Wednesday, March 15, 2023

When We "Shed The Self"

When we moved into our new home, I found a stack of notepads in a kitchen drawer. The former owners must have been card players, bridge players I'm guessing, because the notepads feature a fan of playing cards along the upper edge of each page. For the past year and a half I've been using this paper for making our grocery lists. The note pad sits on my counter all day long with a pen that bears the logo of the Triangle Tavern in Seattle where a waiter once suggested I order their chicken Caesar, but to ask for the spicy chicken and extra parmesan. Every time I pick up that pen to write on that pad of paper, I find myself, however briefly, recalling that Caesar and wondering about the former home owners and how they would feel knowing that I was using their special pads of paper for such a pedestrian purpose. After all, they may have made an out-of-the-way trip to purchase those pads to impress or entertain their friends. Or perhaps they were a gift for the host who enthused over them then stashed them in the back of a drawer out of embarrassment.

It's over in a flash, that train of memories and speculations. Indeed in just 18 months, they've become a kind of rut or habit of thought, so common that I pass through those thoughts via shortcuts connected by ellipses, but even so there is an emotional content that is always there, a kind of melancholy that comes from knowing that the former owners sold us the house because the wife was very ill and they wanted to be near their family in Minneapolis. She has since died.

Not long ago, this rut or habit had not been a part of me. The notepads were just notepads, but now, as is true for every object in my home, the sight or heft or provenance of each thing makes it more than a thing. Virgina Woolfe, in her essay Street Haunting, writes:

As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of the vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one's own room. For there we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience.

Woolfe concerned herself with this thing we call personality, feeling that it quite often becomes a cage, confining us through these ruts and habits, not to mention the expectations of our friends who, whether they know it or not, come expect a certain consistency in personality. To "shed the self" is to explore another personality. The poet Walt Whitman expressed a similar sentiment when he wrote:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself.
I am large, I contain multitudes.

Perhaps the most powerful thing about having spent decades in the company of young children in a place that is not their home is that I've gotten to know them as people, as personalities unfettered by the ruts and habits sparked by notepads and whatnot. Their caregivers tried to introduce them by telling me about the child -- what interests them, what frightens them, what soothes them -- but more often than not, this did not turn out to be the child I came to know because this new place allowed them to shed the self and explore the multitudes, or even create the multitudes. These mothers and fathers and other "old friends" would often say things like, "They never clean up at home, but here they do!" or "They eat broccoli here, but throw a fit when I serve it." 

Of course, over time, a school personality began to take shape, although the children often reverted to their old selves whenever mommy was present, and yet a different one when daddy or grandma or other loved on was there. Eventually, however this new self would become a product of ruts and habits that could be both a comfort and a cage.

Looking back over my own experience, I can clearly see those times, although they may not have been evident or welcome in the moment, when I was free to shed the self and to become an entirely other self. There are the obvious times like being the new kid at a school, joining a sports team, acquiring a skill, or moving into a new home. But the children have shown me that it's not just in those significant transitional moments that we discover the multitudes within us. Every time we walk out our front door into the world to join the "republican army of anonymous trampers," whenever we go somewhere new or make a new friend or try something we've never tried before, like eating broccoli in the company of broccoli lovers, we discover that who we thought we were, that the life we thought we lived, is different and bigger and more than we could have previously imagined.

This phenomenon stands at the heart of all learning. Too often, it seems, schooling is about creating or reinforcing those ruts and habits, trying to confine children in the cage of a fixed personality. This is what happens when there is not enough opportunity to play and it leads to anxiety and depression. If learning is our true goal, then what we could be doing is allowing them to play, every day, as they see fit, because this is the only way we've ever stepped beyond ourselves and created or discovered the multitude within.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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