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