I used lines from Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ when I wrote about ‘Togetherness‘ a few months ago, but they seem relevant again. Change seems to beget awareness.

Just over a week ago, I was excitedly preparing to travel to see family and friends in Wales for the first time since Christmas 2019 and as I waited for the water to boil in order to make tea, I realised that it had been almost a full 12 months since I had used a kettle. Since arriving in Spain in September 2016, I have bought two kettles for two different apartments. I regarded them as essential kitchen items while neither of those first two dwellings provided them amongst the other kitchen appliances. Early in my time in Cáceres, a plumber came to fix the kitchen tap and I offered him a cuppa. He turned it down and got straight to work, but was intrigued when I flipped the switch to boil water for the tea I wanted. When I moved to this apartment, a year ago today, I immediately noted the lack of kettle, but also the lack of space on the kitchen surfaces to put one. I decided to start boiling water on the stove. Making my first morning coffee with kettle-boiled water last Tuesday was as unremarkable as you might imagine. It did make me think about how there are some things that we think of as essential and normal, but in reality are just quirks and preferences. What else might I not need? It also made me think about what might fall into the directly opposite category: things we do need, but don’t always make space or time for.

The topic of awareness also makes me think of David Foster Wallace (DFW) and ‘This is Water’ which I first encountered in this video. He suggests that we have a choice to make between ‘[t]he really important kind of freedom [which] involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day’ and and alternative which he dismisses by calling it ‘unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race”’. He acknowledges that ‘it is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out’, but it is clear from his words that he thinks that it is necessary.

Of course, DFW is hardly the first to suggest such a dichotomy between awareness and unconsciousness. His talk stuck with me precisely because I heard it during a time when I was reading a lot about Buddhist thought. I picked up a few of the books I was reading in 2013-14 from the shelves while visiting my parents last week and brought them back with me to Spain. While preparing this post, I flicked through the pages of one and came across this sentence underlined in pencil: ‘Only when something breaks our routine, like illness or snowy weather, does our experience regain any freshness’ (Thomas Divan Jones, This Being, That Becomes, p.41). A few pages later, I find a marginal note in my handwriting telling me to compare a paragraph with the DFW essay. Jones, here, is writing about the necessity of awareness for the creative mind as opposed to the reactive mind. He writes about the need for mindful awareness so that our enjoyment of — in his example — a beautiful sunset is not hampered by craving; a craving to photograph and capture the sky, boast about what you had seen, or ‘regret not having more of’ it (p.52). I have to confess that as I entered Cardiff Airport to fly back to Madrid on Monday evening, I was extremely guilty of exactly this. Instead of joyfully recalling my memory of a wonderful week in which I met my niece for the first time and introduced my boyfriend to my family, I wept and wished we had a few more days to spend in Cymru.

So, where does this post on awareness leave me at the beginning of a new academic year?

  • I wrote above that change begets awareness. I need my students to notice language (grammar structures and their meanings, patterns in spelling and pronunciation). Might change, ‘shaking things up’, be helpful?
  • What might be standard yet unnecessary ingredients in my lessons that I could leave out? What might be a missing ingredient that I hadn’t realised would add that certain je ne sais quoi?
  • How can I channel, and encourage my students to channel, mindful awareness in order to be more creative and constructive?

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