Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Life Is A Journey

I've taken hundreds, if not thousands, of children on field trips, mostly on Metro busses. 

A favorite outing involves taking a bus to the monorail station, the monorail to the train station, the train to a trolly stop, the trolley to a bus stop, and then a second bus back to school. 

Along the way, we might spot an adult smoking a cigarette and discuss his "bad choice," a judgement with which the smoker themself always agrees. "Don't start smoking," they say to the kids as they stomp out their butt, to which at least one child is always sure to say, "He's littering."

There was the time we passed an empty skate park that called us to skate wildly, but without boards. 

We once took over a train platform, sitting on the ground to watch trains come and go simply because we were curious about that angle on things. 

When the trolley passes under my apartment window, the kids wave, first at the window, then at me as I stand among them. 

And we always meet strangers along the way, people who are overjoyed to have their commutes enlivened by high-spirited children. I'm sure there were those with other ideas about noisy kids, but we are so many and so much that they hold their tongues.

When we arrive back at school, whatever our destination might have been, no matter what we have seen and done, when I survey the children about their favorite parts of the field trip, the journey always receives more votes than the destination.

"Life is a journey." We say it automatically, a cliche we've all come to embrace in concept even as most of us struggle to live it. We once missed three straight busses because the children were literally having too much fun picking dandelions. By the time we got back to the school, late, we adults were frazzled from all the coaxing and cajoling, while the children were alive, clutching their bent and broken bouquets.

Rushing is no way to enjoy the journeys that make up our lives, yet isn't that how too many of us approach our day-to-day commutes, driving just over the speed limit, cursing traffic, and impatiently drumming on the steering wheel?

One of the best decisions I ever made was to get rid of my car. My wife kept hers, which is available for my occasional use, but from the moment I sent it away from my life on the back of a tow truck, I've felt freer. Indeed, I discovered I have choices: walk, cycle, or take the bus; call an Uber or use an app to rent a city bike or scooter. When I'm invited to a social affair, my first thought is of the journey: "How will I get there? By what route? By what means? How much extra time should I leave for picking the dandelions?

"Life is a journey," is another way of reminding us to live in the moment, something about which we needn't remind young children. We tend to ascribe their concreteness to their innocence or naiveté. After all, they don't concern themselves with the consequences of being late, of getting off schedule, or of all the things that must get done in our busy, busy lives. They are a drag on our racing about, making us late, causing us to miss three buses, wasting time that could be better used zipping from one place to another.

Life often feels more like a race than a journey. And then, even when we find ourselves masters of our own journey, alone in the car with nothing but open road ahead of us, more often than not we blank out the journey as we engage in the frantic time travel that finds us fretting over a future that hasn't arrived or rehashing a past that is behind us. We sacrifice the moment, the journey, as we flit through time, abruptly returning to the moment only as we enter the parking lot that marks our destination, the journey having been lost in our meditations upon worry and guilt and busyness.

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. ~Marcel Proust

The tragedy and comedy of it all is that the same damn thing happens when I walk; when I slow down with the intention of not missing a single dandelion. I might have reminded myself to stroll, to breath deeply, to listen, to smell, to feel, to taste, and to really see, but my consciousness simply cannot remain for long in the present. Just as Proust's narrator is transported to his childhood upon tasting his madeleine dipped in tea, those very sounds, scents, sensations, flavors, and sights transport me to places in the past where I dwell as my body unconsciously moves its legs and swings its arms and covers ground I will never be able to recall.

Or perhaps I find myself in the future where I might find that I'm the man I want to be, living the life I want to live, although more often than not, in all honesty, its a more immediate future in which I must explain myself or convince someone or smooth something over or simply perform a task. Meanwhile, in the present, my body is engaged in an unconscious journey.

Only occasionally, on any of my day-to-day journeys, do I actually find myself in the present moment as I must focus in order to negotiate the crossing of a busy street or find myself accosted by a tourist asking directions. Then those very acts of being conscious in the present tend to launch me back to the past or forward to a future full of similar negotiations and lost tourists.

Meditation is the secret to a quiet mind. To practice it means, emptying our minds. It's not, however, so much about being present as much as stepping outside of time. It's a useful, beautiful, healthy practice. It restores and resets, but on either side is life, and life is a journey.

When I'm with young children, I've often said that time seems to stand still, but like with meditation, it's not time, but rather my mind that stops racing, stops the frantic time travel, because to do the job, one must be present with the children who keep us focused on this precious moment. Children don't have the vast store of past experience that we do, they don't yet fully understand the future. Those young consciousnesses simply have fewer places to go, so they have no where else to live than right now in a way that we cannot without their help.


As play-based educators, our job is to follow children on their own, unique learning journey. To learn more, please join the very first cohort for Teacher Tom's Play-Based Learning, a brand new 6-week foundational course on my popular play-based pedagogy, designed for early childhood educators, childcare providers, parents and grandparents. I can't wait to share it with you! For more information and to register, click here

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