‘I want to know if you can see beauty,
even when it’s not pretty,
and if you can source your own life
from its presence.’
- Oriah Mountain Dreamer
The little group set off hand in hand along the path. Dudu, a staff member, wore a bright red dress that shone out amidst the dappled shade of the trees. On either side of her ran two child members, Parvan (8) and Emma (3). Little Philasande (2) trailed behind. They were on the hunt for creatures. The morning had been spent combing the outdoor play space for snails, spiders, slugs and worms to add to their terrarium. A barking dog and the hot sun brought them back to the play space after only a few minutes. The foray had not been as fruitful as hoped for. But Emma sidled up to me, her small plastic bucket held behind her back. ‘Close your eyes Mom,’ she said with a shy smile. When I opened them again, a small grey feather rested on my knee. An ordinary feather. An exquisitely-formed, shimmering silver-grey feather. It was a beautiful moment. A perfect moment. The kind of moment that can lift me up out of pain and fear and confusion and make all the striving worthwhile - but if only I have the flash of insight to let it.
Earlier in the day the children had pottered around, working on this and that. I had made myself available, worked on holding the space, keeping it clear and inviting, and observed closely. There were some squabbles, mediation was needed. By 9am, I was already exhausted. I had been a teacher before, and it’s always a demanding job. But this time, in this place, it was confusion which kept my jaw tight and curled my fingers in towards my palms.
What was my role? What were their goals? Responding to the moment requires being in the moment, and I was out of practice. Enabling self-directed learners demands presence of mind and awareness of self. But the mind that I brought has been schooled to believe in only one right way and only one set of desirable goals. The first months of mentoring a group of self-directed children has battered and kneaded my expectations and values into a smooth and pliant gloop.
What is useful? Why am I doing this? What is of value? What should be of value in others’ lives? My mornings at Growing Free throw up more questions than they answer. I am a beginner en route to a transformation of world-rumbling proportions. And who are my teachers in this transformation? I was a work-at-home mom of one. Now I am a work-at-home mom who volunteers most mornings to grow a rag-tag group of little people all looking for their place in the world. I have traded one relentless Zen master for half a dozen of them. They are as insistent and exacting as they are forgiving and compassionate. They ask more of me than I can give, and they accept and love me through all of my mistakes. Truly, if anyone has the answers, children do, because they own their lives fully. They have yet to be persuaded to hand over pieces of their souls, or barter with bits of their hearts. And so although I am still scared, and weak, they accept me anyway, and turn up each day with welcoming arms. I thought I had something to give them. I didn’t realize how much they were going to give me.
Spending time with children on their own terms, I am learning that life is more than goals, deadlines, urgent emails, monthly budgets, and other people’s evaluations of our success. They reach deep into each moment, no matter how mundane, banal, unappealing or taboo it may be, and yank out its marrow. They let me know that it’s okay to be sad, or angry, or scared. They show me that these are all part of the full spectrum of human experience. Without knowing anger, disappointment, loss and sorrow, we would be living our lives half-asleep. I don’t know why the world is the way it is, but I do know that without violence, there would be no such thing as kindness. Without tragedy there would be no beauty. In the haunting expansion of her poem The Invitation, Oriah Mountain Dreamer reminds us that ’[Beauty] is what pulls us toward life. It is what calls to us when we despair, seduces us into opening again and again to the possibility of love and laughter…Seeing beauty is about broadening our ability to recognize the interconnectedness of all manifestations of life, and delighting in how the smells and sounds and tastes and sights that surround us conspire to draw us toward living fully.’
It has been said again and again, in a myriad of ways: there is more to life than work, than achievements, than money, status, recognition or reputation. But while these reminders remain merely platitudes, they knock politely and uselessly at the doors to our souls. It is only when we are broken open that these words sink bone-deep. Ah, but then. Then they run through our veins, expand beneath our ribs and release from between our lips on every exhale.
With their seemingly endless cycle of needs, their unwavering trust, their essential dependence and freshly-minted wonder, children make good hammers. So does grief and loss and love and wildness and solitude. When these leave us ripped apart and bleeding, we should pause a little before rushing to patch ourselves up. Too often we flail desperately to make ourselves as neat and tidy on the outside as everyone else seems to be. We reach with open hands towards the pretty and the perfect. But this is not where beauty lies. For it’s the cracks that let the light in.
This post was sponsored by the Midlands House of Healing. Colleen is a gifted therapist, and as well as several types of massage and reiki, she practices distance energy healing. She is gentle and firm; she handles fragile fault lines with care. For help and love on your road to discarding prettyness in favor of beauty, you can find her in the Karkloof or on 084 603 0604.