"Let me keep my mind on what matters
Which is mostly standing still
And learning to be astonished"

~ Mary Oliver ~

Saturday, August 31, 2013


by Ada Glustein                                                                                                            Aug. 31’2013

Exciting days in Vancouver!  Six local groups recently formed the Palestine Awareness Coalition, coming together to present the now famous four-map poster showing “Disappearing Palestine.”  The posters have appeared in several US cities, including New York and San Francisco.  They are now on 15 city buses and at one (soon to be two) SkyTrain stations.  The Coalition felt so positive about working together with other groups for this effort.  Each group has its own mandate, approaches the issues of Israel-Palestine in different ways, but all groups had the common desire for the public to be made more aware of the ever-diminishing land for Palestinians since 1946.  All groups recognized that awareness is the seed that’s needed for the plant to flourish, for any positive action to sprout.  A grassroots fundraising campaign took place to pay for an initial four weeks of the mural display.  We were thrilled with the response and appreciative of the transit authority and ad-makers for agreeing to post the maps.
Our six groups each had input into the wording placed on the maps, and the final posted copy (as seen above) shows the maps as a clear and graphic historical representation of the ever-diminishing space allotment for the Palestinian people and the large numbers who, as a result, have become and remain refugees.  I was so pleased that the Coalition was so thoughtful in their approach to this project, the final product simply telling the facts without blame or venom. 

Not entirely unexpectedly, the officers of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs heard about the approval of the murals to be posted.  There followed an immediate reaction to stop the maps from going up.  These two organizations wrote letters to the transit company and to the local Jewish community stating that the ads were “anti-Israel”, “question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state”, “distort history”, are “malicious” and are “intended to coincide with the sacred holy days of the Jewish New Year”.  None of this was so.  They urged their readers to write letters of their own to the transit authority to prevent the postings.  While the letter campaign was in full swing, the ads were posted.  The transit company followed their own guidelines and stood by their decision.

For two days local newspapers and television covered the story.  Members of the Coalition and members of various Jewish organizations were interviewed.  Many comments favoured the ads and felt that the information was portrayed honestly, simply, and clearly.  Other comments said that the transit system is allowing the use of its vehicles “to create disharmony and disunity in our society”.  Another said, “You cannot use free speech to libel and slander others.” “You can not use free speech to endanger other groups."

I read the letter from the Federation and CIJA, and I read several of the negative comments that appeared in the media.  It made me feel quite sad to see the almost knee-jerk responses pouring forth.  The Coalition worked very hard to reveal facts only.  There was no malice involved.  There was no distortion of history.  However, the interpretation of our coalition’s work was indeed a distortion, out of all proportion.  Some responded as if a vicious crime had taken place, as if nothing but lies had been posted, as if the people in the Coalition were inciting hatred or violence.  I don’t understand how, in a democracy, like Canada, that the Jewish community would want to stifle anyone’s rights.  The right to free expression, the right to opinion, the right to inform and build bridges of understanding – this is what we seek.  The hanging of these maps on buses and in stations is not a return to Holocaust Germany, where windows of Jewish shops were smashed, where Jews were isolated into ghettos, and shipped on trains to their gassing at Auschwitz.  What if someone had raised awareness then?  If someone or a coalition of groups had been able to post on public transit the plight of the Jewish people?  What if the inhumane treatment and violation of human rights of the Jews had been brought to public awareness and spoken up about without standing down?   

I remember my own upbringing around the founding of the state of Israel.  What an excitement it was to hear of a homeland for the Jews.  I did not learn or know about other people already living on that land.  I did not learn or know about their dispersal.  I did not learn or know that the beautiful orchards of trees being planted by the Jewish National Fund were atop Palestinian gravestones in Palestinian cemeteries.  I doubt that my family, nor the rest of the Jewish community where I grew up, knew any of these things.  It is only in recent years, when I have opened my own mind and heart to other possibilities, to read, to listen, to inquire.  I went to Israel-Palestine to see for myself, and I discovered the Nakba, the catastrophe, that occurred while we were busy celebrating the founding of the new Jewish state. 

It wasn’t easy to accept.  Doubt and questions slipped off my tongue.  I felt quite defensive, quite embarrassed, to think of such a reality, a people driven out from their homes, where they had thrived, tilled their land, grown their crops and built their cities; a people turned into a refugee population, no longer free to return.  I remember meeting with others at that time of awakening, all of us in some way ashamed – ashamed that we didn’t know and ashamed at the behaviour of our people – somehow feeling responsible for what we now knew were acts of occupation and colonization.  It is still hard to this day for me to understand such treatment of one human to another, coming from a culture that so values social justice and Tikkun olam, the healing of the world.  Surely, my brothers and sisters know that “taking over” and “kicking out”, imprisoning, and putting up walls, destroying homes and digging up trees are the very opposite actions of our Jewish teachings, the opposite of how we learned as children to get along together, respect each other, share whatever space we may have, and to always speak up for the liberation and freedom of all people everywhere. 

My heart goes out in compassion to those in the Jewish community who are not yet able to face what is true and real and right.  To act out of fear and ignorance, to blame and condemn those who have opened their eyes and their hearts, to put on blinders as an immediate response to what is seen as threat and encourage others to do the same -- this is disordered thinking, disordered action.  I am grateful for my Jewish background and my upbringing.  I am grateful that I learned to question and that I learned to see beyond “the Pale.” It is from my own culture that I learned to be a critical thinker and to see things for myself. 

I applaud the transit company for standing their ground.  I applaud the Coalition for its unified effort.  I applaud all the individuals and groups who helped to fund the posting of the maps.  And to those of you in  the established Jewish community who are still afraid to be aware, I am reminded of the message in the childhood classic, the Emperor’s New Clothes.  It took an innocent child to say, “But he has nothing on!”  I say to you, “Open your eyes, look at the maps and see the reality.  Palestine is disappearing.  Homes are disappearing.  Orchards are disappearing. And the Palestinian people, our fellow humans, need to be seen, heard and counted just as any other group of human beings on this earth.  Use your letter-writing skills to talk about how to ameliorate the situation, how to find a solution, how to work together for the betterment of all.  Seeds of fear and bitterness  grow into hatred, separation and isolation.  Better to plant seeds of compassion, seeds of understanding, that will grow into just, safe and caring communities.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Telling Tales IN Class: Life as Curriculum

Telling Tales IN Class: Life as Curriculum        by Ada Glustein

The children rush in after recess.
“Mandeep stole my snack!”
“Jimmy wouldn’t play with me!”
“Guess what?  Ruby is my best friend!”
We gather in a circle, sitting at the carpet for our daily “Class Temperature,” the opportunity for my students to tell the stories of the playground.
“I’m a zero,” pouts Michael.
“Tell us what happened.  Take your time.”
Michael starts the story circle.  What comes pouring out is what really matters -- stories of inclusion and exclusion, stories of love and betrayal, stories of triumph, and stories of defeat. 
“All the guys went out to play soccer and when I got there, nobody let me play.”

It is up to me as the teacher to discern what the child is telling and asking, to recognize the facts and the feelings, to honour the child’s voice, to hear the values that have come into question today.  It is up to me to model for the other listeners how to show interest, how to inquire respectfully, how to restate articulately what I hear is so important to this child, how to listen deeply to the meaning beneath the words.
“So, you went out at recess with everyone and you planned to play soccer with all the guys, but they wouldn’t let you join them.”
“Yeah, Jimmy told everybody not to let me play.”
“It sounds like this made you feel left out and pretty sad.”
“Are there other people here who have ever felt left out?”
There are nods and many voices wanting to tell that story.
“What happened then?”
“Jimmy started laughing and then Raymond, too, and Taka.”
The attention in the circle shifts quickly to those three soccer players.  They each tell their versions of the story.  I make sure that they are not interrupted till they’ve all had their chance to talk.  I invite questions from the class for Michael.  I invite questions for the soccer players. 

As the details become apparent, the story takes its shape, and I, as the teacher, wonder aloud, sometimes provide vocabulary, always confirm facts with the tellers, and draw out the dilemmas of Michael’s experience, his wanting to fit in and not knowing how, and the dilemmas of the three players who wish to enlist only those people with “good” soccer skills.

We hear the current ending of the experience, but look for other possibilities.  Was this fair?  Why or why not?  What else could Michael have said or done?  What else could Jimmy have chosen to say?  What would be the most respectful way to say that?  Is there something that the bystanders could have done?  Why might that be important?  Voices of other class members are invited.  Lots of brainstorming and sharing takes place.

When this process of Class Temperature becomes a daily practice, students who at first may have difficulty listening to others or showing care for others, begin to exhibit changes over time.  They start to realize that if they come across a difficult situation, their story will also be valued; their community will be there to understand and to share the possibilities for alternate endings. 

Many children share positive stories, of course.  Each day many children state their temperature as a ten.  They tell about sharing their snack with a friend, or being asked to join a team.  They excitedly share the wonder they experienced that day as they watched a caterpillar munching on a leaf.  On any given day, many seem content with life as it is.  Yet others appear troubled, but don’t acknowledge the difficult feelings – I see a frown or a restless fidget, and we all must call upon our patience to wait.  Children’s feelings of safety and comfort vary from person to person, and as the teacher, I need to notice that and to cultivate a nurturing environment that will eventually allow the seeds of those silent ones to germinate, sprout, and be able to tell their stories, too.

You may wonder at the time taken for deeply exploring individual children’s dilemmas.   Never once have I seen an official recommendation to incorporate such a time into my daily school calendar.  I know that many will wonder what important curricular item it is that I leave out.  Am I not encroaching on valuable learning time?  Won’t children get behind in their work? 

My experience tells me that when I leave the stories of the playground out on the playground, children are less able to focus on the curricular demands in class, that their unresolved conflicts and feelings interfere with the “work”.   And, added to that, children come to believe that what matters most to them doesn’t count in the classroom.  That they don’t count.

It is the teacher’s job to honour the stuff of the children’s stories, to know that the reality of the playground is also part of the of the classroom reality.  These stories are real life – they have meaning – they matter.  And they have lessons that provide lifelong skills and deepening understanding of one another.  What lessons could possibly be more important than these?

As teachers we have been pushed far too often and far too long to deal with a very narrow spectrum of skills in the classroom, to put our attention solely on core subject areas, the traditional 3 R’s.  We have been pushed to separate the mind and heart.  Social-emotional domains have been shoved down under, except perhaps for an insistence upon “appropriate behaviour”.  Along with the creative arts of dance, music, drama and the visual arts, spending time on children’s personal stories can be seen as a frill, only when there’s time, only when the “work” is done. 

But adventures on the playground, if we allow them, can be the grist for a very richly integrated curriculum.  We can learn from our own class stories a great deal about social awareness, social responsibility, problem solving, self-awareness, how to recognize and work with our feelings, how to get along with others in our community, and how to honour differences.  If we are creative, we can connect all these social-emotional attitudes and skills to curriculum in other subject areas.  For instance, let’s look at oral language development.  Children will gain skill in thinking and presenting their ideas; they will learn this naturally, through the teacher’s and other students’ questions; they will learn about the importance of details, to enable the listeners to understand; when they explain what happened in the school yard, they will need to share a clear and understandable plot line, a beginning, middle and end.  Children can use art, drama and dance to express and represent the happenings and the feelings that arise on the playground.  They can write their own story, or interview another child and write that child’s story.  They can create a written script to be read as readers’ theatre or to be acted out, maybe with a choice of possible solutions and endings.  Our Class Temperature time can embody stories of democracy, studies of what it really means for every citizen to have a voice.  We can develop alternatives and vote on the best way to solve a particular problem.  We can learn to back up our choices with facts and evidence. 

We need to let children see and feel that school is part of real life.  We need to let real life into the classroom.  Such a simple structure incorporated into the teaching day can create a close-knit classroom community, a caring and safe community, a community where children can thrive in their learning.  This is living the curriculum.  This is life as curriculum.  

This piece won the Federation of B.C. Writers award for creative non-fiction in their Literary Writes contest, August 31, 2013.

Monday, May 20, 2013


Spirit Rock retreat offered by Anna Douglas, James Baraz and Eugene Cash
May 13 – 19, 2013
A summary by Ada Glustein

How fortunate I was to be able to attend this retreat at Spirit Rock, California.  For a week we "sat" in a beautiful rotunda, the outdoors surrounded by trees, wildlife, sunshine and fresh air.  The food was all vegetarian and very high quality.  Each of the participants in the retreat was over 55 years of age and shared in an assigned task during the week so that we all had opportunities to give and to receive.  Below, I've summarized the content of the retreat, and the many learnings that I have taken from the teachers and fellow practitioners.

“People are working longer.”  “People are living longer.”  “Practising mindfulness meditation together is reducing the aging of our genes, cells, brain, and cognitive capacity, a huge impact on human consciousness.”
In light of current research on aging, our years beyond the stress and responsibility of a work life give us time to devote to our spiritual life.  We can look within and reflect, using the Dharma teachings as our road map.  While useful at any age, the Dharma can give us insight into the challenges we face and the questions we ask as we explore the meaning and purpose of our lives.

As we take refuge in the Buddha, we are asked to acknowledge that we have wisdom ourselves; honour that potential and availability.  Taking refuge in the Dharma, we can explore the truth of how things are, without judgment or fixing, trusting that life gives us just what we need at every stage; show up fully, see things as they are.  Taking refuge in the Sangha, the community of all those with whom we practise and all those who have gone before, provides us with great company and support for this time of opportunity in our lives; receive and contribute with others.

Emphasized throughout the retreat was awareness of our own experience. Our culture is obsessed with products for anti-aging and  remaining youthful; condemns and excludes us for being “over the hill,”  no longer relevant or mentally incompetent.  If we keep a beginner’s mind, open to what comes, we remain vital, alive.  Possibilities still abound.  If we accept the prevalent cultural definitions, there is little freedom, and if we define ourselves, even as experts, seeing all, knowing all, we also close off opportunity and possibility.

In exploring our own experience and reality, we took an investigative approach.  The teachers led us in some contemplative inquiry both silently alone and in groups of two or three. We examined such questions as: 
  • What are you aware of at this time of your life? Right here, right now? Your experience of thoughts, worries, fears, body sensations, the sights, sounds, tastes and emotional states of aging?
  • What do you know about practice and waking up?  What do you not know?
  • Who would you be without your story?
Through group interviews and individual interviews with the teachers, through our inquiries and investigations and through the Dharma talks given daily, we came to better understand and gained insight into our many and varied experiences of aging:

Seeing the impermanence of all things – (anicca) -- learning to love ourselves in this uncharted and changing territory of the aging body and in our changing identities.  Are we kind and appreciative of these changes?  Can we see beauty in the weathering?  Are we stuck?  Haven’t we learned anything?  Do we have fixed expectations of wisdom? Who am I now?  Do I think less of myself for having to walk slower?  Or “sit” on a chair?  Do I still identify as “the smart one in the family,” or “the mediator” or “the clown” or “the baby”?  We need to see the power of our authenticity and vulnerability, the losses and the letting go of those identities which have defined us in the past.  Can we open up in kindness to the flaws and beauty of the goodness that is the essence of who we are? Even in death, the body continues to change.  Impermanence, though leading to uncertainty, also means possibility and opportunity.  Death follows naturally on aging and illness in our later lives.  This is how things are, universally.  To open to this truth is to open to liberation – Anicca vata sankhara.

Seeing the truth of suffering – (dukkha) – to recognize our pursuit of the pleasant and pleasureful, our clinging to how we think things should be – to know that all things “arise and they pass away” – Are we stuck in an endless cycle of searching for the fountain of youth?  Strangely, “absence of pleasure is a pain to the young, while absence of pain is a pleasure to the old!”  Do we remain obsessed by desire all our lives?  When is enough enough?  Can we let go of our treasures, diplomas, gifts, papers, beauty, cognitive ability, memory?  Perhaps all we need to keep is a wholesome way of being in the world.  Taking care of the aging body in the West is remembering to take our pills – but the heart/mind is more important to care for.  Ram Dass says, “Aging is suffering when you haven’t made friends with change.”

Learning not to take what is not self to be self – (anatta) – We construct our “selves” into fixed identities, solid beings, but these constructions may not be true.  Who are you right now?  What beliefs do you hold as truths of yourself as you age?  “I’m done.”  “It’s over.”  “I’ll never be worth anything now that I am old.” “You can’t expect me to change at this stage of the game.”  These are stories.  Just as we constructed such stories of ourselves in the past:  “I am young, energetic, have prowess and skill.”  We thought it would last forever.  When is the moment of death?  Does our self end with the last breath? With the last heartbeat?  When the brain stops functioning?  Or when my name is spoken for the last time on earth?  The “story of me” will one day disappear into the vast silence.  How do we relate to that silence?  The self remains a mystery, with no location, no neurological evidence.  The search for self results in “not finding” and “not finding” is the “finding”.  We may be only processes – no thinker, no teller, no taster.  Identity is a view, a description, a conclusion.  Can we release the burden of all those words?  How does it feel to do that?

The retreat ended with the beginning of a fresher view on aging and death.  Birth-and-Death are forever connected.  We experience them with each breath we take.  They are part of practice.  The Maranassati Sutta,  mindfulness of death, tells us to pay attention to the reality of birthing and dying, in ourselves and in others.  We misunderstand that our form will last forever, but we do know that everybody dies.  “Of all the mindfulness practices,” we are told, “mindfulness of death is supreme.” “Use our lives to prepare for death.”  Death is a mirror to give meaning to life.  

 With understanding, we can choose to live a life of virtue, contemplative understanding and wisdom as we move more and more into harmony with the way things are.  Coming face-to-face with death, we can see our impermanence.  It doesn’t really matter if we hang the picture, or get the latest iPhone, or worry ourselves sick over what to make for dinner.  What matters is our moment-to-moment awareness, the recognition of our momentariness, the arising and the passing of it, and the living reality of now – the only moment of life. Death is inevitable.  We are uncertain of when.  The Dharma can help us to handle this time of life skilfully.

The Sage
From the Sage’s Tao de Ching by William Martin

The sage does not retire from life.
The sage retires from unhappiness.
Images of silver-haired couples,
strolling on golf courses and basking on resort beaches,
distort the idea of retirement.
Retirement is about doing what we should always have been doing:
Living freely and happily with joy and compassion for all.
You do not need to add to your IRA (RRSP) for another five years 
in order to retire.
Retire now!
Retire from worry.
Retire from the pursuit of possessions.
Retire from complaining.
Retire from the strain of seeking security.
Retire from unhappiness.
Enjoy the moments given you.
Love the people around you.
Live the life offered you.