his trail maintenance. He tried to describe the way to me, but what he said didn’t make any sense. I kept turning around and going down different paths that resulted in dead ends, again and again. I still knew where I was in relation to the important markers and perimeters and had a clear sense of which directions were completely off course and must be avoided. I could see where I wanted to be but couldn’t figure out how to get there.
Stand still. The forest knows where you are. You must let it find you.
So I chilled. I became quiet and calm and entered the stillness, the soul of the forest. Almost instantly, the swaying pines started calling to me, making a whispering, rustling sound that they probably had been making all along, but that I couldn’t hear when I was so focused on the rantings of my small self that insists on separating itself from all else.
And then – just like that – I knew the way. It was an intuitive knowing. I found my way downhill to the tall, swaying trees with ease. From the start, it had been my intention to photograph this area.
There was a heart in the negative space where the treetops came together.
After putting away my camera, I began walking and once again could not find the trail. It was nowhere to be seen. I had missed the markers and even forgotten to look for them.
I became still and receptive again and noticed some animal tracks, filled with certainty that they would lead me back home even though I saw no signs of humans having traveled this way. I followed them, and they did.
While following the tracks, I didn’t know what kind of animal left them, although I felt it was one that could be vicious. When I got home and flipped through a track identification book with my husband, the fisher tracks caught my eye, and later a wilderness expert helped me to positively identify them as such. I was curious about the symbolism of the fisher, did a little research, and learned that the fisher is portrayed as a brave hero in Woodland (Native American) Indian legends.
The moment I stepped out of the forest, I realized that I had left my walking stick in the area of the tall pines. I had promised my husband that I wouldn’t leave it in the woods, so I felt I needed to go back and make good on that promise. I called him on his cell phone, and he was in the woods looking for me. We met under the tall pines and found the walking stick. He pointed out the markers and explained that he made the trails to be confusing on purpose. Having had this experience, I’m quite certain that next time I won’t get so lost in this area.
This morning, I was involved in a conversation about how challenging it is to raise teenagers in this day and age and how neither I nor the other person claims to have the answers. It could have been a conversation about the teaching profession and the crisis in our public schools or any number of social or personal issues with which we grapple. And then I thought of my experience in the woods, which became a powerful metaphor. (Actually, just as in dreams, there are lots of metaphors contained within the experience!)
Getting frustrated because the trail isn’t well marked. (But it was designed that way on purpose!)
Becoming still and finding guidance.
Following the way of the brave hero.
There’s also the idea of being properly equipped (with knowledge). When we come to the limits of our knowledge, that’s where intuition takes over. And I think that the integration of knowledge, experience, and intuition gives birth to wisdom.
I think we need to realize that we can’t find answers by sticking to “the shoulds” or believing there’s one single path (i.e. conventional wisdom, the way we were raised, scientific research, the “experts,” religion). But if we can become still and present in the moment – and be receptive and aware – we’ll know what to do. The answers will come; they seek us even as we seek them. It might mean taking a completely different route. But intuitively, we find our way.
I believe that such guidance is abundant and readily available to us if we become receptive to it – if we tune in to that channel. However, it does not come to us when we are in an egoic, reactive state because we are shutting it out. It’s a matter of tuning the dial of our awareness.
Though it may be tempting to take the shortcut and do what others tell or expect us to do, life becomes so much richer when we open ourselves to the peace and possibilities of the present moment, where new ideas are born. If we are willing to live an authentic, creative, courageous life, we discover that there ultimately are no clear cut answers, no one true way. However, we can keep our bearings with love as our compass.
These are confusing times, and the answers may be unclear when we remain inside our chattering minds and think too much about the obstacles in our way. But perhaps there is some peace in knowing that I’m here in the woods with you. You are not alone.
It has been an eventful week for the two most influential men in my life (aside from my husband and son).
A week ago, my dad was exercising at the local YMCA and went into cardiac arrest while on one of the weight machines. Talk about being at the right place at the right time. Had he been anywhere else – at home, in the car, in the grocery store – he probably wouldn’t still be with us. However, the staff was so alert and well trained and literally saved his life by performing CPR and using the defibrillator. He underwent quadruple bypass surgery earlier this week and is now in recovery in the cardio-pulmonary surgery unit of a renowned local hospital, where he is in a state of confusion at the moment. When we were on our way to the hospital after his collapse, we had no information about his condition and didn’t know what to expect. I was so grateful to be able to talk with him at the hospital later that evening and found it somehow comforting and reassuring that he had no recollection of the cardiac event. He remembered being on the exercise bike and then waking up in the hospital. So perhaps when something like this happens, it is much more traumatic for those witnessing it than for the victim.
Since then, my mother has spoken with the person responsible for saving my dad’s life by simply doing what he was trained to do. Perhaps he doesn’t consider himself a hero, but he most certainly is, and my family will be forever grateful to him. He saved the life of a father, husband, grandfather, brother, and uncle who perhaps didn’t understand how much he is loved and cherished – or by how many people – until this happened. So there is a blessing in this. To have the opportunity to express and receive love is a blessing. Another blessing for me personally is that my priorities have shifted. A brush with death (a loved one’s, if not our own) can certainly shake a person awake and set us straight, reminding us of what is most important. The small stuff just falls away, and we have the chance to realign and rebuild.
[If I could, I would insert a photo here of my mom holding my dad’s handthe day after his surgery. However, I did not have a camera with me at the time.]
Tonight I also learned that the man whom I considered my spiritual father passed on today. David came into my life at exactly the right time, when I was going into eighth grade. “When the student is ready, the teacher appears” was absolutely true in this case. He was a social studies teacher at my high school, although I never had him for a teacher; I met him through one of his sons. A fellow Pisces, he introduced me to spirituality, Eastern philosophy, Jungian psychology, Edgar Cayce, astrology, and dream work and was a spiritual compass who helped me to rise above the superficial preoccupations of teenage life. He gave me Richard Bach’s novel, Illusions, as a high school graduation present, and the story made a big impression on me. Convinced that my life’s purpose was to offer my talents in service of others, he introduced me to the field of music therapy and sent me articles and books on that topic. (My undergraduate senior thesis was on music therapy because of his influence.) He also gave me magazine subscriptions (The Quest, Heron Dance, etc.) as gifts for several years. For Christmas this year, he gave me a two-year gift subscription to Joan Chittister’s The Monastic Way, and when I received it, I knew the subscription would outlive him. We maintained an ongoing correspondence throughout the years, and I have probably what amounts to an entire box of letters he wrote me when I was in college and grad school and in between and afterward, when I was trying to figure out my place in the world. He remained a spiritual teacher and friend until the end. He loved to talk and always told such intriguing stories, almost always on spiritual and metaphysical themes. My children and both husbands were close to him, as well. He was family. He was my hero who always encouraged me to find spiritual, loving solutions to the challenges I encountered.
In hindsight, I find it interesting that this morning I was thinking of one of my former students who has a particular talent and interest, and how I’d like to introduce him to a certain performing group that he might find inspiring. It’s the first time I’ve ever had that kind of thought in connection with a student. When this child came into my classroom this morning to say hi (as he does most mornings, just as I stopped into David’s classroom every day when I was in high school), I asked him if he’s ever heard of the group and promised to bring in a DVD for him. I felt as if David’s spirit was being channeled through me; only this time I was the teacher, not the student. How interesting that, unbeknown to me at the time, David had died a few hours earlier.
I saw him for the last time in October, when he came for a visit on a sunny autumn day and sat at the kitchen table in the seat with the best view of the river. It was a lovely visit. He seemed at peace and so full of love. At one point, I felt his spirit shining through so strongly and beautifully that I just had to photograph him – and I am so grateful now that I did this. (It was the only time I ever did this in all my decades of knowing him.) Before he left, he spoke about wanting to get together again soon. But I also sensed an unspoken goodbye somewhere in there, and when he drove away, my heart sunk as I wondered if that would be the last time I’d see him. But he looked so healthy and radiant that day, and that is how I will remember him.
I am going to miss him so much and shed plenty of tears tonight, although the whole time I couldn’t shake the image of him smiling and even chuckling. I think of the scene in the movie Field of Dreams in which the writer character played by James Earl Jones was invited into the cornfield and laughs as as he takes his first steps into the unknown – the great adventure. After retiring from teaching, David spent several years at the end of his life researching and writing books about ghosts and hauntings both in our region and around the world, and this is how I imagine him walking through the doorway of death. I spent a long time sitting on the riverside tonight beside a candle, visualizing him bathed in light and releasing him to the light.
I wrote a poem nearly 25 years ago that David really liked and that he told me he shared with several people. Although I’m sure I will come across many profound quotes in letters and emails he sent me through the years, I shall offer this poem here in cyberspace as a tribute to David. After a life well lived, may he rest in peace.
I AM NOT GONE
I am not gone – I have simply changed my form. You will find me In the coolness of a raindrop And in leaves that brighten the autumn ground. You will hear my voice In the whisper of a falling stream And feel my touch When the warmth of the sun meets your skin. My soul will travel to you In the flight of a seagull And you will see my smile In a fresh, summer flower. I am the energy that fills your spirit When you witness the beauty of nature. We are called together When you remember a time we shared For I exist within those thoughts. Whenever your heart is touched You are receiving the gift of my love And every time you cherish me My soul is blessed.
At some points in the school year, learning themes sync up so perfectly that the rich threads connecting them simply beg to be elucidated. This is the case right now as our study of snow overlaps with our Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. unit. Diversity and tolerance are the major themes that run through both units.
This week, I watched on DVD Wilson Bentley: Snowflakes in Motion, an hour-long movie about the life of Wilson Bentley, a Vermont farmer who became fascinated with snowflakes at a young age and was among the very first human beings ever to photograph a snow crystal, after years of trial and error. His passion for snowflake photomicrography made him a pioneer in the field. He took pictures of more than 5,000 snow crystals and asserted that no two snowflakes are alike; each one is unique. Wilson Bentley celebrated and shared the beauty and diversity of the thousands of snow crystals he photographed so the public could appreciate them – and so their brief existence did not go unnoticed. Here is a short video that shows several of the images he captured:
After watching the Wilson Bentley video, I fell asleep thinking of the aesthetic and transcendent beauty of snowflakes and how each snow crystal is an exquisite mandala. I woke up in the morning excited to introduce the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to my students by exploring the diverse beauty (beautiful diversity?) of snowflakes. I couldn’t wait to show my students images of myriad, unique snow crystals, balanced with a discussion of the properties shared by all snow crystals. The next day, we would consider both how human beings are diverse and what we all have in common. I’ve never linked our January learning themes like this and couldn’t wait to give it a try. It brought to mind the following, previously shared quote from “Mister” (Fred) Rogers:
“As different as we are from one another, as unique as each one of us is, we are much more the same than we are different. That may be the most essential message of all, as we help our children grow toward being caring, compassionate, and charitable adults.”
Reconciling our uniqueness with an appreciation for the uniqueness of others is important work. This is described by some as “tolerance” and others as “acceptance.” It is about respecting our differences. Here is another quote from Mister Rogers that came to mind after being dazzled by the images of several dozens of snowflakes in the video – and impressed by the painstaking care with which Wilson Bentley photographed individual snowflakes so they could be seen by others:
“As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has – or ever will have – something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”
Watching the Snowflakes in Motion video, I was struck by the idea of how much joy, fulfillment, and meaning Wilson Bentley’s dedication to snow crystal photography brought to his life. This passion stemmed from his love and appreciation of the natural world that began when he was a child. I related strongly to his discovery of tremendous beauty in dew drops, frost, and other evanescent natural phenomena that are so easily overlooked. When you do look and notice, you can’t help but wonder how you never noticed before! Beauty truly is everywhere if you keep your eyes open and slow down enough to perceive it. In Wilson Bentley’s own words:
“There is a need of a greater love for, and appreciation of such things, of the beautiful and wonderful in nature… There are oceans of enjoyment, soul satisfying pleasure to be had in Nature’s art and beauty, as shown freely to us in the common things all about us.”
Yes, yes, YES!
Yesterday, I was with my students on the playground and was drawn to a willow tree towering above us on the other side of the fence. Its slender, golden branches swayed gently against a vivid, blue sky. It looked like long hair blowing in the wind and was so beautiful. I felt the rhythm of my breathing become deeper and more relaxed as I tuned in to the here-and-now channel. Then I noticed some small evergreen branches that had fallen to the ground. I picked them up and inhaled their fragrance deeply. A few children noticed me holding and admiring the evergreen branches and came over to look at them. They noticed “baby pine cones” growing on the branches. And then they looked for evergreen branches on the ground and brought some inside for our nature table. Word of the “baby pine cones” spread, and there was a flurry of children around the nature table, trying to catch a glimpse of them. That was the most authentic and gratifying lesson I facilitated all day long.
Back to snowflakes…
My kindergarten students get so excited when snow is in the forecast and when they glimpse snowflakes falling from the sky. They also love magnifying glasses. To help them observe snowflakes, I plan to provide them with frozen swatches of dark cloth and magnifying glasses the next time we are outdoors when it snows. We also will cut paper snowflakes and notice how each child’s snowflake is different.
Similarly, we will learn about skin pigmentation and notice that nobody’s skin is actually white or black; we come in all different shades. In past years, I have had children mix paints to find their own skin tone, or compare their skin tone to paint cards and determine the closest match. We come up with descriptive names for our skin tones after getting ideas from picture books, such as The Colors of Us by Karen Katz, Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children by Sandra L. Pinkney, and Shades of People by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly. Some years, we use “multicultural” skin toned paint, construction paper, or crayons to create self-portraits, using different colors and textures of yarn for hair.
We round out our discussion of human diversity by talking about how we all experience the same feelings; have hopes, dreams, and fears; and live our lives as passengers on “spaceship Earth.” The topic of snow is part of a larger study of the water cycle and the changes water goes through, and we learn that we all share the same water that gets recycled, over and over.
As a postscript, I would add that Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have another, very personal, common thread, and that is my grandmother, who was born on Dr. King’s birthday and raised on a Vermont farm. She has been gone for more than two years now and would have been 94 today (January 15th).