When I was a child, I craved quiet places where I could be alone with my feelings. Sometimes I would go along the side of the house where camellia and pomegranate grew or down the stone steps to a small orchard under a tangerine tree in full fruit. Later in life, when I was old enough to be trusted, I would venture to a meadow and lie down in the tall grasses or climb high in a tree. Each of these places offered an essential opportunity to experience my inner being. Children have access to this “still small voice” in nature, preferably alone, where they can connect with their dreams and harness themselves for disappointment, which will surely come in life.
I had a childhood friend where I grew up in southern California whose house was demolished to make room for a freeway. I thought about that then, the smooth asphalt replacing the modest living room with her shag carpet and a noisy parakeet in the corner. We lived up the hill from her, just a few miles away, but far enough to only sense the constant flow of traffic. I imagined a streak of light where she once lived, where her life once moved in all directions.
Despite this push for a faster speed in life, I still had long hours with nothing to do, no entertainment provided, which led me outside. This was a normal part of life for many of us, being alone, forging a relationship with self.
In Friends for 350 Years (2002), Howard Brinton speaks about the importance of feelings in the community of Friends. “Feelings give us our knowledge of values. In a Quaker meeting for worship or for business a speaker seldom remarks ‘I think’ but generally ‘I feel.’” Although I was not consciously aware of it at the time, the real importance of my lonely sojourns as a child was the time I took to be with my feelings, to know them, to accept them, and to transcend them. In this way, I gradually learned to trust my feelings, and it is through my feelings that I have come to know my hopes and ambitions.
I often wonder how young people get through their twenties without having had time to live in the wonder of childhood, unencumbered by news and other media. How do they build the dreams they will need to become someone, not a manufactured persona, but a genuine self, if they don’t spend time alone, dreaming about what they want to do with their lives? Not only did the time I spent alone give me strength to face some of the challenges that came to me later in life, but being in nature was spiritual development. I discovered a self that enjoyed life outside of school. I had a sense of who I wanted to be, and I longed to test it.
I did not call it “following a leading” when I was twenty, almost out of college and uncertain about my direction in life, but that is precisely what it was. I had resolved to spend part of my college experience in Appalachia, where I could see firsthand what life was like for the good people in the mountains of Kentucky. This came from a deep desire to have a life of consequence, to “do good” in the world, as well as a bit of nostalgia for my life in southwest Virginia when I was in high school. When I contacted the principal at a small country school, he welcomed me to come on out. So I did, traveling up and into the mountains on my twenty-first birthday, into a town where I knew no one, except a woman named Martha, who had spoken with me on the phone.
Whitesburg, Kentucky, was populated by “1,199 people plus one grouch,” a road sign declared on the way into town. It was also the home of the Appalachian Film Workshop, “Appalshop,” which had agreed that I could help out in their office for the duration of my field study. Appalshop gave me the courage I needed to throw myself into this other world, thousands of miles from home, this small group of kindred spirits.
At the elementary school, I was given a corner of a trailer to work in, along with a space heater and a few chairs. They literally built “my classroom” upon my arrival, much to the displeasure of the stern teacher who once occupied the whole trailer. I taught one, two, or three students at a time – children with potential, the principal told me.
As a “reading specialist,” I decided to have these children read their own writings, stories about fishing, hunting, quilting, and even making moonshine. I would later learn that this reading-writing connection was a sound teaching technique, and one that I would use throughout my career. At the time, however, I was just doing what I could to survive by having the children write about the wisdom they possessed, about their home, and especially about the outdoors.
What I came to understand was that if you live in a place long enough, the land becomes a part of you. The children in Kentucky that I worked with for six months were most at home when they were outside – exploring, finding, and interacting with their environment. This was the teaching that they offered me and what I took with me when I left that place.
Children need to discover themselves through play, then school can be a place of making connections. As Howard Brinton says, “Participation in life as a whole reaches down below the level of ideas to the deeper feelings which move the will. Ideas in themselves, received in the schoolroom from books, have little motive power unless they are linked to this deeper process.” As a young woman from southern California, I was as curious about these children as they were about me.
I made sure we linked to “participation in life as a whole” through active learning outside. We took walks down to the nearby fishing hole with our notebooks and a can of worms. The children showed me some of their favorite places to look for arrowheads. Nevertheless, like my grade school friend whose house was stripped away by the freeway, their land was being torn apart by coal mining. I started to see the dual reality the people of the region were living in. Their appreciation of their land could not outpace the continual destruction that was penetrating that part of the country.
Childhood is not without its moments of loss, when the pieces of life don’t quite fit, and that is when we need to just sit and think, just be, preferably in a place outside fed by its wilds. The children in Kentucky possessed a quality of knowing that was easily accessible, like a phone in a pocket nowadays, and it gives me pause. Perhaps we have not fully considered what it means to be included in our environment and the way the land can provide an interaction with self, a self that shines through in all life-giving relationships. There is no such thing on a screen, there is no such trust, and children have little power to resist the full-color landscape of images. Walking down to the creek in my town, Silver City, I consider the difference between the two.
In his 1971 collection, A Sense of Place, The Artist and the American Land, Alan Gussow makes this distinction between places and the environment: “The catalyst that converts any physical location – any environment if you will – into a place, is the process of experiencing deeply. A place is a piece of the whole environment that has been claimed by feelings.”
Let us provide opportunities for children to have special places, not just an environment, but places that are personal and offer a feeling of peace and safety. Each of us has a deep inner self. If we can explore that in childhood, through our connection to place, we will be able to take that knowing with us everywhere we go. ~~~
Kristina Kenegos was a member of Tacoma Friends Meeting for twenty years and is now a member of Gila Friends Meeting in Silver City, New Mexico (IMYM). After a lifelong career in teaching, she enjoys oil painting and exploring the muted desert landscape of southwest New Mexico.