Unlearning what we learned in school


I woke up yesterday morning to find my daughter sitting at the kitchen, reading her biology textbook. She had a test and was trying to cram all sorts of information into her head. While I made coffee, she sat there sighing.

Luca has talked a lot about how sucky her biology class is; how uninteresting and confusing. This morning, as she was hating on it, I asked her if I could look over what she's learning and tell it to her like a story instead of like facts. A measure of how frustrated she was: she said yes.

When I looked at the chapters she was learning, I wanted to weep. Forty pages on the cell, turning something magical into something that is dry as dirt. I looked throughout her textbook and remembered for the five millionth time: western science at the high school level turns the glory of life into something burdensome. It's part of the training ground that serves isolated individualism, as though any cell can experience itself outside the context of connection to the other.

After we had a fifteen minute conversation about the cell (which did NOT call the cell a factory like the textbook does), she asked if she could bring some of her classmates home every other week to just relearn what they are learning so that it's interesting. My mama-heart and Leo-heart and I LOVE BIOLOGY heart purred.

All life is connected. All life. Whether you believe in evolution or creation, whether you were raised with a traditional origin story or not, all life is connected. Trauma, from individual acts to collective systems passed down through history, is disconnection. The fact that disconnection exists does not contradict the fact that connection is here, too.

As I was leafing through Luca's textbook, I noticed that the chapters were arranged with an introductory chapter about life and protein followed by a small section on animals and then breaking the rest of the chapters into cellular life, cellular growth, cellular energy, reproduction, ecosystems, interdependence and then health and disease. How totally apocalyptic: the entirety of human life concluding with how we get sick. This is the conditioning that makes diagnosis and the drug industry possible.

If it really happens that Luca pulls together a group of school mates for mini-biology conversations in our house, this is how I am going to start: all life is connected. When you are reading chapters in your book about the differences between animals and plants and humans, you are reading more about the interests of the different mostly men and some women who are defined as "discovering" the principals of life. When your textbook says that cells were not discovered until after the microscope was invented in the 1500s and not really named as true until the 1800s, you are not learning the full story. You are not learning that traditions across the globe did not need to see through a microscope to have a felt sense or a sacred awareness of the billions of personalities that organize themselves into organs and systems and energy tides and balances. Life is not invented or discovered. It is lived.

I am going to say to them, let's not learn this as cold hard facts with little walls around them. Instead, let's learn about this as poetry, something you feel, something that emerges insight and connection without having to trudge through it. And then let's listen to the life inside us while we are learning about the same life. Did you know that you have the capacity to feel/sense every single cell in your body? And that, like any other relationship, you can have conversations with them? Become aware of the communication that is happening all of the time and even ask questions to deepen your understanding of your own life? Right now, close your eyes or keep them open but bring yourself to whatever stillness feels possible right now. Imagine your ears are turning direction and rather than listening to your outside body, you are listening to your inside body. And then just ask, whisper to yourself, hey liver, show me yourself. Hey left femur, make yourself known. Hey energy of my blood, rise up and warm me. And then notice what happens. You might have feelings/thoughts about getting this right, a kind of conditioned anxiety that keeps you separate from yourself. If you do, try and ignore them. You can't get this wrong. Just say, hey stomach, I'm listening. Communication can happen in so many ways. You might feel a presence, a sense of something-ness around the area where your liver or femur or stomach are. You might feel a presence somewhere totally different. You might feel a temperature change, get an image, feel the urge to move, so many different ways of life expression. Don't worry about understanding, not right now. This is just a gentle touch in, like meeting that person you've heard about for years over social media but haven't actually met yet. Hello, I feel like I know you but I don't yet. Eye contact. Smile. And then comes the time for relationship to emerge.

The words don't matter, it's the intent behind them. Every aspect of your body that you whisper to is an aspect of yourself. This is the basic destruction of western science: life is taught of as something separate, an object, a mechanism. Your cell is not a factory, it is a living breathing intelligence. It is you, 52 trillion times over for 52 trillion cells. This is you. Each cell carries the same kind of complexity as each organ, as your body as a whole, as the planet that we live upon, as the galaxy we are part of. Adrienne Maree Brown and others are talking about fractals as a way to experience organizing and change. This is what our life is: one element of an infinite fractal.

Your body, every single cell, has stories to tell you. Just like the person who lives next door and tells their family stories about your parking habits, habits that you've never noticed yourself.  Or the person who used to serve your school lunch when you were in third grade, who remembers you vividly even though you will never know their name. And then hundreds of stories that are not directly about you but they cross your life, the woman who works as a parking attendant in the garage that you pass when you are walking to work. The two people who work for the park near you, keeping the grass cut and the sidewalk shoveled in winter, you don't know them and yet their life is directly connected to yours, every time you cross the street and step on that grass. It's a wide mass of complexity and connection that is more than you can track, whether you're talking about the people who are all of the aspects of your outside life, visibly and invisibly, or the cells that are all the aspects of your inside life, visibly and invisibly. Everything is connected.

What I will tell my daughter and her friends is that, in order to understand this complexity, western science has broken it down to a never ending table of parts. That is how we come up with the word for cell and for the aspects of the cell: the organelles, mitochondria and Golgi apparatus. Sexy words, huh? Listening to the different notes of music within a complex composition is not a bad thing. It's one way of experiencing and appreciating what happens when it all comes together. The problem is when all of the parts aren't ever, on their own terms, experienced all together. That is not how most science began. Science that is indigenous to this planet, that is native to the land upon which you now live, is the science of connection and relationship, not the science of parts. It's the science that quantum physicists and evolutionary biologists and ecologists are in the process of "rediscovering." It doesn't need to be rediscovered. It just needs to be lived.

Healers or people doing their work with a healing justice lens are creating the conditions for new stories to emerge. Or for old stories to be remembered: the whisper of a muscle fiber that carries the strain of bracing against the endless stream of police cars that slow down as they pass. The open and closedness of a cellular membrane that has figured out how to operate within the toxic soup of the nearby chemical plant. The hold on the bottom of the heart from a loss that hasn't yet been heard. This is what I will tell Luca and her friends when they come to talk about biology: it's all connected. All life is always connected. This is why it is not possible to heal alone as an isolated individual, we heal together. That's basic biology, even if it isn't how it's taught in high school.

The image above is the representation of a cell, a eukaryotic cell which means a cell that has a nucleus around its DNA. Every cell, like every individual body, has a way to digest food, to poop out waste, to turn food into energy, to pump blood, and to learn in response to new information. This representation shows some of the parts of the cell. You can think of it in the same way you would see an image of human anatomy or of the anatomy of our planet.