What does the Sterling College motto “Working Hands Working Minds” mean to you?
I want to share with you about some work experiences I had gardening and farming a few years ago. In Writing and Communications class I realized that this longer span of time between these past experiences and the present has given me a lot to reflect on, and so rather than giving the overview of my jobs, I would like to share more of the big picture of this work in the context of my life, why they were so meaningful to me, and how they may be to you. I remember in preschool and kindergarten, a lot of classroom activities focused on doing things with our hands. There was play dough, finger painting, touch and feel books… Working hands was a big theme because as children we were getting to know the world through our sensory experiences.
I realize that as I got older, though I continually created spaces like this for myself through art, more and more of my structured time was spent sitting at a desk, under fluorescent lights, hardly moving, with the mere physicality of sharpening a pencil if I was so lucky.
I think it says a lot that one of my most vivid and recurring memories of middle school was this one seemingly insignificant day in my sixth grade math class. There I was, sitting in my last class of the day in early April. I had been inside seated at desks for a while now and we were probably learning about algebra or dividing fractions, when suddenly this amazing, overwhelming sensation completely takes me by surprise. I realize it was my first spring breeze of the season coming in through a cracked open window in the classroom. It had the softness I had missed so much after the winter, and I felt like it was inviting me to come outside and welcome in the new warmth. As a human being, this was a completely exhilarating moment to be alive! As a student- very distracting, because I was supposed to be listening to the lesson. I can only imagine my teacher noticing the expression of pure bliss on my face, wondering if it had anything at all to do with math, but really I just wanted to be outside… running… in the breeze… on the lawn of my suburban New Jersey public school.
In the Spring of 2012, I was a sophomore in college in Pennsylvania and realized I had been in classrooms consecutively since 1994! For multiple reasons that Spring I felt it was important to leave school, so I did, and for the first time in all those years I had the freedom to choose how to spend all of my time. I knew being outside was important to me, and pretty soon I was hired for a local cathedral’s gardening crew in the suburbs of Philadelphia where I ended up working for six months.
On my very first day we planted rows of tomato seedlings in a field. I remember having many moments like the one in my middle school math class, only this time was different because I didn’t have to feel distracted by wanting to be outside. I was being paid to be outside, and enjoying the breeze on my cheek was practically part of the job.
I invite you to think of your earliest memory planting, or how it feels after a long cold winter to have your first warm day outside in the garden again.
I remember this first day planting the tomatoes so vividly: how I decided to peel off my gloves so I could really feel the sensations on my skin, the cool dampness of the earth the further I dug into it, the delicate web of roots of the tomato seedlings as I gently broke them up with my fingers, and the warm sun-touched dirt around the plant that I pat down once everything was in place and ready to grow.
This first day on the job and the acute connection I felt with my hands in the soil was not something unique nor a phenomena that became less magical for me over time as I got used to the work. In fact, my most unforgettable moments from this gardening job in Pennsylvania and later farming jobs in Spain have to do with specific sensory experiences:
One of them was the very arduous and fragrant day we transplanted many large lavender plants outside the cathedral. My crew took turns digging out around the plant’s massive roots, then lifting out their heaviness with a full embrace.This was the point I realized they were completely covered in vibrating bees, but fortunately my body was too engaged in the work for my mind to worry about it. Endless clumps of dirt shook off the roots as I transported them to our truck, completely filling my boots and sticking to the sweat all over my skin. At the end of the morning we drove off and I sat smiling, nestled between large swaying lavender plants.
Another experience that comes to mind were the intoxicating waves of mint that I would smell whenever I was weeding amongst the vegetables and herbs in a local school garden. Under the heat and humidity of the summer sun, the cool oils of the mint plant were always so irresistible to me. I could not help but break off a small dark green leaf and crush the felty tissue between my teeth, releasing its invigorating flavor in my mouth.
Another thing you might see me doing on a daily basis was taking a break to rub my cheek up against the nearby purple mexican bush sage plant whenever I was pruning roses. In contrast to the harsh, sometimes threatening rose stems, I felt very safe and welcome to completely immerse my face in the sage bush, reveling in the velvety softness of its flowered stems.
And finally, a recurring sensation that I’m sure most of us can identify with: that intense satisfaction of working so hard in the sun that sweat no longer comes down from the forehead in beads but in pulsing streams that pool in the eyes and sting with salt.
I remember once when I was new to gardening and would look up articles online to learn more, I found one titled “How to Plant an Organic Garden Without Touching Any Dirt.” This totally confused me. For one, I’m not sure how that works. But more importantly, I could not understand why someone would not want to touch the dirt. Isn’t that one of the best parts?
The main question I’m exploring here is: what is it about these tactile experiences, sensory interactions with our surroundings that are so meaningful for me, for us?
They are such an everyday phenomenon that it may even sound foolish to question, but what is the bigger meaning of our physical experiences? I’m sure there are a lot of answers to this question. For me, this question makes me consider how much time I spend not paying enough attention to the sensations in my body, how much time I am rather occupied in my own head.
Undeniably we human beings live and are part of the world around us, yet we are also very much living inside our minds. We walk here, breathe here, interact with our surroundings here on this Earth, yet are simultaneously engaged in a constant inner monologue that no one else can see, hear, or touch. And though I think it’s incredible and beautiful and exciting to think of each of us having such rich inner worlds, I also feel it can be depleting to live in the mind so much. I can get very lost in there, and it can be lonely and isolating to live in a place where no one else could ever fully meet me.
For human beings with our remarkable and hardworking minds, I believe that tactile experience has the powerful ability to remind us of the physical world are very much part of. It grounds us here, awakens us to all the life this common world connects us to, and our entanglement within the family of things. Tactile experience reminds us of our own tangible presence, our physical place in the world, but also our spiritual belonging in the ecology of life.
These powerful reminders of connection might be as simple as a morning transplanting tomato seedlings, feeling the earth in our hands, and realizing how much of the food we have ever eaten and will ever eat can be traced back to this irreplaceable life-source. Or it could be the sensation of pulsing sweat pouring down our faces, wondering how many other humans and animals have felt that same salty burn and in their eyes and fulfillment in their physical body.
It’s moments like these that allow us to rediscover the world anew every day like we did as children.
All you have to do is open up a newspaper or turn on the news to know that there is a major and troubling disconnect between humans and the environment, humans and each other, and humans and ourselves. Through the grief of seeing the true depth of our pain, I am reminded how strong our need for reconnection really is.
The good news is that here at Sterling, a place that honors ‘Working Hands Working Minds’, we are fortunate to have many opportunities to engage and connect with this world we are part of. So I don’t think I need to remind anyone here to go outside, feel the breeze, and touch the earth; I’m sure many of us are planning to do exclusively that in these much anticipated warmer months ahead. But what I do want to remind us is to relish in these tactile experiences, and listen to what they have to say to us.
I think the message they are telling us is very important and much needed: that we are present, and we are all connected here in the great ecology of life.