I woke up this morning at my parents’ house to the sound of my older son patiently coaching his younger brother in archery techniques. On the stairs. With a plastic bow and suction arrows. They practiced for at least an hour, standing on a high ledge “cliff” under the living room windows, shooting down at some furs they had placed in the stairwell. Some were fake, some real – probably brought from Poland years ago. Later they fought about the bow, and other things. But it’s the patience that I’ll remember.
Tonight as we ate dinner on the back deck, a red fox trotted across the backyard. I was the only one looking in its direction, but at my urgent whisper everyone turned. The fox sauntered by, looking over at us in that nonchalantly foxy way, as if waiting for someone to take its picture. We didn’t. We didn’t have any phones or cameras at the table. The fox dropped down and rolled over once, then trotted behind the cedars towards the south. My father told us they’d seen a fox already this year, maybe this one, after many years without foxes here. I looked at the kids with wide eyes and open mouth and they returned the expression to me: “Wasn’t that AMAZING? ” I wanted to make sure they would remember.
I took a walk after dinner to find some yarrow to harvest and dry. My father came out and joined me. He showed me where he had planted elderberries this year, where the poison ivy patch has migrated, where the blackberries are going strong. He pointed out his young but thriving bur oaks and sugar maples. “Do you know this one?” he asked. No, I didn’t. “Shagbark hickory.” We looked at the way the leaves grew on the branch and I described it out loud, to remember.
We examined how he had pruned the apple and pear trees. We talked about protecting the plum trees from porcupines. We talked about the rabbits, how in the spring they had made a burrow in the vegetable garden, next to the dill. Did I smell the musky smell of fox pee near the garden? I tried to describe it to my dad.
I showed him yarrow, red clover, catnip, and St. John’s wort growing at the back of the property. He told me the Polish name for St. John’s wort: dziurawiec. “Does it really have holes?” he asked. I showed him the perforations, like little pinpricks, on the leaves.
We walked back towards the house. My mother intercepted us with a basket and a request to pick vegetables. “This is a very good willow basket,” my father commented. He told me his younger brother in Poland had given it to him after he admired it once. My father showed me how well made it was, with the handle coming full circle to the base of the basket in a flat, almost seamless join; how tightly woven the willow was. He told me that his uncle, my great-uncle Jan, when younger had been a skilled basket maker in their village. “So many baskets now aren’t well-made,” he said, “But a good basket is important; it should be able to carry potatoes for fifty years!”
We enlisted Lachlan to help pick the vegetables – zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers – and sent them inside. Malcolm came out with his plastic bow again and said he wanted to practice hunting. I told him he should look for rabbits to sneak up on, like a fox. I reminded him to walk silently and carefully with his bare feet, to use his wide-angle vision to see movement, to be aware of the birds. The rabbits must have picked up on his intentions, because none were to be found. But we snuck around the backyard for a while, shooting the arrows here and there, talking about the fox and how handsome it was.
In the last light, just before bedtime, my father came outside again to play a vigorous chasing game with his grandsons, until they were all ready to collapse.
Mentoring moments. I’m sometimes amazed when they show up so casually in my life: moments of gently directed attention; of patient practice; of shared enthusiasm and play; of connection to the land; of skills invoked and applied across generations. The moments I noticed today could have happened a hundred years ago or a thousand. Not didactic – I wouldn’t call it teaching – but emerging from presence and shared attention.
In the midst of other days that are NOT always like this, I try to imagine a time when all learning was this seamless, this grounded in place and relationship and care. I’ve looked elsewhere for this kind of learning, for myself and for my children, and I have found it elsewhere, with gratitude. I’ve thought and talked a lot about mentoring, about mentoring cultures – out there, not here. But now I see what is right under my nose.
Why is it so hard to see what’s closest to us? I don’t know. But I know that once you see you don’t stop seeing.
I can see mentoring in every relationship my kids have with their grandparents, aunts and uncles; in their relationships with family friends and neighbours; in the way they relate to children older and younger than themselves. I grew up far from my grandparents and extended family; my children’s experiences will be different from mine. Like Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend Rabbit, they are blessed with “friends and relations” all around.
Like a long row of gift-bearers, each person brings something: something particular; sometimes eccentric; always – with some encouragement – passionately shared. When there is time and space for ages and generations to mix, this organic sharing of knowledge thrives. People have skills I never expected. They have experiences they had never thought to mention. When I look for the gifts people bring – instead the flaws I sometimes used to see – I feel the urgency of cultivating and supporting these relationships. Most people in our culture don’t mentor instinctively – most need to be encouraged. Sometimes I’m overt in my encouragement; sometimes sneaky.
I need mentors just as much as my kids do. And I too have a lot I want to share.
For a while I was captivated by the story of the mentor who comes and tells you what your gifts are, scoops you up and finds a place for you. That might happen to some people, sometimes. But it hadn’t happened to me, not that clearly and effortlessly. That led to a lot of sadness. But I see now that more often than not YOU have to find the mentors yourself, maybe because the practice of mentoring has been so broken in our culture. You have to search for your mentors and identify them and court them and be open to what they have to teach. You have to let many mentors pass through your life, and you have to make the effort of holding on to some of them. You have to be willing to see the mentors who are right in front of you. Sometimes you have to gently prod them into revealing what they know. And mostly, you have to be willing to listen.