At the moment, I am dealing with the challenges that always accompany innovation. For the past two weeks, when I wasn’t working outside on gardens, I was developing a new research class that began yesterday. (This is the main reason why I haven’t had a chance to read and respond to many blogs lately.)
In the process of conceptualizing the class, I reflected on the knowledge and skills that would be helpful to students in the future. Most research is built on what worked in the past in narrow clinical settings with little thought about the current socio-political context or broader future implications. I decided to try my own research experiment by testing out an experiential approach for teaching research that engages students in exploring the impact of climate change for vulnerable populations and the effectiveness of responses to recent disasters. (Duluth is still dealing with the consequences of torrential rains and flooding during June of 2012, so the implications of climate change are also very close to home.)
It took me many days to work out the basic framework and identify resources, but in essence, I’m sharing this discussion for two main reasons. First, I welcome any ideas and resources you want to share about climate change that would be helpful for me and my students. Second, it’s my way of trying to find an effective third alternative for dealing with the conflict that always accompanies paradigm shifts. Some administrators are not pleased by new ways of doing things. It is tempting for me to choose simplistically from the two most common responses to conflict: fight or flight. The third, to stand with integrity and compassion, is the path I need to work out through the process of writing. What does this mean in terms of practical actions? What past experiences can I draw from for clues?
As I ask these questions, two memories come to mind, the lesson of the butterfly and the message of the wind. The lesson of the butterfly is described in an excerpt from story I wrote for my daughter last Christmas.
The Lesson of the Butterfly
As I thought of what I could give you as a gift this year, one of the memories of your early years was actually on a summer’s day when you were Ava’s age – 6. We were living in central Illinois in a tiny town named Cullom in a farmhouse we rented – “Paul Gray’s house.”
Cullom’s downtown was only one block long. It had a restaurant, and this great old variety store that sold an assortment of things farmers needed. It’s where you went to first grade and as I remember, it was one of the few schools where you did not have to deal with overt racism from teachers or bullying from other students.
Despite your relatively benign treatment at school, Cullom was not very welcoming to strangers. I remember that during our year in Cullom, we sometimes went to the restaurant in the center of town. As we walked toward the door, we could hear the loud conversations and laughter. As we entered, the room became absolutely silent as all of the local customers fixed their eyes on us. It remained silent until we left.
When we needed to shop for other things, we had to travel to one of the larger cities – each about 40 or 50 miles one-way – either Pontiac to the northwest, or Kankakee to the northeast. On a warm sunny summer day, we drove the 50 miles or so to Pontiac. Of the two choices, it was clearly the least diverse in terms of population. Although I don’t have a photo of you during those years, there is one that reminds me of this particular day.
Photo Credit: Jnana Hand and Reese Baker, photographer Phil Dowling, 1974
For some reason I am not sure I can describe, this photo captures the same state of being I remember from that day. In Pontiac, it was not a child that you were gently guiding. It was a butterfly that was fluttering around you as you walked down the sidewalk. All of your attention was focused on it as it flitted about, with the same gentle smile on your face as you followed its path down the sidewalk. It was all you saw.
It was not all I saw, however. The prejudice of many central Illinois residents is deeply rooted. Bluntly-said, many long-term residents are pointedly racist. Like the border communities that surround reservations, white residents are acutely attuned to the smallest nuances of differences in appearance that may suggest a different ancestry than theirs. As a child tanned by the sun, with lovely dark curly hair, you were unique among the people who walked down the sidewalk in Pontiac that day.
I noticed an older white couple walking toward us on the sidewalk. I really don’t know what they were thinking, but the expression on their faces when they looked at you was not warm and friendly. They stared intently with their eyes narrowed and the edges of their mouths turned down in any ugly way. I was getting ready to say something to them because the cold disapproval of their demeanor made me angry. Yet, you were so intent on the butterfly, you never noticed. You kept smiling and reaching out gently, and the butterfly responded by fluttering just in front of you as you walked along. You laughed in delight. Then, something amazing happened. The scowls of the couple suddenly changed into broad smiles, as if your joy had melted the hardness of their hearts. Your focus on the wonder of life and gentle responsiveness to beauty not only buffered you from their disapproval and meanness, but also transformed others around you.
Somehow, despite the challenges you have had to overcome, or perhaps in part because of them, the purity of heart symbolized on that summer’s day has remained. The ability to focus so intently on the wonder of life rather than fears and distractions is still one of the most amazing of gifts you offer others. As I contemplated what to give you for Christmas at this challenging time, all I could think of was to let you know how special you are and have always been. I love you. Miigwetch, my lovely daughter, for your beautiful spirit.
The Message of the Wind
I learned another lesson from my daughter at the end of her school year in Cullom. It was a warm, sunny day, and as always, the winds were strong and gusty in the flat corn-country that surrounded us. I was working in the garden in front of our rented house when the school bus arrived. As my daughter was walking down the steps of the bus, I noticed her arms were hugging the huge pile of papers and pictures that represented her first grade accomplishments. Suddenly, as she walked across a field toward the house, a strong gust of wind pulled the stack of papers from her grasp. I watched with concern as she lost patience and began chasing her work, stomping some papers into the ground with her little feet and crumpling others in her hands. I ran out to help her. I hoped she could learn that it is always more effective and more fun to play with the wind than it is to get angry at things we really cannot change. We couldn’t stop the wind from blowing her papers, but we could make a game of recapturing her treasures.
What can I learn from the butterfly and the wind? I can view this present challenge as a fight with the wind over which I have no control and lose the creative, adventurous spirit of an exciting experiment. I can decide to give up trying to create anything new and live as a recluse, letting the winds scatter the fragments of unrealized possibilities. Or, I can choose the lesson of the butterfly. I can choose to keep my focus on those things that inspire a sense of wonder and hope with such intensity that there is no room for distraction. Perhaps I can learn from the lesson of the butterfly. If I can focus intently enough despite the winds that surround me, the winds themselves will become calm. I owe it to my students to try. Yesterday, they eagerly rose to the challenge of working with me on this experiment even though the lovely early spring weather had finally arrived.