The Value of Small Gestures

 

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This is how many kids are doing online learning during Covid days.

The end of this most unusual school year is finally upon us. Today was my last day of online tutoring . For the past five weeks I worked with students who bravely engaged with me through computer screens   Navigating through all this involved both huge challenges and delights. Along with hundreds of thousands of teachers and students, I learned two basic facts this spring: 1) we can teach and learn virtually–even with young children it is possible; and 2) it’s not nearly as much fun or satisfying to do school through computer screens (although it is nice to wear pajamas to school every day).

Society en masse experiencing shelter-at-home and safer-at-home orders has forced us to reconcile the lifestyle we all took for granted with a new way of living—apart physically, yet finding the most creative and innovative ways to still be together and connect human to human. We’ve had to be flexible and adaptable on the fly, and on all levels—mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional. In my case, the emotional level has felt most extreme. Days and nights have been wide emotional pendulums, from feeling steady, happy, and even joyful at moments, to later in the day dipping down into anxiety, fear, and loneliness. We’re undergoing a grand human experiment of learning resilience in the face of adversity, and of experiencing grace under unprecedented pressure.

Through online tutoring, I observed that the kids adapted to the lockdown situation with surprising agility and often much less drama than many adults in the room. The biggest hardship for children, I’d guess, is their highly restricted social time with friends and limited opportunities for physical exercise. Teaching academic subjects is challenging enough through a screen; how PE teachers manage it is nearly incomprehensible.

Saying goodbye to my students, who are all between 7 and 9 years old, was an internal process that took many days. I realized anew how hard it is to say goodbye to people I grew fond of, and all the more so because of their innocence and vulnerability. The biggest learning for me during the past six months is that a caring adult can make a huge difference in a child’s life. Small gestures matter greatly—the few minutes that you give to really listen to a child so they can express what’s in their mind and heart will give them self confidence and trust in you.

This spring has shown many of us the value of small gestures. It has shone a spotlight on people that many of us casually take for granted—now deemed essential to the running of society. I believe that teachers, tutors, paraprofessionals, and school staff members are included in the group of essential workers for society. Although some parents and family members may disagree, I would argue that a child’s school community is a critically important part of their life, and what they experience within their school will either enhance their self-worth, intellectual, emotional, and social capacities, or do the opposite. Society as a whole must continue to support their local public education system, and not let corporate money interests dictate how the system is run.

As a last gift, I shared this music video with my students today. It’s an old song, and still sounds so good. I hope it brings a smile and few dance steps to your body, mind, heart, and soul.

 

 

A note of thanks and encouragement

Thank You Word Cloud background
via 123rf.com

Hi Readers and Bloggers! Today I would like to say a big thank you to everyone who has read my blog, interrelatedplanet.org, over the past year. This blog has a tiny readership by most media standards in today’s world. I have done very little to promote it, other than sharing posts via my FaceBook and LinkedIn accounts. The purpose of this blog is to give me a platform to inform, inspire and share my opinions about the world we live in and how we are all connected and interrelated at the core level. The fact that during this past year people from 51 countries have read this blog is, in my mind, pretty amazing!

There are days when I admit to giving into the feelings of despair and isolation that crop up when reading mainstream media on the internet. It’s clear that we are collectively going through a period of chaotic and intense change, unlike anything that humanity has known since recorded history began. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by it all and lose hope that our world will one day soon become a global society based on equity, justice, the rule of law, compassion, care for all life, and respect for all people. I’ve written before of of the United Nations charter , created 74 years ago, which lays out the blueprint for how a world based on these qualities and principles could be for humanity. In these times of great change, it can very much seem as if the forces of darkness and evil are, indeed, winning the battle.

Today, dear Readers, I want to encourage all of you who take the time to read my words to NOT GIVE UP on ourselves and our world. Yes, terrible atrocities continue happening daily across the world. Yes, the corruption, greed and power-mongering by the richest world actors and government leaders continues, as news outlets’ daily headlines clearly show. Yes, climate change is happening faster than we can keep track of, with extreme weather affecting millions of people across the planet. I could go on and on, but you understand. These are crucial times, extraordinary times, and exceedingly difficult times to be living through. Our current systems allow for and even promote oppression, inequity, and environmental degradation. Given all the factors and actors vying for power and control of the world’s precious resources at all costs, how do we find hope that a future world based on peace, justice and love is coming?

This week, most of the world’s leaders have gathered at the United Nations headquarters in New York City for the 74th annual General Assembly. The UN is committed to transparency, and want all people to be able to know and understand the global issues and challenges we face. Towards this end, they post all the speeches made by each country’s representative on their You Tube channel so anyone with an internet connection may watch them. This week I’ve taken time to watch some of their speeches, but perhaps even more interesting, I scrolled through their channel to look at the faces of the people who are leading our current world society. I have to say, the vast majority of them look unhappy, tired and perhaps even a bit desperate. Only the smallest fraction of their faces are smiling or seem positive.

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World leaders would do well to find their inner child, who remembers how to smile.

The conclusion I draw from this experiment is, most leaders in the world today know our current system is broken, highly unfair, and unsustainable for our collective future. While some continue to display ungracious arrogance and stubbornly refuse to listen to reason or science, for the most part I believe that the great majority of people on Earth today sincerely desire us to change for the better. Most of us are beyond weary of war, power struggles, violence and living in fear. In our deepest hearts we know we are better than this. Problem is, how do we get from our current state of chaos, violence and inequity, to the more beautiful and peaceful world we know is possible?

It is a long, tedious, and painfully slow road from where we are now to where we want to be. But it is NOT impossible. The beloved Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh, reminds us that smiling is very important. If we cannot smile, the world cannot have peace.  It is step one. How I would love to suggest to the world’s leaders this week that they ought to begin their speech by finding one thing to say that is positive about our world at large, and smile as they do so. Even such a small gesture would have resounding impact on everyone in the hall, and everyone on our planet.

Again, I wish to thank you all who read this blog. I would love to read your comments too, as long as they are respectfully given. I encourage all of you to continue doing your good work in our world, in whatever field you are working. In order to change everything (for the better) we truly need everyone. Namaste and blessings to each one of you, from my heart.

We need Mary Oliver more than ever

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www.storemypic.com

Mary Oliver left her body this past week, on January 17, 2019. The poet who spent a good deal of her life musing about death has finally experienced it firsthand. I believe she was ready to go and find out what’s on the other side of the veil.

Some have written of her work in less than kind terms, as is always the case when a creative person becomes famous. But for the many fans of her poetry across the world, Mary Oliver remains a beloved commentator of the human heart, keen observer of the natural world, and philosopher of life on planet Earth.

I first became acquainted with Mary Oliver’s poetry when I was in my early thirties. I purchased her book New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press, Boston), at a poignant moment in my life when her words resonated deeply in my soul. That was over twenty years ago.  Since then, I’ve had certain periods when poetry took a prominent seat in my everyday and I’d pull out her volume anew. Her poems never failed to inspire and affirm my experience, as old and beloved friends usually do.

In this week’s New York Times articles about her death, journalists compared her style of nature poetry to Walt Whitman and even Thoreau and Emily Dickinson—she kept good company. But Oliver was fully present in our time, having lived through the majority of the 20th century and the start of the 21st. Yes, her overarching themes were about the dynamic relationship between nature and human beings, and she mostly used first person point of view.  In the poetic tradition, the personal I is the most effective way to carry meaning to the reader. In a world full of artifice, egoism, arrogance and materialism, Oliver was a voice of sanity, reason and heart. Her keen observations were unflinching as she deftly described and questioned our human experience in the face of vast and unexplainable forces. Her voice was at once tender and unsentimental, reminding us of the importance of nature within our human experience.

In these days of ever increasing technology, artificial intelligence, and furiously increasing capitalism which by now is threatening the very existence of life on Earth, Mary Oliver’s deceptively simple, clear-eyed verse is more needed than ever. In her poem The Sun (New and Selected Poems, 1992) she asks,

have you ever felt for anything
such wild love—
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
empty-handed—
or have you too
turned from this world–

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

In her poem The Ponds (New and Selected Poems, 1992) she marvels at the perfection of the wild lilies growing at the edges of the ponds near her home. She writes

I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided—
and that one wears an orange blight—
and this one is a glossy cheek

half-nibbled away—
and that one is a slumped purse
full of its own
unstoppable decay.

still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—
that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

Oliver remains a master of metaphorical poetry. A familiar pattern in her work is to first give the reader gorgeous descriptions of the natural world, and then deftly weave them within the framework of the human experience. I know of no other poet who uses this technique so seamlessly and succinctly. She simultaneously marvels at nature, wonders about the divinity who created it all, and asks us how to reckon with the unfathomable mystery that is our life, our planet, our home. Here is one of my favorite poems,
The Summer Day (House of Light, 1990).

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

In our present, highly chaotic and anxious times, reading Oliver’s calm, forthright and clear-eyed poems brings a sense of grounding, peace and sanity to our souls. Much like meditation and walks in the woods (for those fortunate enough to have woods nearby in which to walk), her poems remind us to be present, to breathe deep, and to be awake to the wonder of life inherent here on our beloved Earth. It is more challenging than ever to maintain sanity in such a world, but Oliver reminds us, through unerringly clear vision, of why we must do so. In her famous poem In Blackwater Woods (American Primitive, 1983) she writes,

Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

You must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

On an ordinary Thursday in January, 2019, Mary Oliver let it go. She let go of the world after holding it against her bones, caressing it ever so lovingly, so tenderly.  I am sure I speak for many others when I say how very grateful I am to her for holding up such a compassionate and clear mirror so we all may see ourselves and our planet reflected within it.