Mindfulness in Teaching

A friend who is gathering data for his doctoral research asked me to do a project for him related to mindfulness. When I agreed to log my reflections for a week, and chose the first week of 2021, little did I know exactly how important mindfulness would prove to be.

Monday, 4 January 2021
A Welcome Space

As I thought through the process of this project, I decided I wanted to let the images and reflections happen without a lot of prior planning–a somewhat in-the-moment mindfulness. I was in my silent classroom in the morning, teaching short lessons via Zoom, with longer spaces between the periods. My classroom has a sort of joyfully cluttered visual aesthetic, and my bulletin board is an example. I tack up my own doodles and collages as well as student artwork, notes about books they tell me I need to read, quotes to remind us of our work in the world, along with the schedules and the lists of the business of school. I am hoping the message my students take away from this is the importance of celebrating each moment, no matter how mundane (and life in school gets draggingly mundane). I hope they see my own artwork not as pieces to be admired but as reminders to express their own inner worlds in art and poetry. I hope they are reminded by the quotes and posters to seek justice and to work against the -isms that break our social contracts.

I include here the little close-up of the collage with the woman and the phrase: “Look how many of us there are now” because I think it’s a reminder to connect to others who seek peace and justice and goodness and kindness, and also because–minimal as it is–it’s one of my favorite word-poem collages.

Tuesday, 5 January, 2021
Mending and Making

In the riot of images and posters on my walls and the books and objects on my shelves, I want to make my classroom a place I want to be, and where my students want to be. Even when the work is overwhelming or I am experiencing challenges that make me dread the day, I want my classroom space to be inspiring and engaging and restful.

I’m caught up these days in the concept of making and mending, both in the physical world and in the inner work. Then of course there’s the layer in which the physical act is itself a symbol of the inner work that becomes a ritual or prayer for the work of social justice and of teaching. One of my social media pleasures has been following makers and artists and crafters on Instagram. I find images of mending and handwork and art to be soothing and settling; they help me to shift my inner space into focus a little better when things in my work-life or the state of the nation cause me anxiety or sadness.

I love my striped scarf. I wear it several days a week, even though it was torn. In the fall, I made a couple dresses out of old men’s dress shirts, and I noticed that the one striped fabric was similar to my scarf. At first I zigzag-stitched pieces into the holes, but as that began to fray, I embroidered a blanket stitch over top to make it more secure, creating what my Instagram maker heroes call a “visible mend.” The other piece in the photo with my scarf is random embroidery on a piece of denim, which I made up as I went along.

Sort of like teaching, that: Even after a couple decades of teaching, I am still making it up as I go along, beginning with an idea of what I want to see, but shifting and adapting in the moment depending on the alchemical mixture of students in my class, current events, and the mood of the moment. And sometimes the thing I try to do frays, like my initial mend in my scarf, and I need to add another layer, letting the “mend” itself become part of the pedagogical design in the moment, making the process conscious. Perhaps a visible mend is like our metacognitive processes, where we analyze how we think.

Wednesday, 6 January 2021
How the Light Caught Our Shadows

When I took this photo, I was feeling a vague anxiety about the upcoming events of the day in Washington, DC, chatting briefly with students at the beginning of classes about the significance of the ceremony of counting the votes.. I teach in a Christian school of the Mennonite denomination, and so having religious images like the Madonna of the Streets in the classroom is acceptable. I had also brought along my mala beads, a more Buddhist or universalist tradition. I made them this summer as a way to ritually and prayerfully ground and center my attention when busy-ness or anxiety threaten my peace. Every morning when I enter the classroom, I spray the sage-based Clear Space Mist–its scent reminds me to let go and teach from my center. 

Little did I know how I would need the calming of prayer and image and scent by the end of the day. Just before the final period, I had been watching the Senate discussion of Arizona’s votes, when people began to rush around in the chamber, the VP tried and failed to call the room to order, and the screen went blank. I thought it was a glitch, and went on to begin Act 5, scene 3 of Lear in my AP Literature class, listening to a student read Edgar naming Edmund a traitor to his family and the state, standing up to his brother’s treachery. I still have not sorted out the timely irony of this. When class was over, a colleague came down to my room with the news that the chambers were overrun by violent insurrectionists, and that she was feeling more anxious than she did on 9/11.

Despite all my mindful intentions of the morning, I gave in to the anxiety. My calm frayed.

Thursday, January 7 2021
REVOLUTION / ReLoveUtion

This is January’s calendar page in my Amnesty International Calendar. It’s an image of a people’s march in LA, women marching for missing and murdered indigenous women at the 2016 Women’s March. After a protest that became a bloody insurrection on Epiphany yesterday, I focused on the images on my calendar for grounding. I attended that worldwide march in 2016 in Washington, DC on the day these women called for a ReLoveUtion, called for recognition and action to investigate brutality toward indigenous women. For that March, when we felt our vote was disenfranchised, we knitted pink hats, we danced and sang with strangers in the streets, and we admired each other’s signs. We cleaned up after ourselves. We helped each other find good perches from which to better hear and see the speakers.

Yesterday was different. The morning’s anxiety became the afternoon’s reality.

Today I grounded myself in one of my art/spirit practices. Last year, I began doing found poetry and image collages on my calendar pages at school, so today, I sat still, took a deep breath, and pulled strips of words from a can I keep in my classroom. My friend Mara gave it to me, full of strips of words cut from magazines, as a wish for good fortune when I took this teaching job. I need to replenish it, I see. Mara and I call ourselves strippers because we make poetry from strips.

This one reads:

The dark night begins when we realize that all our spirit-heritage did not get along
outside our house, for the maps inside
a chamber whose wall seethed with a spaceless carpet of creatures,
assigned to us in the doldrums like parts in a movie

you can relax and calm the waters a bit
Writing has been my cell

As I put it all together, I could feel myself moving out from the weight of the seething spaceless creatures and into the calming waters of my monk’s cell. Writing. Relaxing.

It’s a difficult week for mindfulness, an essential week for mindfulness, when all my practices are being tested. I am thrown off-balance, grateful that I don’t have to be in the pressure-cooker of in-person classes, but wishing I could generate more discussion in the Zoom-rooms. At least my 8th period AP Lit class was eager to talk, even on Zoom, sharing a range of honest reflections about yesterday’s events, clearly repudiating the violence and openly complimenting the midnight speeches from both sides of the aisle.

Friday, 8 January 2021
Feather of the Day

In the summer after I got this job, as I was preparing to teach, I realized one day that I had found a feather every day for a week. I began to keep my eyes peeled. The streak continued. For about eight weeks, with only a couple exceptions, I found a feather every single day. Of course, we lived beneath two giant trees, a poplar and a sycamore, with wonderful places for owls to sit and eat their midnight meals, so there’s that. And I was out in the fields every day, harvesting vegetables, so I was out in nature more than I was in the house. Still, as I tell my students when I relate this story: It’s my life, and I get to choose the meaning I wish. So, I chose to honor the gift of feathers as a reminder, in a time when I was making a major job shift in my life from farmer back to educator, that I would have the resources I needed to fly. I began posting photos of my daily feathers on my social media, along with short poems I wrote.

This morning, as I am lost in the fog of the week’s terror, I happened upon a crow feather on the sidewalk on the way in to the school building. I choose to take it as a sign, a message that I can still rise through the fog, and like the crows, beat my wings in the winds, still find joy.

I opened my computer, in the hour before the day’s Zooms, to find a letter from a parent of a student in my 8th period class, worried that I had wasted precious class time yesterday in discussing politics, which has nothing to do with the subject at hand, and which made her daughter anxious. She and her daughter decided to close the Zoom before we got to reading the last few pages of Lear. Sigh. I believe it is urgent that teachers offer their students an opportunity to respond to the events and crises in their real lives with the same analytical and critical lenses and skills they use for their literary analyses. I’m not sure how I will work with this in that class in the final week of the semester. The mother did ask that I dismiss her daughter from class if the talk turns to politics. I DO want my class to feel like a safe place for everyone, but I think we need to talk about unsettling things that happen. 

There’s a tension today between the almost glib tone of Monday’s reflections about creating safe space in the classroom, and the knowledge that my careful and intentional teaching created a space that felt unsafe for a student. Part of me wants to shrug and say, “Can’t win ‘em all,” but isn’t that sort of the whole point? We’re trying to win ‘em all–not let any fall through the cracks. I’ll start by reflecting on the differences between unsafe and unsettled.

Saturday, 9 January 2021
The Rhetoric of Insurrection

Here is a poem I wrote about the insurrection. I needed to find a way to put some of the rage and confusion into words. I will not read this one to my students. I don’t even know anymore how to sort out what is acceptable to say in the classroom. In a school connected to a peace church, I want to help my students analyze the events of the week in terms of how to be peace-builders in this most harrowing of situations. And here I am, sitting in my own puddle of rage at the peace-breakers. I have been so careful not to speak ill of this president who galls me to my core. But now, when his lies have brought us to this point, when I want my students to look with clear eyes and hearts toward the building of an equal and just society, how can I talk about this event without drawing the lines?
Here’s the poem:

The Rhetoric of Insurrection
by Beth Weaver-Kreider

The landscape is littered with lies,
seeded with falsehoods like landmines,
like bombs hidden in the halls of justice.
The fabric of reality is stained,
torn and twisted, threads cut and tangled.

It’s nothing new, this rhetoric of insurrection.
For years now, they’ve been spreading it on,
lie by lie, suggestion by suggestion,
layer by seditious layer, whipping the masses
into a frenzy of rage and disenfranchisement.

Now is the time for clear-headed cleaning,
gathering threads of Truth where we find them,
patching and weaving, healing the fabric,
stitching and mending, finding our way
to the source of the lies and destruction.

Long before terror and chaos pillaged the building,
the lies were laid to pillage the truth, to bend
the will of the gullible and power-hungry masses
to do the silent bidding of the suited pirates
who have laid the groundwork of sedition.

Calling for calm and understanding only veils the carnage,
drawing another layer of lies to cover the wreck.
Now is the time for the stark strands of truth
to stand out and carry the narrative
back from the brink of destruction.

My peace has been broken, my balance shaken, my mindfulness marred. And yet, if there’s ever a time when spiritual practices must be meant for, it’s now. Gratitude. Mindfulness. Grounding and centering. Visualizing and affirming peace. Why practice the disciplines only for the pleasant and easy times? The whole point is to create inner spaces that cannot be destroyed by outer earthquakes. I’m not in shambles, only shaken. And that itself is a spiritual discipline, a mindfulness practice, to–as they say–feel all the feels. Like Rumi’s “Guesthouse,” I want to welcome them in, meet them eye to eye, know them as part of me. Only then can I start to clean up the shattered pieces that the earthquake knocked to the floor.

Sunday, 10 January 2021
Three Strands to Braid

Strand 1: My teaching actually brings me to mindfulness today. In Themes in Literature class, we’ve been studying The Zookeeper’s Wife, a story of a Warsaw woman who, with her husband and her community and a widely-effective Underground Resistance, saved hundreds of lives of Jewish people and resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of Poland. We’ve been considering the characteristics of people who, instead of getting caught up in fear, turn toward the terror, and do the work that comes to them to do, to save and protect and rescue.

Strand 2: My husband’s father died on Epiphany, twelve years ago. Last night, my husband was going through some of his papers and came upon some letters and writings his father had tucked away from his days as a Seafaring Cowboy, one of the hundreds of young American men who, in the wake of WWII, tended cattle and other livestock on ships bound for Europe, to aid in rebuilding after the devastation of the war. This photo is of a series of postcards he brought home, images of Gdinya, a town near Gdansk, where they docked. In his letters, we learned that he took his first ever plane ride to visit the destroyed city of Warsaw. He wrote of the devastation of the city and the farmlands, noting that the retreating Nazis had blown up dikes, which flooded the arable farmland.
Here, in this trove of papers, my own life intersects with that of Antonina Zabinski, the zookeeper’s wife, in a very small way.

Strand 3: And then, just before I went to bed last night, I happened upon a Facebook post about Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Jewish Hasidic rabbi who escaped Warsaw mere months before the Nazis began bombing the city. Hasidism, according to Diane Ackerman, the author of The Zookeeper’s Wife, is a strand of Judaism that emphasizes living in radical celebration–not a partier’s absorption, but a life of wonder and amazement. She mentions Heschel only briefly, in the context of Rabbi Shapira, another Hasidic rabbi, who stayed in the Ghetto and ended up dying in a concentration camp, who had to hold for his flock the tension between the horror they were living, and the call to be deeply engaged in the life of the spirit, deeply, mindfully celebrative. He developed meditations and mindfulness techniques to offer his people a way to bridge that space without denying the everyday terror, but also maintaining a heartful connection to everyday beauty and wonder. Here in the US, Rabbi Heschel, a scholar and professor and anti-war activist, became a supporter of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and joined the Civil Rights Movement.

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. . . . Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” ―Abraham Joshua Heschel

She Would Have Been a Good Woman

In her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor brings a family face-to-face with a serial killer called the Misfit, who, along with his minions, kills the family, one by one. It’s a stark and horrifying story, not only of the cold-blooded murders, but of the character of the matriarch of the family, a grandmother who believes in her goodness, her self-satisfied sense of privilege. She is blind to her bias, and willfully committed to her ideas of caste and race and privilege. At the very end, just before the Misfit kills her, she shows the merest hint of self-understanding, the briefest light of awakening to the truth. Standing over her dead body the Misfit proclaims: “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Please understand that I am not advocating violence here in these violent times, but I kept hearing the Misfit in my head these past few days, beginning with watching Lindsey Graham speak with such passionate fervor in the dark hours between Wednesday and Thursday. Others, too, spoke with eloquence and zeal about how the terror of the preceding hours made them take a long look at how denying the fairly-cast electoral votes delegitimized the process and led to the type of unrest that caused the terror attack on their own building.

And yet, here we are, three days later, and they pull back, they equivocate. They condemn the acts of violence and the destruction, but they continue to press the false narratives that got us to this point in the first place. It now appears that the Vice President’s life was probably truly in danger, as many of us suspected, that among the hooligans and yahoos was a very organized group of would-be assassins intent on turning a protest into an insurrection (which they achieved) and an insurrection into an assassination and a bloody coup. And yet the Vice President remains silent. He dithers and equivocates as he has always done.

On Wednesday afternoon, Congress met the Misfit, and for a few brief hours, in the shock of terror, some of them woke up to the horror that lay beyond the web of lies they’ve been weaving. A glimmer of light shone through on Epiphany. But they seem to be settling back into silent complacency that only furthers the lies of the powerful who seek to loot and plunder our democracy as surely as the insurrectionists looted its halls and offices on Wednesday.

The landscape is littered with lies,
seeded with falsehoods like landmines,
like bombs hidden in the halls of justice.
The fabric of reality is stained,
torn and twisted, threads cut and tangled.

It’s nothing new, this rhetoric of insurrection.
For years now, they’ve been spreading it on,
lie by lie, suggestion by suggestion,
layer by seditious layer, whipping the masses
into a frenzy of rage and disenfranchisement.

Now is the time for clear-headed cleaning,
gathering threads of Truth where we find them,
patching and weaving, healing the fabric,
stitching and mending, finding our way
to the source of the lies and destruction.

Long before terror and chaos pillaged the building,
the lies were laid to pillage the truth, to bend
the will of the gullible and power-hungry masses
to do the silent bidding of the suited pirates
who have laid the groundwork of sedition.

Calling for calm and understanding only veils the carnage,
drawing another layer of lies to cover the wreck.
Now is the time for the stark strands of truth
to stand out and carry the narrative
back from the brink of destruction.


Gratitude:
Today I am grateful for truth, for narratives that center stories of people who have been cut from the narratives told by the powerful to skew the truth to their own agenda. I am grateful for the weavers and menders and spinners who pick up the torn and tangled threads and get to work to repair the tapestry of our story, holding the lie-mongers to account, and weaving in the threads of truth.


“A man is either free, or he is not. There cannot be an apprenticeship for freedom.” —Amiri Baraka


“Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.” ―bell hooks, killing rage: Ending Racism


“Consider whether great changes have not happened deep inside your being in times when you were sad. The only sadnesses that are unhealthy and dangerous are those we carry around in public in order to drown them out. Like illnesses that are treated superficially, they only recede for a while and then break out more severely. Untreated they gather strength inside us and become the rejected, lost, and unlived life that we may die of. If only we could see a little farther than our knowledge reaches and a little beyond the borders of our intuition, we might perhaps bear our sorrows more trustingly than we do our joys. For they are the moments when something new enters us, something unknown. Our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, they take a step back, a stillness arises, and the new thing, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing.” —Rainer Maria Rilke


“After silence,
that which comes nearest to
expressing the inexpressible,
is music.” —Aldous Huxley


“Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts.
Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts.
Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me…
Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”
—Shel Silverstein

Wisdom and Insurrection

After yesterday, it seems odd to come into this zone and write contemplatively about my dreams and images for the coming year. Sorting through the words and images, I return again and again to gnosis and hiddenness as my theme for the year, and the gnomon and its shadow as my image. I don’t think I can work more with that image at the moment. Part of the point of gnosis and the gnomon is to get at the truth, and so what I need to do today is to speak the truth as I see it.

Yesterday was traumatic. My thoughts are all a-jumble, so I’ll do it in bullet points:
* Yes, it was an insurrection and not a protest.
* It was incited, very directly by the country’s own president, which really makes it a coup.
* No actually, this is, unfortunately, very much who we are. It might not be who WE are, but we’ve had terroristic bands of White Supremacist thugs rising in our country since its beginning. So it’s who America is. And we’ve let them get away with their terrorism and murder and bigotry for too long. There were people inside that room who are as White Supremacist as any of the thugs waving Confederate battle flags in the hallways–they just do a better job of pretending to be socially acceptable.
* Make no mistake. This is about White Supremacy. It’s about wealth and power and White Supremacy. And they were creating their chaos at the bidding of the president.
* Had the rioters and insurrectionists not been almost entirely white people, you can be sure there would have been mass arrests and probably more than one person would have been killed. You can edit out that probably. It’s happened already–Black people have been killed for peacefully protesting the killing of Black people.
* There is absolutely no equivalence between the protests of this summer and the attempted coup of yesterday. Yes, some of those protesters did resort to violence and looting, but these were people protesting the murders of Black people and the fact that the murderers continue to get off without consequence, and yesterday was a violent takeover of our country’s Capitol building. No matter how stupidly tourist-like they may have appeared as they wandered through the halls snapping photos, they were violent insurrectionists.
* Hawley and Cruz, for starters, and probably a whole lot of others, ought to be censured in some way for their inciting words and behavior. Hawley offered the insurrectionists a fist pump as he walked into the Capitol in the morning. He needs to be held accountable. Can he be impeached?
* Yes, those congressfolx who backtracked and decided not to press their own internal coup yesterday ought to be commended, perhaps, for getting with the program, but they, too, have been part of the fuel in this fire, and we need to remember.
* Hey, did you hear the one about the Georgia Senate race flipping the Senate? I know, it seems like weeks ago now. Say it with me: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
* When I was a college student, a group of us participated in a protest in DC which included civil disobedience. We sat in a street, singing, and holding pots of flowers, and we were arrested in the hundreds by a very efficient DC Police Force. Yesterday’s force was Capitol Police instead, but I would have thought they would be equally or even more prepared to respond swiftly and efficiently to illegal protest (especially when they turn riotous and become an insurrection). I know they were overwhelmed, but they made 52 arrests. In the photos, I saw more than that number just wandering through the Capitol taking photos and selfies with the cops. And only 52 were arrested? People were rifling through Congresspeople’s desks and looting the Capitol building, and only 52 were arrested?
* I saw the video of the officer moving a barricade to let the insurrectionists in. There’s no re-interpreting that. It is what it is.
* Maxine Waters tweeted yesterday that she had been worried that something like this could happen and that four days ago, she had spoken with the Chief of Capitol Police and was told not to worry, that everything was under control.
* The lives of our elected officials were in danger yesterday. There were people in that crowd talking about executing Democrats.
* After the trauma of being violently taken over and evacuated, the people of Congress returned to their work, and stayed at it until at least 3:40 a.m., until their business was finished. Some of them, no doubt, left that work to go and continue to write the articles of impeachment that will, if there is any justice in the land, convict and then remove this president from office as soon as possible.
* Christopher Miller and Mark Milley completely bypassed the president himself and went to VP Pence, Pelosi, and Schumer to engage the National Guard. That is telling. Even if he hadn’t sparked and fueled this insurrection, even if he weren’t the instigator of the coup, he is so ineffective and incapable of governing that his own military muckety-mucks bypassed him to make a call in an emergency.
* I am so sorry that these Congresspeople are so tired, but they have work to do today in order to save our republic, to preserve our democracy. The president must be removed before he does anymore damage. (I don’t think I have ever before used the phrase “save our republic.”)
* If we know anything from women who have left abusive relationships, it’s that the moment she tells him she is planning to leave becomes the most dangerous time for her. Yesterday morning, Mike Pence essentially told the President that the US was leaving the abusive relationship, and he wasn’t going to stand in its way.
* For all his apparent grace under pressure and smooth leadership yesterday, Mike Pence still needs to stand accountable for his enabling of this house fire. He, too, has added fuel to this fire. But yes, even so, I am grateful that he decided to shift over from the dark side for yesterday’s business.
* To reiterate, we can’t let the rich and powerful white men (and a few others) of Congress, who helped to instigate and fuel this insurrection, walk away without keeping them accountable. The yahoos who disgraced the halls of Congress yesterday were merely the tools of people like Hawley and Cruz and Graham (no matter how sweetly he backpedals), McConnell (no matter how grandly he talks of upholding the Constitution), and especially the President and Mr. Pence.


What gratitude does one offer on a morning like this?
I’m grateful for the results of the Georgia race, grateful that the Senate is flipped.
I’m grateful that there was not more death in the halls of the Capitol, that the people of Congress were kept safe, that they were able to get their business completed.
I’m grateful for the net of beloveds who hold me, hold each other, hold the world, in love and prayer.


Thursday’s Thoughts:
I don’t have the internal space today to search out quotations that might be more apt for the moment, nothing for the rage I am feeling today, for the deep wells of anxiety. Here are some grounding quotations that might help me breathe–and maybe you, too?


“We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or hate, to see or be seen. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then become a story-teller.” —Rebecca Solnit


“There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.”
—Zora Neale Hurston


I see her walking
on a path through a pathless forest
or a maze, a labyrinth.
As she walks, she spins
and the fine threads fall behind her
following her way,
telling
where she is going,
telling
where she has gone.
Telling the story.
The line, the thread of voice,
the sentences saying the way.
—Ursula K. Le Guin (from “The Writer On, and At, Her Work)