Learning is a marvel to me. I never tire of seeing how often my curiosity and sense of wonder are activated by a new experience or encounter. Sometimes I feel there is a modern notion suggesting learning is something that is the exclusive domain of childhood, the purpose of which is to prepare us for adulthood so we can put the burden of all that “education stuff” behind us. But my personal experience has been that learning happens constantly. It’s also not a burden, challenging yes, but not a burden. For the most part, it seasons my life and gives it flavor. And it certainly (and thankfully I might add) never ceases. A number of years ago, I was visiting a friend in Munich, Germany for a month and we decided to take a one week side trip to Paris. I had never been to Paris and the fact that it could be reached in less than a day via my favorite mode of transportation, the train, made the decision an easy one. I remember the wave of anticipation that swept over me as our train pulled into the station in Paris as evening approached. At the same time, the prospect of visiting a city with so many world renowned iconic attractions was a bit daunting. There were certainly very obvious points of interest that appear on almost every “must see” tourist list for Paris such as the Eiffel Tower, Musée du Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Musée Rodin, Notre Dame Cathedral, Sacre-Cœur and Moulin Rouge to name just a few. While on the train, I had an epiphany to email my friend and mentor, Phil Cousineau, world class sojourner and author of the travel classic, The Art of Pilgrimage, for a “pilgrim’s guide” of Paris. Knowing Phil had lived in Paris for a year writing as well as having traveled there countless times, I imagined he would be a great source for crafting a more uncommon journey that would enable me to more intimately connect to the city. He didn’t disappoint. In his response were some of the high profile attractions like Notre Dame Cathedral and Musée du Louvre intermingled with more obscure points of interest like Rue Mouffetard (aka ‘Le Mouf,’ the purported oldest road in Paris that dates back to Roman times), the legendary Shakespeare and Company bookstore that supported the work of writing luminaries such as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald (back when Sylvia Beach ran it), the apartment where Ernest Hemmingway wrote A Moveable Feast, Place des Vosges, the Jewish Quarter, as well as Pere-Lachaise Cemetery. Swimming in a sea of possibilities, the approach that my friend and I settled on was to choose one destination to start with in the morning, dogear one for the afternoon and simply see what happens after the morning destination.
What resulted was a beautiful organically unfolding experience that slowly opened day by day. Not once did we ever feel a great sense of urgency to hurry through a place so that we could race to another one in an attempt to heroically conquer an ambitious itinerary. To the contrary, I marveled at how slow and seemingly random our pace often was. We would saunter to our first destination and after enjoying our time there, set an intention to head to another site among our curated lineup. There was more than one day we would either not arrive at a planned afternoon rendezvous altogether or if we did make it at all, it was typically many hours later than it should take even a marginally organized person to navigate to. What transpired was the journey shapeshifting into a constant reveal of unexpected encounters with wonder that invited us to momentarily “step off of the path.” We’d be waylaid by the allurement of a boulangerie or the irresistible charm of a quaint and curious shop. I remember passing by the same kind of quiet bookshop that George Whitman wrote about on an outside wall of Shakespeare and Company bookstore–a shop with no patrons and in the back, I could see the shop owner peacefully sitting at a table reading a book, completely insulated from the happenings in the world just beyond the windows. The only thing missing was a dog curled up at his feet. I wondered how it was possible such a shop could survive because any enchanting place like that would die in the US and be quickly replaced by a Subway or a Starbucks. To my great astonishment and pleasure, I did not see a single major chain branded shop in the interior of old Paris. Every shop, cafe and restaurant seemed to be privately owned and unique. Seemingly every street and alley was teeming with charm and magic stoking our imaginations. Then, of course, we had to stop for lunch at a restaurant that was, as many restaurants in Paris tend to be, an experiential feast of sublime atmosphere, history, aroma, flavor and sound. I love the experience of dining in French restaurants and cafes–listening to the slow conversational cadence of French accents swirl around me. I would often be pacified into an almost meditative threshold between a hypnagogic state of enchantment and a ballast of elevated alertness and awareness that comes from not being in one’s familiar linguistic and cultural environment. One day, we set an intention to walk to the Louvre from the Musée Rodin after lunch only to realize we wouldn’t succeed upon noticing the fading light of sunset. I was incredulous at how wonderful it was to fail to achieve a goal of seeing a world treasure and not feeling our experience that day was in any degree a lesser one for it. We had seen exactly what had called us to be seen in every moment of that day and it was richly satisfying. We did eventually see the Louvre but there were a number of sites we never made it to, including the most iconic symbol of Paris, the Eiffel Tower. Measured against contemporary approaches to travel, our slow pace and lack of efficiency in seeing a larger number of sites in Paris might be considered a disappointment. Paradoxically, however, I discovered there was a deeply liberating quality to allowing each day to unfold moment by moment, leaving space to be surprised—even leaving room for unfulfilled desire and wanting to come back to see what we didn’t see.
As I fondly reflect back on that experience in the context of contemporary travel sensibilities, I ponder how I could have had such a seemingly disorganized journey and yet feel so deeply fulfilled. How could I possibly go to Paris and “miss out” on seeing many of her most popular attractions and not feel disappointed in myself for not having been more “focused and disciplined” with my precious and limited time? It’s become a common collectively informed practice in our era to take a quick vacation to a popular tourist destination like Paris, identify the most highly reviewed points of interest and chart the routes that would most efficiently allow the highest number of these places to be visited in one or two days—perhaps a week. This volume-consumption based approach prizes quantity of experiences over quality of a single experience. We can develop a combative relationship with time, feeling time is something that must be bent to our will and overcome. Strangely, what I have discovered when I have allowed myself to be open to my instincts and trust using my sense of wonder as a guide (which I wrote about here), I have moved through periods where it feels time has collapsed into a singularity—where I am no longer in time but outside of it. When our relationship to time is adversarial, a phobia of “missing out” becomes pervasive to our consciousness. Rigid compliance with a plan can feel imprisoning and oppressive because a significant amount of value can be assigned to checking off all of the places on the list rather than enjoying what those items in print symbolize—real actual places that want to be explored. Preoccupation with defeating time greatly diminishes the possibility of allowing space for fateful events and auspicious encounters, be it with people or place. When a rigid agenda is directing experience, our natural child-like spirit of wonder and curiosity gets corralled into a cage on a cart hitched to the unyielding gallop of time. Our vision is narrowed and we do not see what wants to be seen—in some cases what perhaps needs to be seen. We ultimately deprive ourselves of the opportunity to learn. True learning happens when we give ourselves permission to be with the uncertainty that always companions unfamiliar experiences.
Author Phil Cousineau wrote in his first book on the topic of words that fascinate him, Word Catcher, about the French word, flâneur. He defined it as a “soulful urban wander.” He goes on to describe it as coming from “a noble tradition, strolling to savor the city, in contrast to the flashier boulevardier, who strolls in hopes of being savored by the city. The roots of flâneur would appear to be French or Flemish, but the word actually comes from Old Norse flana, a wanderer. Their patron saint, poet Charles Baudelaire, writes: ‘For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate observer, it’s an immense pleasure…in whatever is seething, moving, evanescent and infinite; you’re not at home, but you feel at home everywhere.’” There is an important component of “wandering” or “flâneuring” that true learning requires to be present. I know I wouldn’t have learned nearly as much as I could have about Paris and French culture had I rigidly adhered to the merciless demands of a tight itinerary. When I allowed my vision to widen to fully take in each moment in this unfamiliar world, my innate curiosity became the horse pulling me rather than something external to me. My friend and I were liberated to respond to the overtures of inchoate experiences that lie just beyond the threshold of an inviting shop window, waiting patiently for the simple act of being chosen to be conceived into an exchange that feeds our hungry imagination. Responding to the hospitality of something that arouses our sense of wonder gifts us with a respite from compliance with time’s cold demands that might otherwise compel us to turn everything between “point A” and “point B” on a tourist map into a forgettable smear of busyness.
When I first started my career teaching ESL, like most inexperienced teachers, I would predictably construct these elaborate detailed lesson plans that would attempt to fill every moment of whatever allotted time I had for a class with exercises and activities. I was almost phobic about having “dead space,” fearing the class might get bored or restless. As I gained experience, I began to see being so dependent on my lesson plan for creating an engaging learning experience actually worked against my very intentions. The lesson plan became highly restrictive because the lesson plan can never anticipate that which cannot be anticipated, human behavior. A lesson plan can never anticipate the energy a group of students brings to class a particular day, the energy I bring to class, how a group of students receives what I have planned, or how a particular exercise or activity might excite students to more actively engage in class or vice versa. If I were to rigidly adhere to a lesson plan, I may ignore the fact that my class is deeply engaged and activated by a certain language concept and want to spend more time on that topic than what my lesson plan might have allotted and move on because the lesson plan demands “progress.” It could also work in the opposite manner. Perhaps I have allocated an extended amount of class time to an exercise or activity the students are clearly not enjoying but because of a phobia of not knowing what to do with the extra time if I were to abandon the activity, I continue with the exercise and diminish the engagement and motivation of my class. If this pattern goes on long enough, the greater risk is that I will erode their faith and trust in me as a leader. They will feel I do not really see them—that I do not see their lack of interest and engagement, or if I do recognize it, I callously choose to not to respond to it. This subsequently becomes a lost opportunity to communicate to my class that I see and recognize something I planned is not working and demonstrate true leadership by electing to make a “course correction” to our original flight plan. If I have subordinated my sense of wonder and curiosity to being in that metaphorical cage hitched to an unyielding pace of a lesson plan, I indeed won’t know what to do. Thankfully, I was able to cultivate the courage and the belief in myself to quickly move away from dependence on lesson plans. Lesson plans for me became what they are intended to be, guidelines. They serve to point me in a direction toward a destination but I leave plenty of space for me to improvise and adapt the learning experience to what I am actually seeing. Rigid adherence to plans undermines what should be an artful craft of teaching and a teaching plan can cease to become a tool and instead function as a blindfold that impairs vision. This is just as true for teachers as it is for travelers for in the end, they both share something in common. They are pilgrims undertaking journeys. And considering the paradoxical possibility that the journey itself might just be the actual destination can transform our experiences of them from rapidly consumed kindling to a slow burning log of hardwood that illuminates and warms our imagination for a long time.