I owe some gratitude. My life has exploded in remarkable beauty, shocks of unique colors, and varied directions. Quite recently I’ve discovered yet another, one I would never have predicted even a year or two ago. I cannot discover why I have such good fortune. Listen to this.
I have been joining Silke’s forest kindergarten casually for a few weeks now. Silke is a remarkable person with vast life skills, and unquestionable expertise in child development and education. She is one of those inspiring people whose training and vocation is well-aligned to her natural proclivities, a joy to observe. I share many of her proclivities, but I have none of the experience and training. It has been a blessing to “work” with her, which is to say - play with children and laugh. That is our work.
Last night, Silke and I talked a bit more formally. We both acknowledged that our collaboration was useful and fruitful. I have now committed to joining her twice a week, on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and taking on a bit more responsibility. Ostensibly, she gets another adult, a sort of assistant, while I get to study her techniques and pedagogical background. Truly fascinating stuff for me.
For most of my young adult years, I had little to do with children. As a male, and the youngest in my family, that was the norm. Our culture is organized within peer groups, not cross-generationally. Though I had the great fortune to belong to a large, loving extended family, the conventional upbringing I received convinced me that I did not “have a way” with children. I was wrong.
It took having a child to teach me not only how to engage with children, but that I love it. It’s no secret that Pema is the joy of my life. But managing a gaggle of children has taken some real effort on my part. There were times when I had to take some risks, pushing in and out of my comfort zones.
When Pema was about two and a half years old, I recognized that she needed regular activity with other children. Prior to that, it had seemed perfectly natural for her to be with mom and dad most of the time. Her need for social engagement with other children was an interesting parenting challenge, because I could not directly meet it. But I wasn't going to pay someone to care for my child. And I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to figure it out for myself.
At first, of course, I was uncomfortable. But I made a real decision, a real commitment, to develop the skill of managing and orchestrating two, sometimes three, children under my care. I wanted to be an integral part of Pema’s development. I never considered handing her over to others, even avowed experts. I knew that raising children was my own development, my growing edge, and I was not willing to sacrifice that. I owe great gratitude particularly to Kara and Ada, with whom I was able to experiment with early on. Now we’re like old friends, but at first I was just pushing myself to do it. I was uncomfortable, unsure of myself, and I made mistakes. Eventually, I figured out what worked and what didn't. I got somewhat good at it. More importantly, I got comfortable. I enjoyed it.
I began to actively seek out other children, and particularly to have sole responsibility for them - so that I could train myself to do it. It sounds absurd saying it like this, something that is so natural, but it really took focused effort on my part, pushing through discomfort, learning from mistakes, etc. What I also discovered in the process is that I don’t really enjoy hanging out with children AND parents. Today, I still have little interest in getting together with other parents. Adults tend to find each other, and talk to each other. Me too. I find this dull and predictable. Worse, when mom or dad is around, other children have a hard time entering a direct relationship with me. All perfectly understandable. I’m not suggesting that I’m the center of attention. Simply that, to master childcare, I have to be attuned to the children, not adults. I need to develop a direct relationship, and that means I need to earn it.
This is sometimes an awkward place for me, because of course there are children’s parties and get-togethers all the time with other parents. I have no interest in such things. What I want is to be with a group of two to five kids, particularly if we’re outside and have no toys - so that we have to discover ourselves and our world. My typical compromise on toys is a set of plastic containers, which inevitably are filled with water, mud, grass clippings, sticks and flowers in various assortments of pies and cakes and salt and soup and kowatowa nonsense. All great stuff.
Back to Silke. Silke is a German woman. In the states she is known as a Waldorf teacher, but what I learned last night is that her training and background really relate to her development within the German school system, and her own proclivities of course. It was in America that she aligned with Waldorf education, because it best expresses her personal inspiration. It’s the way we (Americans) best understand her. Of course, I’m condensing things a bit. Within an hour, she was able to elucidate a background of pedagogy and cultural history, including an offhand, but nevertheless captivating, retelling of the story of Red Riding Hood, that had my neurons firing in that delightful fractal pattern of connection that makes the whole world stand still and resonate with completion. Ah ha. Here it was. The sun was setting. We were enjoying some lentil soup, homemade bread, and goat cheese from Saul, Ruby’s father, a friend next door.
I had observed Silke’s simple way with children, seemingly so easy and basic, and now she was giving me a glimpse of the encyclopedic background of knowledge and pedagogy that were so familiar to her that they were at her fingertips in every movement of her body and song. Truly remarkable. The sort of mastery that makes ornate manipulations of great success look like simplicity, like a master potter. Or the wisdom sayings of the Tao Te Ching. I get it. At least, I sort of do.
Here I am, resonating with all of Silke’s description of childhood development, recognizing the patterns I’ve observed in myself, and immediately grasping the significance it has for me, my loved ones, our culture, and the world at large. All vital things. All things I dwell upon when I read about archeology or military indoctrination, when I watch a dragonfly flit along the edge of a small pond, or when I recognize Pema correcting my errors. The whole world is a magnificent ball of reality. This, in fact, why I don’t really truck in magic and miracles, clear descriptions of god or spirit, crystals, unicorns, fairies, or right or wrong for that matter. The earth is manifestly real and I can touch it with my hands and mind. Its plain old boring and magnificent just as it is, like the feeling of sand in my toes.
Here’s the rub - I now get to work with Silke twice a week. Every Wednesday and Thursday I am going to bring Pema and another child or so, to join Silke’s kindergarten. The whole design of her school is to be outdoors. Not outdoor moments or trips, not learning adventures - an entire school that is outside. There is no building at all. In exchange for a modest amount of help, I have the opportunity to take my education in this realm to a whole new level. More, I have the opportunity to work with children, particularly Silke’s children - five young ones who don’t really know me from Adam. Children can be tough to crack. They do not just give their affection and respect to you simply because you’re there. You have to earn it.
Can you see how delicious this is? How else could I gain this opportunity to discover myself, to discover these beings, to discover the way that we operate as humans in the world? How else could I do it in the majesty of cottonwoods along the Rio Grande and in the pools of our imagination? How else could I do it under the tutelage of a master whose guidance isn’t dominated by instruction and words, but by subtle motions of song and hand. Now that is a gift.
I wish to say one other thing. I recognize that this opportunity, and others like it, is blossoming in my life because of a choice I made about one and a half years ago. There are a few related facets to this choice, all of which are the same thing. One way to say it is that I am not going to focus on earning money. I don’t shun it - I love money! - but I’m not going to make decisions based on obtaining it. Another way to say it is that I am choosing time over money. I think it’s fair to say that my time is worth something in the range of $100/hr, possibly more. Actually a lot, lot more. This makes it very easy for me to avoid work, because the natural equation is almost always in favor of keeping my time to myself. Or, I might say, keeping my time for the education and fulfillment of the life that surrounds me.
An important corollary of this choice is that I made the clear commitment that when I’m with Pema (3 1/2 days a week) I am exclusively with her. We have to make food and wash clothes and blah, blah, but I am not going to work. I’m not going to allow a divided attention. I give myself freely and wholly to her, to us, to life. This itself is a great luxury and a gift. It is this choice, this background intention, that has allowed this opportunity with Silke to blossom in my life, for surely I would not have entered such a commitment if I was concerned with how it would bring money into my life.
One last thing. I wish to acknowledge the gift of Megan in my life. I have not spoken of her much in this tale, but surely she has everything to do with it - not just as Pema’s mother and my greatest friend, but because so much of the way I live, so much of what I understand life and relationship to be, comes from her, from my tangled frustrations and great joys with her. Megan - you are a remarkable creature, and I promise I will never let you forget this.
And now, if you’re still reading this, imagine - you. How can I snip the ends of this tale and pretend it has a beginning and an end? It doesn’t. Isn’t it obvious that I’m in debt to everyone? Isn’t it obvious that everything I’m describing and acknowledging began with my mom and dad? A small nomadic tribe of people on the plains of Africa? With the early bacteria that exhaled atmosphere into the planet? With the way the earth swings around the sun and the way atoms bond together and swallows dive off telephone poles? Isn’t in inherent in the way that words fit together to form meaning? And misinterpretation? Each other and ourselves, making war and mistakes? And love? Isn’t the creation of everything, and its concomitant destruction, actually what I’m speaking about? Isn’t it all happening right now? There’s violence in the world right now, and great joy. And why, then, why am I saying this? Why am I doing anything at all?
Because it tastes so good. Because grit was meant to be washed across the surface of my palm. Because plums sometimes still dangle, frozen in mid-November, from bare trees that have no leaves. What a miracle! Look around, it’s happening right now. Don’t tell anyone. Quiet. Now, to life!