When Cora asked me to help with Girls Group, I almost said no. For one thing, I earn money by teaching after-school yoga classes and voice lessons. Cora and her cohorts graciously offered to schedule the high school girls’ art group for my one free afternoon of the week, but I worried about missing an opportunity for paid work.
For another thing, I’m not a visual artist. I’ve taught just about all the other arts (music, theatre, a little dance), but I didn’t have expertise to contribute to a group planned around an art curriculum. Wouldn’t it make more sense to volunteer time doing something I was actually good at?
Finally, David and I had already begun to talk about leaving Wichita at the end of the school year. Why dig my roots any deeper here? I thought.
In January, a few mornings before I’d promised Cora my decision, I swam laps at the Y. As usual, the physical exertion siphoned energy from my anxious mind. With my arms gliding toward the tiled ceiling and chlorinated water swishing over my face, I let myself take a moment to imagine how it would feel to be at Girls Group. Sitting around, making art with young women? I bet I’d feel really happy.
I should make more decisions while swimming. Over the past few months, few activities have refreshed my spirit the way Girls Group does. I ride my bike to Legacy House, dropping off the week’s compost on my way. We gather on mismatched couches and eat veggies and hummus, apples and peanut butter.
We chat about school and work, the recent snowstorm or the budding trees. We take out journals and follow a poetry prompt or brainstorm the week’s art project.
Keosha expressed that she feels comfortable asking any question while she’s at Girls Group. Her sister Neo piped up: “It’s my most relaxed event of the week.”
Teaching responsibilities rotate between four adult women, so the pressure’s off us, too. Rachel is a full-time teaching assistant at a nearby elementary school. “After a long day at work, I’m able to just come, talk, and lose myself in a project.”
The relaxation we experience together belies the soul work that takes place once we settle around the art tables. Some of the projects challenge us to encounter our world from a new angle; others invite celebration or encourage reflection. The girls occasionally give voice to my own incredulity. “Do we have to sketch with our eyes closed?” Kenzie, the leader of that particular project, smiled sympathetically but held firm. There’s purpose and metaphor within each of the projects, and we often have to set aside our desire for competency in order to reap the benefits.
Recently we traced two large intersecting circles onto paper. One circle represented the world; the other represented our particular passions, responsibilities, and relationships. We used the intersecting space to brainstorm our calling: in Frederick Buechner’s words, “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Looking around the table, Cora observed, “There’s a lot of depth in people’s approach to the work.”
As I worked to fill the intersecting space, I realized that Girls Group has reaffirmed both my calling as a teacher and my broader purpose as a human being. Teaching isn’t about what you know; it’s about relationships and exploration. My lack of artistic credentials hasn’t hindered me but made me extra receptive to the skill and encouragement of the radiant women around me. Being a part of Girls Group did indeed dig deeper roots for me here in Wichita, but I’m not sure why I thought that would be a problem. However short my stay might be in a city, in a role, or on the planet, how better to spend time than building relationships through creative work?
Toward the end of our weeks together, Kenzie began to display our artwork around Legacy House. The projects we’ve created chronicle a journey from winter to spring. The faces around me chronicle the journey from stranger to friend.
This plot line has played out more than once in my life. Opportunity arrives looking like obligation, and my mind strings together all the Good Reasons to say no. Thank heaven for a heart that trumps my head.