I would have done well to get a puppy when I was teaching high school, so I could have applied all that I'm learning to the classroom of human teenagers. In the 17 years I taught high school students, they often mused on the fact that as kindergarten children they were required to take naps even though they didn't want to, and now as teenagers they wanted to nap and were not allowed to. At the time, I laughed and said they had a good point, but I didn't think much more about it. As I think on it now, napping may be a part of our educational system that is missing, along with adequate and varied physical activity, art of all kinds, and healthy foods.
As a high school Language Arts teacher, I didn't think this way, but now I think of the ways of living that have become gifts to me now that I'm disabled: slowing down, napping daily, writing to discover myself, eating well, and exercising in ways that are not competitive but are fun for me. These are not the habits I learned or taught in schools.
I taught about diligence and intellectual focus. I required students to be awake, and I organized my classes to keep students busy and learning. Even reflection required diligence: students often wrote reflections on their work, processes, and learning. Sometimes, I evaluated their self-reflections using a rubric that detailed what I thought they should reflect on.
I don't think Dosey would have done especially well in my classes, even if she could read and write. I don't think my system would have acknowledged the way that she learns during reflection time and learns from from other puppies in her agility classes.
I wonder what grade she might give me as her student (because she is clearly training me more effectively than I am training her.) Somehow I suspect her rubric would come from a spirit of grace and forgiveness rather than the task master's idea of excellence.
This is not the first time that it has occurred to me that my ideas of excellence may not be universal or even desirable. When I was in my twenties, after my second year of teaching, I went with Amigos de las Americas as a "health volunteer" (building latrines and distributing tooth brushes) to a pueblo in the foothills of the Michoacan jungle in Mexico. I remember digging a latrine in the summer heat one afternoon while able-bodied young men watched. I knew they thought I was a sucker, and I felt like one. After all, I was doing work that they could do.
My best experiences that summer were with the relationships that developed. (I fondly remember Señora Alisa Lopez and her cooking lessons: one cup of lard for beans; two cups of lard for refried beans. She also attempted to teach me to cook tortillas, but the group of women and girls assembled laughed good-heartedly at my lumpy, dumpy tortillas and my dainty fingers, too sensitive to turn the hot tortillas over as they cooked on the fire.)
I also remember the teenage girl across the path who lived in a home of sticks with her parents and brothers. (Their family was considered poor even in this poor town.) She showed me how to wash my clothes using a washboard, and when it was clear that I didn't know how, she asked, "Does your mother wash your clothes?"
"No," I explained. "My mother lives a long way away. She would have to take an airplane to my house." This puzzled her. Why, then, did I not know how to wash my clothes? I explained that in my home, we used a washing machine.
Her brown eyes got big then. "Oh! You're rich!"
"No," I said. "Everyone in America uses a machine." Of course, I was wrong on both counts. Everyone in America does not use a machine, and I was--and am--rich. This awareness required some reflection (like Dosey and her bells.)
At summer's end, the fifteen of us who had been scattered through the Michoacan jungle came together to reflect. Each of us was expected to share. I quoted one of my favorite songs: "Slow down. You move too fast. You've got to make the morning last, just, kickin' down the cobblestones. Lookin' for fun and feelin' groovy." I had learned that summer that getting a lot done was a cultural value, not a universal one.
After that summer, however, I returned to my culture and to my hurrying way of life, until twenty years later, my first brain tumor taught me the same lesson again. (As I think Annie Dillard said in An American Childhood, I suspect that rather than learning new lessons, I am learning the same lesson over and over....but I can't find this quotation on the innerwebs and An American Childhood on my Kindle hasn't been indexed, so maybe I'm mistaken about the authorship. Too bad. It's one of my favorite quotations from her.)
Maybe I learned this lesson of slowing down from my brain tumor, and maybe I learned it from a classmate who quoted me back to myself: "Anything that slows me down is a gift."
In this new life after brain tumors, I am learning differently, and in this life with disabilities (and in this country that feels so dark right now), I take hope as I sing along with Leonard Cohen:
Ring the bells that still can ring
As I sat with Dosey on my lap and listened to multiple versions of Cohen's song, I reflected on these words, and I read his own explanation of the lyrics:
That is the background of the whole record, I mean if you have to come up with a philosophical ground, that is “Ring the bells that still can ring.” It’s no excuse… the dismal situation.. and the future is no excuse for an abdication of your own personal responsibilities towards yourself and your job and your love. “Ring the bells that still can ring”: they’re few and far between but you can find them. “Forget your perfect offering”, that is the hang-up, that you’re gonna work this thing out. Because we confuse this idea and we’ve forgotten the central myth of our culture which is the expulsion from the garden of Eden. This situation does not admit of solution or perfection. This is not the place where you make things perfect, neither in your marriage, nor in your work, nor anything, nor your love of God, nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect. And worse, there is a crack in everything that you can put together, physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.
– from Diamonds in the Line
And I read about the metaphor's origin:
The line "a crack in everything" seems to come from a book by Jack Kornfield on Buddhism. The story is that a young man who had lost his leg came to a Buddhist monastary thing, and he was extremely angry at life, and always drew these pictures of cracked vases and damaged thing, because he felt damaged. Over time, he found inner peace, and changed his outllook, but still drew broken vases. His master asked him one day: "Why do you still draw a crack in the vases you draw, are you not whole?" And he replied
"Yes, and so are the vases. The crack is how the light gets in"
I suppose the industrial people, the investors, and the customers might say that a cracked vase doesn't hold water, but they would be talking about utility rather than poetry, and my life is more poetry than utility. I'm coming to like it that way.