The Illusion of Significant Improvement

Witless Wanderings of Nibbling Sheep

Wheat Field and Poppies, Amghas, Morocco
Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like a massive fire.
~Dongshan Liangjie (China, 807-869)

I just got Mark’s last letter in the mail. It’s been almost two years of knowing him, 18 letters in all, a strange relationship that has been at once both distant and intimate. I guess that comes with the territory; letters can be so intimate because we assume that no one else will read them so we give voice to things we may not otherwise say. There is also the intimacy or understanding of two Buddhists conversing with one another. It was also distant because, well there is distance involved – both the literal distance of miles of separation and the figurative kind born from leading two very different lives. He inside, me outside although in reality there is no inside or outside.

There wasn’t much in this last letter – just…

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Spit Out the Rest

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Re-examine all you have been told

At school or church or in any book,

Dismiss what insults your soul,

And your very flesh shall be a great poem.

~Walt Whitman

 

My Dearest Madeleine and Juniper,

Taizan Maezumi-roshi, an influential Zen Buddhist teacher, once said to his students, “Taste as much of this as you can, swallow what you need and spit out the rest.” Your mom and I don’t know exactly what is the best for you but we do know that a life lived according to one’s values resonates in a way that a life lived with someone else’s values does not. Dissonance and distortion exist when a life is lived by someone else’s rules. Education is one of the key ways to teach a core set of values but this is not something that we usually talk about in schools and other learning centers. The learning environment that we plan to create will be imbued with our core values of family, home and creativity. We will help you taste as much of life as possible, but it will be up to you to swallow what you need and to spit out the rest. Please don’t worry if you need to spit a lot out and remember that sometimes our tastes change so retry things every now and again.

We envision a life where there is “No distinction between teacher and student – all are learners, advanced in some areas and woefully ignorant in others” and where “Growing and developing are lifelong activities – one of the most pleasurable and exciting experiences of life, at all ages” (William Coperthwaite).   While this kind of learning can take place almost anywhere, I believe for the best growth of the individual it needs to be done in relationship with others, and occurring in the bright light and fresh air of the outdoors.

This style of homeschooling is often referred to as “unschooling” has been described as “self-directed, adult-facilitated life learning in the context of one’s unique interests” (Ben Hewitt).  Educating this way is, at its core, a way for us to live intentionally together with family, home and creativity at the center.  We strive to create a learning environment where there is “No distinction between teacher and student – all are learners, advanced in some areas and woefully ignorant in others” and where “Growing and developing are lifelong activities – one of the most pleasurable and exciting experiences of life, at all ages” (William Coperthwaite from “A Handmade Life”).  In a nutshell that is what we are hoping to do, although in truth we are already there. I now want to share with you some of the hallmarks of such a life, as outlined by William Coperthwaite:

True tests of a successful learning (educational) system are:

  • Freer spirits
  • Greater self-confidence
  • Heightened intellectual curiosity
  • Increased creativity
  • Wider cultural perspective

 

Freer Spirits. In order to cultivate free spirits, we unhook ourselves from arbitrary and meaningless educational requirements and the tyranny of competitive learning environments where grading and testing determine our self-worth. Your learning will mostly be up to you, while your mom and I will act as guides, mentors and co-travelers on your learning adventures. We will be like “fingers pointing at the moon” – please do not confuse us for the moon itself. Your educational journey will most likely occur outdoors – in the woods and mountains of our home watershed – where Mother Nature herself will teach much of what we need to know. We will cultivate the freedom to roam, explore and “ramble out yonder”, to explore and engage with the world with open hearts, curious minds and free spirits.

Greater Self-confidence. By allowing freedom of spirit and by decoupling learning and competition, we will cultivate great self-confidence. By self-confidence I don’t mean the superficial kind that is sold to us via advertising and that we see all over mass media. I mean the kind that is deep like the ocean and that can only come from knowing ourselves really well and understanding how you fit in the world. We seem to have this idea that children are too incompetent to contribute to our society, which is something that we want to debunk. You already do contribute so much to our family and household and by extension our society. You bring laughter and joy into it, creativity and openness, compassion and love. You help with cooking and cleaning, chicken chores and gardening. Why just this morning I came home from early morning meditation to find you (Madeleine) at the stove flipping pancakes. How amazing and ordinary! We will continue to include you in the daily life of our family from doing farm chores and growing our own food, to cooking our meals, creating small businesses, and designing and building our own homes. You already contribute to all of this and we will continue to encourage the blossoming of your self-confidence in this way. In addition, we will encourage the trying out of things and the celebration of our failures as much as our achievements in what we describe as “practiculture.” This way of being in the world creates a culture around practice and is process oriented rather than goal obsessed. What this means is that we will all learn as we go with the full recognition that we learn more from our attempts than we do from our successes. Too often I see that someone doesn’t try something because they don’t “know” how to do it. I myself suffer from this lack of self-confidence and hesitate to do something new because I don’t know how to. But there is no better way to learn how to do something than by simply doing it. Our school bus is a perfect example of this. Your mom and I don’t know how to convert an old school bus into a tiny home. We don’t know carpentry, electrical, plumbing or much else to be honest. But we know that we want to do it, that we want to learn how, and we are willing to just do it. We are making mistakes along the way but we are also learning so much and having a lot of fun! Self-confidence comes from the doing, not the achieving, and this is something we hope to cultivate in our family. The goal, if there is such a thing, will be the practice. Yogi Berra once said that, “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.” We can’t know really where we are headed so let’s just enjoy the journey and be open to the possibilities that free spirits, creativity and curiosity provide!

Heightened Intellectual Curiosity. This approach to learning which we call practiculture encourages heightened intellectual curiosity by promoting the full engagement of the body, the mind, and the body-mind together in our daily life. Through a broadening of the “classroom” to include our entire life, you will be allowed the freedom to engage with whatever you are interested in, and when you do that, curiosity deepens. Our life will be the curriculum and your curiosities the lessons themselves. Learning objectives will not be thrust upon you but will emerge out of the very act of learning itself.  In addition, you will be allowed to learn in the style that fits your bodies and minds best whether that is a visual, auditory, verbal, kinesthetic or other learning style. What you learn and how and when you learn it will mostly be up to you. We won’t tell you that it’s time to learn a certain thing in a certain way but rather encourage the natural unfolding of your learning and share in the joy (and frustration) of it all.

Increased Creativity. With freer spirits, deep self-confidence, and a whole lot of curiosity, creativity will flow. You both have already exhibited an immense amount of creativity – the art work that you do, the books that you write/illustrate/”publish”, the jewelry that you make, and the stories and scenarios that you create are so deeply creative that I really just want to get out of your way and let you continue to be the creative beings that you are. I believe that through unschooling we can continue to allow the kind of freedom that will allow you to continue to engage fully in various creative pursuits. I envision a life where you both will continue to engage with it in the amazingly creative way that you already do, whether that be through artistic endeavors, writing, acting, music, science, and the like.

 Wider Cultural Perspective. Homeschooling is often seen as a narrowing of view but I believe that it can be the very opposite. By freeing your spirits, and unlocking the power of your innate curiosity and creativity, we will engage with wide spectrum of our society. Rather than spending your days inside a classroom interacting with individuals your same age, we will craft a life that engages all of us with as many different members of our community as possible. This lifestyle and way of educating will allow you to find mentors and role models from various walks of life including those that are older and younger than you. This could include a mentorship with a local artist, writer or musician, or an apprenticeship with a craftsperson, builder or farmer. This life could also allow us to take extended trips to other countries where you will learn about new peoples, cultures and languages and in so doing understand your own culture more deeply. This widening of perspective will have rippling affects throughout your entire lives.

 We hope to cultivate the fertile ground for a creative, curious and learned lifeby doing all this ourselves and by being examples of “healthy, curious, and creative adults in action” (William Coperthwaite). Through engaging wholeheartedly and fully with our own lives, we will continue to be living examples of this kind of adult and we look forward to seeing you both continue to being the spirited, curious, creative and engaged human beings that you are!

 

With love,

Papa


Written by David

Keeping Alive

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My youngest daughter and I walk outside, cross our small yard strewn with the detritus of youthful imaginations, and enter the turkey pen through a small gate. I hold her hand, as she steps over the threshold, an unnecessary act at this age but one I love because of the feeling of her small hand in mine. The turkeys are anxious for their food. The tom, with fluffed and fanned feathers, struts around the two hens as they make soft and gentle noises. We feed them and check on their water, something both my daughters enjoy doing. I notice that they are growing rapidly, both the turkeys and the girls, and count backwards from Thanksgiving Day to the present: eight weeks until we eat them (the turkeys not the girls), taking their very bodies into our own. Their deaths keep us alive.

Preservation has long been one of my least favorite words in the English language. To me it reeks of stagnant air and clinging to a time and place that is no longer relevant. The word itself makes me think of time capsules and Preservation Societies and living in the past. Recently, however, I looked up the definition and was surprised by what I found.

Preservation: to keep alive or in existence.

I remember many years ago, when I was the same age as my older daughter is now, walking out to the turkey pen holding my own dad’s hand. The pen was tucked into woods of cherry, maple, and beech, across the wide expanse of our backyard. With a mixture of excitement and fear, I helped my dad slaughter the turkeys and sobbed afterwards. Unable to express myself in other ways, my tears said what I could not – that it is serious business taking another animal’s life.  I didn’t know then how to express these deep emotions and I guess I still don’t, at least not with words. Tears were and probably still are the truest expression of the deep feelings engendered by taking another animal’s life.

We would then take the slaughtered turkeys into our musty mid-1800s basement where my sadness would turn to fascination as it mixed with the unmistakable smell of plucked warm body and wet feathers. We then climbed out of the basement and into the kitchen where my dad taught me about turkey anatomy and the biology of birds. I recall with vividness both how similar and different their digestive system was from ours. I was especially fascinated by the small gizzard filled with stones. Years later doing dissections in a biology class these moments would come flooding back with a clarity that deep experiences like this give. Across all those years my experiences butchering turkeys with my dad made the coldness of a classroom dissection lesson come alive.

I remember another time, as a young idealistic foreigner, walking down a dusty and litter strewn street with my wife in North Africa. We each carried a small turkey by its legs, upside down, feeling strange and very self-conscious. Amidst the dust, flies, diesel fumes and donkey carts, we heard greetings of salam u walekum (“peace be upon you”). The poultry vendors, our friends, shouted offers to kill and butcher the birds for us. “No thank you,” we politely replied, and didn’t know how to explain why we needed to do this ourselves. It wasn’t just because having Thanksgiving was a way to preserve our own culture amidst such foreignness.  More importantly it was because we simply needed to do it ourselves and in so doing to preserve parts of our culture and my own family’s traditions. Deep in the heart of the High Atlas Mountains, we took the lives of these birds in order to keep something else very much alive.

It may seem contradictory but by killing the turkeys myself, I keep alive, so much alive. First, I keep alive the knowledge and understanding, experienced not just conceptualized, of what it takes to eat meat. It’s a bloody business that we mostly separate ourselves from. We seem to not want to think about the chicken breast on our plate as having been a living, breathing animal. With the smoke and mirrors of the industrial process, we distance ourselves from the death it takes to keep us alive by forcing someone else to do it for us and then we wrap the animal and the death in a neat little package.

Second, killing the turkeys reminds me of where I sit in the web of life and helps close the artificial gap between eater and eaten, predator and prey, and acknowledges and honors my relationship with the world; which is utterly co-dependent and beautifully inseparable. Without this relationship, taking animal, plant or mineral into my body, I could not exist, which engenders great humility. This humility is rooted in the knowledge and experience of interdependence, of being so intimately connected with other forms that my very life depends on theirs. Slaughtering the birds, then, serves as a very real reminder of my relationship with the world and forces me to reconsider how I want to relate to the world. Do I want to forget where food comes from or to get my hands dirty and bloody in order to intimately know? Do I want to connect myself with an industrial agriculture system that does not sustain life or do I want to connect with a more resilient and life honoring food system? These are questions that I return to again and again and the slaughtering of our turkeys helps me to answer them, in action and for myself, if for no one else.

Third, by carrying on my dad’s tradition of rearing, slaughtering and butchering turkeys I keep the knowledge alive of how to do it, thereby reminding myself every year of what it takes to put a turkey on a platter. As an adult with children of my own, it is now my responsibility to keep this tradition alive, to preserve it for my daughters’ generation. By this I mean to keep it so alive that my daughters will not only know how to raise their own food and the importance of doing so but will also feel empowered to make it their own. This kind of preservation is not a deferential and mindless act, catering to the past for past’s sake only; it is also forward thinking and rooted in active participation. Preservation includes both these aspects: a backward glance and a forward gaze. For my children, I hope the rearing, slaughtering and eating of our turkeys connects them with past and the future in a present that is alive and vibrant, and one that they can make their own.

As the turkey comes out of the oven, cooked to golden-brown perfection, I think back to all of the time and effort in raising this bird from a vulnerable and fluffy chick to a gangly and awkward poult and onward to the downright beautiful strutting tom that we killed. As mouthwatering smells fill the kitchen, I think about this bird’s life and what it means to me and my family: preserving a tradition, connecting us with so much and keeping us all alive. Just before I begin carving the breast, I say a few words of gratitude for the gift of this bird’s life that it may nourish us all. Past, present and future swirl together in this very moment, in this very act and I am deeply grateful to be here, now, and so very much alive.