You Have to Know Yourself

One of my favorite chores at Bethlehem Farm was teaching volunteers to bake bread.  I enjoy tasks that take awhile, don’t require a lot of thought, but result in satisfaction.  Maybe that’s why I also enjoy newsletter folding, sweeping, mowing, canning and sanding.  I wish the same could be said for laundry folding and driving.  I suppose locating lost socks and the sedentary nature of driving lower the enjoyment factor.  Our culture is so wrapped up in doing things quickly and efficiently that many people don’t get to enjoy tasks that are labor intensive.  When I told one particular group of high school volunteers of our bread making task, a participant piped up with her skepticism asking, “Do you really have enough breadmakers for all of us?”  Holding up my hands, I allayed her fears.

When I lived on the farm, and at the Alderson Hospitality House, I felt fulfilled in the sense that I was contributing to the greater good by volunteering my time and talents.  Along with outward acts of service, I also found it easy to make other socially conscious choices like eating local and vegetarian, reducing water use and fasting from electricity for an evening a week.  Surrounded by like-minded individuals, not making an intentional choice was going against the grain.  Over the course of three years, however, I found that community living and non-profit fundraising weren’t the right fit for me, so I discerned my way into education.  This involved a marked shift in my conservation and social justice efforts.  I had less time to prepare food, less resources whereby to procure sustainable goods and less of a community to hold me accountable.  

Moving to South Dakota to live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was the right choice at the time, but it also meant retreating further from the lifestyle I experienced while doing full-time service work. Oglala Lakota County, formerly known as Shannon County, is the poorest per capita county in the United States, so living there for two years was more of a social witness on my part as opposed to the social actions I’ve been used to in the past.  To put my teaching experience and graduate school work in context, I documented what this meant.

I now live in South Dakota’s tiny capital of Pierre.  We’re the second smallest capital in the United States.  Although it is smaller than Pierre, Montpelier in Vermont has a very different climate of social justice and interest.  Case in point would be the Hunger Mountain Food Co-op.  Here in Pierre, we’re lucky to have a half-wilted organic produce section the size of a sofa, and people are still figuring out what a recycling symbol means.   Pierre has many great elements, but I’ve been feeling like I’m not working hard enough to live with others, future generations and the environment in mind.  Teaching is its own form of social work, but it hasn’t felt wholly fulfilling lately either.  A shift in career, however, is not what is in order—grad school was too much work to give it up now.

When I started my grad school work, the registrar asked if I’d rather consider science education over English since I had so many undergraduate science credits.  Thankfully, before I spent too much of my parent’s money on the endeavor, I realized that although science is fascinating to me, I have a hard time conceptualizing and understanding things I cannot see.  Microscopes and chemistry experiments are great, but labs and textbooks just weren’t for me; I needed to explore content that I could put into practice every day with anyone.  

At first, storytelling was my jam.  I thought I’d change the world by teaching people how to tell and take in great stories.  How can we understand why our neighbors act the way they do until we actually get to know them?  I felt so compelled to explore these ideas in an academic arena that I did an independent study project on how the way my college was teaching speech class wasn’t in line with the philosophy of Jesuit education, a centuries old belief that education should be available to everyone regardless of background.  The idea is simple: most schools of thought on basic speech instruction require a speaker to support a claim with evidence found in a reputable source.  This seems like a sound practice, except for the reputable source part.  You have to have an education to be able to determine if a source is reputable in order to determine whether or not there is adequate evidence to support the claim.  The counter approach? Support claims with stories, not dry, statistics and research void of human emotion.  Most people can sift through a story and determine its validity based on gut feelings.  As it turns out, my notion isn’t a new one, and thousands of TED talks support my claim. (Wait, did I just use objective evidence to support an idea?  I never said there couldn’t be a mix…)

Years later, when I was twice offered the opportunity to teach speech to high schoolers, I thought my dreams had come true.  I could put into practice the ideas I’d researched and experienced in my own life.  And, as it turns out, I’m not alone.  There are plenty of people analyzing the use of stories to support ideas.  I’ve spend a meager four years teaching speech in a hybrid evidence and story-backed way, and it reached some students.  I was puzzled. Why wasn’t this easier?  If students learned to tell good stories, then why couldn’t they see the benefit in learning more about each other?  The problem is that they don’t feel like they have stories to tell; sadly, I’ve found that a lot of our society feels this way.  We live such bustling lives, that we don’t have time to figure out who we really want to be, and so we devalue who we end up becoming, often shying away from sharing our interests and beliefs—if we actually have them.

A long time ago, maybe even in high school, I came up with the idea that we need to try and understand ourselves, then our neighbors, then our world, in order to actually achieve some semblance of world peace.  Speech class focuses on that second stage, but I was finding that students weren’t any where near ready to share and listen to each other because they hadn’t learned to listen and discover themselves.

I started this piece by referencing the ability of our hands to do what many rely on machines to accomplish.  While reading The Odyssey by Homer yesterday, I made the connection with one of my classes that when Odysseus visits the Land of the Lotus Eaters the lotus flower, which makes men forget about their homes and revel in the eternal comfort of a distant land, can be compared to our modern technology and social media.  We become so obsessed with a digital version of ourselves that we don’t learn how to foster a life worth sharing in a story.  I believe this is why many students don’t value their own self-worth and why many adults define themselves by their material possessions and their often superficial social construct.

Two years ago, I had an idea that maybe I was called to live in Pierre to develop a creative outlet for people to engage with our community.  My idea isn’t for engagement in a conversational, extroverted sense, but for a passive, reflective experience of aesthetic wonder.  

I enjoy making art.  I’m not good at drawing or sculpting, but I enjoy using scraps and pieces to create something of value to me.  It isn’t always the end product that defines the success of my creative endeavor, but often the process of visualizing a plan, gathering the goods, and assembling the physical representation of that plan that provides me with the time and reflective basis to cultivate the most important thing about my life… me.  I don’t want to spend the rest of my life trying to teach people what authors are trying to say, how to formulate an interesting sentence, the rules of using effective commas or even the ability to talk to others.  No, my calling is to help people pursue whimsy opportunities that allow the soul a chance to look inward, the hands the ability to improve dexterity and response to thought, the mind the desire to fit itself in the world and discover others’ places as well, and the voice the ability to share the experience—if the mood strikes.

I went to see The Shack last night with some friends, and I was delighted in the parallels between that story, and the thoughts I’ve had lately.  I did not create the ills of the world, they will not vanish during my lifetime, and it isn’t my work to overtly try to erase them.  What I can do is to continue living a life of purpose where I infuse the elements of kindness, care and sustainability that I’ve learned in the past and continue to learn each day.  Someday maybe I will create and implement a business model that focuses on discovering the self and living out these elements by creative journaling, crafts and preparing food.  Other places certainly have that sort of program/space, but Pierre does not.  Until that time, I will seek ways to support development of the self through reading and writing.  As for my personal exploration, there’s a familiar scent wafting from the kitchen.  Come on over, or pull out a favorite recipe you haven’t honored in a while.

See the recipe and baking endeavor here.

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