Author: Sandra Finney

Everything is Connected to Everything Else

Everything is Connected to Everything Else

does the river need the duck?

Everything has Spirit – Everything is Connected to Everything Else.

I came to these understandings late in life—at the same time recognizing that in some reduced form, I had always known it. The strongest knowing of interconnection in my childhood was that my family members could hurt each other. This included me. I thought more about how we could avoid hurting each other’s feelings than I did about how we could affect each other’s happiness.

I have carried with me since childhood this understanding of how feelings are connected. This brought with it a sense of responsibility and attempts not to emotionally wound others. It was a very imperfect response to connectedness. I remember with regret that I could get drawn into the behaviours of friends and make fun of other children, not directly, but behind their back. I chose some friends and left others out–again, not directly, but the result was just that. I did understand that my actions could wound others and remorse was part of it too. At the same time, I tried to be kind, and would not use my humour or quick tongue against those I saw as less fortunate than me.

After the turmoil and challenges of childhood and the teenage years, I became more dedicated to not hurting others and more consistent in acting from the understanding of how we all share the same needs. My focus on injustice still causes me to feel great anger when people in positions of power disregard the well being of others and the environment.

My sense of connection to the Earth and all other living beings was not very strong in those years, yet I did like to walk to school by myself as a teenager, through a field rather than down the sidewalk. My mom and dad took us on picnics and wiener roasts and swimming in lakes and a small river and we were outdoors all summer playing with neighbour kids but I don’t remember ever thinking that I was part of the natural world and in relationship with other life forms. My daughter gave her daughter a sense of connection to the natural world at a young age and in a natural way — a rare gift. During walks, she drew her attention to birds, bugs, trees, shrubs, and flowers and always said, “Hello birds” or “Hello tree.”

connecting – courtesy of JEK

In the last couple of decades, I have become immersed more frequently and gratefully in the beauties of the Earth. My understanding of  my interconnection with everything there is, is what I live with now. It brings me moments of deep feeling and moments when guilt or regret surface. More about that  later, but first the satisfaction, the gratitude. I am quite an ordinary seeker of the spirit in trees, the herons in the pond, the ocean, the people I encounter, the solid rocks. Yet, growing within me is a new joy in being outside, and a stronger absorption when listening to piano sonatas in the early morning, or watching the light transform the furniture to glow with richer colours. The constriction of my heart is being stretched and smoothed, my feelings loosened and set free, and happiness and quiet more frequently settle upon me.

And, in the last few years I have gradually been able to be more at peace outdoors, less restless when sitting by the river or the ponds we visit. Just to sit and breathe and look is the greatest pleasure. I have an attachment to the birds that twitter away in the trees by the river or the waterfowl and shore birds at the ponds we visit. I have a life time attachment to trees and my spirit never tires of back-lit leaves.

the spirits of the watcher, the heron, and the ocean

I notice more and am moved in a deeper way by beauty in all its forms. A little more than a week ago, Dennis and I saw a Bittern by the shore of one of the ponds in a conservation area. It was standing still and quiet that first day – all soft brown and tawny as the reeds that enclosed  him. And on that second day, the Bittern moved into the light and we were absorbed into the place of pond and bird and light and water and reeds. The Bittern had such certainty of being and of movement, utterly focused, yet easy in its world . These were moments when my spirit felt such a strong sense of being gifted by the sun, the Bittern, the pond waters; and of my own presence being no longer separate. The sun charged the body of this great bird with light, with fire. Its feathers turned to copper iridescence and the Bittern was given a luminous outline. I was in love.  I had been given a sense of the rightness of the world.

This was an experience that erased the sorrow of what we have done to our world. To live, to feel, to see, and join in the sacredness of being was enough for that time. The pull, the  undertow of knowing that my connection to everything else brings responsibilities was absent. Yet being within the beauty, the pleasures of the day, is often where that ancient question of, “What then must I do?” arises.

Indigenous Elders and Wisdom Keepers use the phrase, “all my relations” to talk about the central understanding that we are connected in spirit with all other living things and with the Earth and sky and water as a truth and a reminder that we have obligations to the living world of which we are a part.

In the writing of William Mussell, an educator with the Sal’i’shan Institute, another expression of this central understanding:

“In relationship, one must be willing to take responsibility for the impact of one’s behavior toward the other, as well as responsibility for managing and learning from one’s responses to the other’s behavior. Each party in the relationship is equal in worth to the other, regardless of difference in age, knowledge levels, insight or personal authority.” (Mussell, W., 2008)

How best to meet this responsibility is a constant question. When asked by environmental activists  what they could do to save the Earth, Vietnamese Zen teacher and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hahn, after a long pause responded by saying that they needed to,

“place their hands on the earth and listen to the cries of the world.” 

This was not the answer they expected. He wanted them to “reconnect with their original motivation: love for the earth.”  I think he wanted them to feel why they were doing the work they did first, as the foundation for thinking and action – feel their gratitude for the beauty and diversity and mystery of being.

To only feel guilt and pressure to do more for those who suffer, more for the burdened earth, is a disservice, to beauty, to life. A happy appreciation for diversity, for beauty, for being alive, must be there too. In the end, I feel there is only one way to respond to gifts of beauty,freshness, goodness, -first with pleasure and gratitude, then with knowing that the only thing you can do is to show up, to be present as your singular, unrepeatable, self. Look, listen, quieten, be still, know that you are unique, that we are all extraordinary and enough. And that is our role always, to do what is our piece. Guard yourself from those who want us to be other than we are, stop your ears to any message that you are not enough, insufficient as you are, and go out into the world complete. Yes, we must do what we can, little things like using less hot water, signing petitions to stop a pipe line, supporting a homeless shelter, voting for leaders and MP’s who care about social, economic, and environmental justice, buying smaller cars, building small houses, growing your own produce–all worthy actions. But I feel strongly that doing everything you can means most profoundly, what you can. That of course means knowing who you are – a life’s work in itself.

If we are fortunate, the work life we choose will be the life closest to our gifts and abilities. I felt becoming a compassionate and creative teacher was a way of giving back to the world – my way. Teaching and parenting were demanding and satisfying. When the contributions you make through your work life seem to end, they don’t really. You take what you have  learned and it is part of you and can continue to heal others in perhaps, less direct but equally important ways. Our presence, the way we smile at a clerk or another person out walking can add to the store of good feelings in the world and perhaps make the other person feel good about  who they are in an almost imperceptible but nourishing way. I enjoy those encounters with the spirit of another. I am grateful for them. They contribute to feeling fresh and happy to be alive and here in this place – here with all the other people, the other living beings.


Gratitude that is felt through every bone, muscle, cell, will be compelling enough to remain with what your spirit tells you, and your soul compels you to be, yourself. Yourself to care for, love, and not overburden. Your responses then will be the ones only you can do –the ones you were always meant to do. Perhaps you are meant to be an appreciator. When accepted as your role, particularly later in life when energy starts to ebb, appreciating, enjoying, entering in, may be exactly what to do next, and ever.

“It is love that fuels us to make constructive change in our care for the natural world and of our fellow human beings.” (Coleman, M., p.11)


Finding Meaning in Art and other Objects: Memory and Aesthetics

Finding Meaning in Art and other Objects: Memory and Aesthetics

sculpture created by my son

Finding Meaning in Art and other Objects

One of the sources of meaning in my life is creating relationships between things we own and have in our home and connecting them to a narrative through creativity or memory. I suspect we all do that in ways particular to us.

On an alter-like table in our living room sits an eloquent sculpture of an old man –an improbable man with legs out of proportion to the rest of his body. I often think of my father when I look at him—the many lines carved in his face and, although my father’s legs were like the rest of him, thin and sinewy; they were strong. He was full of energy well into his early 80’s, walked quickly, took up curling, and stood for long hours in his workshop creating bows and arrows, and repairing things.

I also see this strength in my son’s sculpture which was created in a university art class as part of an installation. It had quite a different meaning for him at the time but such diversity of intention or impact is the potential of art.

This year, my husband’s daughter gave him the little boat carved by an old man she met in China. Can you see the old man of the sculpture gazing pensively at the little boat, perhaps wishing to sail away one last time?

My father always wanted to sail and did build a catamaran in his late 70’s. So, the relationships and meanings evoked by this little scene contain layers of meaning.

It interests me how these associations come about. Perhaps via the affection I feel for the old man on the table and for some fond and entertaining memories of my father. He was a creator, a maker, a man of passions that regularly exploded into the atmosphere of our small home. He had a temper that we liked to avoid and nightmares and other effects and behaviours resulting from his time as a 17 year old in the trenches in France during WWI. I am glad that in his last years one of the ways he found respite from the war and other difficult memories was in his workshop.

dad in his workshop, creating a bow – photo by Paige Finney

I am aware that I am summarizing the detail and complexity of his life but I am conscious of the “more” that his life and relationships were about and of their importance for him and to me.

To return to the beginning, the ability of art and other objects to evoke ideas, feelings, and memories and add another layer to daily life seems very human to me. Sometimes they can startle us into larger perspectives and sometimes this happens gradually as the object asserts its presence until finally you notice some way your thinking has changed. I don’t know precisely why the sculpture of the  old man came to be my father but the relationship is not so much thought as felt. And that seems an important distinction.

As I thought about this business of objects, memories, and meaning, I decided it is, most simply, a part of being human. Why do we keep what we keep? display what we display? Why do we pick up that pebble or shell on the beach and put it in our pocket and later perhaps in a drawer?

Penelope Lively has something interesting to say about this tendency in her memoir written at 80. In her book Dancing Fish and Ammonites (2013) she comments,

I have the great sustaining ballast of memory; we all do, and hope to hang on to it. I am interested in the way that memory works, in what we do with it, and what it does with us. And when I look around my cluttered house – more ballast, material ballast – I can  see myself oddly identified and defined by what is in it: my life charted out on the bookshelves, my concerns illuminated by a range of objects.

She goes on to describe her books and objects as this curious physical evidence I find all around me as to what I have been up to . . .” (p. 4).

Objects can evoke memories we didn’t know we have and feelings we can’t always describe and perhaps, it is not too much to claim that objects can heal.

Sometimes Beauty is Simply Waiting to be Understood

Sometimes Beauty is Simply Waiting to be Understood

cultivated rose in rose garden – photograph courtesy of M. McCreath

I have been thinking about the concept of beauty for many years.

A friend took this picture of a cultivated rose in a Portland rose garden. I appreciate everything about this image, — its shapes, colours, the meanings it carries for me. I am grateful for wild roses as well, with their more modest beauty and their distinctive yet gentle scent.

I find I turn to the natural world for the beauty I crave in my life more often than any artifact, human face or body, architecture, or film although all of these can give me pleasure or heighten my day as well. There are a few constants for me in the natural world that feed my soul—sunlight on water, back-lit leaves on deciduous trees, and the shapes of tree limbs in all their particularities.

wild roses on the prairie – Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

I like looking at rocks, stones, shells, wild flowers, tree roots, and barks. My mother loved clouds and the skies in her paintings were often wonderful. She used to say that sometimes skies are so beautiful that if she painted them, people would think she was embellishing scenes that were actually less dramatic or less beautiful than what her paintings revealed. Recently, I have taken to cloud watching as a kind of morning meditation. I miss having our acreage, and former yards and all the hours spent looking at the changing light and the affect of back lighting. Now that we live in a downtown condo, I feed my soul by sky- gazing from our floor to ceiling windows and walking the river trails close to our home.

Only music can come close to equaling the natural world for its place in my days. I used to listen to a CBC classical music show first thing every morning—one hosted by Eric Friesen and later others. And Dennis and I had a classical music program we loved that was part of our dinner hour.  Music for Awhile aired classical pieces rarely played on other shows. It introduced us to new music. Other CBC and American Public Radio programming, both jazz and classical, also shape our music tastes. They sharpen my listening abilities, teach me new things, and generally play a central role in both our lives. For me, this is another quality of the beautiful – it can draw me in and help me to grow as a human, expanding my ideas of the beautiful, the sublime, and their relationship to the contradictory and sharp edges of life.

Perhaps, I could say that sometimes an image or set of sounds is beautiful because it is arresting or startling—shaking me out of living in my head. I think beauty also has a role in destroying stereotypes.

Sometimes my feelings seem to have a certain kind of beauty. This experience might be because a documentary tells a story of human courage, endurance and compassion. I listen to the voice and watch the face of the speaker and feel moved to respond with some courage and compassion of my own, even in if it is fleeting, it reminds me of what is of real worth in life.

snake pit, Grasslands National Park- Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

I’m glad that not everyone finds the same things beautiful. We need beauty in our lives and we need to expand our sense of what is beautiful lest we are drawn to judgments that diminish and destroy our care for each other and the planet. I read a chapter about vultures recently and really appreciated this paragraph for its suggestion that there are other points of view in relation to the beautiful.

“The vultures of Asia have all but disappeared while few people were paying attention and the vultures of Africa are in trouble as well. The fate of these birds, and the fate of the ecosystem they are essential to, and which is in turn essential to many people, still hangs in the balance. It is a teachable moment in how we need to understand the world around us: not only those things that are beautiful and give us pleasure, but even those that seem, as Charles Darwin said of the vulture, disgusting. Sometimes beauty is simply waiting to be understood.(from, The Wonder of Birds, by Jim Robbins, 2017).

I love that. Once again we are reminded that everything is connected to everything else and everything is needed for its unique self.

  • What seems beautiful to you?
  • What role does beauty have in your life?
  • Have you been damaged by other people’s notions of beauty and ugliness?
  • Do any of your own notions of beauty diminish you or your relationships to other living things?
  • Can you find beauty everywhere?
Inside the Practice of Hope

Inside the Practice of Hope

solstice sunrise – Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

“The hopeful spirit transcends limitations.”

The life I want to live is a life in which I care for myself, I care for others, I care for the Earth. For this, I need to retain the hope that it is possible. A vision of the good. Having big questions is part of it. Always loving the mystery. Feeding my curiosity – freeing my imagination. Laughing and crying.

And here is the hard part. Pain, discouragement, despair are real. So hopefulness is a life’s work. The large hill to climb before the picnic , and then the next hill appears. And sometimes I feel I might not make it to the place where the water is –the place where of the full life resides and the day that Thoreau says will dawn to the soul that is awake. And that is a funny thing. I am too often awake, but in that other sense of not being asleep.

Hopefulness begins with a belief about myself. I learn this over and over. For example, insomnia is a experience that plagues me and many women I know. When the night of short sleeps pile up, I can feel despair. The need to overcome that sense of feeling helpless in the cycle of almost sleepless nights grows in me until finally I can say to myself, “I can handle this.” I know that this is the start of the practice of hopefulness–the belief that I will find a way to live with the experience of tiredness and the feelings that pervade the long, dark hours of the night.

To say, “I can handle this.” shifts the experience for me. My feelings become a little lighter. I am then more prepared to see symbols of hope in my present life. Walking to our biggest windows when I can’t sleep, I see the moon and, for some reason, this cheers me up. Sometimes I turn to the tall sturdy spruces to remember that life endures.

I have learned that my insomnia comes in cycles. I also sleep well for many weeks at a time. The hopeful spirit knows that change is a constant of life. The way things are can shift suddenly and unexpectedly from the outside. These shifts that we didn’t foresee are part of the reality that everything is connected to everything else. They mean that we don’t know what will happen next and that we are not in complete control. I find it heartening to know that change will happen. Sometimes I find out that what I was thinking of as bad turns out to be a good. My labels are most often not helpful.

And less this get too solemn or earnest, a tendency I have, humour brings hope. And feelings of gratitude cannot be forced – it’s hard to feel despair and gratitude at the same time. If someone can make me laugh, I am mightily blessed.If I can make myself laugh, or someone else laugh, I am doubly blessed. A crack in the wall where the light breaks through.

When my sources of meaning dim, I can usually just get outside, go for a walk along the river or around the block, deadhead a few flowers in the bed outside our condo building, and my spirits lighten. Getting outside is my most dependable source of renewal.

To say, “This happened to me” is a way to affirm experiences from my past as a step towards letting them go. To say, “This is happening to me” is a way to acknowledge an experience that is discouraging me.  Accepting my present circumstances — not to give up on them, but accepting them because they already exist, has been for me the first step in viewing my life more positively . Gratitude also grows from this seed. Fighting our present reality saps precious energy. To regain hopefulness, my experience has been that first I have to believe in myself, my strengths, creativity, ability to persevere. I remind myself I overcame challenges in the past. I remember that I have a support network.

I know that everyone on earth does not have the support system that I have.  When I am able to feel grateful for my own strengths , the support I receive, and for all that my life holds my soul feels more grounded and my spirit expands.

It helps me to be aware that any personal difficulties I face are part of a much larger source of pain which I call World Sorrow and Earth Lament. To find hopefulness in the midst of the cruelty and destructiveness of humans is the most difficult of all for me and I want to turn away from it. But I can’t. It seems to be there always as an almost imperceptible weight on my chest or in my heart. It is at the times when I feel like I can’t watch or listen to the news that I try to remember the courage of millions of people the world over.

the place of prayer beads – photograph, Jane Thurgood Sagal

I find hope in other people’s stories.  The ways that people under the most discouraging, dangerous, or pain-filled situations carry on with their lives moves me deeply.  The ways people maintain their sense of humour within a painful moment or repetitive days of struggle inspires me. The moral and physical courage of others can be a source of renewed hopefulness about the state of our world and an inspiration for my own actions when grayness descends. I have learned to remember the stories or the faces of courageous and compassionate others but not to use them to compare and criticize myself.

Hope comes from believing that small actions matter. John Tarrant wrote of this with tenderness.

The movements of compassion can be big enough to save rain forests, but intimacy also appears in the small acts that open infinitely large doors. Modest act of courage reverse evils before they grow great; small generosities welcome children to the world. Those who recognize their connection with others serve quietly, like members of a secret order. Then the small acts and the large coalesce (pp 139-140)

Throughout my teaching life I was inspired by the children I taught. I think of Laurie, a bright-eyed little girl in my grade one class who told me she was so happy that she was going to learn to tell time and understand clocks because then she could get herself to school on time. Laurie often come to school later in the morning when her struggling, single-parent mother did not wake up. Laurie told me that she would be able to get her little sisters up too and feed them before she came to school. All this, she said with a beaming face. Imagine.

Hope is real and necessary and for me it is foundational to creating a better life and a better world.

Hope at the Center of Education

Hope at the Center of Education

Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

Hope at the Center: Voices of Indigenous and non Indigenous Educators

(See Gratitudes for full references for all authors quoted)

“Teaching is the psychology of hope, and hope is a cause and a consequence of action. It prefers participation to observation, and it believes that vast problems can yield to several small solutions. Teaching creates the infrastructure of the art of the impossible.” -Marie Battiste, (2013, p.175)

This post is largely dedicated to teachers who work with indigenous students and is written with gratitude for the educators and scholars whose books have illuminated the practice of hope in indigenous communities and urban schools. I commend their work to all teachers.

I have also explored the concept of hope in other writing and feel strongly that teaching doesn’t make any sense if, as teachers, we don’t believe that every one of our students is capable of learning and growing (Finney, 2013). With this conviction, at the heart of our teaching, we don’t give up on any student. We reject deficit beliefs about any cultural group or set of economic circumstances. No matter how difficult the challenges we face, we act. We find ways to support our students to see their own gifts, inner strengths, and the knowledge they already possess. We use our hearts to understand our students’ unique needs and to reach out to their communities; we use the resources within and around us to strengthen their learning, and our imaginations to create other resources. We see our students as always more than they reveal in the present moment. This is a practice of hope.

Hope as a belief in the capabilities and gifts of students is also an openness to being inspired by them. I feel moved by the passion of Cheryl Morin, a Cree teacher at Pelican Narrows when she describes her beliefs about her students in these words:

 I hold a number of positive beliefs in my heart, spirit, and mind that keep me focused and intent on moving forward. First and foremost is my belief that the large number of youth in our community are an untapped asset, full of potential.Youngsters are open and willing to try new ideas and alternative practices if they have guidance and receive assurances that they won’t be left defenceless ( in Goulet & Goulet, p.184).

Marie Battiste’s compassion and wisdom makes this belief in students clear when she says that education is the belief in possibilities. Her words express this idea powerfully and directly:

We as educators must refuse to believe that anything in human nature and in various situations condemns humans to poverty, dependency, weakness, and ignorance. We must reject the idea the youth are confined to situations of fate, such as being born into a particular class, gender, or race. We must believe that teachers and students can confront and defeat the forces that prevent students from living more fully and more freely (175).

We grow our courage and compassion through understanding the contextual and historical dimensions of indigenous education in our country, and work with others on overcoming present injustices. And so we begin with hope, and our first responsibility is to keep it alive, within ourselves, and within our students. This could be likened to tending the fire and not letting it die.

While this is a central principle of indigenous education after colonialism, it is not surprising that it is a shared conviction with all compassionate educators. Sandra Deane, a Canadian educator who worked with low income children in troubled neighbourhoods, ends her book, Hearts and Minds with this same message. In describing the universal themes of education that are central to her work, she writes,

Hope is the most valuable universal theme of all. With hope, children embrace a vision of better things for themselves, and realize they do not have to settle for the same conditions into which they were born (p. 242).

When I reflect on what hope looks like in action in the classroom, what comes to mind first is an attitude, belief, and responsibility to see every day as a new day – letting go of what happened yesterday or last week in terms of patterns in students’ learning or behaviours and my own. A new beginning, a new opportunity is upon us and we don’t know what it will bring but we know it will hold challenges, achievements, surprises, possibly setbacks, but we are prepared in our heart-mind to see what we haven’t seen before.

Hope can also look like humour, liveliness, patience, kindness, perseverance, listening, and appreciating. It grows through a practice of collaboration between students and with families and other community members. Linda & Keith Goulet (2014) in their book, which is rich in case studies of contemporary teachers, conclude with these words,

Above all, as the teachers in this book have shown, we need education for hope – hope that we and our students and community members are capable people who, through our individual and collaborative efforts, can create innovations for positive change in Indigenous education as we enact kee-chee-giskinaumatowin, the striving for excellence in our teaching and learning, with and for each other (217).


“The rainbow is a circle that is completed within the spirits of learners.”

What is your concept of hope? What does hope in the classroom look and feel like to you?

The Moments of the Day

The Moments of the Day

the reading tent-Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

Remembering the Moments of the Day

This activity is one that helps children, teenagers, and adults look at their life as being made up of a wealth of moments and experiences. Rather than asking, “How was your day?” (e.g. at school, a friend’s house, at work, at home, during holidays), ask more specific questions without pressuring anyone to respond. Good questions:

  • have a range of possible answers
  • help to avoid black and white thinking
  • develop awareness of the variety of activities, feelings, and moods that make up a day
  • end with, “Now it’s your turn to ask me/ everyone a question about my/ their day.

Parents could use this activity at mealtimes, as part of bed time routines, or when their child or teenager gets home from some event. At mealtimes, you could go around the table and have everyone present describe something about their day in response to your question. Teachers can use it to end the school day. In both cases, give everyone a turn that wants to answer but make it clear that they can pass on any question.

Once you’ve done this activity a few times, give family or class members a turn to think of and ask the questions. Reciprocity is a good type of relationship to model. It affirms that everyone, every age, is valued and has valuable ideas. Most of us have experienced the way that children and teenagers enjoy turning the tables on adults. Everyone needs to feel they have power and can affect outcomes. Encouraging them to ask questions that causes laughter often strengthen bonds. Shared laughter promotes feelings of belonging.

The person asking the question can give one example if needed to get people started.

Some questions you can use to get everyone thinking about their day, and to give children and teenagers ideas they might use when it’s their turn, could include ones like the following:

  • enjoying the autumn leaves

    Did you laugh today? Can you remember what made you laugh?

  • Did anyone hear a bird sing today?
  • How many things (other than people) do you remember touching today? Can you list them?
  • Were you mad at anyone or anything today? What happened that made you mad? Did you stay mad for a long time? Are you still mad? What does that feel like?
  • What was the best thing that happened today? If you can’t think of something that felt really good, then how about telling us one thing that was sort of good, or okay.
  • What worries did you have today? Did anyone help you with something you were worried about? Did you help someone with a worry they had?
  • Did anyone have some moments of feeling calm and peaceful today?
  • Did anyone experience or witness something today that seemed unfair? Did you hear, read, or witness injustice today towards a person, many people, an animal or many animals?
  • Did you create anything today that was unique, original, not like that of anyone else?
  • How much time were you outside today? Can you remember some of the things you did outside?
learning to swim
  • Were you kind to anyone today? Was anyone kind to you?
  • Did you look at the sky today? What did you see?
  • Can you estimate how much of your day was spent moving around in anyway that you would call exercise? or how much of your day you were sitting?
The Aesthetic Dimension of Life: A Few Thoughts

The Aesthetic Dimension of Life: A Few Thoughts

light sparkles on water

Aesthetics have an integrative role which connects us to the whole – the web of relationships which is life. The aesthetic is an open concept that attracts diverse perspectives and eludes any final definition. Yet, it is an essential part of human life, an aspect of our experiences which deepens their potential for meaning.

I think of aesthetics as having to do with the life of the senses, with beauty, and the sublime. It encompasses art but is much more than art. Kant believed that the aesthetic domain offers the promise of reconciliation between Nature and humanity.[1] This potential is realized through feelings and sensory experiences and is shaped further by the mind but is rarely a matter of the mind alone.

One of the central elements of the aesthetic is that it offers autonomy. Each person has the freedom to find and assert what they experience as beautiful, appealing, or powerful in its impact. Free to explore the world and develop our own aesthetic sensibilities, we change ourselves and our world.

Light sparkling on water whiles waves splash on shore never fails to bring me pleasure and deepen the quality of my day. The sights and sounds connect me to a world that humans didn’t create and brings wholeness. The harmony of mind, senses, and spirit which is aesthetic pleasure is at times sublime.

Life has diminished meaning, is almost impossible to sustain, without some of what the aesthetic dimension of life can offer the human soul.

Aesthetic experiences also come from the creative process whether it takes place within the arts or in every day life. The feeling of unity with self and materials that is possible within creative processes means we are fully ourselves in those moments. We can see our ideas materialize and take other forms. Within aesthetic experiences we may understand our selves more fully or feel greater compassion for others. We can express our feelings whether positive or not, happy or hurting. We often gain empowerment in their expression.

with sand and water we create worlds-Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

I have just scratched the surface of the positive elements & potential for feeling connected to all of life that the aesthetic dimension can offer. I will be continuing this focus in future posts.

Do you notice when the aesthetic dimension of life enriches your day?

[1] Eagelton’s The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990/1995) discusses this idea and Kant’s aesthetic philosophy in detail.

Present, Awake, Alive

Present, Awake, Alive

a bit scary, but exciting

Our responsibility to children is to give them full experiences of the present. Alice Yardley, Senses and Sensibility, p.15.

Children of all ages benefit from living in the present moment. Many children and teenagers live programmed lives with little time just to be, to imagine, to explore and enjoy sensory experiences of all the elements. Many young people experience most of their interactions second hand through electronic media. I feel sad when I think about how this limits their opportunities to be more fully alive in body, mind, imagination, heart, and spirit.

What a blessing it was for my sisters and I that we lived on the outskirts of a small city in a neighbourhood with unpaved streets and little traffic. Making drains with the spring runoff of melting snow provided endless amusement –running one “river” into another, building dams with stones, floating small sticks and papers or silver foil boats all sparked our creativity and imaginations. When we were camping, we all enjoyed stargazing and watching the flames of the nightly campfire.

A yard or neighbourhood can also be a fertile environment for the imagination. It can offer opportunities to observe insects, notice butterflies, listen for birds, pick dandelions to make chains or bracelets, appreciate the tenacity of plants, watch clouds, or simply daydream. Conservation areas near your home or school can be good places to observe, ponder, or sit quietly, unwind, and experience moments of calm.

explorers on a hike, © Photograph by Colleen Watson-Turner

Even if you live in a city apartment, I hope it would be possible for you to go camping, visit a family farm or acreage, or, if you are First Nations or Métis, visit your ancestral reserve to encourage young people to:

  • explore,
  • collect,
  • climb a tree,
  • play games
Mom, I remember that first swing, the roughness of the rope, and the feeling of creating a breeze
  • read a book under a tree
  • find a quiet spot to draw or dream
  • build with blocks of snow, fallen branches, or the space within a circle of bushes to create a home or fort,
  • imagine worlds and create their place in the story imagined
  • notice diversity, pattern, delicacy, and uniqueness of familiar life forms and organisms they haven’t seen before
  • develop their sense of beauty
  • observe insect behaviour, (e.g., appreciating the industry of spiders or ants)
  • watch and listen for birds and other sounds of animals,(e.g., in relation to mating behaviours)
  • notice nests, webs, and cocoons without harming them
  • follow trails made by deer
  • find clues to who else lives in that place

(and always, of course, within boundaries of respect for that environment).

Through these experiences we are also providing young people a means to happiness that is sturdy and available despite the ups and downs of life.  And, the more we can engage our own curiosity and sense of awe and wonder, the more likely we are to live in the present moment with imagination, senses, and heart more fully engaged. The natural world is a good place to contemplate the wonders of symmetry.

“There are geometric equations hidden within the promise of a flower bud . . . The same equation dictates the swirls at the tip of your fingers and the arrangement of stars in the Milky Way” Ken Druse, Planthropology.

What influences young people most profoundly is the way the adults they depend on behave towards their surroundings. It is rewarding to keep our own senses alive, our minds curious and open to being amazed. Then, when we guard the unstructured time of children and teenagers, and give a few suggestions for what they might do outdoors within our slightly-broadened parameters of safety, we are providing them time to imagine, dream, create, use all their senses, cooperate with others, and test their powers. In short, live a more meaningful life.

Do children notice when we are fully present to them?

Do they notice when we are not?

Do we notice the difference between being fully present and being somewhere else in our thoughts, body, and spirit?

The Earth Knows Us Here

The Earth Knows Us Here

Grasslands National Park
Grasslands National Park

Indigenous cultures are aware that nature and all its creatures are aware. They say, “The Earth knows us”. When they have visited the same sacred place over centuries, they say, “Here, nature knows us”. This is a lovely idea for reflection – to understand beyond an intellectual level that the Earth is alive and communicates with us, and accepts us, even remembers us.

This requires a different kind of knowing. It is rewarding to develop an understanding of the different forms of consciousness within us and within other forms of life. Sometimes our language restricts our ability to know aliveness beyond the human world. Sometimes it is our lack of experiences in natural or wilderness settings, or that our imaginations are constrained by our fears or habits. Perhaps we have not developed the ability to relax, slow our breath, and let go of the thinking, planning, remembering, list-making mind and rest in a deeper awareness of the world around us.

Finney and Sagal (2017) describe the importance of experiencing that plants and animals feel our presence as helping us understand our profound connections to all that is. They say,

The more deeply we know the natural world around us, the more likely we are to see the ways non-human, living beings respond to our presence and speak to us. We may see the idea of the Earth speaking as metaphor or we could understand that there are many ways to communicate. When humans walk the same route for many years, the plants respond by drawing back and our route becomes a path. The earth knows our footsteps.

This path is an example of our profound interconnection with all other life forms on Earth – the air, the water, the plants and animals, the mountains and minerals. The trees around us evolved from the earth and we evolved from the earth and we are together in this evolving (p.182). This understanding enriches our lives.

Like all humans, we experience times of sorrow or loneliness or the pain that comes from not being seen and accepted for who we are. The longing to feel accepted, at peace, and at home, can be the motivation to spend time outdoors by ourselves. With our focus on the natural elements above, below, and around us, we develop the ability to feel known and part of the trees, plants, animals, and stars. This gives us a sturdier and stronger sense of belonging—one that once felt cannot be taken away. We are accepted as our essential selves by the Earth and other life forms in a profound and lasting way.

Coleman (2006) describes the rewards of opening our hearts to other living things as another way to be in love.

where creek and river meet

When we attune to nature with sensitivity, we can see just how connected we are. Falling in love with a meadow, a limpid stream, a young fawn, or a grove of oak trees does not happen without those things “reaching out” and touching us in some way. We are always in relationship; we just rarely notice it. From this perspective, everything on this earth, from the spring rains that provide fresh drinking water to the warmth of the sun, is an open-hearted, generous offering. To wake up to this idea is to realize how abundant our lives truly are, how we receive gifts of love from nature all the time. (pp. 9-10)

To be genuine in offering more of nature’s gifts to ourselves, we need to be outdoors more often and strengthen our presence and our ability to feel the presence of the other forms of life around us. This practice of listening and sensing more deeply can become a source of pleasure, a solace when we need it, and assurance that we are not alone.

“Teachings come from everywhere when you open yourself to them.” (Richard Wagamese, 2017)

This post is an excerpt adapted from Knowing the Earth Knows Us in The Way of the Teacher (Finney & Thurgood Sagal, Roman & Littlefield Education, 2016,pp.181-184).

What part of the natural world speaks to you?  beckons you?



The Rock Pile Investigations
The Rock Pile Investigations

[Children’s] curiosity is to make connections, to realize the larger picture, to become able in the physical environment our lives depend on. Sarah Stein, Noah’s Children: Restoring the Ecology of Childhood.

There are many reasons why children need to be outside. The world outside, when it is familiar to children, expands their concept of home. It supports them to be at home in the world in a larger way. Kids need to be outside because it is a natural place to be. The outdoors is as much a part of their context as the indoors. It has fewer boundaries, is less confining and offers more to explore. In a sense, we were born outdoors.

Nature also gives children and teenagers a larger, often stronger, identity. It offers many opportunities to find out who you are away from the tv, the computer, and other technology and hopefully, opportunities to be free of adult supervision that is overly restricting. Rather they can learn to be someone within relationships to trees, birds, nests, ponds and sky. Many psychologists believe that this time in green spaces is essential to children’s mental and physical health.

Not all outdoor spaces are alike. The best have some biological diversity or large spaces to explore, away from heavy traffic. Ungroomed or “wild” areas have more to offer –they feed the imagination. You can support kids to explore who makes a home in that context or use their imaginations to create small world, huts, and games.

Studying a Flower
Studying a Flower courtesy JEK

The outdoors offers sensory richness and often asks for closer observation (for example, asking, “What are all the colours you can see in your stone?”) Children of all ages can learn to make finer discernments and develop a larger sense of the possibilities that exist in the world to be appreciated. Aesthetic sensibilities can be developed from forms of beauty that can only be found outside. We can point out how we enjoy the sight of light shining through dry grasses but also ask what they find beautiful – trying to expand and not limit their sense of the beautiful or the sublime.

It would also be a kindness if young people were encouraged to be outdoors when they are trying to overcome a hurt or solve a problem. I have found that some places have qualities that nurture my spirit –what might be called a spiritual presence. Encouraging children and teenagers to find their place where solitude and safety can offer them moments of being at peace can be as simple as telling your own stories of such experiences. My own attraction to being alone outdoors came both from the experiences my parents provided and from characters in favourite books describing a place outdoors they felt was meant for them. Perhaps suggesting they go for a walk by themselves might give your children or students back the sense that they can overcome or live with a problem in their lives. Supporting a child or teenager’s life in these ways may start with our own pleasure in being outdoors to explore or to be quiet, still, and content.

Are you at home in the natural world?