Three Things

Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be.

Clementine Paddleford

How do we know when it’s time? Is it something that occurs to you on a cold spring day whilst walking through the woods? Is it a hidden message in the wind on a fall evening? Is it a discovery, during the eating of ice cream on a walk along the shore? Is it just, finally, paying attention?


The Funny Bone

I am sitting in my bedroom, listening to the soft sounds of skateboarders coasting under my windows, having just returned from another lovely weekend at Haystack: site of creative encouragement and exploration on an approachable yet massive scale. Two weeks ago, for three days, I helped others learn how to make machines out of wood and metal, I encouraged peoples’ senses of their own creativity, and helped them develop an aesthetic. I listened to people become frustrated, I watched people remain calm, I taught people how to solder and how to raise bowls from copper sheets, I supported our wonderful teacher rise to the occasion of others’ creative urges time and time again. I helped someone make a robot that walked, and an Icarus who flew. I listened to a poem read aloud once per night, and also listened to peoples’ encapsulated memoirs read early on a Monday morning. I witnessed dedication and laughter, struggle and success. I grew physically tired but mentally inspired. I sat at dinner with strangers and with friends, and I felt a part of something larger than myself: a fleeting feeling that when one gets it, one has to hold on to it, note it, and pay attention.

I went to Haystack two weekends ago with a decision in mind: one that is rather large and means uprooting, change, and new beginnings. I went to Haystack with one thought in mind, and that was to sit with this decision and listen to its comings and goings until I had an answer. Through teaching people how to make automata, mechanical toys, and watching them persevere, learn, grow, and begin to know each other, and as I sat at a distance, next to a large yellow anvil in the center of the studio, I spent my time thinking about changes, and “going back”, and going forward. The only thing I made this weekend was a cutout in copper of a rather important idea, I think:

What are you really thinking about right now?

As I cut this out of copper, over about two and a half hours on a Friday night, I thought to myself about all the meanings of this question. I gleaned it from the Oblique Strategies, a pet project designed to help creative types overcome blocks in their processes. I found it related it to my life and probably, the lives of others in my life. I am really thinking right now about the course my life has taken, where I am right now, and where I wish to be. For the first time in a long time, I feel the pieces of life are quite clear to me;  as in, I can see what I wish to be components of my life in a holistic way, and am now seeking to craft that life for myself. That craft-work of life-making, if you will, requires some significant changes in my day to day life and in my interactions with the world, while also requiring holding on to the huge lessons I have learned here in the two years since I started this writing project, with you, in the fall of 2012.


The Backbone

Let me begin with a story from the fall of 2006, when I was a very new teacher. I taught a science elective for 8th graders and had the requisite crew of misfits who came to my room for an hour and a half every other day. One sat in a sink, one constantly drew pictures of knights and dragons, one was very tiny and giggled, two barely spoke English, one was a mathematically oriented super Goth teenager who counted things like floor tiles, and one was obstinate and charming at the same time. This group, of course, ended up being my favorite group of that year, mostly because they were so strange and goofy and would do anything I asked of them. We navigated through that year together doing projects  on pollution and archaeology and space and inventions, but the best day was one day when I brought a huge box of crap from my house and dumped it on a table and told them that they had to make something. The girl who sat in the sink immediately grabbed some sparkly fabric and made a cape and wore it, I think, for the rest of the day. The tiny one who giggled made me a tyrannosaurus rex out of parts of an old sewing machine and hot glue and delivered it to my desk the next day. Later, we invented fantasy environments that had to have all the components of actual biomes: shelter, water, food, etc. and I discovered that the boy who later lit a toilet on fire truly appreciated the ins and outs of colored pipe cleaners and pom poms, having created a fuzzy environment that was rainbow colored and bedecked with glitter.

Today, in the fall of 2014, eight years and what feels like a lifetime later, I am realizing the power of that class in terms of my teaching and my learning and what I create on the Earth. I am currently seeking a way to integrate my love for teaching with my current life as an artist. I miss teaching children: the children who I see as needing bridges into our larger cultural landscape, but didn’t know how to integrate all of these parts until a friend of mine and I were talking and he told me he felt that maybe I could just do it again: that I was hiding a set of skills and passions in an apartment that looms above a quiet street in a small town. For many reasons, I felt like I had to choose one or the other: the city or the country, the teacher or the artist, and in that conversation, I realized that I didn’t have to choose between because I could choose all.

When I took a step back and looked at all of the pieces, as a whole, I realized that I had devoted many years of my life to teaching and improving children’s access to education in disparate circumstances, and that I had a litany of experiences and stories of children who had impacted me in a meaningful way, and vice versa. As Maya Angelou said, these myriad stories are the rainbows in my cloud, and are all of those who I call up with me when times are challenging and troubled. To give them up would be a shame, would be a sorrow, and would not be acknowledging the power of all of those tiny rainbows, even the ones who I met during that hard experience in inner city North Philadelphia.

Let me tell you another story. This past weekend, I assisted my friend Sarah and we taught fourteen adults how to make automated machines using wood, plastic, metal, porcelain, etc. One of our students was a woman about my own age, who turned up looking a little unsure, but all of us show up to Haystack looking a bit unsure. On the first night, she carried in a giant suitcase full of stuff. She was a beautiful woman, shorter than I with dark hair under a knit cap. She had a strange air to her, as if she was distracted or not fully present,  a lilt and a slight lisp to her voice, and a dark scar under one eye. After she brought the case in, and opened it, she exclaimed how she couldn’t believe how she had made everything inside it. I asked her to explain and tell me what was happening with her as I had heard her earlier explain rebuilding an old cabin and living in a small town near Blue Hill. She told me that she had recently been in a serious accident and had broken her back and had had to relearn how to walk and take care of herself again, and had somehow found herself living in her father’s old cabin with broken windows and trash and tools half buried in the yard, and that she had to haul water daily and had replaced the roof and was wondering what she was doing and was slowly realizing that she wasn’t going to be able to stay there for the winter. I identified with her, and she reminded me of myself, broken apart, confused, and full of sorrow, when I landed on this island two years ago, and I told her that I thought I understood what was up: that her survival instinct had kicked in at some point and that her homeplace was her land and her project and that she was just reconnecting the parts that had been flung apart during her traumatic experience. Interestingly enough, after a day of confusion and no direction in her process, she ended up cutting out a backbone of brass, and building a ribcage of copper that she riveted to the backbone. Later, we soldered a sternum on to the ribcage, added a tube and made it a syringe ring that, when the plunger was pushed, springs shot out of a central tube and out and up of her ribcage. In a way, she rebuilt her back and her body out of shiny, beautiful metal: a model of what she was going through in her life, made by her hands, directed and coaxed and bent and heated and cooled, tumbled, refined, she created something so beautiful that it caused many people to draw their breath in sharply, even if they didn’t know her story.


The Wishbone

What do I want?

I want to spend time remembering, here, with myself and with you, my audience, the many rainbows in my cloud, for I had almost forgotten them. From now on, for a while, I will spend some time recording my teaching stories, which are the backbone/funnybone/wishbone of my blogging. After all, I started blogging about my teaching stories way back in 2006 on, an outdated blogging resource but very interesting to reread 8 years on. It is amazing how one’s writing style can change for the better…thank goodness for time!

I want to teach kids who need adults who really care about them to build bridges with them to learn science and read books and create art in a supportive atmosphere that is stable and has a history and is run by a caring staff who is in it for the kids, not for their own self interest. I want to teach at places like Haystack, and Metalwerx, and Arrowmont, and Penland. I want to teach classes in my studio and bring the creative spirit out in anyone who crosses my threshold. I want to share with people the power of their own expression. I want to challenge myself to always express myself, too. I want to see different kinds of people every day, and occasionally, to hide out in a coffee shop late at night. I want to be able to bike some places, and walk some places. I want to go to community discussions on social issues that are important to me, watch documentaries in the dark, and to stroll through museums. I want to cease to be intimidating, but become intimidated and challenged by others. I want to be surprised by people, places and things. I want to take my love of my last two years, and my knowledge of the thirty two that preceded it, and combine it in a life in a place that is good for me.

I spent the three days two weekends ago learning and growing from fourteen strangers and a few friends. I purposefully didn’t really make anything, but just sat by that anvil and thought, when I wasn’t up and helping people make their automata. I sat on steps and thought, I lay in my bed and thought, I stared through trees and out at the ocean. I watched crows fly and coast on thermals over the tops of the studios yesterday morning with the glinting ocean stretching out behind them. I realized, here we are. Nothing really is right or wrong: our decisions are just choices, realities that we put into place, knowing what we know, recognizing imperfection, seeking a more holistic hold on life, one of people big and small, of the possibility that love means a myriad things, that being able to spread ones arms or wings or whatever you want to call them, may be something to consider, after all.

Now That I Know…

{only the last photo in today’s post is one of mine….all others are Google Images found by searching “fog”}

What seems like many years ago, I taught in a school in East Austin in a room with one bright orange wall.

Orange was the color that designated 8th grade rooms, although I taught all three grades in that room. Typically, while I was a teacher, I was “split” or taught multiple grades in the same year. It was really challenging at first, but became much easier as time went by. In this room, my second room in that school, there were many windows along the back wall and it looked out over the rooftop of the first floor and beyond that, the neighborhood where all the kids who came to us lived. That neighborhood was one of the worst in Austin, poor, ugly, dirty…a typical neighborhood that poverty and city neglect has left to decay and never improve. In that neighborhood there were no grocery stores or doctors, no movie theatres or good parks. You had to cross the interstate that was about a mile away to get to that sort of thing. I always wondered why a city would build a neighborhood so isolated from the city itself.

The orange wall was in the front of the room and was covered with two white boards and a flat screen tv, if you believe it. I taught almost everything via PowerPoint on that flat screen tv. Large screens with bright colors are lifesavers when you are teaching kids with the attention span of a fruit fly. There were two doors: one we used, and one we didn’t. The one we didn’t was typically covered in a huge poster made of butcher paper that somehow related to what we were studying. At that school, I made many of these posters as I loved to have large, colorful representations of what we were doing. My favorite one that we made was entitled “Dragon City” and was a city made of multi-colored block buildings all made by students. Below the city were tectonic plates that, tragically, were always moving, causing earthquakes. To the side there was a large volcano that was always on the edge of eruption. There was also an ocean with a tsunami at all times, high winds that caused hurricanes and weather conditions that created tornadoes. Life was rough and tough in Dragon City, but all the people lived there, anyway. When the students and I first made it, I made them watch part of Werner Herzog’s short documentary La Soufriere, and talk about why they thought the people would stay when they knew they might be killed.

Daily life in that school was difficult and funny. There were many students who were extraordinarily challenging, but there were also many who were great and inspiring with their intelligences. I tried my best to work with them and challenge them but also help them along, holding their hands a little bit and showing them things they would never otherwise see.

Because of the location of the school, up on a hill in the middle of Austin’s second greenbelt (although this greenbelt was unused by hippies looking for swimming holes), we had different microclimates than the surrounding neighborhood. Because we were up and away, typically our mornings, especially in the transition times between summer and fall, fall and winter and winter and spring, were very foggy.

In the back of my room I had an altar and a coffee machine (what more do you really need?). Every morning I made coffee with maple syrup in it; maple syrup was my reward for surviving there and at home as this was the year I got divorced. On foggy mornings, I started a tradition of fog bathing.

When the kids came in, I would throw open all the windows and we would let the morning fog roll into the room, filling the classroom with clouds. The fog clouds were cool and damp and murky-feeling, as if you were in a forest, not a building. If you looked out of the windows, you could see the fog pouring in over the sills, into our low pressure, controlled climate atmosphere of our school. Sometimes, when the kids weren’t in the room, during an off period, for example, I would sit in the front of the room, doing work at the computer and look up to see banks of fog like water rolling in toward me.

That school, despite its many problems, was in a beautiful spot in east Austin: ringed with trees and fields it sat. It sat on top of a seam of calcite, metamorphic limestone, that had been blasted to build the school. Oftentimes I would take the students in my elective out for a constitutional and we would go and collect beautiful rocks to bring back to the classroom. We would crawl around the retaining walls that were built along the back of the school, hiding when principals or janitors came by (they didn’t understand the need for constitutionals or for beautiful rocks), putting rocks and dead bugs in pockets to cart them inside and place them, delicately, on shelves or windowsills. Nothing ever happened to these rocks despite the concerns of principals: none were ever thrown at each other or through glass.

Sometimes we would go exploring in the woods just to see what was out there, and I would try to get the kids to scream primal screams with me in the woods; they had no experience of the outdoors and were scared of it. One of them even told me, “Miss? Black people don’t go into the woods!”. But after a few journeys, they liked going out there and climbing over cedar trees and into spiders’ webs and finding evidence of people living in those woods. They climbed around over cliff’s edges and got dirt in their shoes and needles in their hair. They would always come back when called, and in we would go again, to reintegrate into the world that was our school.

At that school we had a school garden, and goats, and an after school program in which we wrote a literary magazine and made pinhole cameras. I sat in the hallways and talked to students during my time off, and went into other classrooms who were struggling when their teachers quit in the morning, or the middle of the day.

The best times, for me, in terms of reflecting on what I was doing, what the work actually was, came though, on those days when I could stand, drinking coffee with maple syrup, and stare out those back windows. If I could stand and stare awhile at the plants, at the rocks, at the books on the altar, at the posters on the walls and floor, at the mobiles hanging from the ceiling, I could wrap my head around what I was trying to do there. I later realized that, although I was great at crowd control and counseling, that I needed to learn how to teach, and so I left that school after two years. It is only now, four years later, that I can look back and see the forest for the trees. Now I can see the beauty even of that place: the waves of fog pouring into my classroom as students worked on building cricket homes or proving photosynthesis in test tubes or reading about light years.

Sunset at Suminsby Park, Northeast Harbor

Now the fog I see and experience rolls toward me from the harbor that is 4/10 of a mile away. It rolls up the streets from out in the ocean, traveling like someone floating up into town, drifting down the main street, up Summit Road and toward me. It flows and falls between houses and garages, and peeks between the branches of trees. Fog is so much a creature of its molecular structure: water pours even in its different phases. A few days ago, I woke up to a foggy day where everything was grey and green. I stood out on the porch awhile, watching the fog move down my street, through the tall juniper trees, over my neighbor’s cottage, along the driveway and out toward the street.