About three years ago I had a chance to return to school after many years. Now I am a Bubbie with a Student ID. This brings rewards and challenges. I can get into movies for cheap. But I have to do homework, write papers, and take notes. My son reminds me to get off Facebook and get back to work. I am called upon to be logical, draw conclusions, argue a point. These are not skills that have necessarily assisted me in the everyday tasks of being a mother or professional. They may have atrophied after college. I am being taught to look at things from a critical research perspective. My brain aches sometimes as I stretch to incorporate it all.
This has also led to reflection from new vantage points on the experience of learning. And so, I’d like to answer this Big Question not as a series of life lessons “so far”, but rather as some thoughts about what it means to be a learner over the course of a lifetime.
Learning is much more than an act of cognition. The brain may be involved, but often it is not. Rocking a crying baby in the night is learning about love. Caring for a dying parent is learning about patience. Living with a senior in high school is learning about fortitude and separation. Budgeting for a family is learning about economizing and satisfaction. Working a job is learning about power, influence, creativity, success and failure. Over time this learning operates like water in a canyon, etching itself into what you know about the world and who you are.
So much of our learning happens with our bodies. You do not need a coach or an article in Oprah to tell you to “trust your gut,” to listen to an inner voice, to feel what is in your heart. But you can also play with the learning that is contained in you, muscle to bone. Stand on your head and see how the world looks. Run a 5K, swim half a mile, climb up a wall. Your body becomes your teacher. I am not a natural athlete but completed simple triathlons in my forties. No books could have taught me more about the persistence I will need to get to the finish line of a dissertation.
Finally, learning is a practice. That means that the more you do it the better you get at it. It also means that you never complete or conquer it. Learning is always there, asking you to muster body, heart and mind to a dynamic life. I did not set out to be a learning junkie, but this is what I have become “so far.” If I do not read or learn something new every day I have a physical reaction. How do you know if you have become such a person? If you look around the room, find nothing to read, and start to panic. If too many days of idle vacation make you antsy and you long for the quiet of your study. What signs do you display?
I return to the image of water. For me, learning is a term bound up with Jewish learning, a tradition of wisdom and reflection at the center of my personal, professional, and now academic, life. The Bible’s Song of Songs opens, “Oh give me of the kisses of your mouth, for your love is more delightful than wine.” Song of Songs is a passionate love poem. But translate “the kisses of your mouth” as referring to Torah, as wisdom both natural and revealed. To long for learning is to long for it passionately.
A midrash (a traditional imaginative understanding) on the verse draws a comparison between words of Torah and water, drawing out analogies from other Biblical texts. Like water, anyone who thirsts for Torah can find it (Isaiah 55:1). Just as water stretches from one end of the world to the other, so does the Torah (Psalm 136:6). Just as water is a source of life, so is Torah (Song of Songs 4:15). It can come from the heavens like rain with a clap of thunder (Psalm 29:3). Just as it can fall one drop at a time, so it enters a person, one small bit at a time. Just as it gushes from a high place to a lower place, so it collects better in a person who holds it with humility. Asking someone to teach you is as easy as asking them for a drink of water. And finally, just as water makes plants grow, so learning Torah nurtures all who labor in its garden.
What have I learned so far? To embrace the gifts of learning, wisdom and knowledge with love, and to pursue them with love. And to commit to continuing to learn not just “so far” but farther yet.
Jane Shapiro is an educator, consultant, wife, mother, bubbie, and doctoral student who lives in Skokie, IL. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.