This article is a part of a new series called In Good Company,
featuring friends of the Conservancy as guest contributors to our Journal.
It starts with one seed or one word, one second or one glance. A glance leads to manta rays leads to wonder. On the reef at sunset, the water’s surface is silver, choppy, the clouds on the eastern horizon a soft coral. For regular walkers on the path above, it’s easy not to pay attention to the water and sky. Nothing to see here. But we stop. Pausing, scanning, we notice groups of black triangles flapping in the surf. Rays congregating, moving, maybe mating. Our daughters delight in the show. We had no idea manta rays played here.
Having time to observe takes me back to five days on Maui two years ago when the first group of Merwin Creative Teaching Fellows convened. The worms on the wet asphalt in the morning. My legs brushing by lauaʻe on the trail. The sound of the wind in the palms. We were fifteen teachers from public, charter, and private schools around the state. We came to be renewed, to engage our imaginations, to receive guidance in the creative process. We talked about William Merwin and the act of planting. We wrote and read and listened. We planted many seeds from which countless lessons, projects, protocols, friendships, and reminders of joy in the creativity of teaching have grown.
In these first extraordinary six months of 2020, I have felt particularly grateful for these restorative practices that allow me to reflect on my role as an educator and consider how I can take better care of myself, my children, my community, my country. Right now we are called to act, not temporarily to simply get through whatever we find difficult, but with endurance and patience. I think of The Merwin Conservancy’s mission “to fully live our concerns for the world, with fearlessness and grace.”
The calls for actionable steps to address anxiety, fear, disease, inequality, racism, brutality have only grown during this time. So, what can we do to fully live our concerns? What are the healthy practices we need, not only to address problems in our communities, but also to recognize and address our own complicity in them? How can we spread this full living to our families and communities? How can we all grow to be more resilient?
IMAGINATION & WONDER
James Baldwin said, “The interior life is the real life.” Our imaginations have formed our realities, and we need to keep expanding them to empathize with others and process grief. Black people in our country continue to be killed by police. BIPOC are dying at disproportionately high rates from COVID-19. If not ourselves, friends and family members are directly impacted by these tragedies. Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel drew this parallel, “…we must see in every person a universe.” Stemming the spread of illness and ending the systems of white supremacy that allows senseless killing depend upon our imaginations, our willingness to wonder what we don’t know about others’ lives, present and past.
Creativity and curiosity are active choices that engender new perspectives and internal realities. In the most recent episode of On Being , which features Jason Reynolds discussing “Fortifying Imagination”, the YA author explained, “One must live a curious life…this time taking the long way home and seeing what’s around you that you’ve never seen.” Literally and metaphorically, this moment is asking us to imagine, whether we are playing the role of parent, teacher, neighbor, or citizen. Who are the people and what are the ordinary things I might see differently if I spent time wondering?
Writer and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, who worked with our teacher fellows and appeared as part of The Merwin Conservancy’s Green Room series in 2019, last month shared this poignant illumination: “But I think that that’s the role of art: to help us into grief, and through grief, for each other, for our values, for the living world…grief compels us to do something, to love more. But I wonder, can we at some point turn our attention away to say the vulnerability we are experiencing right now is the vulnerability that songbirds feel every single day of their lives? Could this extend our sense of ecological compassion, to the rest of our more-than-human relatives?”
In the past month, I have been shocked by my own moments thinking, “I had no idea.” Observation is a survival skill. It is what our ancestors (and certainly some of our contemporaries) had to do to find and grow food, keep themselves safe, find and maintain clean sources of water, migrate, and so on. Once we begin to live comfortably, paying attention requires practice. And it necessarily means we will both notice more that makes us uncomfortable and uncover more that we didn’t know. Rather than finding ways to “solve” what we notice, we are called upon to sit with discomfort and questions.
During the fellowship, we spent time in and out of the palm garden quietly paying attention. The range of observations and emotions each session evoked was infinite. We uncovered memories, perceived intensified senses, and began to see an exponential number and variety of individuals within a bigger system. Back at the school where I teach, we integrate regular opportunities to kilo (to look closely, observe, forecast in Hawaiian) into our lessons. We are teaching and learning that to experience this means to observe the sky and cloud world (including night skies, animals living in the sky, weather), land (what’s growing, blossoming, migrating, mating, drying up, turning to mud, dying, etc.), and water (where is the water around us coming from and going to, what’s living in it, how is it moving, etc.).
Right now, we do well to be still and pay attention wherever possible, but ideally outside. If one cannot get outside or there is little that appears “natural” outdoors, perhaps there’s a way to shift perspective and see more. Insects, birds, clouds, weather. Can one imagine and write about what is missing or once was or yet could be? A restorative practice can be simply to spend 5 minutes at the same time of day with the same outdoor space (yard, patio, street, park bench, trail, garden) with the intention to pay attention to all your senses.
As we confront an increase in cases of COVID-19, the possibility of returning to quarantine rises. We can slow down and find ways to cultivate attention, as with these ideas. Select a regular “sit spot.” Tell stories that involve nature. Tap into memory. Beloved poet and fellowship leader Naomi Shihab Nye offered this: “Give yourself a 15 minute creative assignment like this: dig through a box, a drawer, a shelf, you haven’t touched in a while. Find something you had forgotten about or hadn’t thought of lately. Think about it. Then write a poem to it.” More of her ideas for kids of all ages can be found in this recent interview.
In the fellowship, we circled up and shared multiple times a day. From a group of strangers, we made a community. Unplugging and participating together was part of our learning. Experiencing places, prompts, and meals together gave us familiarity. Being vulnerable and sharing gave us trust. This is a time to reflect on the communities we are a part of and how we can improve or transform them, create new ones, and possibly even leave those that don’t support us.
Both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement beg us to participate in a community. We can perpetuate healthy systems, spread creative, life-giving pursuits, and make safe spaces in our communities. Whether writing poetry as a family, starting a book club with friends or colleagues, or joining marches and campaigns, we must choose to plant something everyday if we are to be renewed and strong enough to persist.
For those who feel alone, disconnected, paralyzed, 2020 is saying that now is the time to care, to act. The things we pour ourselves into, that we physically and emotionally nurture, become dear to us. We grow to love what and who we care for, and that love renews the spirit. Alison Gopnik, whose research “explores how young children come to know about the world around them,” has said, “We’re not just capable of caring for people because we love them — we don’t actually care for our children because we love them, although we might think that — that love is engendered through the act of caring.” In caring for something beyond ourselves we earn the opportunity to love and be sustained.
Imagination, attention, and renewal are symbiotic.
We imagine, pay attention, care, and are renewed in loving others, in participating in a community of beings. Tonight, my family will return to the bike path above the reef. We’ll talk about the interior lives we are working to expand. We’ll pay attention to the color of the sky and movement in the water and grass. We’ll take comfort in this community of beings on and along the path. We’ll look for the rays and wonder when we’ll see them next.
ABOUT OUR GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
A 2018-19 Merwin Creative Teaching fellow, Erin Medeiros is a high school teacher at Kanuikapono, a Hawaiian-focused Public Charter School in Anahola, on the island of Kaua‘i. She seeks renewal in literature and hiking, biking, or playing at the beach with her educator husband and their two daughters. Erin views teaching as a deeply creative profession and encourages her students to develop their attention to the past and present, to observe and question life. She does whatever it takes to get her students outside and into the community at least once a week and loves to prepare them each year to perform Poetry Out Loud. She believes that networks and human connections are vital to a healthy teaching career, which is one of the things that attracted her to the fellowship. She has a B.A. in History from Lewis & Clark College, and a Masters in Education from University of Oregon.
To view other entires in our “In Good Company” series of writing by guest bloggers and friends of the Conservancy, click here.