Please forgive typos and grammar and punctuation on this first post. Writing was hasty this morning:)
It’s been warm in New England lately. I can’t complain. After envisioning myself ensconced in a long, dark winter with huge drifts of snow against bare trees, I am happy that I can still take the morning walk without trudging through piles of the stuff. My neighborhood is on the south end of a peninsula and so from here I can walk out to the water and around the edge on a bike path there along the beach.
Each morning, Nia and I get up early (though some days earlier than others) and walk for about forty minutes. Two days ago we walked at six-thirty am. The full moon was setting over the bay and the remaining lights of morning were streaking across the water in impressionist formations of reflection. The little white house fronts lay out in archaic simplicity and the whole beach was covered in snow. The colors of this early morning time are soft pastels and greys, pinks and purples and flattened shadows. There is almost no out in the morning at this time. Since it got cold, there is almost no one out ever. So, each time, it is like a solitary world that the two of us inhabit with our breaths, the breaking and lapping waves and the cold. I have learned to expect this solitude, and this cold from the people here and from my life here. It is often a daily struggle to remain positive in the face of what feels like overwhelming isolation.
But really, my life is very much about my work. And, I love my work. Yet, it is the quiet time in the morning that gets me through the long days of teaching. I have a whole new crop of students this semester and I have four classes. It feels like A LOT. I know to a high school teacher who instructs five days a week from seven until four this sounds like kid stuff, and really I am lucky to have my job. But, by the end of every Tuesday and Thursday after I have been in a classroom for seven hours straight, I feel depleted and wasted. Usually I teach the kids who are struggling with their writing skills—the “developmental” writers who are usually eager to learn and timid about their abilities. Their tender faces and earnest attitudes are like magic to me and keep me coming back to the classroom.
This time, I am teaching several honors sections. What a difference. The honors kids seem to actually believe that they already know everything that is going to happen in this class. They also have told me that they already “learned all of this in high school.” My director, who is also a friend, suggested that I step up the rigor and give them a heavy workload to quiet some of their complaining. So, I did.
One student, leaning back in her chair and crossing her arms, then told me that this class was making her want to cry, that writing in general makes her want to cry. She told me that it just seemed completely irrelevant to her major and she didn’t understand why she had to work so hard at something that was so meaningless for her. My response was to ask her to begin her paper there, to discuss some of the difficulties involved in a challenging, disconnected process. It is important to start where we are and to be honest about what is actually going on. Another teachable moment. Blergh. But, I learned a valuable lesson there, which is ultimately the impetus for this blog: “toward beginner’s mind.”
The idea of beginner’s mind comes from Zen Buddhism. My dad was a Zen Buddhist for a time. Now he’s a tax accountant, but I digress. Beginner’s mind is the idea that we should keep ourselves open and naïve in the encounters and circumstances in our lives so that we may ACTUALLY be open to learning something new. The metaphor that is typically used is that you cannot put anything new in an already full cup. You have to empty the cup and clean it if you want to new stuff to get in there.
And here’s the thing about beginner’s mind: even experts should cultivate one. As my beloved yoga teacher Suki describes it, beginner’s mind doesn’t mean you don’t know anything. Instead it means that you are receptive to each and every experience as being brand new. That way, even if you’ve done an asana a thousand times, it’s like you are approaching it for the first time, savoring all the precious gifts that each moment of experience and embodiment has to offer you.
I think that is pretty cool. And if I can impart one thing to my honors students this semester, it will be that. How do we become flexible as writers? As human beings? Flexible enough (I hope) to grow, change and deepen our practices. And, one thing I do also know from being a teacher is that I cannot expect them to get something I can’t get myself.
As painful as the process of being away from my loved ones and my loved mountains has been, I am taking a vow of beginner’s mind. This blog is that vow, a way to see and re-see my world. Maybe this morning, I will meet someone on the solitary path by the water, and they will meet me. Maybe we will smile and the world will be, once again, brand new.