Sunday, January 18, 2015

Living legacy

          This week I'm taking care of a vacationing friend's house.  Her trio of lovely cats are staying home, so I visit a couple of times a day to make sure they have enough food, water, and love.  My friend is also tray seeding a host of greens in her basement greenhouse and every morning I turn on the grow lamps and mist the soil.  Every evening I return to turn off the lamps and make sure the tender sprouts are still moist.
          Last night when I arrived for my first visit, I was surprised by how the rich, humid scent of organic soil instantly took me back to my days in the greenhouse at Esalen Institute where I was in charge of thousands of "babies," little seedlings just making their way above the soil and into the light.  It was one of my favorite tasks and one I often did on my day off, just to spend some time in an environment of new beginnings.  When I left Esalen in the fall of 2008, my boss lovingly said to me, "Everyone here will be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor all winter long because of your dedication to the greenhouse."   In truth, it was an honor and a privilege to be responsible for giving those seeds the best start possible.  A privilege I'm happy to accept from my friend as I nurture her little greenhouse in the Heartland.
          Early in my career I gravitated toward teaching first grade and continue to enjoy working with preschoolers.  In fact, little ones often gravitate toward me while I'm out and about running errands. They stop and chat, especially if I'm wearing my purple coat.  (Click here to read "The empress' new clothes." ) They'll ask questions about what I'm buying.  Do you have a cat?  Is that for your kids?  It's a delight to watch a new generation grow and learn about the world around them.  To play a small part in their evolution and awareness.  To listen and learn from their simple wisdom that notices the tiniest of details I often overlook.
          Children have always been my favorite teachers, so I wonder what the kids of today will see when they look back on the legacy my generation will someday leave behind.

          This month I returned to Washington Local Schools to teach an afternoon yoga class at Hiawatha Elementary.  The other day while waiting for someone to open the locked door near the parking lot, I saw three signs taped to the glass wall.  "Gun free zone!" one of them announced with a circle/slash photograph of a handgun.  The other two were identical stickers that announced the penal code violation for bringing a weapon (even a registered one) into the building.  It hurt to know that every single day, each student entering or exiting the school would pass by these signs -- daily reminders that our world has drastically changed since I was a child.
          When I first taught at Greenwood Elementary in the nineties, we were able to leave all of the doors unlocked, but the shootings at Columbine High School changed everything.  In fact, when I leave Hiawatha every week, I drive past the exact place where I had been sitting in my car at a stoplight in April of 1999 when the lives of so many in Colorado were lost.  It's a sobering reality to listen to the news where shootings occur at malls, in restaurants, and in all kinds of neighborhoods.  Where anger and retaliation trump a willingness to work through issues in a diplomatic way.
          If I've learned anything in my years as a teacher, it's that every single one of my students was a mirror of their environment, if not completely, then in components.  They were all living legacies of their neighborhoods, their friends, and their families.  The same is true for me.  Through time and awareness, I've come to assimilate those parts that are healing and helpful while unwinding those that may have served a purpose in the past but have long outgrown their usefulness.  It's not been easy and I'm never done, but it's been worth the work to come to a place where I can see things from a very different perspective and not just an unconscious reaction from the culture in which I was raised.
         
          I'm thankful to be near the finish line of the research for a novel I'll soon be writing.  In the past year I've gone from reading about the Holocaust to watching countless films and documentaries to recently visiting the Holocaust Memorial Center in Michigan.  In a week or so, I'll be interviewing a survivor of the camps.  Each step has taken me closer to the harrowing experience.  Each book or film or artifact more deeply affecting me than the last. 
          While walking through the museum last Friday, the part that instantly brought tears was the hallway which led to a floor to ceiling photograph of Adolf Hitler.  On either side of the passage were a host of Nazi artifacts, an original version of Mein Kampf, a timeline of the rise of the Gestapo.  Knowing in great detail the horrors wrought by Hitler's regime, it was terrifying to stand in the presence of what had one time destroyed the lives of millions around the world.  As we made our way toward another display, I caught a glimpse of some childlike drawings that were dated in the 1940's.  They were advertisements for the Hitler Youth, created by children to order other children to join the movement or risk punishment or death. 
          It has never been so clear to me that all war, all conflict begins with the belief that in some way a certain group is better than another.  That we are separated by an ethnic group, religion, social class, and the color of our skin.  What we teach our children when they are so young and impressionable becomes their reality.  How we water the seedlings of their psyches becomes their behavior.  How we embody our lives becomes a template of expectations for them to follow. 
          However, not all children are easy prey to the shadows of their past.  There are countless stories of Germans who helped hide Jews and others who were certain to be sent to concentration camps.  Many sons and daughters defied their families and worked for the Resistance during World War II.  Even now I see new generations break free from the mores of a culture that is unsustainable. 
          Their living legacy is a hope for all generations.

          As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day tomorrow, I'm reminded of a conversation I had with my little friend, Satish, when he was in kindergarten.  I was sharing why we celebrated the life of Dr. King by explaining the realities of segregation in America.  His mother reminded Satish that Dr. King's message was an echo of what Ghandi was trying to teach, that peaceful protests can move mountains.  That stubborn, but non-violent action reveals the truth -- always. 
          Without hesitation, Satish looked at me and said, "If we were kids in the sixties, we couldn't sit next to each other on the bus."
          I nodded.  "That's right...and how sad that would be to keep us separate just because our skin is a different color.  I would have missed out on so much not knowing you...not being your friend."
          It lightens my spirit to know that the little ones we are raising now have little context to the devastation of the past.  But it was also a blessing to walk through the Holocaust Museum tour with a mother and her three young girls.  One is in first grade, another in fourth and the oldest is a seventh grader.  At one point I whispered to their mother, "I really give you credit for bringing your daughters here...it's so important to learn from the past."
          She nodded, explaining that she had prepared them for what we would see.  "It's important to bring them here," she said.  "I want them to know as much about our history as possible."
                    
          Years ago I was studying the vibrational power of words, the healing properties that certain prayers or mantras contain.  I discovered that, in any language on the planet, "peace" has the highest vibration, "love" is second, and "joy" is third.  It was for this reason that when I first got online, my land-line email address was "peacetoyou@_________."  With every message sent, I wanted the vibration of peace to go out into the ether and into the home of the person to whom I was writing.
          Upon moving to Big Sur, I left the land-line behind.  When I moved back from Esalen the address had been taken in my absence, so I had to choose a different one, but even now, I almost always end every email with the word "peace."  What a serendipity to read a review from a wonderful woman who has read all four of my novels.  She wrote in part:  Reading Katie's books is like taking a long hot bubble bath, a walk alone in the woods, or sitting quietly in meditation -- whatever brings  peace to you. Thank you, Katie! The experience of " being there" is amazing! 
          Anne Frank wrote about a chestnut tree that gave her hope during World War II.  It stood outside the window of the home in which she was hiding and thrived there for decades after her death.  The tree succumbed to disease in 2010, but eleven saplings grown from its remains were donated to places in the United States, one being the Holocaust Museum in Michigan.  In witnessing this small but powerful reminder of faith, I'm reminded that peace grows in the most surprising of places...and thrives where there are people who know how to honor and nurture it.
          Now I know that this is my living legacy...to bring peace to the world through a blog or a book.  Through misting my friend's seedlings and taking good care of her pets.  Through tending a garden and teaching yoga.  Through any act that invites healthy connection and heals separation, within my community...or simply within my own self.
          For what I create deep within will be mirrored in who I become.


To see this living legacy in person, visit the
Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, MI