When I was about five, my father decided to teach me to swim. He was a rough, violent, loud man, and his teaching style was rough, violent, and loud too. I was his first child. My little sister was about three and a half. We stood on the shore of Puget Sound. He stood waist-deep in the water. "Come here," he said. I waded out toward him. "I'm going to teach you to swim," he said, and grabbed me and flipped me face down on the water. "Now KICK!" he shouted at me. "And paddle!" I had no idea how to kick and paddle, but I did my best. I turned my head toward him. "Don't let go!" I said. "I won't let go," he snapped. Just pay attention and do what you're told!" I kicked and paddled and kicked and paddled, He let go, and I sank.
"You didn't kick and paddle hard enough!" he said again. "Kick harder this time!" Again , he let go, and I sank. We did this over and over. I sank every time. He pushed me angrily toward the shore. "You're no use," he said. "You don't follow my directions. Send your sister out." My little sister was only three and a half. She sank every time too. He was disgusted with both of us, and stalked away, leaving us sitting tearfully on the beach.
"Listen," I told my sister. "Don't worry. We will learn to swim in school. Then we will never have to learn from him again!"
And so we did. And, in the summer before ninth grade, I offered to teach swimming for the YMCA asking specifically for the kids who were afraid of the water. I knelt down in the shallow end of the pool. Half a dozen shivering little kids gathered around me. I grinned at them, and whispered, "Okay, you guys, we're going to learn to swim in a minute, but first I have to tell you I'm so so so tired that I have to take a little nap . So I think I'll just lie here in the water and sleep! " I yawned a couple times, lay down on my back in the shallow water, crossed my ankles, and rested my head on my clasped hands. "Could YOU take my left food?" I asked one child. "And could you over here, take my right foot? And could YOU hold up my left elbow? And could YOU hold my head?" Etc. "Now," I said, "How about just towing me around for a while. Go wherever you want. Just try not to bump into anybody. . . . Oh, that feels so good. Thank you so much!" I closed my eyes, and they, laughing and splashing, towed me around, and, that way, forgot to be afraid.
I taught everybody to swim that way--every two weeks, a new group. I showed them how magical water was, and how good water was about holding us up. I showed them how to hold ME up, with just one little finger. If they wanted me to hold them up with both hands, I happily did that. Never, ever, would I let go--unless they told me it was okay.
This, of course, is how I earned their trust. Every one of them learned to float, dog paddle, side-stroke, float on their back--even jump off the diving board. If they felt anxious, they just came over, stood next to me, put their arm around my waist, and rested a while.
"Think about how the learner feels." That has always been my first premise. "What would the learner like to learn? What prevents him, or her, from learning that? What kind of environment, what kind of relationship, can we create that builds trust, and trustworthiness?" That's what I ask myself--to this day. I guess, in a way, you could say I have my father to thank for my understanding of what heart-felt learning is, and how it does and doesn't work.
I was a college English professor for thirty-one years, first at a campus of Penn State, and then at Bloomsburg University. in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania.
Most of my college students dreaded their English classes, and put them off for as long as possible. They especially dreaded Freshman Composition.
Consequently, my Composition 101 classes were often filled with Seniors.
On the first day, of class, I would sit on the teacher's desk, ready to write. "I need to know one thing before we begin," I would say: "Is English Pain or Pleasure, for you? I can't teach this class unless I know."
In my notebook, I made two columns: Pain, on the left, Pleasure on the right.
"Really!" I would say. "Somebody start."
Every semester, for all my years at Bloomsburg,
"Yes. And WHY?"
"Teachers expect you to have their thoughts."
"You have to write about subjects you have no interest in."
"You can't end a sentence with a preposition. What's a preposition? "
"You have to write like an old person. You can't sound like yourself. You have to be formal. you can't say 'gonna, coulda, shoulda."
"You have to have three to five paragraphs. You have to have a thesis sentence. You have to be organized. You have to explain everything."
"You have to bore yourself. You have to sound like a textbook."
"You have to know all the rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation, sentence structure."
"You can't just be yourself."
"You have to write for a grade."
"You have to write to impress."
So . . . "What if a paper could be your part of a conversation? What if two people could write a paper together, as a conversation? What if they could take turns drawing each other out--enough to feel that they understood what each one was saying, and why?"
Just for fun, what if you wrote as if you were someone else: Your mom, your dad, the University President, the local police chief, a famous person, yourself at a younger age, an older age. . .?"
What if you wrote about something that makes you laugh, cry, feel resentful, feel curious, feel --SOMETHING? What if you wrote about what you worry about, what you hope, what you don't know but wish you did know, .what you hope you never have to experience?"
Working individually or in groups
Suppose you could design a new world to live in. It could be a temporary world--maybe one that would last just a day, a week, a month, a year-- or it could last forever.Or maybe it could come and go--like a vacation..
Spend some time , first, just thinking and writing about what sounds good, to you. Think about what you like best about the world we have--and what you would most like to change, or get rid of. You might find yourself just thinking about weather, or climate--or maybe what you see and hear on the news. Or maybe what you dream about while you're asleep. Change anything you wish could be changed. Maybe consider making some things larger, nd some smaller. Think about things you always wished you could have, or do, or learn. Think about money, and how much of it there should be. Maybe you could find a substitute for money. Maybe think about pollution, or global warming, or issues like hunger, or drugs, or homelessness. Maybe you can think of better ways of communicating--or neat ways to travel. Maybe you have some ideas that you don't think anyone else has even thought of before.
Maybe you'd like to start from scratch-just erase what we have, and do something really different --really hilarious, or peculiar, or just plain fun! Maybe you'de like to keep some parts of our world, and get rid of other parts. Maybe you'd like to bring back something that is extinct. Whatever you wish is fine. Add, subtract, or change anything you want.
After you have thought about it, and maybe written some notes, or talked it over with a few people, then try to find a way to make it three-dimensional (or maybe four or five-dimensional! (You might have sound, or taste, or touch, or. . . . mind travel, or . . . ). You might want to give yourself some kind of control booth, or control place, where you can fix things, or add or subtract things later, once you see how everything seems to be working.
When your world is complete, give the rest of us some kind of guided tour of it. Decide if you would like feedback from us, or if you just want us to look at your world in silence. Maybe come up with some ways that we could spend some time in your world.
When I was small--which was only about a hundred and ten years ago, grown-ups used to tell us kids that if we didn't want to think about something, we should just put it out of our minds.
I thought this was pretty funny, because if you put something out of your mind that was already IN your mind, where, exactly, could you PUT it? Wouldn't you have to put it in your neck or your lungs or your heart or your stomach or your intestines or your legs or your feet or your hands or your elbows, or your shoulders or your backbone? Wouldn't it have to be in your body somewhere? Maybe in your eyes, or your ears, or nose, or on the tip of your tongue, or maybe you could tuck it into your ear.
Well, I just couldn't figure out how to move things around like that. Take worries, for example. If you wanted to get them out of your mind, where would you put worries? Sometimes worries are pretty big! Sometimes they might even be HUGE! And SAD things. Those can be pretty big too. Where would THEY fit? And how about MAD feelings?
Sometimes other people even tell you to put humorous things out of your mind, because they themselves are not in a laughing mood! Boy! That's a tough one too! Because once you start laughing, it's pretty hard to stop sometimes.
So when I was young, I just didn't know what to do. I put a lot of things I worried about and things that made me sad and mad in my heart, because I always felt like my heart would take good care of them, and protect them. But then it seemed like my heart wasn't big enough for everything, so my stomach said, "Put them here, and I will take care of them." But sometimes my stomach was too full of worry already, so if I put more feelings in there, my stomach just couldn't handle it, and it would start hurting. and aching.
So one day I got a whole lot of kids together and I asked them where they put THEIR worries and everything, and they drew pictures of themselves on the inside, all the way down to their feet, with their bones and muscles and everything, and they said when their hearts and stomachs were too full of feelings, they put their feelings in their hands and feet, and then they ran around a lot, and made a lot of noise outdoors, and played a lot of football and basketball and other ball games, so they could punch things and kick things and throw things, and they drew claws on their hands, to show that they wanted to move those feelings out into the air and make room for some calmer feelings. All their pictures were really clear, and helpful., and I thought grown-ups should have a chance to see pictures like that, so they could think about how feelings feel, and think about how much space they take up inside us, and how good it is to talk about feelings, after people have calmed down a little, so more people can understand feelings better.
So now I am wondering what kind of pictures you can draw, and what kind of stories your brain and heart and stomach and hands and feet know about , because I bet we have a lot in common. After all, all of us started out as kids. At least I never met anybody who started out as a grown-up and went in the other direction!
A lot of grown-ups will tell you, if you ask how they draw, that they "can't draw a straight line with a ruler." What they mean is that they don't think they HAVE any artistic talent because they don't draw like a camera photographs.
Somehow, grown-ups--lots and lots of them--never had a chance to discover their own personal way, or ways, of drawing. They always worried that their way might not be good enough, that it might even be totally ridiculous and awful.
Kids, up to a certain age, don't think of it that way, though. I think maybe lots of kids have read The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and have seen the drawing number one and the drawing number two of the boa constrictor digesting an elephant.
As the little prince says, kids always have to explain things to grown-ups., because otherwise the grownups will look at those drawings and think they are looking at a hat.
Something happens to lots of kids as they get closer and closer to grown-up ages: THEY START TO WORRY ABOUT A MILLION THINGS. One of those things is having grown-ups criticizing and grading every little thing they do or say or think or feel.
So what happens? Kids start to worry about those things too. They start to catch worrying--as if it were the flu, or the common cold. Then they pass it on to everybody they know.
It gets harder and harder to have a little fun.
If you think I am mistaken about this, just ask a grown-up when the last time was that he or she had a little fun. It will be so long ago that they will not be able to remember a thing about it.
It is hard to worry and have fun at the same time. It might even be impossible.
So the question is, isn't it?--how to get rid of worrying so you can enjoy your own mind and self and life..
So--what if you made a list of at least twenty things that you are worrying about today, or that you worried about yesterday, or last week? (It would be goodf to do this in a group. If you have just five people in your group, you will unload a hundred worries! Think of it! Just take them out of your mind and wherever else they are, and lay them in a heap on the table. Whew! Take a picture of them all piled up there, maybe: "Our Worries for Today."
Put today's day and date at the top of the list, and the time, and just start writing. List your worries in the order that you think of them. If they are big worries, write them big. If they are little worries, write them little.. Number them, so you can go back and find them easily later. When you are done, keep them in a manila envelope and write on the outside of the envelope "MY WORRIES, with the date
Now pick a big worry, and draw it on the biggest piece of paper you have. Color your worries whatever color you think worries should be. .
Lay your worry drawings out on a table, or on the floor, and walk around and look at them. DON'T GRADE THEM. Just realize how much you know about your worry. You are an expert on it.
Then take several deep breaths and count out loud to ten , and say something like "Halleluia!"
Halleluia means, in this case, "I found a use for my worry.! I can make art out of it anytime I want--and other people will actually UNDERSTAND my worry!"
I was sitting here for a long time, looking out my window and thinking about you, and wondering if you think the earth is magic or not. I thought about it when the sky was blue, and then when the sun was going down, and then suddenly it was dark out and I couldn't see anything in the window except the reflection of my ceiling light. (Isn't that funny? It looked like it was outside, hanging in the air. And then I saw up higher on my left side, there was a yellow street light that really was out there, but then I sat up straight, and I saw the reflection of the hall that goes back past the piano, and it was out there too, floating in the dark sky like everything else.
This is how I thought of the word "magical."
Sometimes I think just about everything seems magical-- like the fact that cats purr when you pet them, and even other people's dogs in Home Depot wag their tails when they see you coming--even when they don't know you and never saw you before.
And birds are so magical, especially the sea gull that comes every year on July 3 and sits on the edge of a roofa mile down the road, and waits for me to say "ch-ch, ch-ch-ch" to him so he can say "ch-ch, ch-ch-ch" back to me, and then hop down step by step to the other end of that roof and about four other roofs, so we can walk along together and talk to each other.
But I will save that story for later, because it is not July yet.
Today I think tree roots are especially magical when you look really closely at them.
SOME tree roots, that is.
The thing is, you never know where the most magical ones are going to be, so you kind of have to wonder if you missed about a thousand of them because you were thinking maybe about tying your shoe laces or just wishing you had a soft chocolate chip cookie about now.
So just in case you haven't been noticing tree roots lately, I decided to give you a few pictures of my own magical roots, so you could draw them and put them in your mind, so they will remind you of the tree roots outside your own window.
This reminds me that I wanted to tell you that I think DRAWING can be magical too, but it can also be a little on the goofy side.
Now we are coming to the goofy part, and the magical part, sort of mixed together. I hope you have a piece of paper to draw on, and a soft-lead pencil that is pretty sharp. (Don't erase anything.)
The magic now is that your pencil can keep touching the paper until you are done. So--
choose one of my root pictures to draw. Forget the others, for now. Start in the upper left corner, or in the middle, or somewhere near the bottom--wherever you like, really. Then slowly, slowly, slowly, even MORE slowly, pretend you are tracing the edges you see. Just keep tracing slowly, slowly, slowly, etc. until you think you have traced every line you see. If you FORGET any, DON'T lift your pencil up, just slide it over to where you think you missed, and add that part. Slide around like that VERY GENTLY, as if your pencil is like an ice skater--swoosh here, swoosh there, but try to swoosh SLOWLY. When you think that is enough swooshing, just write your name and your age somewhere on the paper and today's date. Write the title somewhere close to the edge of the paper: Root number one, for the left one, number two for the middle one, or number three for the one on the right.
Then walk around and see which root everybody else was drawing.
Tomorrow, look at the colors of the root in my photograph, and find a colored pencil that matches ONE of the colors you see. Gently, gently, gently, put that color in the places where you see it. Don't push hard!!!!
That's it! That's your magic root for the day. Put it in your brain somewhere--anywhere you like,. And maybe tell somebody what your root drawing was like, and maybe show it to somebody, and tell them how you drew it.