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Students’ morning prayer, in Jalgaon.

At the end of many prayers in which I participate here, I hear and sing, or chant, “shanti, shanti, shanti.” “Peace, peace, peace.” May there be peace in this place, peace for those who hear the bells, peace for our community, peace for the world.

I am always reminded of the prayer of St. Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

How do I pray such a thing, in the midst of poverty, inequalities in education, and stories of female feticide, rapes, and murders of women?

How do I pray that, on a smaller scale, when I am still hurt, jaded, and cynical from my classroom teaching experiences? When I cannot say for certain that the schools in which I taught could ever be truly a “safe space”?

And yet, what kind of teacher—or human, or Christian—am I if I give up hope? Sr. Carla Mae once told me that the opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is despair.

For the last few months, I’ve been thinking about what happens when teachers “burn out.” I wrote a paper for my multi-religious contemplative capacities course entitled, “Ahimsa Practices for Tramautized/Tramautizing Teachers: How to Restore Peace-full Teaching.” In these three weeks, I’ve been listening carefully to the stories of teachers, and attending to what the schools here feel like. Do the teachers have warmth and regard for their students, or contempt and disdain? Are students energized and joyful, or reciting rote and fearful?

What meditative or restorative practices can heal teachers who work in circumstances where systematic injustices and dehumanizing bureaucracies discourage voice (read: vocation)?

We live in a world where peace feels frequently elusive, impossible, a nice quote to pin on an inspiration board before returning to sarcasm, individual competitiveness, black-and-white thinking, and practices that leave us feeling increasingly dead inside. Gandhi and the Reverend King are heroes, far removed from the kind of daily injustices we face. Unless our voices touch millions, we fear, it’s unlikely for us to see peace—or justice—in our lifetimes.

***

I had a long conversation with Prof. P. last week. Last year, I attended part of the funeral of his father. Twenty days before his father died unexpectedly, his teenaged nephew drowned. It was a hard summer for his family.

We sat together on a porch in Jalgaon, overlooking green hills and orchards. I told him that I had held his family in my prayers all year, and asked how they were.

Prof. P. mentioned how devout his sister-in-law is, how ordinary and good the lives of his families are, how the thousands drowned in sudden floods were at worship. And yet, he pointed out, thieves and looters live and thrive. We were talking about the problem of theodicy. Both of us used the phrase, “…in this life.” As in, “We just can’t understand the purpose of such loss, in this life.” Or, “…there are different kinds of karma, that we can’t understand, and it doesn’t make sense, the way things happen, in this life.”

I recited again a quote that is dear to me, from the Reverend King: “…the arc of justice is long, but it bends toward mercy.”

Jain cosmology, with its radically different sense of time, reminds me again and again that my mind is finite. The universe, and God, are infinite. Maybe I will be blessed with a few golden glimmers of Truth, of Possibility, where I understand, for one goosebumpy and numinous moment—the bending.

***

Remember how in A Wrinkle in Time, Charles Wallace thinks he faces evil alone—a quick path to despair.

Mrs. Whatsit shares with him a glimpse of our planet Earth, seen from afar. A dark, pulsing cloud covers most of it. It is like a tumor, a living, present thing. Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who reminds Charles Wallace and his friends that we are one of millions of those who work against the dark, who work knowing their tiny acts of light will not be overcome.

Charles Wallace is surprised; he didn’t realize this battle has been fought long before his particular pain. Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who offer reminders; L’Engle writes:

‘And we’re not alone, you know, children.’ came Mrs. Whatsit, the comforter.

‘All through the universe it’s been fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it’s a grand and exciting battle. I know it’s hard for you to understand about size, but there’s very little difference in the size of the tiniest microbe and the greatest galaxy. You think about that, and maybe it won’t seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet, and it’s a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it’s done so well.’

‘Who have our fighters been?’ Calvin asked.

‘Oh, you must know them, dear,’ Mrs. Whatsit said.

Mrs. Who’s spectacles shone out at them triumphantly. “And a light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

‘Jesus!’ Charles Wallace said. ‘Why of course, Jesus!’

‘Of course!’ Mrs. Whatsit said. ‘Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.’

‘Leonardo da Vinci?’ Calvin suggested tentatively. ‘And Michelangelo?’

‘And Shakespeare,’ Charles Wallace called out, ‘and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!’

Now Calvin’s voice rang with confidence. ‘And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!’ (65-66).

The mundane, daily, and systematic examples of injustice work to make us think that our impulses toward community, toward collaboration, and toward life-affirming action are silly, wrong-headed, and bound to fail.

As children of God, we are made to be light-carriers. If we tend to our spiritual selves and work in communities that can help us identify and remember our calling, we are better equipped to work against despair.

***

Practicing mindfulness may seem a selfish, tiny act—how is cultivating gratitude going to help my students in their poverty and hunger? And yet, we find that over time, the cultivation of a new kind of flexibility in the mind prepares us to be prepared and willing.

From childhood—ourselves threatened and made afraid from nursery school—we have been raised up in a posture of fear and despair. We forget so quickly our true potential. Even understanding that the history upon which we build assumptions may be faulty can change the position of our posture.

In Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink writes, “Learning the history of nonviolence is another way of rehearsing it. Furthermore, our ability to act may depend every bit on our knowledge of nonviolent methods and spirituality as on our fortitude” (300).

If I had to teach again, in such a situation, and I pray I will, I will do the following to begin with. I would teach the history of nonviolence, including the history and voices of those in the American Civil Rights Struggle and for every nation represented by my students. For my own good, as for theirs. I would commit to never using sarcasm, ridicule, or threats with my students—and would be forthright with them why I make this choice, and why it is difficult. I would share this challenge with my teaching peers.

I know from experience that when I have been honest with my students—in joy and humor, and in tricky times, admitting when things are hard and “right answers” far and few between, the energy in the room is one of deep community and connection. I didn’t know that when I engage with young people from my centeredness as a child of God, I am tugging a bit at the veil of despair that conceals our true natures that will help, one day, to upend it forever.

***

I pray that I will always have hope, and a healthy, noisy, thriving hope that fills my blood with oxygen and keeps me sharp and eager to work. I pray that I can grow in practices that help me see light, help me recognize peace when I see it, and keep me mindful of that arc of justice, ever ending toward the light.

All will be well. We are made for more than competition, poverty, sarcasm, and hopelessness. We are made to be in relationship, to heal one another, broken shard to broken shard, small light to small light.

It’s a good thing to recite “Peace, peace, peace,” many times a day. To take time to sharpen my eyes in looking for it, to reminding myself to not abandon it. I do believe that all will be well, and all shall be well.

I’m not sure how peace will come about, and in what forms it will take, but I trust that arc of justice, bending long to justice. I can see it and feel it, and I will not despair.

***

Portions of this reflection got their start in a paper I wrote for class in 2011, called, “Lights for Us to See By: A Critical Review of Engaging the Powers.”

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two girls

Two girls at an after-school tutoring program organized by the movement.

The hizmet movement places education—for all—at the foundation of its philosophy. Early in the movement, Gulen met with students, and the organization grew in places of study, with young activists and thinkers. The hizmet movement supports schooling at every level, and you don’t have to be Turkish, or Muslim, to attend their schools or receive support for education.

Visiting their schools in Turkey, and hearing about the importance of education, I was moved to think about my own education. In my mind, I call the librarians, teachers, and Sunday school teachers who taught me “a golden chain.” I was so often given extra time, extra books and materials, extra places to sit alone, and read and write. Teachers took the time to comment on poems I wasn’t assigned to write, to help me understand books I undertook to read on my own, and to give me used textbooks and class novels to build my own library.

The church I went to as a child drove many miles to pick me up every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening, so I could come learn, read, and sing with the congregation. All of this has shaped me. When I teach, I try to give extra hours as well—at lunchtime, at recess, sharing extra books and time tutoring. How else can I pass on the wealth I’ve been given?

folk dance

Children doing a Turkish folkdance; the girls are sowing seeds.

We visited one school, the oldest school founded by the hizmet movement. I was so, so struck by the warmth with which the children were treated. As we ate breakfast, we watched a kindergarten group having breakfast as well. They chatted and moved around freely; teachers peeled their hard-boiled eggs and helped them get milk; the kids got as much bread as they wanted. As they finished, they went out to recess, but they could take as much time as they needed to eat. This in contrast to the public schools where I’ve worked, where even the very young students are rushed through meals, sometimes have no time to finish, and are yelled at or made to keep silent.

The students also all participate in arts, dance, sports, and the school day ends at 2PM so they can have after-school activities. And—these students regularly produce the best national test scores of any in Istanbul. Top scores on tests, but the focus is on warmth and a variety of activities.

front of Syrian school

The front of the school for Syrian children.

We also visited an empty school, brand new and waiting for Syrian refugees from across the border. I was frustrated by questions from my colleagues about what kind of textbooks, and how much materials would cost, and where the students would go after this school. In my limited experience in Haiti, and with refugee students in the US—the traumas and needs are so great. We’re beyond talking about the number of materials. It is enough to have them in a safe building, physically intact. In Haiti, we used bits of cloth and chunks of concrete to teach sorting activities. In St. Louis, the students from Somalia often seemed unreachable—they had been through so much, so many unfathomable things—what did our inadequate public school have to offer? I was overwhelmed by the thought of what these Syrian students and teachers would bring, and need, and face.

empty classroom

By now, this classroom is full; the students and Syrian teachers arrived last week.

Almost despairing—why even try, when the odds seem insurmountable? Matt said, “Because you have to at least start.” You have to build the building, get the desks, give the teachers a whiteboard and markers. Get lunches, and some kind of school nurse, and establish a routine. Reading and writing, some sustenance, a semblance of order.

I think I’ve written here before about faith, doubt, and despair. Sr. Carla Mae taught me long ago that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but despair. Doubt still has in it a seed of engagement, the possibility to learn and relate further. But despair is a giving-up, a disengagement, a [false] belief that all is lost.

My experiences in Turkey gave me a great deal of hope—every family, teacher, business person, parent, organizer, scholar—every single one had a commitment to hospitality, to meeting and engaging with the other, and to education and humanitarian work. Most of them said, in some way, “Even if this is all that I can do, in the face of the world’s need, I will do it.” All believed that greater peace is possible, especially through education and relationship-building.

I am writing from Delhi, where I am also daily faced with great poverty, hunger, homelessness, and separation of the classes. Sometimes, driving through slums, I am tempted to think: “No amount of education or peace-building work on my part can ever make a difference, in this life.” And yet, I just came from Turkey, where I saw glimpses of a different kind of possibility. In gratitude to my hosts and new Turkish friends, I will try to keep embodying the possibility of hope.

good morning

This girl, full of energy and spunk, not only took the opportunity of our interrupting her tutoring session to chat and pose for photos, but leaped at the chance to play teacher and teach us “good morning” in Turkish.

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photo from “Dominican Saints 101

Today is her feast day.  She was whisked away to a Dominican cloister by her father, to save her from invaders. Young Margaret took to the life like a fish to warm water, and practiced study and devotion for years. Because she was so young when she took the habit (at the age of four), many thought she would grow out of her devotion, but she never did.

Many take her story as a reminder of the seeds of great spirituality in children, and as a reminder to we who educate them to not dismiss those callings, but foster them so that they might flourish.

As a Sunday school teacher, I have always thought it was wrong to take a position of “I know and you don’t; listen carefully.” The Latin for “educate” means “to lead out.” That is, to create circumstances and opportunities that might lead a young person into discovery and reflection.

My most delightful and holy moments in Sunday school and in public school teaching were when I trusted a Gracefullness that surrounded all of our curiosity, conversation, and endeavors… when I trusted to let go a bit, listen to the kids, and regard what they had to offer as valuable.

This is harder than it sounds! I have a lot of energy, and a million ideas a minute, and like to be in charge. I pray, today on Margaret’s day, that I might be ever mindful of the gifts and passions of those I teach, and teach from a posture of welcoming and celebrating them.

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One thing, Tuesday

Here is one thing from today:

My ninth graders are painting the backdrops (newly made by Matt and students) with gesso, before designing the scenery.

One gangly kid ended up sitting underneath a backdrop balanced on six desks. I peeked at him and said, “V., having a little time-out time?”  He grinned, “Yeah, Miss.”

The girls painting painted the muslin right over his head, accidentally painting his hair as well. When he emerged from his nook, he looked like an old man: brown hair streaked white.

I found him an over-sized candy cane from my props pile, and told him to be an old man. He was so good at being an old man! He hunched over and started to hobble. I laughed out loud.

He hobbled out into the all, taking two other teachers by surprise. Sometimes, other teachers get a look at what’s coming out of my room, and I wonder if they wonder what in the heck I’m doing in there.

I was laughing too hard at V.’s perfect elderly self to say anything.

This is a new batch of kids, new semester. They’re still getting used to them. It tickled them that I laughed so easily, so genuinely, at V.’s antics. I like it when I can be myself when teaching.

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I’m Mrs. White

December 23 – New Name Let’s meet again, for the first time. If you could introduce yourself to strangers by another name for just one day, what would it be and why? (Author: Becca Wilcott)

I found my baby book while home for Christmas, mostly unfinished, or half finished. The old photographs were wonderful, as was the tiny tuft of golden-colored hair, taped into place three decades ago. One of the pages prompted my parents to write in nicknames for me, cute names people called me. The list included, “Steppenfetchit, Stessie Rae, and Lori.” I went by “Lori” in kindergarten because my first name was too long to spell, and I had a hard time holding a pencil.

When I was in grade school, I thought the most exotic and glamourous possible name was “Egypt,” and named all of my Barbies that.  When my sister was born, I lobbied hard to name her “Rainbow,” but my parents didn’t go for that. My Cabbage Patch kids were named, “Joey,” (born/arrived “Linus Donovan”), “Elva Francis,” (the name she came with), “Gretchen,” (a doll from Germany with all papers in German, and my Grammy told me “Gretchen” was a German name), and “Sally,” (an astronaut doll I named after Sally Ride.)

I loved playing school (with my dolls, my stuffies, and my baby sister), and began every session of play by creating a class roster. I had to have at least 20 names, a good mix of boys’ and girls’ names, and everyone had to have a first and a last name.

I had a full set of Uncle Arthur’s books for children when I was little, and got lots of good ideas for names for my students from those books. The books were a bit old-fashioned even then, so children in those books had names like “Agatha,” and “Millicent.”

I don’t think I would change my name. I had a classmate in graduate school who created a stage name for herself, first and last names based on inspiring characters, one from a book, one from a movie. I thought that was a bit much.  But then, I like my names, all of them. I like writing them, and saying them, and hearing people I like saying them.

Our students have a thing where they declare many, many circumstances, “Racist!” They cry it out, accusing each other and various situations: “That’s racist!!!”  Matt especially, as their humanities teacher and advisor to several of them, tries to help them understand what that word means, and what situations it correctly describes, and what it does not.

Also, our students think it’s shocking and hilarious when I reference my own race, like if I say, “I’m a white woman.” It practically makes them fly out of their seats. I’m not sure if it’s because I am the only white woman in the room, and the obvious is always kind of funny, or because it’s funny to say things like that out loud, or because they’re a bit uncomfortable.  Sometimes, if they’re describing a classmate to me, they might say, “No, not that Joel– the black Joel. No racist!” So I have to explain that identifying what race someone is is not racist. I am white. That’s my race. I am white, I have blonde hair, and blue eyes, and I am a woman. Those are all facts.  Stating that isn’t racist.

The other day, a particularly wound up kid was careening about the hall, declaring someone to be racist. I said to him, “R., just because she said he’s black doesn’t mean she’s racist.  That’s just a fact. She was describing him only.  Right? Like, I’m a white woman. Right? I’m a white woman.”

I realized that one of the students standing nearest me on line speaks no English, so I said to her, “Yo blanca senora.”

She and her bi-lingual friend giggled. I said to her friend, “I just said, ‘I’m Mrs. White,’ didn’t I?”  F. giggled again and nodded yes.

Our school has added ninth grade this year, as it’s grown a year up every year since its founding. One of the privileges of the high school students is that they may call their teachers by their first names, if the teacher invites them to do so. I did welcome my students to call me “Stephanie,” or “Ms. V-H,” or by my full last names. It’s funny, though– the ones who do call me “Stephanie” still put a “Miss” in front, so it becomes “Miss Stephanie,” which basically sounds like I’m their Sunday school teacher.

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December 16 – Friendship How has a friend changed you or your perspective on the world this year? Was this change gradual, or a sudden burst? (Author: Martha Mihalick)

Gradual…  I think about my friends Tom and Eric and Jodut, and how they have influenced how I think about teaching, studying, being political in the world, taking care of my self…

I’ve grown closer to my friend Nick this way. For some reason, we hung out this year more than we have, and he went through some tough times that encouraged many deep conversations. He holds me accountable to my heart, and to living authentically.

Before the wedding, my friend Amy was a dream– I mean, she is always a dream, a gift, an inspiration, but particularly in the year before the wedding: she was everything to me. I am amazed at the grace, smarts, kindness, and humor that she’s able to bring to every conversation.

My friendship with Matt has deepened, of course. We see each other all day most days, and he influences how I teach, how I interact with students and colleagues, how I want to live my life… and all the little living details: cooking, reading, day-dreaming.

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December 14 – Appreciate What’s the one thing you have come to appreciate most in the past year? How do you express gratitude for it? (Author: Victoria Klein)

Thanks to reading Lee’s blog, I can no longer just write about one thing.

1. My husband’s family. I think about them nearly every day, thanks to the Facebook. And being with them at holidays, and feeling surrounded by their love and _acceptance_ at our wedding is such a blessing.

2. Health insurance.

3. Being able to teach drama. Not by sneaking it in to an ELA curriculum, but outright, whole-heartedly, full on.

4. Working with Matt. Sharing students is wonderful, but also: when he hasn’t had time to do his share of dishes, I know it’s because he’s been working like crazy at school. It’s so easy to appreciate his time and the things that wear him out.

5. The nuns. They give me so much support–written, phone calls, e-mails, little postcards and prayer cards and notes. Just today I picked up a postcard Sr. Cyril Marie had sent in the midst of my certification troubles, and it re-inspired me. My Dad says the nuns are like the Elves in Rivendell. Not like us, and not of this world, and fading out of this world. Fewer and fewer women are entering the novitiate, so they tend to be old… and they are certainly not of this world. Some of them, they mystics, the ones who do not live in the world or even in the larger community: when they look you in they eye, you _feel_ their closeness to that close place.

6. Cable TV and DVR. Honestly: sometimes, I just want to watch _Law & Order_, and only _Law & Order_. It’s a comfort.

7. Our neighborhood: great fresh Mexican food, outdoor shrine at St. Lucy’s, public library in walking distance, seeing our kids and their families, Botanical Garden and Zoo in walking distance…

8. Living within our means. Having a good relationship with my student loan lenders, not having consumer debt, working on a budget and being mindful about what we have and don’t have.

9. Cooking with Matt: we complement each other, we take turns, we chop or clean up for each other.

10. Fiddle lessons!  I’m actually starting to learn things. I can play two tunes.

11. Baths. Reading in hot baths until I’m falling asleep.

12. Broadway UCC. This is the year I came to think of it as my church home. I have been fed and supported there.

13. My growing Sunday school there. There were years where I only had two small chickadees, some weeks I had no one. But they believed in keeping me around, and I believed– I could visualize, someday, Children’s Sermons on the chancel steps, full of kids, and so: it happened. It is joyful to see them and be with them.

14. Christmas songs. Oh, I love so many of them. Nothing beats singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” I know the harmonies, and can sing without looking at the hymnal– allowing me to gaze about whatever space I’m in.

15. New clothes. There were a few years where I couldn’t afford to buy new clothes. This year, with working full time, and with losing weight, I’ve been able to buy some new things. Buying new pants was so much fun! Having some new options is exciting, and I so appreciate it.

16. Daily Puppy.com  I can’t tell you how many times those puppy photos have helped me wake up of a morning, or in the middle of the night. Cuteness = serotonin, which helps anxiety.

17. How Facebook helps me keep in touch with some of my favorite friends, and hear their voices, and see photos and videos… I love feeling connected to in that way.

18. Getting manicures. They’re affordable in this neighborhood. I don’t quite get them weekly, but it is so luxurious to have freshly painted, colorful, unchipped nails. No dry, raggedy cuticles. Pleasing, glossy, candy-colored fingertips.

19. My Christmas stocking. My Grandma made it; I think there must have been a year when she made them for all of us grandkids who were born by that year. She did our names in glue, with red glitter. You can tell my name is a little too long, or maybe she didn’t plan for it well, but the end is kind of scrunched in. And some of the glitter is chipping away. There was a time in my early adulthood when I was ashamed of it. It looked kind of cheap and white trash-y. The mother of the guy I was with at the time got me (as a replacement) an embroidered one from Neimann Marcus. I don’t even know where that one is anymore.

20. How Matt knows me well enough that he can check out a stack of library books for me, and I will love every one.

21. The weddings of beloved friends. Inspiring, fun, gorgeous.

22. My own wedding. One of the happiest, most fun, most exciting days of my life. I fell in love with my friends, and with Matt, and with our families, and with my church, and with flowers and song and food… over and over again.

23. Knee socks. Last winter I discovered that knee socks are fantastic. And that I could wear knee socks under leggings under pants, on the coldest days, and be completely warm and comfortable.

24. Canada. My first trip there with Matt was sheer heaven. I only want to go back there again and again, and there is a whole subset of things I appreciate in Canada: pie, hammocks, water, swimming, stars, cooking with family, tiny Anglican church services, painting, reading…

25. The written word. I get so much: pleasure, excitement, learning, truth, perspective, connection, ideas, inspiration… from reading novels, posts, scripture, essays, articles. I am so grateful I can read and write.

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