Spiral of the Shell

This first entry is dedicated to an essay I wrote over ten years ago. One of my first ever as a doctoral student. The essay that awakened my alchemical self as writer, educator, and activist. Educational transformation, for the individual, and for us all as a collective whole, is like the spiral of the shell:

(published in its original form here-with added comments in parenthesis for clarity)Image

It’s the day before Thanksgiving. I sit before my computer pounding away to the keys, it’s two a.m ..God, how many cigarettes have I smoked already? I am beyond the point of exhaustion. I am determined to finish my Qualitative Analysis study before I leave for my mothers. I want to “not bring it with me” while I am on “vacation.”

Kristen’s words (“Kristen” was one of my study participants) keep ringing in my ears, echoing in the darkness of my subconscious: “It will emerge through serendipity.” I shut the computer off. I am drained. The last few weeks have consumed me. My smoking has doubled and I have lost ten pounds. As a first year doctoral student I had promised myself that this would not happen to me. But here I am with 3 weeks left to drain the last of my weak resources into cogent thoughts which I am supposed to hand in to be “graded.” My life has become a performance and I have had no time rehearse. She said “Education does not occur from the outside alone.”

What am I doing here again?

I pile myself into the car for the nine-hour drive to Hilton Head for Thanksgiving. I had completed a good rough draft for my Qualitative Inquiry class and planned to revisit ideas for my presentation when I returned. Mulling it over in my head several times I continued to come up empty. Nothing resonated. “It will emerge through serendipity.” I’ll deal with it when I return. But the metaphor given to me by my third interviewee, Frank, “The spiral of the shell…” follows me down highway 95 while I sleep for 5 hours. Sleep…. For the first time in weeks.

Away from the world of my academic pursuits. Home. Hilton Head. The place where I first came to visit when I was 8 years old. I fell in love with it. Again we come back to visit when I am 13. I would spend the next 10 years revisiting this island. I would live here for 4 years of my adult life. This place serves as a signpost for some of the most significant events in my life.

“The spiral of the shell is like the journey of life.” That was what Frank had said.

In my analysis I compared the spiral shell to the process of arts-based inquiry. I was quite pleased with this metaphor. I had reviewed my Conclusion written in an exhausted haze just the day before. It was OK. I asked myself the question “How have I changed as the result of this process?” The last 3 months have trained me well. I wrote something articulate. Yet it somehow still felt hollow.

The wonderful thing about revisiting a place is the heightened awareness it brings to the senses. As one teacher I interviewed said, “One can actually experience those qualities while moving and make them more alive and make one therefore more awake to the world around them.” I am overwhelmed with the local smells and the feel of the humid air. Memories, too many too count come rushing back. Driving down the road I see my friend’s house… the school where I taught. How long has that store been there? “The key word is really to get back to observation.”

  “It will happen through serendipity.” I am gazing at the CD’s on my mother’s stereo. Beethoven rests in a pile among the rest. Moonlight Sonata. Four years ago flay on this same living room floor and played it loudly into the head phones just hours after my father’s funeral. After a long battle with cancer he died in the house. I pull the CD out of its cover and put it on. Above the CD player rests his collection of books. Hard bound. Limited Editions. They have followed me like a shadow ever since I was old enough to raise up one small arm pull them off the shelf. I devoured them like water to a thirsty wanderer before I was old enough to even understand the words. I say out loud to my friend who has come down here with me for Thanksgiving, “These are the reason I am in school today. They are a part of who I am.” Dante’s Inferno, Le Mort de Arthur, The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche. Pausing, my friend then comments, “This is a sad song.”

“No its not,” I reply, absolutely no emotion in my voice. I just stare.

Driving toward the beach with the dog I retell him stories about this place and that. “Oh God, my sister and I used to go there and raise hell. She did a back-flip on the dance floor once  … They got rid of the theater space!!! I ran lights there for Pat. Doing theater saved my sanity after the divorce. It gave me back a part of myself I thought I had lost” “I thought art needed a higher purpose.”

The smell of the ocean comes rushing up into my nostrils and I absorb it into my pores. It races up my spine and I know something that I cannot name but have known all of my life. Some secret I cannot put my finger on. Before I was born, my birth mother, whom I never knew, supposedly used to take long walks on the beach with my biological father. She was only 16 years old at the time. “And you know something is being touched in the heart and soul of that child.”

I can feel my feet finally separated from the weight of my shoes, crunching small grains of sand underneath. We walk making small talk. My mind is full past recollections. Too many to count… and they ebb and flow with the rhythm of the small tide that laps at my ankles. I feel like I can breathe for the first time in weeks. “There is a way that out of them…these little doors open inside.”

Everything seems new even though it overlaps with the forms of past moments which have led me to this moment, here and now. They have not disappeared but have moved from the concrete to the ethereal. Time and space cannot be linear. They are layered. In between the lines lies the essence. Somewhere between the present and oblivion is the form of our lives. “They’ll interweave and intertwine in such a deep way.”

“The spiral of the shell is like the journey of life.” My friend stops to pick up a few shells. My first thought is, “Damn tourists. You always tell them apart because they stop to gather shells”. I look down to notice a broken shell halfway crushed down into the sand. Franks words: “A partial form” resonates in my head. I too begin to bend over and pick them up. “The spiral of the shell….” One by one I squash them into my back pocket. Somehow the sensation of sand under my nails and salt water tangling my hair gives me the feeling of freedom. I am standing at one fleeting heartbeat in the span of my life. I am drawn to the broken shells. The fractures on the outer layer give me a view into the spine, the inner workings that brought the outer into being.

And in a moment I can “see” the picture of all that has happened before me, here in this place, as the partial form, which has brought me to this present unfolding in my life. My memories are the inner labyrinth that forges a definitive outer form from the myriad of possibilities that swirl around each of us every second of every day, making order out of chaos. The dreamy childhood recollections of Christmas lights at Harbor Town, the fight with my sister when I was 18 years old, moving down here in hopes of making a doomed marriage work, sitting up at the hospital till all hours next to my fathers bed, the divorce, finding my own life, getting a tattoo, the military funeral playing taps, 4 years of teaching, the discovery that art keeps my soul alive.

It is easy to feel so far removed from it all sitting at my computer at 2 a.m. pounding away at the keys in hopes that, if I hit them hard and fast enough, my future can somehow be cast forth from such a frenzy. But here, on the beach, with a broken spiral shell in my hand I am all too fully aware that who I am on the outside has been born out of the inner spiral that is the sum total of all my past lived experiences. And the opus, the ultimate act of creativity, which is our future, holds it’s partial from in the past. And the empty spaces that make something partial and incomplete are the unknowns that can only be gleaned through the eyes of an artist. “Art at any age…can awaken something…that stirs one… that awakens the soul to move in a way that doesn’t always have the opportunity in the sort of pedestrian normal day to day running.” Possibility cannot be named without excluding out all other meanings. The unknown, like smoke, will dissolve and float away in our tight grasp. We are its partial form.

Moonlight Sonata plays, moves through my darkness, and although the notes stay with me somewhere deep inside, they simultaneously float into this time and space only for a brief moment before they are again gone. Fleeting and eternal. Fixed only by my memory of them. My essay has emerged through serendipity. Thank you Kristen.

Similarly, what my interviewees had to say about the way they teach, their attitudes towards life exemplify the soul of an artist available to anyone who has the good fortune “through serendipity” to awaken their own senses and create a future between the form of what is, what has been, and the emergence of sublime possibility.

Art is a way of living and seeing our lives. Staring at my interview transcripts, their words have transformed before my eyes. ..observe… awaken … inner and outer form … the spiral of the shell. They represent the relationship between the artist and the medium. The relationship between teacher and student. The relationship between self and life. What will I walk away with from this study? How have I changed as the result? More than you or I will ever know.

Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

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