Carol A. Hand
In every place I’ve lived, it has been important for me to make improvements. I learned how to repair broken windows, patch and paint walls and ceilings, do basic carpentry, and most of all, create gardens. Often I lived in yards that had been neglected for years, with trees and bushes that needed extra care to survive.
Working with the earth and plants helps heal my soul from the everyday challenges of walking between cultures. And it gives me time to think about life. During one of my more challenging jobs, I decided to create a pond, and as I did so, recorded my musings.
I have discovered a new avocation: washing little rocks that I excavated as I dug up sod and weeds to create gardens and a small pond in my yard. Although time consuming, I decided to line the little pond with rocks that came from that very spot. It gave me time to reflect on many things. I am sure my neighbors, if they saw me, thought I was odd as I sat for hours scrubbing decades or centuries of dirt from something that appeared, at least in this cultural context, to be so worthless and ordinary. Yet, as I watched dusty brown lumps transform into multi-colored, uniquely textured, and variously shaped stones, I began comparing it to the work I did as a professor.
I realized one of the principles that guides my work with students involves taking time to look for the inner beauty and strength of students whom many others might overlook, or even dismiss. Like the rocks, many have been covered with years of dust, yet underneath each is lovely and unique. And like the stones that dry after their washing, they retain only a little of their lovely colors in an arid environment. Yet, put them in water, and their rainbow colors are visible once again. So too, the right environments allow beauty and uniqueness to shine through people as well. The question I ponder is how to create those environments, not only for students and the professionals they will become, but also for the clients they will serve. There is a Taoist saying that suggests an answer:
The best people are like water.
They benefit all things,
And do not compete with them.
They settle in low places,
One with nature, one with Tao.
(Diane Dreher, 1990, The Tao of Inner Peace, p. 90)
I have also wondered about the paradox of too much knowledge and naming. I have never had a course in geology–strange, given that I have taken courses in almost everything else. I could not name any of the rocks: I didn’t know when, where, or how they were formed. I wondered, if I did know, would I be able to appreciate their loveliness without cataloging, ranking, or judging in some way? Would I be able to see each individual stone in its uniqueness from a more educated, scientific perspective? I honestly don’t know. I do know that I chose not to run off to buy geology books or enroll in a course.
I can usually (but not always) apply this principle of non-judgment when I work with students. I can rarely apply it when I work with arrogant or judgmental colleagues. Again, I pondered this difference. And I do run off to buy more textbooks to understand how I might do a better job of respecting those who have power and use it to oppress others, always with the goal of becoming more effective at ending oppression, but the answers still continue to elude me.
I also pondered the journey these stones made. What was the world like as they formed? Where did they begin their journey? Where have they traveled? And what have they experienced that has polished the surfaces of some and splintered others that are jagged and sharp-edged? (The ones with jagged edges don’t go into the pond: they serve as a ring around the edge.) Is this the difference, at least from the perspective of an Ojibwe academic, between students and rough-edged colleagues? Is it that I can see the smooth surface of those with less power, and only the jagged edges of those with power? Is my response to power differentials related to an automatic resistance to the legacy of colonial oppression? Or is it related to the Tao saying, a recognition that status is really only a social convention maintained by those in power for their own short-term benefit that is ultimately unfulfilling? Have the hard times experienced by those without power polished their surfaces, while those with privilege remained jagged for lack of transformative challenges?
Yes, I thought, I wash rocks and take the time to get to know students, but my colleagues tell me I should be more “productive.” Yet, to find the beauty in everyday life, to plant gardens that have begun to transform my working class neighborhood, is not wasted time. It has expanded possibilities. Helping students believe in themselves and modeling how to work with clients in authentically empowering ways will, perhaps, be of greater benefit than yet another journal article or conference presentation. It is the living art of washing rocks, or touching lives, that lets the best in others shine through. Taking the time to find beauty in others is surely needed in present and future times.
I have continued to try to understand why I am able to be sensitive to the experiences of those with the least power in any given setting, but maintain a judgmental stance toward those who have power. Not all people in positions of power need to be resisted. There are many colleagues who use their power mindfully to help students or clients see their own beauty and uniqueness. However, there are also colleagues who use power to tumble away all uniqueness, to judge difference as deficiency or deviance. Often this seems to be due to the deep insecurities they try to hide. Perhaps their emphasis on conformity is unconscious or well-intended, to help those who are different to adjust or acquiesce to the demands of the “real world.”
From my perspective, it is probably wiser to help students develop their own capacities to challenge accepted social constructions that limit opportunities for all of us to express our inner beauty and celebrate the inner beauty of others. The difficulty is to be in that liminal space between those without power and those who use power in oppressive ways, to buffer those without power from harm without harming those who use power in hurtful ways, to be like water and benefit all. Can it be that this buffering, like the power of water, will wear down and smooth the jagged edges?
Photo Credit: Google images – Madeline Island – Lake Superior Scenic