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|Sky Full of Light
– A Parable of Learning Without Limits
by Trudi Lee Richards
Copyright © 2002 by Trudi Lee Richards
All Rights Reserved
San Francisco, California
To Mary Helen and Ricky
Fear not the path of truth
Our future is going to be the future of truth,
This book came about from the mixing of three streams that poured themselves together into this fishy, sometimes limpid story. The first stream is my journey with my twin daughters through the American education system. For twelve years I ran along the slippery bank, watching helplessly as they thrashed about, disappearing and resurfacing, in the rapids and muddy sinkholes of the San Francisco public schools. The second stream is my journey as the daughter of an educator – my mother was Mary Helen Richards, founder of that playful, demanding and revolutionary approach to learning and teaching, Education Through Music. For most of my life I wandered beside that grand torrent, now and then testing the water, always careful not to be swept up by its lyrical force. The last stream is my existential journey as a seeker of meaning in life, a student of the Argentine humanist Mario Rodriguez Cobos (Silo).
I passionately wanted to write this story – but with these three currents roiling in my brain, it took me a long time to sort out exactly why. Twenty years ago, as a young mother horrified by the world into which I had brought my children, I discovered Silo’s path of active nonviolence, and realized I had to do something to help transform this world. For years, however, I thought I had to do it the way my mother did, and make my contribution as an educator. I wanted to be a key player in the education revolution, developing a humanist approach that would include her work as a major element.
That idea held a kind of violent attraction for me – it seemed at once a pure and necessary crusade, and an impossibility. I had to do it, but where would I ever find the time? Although I love working with young people, I never got a teaching credential, and if truth be told, don’t enjoy classroom teaching. I wanted to write a story about my experiences, but I felt I ought to do something concrete. A story has no practical value unless someone happens to read it and be moved by it.
It was only when my father died recently that I finally saw the difference between my mother’s path and mine, and managed to dismount my leaping charger and accept my humble role as a simple story teller. Perhaps, by trying to emulate my mother, I had been trying to keep her alive for my father. She was the subject of his life: he wooed and won her, and became “the wind under her wings” – he was the father of her children, her breadwinner, her housekeeper, her organizer, her childsitter, her manager, her editor, her admirer, her biographer, her lover, her beloved. After her death, he even put off his own passing for four years, until he had finished writing the story of their life together . For whatever reason, when he died, I understood with great relief that I did not have to single handedly transform education – that I could simply write the story I wanted to write.
My mother also wanted to write the story of her work, since people often asked her why she developed Education Through Music. But by the time she began to write that story, she was beginning to lose her memory, and the effort caused her great frustration. I tried to help her organize and edit the stories she wrote. They seemed to belong here, along with my own story – but since they are so uniquely her own, they are really another volume, which I have titled Wake Up Singing . In them the boundary between reality and fantasy may be blurred – but who is to say one kind of truth is more valid than another?
My earlier misunderstanding about my life work did have positive consequences, since it spurred me to do considerable research on current trends in humanistic education. I have included a resource list at the end of this book because, although I did not use this research to develop a specific educational proposal, what I discovered thrilled and humbled me, and gave me even stronger grounds for optimism. I saw that with our without me, the education revolution is well under way, regardless of the impression one might receive from the media or from proponents of traditional education.
What I discovered is a subtle but pervasive force, like a happy little mutant plant infiltrating the soil, breaking up even great slabs of ancient rock with its carefree, persistent growth. Feeding this growth is an enormous desire for change – a desire shared by parents and children, students and teachers. As a result, experiments in humanistic and holistic education are thriving and growing everywhere, in public and private schools and in a variety of community learning centers and home school resource centers around the world. Young people in these alternative educational environments do well – often far better than their counterparts in our traditional public schools. They generally score well on standardized tests and frequently go on to excel at college.
The only catch is that these experiments are not available to most young people. Alternative education is viewed with alarm and mistrust by the proponents and controllers of traditional public schooling, who determine what is available to most of our children. These traditionalists range from the politicians – and their media buddies – who see the “education crisis” as a convenient diversion tactic, to the parents who believe their rhetoric of disaster and their demands for “higher standards” and “accountability,” to the great beneficiaries of the education crisis, the educational testing industry.
I agree, education is indeed in crisis – but not because our children cannot regurgitate enough right rote answers to “compete” in the international marketplace. Compulsory traditional education is in crisis because it cuts our children and our teachers off from their own energy and creativity, replacing the sheer joy and challenge of real learning with years of outrageous and fearful drudgery. Too many of our schools submerge our children and teachers in a suffocating atmosphere of violence, denying them the opportunity learn to live together in cooperation as free and happy people on this earth.
Yes, we do need “higher standards and accountability.” But it is we who must be accountable to ourselves and to our children, we who must live up to truly human standards. We must provide learning environments that will allow all our children and teachers to achieve their human greatness. To do this we need to make humanistic and holistic alternatives available to everyone, regardless of wealth, race, ethnicity, or any other condition.
This story is my contribution toward that end, a murmur in the living current that may someday carry the possibility of learning without limits to all human beings.
GRANDPA and the POSSIBLE FUTURE
“We don’t have to stop here! We can just go back and back…”
Grandpa is wonderstruck. An old man in a loose gray suit, his bitter face amazed, he is standing in the middle of the broad wooden boat on the endless, bright desert, the Ocean of Time. He can hardly wait, so ready is he to begin the journey back to see his parents and theirs and all the generations of our ancestors, making amends and reconciling everything with everyone…
His whole family is here with us – his youngest son, my gay uncle who committed suicide; my mother – innocent, despotic and humble; my uncle the Christian Scientist healer, who died painlessly of liver cancer; my grandmother, holding everyone like a bouquet of roses. And my grandfather, standing there like a child who has opened the door to wonderland. He wants my company on that intricate journey back and back, reconciling all. I would love to go with him – and perhaps someday I will – but today it would keep me too long.
I am going the other way, to tell more recent stories – stories to open the Possible Future.
In the great Cathedral of Saint Denis on the outskirts of Paris the kings of France are buried, and above them rises the Light. When St. Denis had his head chopped off there in 208 AD, there came a great explosion of Light – and he arose, picked up his head, and walked to the place he wanted to be buried… They say it was he who first said “God is Light.”
It was close to the year 2000 when I was there with Jorge. We had one day left in Paris; a French lady we met in a restaurant told us we must see St. Denis – so we took the Metro the long way to the end of the line.
The parish of St. Denis serves over 10,000 people, mostly immigrants, from Africa and the Middle East and all Europe. Massive and simple in line, the Cathedral rises out of the shabby neighborhood; nearby is a glass and steel shopping mall.
We enter through the heavy wooden doors. Inside, the Cathedral is vast and dim; in its echoing spaces, the Light is felt more than seen. Far away, in the apse at the other end, the priests chant and carry out their rituals. The gothic windows ringing the walls are filled with battered whitish glass.
Just inside the great doors, steel pedestals hold lighted panels that explain about the Cathedral. It is famous for its early stained glass, which was mostly destroyed in wars. A museum of dead kings fills transepts, the apse, and the crypt.
Jorge wants to visit the museum first. Finding the turnstile near the front of the Cathedral, we pay the business-woman behind the desk, and pass through the security gate.
We descend into the crypt – a place of the Dead. Here we are surrounded by stone. Low ceilings, arches of stone, slabs of rock inscribed with the names of the dead kings and ministers and royal sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles. Cramped doorways lead into dimly lit tombs. Here the noise of life does not penetrate – the air is silent, and smells of mold. There are thousands of names, Jorge wants to read them all. But the Dead make me nervous; I acknowledge them briefly, and move on, impatient to go up.
We emerge finally into the apse – it too is overflowing with the Dead. Marble kings and queens of the Dark Ages compose themselves on marble beds, robed and crowned, staring upward, hands pointed in prayer, having long ago lost hope of going anywhere, while the Renaissance royalty struggle with their marble drapery, naked, writhing, and neurotic. Here are the Medicis, and Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette… agents of the miraculous, “culture” conceived in the compost of suffering…
In the darkness near the rear of the apse, we find the Tree of Life, virgin stained glass, glowing like a flower.
We leave the museum of the Dead, passing unhindered through the security gate, into the Cathedral for the living.
Looking up, high into the vaulted spaces, trying to see all around us at once, we grope our way down a side aisle toward the rear of the Cathedral. There we cross to the center aisle, and begin to walk toward the front again, between the rows of wooden pews. Slowly, slowly – here? I suggest – or maybe here? Jorge keeps walking. Finally he says “Now we can sit” – and we take wooden chairs near the front of the Cathedral, directly under the great vault of the arches high above, where space intersects itself, a portal to Heaven.
Outside, it is raining lightly, and I feel a great joy – because I have glimpsed my privilege. I walk with Jorge, enjoying the rain and the gray old city and the bright empty mall. It is early evening. Two girls are descending into the ground on a moving ramp. “Metro?” we ask them. “No – Parking,” they tell us, smiling. “Ou est Metro?” Jorge lurches in his primitive French. “La bas” they point, laughing, as they vanish underground.
We keep walking in the direction they pointed – but I want to tell Jorge my secret. Sometimes, when I tell him my thoughts, he responds by thinking, which Annoys me. So sometimes I say nothing. But this is different. I know he will be interested, and I am only a little embarrassed, to denude myself like this. “Wait a minute,” I stop walking. “I want to tell you about my experience in the Cathedral.”
“Ah, I knew something happened to you,” he acknowledges.
“It was something very simple, but also wonderfully complex,” I tell him, choosing the words for this marvel, which is so clear in my mind. “I’ve always assumed, in trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do in my life, that I had too many ideas, too many images – far too much for me to actually do. So for years I’ve been trying to narrow them down, to see precisely what little doable thing might be my work, my special job. But I just saw that, quite the contrary, my job right now is to write everything down, to articulate, very thoroughly, all my images about humanizing education. It’s really so simple a proposal, yet incredibly complex to carry out, and wonderful!”
I am filled with delight, here in this young rain, in the French shopping mall.
“Ah…” says Jorge. He understands, which is very good.
The world exploded
– Jessica, age 3
Everything begins with children.
It was the early ’80s, the time of the Bomb. I had two-year-old twins – unbearably adorable little girls – who had of course changed my life.
A friend told me they came from a far star, reluctantly, and only because it was I who called. I liked that. But they were here, in San Francisco, with me and my equally helpless husband, and I was living in terror because the Bomb might really fall, and they would suffer hideously and die before my own helpless eyes.
Then, waiting one day at a dreary bus stop, I saw a beautiful poster. It said, “Peace is possible. It’s up to you.” It bore a drawing, in colors, of a hand, with middle and pointer fingers raised and thumb extended, making the shape of a dove with flaring wings. In a beam of daring, I wrote down the phone number.
I called when I got home; a man named Homer answered. “But look,” I asked him, “Do you really think we can do anything to change things?”
“Of Course!!” came the ebullient answer.
THE DOOR OUT
Homer was a volunteer with a humanist organization called “The Community for the Equilibrium and Development of the Human Being.” The Community was unusual in a number ways – not the least of which was its remarkably elongated name. But what interested me was its focus: it seemed to be neither social activism nor spiritual discipline – neither exclusively inward nor outward – but both at once. This suggested to me something I particularly sought at that moment: balance. I wanted liberation, but in a form that would not upset my life!
For the last fifteen years I had been anything but equilibrated. In the madness into which I had been initiated in the early ’70s by my innocent LSD investigations, I had been forced to confront a terrifying absurdity: the non-meaning into which all of us, if we peer a little beneath the surface, are born, and in which too many of us apparently die, without ever suspecting that we have lived an entire life in a trap.
Ever since this unwilling awakening, I had been trying numerous purported ways out. But each had brought me up against a new increment of suffering. Most recently I had been following a charismatic young guru of Jewish parentage who said he was Lord Shiva. But although he talked about the Light and bringing world peace through prayer, he also expected me to leave my children and husband, and follow him.
I tried hard to imagine this level of devotion – but it proved beyond me. I was bound, head, heart and body, to my family – especially to my children. My mother-cord, like some miracle mountaineering tether, seemed to be indestructible. I left the guru.
But now something was badly missing.
I wanted other people who were looking together for the Door Out, people who had seen clues and signs of one, and who sensibly ignored the signs that pointed off cliffs.
I went to a “healer psychologist.”
“Yes,” she told me, “for some people Shiva is appropriate. For others he’s too extreme. Look for something with more balance.”
That is when I saw the poster, and called Homer.
Checking out whatever Homer was doing took me a while. After fifteen years of misadventures in seeking a way out, I was suspicious -like a shipwreck survivor, clinging to a rotting splinter of the wreck, being hailed suddenly by a crowd of happy people in a big, sunny lifeboat. I was fearful of letting go of my splinter, in case the boat and its riders proved only another mirage.
But Homer threw me a line. He needed a graphic artist in his business, so I began working for him at his home in the Sunset District. He lived with his wife and two children in a big house with a basement office, sending out junk mail for a living. Homer was abrupt and enthusiastic; his wife, Mary, had a plain and generous peace about her. They were both dedicated to “humanizing the earth,” whatever that meant – and there was an atmosphere of purpose and welcome in their home. I liked being there. I envied their breathing in that atmosphere together, as they did. My husband Steven and I had separate obsessions – mine was the Door Out; his was music (or perhaps music was his own Door Out).
I bided my time. Whatever I tried next had to be safe. Homer and Mary invited me to their Community meetings, but I preferred to sit and wait, typing out their coupons on a gigantic orange typesetting machine.
Then, finally there was an invitation that sounded OK. It was to the viewing of a video called “Faces of the Enemy.”
The meeting was held in the “locale” on 16th street in Noe Valley. These Community people used odd terminology, like “locale.” They also followed the works of Silo, an Argentinean writer and thinker.
The part about following someone was ok – in fact, I liked following. Let someone else make the decisions! But still I had my doubts. Someone from South America? Yes, I was a California “liberal,” from a proudly open minded family, and we did like to think of ourselves as free of all prejudice. Certain prejudices, however, were so much a part of me, like the ground I walked on, that I did not even recognize them. Although I had been to Europe and to India, I had never been south of the California border, but I had a feeling of distaste about that unknown part of the world. Did anything dignified and cultured come from down there? I had always assumed – like all well-educated Americans of that time – that the US was the best, most civilized place in the universe, that I was extremely lucky to live here, and that the only place with more “culture” was Europe. I imagined all people from Mexico on south as drunken and loud, with uncultured accents and no education.
But my curiosity and my psychic loneliness got the better of me. What I encountered that night at the video showing did not fit my preconceptions.
I circled the block around the “locale” several times before I got up the nerve to park and go in. The locale was a wood-paneled office, with a group of chairs facing a television. Ten or fifteen people were there; I chose a seat a safe distance away from the rest. Presently a British-sounding fellow stood up and gave us a congenial welcome, and then we watched the video – about war and the effects of war, how war has shaped cultures, twisting humanity in against itself for eons in paroxysms of fear.
It was a horrible scenario.
But, amazingly, I ended up with a feeling of hope, rather than the usual defiant despair I associated with leftists. Because it seemed that, despite this plague of fear, even despite this latest horrible dream of apocalypse via the Bomb, the people here were optimistic!
Perhaps even better, they were friendly. It was not an aggressive, cult-crazy friendliness, a friendliness aimed at gaining my allegiance. It was an open handed friendliness that seemed to be without expectations. After the video a young woman, Sybil, sat down next to me. She told me she had just found true love – which she had never before believed possible. In the same way, she said, we could bring about Peace. But we had to start by believing it was possible. She showed me a thin gray book called The Internal Landscape. It was by that Argentinean, Silo; she said it would tell me about their work.
That night I read it almost without stopping, cover to cover. It was poetry. It was about meaning in life, about giving without expectation, about ending suffering – about the Door Out.
After that, the Community became the beginning of the end of a way of life for me. To be sure, I had grasped at this lifeline because I thought it would be safe – and safe meant not rocking the boat. I didn’t want to admit that I was living a double life. Even though, in my own interior reality, I was floundering alone in the icy waters of my search for meaning, I pretended I was riding cozily in a tiny boat with Steven and the babies. I thought perhaps the humanist vessel could tow us along behind. Then I might visit that idyllic sparkling cruiser now and then. But I would always return to my private little boat.
I didn’t say much to Steven about the Community. He had had enough with Shiva.
But I was privately delighting in my new direction, which I hoped I would be able to maintain from our little boat. I began to aspire to be a kind of “mystic/activist.” This was not how the Community officially framed its work, but it was how I experienced it. For me it reflected a unique balance, which led neither to a wasteland of burnout, nor to an ivory tower of self-obsession (which had been my experience with several of the inner “ways” I had explored). The Community focused on one’s whole experience of living – which, after all, does include both inner and outer.
So I went to Community meetings and other get-togethers now and then, after “work” in Homer’s basement, and Steven, who I believed was uninterested, knew very little about it. But that was ok. Couple relationships were like that – you just had to make the best of them.
That summer, in 1984, the Community had a 4th of July picnic in Golden Gate Park. I brought my twins, now almost three. Homer and Mary and their two small children met us there, and we sat on the shaded grass under an oak tree, alert for toddlers falling out of its wide arms.
People began to arrive – alone, in couples, a few with children. One of them was a balding middle-aged man from Argentina, Jorge. Argentina again – I believed it was South America. Jorge looked more Irish than Latino, but he was speaking Spanish with his girlfriend, a bland-looking American woman. We sat on the grass and talked, I have no idea about what. That evening I brought the twins back home, and forgot about Jorge.
I continued to work in Homer’s basement. I did volunteer work for the Community, designing a brochure in the Community colors, orange and black on a white ground – giving it a light, open feeling. I had seen their other locale on 16th Avenue before, another small office with a wall painting in those colors.
Something bothered me about that place – it was the painting. It reminded me of Communism. Indeed, the Community’s written materials did talk a lot about “solidarity” – a definitely Communist concept. The painting was of a banner-waving, marching, smiling mob of young people, looking happy together – but not at all appealing to my taste. I was an American, and Americans were individuals, individualists – not to be swallowed up in “solidarity”! Of course I did not object to the abstract idea of solidarity – it was the inevitable association with Communism and the almost equally dangerous Socialism that bothered me. It was not even that I objected rationally to Communism or Socialism – it was more of a gut reaction.
I mentioned this to Mary, and she seemed troubled – didn’t I want to work with others in solidarity? I tried to explain, it was not that I didn’t want to work with others – I saw more and more the importance of that, and how my own search for meaning, my own “spiritual” search was inevitably also social, was not something that I must or could do in isolation. In fact I saw that my past 15 years of “search” had been leading me more and more into a lonely and schizophrenic introversion. When I had not been “blissed out” in meditation or “oming” for world peace with a group of other isolated people who were otherwise aloof from the dirty world, I had only experienced a deeper and deeper loneliness.
It had been a miraculous transformation for me when I first began to work with the Community: my inner torture – the torture of living in a world about to blow up and cause unspeakable suffering to my beloved children – had totally and illogically lifted. It had been like the sudden vanishing of a thousand tons of oppression, that first ray of sunlight through the Door Out.
Regardless, however, I still had this antipathy for anything that might lead to that empty and godless plight, Communism – or to that almost-as-bad other thing, Socialism. I knew very little about either one, just that I felt a kind of antipathy for them. They were “political.” Which meant artless, heartless, and intrinsically dehumanizing. And was that not what we were trying to get away from? I tried to explain this to Mary – and she became thoughtful, but had no solution to offer.
Homer invited me to join the Community as an “active member.” I asked what that entailed – and his answer seemed safe enough. An agreement to work together, meet regularly once a week and participate in whatever activities I could fit into my life. Why not, I said. So the next afternoon, with a few friends in Homer’s basement, all of them already members of the Community, we did the “Ceremony of Declaration.”
The ceremony was casual, although it did involve reading something. But I liked ceremony; and the main thing was that these were friendly people, working toward this amazing concept of a world without nightmares. Peace. It was definitely worth risking a little taint of “solidarity” – perhaps not such a bad concept if you could break the association with Communism. Maybe even Communism and Socialism were not such bad concepts. It was just that in practice Communism had apparently devolved into something dehumanizing in those vast countries under its sway, the Soviet Union and China… and Socialism, like marijuana, was likely to lead to that deadlier “dope,” Communism.
The ceremony was simple. Homer handed me a typewritten sheet, and asked me to read the paragraph printed on it aloud. It would have been embarrassing to hesitate after having agreed, and besides, I trusted Homer. So I read:
“The Community has been defined as the group of people oriented toward the study, perfecting, and teaching of a system useful for the equilibrium and development of the human being. This system is a doctrine, a feeling, and a way of life.
I have verified that these affirmations agree with my own experience, and so am interested in participating more actively. This will be positive both for me and for enlarging our common work.”
In answer, Homer read in his jocular, tenderly humorous voice from a small red book. Listening, I felt a strong sense of rightness:
“Then receive this brief teaching. There are three pathways to suffering. Human beings suffer for what they believe has happened in their lives, for what they believe is happening, and for what they believe will happen. That is, they suffer through memory, through sensations, and through imagination.
But the things they believe are illusory.
To break the illusion, the human being needs a discipline that can be practiced at all times.
To understand and apply these Principles well, we recommend that you participate regularly in the works of the Community. These works illuminate and strengthen.
We also advise you to study our books, documents, and guidelines.
And now, I welcome you as an Active Member of our Community.”
“And what is it to humanize the earth? It is to surpass pain and suffering, it is to learn without limits, it is to love the reality you are building. ”
Positive, nonviolent action is a decision to Live. It is an enormous leap out of suffering – out of the painful default which we commonly accept as our lot.
My entrance into the Community had simply made concrete my decision to do something, the decision that set me free from the unbearable fear of catastrophic loss in which I had been submerged. That choice brought the privilege of beginning to discover and define – at the age of 37 – exactly what I wanted to do with my life.
It would not be until three years later, when my little girls entered first grade, that I would begin to focus on education as my particular passion. But before that I was to find myself confronting two more forks in the road – although now that I think of it, what else could I have done?
It was Mary who first spoke to me about the School. She was giving me a ride home one day, when she said, without preamble, “Do you want to join the School?” I had heard people around their house talking about the School. The word carried an allure – as of something not for everyone, something important and mysterious. It also sounded dangerous.
“I don’t know,” I replied, “What is it?”
“It’s for those who like this work and want to teach others,” was her succinct answer.
I would have said, “Of Course!” without hesitation. That was exactly what I craved to do. And I was gratified that they had at last invited me. But that word “join” – that was where the danger lay. It warned of being sucked up and swallowed whole, losing my particularly American birthright: my individuality.
I told Mary I would think about it. Even if I knew that I would say yes, I had to show myself I had the choice. At home that night, I dutifully asked myself, do I want to do this? The answer came without a second’s delay: YES!
This time it was at the Seasonal – a party with Homer and Mary’s numerous friends near the time of the Winter Solstice. Our purpose was to celebrate, along with thousands of other humanists all over the world, the quiet revolution of nonviolent transformation. Mary and Homer stood before their gathered friends, and I stood with two or three others who were entering the School, facing Homer and Mary, our backs to the others. Homer read:
“You have fulfilled the requirements necessary to officially become a Member of the School. At this time, I invite you to meditate, and forego your intention to enter if you do not intend to fulfill this more advanced plan of work and study. Remember: No one has chosen you, and neither has anyone opposed your admission. Consider that just as you now postulate yourself, if later you are no longer able to fulfill your commitments, you should exclude yourself from the School. If you think, feel and act in the direction of the School, if you carefully contribute to the enlargement of the common work, then enter. If not, then withdraw. ”
At this point Mary read:
“I will now recite your commitments:
Finally Homer concluded, “Now I ask you (and you will respond by taking one step forward or backward): Will you cross the threshold or remain outside?”
I stepped forward. Again, I felt a deep inward confirmation, a rejoicing at this action. I knew that I was choosing to give the world what it most deeply needed: a decision to help end humanity’s suffering – which of course included my own.
I came to the second fork in the road by surprise. My personal life was OK – most of the time. At any rate, I was not actively looking to change anything. Steven, an affectionate father and kind, if distracted mate, made no objection to my work with the Community. I’d fallen in love with him several years earlier when he had offered me the powerful and endearing quality of knowing what he wanted – a wife – and wanting me to be that for him.
Over the years, however, we had begun to move in different directions. While I kept groping toward personal peace, he had become a devoted musician. When he was not at the keyboard, he would spend his time immersed in mental composition, or going out with musician friends. He seemed to channel all his emotionality into his music. That left him generally unavailable for heart-to-heart interchange with me – except when I would threaten to leave him, which now and again I would do out of sheer loneliness. When I resorted to that extreme – which, since I was addicted to the “security” of having a husband, I rarely dared to do – he would become a different person, opening the door to his sweet being. I could never resist; I would once again relent and give it another go. And once I was securely with him again, he would retreat back into his shell.
This had been going on for some years. It was frustrating – but most of the time, it was tolerable, and the situation felt safe. And there were the children. So I simply pushed aside the gnawing feeling that I should be somewhere else.
At the break I found myself outside in the warm night, talking with Jorge. Jorge, the Argentinean I’d met in the park. I was surprised at the vital link that sprang up between us – words and understandings flowed as if a bright river joined us. I was startled and enthralled. I remember thinking, “if only I could communicate with everyone like this!”
When the meeting wound down an hour later, while we were all still sitting around the table, Jorge asked, “Does anyone want to go get something to eat?” Without thinking, I responded, “Sure, I do!” No one else seemed to be hungry. So Jorge and I went together to the Haystack Pizza Parlor.
We sat in a comer booth, ordered pasta and Greek salad, and talked – about our lives, our children. He had two children, but they were older, and living in Argentina. He asked me about my marriage; I said it was OK, I was not seeking anything else. We talked about how we had each gotten involved in the Community. He had come to California in the 70’s, as a political refugee during the time of Argentina’s “Dirty War.” I told him about seeing the poster and calling Homer. Then, suddenly, we were kissing.
How much longer we talked – an hour or two? – I don’t know. But we seemed to have been caught up within an irresistible current, a crystalline torrent that laid siege to the Abyss itself. When we left the restaurant, I knew – we knew – that we were going to make our lives together. It was inevitable.
That same week, with great trepidation, I left my marriage, bringing the twins with me. In this I was supported by the social convention that the children go with the mother – but in truth, I simply could not conceive of leaving them.
It was not that I saw Steven as undesirable. He was simply inaccessible, and this left a great gap in my emotional life. Until now, I had been unwilling to leave him, for I was afraid of being without a man. Perhaps he found in me what I found in him: comfort. But probably he stayed with me mostly for the children, whom he loved and would never have abandoned.
At any rate, we had for years tried to keep our existence stable – but in doing so had effectively neutralized ourselves, so that neither of us could move on in our lives to where we truly needed and wanted to go. It was only now, having met Jorge, that I was able to summon the courage to move on. I have to admit that I might well never have done so without having first found another relationship to move into, one which offered the unbelievable reality of a shared direction and an open emotional connection.
It was without the remotest doubt that I left . At the same time, I could not even begin to reconcile the great burst of freedom in my own life with Steven’s agony at the vanishing of his children – or with the children’s own aching pain and perplexity at the loss of their father.
When Jorge and I got together, Chris and Jessica were just three years old. They were enthusiastic, wild and gentle children – quite “normal” but, of course, extraordinary as well. At birth, they had been two months premature. Obviously they were impatient – or perhaps it was just too small in there for their roiling spirits. At any rate, they emerged at two pounds each, and went through a harrowing two month stay in neonatal intensive care. But when they came home, tiny and golden, I knew they were perfect in every way.
At that time Mount Zion Hospital was conducting a developmental study of “preemies,” and I accepted the offer to participate. So until they were five, we would go to the clinic every so often to visit with a young woman named Julie, who had them sort blocks, draw pictures, choose items from boxes, answer questions, tell her what they saw, tell stories. They both tested high in all areas – motor, cognitive, emotional – and Julie and the other researchers were enchanted with them.
To my eye, of course, they were beautiful beyond measure – sparkling, creative, playful, and – with each other – competitive. I was looking forward to their schooling, with its fabled opportunities to learn and grow, to create and become, to make friends. I knew their experience would be different than my own unhappy, lonely years at school. I was sure they would love school in every way.
When they were almost five, I enrolled them in Buena Vista, a Spanish bilingual public school. Since their step dad was Spanish speaking, and our newborn son Johnny was certainly going to be bilingual, we thought it would be good for the twins to have the same opportunity. (As it turned out, Johnny did not grow up bilingual, because Jorge forgot to speak Spanish with him. Jessica and Chris, on the other hand, did eventually learn a great deal of Spanish at Buena Vista.)
Kindergarten was great. Chris and Jessica started out in separate classes – and they both relished the school day, which was mostly play. Their teachers were creative and sincere. I was delighted.
It was when they entered first grade that the blow fell: school suddenly became Work. It was the Puritan crackdown. Children were no longer supposed to play – school was serious. Chris and Jessica – and I, feeling their suffering – were instantly miserable.
We tried everything – classes together, classes apart, changing teachers, conferences, special attention. No one seemed to know exactly what was wrong. The teachers and school administrators seemed to be fine, caring, even devoted people. And they were the first to admit that Chris and Jessica were bright and creative. The problem was, dammit, they wouldn’t buckle down and work! They wouldn’t do what they were supposed to do. They still wanted to play. They were presenting problems for which the teachers either had no solutions or no time.
Of course, being the kind of twins who run in opposite directions, they expressed their misery in different ways. Chris wouldn’t or couldn’t learn to read, while Jessica developed a disturbing habit of snarling at her teachers and classmates.
The year eked on. Second grade came, and went, with more and more problems and failed solutions. For third grade we tried once more putting them in separate classes, with no improvement. My dream of school as a wonderful experience for my little girls had become all but a distant fantasy. Then, that October, both of their teachers approached me. They came independently – but each told me the same thing: “I’m worried about your daughter. She has no energy, and she never smiles. She just lies there with her head on her desk, and refuses to do anything. Maybe you should take her to the doctor.”
That set off my alarms. I knew there was nothing wrong with my children – at home they played and bounced around ceaselessly, laughing, chattering, fighting, creating complex imaginary worlds, drawing and painting. Each commanded a copious vocabulary, and in their bird-like voices they would articulate to anyone and everyone their multitudinous ideas and questions and interpretations of reality. School obviously imposed a pernicious distortion on their daily reality – it was a Bad Environment. I decided I would indeed take them to our pediatrician. But not because I thought they were sick. I would take them because I knew that somehow, in some vital way, the schools were sick, and I knew doctors had clout in that system.
Sure enough, the doctor told me there was nothing wrong with the children. It was just that some schools were no good. He would get them into a good one – West Portal. He knew people there, and would write a medical letter that would get them in, despite the unfavorable racial quotas.
My hopes rose – maybe that would do it. We changed schools mid-year – never an easy move – but I saw no other option.
At West Portal, we again found wonderful people – both teachers and administrators. The principle, in fact, was an old friend from the children’s first year at Buena Vista, an enthusiastic, sympathetic, creative woman. I was sure her school must be great. She assured me the girls would have fine, caring teachers at West Portal. So for the second time that year, Chris and Jessica entered new classrooms. Chris did love her teacher, Miss Mills; Jessica was unimpressed with hers, but at least did not start out snarling. They began their readjustment.
Of course, joining a new class in mid-year is always difficult, and I was prepared for some problems. But I hoped they would be temporary. So it was with a sinking sensation that, a few weeks later, I received the request for an IEP for Chris. The IEP (Individualized Educational Program), they explained to me, was a wonderful opportunity. It meant my daughter was being considered for the label “learning disabled.” They suggested that perhaps she was dyslexic. Even the principal and Chris’s beloved Miss Mills wanted to put her in the “special” class. They also suggested it wouldn’t hurt to put her sister in that class too – maybe a bit later. And, they assured me, it was really a fine opportunity for them both. The special class was smaller, with more attention for each child – and they got ice cream every day! The ice cream part sounded more than a little suspicious to me – but, well – I tried to convince myself, maybe this was really what my children needed. Maybe there really was no stigma. Maybe it would be wonderful.
My friend Myra is a special ed teacher. Twice last year she was bitten by pupils, hard enough to draw blood, and each time spent an entire day at the hospital being tested for hepatitis and HIV. Most school days she returns home bruised, sore and exhausted from being attacked by one or more of her seven-year-olds, whom she often has to “restrain” before they can hurl themselves at the nearest littler child, or out the window. She knows that if the parents find out she has laid hands on their child – even if it is clearly to save him from harming himself or someone else – they might well succeed in having her fired. She also knows that what her children long for more than anything is a loving embrace – and that, of course, is the most forbidden of all. So she powers her restraints with her inexhaustible love, and pours love into them through her unarguable voice and her crackling stare and her boistrous humor. Myra lives for her work and her children. She says it doesn’t matter that she has no time or energy left for an intimate relationship – let alone for having children of her own. This is her calling.
For “special” children, strong and loving teachers who are dedicated enough to survive them are a rare gift. Children like Myra’s do need something “special” – but the current system clearly fulfills neither the desperate needs of most of the children, nor those of their teachers and parents. Teachers like Myra persist in their magnificent work despite the countless maddening obstacles planted in our educational system.
I was visiting my friend Louise when I happened to tell her about the IEP for Chris. “Wait!” she commanded. “Let me give you something.” She went to her bedroom and returned with a book, The Magic Feather – the Truth about Special Education. “You have to read this first. Promise me you won’t do anything or sign anything until you’ve read it.”
The Magic Feather is an expose on special education in the United States, written by the parents of a child who was placed in special ed early in his schooling. Louise had been given the book by a friend when the “authorities” had tried to put her own child on the special track in preschool – he was hyperactive and definitely a “problem” in any classroom. After reading the book, Louise had refused the offer. Her son was still at large in the system – an energetic canon ball, but brilliant and joyful in his obnoxious way.
I read the book – and panicked. It was a convincing expose of a system designed, with every good intent, to respond to a great and growing need – but a system which seemed to have been misused and misdirected to the point that it was unable to fulfill its intended purpose. Granted, this book was written in the eighties; and undoubtedly certain aspects of the system have changed since then, hopefully for the better. At that time however, according to the book, one of the system’s fundamental drawbacks was that special education had become one of the more popular ways to pipe money into needy schools, which received a considerable sum for every child enrolled in special classes. This situation fueled an almost irresistible temptation in the public schools to label as many children as possible “special,” whether their difficulty was mild or severe, proven or hypothetical.
One criticism that gave me great pause was the irreversibility of the process. According to The Magic Feather, once a child was in special ed, it was almost impossible to get him or her off the special track and back onto the “normal” one. One couldn’t just try it out. This was especially unfortunate for the children who were put in special classes because they simply didn’t fit in, or because they had “learning differences” – the children who did not respond to the traditional linear teaching and learning models, and therefore required extra, different attention from their overworked, underpaid, inadequately trained teachers.
The book also convinced me that my little girls, who already agonized over being the among smallest in their class, would not benefit from the distinction of being labeled “special.” Nor would they benefit from an environment that threw together children in tremendously varying conditions – from the severely emotionally disturbed and violently disruptive, to the physically and mentally “challenged,” to those with mild “learning differences,” to those extremely creative children whom school simply bored to the point of furious disgust or at least sullen non-cooperation.
I took my daughters out of the new school. Well-meaning though the teachers and administration might be, they obviously didn’t recognize what this book seemed, quite inarguably, to demonstrate: that not only special education, but our entire educational system, was inherently, profoundly flawed – and to the serious detriment of its most vulnerable, sensitive children. I was a believer in public education – but I was not about to sacrifice my children to the monster it was apparently becoming.
THE LOST YEAR
What now? More and more parents were trying “home schooling.” After reading a number of articles, and locating a local home schoolers group, I decided to join them.
At this time I was working as a freelance graphic artist. We needed the income, or I would have been able to give more time to the home schooling effort. As it was, I subscribed hopefully to a philosophy which placed total faith in each child’s intrinsic desire to learn. I fervently told myself that the children’s curiosity and delight in discovery would spur them to learn what they needed at a pace appropriate to their development. I imagine this does work for many – especially for those who school their kids this way from the beginning. But Chris and Jessica, perhaps needing, like the swing of a pendulum, simply to recover from three years of institutional torture, seemed to want nothing more than two things. One was to play – which was, according to the most out-there educators, exactly appropriate, the indispensable foundation of all learning. That was fine with me. But – oh most horrible of horrors – they also wanted to watch TV. Both of these things they did, with determination and devotion.
As I learned from talking with other home schooling parents over the years, good home schooling for young children seems to require a great deal of parental participation. I was too busy with my other work to play with my children sufficiently, and too disgusted with TV to join them in front it, to help them watch critically. Not only was I working at various freelance jobs, but I was drawn more than ever, as if with the force of a high power vacuum, into our humanist work.
Paradoxically, this seemed to be one of the main factors that kept me from giving my all to the home schooling effort. But I had to admit something else: I did not really want to do home schooling, at least not the single-family variety. Home schooling theories were intriguing – but the home schooling parents I had met seemed complacent about having found an answer for themselves, and none too interested in trying to transform the educational situation in the society around them. Of course I could understand this from the point of view that home schooling requires full-time involvement, leaving no time for other commitments. But at the same time, since my life had changed so dramatically for the better when I decided to help change things for others as well as myself, I felt deeply that meaningful education must not only include, but be based upon, the experience of serving and helping others and working together for the greater good.
So I kept looking for other people who wanted to help change things in education. I personally knew many parents who were agonizing over their kids’ woeful experiences in public education, and who were looking for alternatives. I talked to parents at home schooling “Park Days” and on occasional field trips. I called friends from my children’s former schools. I published an article inviting readers to contact us and explore the possibility of “co-op home schooling.” I received plenty of agreement that it was an interesting idea – but little interest in doing anything. Meanwhile my children were “goofing off,” playing and watching TV. This might have been OK – but I could not see them learning anything, and worse, they complained of being bored and lonely for friends.
MRS. CARAWAY’S SCHOOL
Mrs. Caraway was the director of an internationally acclaimed children’s center in a neighborhood well known for violence, drug abuse and poverty. Her center was the only child care facility in the city that stayed open all night, and it could be that way because Mrs. Caraway was always there.
It was around 1990 when I interviewed Mrs. Caraway for Human Future. When I walked into her office, she was sitting at her desk, her back to me – a compact black woman with white hair, talking on the phone. I stood wondering if I should tell someone I was here, but there was no receptionist – only a changing tide of people, mostly black mothers and little children, filling the hallways and drifting in and out of the office. Feeling out of place, I stood and waited, looking around at the shelves of file folders, desks and chairs layered with papers and books, children’s art on the walls, one window onto the sandy courtyard. At last Mrs. Caraway hung up the phone. She wrote at her desk for a moment, then, majestically, turned in her chair and impaled me on her stare. I said hello and told her my name, reminding her of our interview appointment. “Well, sit down and we’ll talk,” she informed me.
She was generous with her time, despite the incessant flow of people in and out, with their questions and comments about everything from the leftover salad to the six-year-old whose mother was in the hospital for a crack overdose. Mrs. Caraway told me about her school: what was important there, and what was different about it – a school that brought together children and parents of all races and ethnicities, all social classes and economic levels, all conditions, from “normal” to severely “special.” At Mrs. Caraway’s school, children studied disciplines they loved: dance, martial arts, music, art, theater. And they were expected to give their all – to live up to what was best in them.
I was impressed by that visit with Mrs. Caraway – both by what she said and by what I sensed, being there. More than anything it was the palpable human warmth in that place. Perhaps this had to do with what Mrs. Caraway called the “extended family” – a way of living, characteristic of African societies, where all the parents care for all the kids – and care actively, not just as a nice thing to say. Whatever it was, I knew, just from being there, that in this place life was fiercely treasured. That here children could begin to transform their lives.
Recognizing in Mrs. Caraway’s school many of the elements that I wanted to see in education, I told her of my attempts to find other parents who were interested in creating new educational possibilities. She agreed that new possibilities were direly needed – the public schools were a disaster. But she insisted that as long as the public schools were there, people would use them no matter how bad they were, rather than do anything else that took a big effort. I argued, wanting encouragement – but she was unmoved.
Finally I asked her if my own children could attend her school. Well, she said, I had to recognize that it was only an afterschool program – but my daughters would be welcome there. I was delighted, although I wished ardently that it were a full time school. It was the only educational environment I had so far experienced that felt human. Mrs. Caraway recommended a public school in the same neighborhood, Washington School, as an academically excellent institution governed by a no-nonsense principal. So we visited Washington, whose strict structure appealed to me after our amorphous year of failed home schooling. We outfitted Chris and Jessica in white blouses and blue plaid pinafores, and they entered Washington. After school they took the school bus to Mrs. Caraway’s school.
Washington must have been a shock. Two little “dayglo white” girls (as a friend put it) plunged into an overwhelmingly black environment, where the blond children could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Chris and Jessica, at age 9, were courageous – they made some friends, and progressed in basic skills; Chris learned to read, and from that time on read with voracity. They also indignantly reported being taunted on a daily basis by little boys who called them “white pig” and other metaphors for their innate despicability. This bothered me, but I thought it would be worse for them to change schools yet again, and hoped the experience would be “good for them” in the long run.
And years later, I was surprised by my relief when my teenage daughters both told me they were grateful for that experience. Jessica said that being at Washington had helped her to understand African Americans better. “They’re not ‘them’ any more,” she said. Chris said simply, “It was humbling.” And besides, their tormentors provided both my children with a powerful motive to study martial arts, which later became a passion for them both.
It was at Mrs. Caraway’s school, though, that my heart was opening. My daughters were always relieved to arrive there – none of the trauma that assaulted them at Washington occurred at Mrs. Caraway’s. Not that everything was perfect there, of course. Far from it. Mrs. Caraway was not an easy person. She tolerated no sloth, no slippage. Not a believer in tact, she was mercilessly direct and sometimes sarcastic, and the fear of her cruel tongue peppered the air. The necessities of time and money, of which we were all made unwillingly aware during the compulsory monthly parents’ meetings, hovered like a blight. Parents and teachers found themselves personally struggling with all the issues of the times – from gang violence and racial tensions to families who suddenly found themselves on the street.
But something irresistible was also happening – an insistent pushing up through the ground on all sides, a springing forth of souls. It was that children were truly respected. Not tolerated, not put down, not ignored, and certainly not coddled, they were unambiguously respected as human beings. No subhuman behavior was allowed. Mrs. Caraway and her embattled teachers expected those children – even the smallest, even the most severely handicapped – to do their absolute best. Accordingly, they shone with a rare light.
All this time, I continued to be beset by a growing desire to start an entirely new kind of full-time school, available to everyone no matter what their financial status, where education would be deeply relevant to people’s lives. I wanted schools to teach people how to be happy and free. I wanted to cultivate in children and parents and teachers that impulse for generous action which lives in every human heart – that passion to simply give to others, and to the world.
This dream, this necessity, was not about reform. It was not about changing the current system. It was about developing an entirely new way of learning and teaching – a new model. I knew I would have to seek support and participation outside the system, which obviously would not be interested in replacing itself.
I also saw that this was a project that was far beyond my very limited abilities. I kept looking for other parents and teachers who were interested in creating something new. But Mrs. Caraway’s assessment continued to prove true. Most parents and teachers seemed to be too entangled, too inextricably trapped, in the system – whether they liked it or not. Many could not even conceive of anything different. Maybe I just didn’t try hard enough. But my attempts to find others who were outraged enough to do something seemed to drop forever into a vacuum.
SUCCESS – OR FREEDOM?
In the fall of ’98 I learned about the Edison Corporation. The same grasping genius who created Channel 1 (which advertised brand names to children during class time while “teaching” via TV) was happily squeezing yet more profit out of public school children. The nationwide trend toward letting big for-profit corporations take our public schools into their own hands – for their own profit – had been growing over the last few years – and school officials were now welcoming this outrage into our own San Francisco public schools!
Worse yet, many parents did not protest this policy – perhaps out of a kind of sighing hope that “they,” the corporations, the consumption-production profiteers, might improve things, might somehow make the world safe for our children, and teach them how to “succeed.” And this was understandable – where all else had failed, and our children’s present and future were at stake, what else could we do? Some said, if the for-profit corporations can make a difference – even if those racketeers clearly love money more than they love our children – let them!
I did not feel this way. So I wrote a long and passionate letter, which I sent to the editors of three mainstream daily papers. In the letter, I pointed out that one of the main rationales for this trend, namely that the corporations would encourage “healthy competition” among our schools, was clearly flawed.
“It should be obvious,” I wrote, “that competition breeds WORSE – not better – products and services. Take the biggest and most successful of all: MACDONALDS. Are those famous burgers known for their excellent quality, their pure ingredients, their fine taste? Or aren’t they just cheap and fast, a nutritional void in a wrapper? Remember – what measures success in our society is not quality, but profitability. Competition is geared toward success – but success is measured not by quality for everyone, but by profits for a lucky few. And yet they claim this will improve the quality of public (for everyone) education.”
I went on to attack the value system that forces us to live this way, pointing out that our schools developed along with the Industrial Revolution, as a way to feed the profit machine: to churn out ranks of workers who would just follow directions. Higher education was there to train a select few to design and manage better production/consumption systems. Everyone – given the promise of reward and threat of punishment – would be smart enough not to question authority…
I appealed to readers to join me in trying to DO SOMETHING about this outrageous state of affairs. “Let’s dare to imagine, let’s collaborate on some new recipes for education, let’s replace that bland and poisonous Edu-Burger with delicious, life-giving Food,” I raved.
It felt great to write that letter. But after I wrote it, and they did not publish it, I did a mental double take – wait a minute, what am I doing just sitting here writing letters? This is the time I’ve been waiting for ever since my children took the unfortunate plunge into the educational cesspool. If they can do it, so can we. It is time to do something: we have to take a decisive giant step, a leap of faith – and launch a prototype New School.
I was sure this was the moment. But such a leap cannot be taken alone – as I soon learned.
Charged with determination, I called the State of California for information about starting a charter school. A week later, a hefty manila envelope arrived in my mailbox. Pages of instructions, legal requirements, suggestions, histories, deadlines, grant application forms… It was not long before I realized that I was not up to this yet. Starting a charter school – or any kind of school – would require both a strong central team and a large body of supporters, including parents, prospective students and interested teachers. I had found a number of people who had expressed interest in a project having to do with humanizing education – but I needed more than interest. I needed an active team of people who felt as urgently about this as I did.
And I had to admit that the only way I knew to find people was to write, to send out a message. So both with relief and some ebarrassment, I went back to writing and researching, hoping to finish the book within a few months and somehow publish it…
RITE OF PASSAGE
“We have everything – but we feel empty inside.”
-a student from Columbine School, Littleton, Colorado
It was a few weeks later that something happened that profoundly impacted one of the larger, sleepier ethnic collectives in the United States. A thundering kick in the stomach, it sent us reeling, wrenching us into a new, unwelcome awakeness. This jolt was not, perhaps, comparable to the great wake-up call that came of September 11, 2001. But it held a particular horror for the group it most impacted: white middle class America, the original Dreamers of the American Dream.
Why did this particular tragedy hit home so hard with me and so many of my friends? In my own San Francisco neighborhood over the last few years several young people had been shot and killed, only blocks from my home. I had been horrified, and had gone to Mass and cried with their mothers as they trailed the casket down the dusky aisles of Saint Mary’s. But I had always comforted myself that it was their children – the gang members, drug dealers, poor immigrant children, victims of racial and ethnic discrimination – who were “at risk.” Not my children.
What was different this time was that the children who died in Littleton were just like my own children and my sister’s and brother’s children. They were the children of our dreams, to whom we had given everything.
When I was growing up in a white middle class suburb in the ’50’s, we were taught, and believed, that in America we lived in safety. This was the land of the virtuous and lucky – the only really safe place in the world. Bad things might happen in other countries, where there were wars and violence and people were starving. But here, in the land of the free, life was safe and good. We could be assured that if we in our turn were good, if we did as we were told and always shut the door behind us, we would grow up happy and contented, in peace and comfort. The evils and dangers of life might be realities in another, distant world, but would never touch us.
Since the ’50s we had learned, of course, that even here terrible things do happen to people like us – especially to those who are in any way different, people with the wrong sexual preference, people who are too old or too young, or who are just unlucky or unwise. We had been disillusioned to a degree. But it had never really sunk in so utterly, until the Littleton massacre, that even in the heart of our dreamlands, any one of us can be touched by life’s dark side, just like anywhere else on earth.
Of course there’s some truth to the banal image of Americans as ignorant, materialistic consumers who value things of no consequence over life and love – an image which has unfortunately become popular abroad, thanks to television and a small number of flashy and insensitive tourists. But if we look deeper, we find something different. According to legend, Americans are a strong people who believe in freedom, in equality, in the pursuit of happiness, in honesty, in hard work, in justice, in standing up for our rights and the rights of all people. That is the role that the rest of the world is waiting for us to model.
We are all cells in the body of humanity – all of us, all over the world. Each one has a contribution to make and will know from within what this contribution is, but no one can find inner peace except by working, not in a self-centered way, but for the whole human family.
– Peace Pilgrim
After we’d been together several years, when the children were all in elementary school, Jorge quite suddenly had a bout with cancer. They took a tumor from his thigh, and he underwent several months of radiation and recovery. After the initial shock, Jorge himself seemed quite unconcerned, assuming that all would be well – as it was and, many years later, still is. I myself, however, spent those months in agony. I felt as if I’d lived my entire life in an illusion – an illusion that if I lived right, nothing really bad could happen to me – like losing one I so dearly loved. It seems not even Littleton had been enough to rouse me from that particular illusion.
About a year after Jorge’s surgery, my friend Louise, who had given me The Magic Feather, gave me another book. As I read it, I wished I’d read it during that time of fear and despair. One thing it conveyed with great clarity was that one is never given a problem to which one is unequal – that problems are opportunities for growth.
Louise – my longtime friend, bosom sister and arch enemy. When we were roommates, we alternately poured out our hearts to one another, and took violent offense at each other’s infuriating domestic crimes. But for all our ups and downs, Louise knew me well. One day, coming across a book she’d read a while back, she decided this was the book for me. “You will love this book, Trudi,” she Announced. “It’s your kind of book.” It was called Peace Pilgrim – her life and work in her own words.
It was an unpretentious looking book, bound in dark blue. On the cover was a photograph of an old woman walking briskly toward the camera, smiling. A country road stretched behind her through open fields, disappearing beyond the boundaries of the picture. She had an unnamable expression on her face – as if offering some good secret. On her tunic were lettered the words, “PEACE PILGRIM.”
As I began to read, I again knew, just as I had with The Internal Landscape many years earlier, that this was a book I had been looking for. “Peace,” as those who knew her called her, was a middle class white woman from rural New England, who began an unusual pilgrimage when she was already in later middle aged. From 1953 until her death in 1981, she walked alone, seven times, coast to coast, a silver-haired woman speaking about peace with any who would approach her. She spoke with everyone – from curious individuals who happened to see her on the road, to church groups, to inmates in the jails where she was sometimes “offered” shelter. She spoke to national audiences on television and radio, and to the FBI when they interrogated her for her suspicious activities.
“Free as a bird,” she walked without support or backing from any group or organization, without a penny to her name. She owned nothing more than the light clothes she wore, in whose pockets she carried only a pen, a comb, a toothbrush, a map and her mail. She possessed not even a coat or hat, certainly not any such luxury as a sleeping bag. Her vow was to “remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until I am given shelter and fasting until I am given food.” She never went hungry for long, and was attacked only once – by a boy she was trying to help, and who quickly gave up when she didn’t hit back. “Aren’t people good!” she would exclaim.
Her book – about her own search and her ongoing work for peace, and how inner peace grows only out of active love and service – pierced deep into my doubts. As an adolescent I had rejected the religion of my parents’ community – a kind of bland consumer-pleasing Protestantism. Now for the first time I began to affirm my need to “pray” and to know “God” – words I had used only with embarrassment since childhood. I had long experimented with various forms of meditation, but had been careful not to present the appearance of seeking any superior spiritual force – having intellectually understood that “God is within.” Reading Peace’s story, however, I felt so forcibly the necessity of calling on a higher Self, on that indefinable Something/No-thing which is the source of our very being: that which makes everything both OK and sublime.
I prayed – to that indefinable Something – for release from fear, and for guidance in my work. The more I worked to clarify my own “real job,” the freer I felt, and the more all the disparate elements of my life began to come together in a living, changing mosaic, interlacing beautifully with the work of other human beings. The more I immersed myself in the work I best loved, following my heart, the more joyful my life became – the less bound by fear.
Peace’s life work, what she referred to as her calling – and sometimes jokingly as her retirement pastime – was her pilgrimage. But she made very clear that every individual’s calling is unique. One’s calling can be very unusual, like her own, or very ordinary, even apparently prosaic. She stressed that every calling, no matter how humble, is an equally essential and precious part of the “divine plan.” She gave examples from her pilgrimage of how following ones calling can transform one’s life.
She tells of a woman who hated her job to the point that it made her ill – and who was convinced she had no true calling. Peace helped her identify her calling by asking her what she really liked to do. She liked to swim, to play the piano and to arrange flowers. By building her life around these activities – taking a job as a florist, swimming for recreation and playing piano as a service to the residents in a nursing home – she transformed her life, regained her health and found a loving relationship in which to share her life.
Another individual, also very unhappy in his work, was an architect. He too transformed his life by transforming his work. This man did love architecture, and remained in that field. But instead of continuing to seek out high paying contracts for money and prestige, as we are all taught is the point of our labors, he changed his emphasis. Daring to do what many label “crazy,” he focused not on making money, but on serving people. He immersed himself in creating designs that people loved, that really fulfilled their needs – and he tried to charge them only what they could afford. He became enthralled with this “new” work, and felt deeply grateful for it.
I have been clarifying my own calling for years, every moment discovering more and more who I am, more what my life is about. What I’m about seems to keep changing shape, as I move through challenges and see things anew. This is fine practice in letting go, and I hope it will stand me in good stead in that last great letting go at the end of this life. The process itself is what I love – what gives me peace and joy and energy, more than any finished product. When we were publishing Human Future, I always found the work itself much more compelling than the final paper. It was pleasant to have that final product in hand, but it only meant we had to start on the next one, which would be a million times better.
“Name of a thousand names, maker of meanings, transformer of the world, your parents and the parents of your parents continue in you. You are not a fallen meteor, but a brilliant arrow flying toward the skies. You are the meaning of the world, and when you clarify your meaning you illuminate the earth. When you lose your meaning, the earth becomes darkened and the abyss opens.”
All this time, and long before I ever met up with the humanists or Peace Pilgrim or any other influence in my life, there was a central force in my life. This force shaped my concept of meaningful work – shaped my passion for the arts, for communication, for Life, for giving myself to the world.
But for a long time I could not acknowledge this force, because, like all children, I first had to define my own uniqueness. It was only when I reached my 40s, when I felt I had clarified my own identity, that I was able to acknowledge the depth of this tremendous influence on me; only after I had built my own house that I could acknowledge the ground it was built upon, and admit that without this ground, I would have nothing to build on and nothing to build. I would not be who I am. This force was the background I came from – my parents.
My mother stood out most obviously. At home she was the one around whom things seemed to pivot. And outside our home she was superlatively active. My father was a quiet man, always in the background, but always there. Without him none of the rest of us would have been able to do what we have done with our lives.
My mother, whom we privately called Mod, was a teacher, a lover of music and of human beings. She taught children – and adults – the same way she raised her own children: with tenderness and abandon, with wisdom and simplicity and delight. When she died, going out with the “The Glory of the Lord” from Handle’s Messiah, she left thousands both grieving for her loss, and rejoicing in her liberation. My father, a university professor beloved by his students for his patience, his clarity, and his simple goodness, was my mother’s strongest and most self-effacing support for over 50 years.
It was in the sixties that my mother began to develop her pioneering work in education. It began out of her frustration and sense of failure as a music teacher. It also grew out of her family and cultural background. Her own mother loved song and singing, and the tradition of singing games was still a bright part of every child’s daily life, both in and out of school, during my mother’s otherwise stark Depression childhood in the middle west. By the time I was in elementary school, this tradition had been nearly been lost in our country. Supported by her work, song and play are now coming back to life – with a new vitality and central importance – in many schools all over North America.
A teacher whose own life and teaching were transformed by my mother’s work sent us a note she had received from a parent, recounting the following story:
“In our neighborhood there are many children. Usually they divide themselves up into camps of boys and girls (usually with significant rivalry between the two groups!) or by grades… Seldom do they all play together, and regardless of how they divide up, parental intervention is usually needed.
This weekend, something different happened. I heard some kids singing . . . I looked into our back yard and there were at least fifteen children, assorted ages, both boys and girls, playing this game [“Rig-a-jig-jig,” a game used in ETM]. I was amazed! They continued playing this game for about 25 minutes, with different variations, and they all played about as perfectly together as one could hope for this side of heaven. After this, they went on and did some different songs, which I did not recognize. All in all, they did this for over an hour. I was so delighted – this was just absolutely thrilling to me.”
Music and play. They are basic elements of life, like water and sunlight. They help us to love life, to delight in ourselves and each other. They help us to open up to what is great within us – to our potential, to the discovery that we are limitless beings, endlessly able to grow and learn and explore and create. They help us discover that we can access many intricately interwoven intelligences, through which we can transform our lives and the environment we live in.
This is what true education can and must be: we must develop environments for exploring these intelligences, for developing them as we work together, in an ever-unfolding process – toward discovering and carrying out what we all are here to do. This process begins with relaxing, slipping out of fear and enjoying every living moment.
What better way to do this than music and play?
And if we can make this exploration part of our daily lives, many of our most horrific problems will dwindle and die of embarrassment. For those who are happy and free do not feel the need to destroy themselves, their world or each other.
TALKING WITH MOD
It had been half a year since my mother died. While I puzzled over her so total absence, and deeply missed her physical presence, I also felt the joy of her release, through what Peace Pilgrim called the “glorious transition to a freer life.” Often since her death I had sensed her being, as if I could just call her up on the telephone. I had often wondered if this feeling were simply imagination or memory – and then again decided it didn’t really matter. At the same time I noticed uncomfortably that not only did I miss her, I also resented her – she was the most domineering, obnoxiously powerful being I’d ever met.
Meanwhile my children were all teenagers, and, as they must, were questioning the way we’d always done things, while refusing to do their part. They balked at eating dinner with us if the Simpsons were on – yet they continued to expect my services as cook and housekeeper, and would contribute tiny chores only if we harassed them mercilessly. I did not have a clue as to what to do. I only knew that it galled me to see them embalm themselves with television, and even more, to see them ignore the only thing that I knew brought happiness and peace: giving oneself to others.
Then there was the issue of their independence. I knew I had to release them from captivity, yet I yearned to protect them and keep them with me. I was terrified by the thought of their running loose and unprotected in the city with its rampant violence and insanity. So I alternately continued with the status quo, acting the role of a mother who fulfills everyone’s need, to keep them happy and close by – and then it would become too much, and I would rail explosively at them for not doing their part. When these dramas unfolded, Jorge would transform himself into the authoritarian, traditional father, intoning that they must do their chores or else, at which they rudely dug in their heels and ignored him. Things had become messy and confusing and frustrating. So I began looking for some objective outside consultation – and found Maggie.
Maggie was a practitioner of Psychosynthesis, a school of psychology developed by Roberto Assagioli in Italy during the first three-quarters of the 20th century. When I first went to see Maggie, I told her I was embarrassed to be there – I had never believed in “therapy,” because to me it implied being a sick and needy victim instead of a whole, magnificent human being – which I knew myself and all of us to be. To my relief, she told me, “We actually call don’t call ourselves therapists – we use the term ‘guide.”‘ That was easier – I could be there to focus on the exploration, instead of on this unbearable desperation – which I knew would “come out in the wash” anyway.
It was with gusto that I plunged into catharsis, laying out the horrors of our family impasse. As I might have expected, it was not long before the image of my own mother came up. “It seems so strange to me,” I said, “I was so close to her, yet I remember her with such mixed feelings! It was as if she were my own self, I felt we communicated at times as if we were one person. Yet at the same time I simply could not stand her!”
Maggie did not seem phased. Instead, she asked, “Would you like to talk to her?”
I was taken by surprise – I don’t know why, I had worked with guided imagery many times before and spoken with various people who were obviously not there. But why not? “Go ahead,” said Maggie,”Close your eyes. Can you see her?”
Indeed. There she was, as I had seen her many times toward the end of her life. An aboriginal ancient, sitting in stubborn silence, eyes shut, lines of malignant wisdom cutting through her face, absolutely grim and silent. She looked exactly like her father in his old age – her father, whom she detested more than anyone on earth.
I sat looking, enthralled… “Talk to her!” said Maggie. Then, all at once, my mother opened one blue eye and winked!
All her mischief pierced through me with its mirthful radiance, with that delight that was always there, waiting to spill through that uncompromising mask. She began to talk. Things I’d heard before – yet now they punched through my mental clouds like clear lightning.
“First of all,” she announced, “the Universe is not perfect. And that is its perfection.”
Oh. “So it’s ok that I resent you for dominating my life, and yet love you so unbelievably much?”
“Of course – we are always moving toward perfection.”
Fearfully, I asked, “And have you found a way to overcome fear?”
“Actually,” she admitted, with some wonder, “I’m just learning that!”
“How do you do it?”
“By looking up, and asking friends for help.” I could see strong hands reaching down through the clouds, lifting her up. Up she climbed – and there was her own blithe mother, and Peace Pilgrim. They had the fragrance of spring.
My mother continued, “I want you to tell Eric some things.” Eric, her beloved friend and adopted son, who was carrying on her work. Eric had been grieving and grieving for her these months, and for his own father, who was dying. “Tell him that Death is easy. It is a transmutation of the body into Light. It’s not letting go of the body that causes pain. If you can let go of the body while you are in it, then you can use it! That’s what our work with song and play is about – learning to let go of the body while you are in it, so you can use it. And tell Eric you have to bring the light into your body every day.”
“How do you do that?”
“There are three ways: by being with people, singing, and telling the truth.”
A great inner smile overcame me.
“And tell him I am still teaching him.” How wonderful. I thought of how happy he would be…
“You should come and dance with me every evening,” she added, “I’m finally learning how!” A pause… “Oh – and here’s something you can tell your father. Angels are real; and sometimes they come to earth in the form of animals, to be with people.” I knew she was thinking of their dog, Janey, who still lived with my father, enfolding him at night in her great golden retriever wings.
“You have work to do,” she told me. “I’ve been helping you with the book – but you don’t need to put my name on the cover. It would just be too weird – people wouldn’t understand.”
A long pause. The light was growing stronger. It weighed me down and penetrated me with a pleasant lethargy. Mod added, almost as an afterthought, “I’ll be happy to introduce you to God. He is, in fact, a He – but also Beyond.” For some reason, this seemed OK, even to the staunch feminist in me – perhaps, I rationalized later on, if there is a God, there is also a Goddess…
Another pause, then, “Don’t try to define things too much. Words are not for definition. Words are channels for Light. Defining things means limiting them – and there really are no laws. Except one – the Law of Love. And love is not an emotion – it’s far beyond that.”
I felt immensely peaceful; this physical light pervaded my body and everything around us. Now when I spoke for my mother, the words came out quietly, like footsteps.
“Tell Maggie I’m glad to know her,” she said.
“Likewise,” said Maggie.
We sat a while in that golden silence.
Finally, my mother said, “You really should be getting back to work. You’ll be given just enough time to finish it.”
That was all right – in fact, that was very, very good.
The landscape is some place in Northern California, my homeland – but in reality, it could be anywhere…
The School is in the hills, where the sky is full of light. Here are oak trees, and space for the deer. It is warm in summer, dry and golden – and suddenly, with the fall and winter rains, amazingly green. In springtime the blossoming orchards and fields of yellow mustard shimmer with life.
The buildings of the school are full of light and warmth. They are simple – white, like old adobe, standing among vegetable and flower gardens, among fields and orchards. There is water on the land, a stream going out toward the sea.
Some of us, who live and work here, have small houses not too far off. Others, children and adults, come every day from the nearby cities and communities. Children come by the free shuttles that pick them up in the morning and bring them home in the afternoon. They come early enough to taste the morning as they walk up to the school from the main road, on the field paths, looking for creatures and wild flowers and odd plants. Older students and teachers, parents and elders come as they will – by shuttle or car, bicycle or skateboard. Everyone walks up the field paths to the school in the hills.
If you come at any time of day in good weather, you will always see people outside – making art, observing nature, farming, exploring. At night, there is the observatory, and the open air theater, and the camp circles.
And everywhere, you hear song and laughter. After that terrible time at the turn of the millennium, when the children almost forgot how to play together, and the adults were too tormented to notice, now the coupled arts of play and song are reviving, spinning out their endless new universes of grace. Here the timeless lines of the humanist poet Silo are a way of life:
The School began almost imperceptibly, in the early years of the new millennium, when most people were still just waiting. But one by one the doors kept opening, and we discovered that we might begin to fulfill our Destiny here – before we even knew where Here was.
Now, with the continuing unfoldment that keeps surprising and now and again terrifying us, a visible image is taking shape – a human artwork whose nature is change and evolution.
The school is not a school in the old sense. It is an essential community resource, an intercultural connecting point, a place for decision and action, and a retreat. Here people of all ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, lifestyles, and beliefs – families, teachers and individuals from the surrounding communities – come together to teach and learn from each other, to share their stories, to co-create new possibilities.
The authoritarian model – where the pecking order is based on age and title and enforced by fear – has shriveled from neglect. True authority accrues to those who use their knowledge wisely, with kindness and with strength.
The older and the younger teach each other – they just have different things to teach. The old are honored – for the light in their eyes, for their long life, for their multitude of skills and wisdoms. And the young are respected – for who they are, for their unexpected minds and their startling grasp of concepts never dreamed of, for their joyful daring, for their extraordinary beauty, for their unfolding wings…
Even in these hills, even in this pervasive light, the great shadows penetrate our lives. But we are learning to take joy in the totality that we are. We are learning the only way possible to overcome suffering: through the undying gift of oneself, over and over, until the last moment, when the body becomes quiescent and the spirit climbs to greater freedom.
RESOURCE AND BOOK LIST:
Personal Development and Psycho-Social Commentary