81: “More Like Gardening” (N. K. Jemisin)

                “Someday, you must tell me what it’s like there. Why all who come out of that place seem so very competent…and so very afraid.” -“There” is the magic school in N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season
                “Education is a complex human system. It’s about people. If you have an industrial metaphor in your head, then you’re led into the sort of language that we now use about standardization. The thing is, it’s much more like gardening than engineering. If you’re a gardener, you don’t make it grow. I mean the plant grows itself. You don’t attach the leaves and paint the petals and screw in the roots, I mean the thing grows itself. If you create the right conditions.” -Ken Robinson

                In Jemisin’s brilliant, heart-hurting, eye-opening The Fifth Season, there’s only one magic school. It’s called the Fulcrum. (Jemisin also has what might be the coolest, most well-defined magic system I’ve seen in modern literature). The Fulcrum isn’t a place you want to be. The scenes there hurt. They hurt like watching children broken, they hurt like slow determined hate, they hurt like cruelty made law. The people of Jemisin’s world fear magic users, and need them, so the ‘school’ makes them into something obedient and therefore useful, or kills them. It works. The people who go through Fulcrum end up “so very competent,” they end up useful; they end up slaves, and they end up “so very afraid.”
                I think we should carefully consider what we want to make another generation into. That’s not quite right, though, because we can’t make them anything–we can only provide the environment in which they grow. Still, environments shape a lot, and we should think what space we want to hold for them. We should carefully consider what we want to be.
                I’ve just had the wonderful pleasure of talking with David Mochel again. Mochel reminds me that, every day, every hour, I am practicing something. When I sit quietly with a thought, I’m practicing that. When I’m bored and reach for entertainment, I’m practicing that. Most things are outside my control–weather; others’ actions; the speed of light. (Mochel includes the reactions of our own nervous systems: the anxiety I feel, or the sadness, or the sudden tension when someone yells). Those things come from the world, but I practice how I respond. I practice how I see the rain (“Damn wet” or “Life renewed”), I choose what I do when I’m feeling anxious, and that choice, day by day, is my practice. My practice shapes the way I live. The way I live shapes who I am. Since talking with Mochel, I’ve been asking myself, What are you practicing now? What are you training your mind to do?
                We’re all gardeners, planting and watering or stomping and forgetting. Other people visit our garden, they grow a little there, and they leave a little different. What garden do I want to tend, for myself and others?
                It reminds me of the Westerns I watched when I was a boy. They were full of hard, uneducated, handsome men, strangers to town, who rode in from the dust, shot the villain with a flash of courage, and then rode out. There’s a metaphor here about violence: because of what he’s practiced, because of who he is, the man (and it is always a man) who can shoot the greedy cattle baron can’t settle down and live peacefully afterwards. He is violence, not peace. That made him powerful, but it also made him leave. The movie admires what he can do for the town, while recognizing his fundamental loneliness and sadness. The movie suggests that some characteristics come at the cost of others. Some competent people are who they are because they’re so afraid, so hurt. I’ve seen students who’ve grown toward all sorts of things that they were pushed to be–but at what cost? What other characteristics did they learn while learning to be a “success”?
                All this can make me sad. It hurts in the writing of it. I’m hurt that, often, we make cruel choices, and I’m hurt that, often, our children step out afraid. But there is something joyous in it, too, because as that brave girl Anne Frank said, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting out to improve the world.” It starts with what we practice. It starts with how we tend our garden.
                I’m not sure how I want my garden to be, but right now I have some ideas. I’d like it to be kind, and playful. I’d like some of the fountains to laugh in their splashes. I’d like the pools to be quiet, and remind us to quiet ourselves sometimes. I want those who spend a little time here to move on with love in their hearts, laughter on this lips, light in their eyes, and the knowledge that their hands can help.

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