March 11, 2011
As the co-director of Finding the Good, it is my job to post on the blog semi-regularly under “Director’s Notes”. My posts are, in theory, to provide an overview and to offer the perspective of one who is part instructor, part organizer/leader, part curriculum developer, part seeker/student, part fellow adventurer, part mentor, and part….parent. With all those parts, it is sometimes challenging to be also the writer and scribe, though in many ways that is the exact flip side of my role here, equally important. So it is with some chagrin that here we are at the end of Week 7 and this is my first post.
It is not insignificant that I am writing this in our small trailer-classroom, at Campo Archelon, in Bahia de Los Angeles on the shores of the Gulf of California (sometimes referred to as the Sea of Cortez, though rarely by me) in Baja California, Mexico. Life at FtG has only just slowed down long enough for me to sit at the computer with something other than immediate and urgent business to take care of. It is a luxury and a joy to be focusing my attention on relating some of the learning that has taken place, and is at this very moment taking place, among our compact group of students, interns, and directors.
When writing, I do believe that it is best to start where one is, and go forward or back from there. We arrived at Campo Archelon this afternoon and were greeted by our good friend Antonio Resendiz, world-renowned sea turtle researcher and overall extraordinary human being. Somehow in a conversation that took no more than 40 minutes, over coffee in the beautiful stone house he built with his wife Bety, we covered the state of the world, the earthquake in Japan (first we’d heard of it), the US economy, he and Bety’s two children, our family; drugs and other consumer addictions, the students and FtG; the decline this year of the tourist industry and squid fishery that has resulted in hard times here in this land that depends heavily on tourism and fishing; and what we want to do while we are here in Bahia. Conversations with Antonio are always fast-paced and enlightening. We always learn something, usually a lot.
Backing up just a little, we left Synergia at about 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday evening. Driving well into the wee hours of Wednesday, we crammed ourselves into a room in a Motel 6 somewhere in the Central Valley for a few hours of sleep before getting back onto Hwy 5 and up and over the Grapevine into and then past LA. Crossed the border without incident (but not without personal impact) well before dark, and were on our way to Ensenada and the promise of our first Mexican tacos, always the first initiation. We mistakenly thought that “Tripa” meant tongue meat, when it actually means intestines. No one ordered Tripa but Tyler came close. We spent our first night near La Bufadora outside of Ensenada right by the ocean. Then the real fun began as we headed south on Hwy 1 – always an adventure. A stop in El Rosario for lunch (more tacos, no Tripa) and onto Catavina where we spent the night camped in the beautiful desert of Boojum trees and myriad species of cactus, including giant Cardon, endemic to Central Baja. The area surrounding Catavina is dotted everywhere with giant granite boulders and rock formations. It is a landscape unlike any other – ancient and wild and Dr. Suess-like all at the same time, it stretches beyond sight and beyond imagining; the highway cuts through and gives the traveler a glimpse on either side, but one dares not venture too far from the center line.
We hike into the boulders a short distance to see the small cave paintings left by earlier travelers an estimated 5,000 – 10,000 years ago. We sit in quiet reverence, paintings overhead as we crouch to fit under the rock overhang that is less a cave than a shelter from the bright sun. Back in the van to this place where will stay for almost a week. Untypically, it is a windless day here in Bahia, and warm, and the students and Tom test the waters and go for a swim. Annabelle, Britney and I decline. This may be Mexico, but it ain’t Acapulco.
Antonio has found Mauro, and has brought him back to say hello. Mauro is Italian but has lived here in Baja for who knows how many years. He greets us all with warm hugs and the uninhibited kisses-upon-cheeks that Latinos and Europeans seem to bestow so naturally and we Americans receive so awkwardly. We met Mauro and his wife Patty and their two young, adorable children just a year ago – they have a lovely super-adobe home perched on a hillside halfway up a large mountain overlooking the town of Bahia de Los Angeles, or Bay of LA as we like to shorthand it to. Mauro is as energetic and non-stop as Antonio – I am not sure what a conversation between the two of them would even sound like. Mauro heads a government funded project to clean up the trash that is pretty much everywhere; he created and runs the recycling center. He writes the grants that bring in the money, hires locals (mostly women supporting their families) to gather the trash and then teaches them to separate and process it so that it can be sold. He and his crews have created mountains of colored glass, separated by color, that they will next turn into art glass pieces, using a powerful and expensive furnace (also procured by grant funds) to melt the glass that 22 otherwise unemployed workers will transform into functional art. These pieces will be sold around the world, mostly in the US, I’m guessing. It’s an ambitious project and while it is moving into its current phase, Mauro and Patty are opening a little pizza and coffee place in town, for “something to do”. Amazing what one can accomplish when internet is not at one’s fingertips, iPhones are still a world away, and television is non-existent. There are ecosystems to preserve and sea turtles to protect, trash to re-direct and relationships to nurture. Even in this remotest of remote places on earth there are cottage industries to build, communities to support, art to be made, and cultures to mix.
This is our time of pilgrimage, when we step away from the familiar and comfortable and into the yet-to-be, the unpredicted and unpredictable, the unknown and unknowable. It is in the unfamiliar that we learn more of who we actually are and who we want to become, not in the sense of a professional or social persona, but rather in the deepest human sense. Today as we barreled down the peninsula, we listened to Lily Yeh describe her experience in the inner city of North Philadelphia as she faced her first large-scale city lot transformative art project.
“I was invited to create a park in an abandoned lot in inner city N Philadelphia. And I think that began my journey, but I actually was very scared, very reluctant, didn’t want to and almost chickened out. And then, at that moment, wanting to withdraw, my voice, my inner voice spoke to me in a very fragile, but very clear message: it said that if you don’t rise to the occasion then the best of you will die, and the rest will not amount to anything.”
Inner city Philadelphia or far down the Baja California peninsula, it is no different. Facing the unknown, feeling the fear, and hearing that inner voice tell you that if you back down now, the best of you will die. It is these crossroads that offer us no choice, and no relief. We walk into the void or we lose a vital part of ourselves. Hopefully, there is no choice to make.
March 12, 2011
The students are all out journaling on the beach. A light wind has kicked up, but the morning is still early and the sun still climbing. Soon I will walk over to the hotel where the internet is, and get this posted.
Learning in the way that we do here at FtG is so different that we find ourselves pointing out what we are learning along the way, over and over. It isn’t always obvious because the outcome basis is not what students are generally expected to produce, and is certainly not what they are accustomed to. This is the “hump” that one has to get over, or the veil that one has to pierce, and is perhaps the most difficult part of informal, or experiential learning. Part of the mind is conditioned to the old way – memorizing facts or concepts and then taking a test that “proves” you have learned something by regurgitating the facts in a prescribed manner that will result in a “grade” (A-F) that also somehow “proves” your intelligence, studiousness, and academic prowess. Or maybe it just proves how obedient and compliant you are.
Speaking with high school English teachers they tell me that there is no way they have the time to read every paper that they assign. They tell their students that they will read and correct a random sampling of the work they submit. The idea is that the students will produce consistently well-thought out and well-written papers in the assumption that the random selection of one will be of the same high standard as another. A kind of Russian Roulette. But anyone who writes knows that there are times when, as with any art, you hit a stream where language and thought and ideas and the very words themselves merge in an elegant confluence of currents and the stream becomes a mighty river and at the end of the process there is an essay worth reading. And what if there is no mentor, no professor at the receiving end to be moved by the sheer force of your passion and the breathtaking expansion of your thoughts? What if no one is there to give feedback and appreciation and offer suggestions? What happens to the (inner) writer in such a scenario?
She dies. Or goes dormant, or doesn’t care, or cheats or learns — not to write well, but to get by. To skirt the hard, laborious crafting of a great piece of writing and then miss the relationship of author to reader; of giver to received; of nourisher to the hungry.
It is time now to go in search of internet connection so that you can read this, sent miraculously through cyberspace from this remotest of remote places. Who knows what I will write about next but the plan is to tie in our lessons and incredible learning experience in Salt Lake City to what we are doing here. I will bookmark the Baja trajectory, and take us back two weeks to Salt Lake City, because there are dots to connect, or rather, stars to connect into constellations. Stay tuned.