IT is early, before dawn, too early for the birds to call, too early for anything to stir save a soft breeze that reminds me of the dry, warm mornings on the East Coast. We have had so much rain that the garden, usually colorful and dusted with dropped petals and pods, is lush and green. Impending blooms simply fall to the ground as though they were full of moisture. Instead of feeling that I'm ``in the midst of summer'' as the calendar shows, I feel ``in anticipation of,'' as I often do on damp May mornings.
I have just finished teaching a class of young writers. Though they've long returned to their homes in the city or homes on farms and rural land, one or another, shadowlike, still accompanies me on walks, on errands. Pieces of sentences, words unique to their stories will come to me while making dinner, while digging a particularly persistent weed.
Yesterday, sitting on a log in the midst of the old spruce and alder forest near the Pacific, I saw a huge tree, forked at the bottom, that had been a part of an exercise I'd given to the writers in this small group that gathered daily for a week. ``Write,'' I'd said, ``directions to a place of your own.'' Selfishly, I wanted to encourage a generation of men and women who can give good directions, since I'm so often lost. I've learned that to go somewhere, you need ``markers,'' places along the way that connect you to a path.
One by one, the writers slipped out of the room where we worked. Like detectives, they carried small steno pads and pens to mark a path to a special spot. When they returned, they looked satisfied at the completion of a journey without the direct supervision that people of their age have to endure so much of the time.
The next morning, we gathered as a group to follow each other's directions. At least once during every class I teach, I get mixed up about who is the student and who is the teacher. While these roles transfer easily back and forth at most times, occasionally I'll be full of myself and thinking, ``Now I've really taught them something.'' It is usually at these points that the exercise takes a path and a meaning completely different from the one I originally intended.
One by one the students handed over their directions to a fellow writer to read aloud and guide the rest of the group. It is odd to hear your words on someone else's lips, and often the impulse to say ``that's not what I meant'' was visibly apparent in tight mouths and shaking heads. But the writers remained silent.
As we walked around the small forest, I realized that the writers had discovered a sense of place simply by paying attention to a path and finding a location that was theirs, by marking it in their own way.
These writers knew how to give directions. What they learned, I believe, was how to recognize a special place by what is already there - three rocks nested together, a bend in a low-hanging branch, leaves in a certain pattern. They marked their trees, their plants, their meadows without a visible sign that they had been there.
I relearned from them the importance of seeing a student not as someone to be filled, but rather as a person with certain inherent knowledge that can be encouraged to expand and grow. So much of teaching is getting out of the way of learning. The best learning isn't given, but is rather found and marked in the mind so a learner can follow the path again.
Yesterday, looking at the huge tree that's forked at the bottom, I thought of the boy, Simon, who marked this spot for me without leaving any sign but a memory. We'd come to this spruce and circled its massive base. Simon broke the silence. ``This,'' he said, ``is my place.'' He asked the boy who held his written directions to turn the pad over. On the back of the paper, it said, ``Look for a note.'' The children by the tree bent over and picked up a small slip of paper. Printed in large letters was the message, ``YOU ARE HERE.''
HOW would it be, I wonder, if we could mark our places with only memories? What if we could walk more softly, leave less of ourselves behind, take nothing with us?
Today, I'm going to move more lightly through the garden, more carefully into the world. I'm going to vow, if only for a moment, to have a place mark me, instead of me leaving my impression.
It is light now. The sky is uniformly gray. The birds, who sing regardless of the weather, wake each other up until there are so many different melodies that it's difficult to distinguish the calls. Outside my window, on the bark of an old hemlock, a red-bellied sapsucker has pecked a checkerboard pattern of holes to catch insects.
I AM HERE.