Books, Family life, Nature, parenting, Peace education, Preschool, Social justice, toddler

Being here now: an Earth Day reflection

As I write about deepening my practice of Montessori philosophy, this blog often winds up focusing on presence, attention, and mindfulness — and that’s where I land on Earth Day, too.

How do we parent in these times? How do we show up for our children? How do we show up for the earth?

We are, of course, of this Earth and in relationship with the community of natural things, whether we know it, acknowledge it, feel it — or not.

The reality of the current and ongoing ecological crisis is dire. As adults, that’s something we need to be present with, and take immediate action on. It’s our role to make choices about how we’re going to participate in capitalism, how we’re going to live, how we’re going to vote, how we’re going to show up in governmental process and how we’re going to invest in localized community.

As adults, it’s our role to be present with how all of this affects us, to notice how winters and summers are different than they used to be, to name our grief, to imagine abundant futures and ways of getting there.

For young children, who don’t yet have the connecting experience of a childhood’s worth of winters and summers and who don’t have the power to control outcomes, the facts of climate change can be overwhelming, frightening, and ultimately, lead to disconnection in order to numb the pain of loss. As one of the great teachers of our time, Joanna Macy, says “The refusal to feel takes a heavy toll…The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more creative uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies.”

Young childhood is the time to be present with knowledge of oneself as part of the family of wild things, connecting to the tiny, enormous beauty of this earth. It’s also a time when adults can mindfully model ways of being present in right and healthy relationship (with other people, species, money) — or not.

Grief is an inevitable part of presence in this time. As children mature into capacity to carry the knowledge of what’s happening on the planet right now, it won’t be easy or light or without pain. But ideally, it will come at a time of life when the young adult feels deeply connected to the earth, at a time when they are feeling powerful in their ability to contribute and capable of collaborating with others to develop solutions (in Montessori philosophy, this is likely to be the third plane of development, age 12 to 18 – maybe you’ve heard of Greta Thunberg?).

With younger children, we don’t pretend to live in a perfect world. We talk about aloud about consumption and weigh purchasing choices aloud. We talk about having enough. We talk about upholding Indigenous sovereignty and land-based practices. We talk in terms of “caring for the earth.”  

But mostly, it’s not about what we say. Children, with their brilliantly absorbent minds, are picking up our habits, our purchasing choices, our core beliefs and motivations all the time. They see how we care for ourselves, and for others, how we navigate conflict. They are learning what it means to be an adult, to be a human, to be present, through watching us.

Dr. Montessori observed of young children: “The things she sees are not just remembered, they form part of her soul.”

My husband David has a practice of picking up cans anytime he goes for a walk, something he always saw his Dad do. Once he even did it as a Father’s Day gift; picking up cans along an old road in Toronto, where his dad had picked mushrooms during his own childhood. It’s a way of saying “I noticed this was out of place, did not belong, was not in right relationship. I can help to move this to a better place.”  It’s a small thing, but not too small to be worth doing.

When I bring my presence to the natural world  — when I go outside, when I walk to do errands, when I track the birds at the feeder or visit my sit spot or sing around a campfire with friends — my body, mind, and spirit are reminded of my place in the family of wild things. And I model for my children that falling in love with this world is a gift, come what may.

“The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present, and when you’re worrying about whether you’re hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world because it will not be healed without that. That is what is going to unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of our world.” – Joanna Macy

How do we parent in these times? With curiousity. With hope. With presence.

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Image of an old stump growing vibrant green moss

Resources for navigating climate grief with presence: 

Books

Coming Back to Life: The Work that Reconnects – Joanna Macy

Emergent Strategy – adrienne maree brown

The Right to be Cold by Sheila Watt-Cloutier

These Wilds Beyond our Fences: Letters to My Daughter on Humanity’s Search for Home – Bayo Akomolafe

Dancing on our Turtle’s Back – Leanne Simpson

Podcasts

How to Survive the End of the World

For the Wild

Joanna Macy on On Being

Instagram accounts:

@rachaelrice

@life_as_ceremony

@mollyccostello

@adriennemareebrown

This is by no means comprehensive, so send me your recommendations, and I’ll add them to this list!

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Casa, Montessori philosophy, Peace education, Social justice

The Montessori teacher at the homeless shelter

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The Montessori Academy at the Center for the Homeless in South Bend, Indiana, is exactly as inspiring and unique as it sounds. As a Montessori classroom built to serve children living with homelessness, it’s the first and only of its kind —and yet, it’s also a return to the true roots of Maria Montessori, who began her work with children living in poverty in Rome.

I’ve written before about my love of podcasts, and that’s how I first heard about this amazing school. Scott Carrier, the host of Home of the Brave, met a woman outside a Bernie Sanders rally, and asked what had brought her there. As soon as I heard Porzia Micou say she was the director the Montessori Academy at the Center for the Homeless, I put aside the meal I was preparing, turned up the volume, and payed attention.

Porzia’s story was so compelling, her communication so clear and graceful — I needed to know more about her and her work. And I’d love to introduce you to her, as well. Here’s our conversation:

M: How did you first connect with the Montessori philosophy?

Porzia: About 10 years ago my nephew attended the Montessori Academy located in Mishawaka IN. It is the number one private school in our area and the only dually accredited Montessori school in Indiana. The Academy was the second school in the nation to receive AMS accreditation. These facts, along with witnessing firsthand the quality of education my nephew received, brought me into the world of Montessori.

How long have you been at the Montessori Academy at the Center for the Homeless?

Five years ago, I was given the opportunity to work at the Academy’s classroom located at the South Bend Center for the Homeless. I began as an assistant and later received my credentials through AMS as a 3-6 year old guide.

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How many students attend the school?

Due to the nature of the population we serve, we experience a constant shift in numbers. When our parents leave the Center, the children are still able to attend our program. We have a few children who stay to complete the three year cycle. Some are only with us for days, weeks or months at a time. Issues with transportation, family structure and relocation usually determine retention rates. We strive to create a stable, nurturing environment for all who enter the program. Presently, we have 9 children enrolled — five who live at the center, four who live elsewhere.

How does the Montessori method support the children who attend at your school?

Throughout my time at the Center, I have seen certain commonalities among the adults living here, and central to these are a lack of independence and a sense of inner peace. Everything that we do in our environment focuses on instilling those traits early on.

During the orientation process, I ask every child “whose classroom is this?” I usually get the response: “yours!” With that I say, “This is your classroom, this is your space, it belongs to you.” Many seem shocked by this as they have never had anything to call their own. There is a different sort of value in caring for something that is your own.

During the day, the upkeep of the environment is the responsibility of the child. They do their own dishes, prepare light meals, clean and fold laundry. These are basic but necessary skills needed to become self-sufficient as an adult.

Everything that we do and say to each other is based on peace and respect. I recognize that many of our children come from places that are not ideal. For some, the classroom is an outlet, a safe place where they get some reprieve from the chaos that is home. The order and structure of the materials and environment is instills a deep security within the child.

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How is your classroom like any Montessori class?

The principals are the same as any other classroom. We achieve normalcy by having a core group of children that have been here for some time. They usually set the standard and model appropriate classroom behaviors.

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How is it different?

Because we are a part of an organization that relies heavily on donations, there is a constant stream of traffic from the community. In order to make this less distracting, we encourage our children to say “Welcome to our classroom” then continue to work. Many of the side effects of homelessness, as it relates to children, manifest in our environment.

We have to be sensitive to those matters and meet the children where they are. Science has shown us that, in order for people to thrive, their basic physiological needs must first be met. We see children who have experienced varying degrees of abuse aimed at them or towards a parent, housing crisis and insecurities about having enough to eat. Many are suffering from trauma related disorders based on their past. We see these extremes along with intact, otherwise stable family units who are experiencing temporary hardships.

In 2012, at age 29, Porzia found a lump in her left breast. Uninsured and misdiagnosed, over the next three years, that lump eventually grew to the size of a golf ball.

Can you tell me about your breast cancer diagnosis, recovery and the aftermath of that journey?

In the winter of 2014, my fiancé came home with a piece of mail and stated that he added me to his health insurance. The definition of a spouse has changed recently and I was able to be insured under his plan. Coverage started the next spring (2015). I scheduled an appointment with who I thought was a reputable physician. By this time the mass on my chest was the size of a golf ball. She performed another cursory exam, asked me what the other physician had said, and agreed that it was a cyst. She told me to monitor it and call her if anything changed. My option in the future would be to have it drained… Because my pap smear came back normal, new guidelines state that I come back in two years, not yearly as it was before. By June of 2015, I was becoming increasingly worried. I had sharp pains and woke up every night with a voice telling me to go back. Much to her dismay, the doctor agreed to see me again. When she walked in, I opened my gown and she gasped. “Have you ever had an ultrasound, have you ever been biopsied?” I replied: “No, you told me everything was fine and to come back in two years…” Nothing was the same after that. I was sent for a mammogram soon after. The attendant confided in me that if something appeared off, I would have an ultrasound immediately after. Sure enough, the mammogram spotted a problem and I was sent to have an ultrasound. The attendant in that department told me that if they spotted anything wrong, the Radiologist would come in to speak with me. After a couple of minutes he entered, looked at the screen and then at me. He demanded to know who my previous doctors were and informed me that I had a tumor –not a cyst. I scheduled a trip to Savannah to be with family and opted not to hear any results until I returned.

In early August of 2015, I was in the classroom getting ready for the start of the year when I received the call from my surgeon. The only memory I have of that moment was walking backwards to find a chair so that I wouldn’t hit the ground. My niece and nephew were with me that day so I felt the need to stay calm. I cried as I told them that it we needed to leave and felt heavy as I lifted myself into the car.

I called my sisters and together we told my mother who collapsed on my kitchen floor. That remains the hardest part of my journey.

We asked my surgeon to come into his office right away. I came in not knowing what to expect. He looked concerned and informed me that I had Stage III triple negative breast cancer. I heard nothing more after that. It was a surreal feeling that day, I felt disconnected. Droves of family and friends came in and out but I wasn’t present. I could not stop crying.

My niece took my hand and reminded me that I promised to take her to the park that day. I remember smiling at her and telling her to grab a sweater, it would be chilly. That one moment defined the way that I would handle the struggles to come. I decided to not be a victim and to fight this with everything that I had in me, and I did! My children who were 11 and 12 at the time handled everything with grace and dignity. They were/ are truly amazing. I started an aggressive chemo treatment schedule which I finished in November 2015. It was everything they said it would be, lost hair, gained weight but it saved me. I opted for a lumpectomy after careful consideration and started radiation shortly after. I had 33 treatments, which were administered to me daily after work. My doctors continue to be amazed at my recovery. I didn’t learn until after the fact that the odds were stacked against me.

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In the midst of your own challenges, how do you find the peace and balance you need in order to go into the classroom each day?

I credit the children in my life for saving me. From my girls to my nieces, nephews and all of my wonderful school kids, I never stayed down for long. I think that attitude plays a role in the recovery process. I understand that children are receptive to emotions. If I am feeling sad or emotionally unwell it vibrates through the environment. I had to change the way that I felt about my circumstances in order to stay in a positive frame of mind.

I informed my parents on what was transpiring and told the children only what was necessary. (“I feel tired today, can you work independently?” I take medicine that makes my hair fall out but look at all the pretty scarves I can wear!”) I brought in an old rocking chair and sat there reading stories or giving lessons on my hard days. I didn’t want to miss a day. I was unsure of how my absence would affect the group. Our children, in particular, have issues with abandonment and change. I was obligated to persevere because I had children to support at home and children who depended on my presence at school. I think that all children have an internal peace; I drew a lot of my calm from them.

Porzia’s story — and her passion, her poise, her courage, her grace — is such an inspiration to me. Through incredible hardship, she has continued to show up for the children in her life — both her own, and those she teaches. Though Porzia’s focus now is to look forward to the rest of her life, the aftermath of this battle has been an incredible financial burden on her family. They’ve lost a car, they’ve had to move, and incredibly, Porzia is now saving up to file for bankruptcy. 

Porzia’s family have set up a GoFundMe page where you can join me in donating to support Porzia and her family. Many of us raising young children, or working in early education, don’t have a lot to give. But we all have something to share: Please click here and give what you can. 

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