Completely Unexpected: A Writer's Journey
by Courage & Renewal Facilitator Megan LeBoutiller
In 1996 I was living in South Carolina, and I had just entered graduate school. I needed to assemble a doctoral committee and asked Sally Hare if she would consider my invitation. She had recently completed Parker Palmer’s initial Courage to Teach program and was actively assembling one of the first four nationwide pilot programs: Coastal Carolina’s Courage To Teach Program. I was grateful when Sally agreed to help my educational efforts, but I had no idea what our exchange would involve.
One component of my doctoral program required me to construct a meaningful internship. My field was creative non-fiction and quickly Sally discerned that a need of hers could elegantly fulfill a need of mine. She wanted a “scribe” for her two-year program--someone who would sit in the circle as a participant-observer and create a narrative of the group’s experience. She described the three-day weekend retreat format, meeting quarterly over a two-year period. I agreed to become scribe, and initially approached it as a job that would fulfill my school’s requirement.The twenty-three teachers and school administrators who showed up for the first retreat in September, 1996 had self-selected themselves for the experience by applying for the privilege to participate. They either knew Sally, or they knew Parker’s work. They felt unhappy and/or overly stressed by their work within the school system. Each person spoke of needing to experience “formation” work while none of them were very sure what “it” was. I, on the other hand, knew almost nothing about the program. I was only vaguely aware of a man named Parker Palmer. I was not a teacher. I’d never had a relationship with the public school system. I wasn’t seeing myself as a member of the group at our first meeting. I was just doing my job.
The Work Before The Work
To prepare for my role as scribe I test drove pens and pads of paper for speed and handling. I trained my hand with extended writing sprints. I called Parker’s scribe whose name is also Megan, but she has the more perfect last name of Scribner. She talked to me about listening and not trying to recapture words that got past me. She stressed the importance of only recording the actual words that were spoken while not expecting myself to hear or remember all of them. Even before meeting The Woodcarver I found myself "guarding my spirit "and not expending it on trifles that were not to the point. My "collected thought" was about to launch me into a live encounter.
Thursday evening in September of 1996 began Coastal Carolina’s two-year Courage to Teach Program. Sally created an inviting space with lots of room for play, and then she gently began to invite the group into what we all came to call “Courage Work.” I wrote as fast as I could and came to cherish the periods of silence when I could rest my hand and ears. I found myself in an oddly disconnected perspective from which I could listen without time for any thoughts of my own. I didn’t need to understand what was being said. I didn’t need to respond. I was merely trying to capture spoken words. It was a curious meditation.
When a piece of poetry was introduced as a way for the participants to reflect and share within the group, I was clutched with childhood memories in which poetry was presented in a far less hospitable and inviting manner. I remember thinking, before the group began to speak, how, if nothing else, I was going to have an opportunity to heal my relationship with poetry.
Friday afternoon brought the opportunity to experience a Clearness Committee as a committee member. I was off-duty as scribe so I was able to be more present during the experience. I realized how valuable it would be if I could try not to fix other people, and how hard it is to truly ask open and honest questions. My curiosity and interest for the Courage To Teach was building.
By Saturday the group had spent a lot of time together and comfort was apparent within the circle. Through Sally’s gentle invitations and introduction of poetry, people were beginning to share from deep within themselves. After dinner Sally opened the evening session with Parker’s words that “The soul is shy.” Then she said that we cannot talk about soul in the south without talking about race and race relations. She then introduced The Bridge Poem by Donna Kate Rushin. The room ignited, and the level of pain and honesty that poured into the center of our circle that evening was highly charged. One voice still echoes in my ear and heart: “How do I hold you if I cannot hear the pain?”
I went to bed that night knowing that whatever this group of teachers was, and I still thought I wasn’t, we were going to have the opportunity to dive very deeply, and it might get scary, but somehow it felt safe.
Being Alone Together
At home with my notes and all the handouts from the weekend, was the time when I was more consciously present with the group. It was a curiously connected way of being alone. As I transcribed the captured words of the weekend, they began to shape and form me in unexpected ways. Listening to the familiar voices of people whose names I didn’t even know yet, the group surrounded me and drew me into their collective experience.
As I transcribed my notes and copied out the poetry that prompted their talk into the circle, I finally had time to reflect on what I might have said, how the piece spoke to me, and how I was being moved. I began hearing a refrain from the Saturday of the first retreat, “Now I Become Myself.”
Between retreats the group stayed connected through a group picture that arrived at some special moment, or the notes from the previous retreat. Sally always invited us to write a letter to ourselves at the end of each retreat. She collected the letters and then sent them to us sometime before the next gathering. Participants made things that represented the seasons and sent them to one another between retreats. Each one of these touchstones carried so much spirit and surrounded the experience with tenderness and connection. The center of the circle became filled with our artifacts.
As we returned for the second retreat it was clear that people were changed by the experience and were beginning to care deeply for one another. When someone was late arriving, the group expressed concern. Some people voiced reluctance to return. “I put away Megan’s notes so I don’t have to read them. I didn’t want to revisit some places. I am using them as a gauge of my growth. They are part of my journey. When I can read them, I will have moved.”
“A bunch of things have occurred in three months. I am thinking in profound ways about difference. I am learning from you with humor and humility. This is my journey for the next two years—to look at those things I don’t want to see.”
Now I Become Myself
At the second retreat a new member arrived. The group was generous and flexible enough to absorb her gracefully. Hospitality and welcome abounded. We spontaneously burst into song when someone mentioned Amazing Grace. Another participant played a song that made the whole room fill with her. We were hungry and full to bursting at the same time. Meanwhile, the group was making it difficult for me to hold myself apart as merely an observer. When I confessed that I was not a teacher, they answered that I just didn’t have a classroom.
By summer our artifacts kept growing and we were developing a language within our community. We had green stones to remind us of our uniqueness because Ellen spontaneously read us a children’s book and handed us a stone. We had soft eyes because Sally suggested them. We had home made maple syrup. We had tiny pieces of the Berlin Wall. We had candles and candlestick that looked like birds that reminded us to hold one another gently. Scott amazed us from time to time by reciting whole pieces of poetry from memory. We shared stories of triumph, joy, death, despair and confusion. We laughed and cried and held one another in new and unusual ways. I was still taking notes, but I could no longer imagine myself separate in any way from the group or the profound experience we were sharing.
Sally asked us, “Think of a moment when you really felt community, a part of community. What’s the nature of what that feels like?”
“Laughter, Understanding. Feeling like you are home. Service. Equality. Sincerity. Acceptance. Tolerance. Safety. Shared vision. Forgiveness. Appreciation. Honesty. Diversity. Interest. Affirmation. Investment. Empathy. Celebration. Willingness to be yourself. Resting. Continuity. Congruence. Shared experience. Attention. Willingness. Patience. Will. Desire. Dialogue. Openness. Taking risks. Questions. Candor. Faith that it can be. Perseverance. Receptiveness. Leadership. Giving a hoot. Stories. Reflection. Did anyone say ‘generosity’?”
“Courage is not about not having fear, it’s about not acting from that fear.”
Living The Questions
Somewhere before the end of our second year together, I approached Sally to ask about the future plans of the Courage to Teach movement. When she mentioned facilitator training, I knew immediately that I wanted to be considered for possible inclusion in the first cohort of facilitators in training. How I’d evolved to this knowledge and desire was surprising to me, but there I was.
So, from agreeing with some reserve to serve for two whole years as scribe, not feeling myself an entire member of the group, I’d emerged so enthusiastically I wanted to become part of taking the work forward. No one was more surprised by my transformation than I.
The first group of facilitators gathered in Madison, Wisconsin with Parker and Marcy & Rick Jackson to explore our way into the next generation. Again I found the community nature of our interactions to be incredibly honest and real. For one year we met and explored how to grow the Courage to Teach in various new communities while maintaining the integrity of the program. It was a thrill and a privilege to be part of a gathering wave. The strength I gained from the two-year program, combined with one year of facilitator training propelled me through any self-doubts to convene a two-year program for the Southeastern Region from 1999-2001.
“Be patient with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves….Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” This quote from Rilke is posted throughout my house as a reminder to me to live the question(s) and not get ahead of the pace of guidance by thinking I need to know. Since the Southeastern Region Courage to Teach Program ended in 2001 I have been living the question of "what now?" I know that Courage & Renewal has changed my way of being in the world, and maybe that is the answer. It has indirectly changed my vocation. Maybe that is the answer.
The truth is, I miss the community aspect of Courage Work, so I convene circles of trust, I agree to serve on the Words of EnCOURAGEment Newsletter Board, I tell people about the program, I share Parker’s books with people. But mostly I try to remember what is most important: to be silent, to listen, not to fix other people, to ask open and honest questions, to mind my identity and my integrity, to reflect and the have patience with everything unresolved in my heart.