Tuesday, June 29, 2021

"Where We Remember We're All Connected"

During the pandemic, my wife and I have taken to referring to our dog Stella as our "emotional support animal." These have been the best of times for her. The three of us have pretty much been 24-hour-a-day companions for months now. When tensions have risen, as they do amongst humans, Stella has gone into action, providing expert emotional support by making herself available for connection, insisting upon it at times, refusing to be rebuffed because what she has to offer by way of emotional support is too important to be left to the moods of the humans. 

And, time and gain, Stella is always proven correct: when I give in and take her for a walk or play ball or massage her belly, I do feel buoyed. My troubles might still be there, but they seem a little bit smaller. She reminds me to apologize, to repair the damage I've done, and to re-connect. 

That's some pretty expert emotional support.

We all know the importance of connection, but Stella lives it. Wherever my wife and I are in the house, she positions herself at a physical halfway point between the two of us, ready on a moments notice. When we sit down to eat, she sprawls out under the table with parts of her body touching both of us. When we have dinner guests, she makes sure she is touching all of them as well. She reaches out to us several times a day, just to remind us that we're connected, forcing us to take a break from our disconnection, and to live a little. She is telling us, clearly, "This is what it's all about, you guys."

Am I anthropomorphizing my dog? Probably, but that doesn't diminish the deep wisdom in the emotional support she provides us. And what does she ask for in return? For us to connect right back with her.

Maybe you're laughing at me, but I think I'm safe in saying that most mental healthcare professionals would agree with Stella that connection comes before anything else. 

In the aftermath of the Teacher Tom's Play Summit, I've finally had a moment to pick up the much praised bestseller Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Her narrative opens with her own childhood and ancestral stories about wild strawberries. I'm transported back to my own childhood where I find a similar connection to the pine trees that towered over my South Carolina neighborhood. They provided shade, needles, bark and pine cones. We climbed them, tied things to them, and hid behind them. Birds, squirrels, and insects lived in them. Periodically, a branch would fall or be cut and we would get a closer look at life in the canopy. Over the course of weeks, we would play with that branch, building with it, harvesting from it, turning it into wands or weapons. When the winds blew, the pines talked to me, although not as loudly as the chestnuts and cottonwoods I would later have in my life. When it rained, they protected me, although not as well as the cedars and firs amongst whom I live today. When they were wounded, they oozed sticky sap, a scent so heady it made me light-headed.

Those trees were my teachers and, like with Stella, they called upon me to connect by speaking every language except the human one. Indeed, it seems that of all the things that live on Mother Earth, only humans need to remember to connect. It hasn't always been this way, but as we've moved increasingly indoors, as we've told ourselves the divisive fictions about money, commodities, and property, about competition, poverty, and war, we've forgotten the source of all knowledge. 

This is indigenous wisdom, this imperative to connect, with plants and animals, with rocks and soil and the air we breath, with water and fire. When I ignore Stella, when I'm too wrapped up in my disconnection to heed her, she persists. My disconnection stories try to conclude that she is simply being a pest, that she is bored, that she is trying to take something from me, but that's a false narrative. The real story, the story of connection, is that like the rest of nature, she is offering me a gift. She is offering me medicine. Humans, despite our self-aggrandizing narratives are emphatically not the center of creation, we are not the apex. Stella sees that we are in peril, playing on the ledge of disconnection, and she's there to pull us back before we plummet to our certain demise. 

Laugh at me all you want, but I'm not writing in metaphors here. These are lessons I've learned from Stella, pine trees, and the rest of the natural world. This is the real education. It is connection, not data, not information, not a lesson plan or curriculum. Our disconnection makes us forget. It makes us, frankly, stupid. Connection is the only way that learning ever happens. In our hubris, we've forgotten how to learn from nature, replacing it with the pathetic story of direct instruction, as if our language alone can contain knowledge, that we can somehow measure it with numbers, that bigger, stronger, older people get to tell the smaller, weaker, younger people what to do and what to know. Nature knows what we've forgotten, that all knowledge, all wisdom, all learning, comes through connection. That is how the wild strawberries and pine trees teach us.

When we walk our neighborhood, Stella dives into it with all of her senses, following trails of scent I can't smell and reacting to sounds I can't hear, connecting, fully, and according to her curiosity. Connecting, connecting, connecting. It's what I see the free children do as well, those younger humans who've not yet learned our ugly stories about disconnection and division. They heed the call of Mother Earth: embrace and be embraced.

Dr. Laura Markham said to us at the summit, "Humanity's engaged this big experiment where we remember we're all connected." It's a statement of persistent optimism, one that for me echoes that of Mother Nature. When we finally remember, we will find that the wild strawberries are right, that the pine trees are right, that Stella is right. 


The live portion of Teacher Tom's Play Summit is over, but it's still not too late to join Laura Markham, Lisa Murphy, Akilah Richards, Maggie Dent, Raffi, Suzanne Axelsson, Peter Gray and the rest of us. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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