In the process of decluttering and packing up in preparation to sell our house (shameless plug here), I came across books I had on a shelf that had collected dust. Some were old theology books from when I thought I wanted to be a religion teacher, and some were educational, social change books from when I realized I didn’t want to teach, not in the traditional sense.
One of the books was “Wild Garden: art, education, and the culture of resistance” by dian marino. It’s a book not at all about gardening plants, but all about planting seeds of learning, tilling and turning, awakening people to new modes of inquiry, and useful resistance against cultural “norms.” Part storytelling, part visual works of art, she weaves thoughtful action steps (lesson plans for community building, if you will) to get groups of people, and people one-by-one to start thinking about action steps (even small and awkward stumbling steps) that they can take to affect change in their lives, and in their own communities.
While the book was interesting, yet purely theoretical to me in 2007, it suddenly had a very real application to our work here.
Sarah, Leah and I decided to use what was already out there, and start infusing gatherings with stuff that was known to already “work.” dian’s work came in during an Eastside gathering in May. Sarah told a story of a difficult Westside gathering in her honest, even tempered tone. She talked about showing up with energy, with ideas, and facing a crowd of crossed arms. No one had interviewed a neighbor, no one believed in the power of neighbors, community, getting to know people, and no one wanted anything to do with it. And yet, people still showed up seemingly against their will. She recalls that she worked through that evening giving her best and her all, her examples poignant and personal, her questions well-phrased and thoughtful, pausing for feedback. Still, she told us, she drove home crying.
At her wit’s end, she came back to the office the next day, and decided, we needed to back up, something had to change. People either didn’t “get it” or maybe didn’t want to? Or maybe it was too big, too confusing, too out there? We decided that we needed to reframe what we were asking. And so we did.
One of the stories shared in “Wild Garden” reminds me of our work with parents and reframing. It goes:
There was once a general of war who was tired of fighting. He had spent his whole life perfecting his skill in all the arts of war, save archery. Now he was weary and wished to end his career as a fighter. So he decided that he would spend the rest of his days studying archery and he began to search far and wide for a master to study with.
After much journeying he found a monastery where they taught archery – he entered the monastery and asked if he could live there and study. He thought that his life was now over and the remainder of his days would be spent in study and meditation behind these monastery walls. He had been studying for ten years, perfecting his skill as an archer, when, one day, the abbot of the monastery came to him and told the former-general of war that he must leave. The former-general protested saying that his life in the world outside the monastery was over and that all he wished was to spend the rest of his days here. But the abbot insisted, saying that the general must now leave and go into the world and teach what he had learned.
The former-general had to do as he was told. Having nowhere to go when he left the monastery he decided to return to the village of his birth. It was a long journey and as he neared the village he noticed a bulls-eye on a tree with an arrow dead-center. He was surprised by this only to notice more bulls-eyes on trees and, in the center of each, an arrow. Then, on the barns and the buildings of the town he saw dozens, hundreds of bulls-eyes with arrows in the center of each one.
The peace he had attained in tens years of monastic life had left him and he approached the elders of the town, indignant that after ten years of devoted study he should return to his own home and find an archer more skilled than he! He demanded of the elders that the master archer meet him by the edge of town in one hour. Waiting by the mill the general could see no one coming to meet him though he noticed a young girl playing by the river. The girl noticed him and came over.
“Are you waiting for someone?” asked the girl looking up at the former-general.
“Go away,” he said.
“No, no,” said the girl, “you look like you’re waiting for someone and I was told to come and meet someone here.”
The former-general looked unbelievingly at the little girl and said, “I’m waiting for the master archer responsible for the hundreds of perfect shots I see around here.”
“Then it is you I was sent to meet. I made all the shots,” said the girl.
The former-general looked even more skeptical, convinced that this girl was trying to humiliate him. He said to the girl, “If you’re telling the truth then explain to me how you can get a perfect shot every single time you shoot your arrow.”
“That’s easy,” said the girl. “I take my arrow and I draw it back in the bow and point it very, very straight. Then I let it go and wherever it lands I draw a bulls-eye.”
I love the ending of this story. I love the moral. We have the ability to draw our own bull’s-eye, our own frame.
The question remains, what is your target? And your target alone, not anyone else’s.
So for the past two gatherings that’s what we’ve done, allowing people to define their own terms, their own to-do lists, their own action steps, their own pace (with some gentle pushing and creative suggestions from us, of course), allowing people to draw their own bull’s-eye. If you just can’t interview a neighbor and return with a story, then perhaps you can look up a dog walking club to join in Deer Park? Perhaps you can finally fill out that YMCA application you picked up last month? You don’t have to drop it off yet, just fill it out. Maybe you can help your son learn a new casserole recipe in time for an upcoming potluck. You can commit to coming back next month with a story about how it went. You can do those things.
The story of the general of war and the little girl shows us just that: we can define our own frame, we can draw our own target.
Our first gathering after Sarah’s struggle on the Westside, and after our ‘pause and reevaluate meeting of the minds,’ we asked people to draw. On a piece of paper, using your non-dominant hand (if you’re right handed- use your left, if you’re left handed – use your right) draw a picture of nature, we asked. Mine looked like this:
Then we asked people to draw the same nature scene, but with their dominant hand. Mine looked like this:
Then we asked people to talk about how it felt, what it was like. I wrote down their responses.
“I felt shaky. It was hard to do it.” one man said, holding his scrap piece of paper with the drawing on it, the lines wiggly, and in nonlinear fashion.
“It was pretty awkward. I was thinking maybe others would judge mine,” a woman said, with her drawing face down in her lap, “then I realized, they were asked to do it too.”
“I had to really think about it a lot to do it.” another person chimed in.
“Slow. I had to slow down.” another woman said.
“It was a little uncomfortable at first.” someone muttered.
Looking above is my side by side comparison. Sure, the one of the left is a little shaky, a little weaker, messier than the one on the right. The right drawing is more confident, bolder, a little more clear that it’s a tree, a river stream, and a person smiling on the banks.
But we didn’t ask for a masterpiece, did we? We didn’t ask for a prize winning piece of art. Rarely are people wonderfully skilled at doing something they’ve never done before. My left-handed drawing is a bit unruly, but it’s still able to be interpreted. You can tell there’s a tree, a river, a person. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. I bet if I practiced that drawing every day with my left hand I’d get pretty good at it. I bet if you practiced doing small things, small action steps you defined for yourself each day, you’d get pretty good at it, too.
We aren’t asking for a masterpiece. It will be scratchy and weak and squiggly and illegible at times. It will be confusing and messy and hard and slow. It will be worth it.
This is long-haul, day by day, page by page change. And it has to start with each of us, personally. We have to be willing to show up and draw own our bull’s-eyes.
We’ll place our arrow in the bow, position it carefully, and be okay with being pulled back and stretched a bit, before we shoot forward. Or as dian marino would write, we have to “learn to love a crooked line.”