Ursula walked down the hill through Sitka and hemlock, salal and fern to Illahee – the little alternative school where her kids had spent their formative elementary years, leaving to go to 9th grade in the public high school across the bay. She loved this long familiar path and took it often though usually she was headed on towards Mahonia and just gave a nod and a wink to the school as she passed. There was a road to the school also, of course, but she preferred this slightly more round-about route.
She and Charley had been part of starting the school, along with Pia, Owen, and Molly, and five or six other families almost 30 years ago, when their kids were all small. They had called it “parent run” though there had been much debate about what that actually meant. Probably there was still conversation about this, though the intervening years had laid down some patterns and traditions that could be followed…. or returned to….
Ursula was no longer directly involved but still got asked to stop in now and then, either for a special class or to help untangle some crisis or another. Wrangles were inevitable in such endeavors and institutions. Somehow the school seemed to have more than its share of upheaval but she always figured it was because people were extra touchy about their children – both around their individual child’s issues and about the curriculum, not to mention the direction of the school itself.
It had been a miracle every day it lasted in those early years. It was a miracle still. And now – “blessings on us all” – some of the children of the original students were attending. In fact, Owen’s daughter Robin was chairing the Board this year. “And soon,” she thought, shivers running along her spine, “My granddaughter Menolly will be coming.”
As she approached the schoolhouse tucked into tall alder and hemlock trees she thought back on the process of building it. The land was donated after they had been operating for a couple of seasons in people’s homes and garages. It only had an old stable on it and it took a loooong year of weekend work to turn that into two classrooms, an office and a commons area. In the interim they had rented a portable classroom trailer. Pia, who was the school secretary at the time, had her “head” office in the bathroom. Things were a little fancier now and at some point, long after her family was out, the parents had added another classroom.
There were still occasional conflicts about “academics” and the “3 R’s” vs. more elemental work and play, but at least at the moment, the parents seemed comfortable with a laid back approach. She thought perhaps it was because more of her children’s generation had experienced some sort of “free” school in their growing up, even if it wasn’t until attending colleges like Evergreen or Bennington and Hampshire. In her day only Pia had any direct experience at all of another way of going at it – she’d actually gone through progressive schools back east. Ursula and the rest had only been able to feel their way by instinct. At any rate, the kids heading off into public school still did just as well as they always had over the years.
She smiled at the multi-topped cedar that graced the entrance, thanking it for the protective presence it always seemed to provide. She patted the now fading totem pole that a parent from her day had helped the kids carve. The school’s name was a Chinook jargon word meaning something like “home place,” so the pole had always seemed appropriate even if it wasn’t part of the local native culture.
Ursula thought back to Halloween two years ago, the first time she was asked to come to school as its “resident witch.” She had arrived dressed for the part all in black, complete with the classic pointy hat. Studying natural cycles was integral to the school’s learning process so the kids immediately understood the compost she brought to connect them with the season’s energy of plants dying back. The cast iron cauldron she carried it in had been an added theatrical touch.
The children had told stories of their beloved dead – grandparents, pets and one father who had died the previous year – as they placed mementos on an impromptu altar to which she added a small animal skull and a photo of her uncle whose legacy had paid for the kiln they still used. She would never forget asking Flicker that day what he had in the largish box he lugged in from the carpool. “Grandma,” he’d said succinctly. “She died this summer.”
“Can…can I see her?” little August had asked. “Nope,” came the reply. “The box is sealed.”
When they gathered for Circle she’d told them how it was a witch’s job to be consciously in tune with the seasons of life and of the year. Once upon a time all people had felt connected to the sequences of birth, growth, dying back and rebirth, but gradually the job had become relegated to a special few. Then in a terrible development – part of a growing fear of and denial of death and nature in general – those few had been persecuted and even killed for their wisdom and role in the community.
Together Ursula and the children had brainstormed a list of remnants and reminders of the old wisdom that appear at Halloween – ghosts and ghouls and harvest pumpkins, witches characterized as warty crones, and the Hispanic culture’s Dia de los Muertos skeletons. Then exchanging her pointy hat for a crown of dried flowers, she had declared it time to celebrate all that they were learning of the old ways.
Today a lovely hum greeted her from the classrooms as she entered Commons. Was it just her imagination or did the children themselves seem calmer now than in her day?
Cindy was on the phone in the office so Ursula just waved a greeting. She could see evidence of Owen’s regular presence in the drawings of Oregon Grape and Oxalis on the walls. He came over often to be their naturalist expert.
“Oh goodie. It’s an Ursula day!” Otter Logan, Owen’s granddaughter, appearing from the bathroom, hugged her merrily. “Come see what I’m doing.”
Ursula allowed herself be led into the West Room where most of the ten older kids were absorbed in writing in their handmade books. Nestled in the corner, one of the older girls was reading aloud to August who was apparently visiting from the younger group. From the artifacts and the children’s own artwork spread about the classroom, it looked like the group was studying the Mayans. A partially built step pyramid was on the big worktable next to well-thumbed reference books opened to pictures of jungley ruins. Someone had been working a loom that was tied to a chair in another corner like those still used in Guatemala.
Ursula admired Otter’s illustrated report on the Mayan calendar, enjoying the “best guess” spelling that had “egul” for “eagle.” “A much more sensible way to spell it,” thought Ursula.
Celeste finished what she was doing with a new little girl that Ursula had never met before, and came up to give her a hug. “It will be perfect having you talk about grounding today,” she said quietly. “I’m feeling like we could all use a little of that, especially Sedona there, who is new to us. Her folks – Mom and Grandmother – just moved to Mahonia to open a B&B. I think she has a tendency to leave her body a lot – she kind of gets to bouncing off walls and doesn’t know how to choose a project and settle in.”
Celeste turned and raising her voice to teacherly firmness, said, “It’s time to finish up and gather for Circle. Otter, do you want to go tell the Youngers that Ursula is here? Flicker, can you offer Ursula a cup of tea? And who wants to see if she wants a cushion or a chair? Remember how we like to treat our Elders.”
Ursula chucked inwardly at the idea of being an Elder, especially as Celeste was older than she was and white-haired to boot. But the truth was she rather liked getting such royal treatment. It was a nice attempt on the part of the school to begin to honor the wisdom of those with a few more years under their belts. There was a lot more conversation generally in the world these days about the need to have the Elders stay vital parts of the community rather than the marginalization pattern that had emerged in previous generations.
Soon the sliding doors between the classrooms were pushed aside and the little ones from Rhea’s group in the East Room joined the circle on the floor in the wide doorway. Ursula was now ensconced on a purple cushion, appropriately decorated with a child-painted bear.
Some of the little ones were still squirmy and the new student looked at her self-consciously. Ursula reached out to pat Anise’s patched knee, the wiggler to her left, and smiled at Sedona on her other side.
“I really like that sweater you have on. Did someone make it for you?”
“My grandma,” Sedona answered shyly, though more at ease now that she had been noticed and acknowledged. “She lives with us.”
“Cool. I’d like to meet her one of these days,” said Ursula, making a mental note to ask Celeste what the grandma’s name was. She was probably no older than Ursula herself.
“Ok, kids, have any of you ever felt all wiggly and unable to focus?” Ursula began.
“My mom says I’m like a puppy sometimes,” said Otter.
“Sounds like you dash around a lot.”
“Yesterday I felt all twitchy and I had to go outside,” volunteered another child.
“I feel like that too sometimes,” said Ursula. “And sometimes that is exactly what I need to do. But today I’m going to teach you a process that will help when you need to concentrate or get your work done. It can help each of you on your own or when you all want to focus as a group. It’s called grounding.”
“My mom does that in her Medicine Circle,” said Otter.
“Does that mean like you touch the ground?” asked another child.
“Exactly. Good thinking. So I want you all to sit cross-legged, Indian style and settle your bottoms firmly on the floor.” More wiggling ensued for a moment, of course, and excited anticipation filled the air.
“Now take a deep breath….” said Ursula demonstrating. “And another…. Now pretend there’s a string in your tummy just below your belly button. It could be brown like a root or it could be gold or white…. Or any color. Red or blue.… Now imagine that string reaching down through your body into the floor…. See it going through the crawl space and into the dirt underneath. It goes past the earthworms and the bugs and other roots and the rocks…. lots of rocks and some water…. down, down. Deeeeeep into the Earth. Miles and miles. Feel it way down there, warm and cozy, settled in like a root does in the garden. Is it still the same color?” Ursula paused to let the potent image take hold.
“Take a deep breath, you’re not forgetting to breathe are you? Now leave the string rooted there and bring your awareness back up the string. Imagine yourself rising through the dirt and stones. Bring with it the settled, calm feeling you found down there. Bring that feeling and your consciousness up past the earthworms and out into the air under our building and up into your body again. Feel that warmth deep in your body. Feel yourself still connected with the Earth but back here in your body in this room sitting in a circle together.”
Ursula breathed quietly for a minute or two and the children did too, deeply grounded. “How did that feel?” she asked at last, turning to Anise. “Let’s go around the circle.”
“I feel like we’re all connected right now into the earth like trees in the forest.”
“Me too and I feel really calm.”
“My string was yellow and it liked going past the worms. I even saw a salamander.”
“The Earth said she liked me coming to visit like that and she hopes I do this more often.”
“I don’t feel like talking yet. Maybe I’ll draw you a picture later.”
“We could all do that after Ursula goes,” offered Celeste.
“I could feel my granny down there with me. It was like she was cuddling me on her lap,” said Flicker.
“It felt like I was swimming in the earth.”
“Wow. Out of the mouths of babes,” thought Ursula as she listened to their observations on around the circle. “Why am I not surprised? Maybe next time I’ll teach them about opening their pineal gland to connect to their Third Eye.”