Archive for the ‘children as teachers’ Category

The Stunning Light of One Life

Friday, June 21st, 2013

I drummed as people gathered and took their seats, and then welcomed them and explained the parts of the unique event to follow. Creating a memorial service for a woman devoted to indigenous spirituality felt like a huge responsibility, especially when I worry about people’s comfort levels with shamanic practices. But the family assured me that everyone there would appreciate knowing more about this tradition that meant so much to…I’ll call her Sophia.

The family chose an outdoor venue known for its beauty, and we had chairs set up  across from a semi-circular outdoor “stage,” where we put a 6- foot table that would serve as an altar.

The table was laden with bowls full of seeds, candies, feathers, glitter, cotton, chiles, raisins, popcorn and piles of photos, special objects and flower arrangements, feathers, beads and Native fabrics. It looked like a combination of an exotic kitchen and an outdoor market.

First, we called in the directions and created a sacred space, me using my rattle and spirit water and saying prayers, as we stood and faced each of the four directions, and then by touching Mother Earth and raising our hands to Father Sky.

Then we began an adaptation of an indigenous Peruvian despacho ceremony. I explained, speaking especially to the children, that we would be making a present for Sophia, a package packed with our prayers, our memories and our symbols of all that was precious about her life. For our simplified version, we would create three layers of symbols on tissue paper, representing the lower, middle and upper worlds.

On the ground below the altar, we had placed the green and purple ceramic urn with Sophia’s ashes, and her photograph. On a hand woven green and purple Peruvian textile, I laid out white tissue paper, which would become the outer layer of the despacho. Then came red paper for the lower world-the world of the unmanifest.

“Sophia’s life was like a seed that will grow through her children and grandchildren,” I told them. “So I need some volunteers to place seeds and other symbols of Mother Earth.” All the grandchildren ran up.  

After making a traditional Southern Cross of sugar, the children sprinkled seeds, and then spices for the flavors of life: cumin, cinnamon sticks and chiles for southwestern heat. We offered rose petals for the beauty of the earth, seaweed to honor all sea life, plastic neon bugs for the creepy crawlers, raisins to honor the old wrinkled ancestors, and candies for the sweetness of the earth.

The family came up and offered  “kintus” made of trios of bay leaves, into which they had blown their prayers. It was a beautiful layer, and I invited people to come and look at it before it was covered. (We were demonstrating creation and death.)

I laid out green tissue paper for the middle world-the one we experience with our five senses, and therefore believe is “real.” Family and close friends had brought symbols and placed them on the altar, and now they came up to place them into the despacho and explain their meaning.

There were photos of outings, cards from favorite restaurants. Thread from Sophia’s sewing machine. A single dice and a playing card. The grandchildren all brought drawings or letters, some placed amidst tears. A co-worker placed a fetish made by her office, a heart wrapped with a crystal. A daughter placed a small elephant that had been a childhood favorite.The middle layer was a fine mess, like life. Full of treasures.

We covered it with blue tissue for the upper world. More kintus. And now the grandchildren tore up cotton balls to make clouds. They sprinkled popcorn to honor the lightening spirits. They sprinkled glitter shaped like stars, feathers for the winged ones, silver and gold candies for the rain and sun, angels.

It was time to wrap it all up. Sophia’s closest friend came up and helped me fold it all by holding the package—now white—while I folded it in the traditional way and wrapped it with a silver ribbon and a golden cord. I held it up and said a blessing for Sophia’s soul—may she fly.

The prayer bundle would be ceremonially burned by the family, and the ashes would be combined with Sophia’s ashes, and sprinkled as she had requested.

Now it was time for tributes and stories. People had written things, and people tearfully said things they hadn’t written. One of her daughters talked about Sophia’s beliefs, ending with her mantra—Walk in peace.

We closed the directions and the sacred space as I played my rose quartz crystal bowl, which produces a beautiful, reverberating sound that enters the heart. What we all wanted was to walk out of this ceremony and keep those hearts open paying forward the love we all felt. And so we listened to the reverberation, and I reminded us all that the heart’s love reverberates ever so much farther than this sound. We ended with, “May we all walk in peace.”

As I returned to my drum, which I played again as they made their way to each other, and eventually to food and drink and conversation, many whispered thanks. I was especially touched by one young man with full eyes, who said he had never experienced anything like this and that the power of it was almost overwhelming. And of course there were the children.

On my way home, my heart full from the love of this community, I had an extraordinary experience. I saw or felt a huge flash of light whip past the front of my car like a comet. It took my breath away. Tears came, as I felt this was an acknowledgement from the soul of this woman I did not even know. I could see and feel the stunning beauty of this one life, and the stunning beauty of each life. This light, this importance, this beauty of each life is what I want to always remember.

I came home and sat at my computer, and this poured out, along with my tears:

Oh, oh! The splendor of this one life!

It is like a star exploding!

And the whole cosmos applauds

As the fireworks resound throughout the blackness of space,

That is thirsty for light.

 

Oh, oh again!

Another burst of light as she transcends,

As she expands

Past her body

And flies

Free

Lending her light

To all who gather

At the well.

 

We earthlings have no idea

How huge this one life is.

Really, honestly,

How huge.

How bright.

How important.

How eternal.

How unforgettable.

It is awe-some.

Deserving of hands up to mouths,

In astounded speechlessness.

 

And this is just one soul

Making its transition.

 

Think of it.

What could yours be like?

 

What Kids Taught Me about the Active Imagination

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

 

Since I was in love with photography, I wanted everyone else to be as well (nothing like the fervor of the converted.) So,I decided to teach small group photography classes in my living room.

Right away, it was clear to me that I raced through the part about f-stops and dove into explorations about light, the energetic nature of matter, and the spiritual elements of photography. After listening to me for one lesson, an adult student approached me and said she thought her son should study with me.

Billy was learning disabled, though in those days there was no label for that. Frustrated by school and in need of a success experience, Billy would “get’ the right-brained way I taught photography. Would I give him lessons?

I had another close friend with a daughter Mary, who was also having learning problems. So for $5 an hour, I worked with the two of them every week for 1 ½ years.  As a former classroom teacher, I had already formed a strong curiosity about why certain kids weren’t learning. Now I was studying all I could find about the new discoveries about the right and left brain. I felt I was being led on a treasure hunt.

The exercises I designed for Billy and Mary became the basis of curricula I would design and teach in both public and private schools. As an artist-in-residence for the South Pasadena, CA school district, I had the privilege of doing a photography project with 60 5th graders. It was called “Seen one Rock, Seen ‘Em All,”( a brazen slam at Ronald Reagan, who had made that comment about national parks.)

I gave each student a rock, and led them through a guided imagery exercise where they allowed their active imagination to play with the inner picture of that rock, allowing it to become part of a larger scene and story. I had them draw the scene and write the story.

Now the fun began. Their next challenge was to figure out how to make a photograph of that drawing, using the rock and other objects. “That’s not fair!” some of them began to protest. “You didn’t tell us we’d have to make this into a photograph! I wouldn’t have thought of something this complicated if I had known!” said one.

The student, Jack, showed me a drawing of a rock that had become an island surrounded by water, topped with trees, and blown by a strong wind causing big waves. “How am I going to do this?” he said as if it were obviously impossible.

It was a class in problem-solving, so I hinted that he might think of movie sets and dioramas. I teamed the kids up and gave them a week until the day we’d set up a simple photo studio and make the photographs, which they would then print themselves later in the studio I had now rented.

The photo above is an example of the student work, which became a school exhibit. Anna “saw’ her rock (at the top of this article) ‘turn into” her ballet slipper, well-worn from all her attempts to make it into a toe shoe, successfully poised on top of the rock it resembled. The hardness of the rock matched her hard work. The beauty of the shape matched the beauty she captured in her treasured slipper. Beautiful, I thought, and a deep message about how important dance was to Anna.

As for Jack, I couldn’t wait to see how my biggest protester would solve his problem. And so I grinned proudly when, on the day of our shoot, he walked in  with his partner, holding a plastic tub he would fill with water, tiny trees he’d made of paper, and a hair dryer.

Seen one rock, seen ’em all? Sorry, Reagan. I don’t see them that way. And neither do kids, who can see more than we think, when we give them a chance to keep their imaginations alive.

Communicating with a Controller

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

I remember flying along this gorgeous coastline in Baja, Mexico, with my husband Jon. It was before I got my pilot’s license, and so when he urged me to stop photographing and take the controls, I got instant butterflies. 95% of me wanted to fly, but the 5% that was terrified had the capability of ruining everything.

This makes me think of the beginning of my career, when I was a classroom teacher worried about maintaining discipline. Even on days when I had 95% of the class involved and focused, I was always afraid of that 5% that might take those controls away from me.

If “flying” is a metaphor for the 95% of us that knows how to break free of gravity and soar, we still have to learn to deal with the 5% that suspects we might crash at any moment. I call this “communicating with the controllers,” which is Lesson 5 in my book, Flying Lessons.

The challenge of this lesson is dealing with negative feedback. That might include the kind of inner voice I heard when my husband urged me to take the controls and I was afraid I couldn’t do it. Or, it might be outer feedback, like the kind I would get from disruptive students.

I would submit that our reaction to both kinds is fear: fear of the fear we feel, or fear that we will not be able to stay in control. Or fear that we were incapable all along; thinking we were was just a lie. And fear can hijack a good intent, a calm mind, an open heart and a good experience.

The lesson I learned from Clio, my flight instructor, was about discernment. Which voices are telling the truth that will keep you safe and set you free? And where is your true voice, which you need to use when standing up for yourself is the answer.

Here’s a summary of Clio’s advice:

1. Be kind. The 5% may be afraid. Fear can make them (whether they are outer or inner voices) say terrible things. Take that into consideration.

2.  Be fair. Remember, they are the 5%. Are you listening to the 95%, or are they just invisible, their hands folded politely on their desks, their voices muffled behind their modest smiles…What if you asked them to raise their voices in song?

3.  Ask for help. Ask your partner, your friend, your angels, your guides, your God, whomever you trust the most for help. For listening. For caring. For hugs. For company. The 95% of the controllers are trying to help you survive.

4.  Keep the whole journey in mind. Remember, it’s this part that is hard. The big picture journey probably has a much more beautiful arc to it.

5.  Remember, everything is relative. You sometimes think the world is coming to an end. When yours looks like that, so does the larger one. Still, there are those other times when all is glowing, when the leaves of every tree are on fire with sunlight, and when the moon is huge and white and all-knowing. When life is holy. When you are perfect, just as you are.

 

My Happy!

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

Maggie just had her “happy” and she is two.  What did she have to say about that? “My happy June.”  Yes, her birthday was in June. And on the day, she just kept saying, “My happy.”

It is her happy. She has every right to have “happy.” None of us would want to deny a two-year old as adorable as my grand daughter her “happy.”

And as for the rest of us? Do we know as certainly as Maggie that it is natural and right for us to have our own “happy?” If so, why does it seem hard to hang on to sometimes? Why are we so affected by outer events that we forget about that birthright? Why do we just hand over the power we have to claim “happy” for ourselves?

This is a simple wish for you to find your “happy” right now, independent of any challenges or sadnesses happening in your life. It is still your “happy” and it doesn’t even have to be your birthday, or June.

This is your moment.

Tea with Henry and Ella

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

Henry and EllaWhenever I go to visit my grandchildren in South Pasadena, CA, I stay at a sweet B&B called the Artists’ Inn, where every room is decorated to honor a different artist. I’m especially fond of the Georgia O’Keefe room, but really the best part of my stay is afternoon tea. Ella and Henry, the eldest of the grandchildren, come and have tea with me. They each choose a china cup, and every day a different treat has been freshly baked. I flavor the tea (you can guess that sugar is a major ingredient) and set us up in the dining room. Their mom gets a little break, and I have the pleasure of giving them a ritual they only do with me. I also have the pleasure of giving myself a ritual I only do with them.

Ella and Henry look like little European children to me in their black hats, seated in front of lace curtains. And, there’s something about them having tea that suggests another country. We don’t pause for tea in America; in fact it’s hard to pause at all. Maybe that’s why Starbucks has become such a phenomenon.

I wonder what would happen if I treated the child inside me to a sweet pause in the middle of every afternoon.  A china cup with sweetened tea, a conversation with a friend or a poem to read and consider. I might be healthier and stronger for it, and perhaps more peaceful.

Our pace of living today is frightening. And my only choices seem to be to 1. complain about what the world’s coming to or 2. take control of my own pace and regulate it.

How do you regulate your pace? Do you pause every day? Do you give yourself something sweet–sweet tastes or sweet music or sweet musings? I invite you to share your thoughts–they might help preserve life seen through an artist’s lens–or through a child’s.