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trees, sparrows & jackhammers

A few years back, I started walking the labyrinth at my school. In the midst of a bustling teaching day, taking ten minutes to walk and breathe feels courageous. It’s how I remind myself that presence is more essential to my students than productivity. I plod between painted lines on the cement patio, crunching leaves beneath my feet in autumn or kicking ice chunks in winter.

I notice chipmunks and black-capped chickadees. I smile at the occasional student who catches sight of me through a window. I listen to the trees rustle like a troupe of tulle-clad ballerinas.

Lately my walks have been punctuated by the rumbles, blasts, and groans of a construction project. In the spring, the college that leases us our land began clearing trees for a parking lot. It’s bad enough that I have to start humming that Joni Mitchell tune every time I climb the hill on my bicycle, I thought to myself. Now this parking lot’s sabotaging my midmorning moment o’ Zen.

The construction felt particularly intrusive because it coincided with a season of tumult for our peaceful little community. The school’s merger came upon us like an uncharted tide, and we struggled to maintain our footing. For a while I forsook my labyrinth time in favor of . . . in favor of what? I can scarcely remember. Extra e-mails, I suppose. Extra meetings. I can’t always convince myself that walking the labyrinth is a valid use of work time. Aren’t they paying me to do stuff? Never mind that I return to my classroom fresh-eyed and focused. Never mind my belief that life (even work life) isn’t just about doing stuff.

Sure school felt busier than usual in the spring, but I suspect that I was dodging the labyrinth because of the noise. With the stress of the merger, it felt like too much to walk outside and hear jackhammers rattling and the short whistle blasts before the dynamite.

Finally one day I returned to the labyrinth. The rock crushers were gnashing their teeth like trolls with microphones. But also, sparrows were twittering from the lilac bushes. I circled inward and listened for the trees, faithfully murmuring their ancient mantras.

When I thought about the labyrinth from the walled-in quiet of my classroom, I imagined the construction noise drowning out the birds and trees. In reality the sounds could coexist. Don’t get me wrong – if given the choice, who wouldn’t take the uncorrupted strains of nature? But in the meantime I’ll let the jackhammers do their work on my granite mind. Isn’t that what I’m after with my contemplative practices? Not placidity but presence. Not perfect stillness but enough internal space to accommodate life’s cacophony.

They say the parking lot will be finished in November. When the cement is poured, the lines painted, and the final construction vehicle grinds its way down the hill, I want to feel the space that’s been cleared in me.

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