Unconventional Teachers

“We aren’t supposed to look the same. We aren’t a bunch of fucking drones.”

“My teachers had been encouraging me to paint with my kids, to work in my surroundings, but I’d just sort of rolled my eyes at them, like, ‘Yeah, right,’” Jill tells me over lunch. She has three kids under the age of seven and helps run a sugar importing business with her husband in L.A. A photographer and painter before having kids, she’s returned to painting again in the past year after relegating herself to pen and ink (very funny ones to say the least) during the kids’ infancies.

I get her “Yeah, right” attitude. If I had a dollar for every piece of advice people have given me about how to write while taking care of two kids… My therapists haven’t been able to avoid this kind of advice giving (something I find really annoying in a therapist, actually), nor my doctor, and certainly not my mother-in-law or many male friends. Only other women friends with creative bents have totally avoided it, and that’s because they’re all in the same boat – the same yeah, right boat.

Jill goes on to tell me that she’d started thinking about a painting – imagining it and planning it out in her head. She’d bought a four-foot by four-foot board for the work, storing it at home as she kept planning. One day, her kids wanted to paint with her and she decided to take the board out; “I figured I could always just get another one.” The kids went to town. Her seven year-old daughter, Scarlet, was dripping paint and making abstract designs. “I hadn’t been envisioning an abstract work,” says Jill, “but suddenly it really worked.”

Then 18-month old Zuma picked up a crooked stick and started trundling over to the table that held big slabs of blue acrylics. He carefully dipped the stick into the paint, went over to the board and scratched away with his robin’s egg-hued stick. “He was so focused,” remembers Jill.

She watched him, then got out her camera and filmed him. “I just knew he was teaching me something. ‘Thank you for showing me I don’t need a brush to paint!’ I wanted to tell him.”

“I want to make authentic work at this point in my life; I want to lose the critic,” she says with great passion.  If learning new tricks was the point of the 20s, and honing them was the point of the 30s, becoming authentic seems to be the point of the 40s for many women I know.

Jill’s kids helped her to let go of some of her rules. It’s that wonderful way in which our teachers can come from unexpected places. Certainly, our kids can be major teachers – artistically and spiritually, especially (see Karen Maezen Miller’s Momma Zen on this). Love, patience, gentleness, and play are all lessons children have to offer. Others who can maintain a sense of play or non-attachment to the usual way of doing things can provide such lessons. A friend who works with “retards” (his loving word) says they have been his gurus because their hearts are so open, without pretense. Another friend, a bookbinder and Buddhist, finds constant inspiration in her cats.

A yoga teacher who I visit when I’m in L.A. (in fact, Jill and I were still sweating after taking his class during our painting/teacher conversation) always connects me to my most authentic self.  The lessons I learn in his sweaty, unadorned studio translate not only into my yoga practice but my life and art.

While we were all balancing in a variation of parsvottonasan, he walked around the room and said almost fiercely: “This is called standing-on-one-leg-with-your-other-leg-in-the-air position. If you could look around – and don’t – what you’d see is the beauty of a room full of eighty-some people doing the same thing all differently. We aren’t supposed to look the same. We aren’t a bunch of fucking drones.”

Bryan Kest's yoga studio after class - imagine 100 people in here... It's powerful.
Bryan Kest's yoga studio after class - imagine 100 people in here... It's powerful.

Ok, I’m a sucker for anyone who swears during yoga and makes it just a little less holier than holy. But I also love this guy’s constant reminders throughout class that we are here for ourselves. Our practice – be it on the mat or on the canvas or in rearing kids – is to be our truest self, whoever that is at the moment.

In yoga, it doesn’t mean I should look like the woman next to me who weighs forty pounds less and is twenty years younger, or the guy on the other side who runs ten miles a day and has the hamstrings to show for it.

As a writer, that doesn’t mean I should sound like Dave Eggers, much as I love his work, or succeed in the same way as this month’s hot new thing, much as I wouldn’t shirk success. It doesn’t even mean identifying the most saleable work.

As a mother, it means showing up for my kids to the best of my ability, but not pounding on myself if I forget water bottles and snacks.

It does mean practicing as though my standing leg is strong – shaking though it may be – and my other leg is extending a bit farther than I thought possible. It means being open to the possibilities of standing longer than I initially thought possible. Or of putting my leg gently down when I need to.

Which reminds me of another teacher. In helping me try to navigate some particularly strong emotions—passion and the possibility of connecting with another person, emotions that surprised and somewhat scared me—my friend/yoga teacher/Reiki teacher Jenny, said:   “Of course, it was that strong – you’re more Jennifer than you’ve ever been before.”

At first, this seemed so simplistic as to border on the childish.  But that was the point. I drank the idea—the feeling—in. Indeed, I have been learning from all of my teachers in recent years – the ones who live far outside the classroom walls, away from criticism and convention – and their lessons have been powerful. I can paint without a brush these days. The effect is a strength that comes through effort, coupled with the suppleness that comes when we abandon assumptions. Stick on board. Knee to head. Fying.

Related: See Honoring Your Inner Tutu

18 thoughts on “Unconventional Teachers”

  1. What a fierce and wonderful post. As a 40something working writer mom who can be sheepish about how much yoga has come to mean for me in balancing all those things, I totally relate. (Also, I love it when my yoga teacher swears.) (Also, I just discovered this blog through SheWrites, and I’m impressed and inspired by it.)

  2. a lovely reminder that our teachers are everywhere, and the we are all (most importantly) artist’s of our self. thank you.

  3. Great post. Yesterday I was trying to get my beginning pottery students to see their early bowls as authentic expressions of themselves instead of failures because they didn’t express mechanical perfection.
    I sent this quote to my daughter at college. I think it fits in here too…”Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You”. -Dr. Seuss, author and illustrator (1904-1991)

  4. Hi Jennifer–

    I think I saw something about your blog in the Mother Writer! group on SheWrites. If you don’t belong, perhaps I clicked on your link through another blog listed there.


  5. I think I posted soemthing on there about it. I should return. I love SheWrites but forget to go as often as I should. It’s hard keeping up with FB, Twitter, blogs, etc.!!! ah, the problems of modern life.

  6. Thanks for this wonderful quote, Catherine. I love the way great and true ideas echo each other in the most unlikely places!

  7. Thank you for this wonderful post. Today, at the end of lunch, I sat at the table with my 3 and 1 1/2 yr. old daughters. I took out my notebook. My oldest asked for her notebook and pens. The babe also wanted a book and pens. What I wrote there was more inspired than any time I’ve had at the computer today.

    p.s. I love your yoga teacher

  8. Victoria – Thanks so much for visiting! I can’t wait to visit some of the other blogs in your/our growing list. Where are you located, by the way?

    Checking out your blog now.

    SO wish that he was my yoga teacher all of the time – the classes are amazing – I absolutely fly outta there.

  9. Both of my kids were adopted as older kids. They have taught me a lot about what to prioritize in life. I no longer sweat it if my eyebrows aren’t perfect, or my outfit isn’t stylish. In fact, I now have only one fashion rule: clothes must be clean. That’s it.

    I’ve also learned to appreciate the joys of simple things, like embarrassing my teens in public. Now when I hear a good song playing in a public place, I sing along. I hug and kiss my son in front of his friends. I tell my daughter we can find the best prom dresses on E-Bay. Just little things. One day when your kids are older and you’re over 40, you’ll get it.

  10. jennifer,

    in the spirit of e.e. cummings, i thank you for expressing everything that is yes and natural and infinite about you and your becomingness. and for making me remember my own unimaginableness.

    you are (pretend i am J.J.) Dyno-MITE!

  11. Hi Jennifer,

    I’m not far outside Madison, WI though sometimes it feels like it is too far because when I lived there art, writing and culture were always on a constant flow. Thank you for looking at my sad little neglected blog. One day soon it will flourish.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s