Tim Cooper of Oakdale, Minn., responds to last week's blog, The Healing Power of Green. If you would like to share your thoughts on Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
I am recently returned from a weekend in a cabin in the vibrantly greening woods, in the sharply undulating mountains. By day, I hiked hardwood trails and climbed precipitous ascents, I scanned distant vistas and enjoyed the immediacy of identified and unidentified wildflowers, and I tried to put a name to, by sight or by sound, the abundant birds that sang me down my path. By late afternoon, I opened a bottle of wine and relished the isolation and rustic nature of the cabin. I prepared a sophisticated meal, and I planned the breakfast that would follow. At night, I lay down on a large, soft bed, and I heard the rain that stole into my domain without threat. I still heard distant birds, still felt the protective hug of the trees. And I fell asleep, and I did it all again, the next day. If I so chose, I could do something similar to this every weekend throughout the year.
By choice, I am an urban dweller; I live in a major metropolitan area in the upper Midwest. By vocation, I am a teacher, and somehow, some way, I have spent my entire career in a suburban private high school, surrounded by wealth, privilege, and personal satisfaction. And by passion, I am a servant of social justice, a man who resides in an area of comfort and ease, and yet tentatively, feebly, extends my hands to those in need.
Much of my journey in the realm of social justice has been as an advocate and direct care provider for the homeless. I still remember speaking to a man I had known for years who resided in a homeless shelter of last resort, the kind of place where Dinty Moore® Beef Stew and bread long past its expiration date were the evening meal, where a shockingly thin mattress placed six inches from a person you didn’t know was your bed, and where personal hygiene might have meant, if you were lucky, a small toothbrush and coarse soap. My conversations with Dick were deep, transcendent, and always instructional—he had a master’s degree in sociology from Northwestern University, but was transformed by Vietnam. On the particular night I remember, Dick told me that “alcoholism, drug addiction, violence, and rage are simply the poor person’s vacation.” He might have told me this as I was scheming about a weekend retreat to a cabin on the shore of Lake Superior.
I’ve also served young children in inner-city public schools, the kinds of places where a classroom in reading or arithmetic has 45-50 students, and where personal assistance comes from people like me who come in to tutor. Deidra, a fourth grader and crack baby with a mom in jail for any number of nefarious arrests, once tried to stab me with a pencil out of sheer frustration because she couldn’t read the simplest texts. She, and other fourth graders I’ve met, has never seen an expansive green space, has had to navigate through slums where trash and dispossession form the core of her very being. At some point in my education, I remember reading that psychiatrists could not distinguish the brain formation of a Vietnam War veteran from a child raised and educated in an American ghetto. Dick, Deidra, my friends: I wish you could have seen the restorative, spirit-rejuvenating sites that I witnessed recently.
My students take family vacations; it’s part of their very being. A cabin in the north woods, a Caribbean resort, a ski chalet in the Rockies…it’s all a part of their formation, their worldview. They are socialized to success, and they will be doctors and lawyers, they will be purveyors of business. They will attain graduate degrees, and they will pass this ethic on to their children. When I am particularly piqued at my students’ assumption that what they have is available to everyone if they just work hard enough, I chide them with the words “you chose your parents well.” I’m happy to say that most understand my meaning, and, perhaps, even a few agree.
I read with interest Sallie Showalter’s recent blog on the need for nature in our lives, “the solace of open spaces” to cite a favorite essayist, Gretel Ehrlich. Sallie’s reference to the psychological and physiological benefits of a natural setting reflects the very way we were both raised. Children of educated, vibrant parents, exposed to the beauty of nature and the arc of cultural wonder, Sallie and I both encourage everyone to tread lightly on this earth, to have a heart for the dispossessed, and to save spaces for both Dick and Deidra as they grope for a horizon.
We chose our parents well.