Pigeons and Silence

I was looking for somewhere to sit and draw. I headed to the local park, hoping beyond hope that by some miracle the crowds had bypassed it, but as with every other park in the city these days the place was in full swing. The grass was a green lake, barely visible for all the clusters happy, noisy people.

The basketball court adjacent to the park was packed too, with young men totally immersed in their game. It was a beautiful thing to watch –  the focus, the movement, the coherence and wordless communication of the players, much like a flock of birds when they all suddenly take flight in response to some unseen trigger. Someone had brought a speaker and music was playing.  It wasn’t quiet, not by any means. It was alive and rich and just right for that moment. But if I wanted solitude I’d be better off sitting on the curb of a tree-lined street.

Eventually I did find a park that was pretty much empty. The late afternoon was gorgeous, with fallen cherry blossoms carpeting the boulevards around the park. There was me, a few families with young children, and a couple of pigeons walking their funny walk, orange eyes checking me out on the chance that I had something for them. A child raced over and chased them. The pigeons hopped and took short flights in response. The child ran circles after them. I thought: “Should I be annoyed? Should the parents call the child away?” It was a primal interaction, and the child was very young. His instincts said “chase,” and the birds seemed to know he was no major threat. After a minute, the pigeons flew up into a tree. The park sank back into quiet. I looked around. I had come to draw, and I did. There was a small patch of brunnera sending out strings of tiny azure blue flowers, very much like forget-me-nots. I sketched what I saw: the five petals on each flower, the ripening seed pods further down the stem. All quietly happening in the park. And happening in every park where something grows: dandelions, plantain, the very least of the fancies finding ways to exist. This is what you can see if you luck out and find a calm spot, even one that includes a small child’s hunter moment.

Sometimes I think about school playgrounds and the cacophony that erupts on them at recess and lunchtime.  Yet no matter how crazy the playground, you can always find at least one kid who has brought a book outside, found a relatively quiet corner and is lost to everything but the world as it emerges from her reading. Contrast this with the child who never seems to know silence. He’s the king of the playground castle, shrieking his dominance from the tops of the monkey bars and slides. Still, I have seen this same child climb the low branches of a tree and go limp and silent. I have seen the seriousness, the contemplation, the simple tiredness sweep over his face.

In my hunt for a quiet park yesterday I began to imagine what might change for the better if we had some parks that are officially quiet, no speaking zones – little refuges of silence in the city. It’s like at the public swimming pool where there’s a sign in the sauna that reads “Please Whisper.” Could we create such a place and would any kid in their right mind want to go there? Or would it become the territory of uptight meditators? It could be an interesting experiment.


Outdoor Ed

Many adults don’t know that a robin is a robin and not a sparrow. And why does that matter? Because when you learn the name of something, and you learn a few details about that thing, then perhaps you begin to care a little more. The name is a pointer that brings the living thing forward from its matrix. And it’s here that caution in teaching is necessary. Don’t pull things out too far from their homes. Because their homes are what make them. And they make their homes. The chipmunk eats the heavy shelf fungus, and then its droppings feed the soil that feeds the Douglas fir whose seeds feed that same chipmunk. So I have to be careful when bringing children to an outdoor “nature study”. Because nature is their home too.

I am taking a class of nine year olds on a field trip (we now refer to these outings as “field studies” on consent forms, thus deadening all the possibilities that the wonderful word  “trip” conjures up). So, for today’s field study we will learn about the urban forest. We will walk to a local park with dense stands of mature trees, nooks and crannies,  big rocks and brambles, a very active duck pond, a little stream and a meadow. I have pictures, samples, handouts. I have packed hand lenses and binoculars and bird and plant identification guides. The children will first sit in a circle to receive their lesson, to engage in a lively and educational discussion, and then set out in carefully chosen small groups to investigate and identify the items that I have put on list for each group. They are not to disturb or collect any samples.

Here is what happens:

As soon as we leave the sidewalk we cross an invisible threshold that says “RUN!”  They spread out across the meadow, disappear into the trees, scream, trip, laugh. They are like a splash of daisies that  pop up overnight on a Springtime field. You simply cannot gather them in again. The birds I have carefully written question sheets about fly up to the highest tree branches as the children storm their hiding places. The mosses I scouted out yesterday are trampled under racing sneakers.

But I need a written record! I need drawings! I need models! – some kind of physical evidence of the children’s learning! (in educational writing  these offerings are known as artifacts and they are the proof that I have done all that I can to educate, to open eyes, to mold lives. )This is serious business. And I am the archeologist. How will they ever understand the value, the inherent beauty, the connection that they have with this beautiful place if I don’t show it to them?

In my heart I know that’s really all a bunch of nonsense. Kids learn about nature by being out in it. A lot. Of course they go nuts when released on a special field trip. The contrast between the daily  routine of timetables, seating plans, the countdown to recess, to lunch, to three o’clock and the open sky outside is too much. I don’t like it one bit either. I want to be outside. I want to build treeforts.

And today, if I can just put the teacher role aside, I want to watch children find their own way. Let their curiosity be whetted first by actually entering bodily into this world of dirt and bark and insects. They are impatient for it – there’s an urgency that the fresh air, the lack of walls, the peculiar new sensations has sparked. Their brains have come alive in the most disorderly and wonderful way. Question sheets and fact collecting must wait. Even the naming of things.


Back On The Playground

I’m supervising children on the playground – talk about a complex hierarchy of leaders, followers, overt dissidents, henchmen (yes, they still exist) and those who remain outside of it all, unperturbed, joining in when the mood suits. I wonder: all the rules that permeate their play – are they instinctive, or have the children simply tossed out the padding of grownup ways and injected the stripped down, straightforward rules of engagement into their playground society? Maybe it’s a combination depending on who’s the boss that day, shifting alliances, mood, weather, and forces that no one can see, including, and perhaps especially the child who is in their grip.

And when the freedom of running, climbing, wrestling, catching, comes to a halt as a conflict arises, the part that each child plays rushes forward, magnified, doubled down, a great invisible shield.  There is no neutrality. Those who are directly involved stamp their feet, or quietly dig in their heels, perhaps outwardly capitulating but seething inside. There is no “win-win” here. That’s grown up speak, and rarely honest.

And so us adults, us injured, tender, careworn, cynical, bossy, confused caregivers step into the fray to soothe, to mediate, to listen, to try our level best to be neutral witnesses in spite of our own muddled feelings, to offer a balm, a strategy, to dole out a consequence, to do all of the things that we have been taught, when really what each child involved grapples with is none of our business, and our only assignment here is to listen, to try to love and protect while they figure it, each for themselves, to hopefully remain whole, but not at the expense of the one whom they see as enemy, however temporarily. More you can’t do.

At the end of the day I head home to engage in the adult version of the same games: running away, belonging to, hiding, jumping for joy, yelling and whispering. You’re it, you’re out, no fair! How often I want to stamp my feet, refuse to budge, to once and for all, win. That’s the hardest thing I think: to be strong, have a sense of humour, prevent further injury, and not pick sides. It’s easier when I’m being my professional self, and the conflict is between people half my size, but see me at home, when I’m battling those old foes whose phantoms suddenly appear in the faces of my loved ones – see how I not only elbow my way out, but how I know I am right, right, right! I am literally, back on the playground.


Getting Back The Gift

When I was small, Christmas was the hard work of wanting, a wanting that hurt at the centre of my chest, a pain that no present could quite cure. It was a sick feeling in my stomach, a lump in my throat. And then the opening of the gift, the hollow ache when it disappointed, the thrill and strange sadness when it pleased. This is the part we rarely give a thought to: the pain of getting what you want. At the centre of it a creeping lonesomeness, this separation of me, with my gifts, away from my family, into this new family of possessions that I had to manage, to guard. The first of many wedges between me and the world I had loved so purely up until then, the world that was mine and that contained me. By this I mean the world of loving what had been there before I thought it needed to be improved upon: my mother, the soft fur of our dog, the cedar trees and the smell of spring air flowing into the cracked window by my bed.

So now, old enough to no longer “need” presents, I find myself overwhelmed by the sodden trees out the window, the street trees, the trees at the park, the dripping, mossy, knotted raindrop-pearled trees that I can never own and yet are mine completely. It’s like there was a long blip between childhood with its great green canopy that I climbed, played beneath, or measured against the sky, and the wormhole of adolescence, the shock of growing up, the forgetting about losing yourself in an afternoon living among trees, trees  that you never gave a thought to, but needed like bread and water, so much so that you forgot about physical hunger for days on end in the only real lifetime you knew, which to those who didn’t know  was simply and unimportantly just  a couple of after school hours idling away the afternoon. This was the invisible miracle of childhood – the private life you had that was so much bigger than the strange puzzles of school and adult’s ways. Perhaps it is what you want again, and if so, take it. Walk away from household duty. Enter the work of real communion: find a tree, lean against it, wait for the initial embarrassment to pass, and above all, don’t ask questions.


A Little World

I’ve been thinking about children and the many pains, small and big that they shoulder along with them to school, perhaps even bigger than those ridiculous body swallowing backpacks most of them carry these days. I’ve also been thinking about teachers and our own aches (our hearts, and for those of us over 50, our joints!), and how in a single room twenty or thirty souls meet each day and attempt to fit together, a puzzle whose pieces seem to forever be changing shape – sometimes a perfect fit, often a forcing together of jagged mismatched parts.

How easy it is to forget that the classroom is a small society, filled with brilliant ideas, humdrum duties, rebels, and followers (and I include the adults in all of this). How wonderful it would be if there were some overarching capital S strategy that could solve the problem of being people for us – the children who enter the school each day with their silent jealousies, their quiet confusion, their tentative, open expressions? The adults who are supposed to have grown up, figured it all out, and pass such wisdom along?

I suppose that in the end we can only sigh, and sigh a lot. It’s hard, this business of loving. For that’s what it ultimately amounts to; the tests, the techniques, the discipline, the boredom, the thrilling moments when a child suddenly exclaims “I get it!” when you secretly thought they never would – all of it just a long hike towards the only thing that anyone really wants:  the flash of recognition that says I see you, I love you, and you, why you love me!


Looking Up

Nearing the year’s end. I am told that this year is “unprecedented.” For humans, that may well be the case, and enough has been written about the sadness, the suffering, and on the flip side the unexpected break from the rat race of adult life (and increasingly of childhood it seems) flung upon us by that treacherous world-traveling virus. But some living things seem completely oblivious to all of this.

As I walked through Mountainview Cemetery last week I heard a rustle up in a big old bare branched horse chestnut tree. An eastern grey squirrel (they like it out west, too) was building a nest of fallen leaves in the perfect natural platform created by the axis of the tree trunk giving way to its web of main branches. “Hello” I said aloud, and he heard me – I know because he stopped abruptly, looked down at me, and then carried on with his work. That bright black eye, the nimble leaps from branch to branch, the soft grey fur stippled with white, oblivious to my admiration, my, I’ll admit it, jealousy. Life looked so darned straight forward for him. But, was he a happy creature? Was he feeling under pressure to get the job done? Did he worry that his nest might not be as nice as the other squirrels’ nests? I don’t know.  It seems to me that he was just doing his thing, being his squirrel self, and innocently giving me the best moments of my day.

Thank you, squirrel, for making that noise, lifting my head, my eyes, my ears, from whatever forgettable old stick I was gnawing on. I’ve forgotten what it was exactly, but I remember you.