Friday, November 02, 2007

Who turned off the stars?

As always, the thoughts continued into the night. I'm convinced that the reason that elders sleep less is due to a subconscious awareness that time is winding down -- and that -- regardless of our physical well-being -- sleep is a total waste of time. There are so many opportunities to travel back over time and reconsider what we settled for as Truth, and that a second look may be important in these changing times.

The lively questions in yesterday's classroom wakened the answers (just before sleep) that I was unable to find while sitting before those wonderful children.

"How is the world different for you than it was when you were our age?"

My answer was superficial -- at the level of cell phones, ballpoint pens, and jet travel. It was too large a question to deal with in that little classroom. But the wheels began to turn just before sleep last night. And -- how I wish for the time to tell them where their innocent questions took me in the quiet of the night... .

When I was nine there were no bridges across San Francisco Bay. We took ferries to San Francisco, so it seemed so much further away and much more of an adventure. There were open creeks that meandered through the city, occasionally opening up into small ponds draped in willows that held springtime tadpoles to be taken home in jars of creek water -- pollywogs to watch grow legs and slowly draw tails into tiny bodies (miraculous!) as they grew into tiny frogs. There were open fields that would later hold more houses than were comfortable for any community -- which would later begin to rise into apartments and condos to hold more and more new Californians. Those open fields would host summer baseball games with homemade bases and fathers or uncles with the time to umpire and settle disputes about whether one was "out" or "safe." And -- because safe held a different meaning then -- we all played "One Foot Across the Gutter" and "Prisoner's Base" under the street lights (and without adult supervision) -- until bedtime and beyond. And -- there were small Mom & Pop grocery stores within walking distance of anyone's homes -- with owners who knew your parents and sometimes helped to stretch the budget with a loaf of day-old bread as a gift. There were ice-men in rubber aprons who came in trucks carrying blocks of ice for the kitchen icebox -- icy blocks slung over their back with menacing-looking tongs; and milkmen with glass bottles that would often be set just inside the never-locked back door out of the sun, if no one was at home to receive them. There was trust.

Those open city lots also brought us wild anise and milkweed upon which cocoons of the Monarch and lovely white Cabbage butterflies were attached -- and that one could very carefully break off the small branch to which it was attached -- to be brought home to watch in awe for the weeks it took for the miraculous mature beautiful creatures to suddenly appear to be released into the rose bushes to begin the fully-developed adult lives of all such creatures. What a powerful metaphor -- one I remember from about that age when a wise and sensitive young teacher made the connections for me. It was in this lesson that I learned the necessity of struggle -- metamorphosis may have been the earliest huge word that I truly understood. It may be the place where language became important. It was almost a private word since I doubted that my parents owned it (and even then I knew that one had to use a word in order to truly own it). It was all mine (and Mrs. Rhineger's), of course.

My preoccupation with words would set me apart from both my peers and my parents over time. I loved words with a passion, and often used them inappropriately -- though there were few at home who cared about words enough to make the corrections, but who managed to make me feel self-conscious and as if rudely "putting on airs". (I suppose today such a child might be accused of "acting white") And even at the tender age of 9 I knew that really long words (like disestablishmentarianism) were really trick words and not really interesting at all. But metamorphosis was real and true and described a dramatic life process that fascinated me. That one I continued to own well into my teens, when I discovered that it belonged to more thinkers than Mrs. Rhineger and me. Maybe this is where I began to learn about intellectualism and to respect knowledge for its own sake (...and Bartlett's Quotations, and Roget's Thesaurus, and the World Book Encyclopedia -- and Edna St. Vincent Millay!).

But the aspect of my life as a 9 year-old that I most miss would have to be stars. I don't know when we turned off the skies of my childhood, but -- over years and years -- they disappeared. I remember the magic of lying on my back in the grass and watching the night sky for hours. I could look deep into space and see billions and billions of tiny lights and that I was aware, even at nine, that children all over the world were sharing this magnificent sky with me. That it mattered not whether they were looking up from a yurt, a tent, a hogan, an igloo, a fire escape, a thatched hut, from a sled, or the back of a truck or wagon, or from the deck of a ship at sea, out of an attic window or from a city rooftop, or from the window of a train, we were sharing the beautiful night sky. It was the earliest miracle that I can remember, and the first thoughts of the internationalism that would guide my life and my politics since that time. One simply cannot make war with grownup children with whom you've shared the miracle of the skies. I knew that we spoke of it in different languages, but -- if we could just stand together looking up -- it wouldn't matter. We would all understand in the jumble of sounds or -- even in the silence -- what a wonder this was. This I knew. The night sky was probably my very first awareness of "Truth," truth that has remained constant over a lifetime.

Perhaps one light switch at a time, year after year, decade after decade, we turned off the miracle. I'm not sure when it happened. But somehow the night sky began to close in -- light pollution eventually blocked out almost every star leaving only the brightest of the planets, the sun and the moon, and the depth of the night vanished, and with it something vital was lost.

The night sky was a universally-shared experience. It is no longer. It only exists in those places where the city lights have not yet invaded the atmosphere. The children in Ms. Merz's fifth grade classroom must be taken by car to a Planetarium to look at the night sky through a telescope in order to witness this -- the oldest of the natural wonders.

I will have some of the wonder restored in February when I'm enrolled for two weeks at the Grand Canyon's NPS Training Site. I cannot believe that the star thieves have stolen away the night skies from that holy place. On some nights, there are still echoes of Van Gogh's Starry Night in Mendocino when the incoming fog creates patches where single stars are isolated and therefore appear slightly fuzzy, distorted, and even more brilliant as viewed through the bedroom skylight , --- but even in that Eden the night skies have been dimmed by the pollution of city and coastal lights -- and, it all happened so-oo-o gradually that I'm not sure that too many have noticed; or that most of those who do still remember are now coming to the end of life... .

I will think of Tamaya's classmates while in that wondrous Grand Canyon National Park, and know that -- if ever the question arises again -- I'll know the answer... .

It is the miracle of the night sky -- the stars and the planets -- that I miss above all else -- and that defines the difference between the worlds of 9 year-old Betty Charbonnet and of Ms. Alison Merz's fifth graders.


Tamaya's Grandmother the Ranger

Thursday, November 01, 2007

What a lovely afternoon ... spent in a most unlikely place ... .

Today I was invited for a command performance as the subject of "Show and Tell" at my bright and charming 9 year-old granddaughter, Tamaya's, fifth grade classroom. The audience was made up of two combined fifth grade classes, 48 students in all. I'm not at all sure where the rumor got started that children were universally out of control and that educators were unhappy campers. Not so. Surely not at Berkeley Arts Magnet School in the heart of North Berkeley. In that holy place there were eager learners, rabid payers-to-attention, and about the most bright-eyed and busy-tailed children one would ever want to meet.

I'd received a telepone call about a week ago asking if Tamaya's grandma would like to meet with the fifth graders for a presentation on whatever I'd like to talk about. Again, it was the uniform here that is the magnet. The ranger's dimpled felt stetson gets' em every time. I was surprised by a passerby as I was parking my car in front of the school. This smiling woman stopped to admire my uniform -- but clearly had no idea just who I was or what on earth I was doing on Virginia Street in Berkeley. Obviously I was out of context here. I admitted to being a genuine park ranger, and she grinned broadly with the words, "...and you're going to meet with the kids? How wonderful! You're about love and caring for the planet!" I realized then how rare is the sight of the National Park Service ranger here in this sophisticated urban city, and of how important it is that school children be introduced to one of the more exciting and humanizing aspects of national life.

Having arrived about 15 minutes early (as planned), provided a chance to visit for a few minutes with Tamaya; to scan the binder that holds her year's work to date; to see a lengthy essay that she is preparing for posting out among the exhibits in the long corridor on the first floor. It's a journal of her trip last spring to the Philippine Islands with her family. It was a reunion that would bring my two little granddaughters into the exotic world of their mother's large family. She is obviously still absorbing that 3-week adventure. I have been gifted with hours on end of scenes taken with their video camera -- from San Francisco International to Manila and the islands of their maternal homeland. I wonder at times, at how differently the world must look to this globe-trotting generation. In my lifetime, it was exciting to simply travel from one coast to the other, and I didn't do that until I was fifty. In my parent's generation, that must have seemed daring indeed. Their lives had been confined to three states, Louisiana, Michigan, and California.

At no time during today's visit was there ever a moment when the young teacher, Ms. Alison Merz, did not have total (gentle) control over her class. It was also true that tucked in among her lessons at the university had been the key to that process, "...we learn to respect by being respected." At no time was there the slightest hint that her students were either coerced or acting out of fear. They wanted to be here with her, and the courtesy shown to me was extended from her relationship with them.

The questions were polite but real. They wanted to know - not just about my ranger life, but about me. "What was the world like when you were our age?" "What do you like least about your work?" "Were there ever any bad times?" "Do you still know any of the people that you knew way back then?" Real questions requiring real answers.

Upon questioning I learned that many of those children had visited Yosemite and that some had seen Yellowstone. I wondered if the questions asked in Richmond as opposed to Berkeley might have presented quite a different picture. I must visit a comparable group in West County soon. This, too, is an important outreach activity that cries for attention.

We talked about what a park is and why we set land apart. "Because people need them to go to when they're stressed." (This from a 9 year-old.) We talked about why civic, state, and national parks, and I hope I was clear about the answers. I asked many questions, too. There were many raised hands. I sensed their openness and willingness to participate. There was genuine interest in the subject.

While waiting for the class to begin -- a young boy brought a black box 3-dimensional display for me to inspect -- he'd created it to memorialize his deceased father. It contained a place for a candle and a photo of himself at about 3 sitting in his father's lap. It was a touching moment. He'd removed it from a window-sill exhibit the class had produced for the Day of the Dead celebration. "Ms. Merz won't like that I moved it," he told me as he returned it to its place with the others. She'd left the room for a minute to check on the other class that would arrive soon.

It was a delightful and moving hour with tomorrow's grownups. It felt like being in a room with not-quite-mature young adults who were in these very moments growing into the leaders they will surely be in time.

Tonight I'm feeling such a strong sense of faith in tomorrow.

We must hold the world together until they can take it over, right? I do wish we'd done a better job on our watch ... .

...and let's hear it for these valiant young teachers who are molding the future even as we speak!