Sixteen of us, with instruments, music stands and books, are packed into the music space at the front of the church this Christmas Eve liturgy. We can hardly move, but the constraints don’t bother anyone. Most of us know each other. My husband controls the computer projecting the words of the hymns on the screen. All three children lend their musical talents. My sister, her husband, and their three children, also sing. Our organist and drummer have joined us, along with four of our Sunday regulars.
We have just rocked out “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy,” and we are jazzing through the third verse of “Silent Night.” Our older son provides a steady bass, the organist grooves through the jazz chords, and our younger son, the trumpetist, improvises wildly. My niece and a parish singer reach the stratosphere with the high descant. As my contribution on piano during this piece is purely decorative, I can indulge myself. I relish the moment. Our daughter-in-law and my daughter’s fiancé chorus from the congregation. I see my father’s spirit smiling from the front pew, and I hear my mother say, "Julian sure played his flute well."
I am in my element. That’s a surprise to me and the music teacher who told my parents they were wasting their money on piano lessons for me. I cherish this moment.
Fast forward three months. Fifty-five colleagues and I gather on the theatre stage for an interactive afternoon to experience structured conversations we can use in the classroom so all students can talk, move, and best of all, learn. Not an ideal venue, the stage is, however, the best place in the school large enough to allow so many people to be moving at once.
Despite the challenges, the venue works. For the Carousel experience, I have had to post my six images with accompanying chart paper in creative locations—on doors and walls in the wings, and on exit doors on either side below the stage. Six groups of teachers, each poised at an image-chart-paper station, wait for my signal to brainstorm. Now! The room bristles with the energy of excited talk and laughter as they record their ideas. I clap my hands. “Please move clockwise to the next station,” I instruct. Six groups of teachers navigate to the next station. No one gets lost. While they throw out suggestions at this new station, giggling all the while, I have the time to marvel at this moment. This session works. Teachers talk, move, and learn. When they return to their chairs, they suggest novel applications of the techniques to curricular contexts across the grades. Their responses astound me. I love to facilitate. My cup overflows.
I am in my niche, able to bask for a minute or two in the fruits of the energy I have invested over decades in two of my passions—music and pedagogy. This is not exile. This is whole-heartedness. As David Whyte notes in his book, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimmage of Identity, whole-heartedness is the antidote to exile and the exhaustion it produces. A marine biologist turned poet, Whyte relates the wise words of an Austrian monk:
You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest? The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness. . . . You are so tired through and through because a good half of what you do here in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers, or the place you have reached in your life. You are only half here, and half here will kill you after a while. You need something to which you can give your full powers.
The monk goes on to compare Whyte to a swan.
You are like [a swan] waddling across the ground; the swan doesn’t cure his awkwardness by beating himself on the back, by moving faster, or by trying to organize himself better. He does it by moving toward the elemental water, where he belongs. It is the simple contact with the water that gives him grace and presence. You only have to touch the elemental waters in your own life, and it will transform everything.
My experiences with my family and the musicians on Christmas Eve as well as my colleagues a few weeks ago witness to my own elemental waters. No matter the periods of exile I may have survived in my life, I have found my place. How did that happen? There may be individuals who are born in those waters and recognize them from the get-go. Such was not the case for me. My own elemental waters result from years of filtration through a cumulative and repetitive loop of risk, error, effort, and success. As Whyte’s monk continues, “You have to let yourself down into those waters from the ground on which you stand, and that can be hard. Particularly if you think you might drown.” (pp. 132 – 133).
As far as I can see, wholeheartedness comes from finding our elemental waters and taking the risk to jump in, maybe after a time in exile that might make us gun-shy. Those elemental waters become our place. The moments they produce scintillate in color on a screen of fine water droplets like the The World of Color Show at Disneyland. They remind us of what is possible.