Meeting a Hero

Some years ago I watched a movie titled Mindwalk. I then read a book by the scientist who co-wrote the screenplay titled The Web of Life by Fritjof Capra. His best-selling book before that was titled The Tao of Physics. The movie and the book were a turning point in my career as an educator. My eyes were opened to systems thinking and in particular, ecological thinking, as Capra would call it. This first introduction to this thinking happened while I was working on Master’s degree in the late 1990s. In fact, it changed the course of my Master’s research and of my teaching of biology.

A few years later I came across a workshop that was accepting limited participants being led by Dr. Capra. So I applied, and to my surprise was selected to go. I got to be one of the thirty people invited to go! This was exciting as this was my academic hero after all. So off I went to San Francisco to explore ecological thinking and the applications of such thinking on education and social justice issues. Where else would something like this be held? I landed in the big city and found the van from the retreat center, while pre-occupied thinking about what I will ask Dr. Capra when I got the chance. It had to be something smart of course. I should add that I was 10 days removed from back surgery so could only survive the plane flight and carting luggage through the airport with the aide of pain medication. So maybe I wasn’t in my clearest frame of mind initially. As the van made some stops I realized I was in a van with 8 other people representing multiple countries and continents and many advanced degrees. Most were older and more accomplished than me. I did not belong here. Self-doubt is a powerful drug. More powerful than Vicodin. Hell, I was just a teacher/charter school administrator struggling to not get car-sick winding through the hills of Northern California. Feeling small and insignificant I arrived at the retreat center an hour north of San Francisco – so like 20 miles.

I found my sleeping room/cabin and then made the trek up the hill to the common building/cafeteria to check it out and thinking about meeting someone whose writing has had a major impact on my thinking. Walking ahead of me was a tall man with curly grey hair. He entered the building a few paces ahead of me and stopped to look around. I followed and did the same. All good introverts do this when entering a strange place–pause to scan the landscape for dangerous predators, you know like tigers, lions, gregarious extroverts, etc. Standing there the was the man who entered ahead of me, now by my side, turns to me and said, “Hi, I’m Fritjof.” Insert sit-com spit-take here. Actually I’m sure I said hello and nothing more. Who can be sure? Remember, the Vicodin.

A couple of evenings later all of the attendees were sitting around a fire drinking wine and having snacks. I recall sitting around the fire and having a conversation with Fritjof (notice the first name basis here) about his next book. A book about Da Vinci that required reading Da Vinci’s work in its original language. Capra is a native German speaker. He wrote the book in English because unlike French or German, he has found English to be better for linear scientific writing. This was said without hubris. We then talked about my career and goals, and serious angst I was having in my current role as an administrator at the time. His encouragement kept me in education and kept me exploring and learning, which led to goals of pursuing my doctorate. This man was not in an ivory tower.

A couple years later I wrote Capra a letter asking if he would be willing to be interviewed as a part of the data collection for my dissertation. Of course he said yes. The lessons to be learned from this story? Well, one is to show up. You don’t know where you will end up if just willing to go through the door that opens in front of you. For me, I almost didn’t send in the application because who was I to go to something like this. I didn’t shrivel when meeting a hero. If I had, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Second, you don’t know the impact you will have—positive or negative. I could have been dismissed as unworthy of the “advanced” conversation that was taking place, but I was welcomed into the conversation like I had something to offer. I don’t know that I did at that point in my thinking and career. Lastly, some people are really smart. Like crazy smart. Able to synthesize voluminous amounts of information, make connections to other information and disciplines and create truly new, novel ways of making meaning of it. Yikes. Four languages and choosing the one that best fits the specific story you are trying to tell. Are you kidding? Sheesh.

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