Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: October 20, 2017


October 11th of last week was Oregon’s official teacher in-service day. In our school district, the day is unofficial, in that it’s no longer a paid work day. Somehow during negotiations that took place more than a decade ago now, the paid in-service day was bargained away in exchange for some other mysterious but beneficial thing. We still have the day off, but my sense is that most of the teachers in my school, and in my district, are not in-servicing themselves. It’s a three-day weekend, for crying out loud.

I got my haircut on teacher in-service day. And I shopped for new music.

But here I am, a week later, at Islandwood on Bainbridge Island with the Center for Courage and Renewal, on retreat for four days, taking two professional leave days and soul-sacrificing an entire weekend, officially in-servicing myself in the mysterious ways of what has come to be called by all its practitioners: Courage Work.

The work, inspired by the writer Parker J. Palmer and his book The Courage to Teach, began as a program for the professional and personal renewal of teachers. Over the last 15 years or so, the philosophies and strategies of that work have expanded exponentially and now include other professional groups: people in leadership roles, clergy, mental health professionals, health care professionals, etc.

So, I have joined 33 strangers here on this island, 29 participants and a leadership team of 4 facilitators, coming from all over the country, from Canada and from England, to delve deeper into this practice and to begin exploring the idea and possibility of moving into this work on a professional level. The Gateway Retreat, as this one is named, is designed specifically for people who have some significant experience already with Courage Work and who are thinking about a training program to become facilitators. That would be me. I am one of those people.

It is notoriously difficult to quickly describe to someone what it is exactly that we do here. For teachers, it’s not about classroom practice (but it could be), it’s not about raising test scores (but it could be), it’s not about curriculum development (but it could be), it’s not about professional relationships (but it could be). You get the picture. For a participant at a retreat of this kind, it is ABOUT whatever you need it to be about. Right now, you’re not thinking about teaching, instead, you’ve just put one of your parents in a nursing home; or you’re going through a divorce; or you’re choosing a subject for your next painting; or you find yourself unable to paint at all. Your life stuff becomes central—because your life stuff cannot help but influence and color and shape your profession and your work in that profession. Primarily, this retreat is about YOU and the way in which your identity intersects with your life’s work: the coming together of soul and role. Yes, we’re doing soul work. Sssshh. It’s a solitary endeavor—but here it absolutely requires community. We’re not all off gazing at our shoes. We are looking into mirrors. We are listening deeply. We are creating what is called Circles of Trust.

And the result? The magic word here is discernment. I find swirling around this work a number of other magic words as well: Clarity. Consciousness. Integrity. Authenticity. Silence. Storytelling. Solitude. Community. Paradox. And concerning these last three, my favorite and to me the most important paradox of Courage Work: that only in community can we find true solitude—but it has to be a community that values and nurtures that solitude, that welcomes and invites the soul. Most of our communities don’t do this. They need to. They must. So much depends upon it. This, I’ve found, again and again since I first came to it in 2000, is a good place to start.

We were thinking about the word SOUL this morning, and reflecting on Parker Palmer’s metaphor that the soul is like a wild animal: it’s strong, it’s mysterious, it’s resourceful, its orientation is always toward survival—but if you want to see it, you don’t run through the forest shouting. You’ve got to be quiet. You’ve got to be respectful. And in one of these moments, two deer came right up to the windows of our meeting place. They were massive and beautiful and they looked into our windows to say hey, and then they were gone.

We ask a lot of open, honest questions of ourselves and others. As of this writing, we’re only half way through the retreat, but here’s a sampling:

  • What are you listening for in your life right now?
  • What, if anything, do you need to let go of?
  • What signs of renewal do you see in your life?
  • What’s the difference between an ego story and a soul story? What’s a story from your life you can tell in two ways—as a story of ego and as a story of soul?
  • After reading from John Lewis’ Walking in the Wind: What is your experience in a societal storm among those most like you and across lines of difference?
  • What’s it like for you standing inside of a tragic gap, that distance between what is possible and what is a reality?

We reflect, in writing or in silence. We make art. We read poems together—not to study, as one would do in an English class, but to explore as what we call “a third thing”—some kind of language event (usually a poem but not always) that serves as a springboard for personal inquiry or reflection on the kinds of questions like those above. It’s a medium or a visiting voice between facilitator and community, a third thing, a tool to elicit deep inquiry from deep places. This is no place for a formalist critic, an English teacher habit that I find easy to jettison in this space.

While in session, we don’t talk to each other. We don’t discuss. There’s no give-or-take, back-and-forth. The impulse to argue or connect or add to or comment on is in perpetual check. Instead, we speak into the circle and listen carefully. In this way, it is unlike the kind of talk we do everywhere else in the world and especially in academics. In this way, each voice has a space, each voice is heard, each voice is welcome. And silences are intentional and weighty, never uncomfortable.

Saturday, we will prepare for Clearness Committees, a central component of a Courage Retreat in which five or six individuals help a single individual toward discernment on a problem or issue by doing nothing but asking honest, open questions for a full two and a half hours. A potentially life/mind altering experience and gift for both the individual with the issue and the people lucky enough to be able to share this deeply in someone else’s soul story.

This, in a nutshell, has been an attempt to describe what it is exactly that we do here.

Here are my central questions for this weekend:

How can I bring this back into my school community?

Is this truly my calling now?

And to answer your lingering question (perhaps) about how this work is possible for a room full of strangers, I call your attention to exhibits A and B: The touchstones of The Circle of Trust and The Five Habits of Heart. Good night and take care.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: October 11, 2017

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Panic at the Disco, I Mean, Schoolhouse

The year is cooking right along, cooking so vigorously along, in fact, that this is only my second entry in this new series I’m calling a Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year. Yes, the year is cooking right along, interrupted briefly on only two occasions and constantly punctuated by a third. We took a brief respite for an hour and a half a couple of weeks ago for a bomb threat evacuation, today, we administered the PSAT to all our sophomores, and this fall, we have experienced the phenomena of a missing English teacher. The three events are unrelated, but worth noting together in this moment because . . . well, because I’m finding an opportunity to breathe and reflect just now for the first time in more than a month, and because these three items bubble to the surface of my teacher brain first, followed closely by the grading and planning I still need to do for tomorrow.

Yeah, we had a bomb threat. At first, we thought it was a false alarm, having done a lock-down/lock-out drill the day before and having already experienced the obligatory monthly fire drill, but as they evacuated us, told us to keep moving away from the building almost all the way up the hill to the road, and then redirected us back around the school and into the grandstands at the football field around the police vehicles already in the lot, we realized that this was no accident and it was no drill. It started to rain. We were outside for about an hour in the rain. A few kids were rattled by the experience, but not many. Teachers and administrators seemed pretty chill. They pumped music into the grandstands inspiring a spontaneous dance party while we waited. It appeared that most kids were having a great time not being in their classes. And from the photos it looks like teachers were none the worse for wear either. Turns out, no bomb. No danger. We all piled back inside the schoolhouse to resume the teaching and learning. On that same day, I acquired a gift to my classroom:

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The Harvard Classics, Five-Foot Shelf of Books, all 50 volumes, pristinely preserved and well cared for, late edition, circa 1965. Now I have Cicero, Plato, Pliny the Elder, The Imitation of Christ, and the complete poems of Robert Burns in my classroom library! Now that’s da bomb. Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. There has been no news in the last couple of weeks about whether or not they caught the prankster, not the one who gifted me the books but the one who called in the bomb threat that precipitated the arrival of my books.

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These Teachers Are Also Freaked Out

Today, things came to a screeching halt one more time as we administered the PSAT to every sophomore in our school who was brave enough to show up. Most of them were brave enough, I’d say. In the group of 25 I helped to proctor, only 3 were absent. Last year on this day or a day or two before, some fool accidentally delivered test booklets too early, thus, breaking the rules of the test, thus, getting the entire school suspended or prohibited from administering the test. I wrote a poem about that last year. We redeemed ourselves this year, though, as no rules were broken and it appears the testing went off without a hitch. I am aware of no hitches.

Standardized tests. I hate them. Generally speaking, I’m against them, but as I am a kind of “arm of the state,” I must play along, and I play along so far as to encourage kids to attend, and I say, to those for whom these kinds of things matter, that the more opportunities they get to take the practice (studies show), the better they will do when the real one comes around: hence, the state of Oregon spending $$$$$$$ to make sure all sophomores in the state get this opportunity. It’s kind of an icky feeling, but at least I’m not lying.

And finally, at the end of an English Department meeting held in the very last hour of the day to talk about course options for seniors who currently, as it appears to most of us, lack options, we long at last had a conversation about an elephant that’s been in the room with us from the very first day of our teacher preparation week before the first day of school. One of our colleagues had gone missing.

No, he’s not a missing person, per se; he was not a victim of foul play; he just didn’t show up for work. Most of us know practically nothing except for that there was some kind of conflict that needed resolution. Almost completely in the dark, we were. We do know that finally, after a long month of a substitute and then a week and a half of a substitute for the substitute, our admin team was finally able to hire a new English teacher. She will join us on Monday and there will be much rejoicing. But at the end of this meeting, one of my dear, esteemed colleagues said, Can we have some closure here about this disappearing teacher? And so we spontaneously had some closure. We vented. We celebrated. We shared a memory or two, some fond, some not so much. We realized how much history we shared with this guy and with each other. There was some love in the room. We promised to have a drink later as a goodbye ritual for our teacher colleague who has disappeared. What a long, strange trip it’s been: month two of an English teacher’s penultimate year.

 

 

 

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: August 29, 2017

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One of my favorite words in the English language is the word “penultimate.” It’s a great word. And this school year I will likely overuse it. Consider yourself forewarned.

Today began the (sort of) first day of the (maybe) penultimate school year of my teaching career. I say “sort of” in light of the fact that this typical first day for teachers (the week before students arrive) was preceded by one full day of staff development the week before, and then almost three days of professional development the week before that. So today was “sort of” my first day back after this exceedingly short summer, shortened by snow day make-ups on the front end and lots of bonus development on the other end. And I say “maybe” penultimate because it probably is but may not be; hence, the ambiguity.

But let me first tell you a little bit about how this day began, and you’ll have to help me to believe that it’s indicative of nothing, because it was, sorry to say, a shitty first day, or at least, a shitty beginning to a first day.

To wit: I have made a personal commitment to bicycle commute as much as I can this year without sacrificing my morning meditation ritual. To facilitate that new commitment I set my alarm clock a whole 20 minutes earlier from where it has been set for as many years as I can remember (2), and I sprung out of bed this morning to enthusiastically meet my new commitment. But when I got downstairs I could first smell and then I saw the horrendous mess our old dog made in the middle of the night–all over the hardwood floors.  Needless to say, I skipped morning meditation. Instead, I cleaned up runny dog shit and mopped floors while cursing.

I made it out the door on time and I did manage to climb on top of the bicycle. I didn’t bike nearly as much this summer as I wanted to. The ride up those two hills was kind of painful. Luckily, and for this reason NOT bicycle commuting is pretty much inexcusable, it’s only about a ten minute ride to work. Mercy of mercies.

I am happy to report that there was no shit to clean up at the school house, so the day could only improve. And mostly, it did. Here’s a list.

  • We met nine new teachers to our building this morning. I think it’s been ten years since we brought on as many new teachers. We had some fun watching one of our administrators play Jimmy Fallon’s Would You Rather game with the newbies.
  • Our principal reviewed for us the various driving forces of our work, namely, the the vision, the mission, the WHY, the HOW, and the WHAT. She told us an interesting story about growing up in Alaska, the point of which, I think, was to illustrate to us how she arrived at her own personal WHY for the work that she does, and how that manifests itself in her commitment to us and to students. It was one of the few times she has ever spoken about her life in this kind of public way. I appreciated that.
  • Another one of our administrators brought us (and all of the new kids) up to speed about why the NIKE corporation is helping us and how. There was the grant. There was the implementation of a thing called AVID. There was a rebranding and new art that turned an ominous armored horseman wielding a lance and charging forward into battle into the more protective metaphor of a simple shield, using the now ubiquitous solidarity slogan of I AM before the abbreviation of our school name. It’s clear now why they preferred the abbreviation to the full deal. As we are named after a dude and not a place, it’s easier perhaps for everyone to identify as RP. I am RP. I am not, necessarily, figuratively or literally, a dude named Rex Putnam.
  • And finally, our Jimmy Fallon administrator came back on to lead us into a deep discussion of what is perceived by our leadership and most of the teachers in the building as one of our biggest problems as a school: student absenteeism. How does it affect us, as teachers? How does it impact student success? Why does it occur? What causes it? What can we do about it? All worthwhile points for discussion and inquiry. No closure possible. No closure expected. All of us are likely frustrated by a general sense about this serious problem that we lack agency to make a difference. Too many variables out of our control. We have our classrooms, our spaces, our attitudes, the way that we express to our charges that we want them there, that we will do our best for them, that we care about their lives.
  • And then back to our rooms for a half day of individual preparation. For me, that meant getting my computer back, getting my speakers hooked up, listening to music, cleaning, moving the tables and chairs into place after getting them unstuck from the freshly and beautifully waxed floors, looking at a syllabus or two, recycling some old crap, having a little lunch with a couple of colleagues, helping my teacher friend across the hall adjust her crazy desk, learning about the Hood to Coast relay race from another teacher friend, uncovering the mysteries of two missing English teachers (one totally explicable and the other totally not), and then finally, getting back on my bicycle for a ride home in 100 degree heat. I’m not joking about that. It was 100 degrees out.

I will call that a day.

The first day. Sort of.

Of the penultimate school year of my teaching career. Maybe.

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T@B Diaries #4: Steens Mountain 

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In my second year of camping inside the t@b, I returned yesterday from my most ambitious solo trip to date. The following images provide evidence of these new experiences:

  • With my brother Dave and his friend Dave (that’s not a joke) in another car, and towing the t@b behind the new Honda Ridgeline, I drove all by myself to the Steens Mountain Wilderness Resort, located right along side a funky little historic town called Frenchglen, Oregon.
  • It was the longest drive I have ever done in my life. About 7 hours from Milwaukie to Frenchglen.
  • It’s the first time in my life I have ever been this far Eastern Oregon.
  • We stopped at a rest area in Brothers, Oregon. I found it so lonely and quaint, I had to take a picture of it.
  • My brother Dave and his friend Dave stayed in a “cabin” and I had my own full hook up rv site. The cabins in this park, while functional and comfortable enough, were really just single wide mobile homes, the kind you’d find in the most low rent trailer parks in America. That’s not a criticism.
  • I took pictures of my brother Dave and his friend Dave. In almost every panoramic shot I took, one or the other of them ended up on one end or the other of the panorama. The one panoramic shot my brother took caught Dave at the very edge of the photo taking a piss.
  • On this trip, in particular around the Steens Mountain loop and around Hart Mountain Wildlife Refuge, there were lots of occasions for panoramic photos.
  • Panoramic pictures are very strange things. Maybe I’m doing it wrong, but my panoramas wrap themselves in this bizarre fold, so that rather than seeing a wide scene looked at straight-on, you see a single road, for example, going two directions. Almost impossible to describe in words. Take a look.
  • There’s a strange satellite tower at the peak of Steens Mountain. Alien observation? I don’t know. Communications to the outside world? Doubtful, since most of the time I had no or little phone access, although my brother Dave’s friend Dave seemed to have all kinds. He called his wife from the top of a mountain. I’m told this is the highest accessible peak in the state of Oregon. It was awesome. I mean, really. In the true sense of the word: full of awe, awe inspiring, awful in a good way. And dirty. Very dirty.
  • My brother Dave’s friend Dave’s car was covered in dirt.
  • I’ve never seen so many butterflies.
  • Or Jack Rabbits.
  • Or Owls (1).
  • Or mosquitos.
  • My ankles are a swollen itchy mess.
  • We drank some Scotch in Eastern Oregon.
  • I talked politics with my brother Dave’s friend Dave.
  • On one evening it was cool enough to have a tiny campfire.
  • We visited several towns that had only one or two buildings in them: Frenchglen, Diamond, Plush, Fields, and Denio, Nevada. There’s a town in Oregon called Remote. I challenge Remote to be as remote as these towns were remote.
  • Yes, we went to Nevada. Having driven all the way around Hart Mountain on super rough gravel roads, we decided to drive an extra 150 miles on pavement over to Nevada and back again, rather than return on that gravel washboarding hell.
  • I learned a new word, or, a new use of an old word: washboarding.
  • On the way back to camp, we found cows wandering around on and near the roads.
  • Sometimes we’d drive a half an hour or 45 minutes before seeing another car.
  • We camped for four days. We spent almost half of our time, outside of the time we were sleeping, in a car.
  • The sign on the Hart Mountain Store in Plush said: A small drinking town with a cattle problem.
  • On the early morning of our departure, I left my trailer to get some clean clothes out of the truck. When I came back to the trailer, the door was locked. The keys were inside. Now, it’s impossible to lock the trailer door from the inside unless you use the dead bolt–in which case you would not be able to open the door, walk out the door, and shut the door again. The dead bolt would be sticking out, right? So, my guess is, and this is messed up, that somehow the locking mechanism engaged itself, locking me out of the trailer and the keys inside. After I panicked, I thought, clearly, this door cannot be locked, really. No way. So I went to get my brother to see if he could help solve the mystery. We ended up concluding that the door was, in fact, locked. I panicked. I was sure that the day before, as I set about to fire up the air conditioner in this 100 degree heat, that I had locked all of my windows. My brother Dave said, did you lock all the windows? I said, yes, I locked all the windows. He went around and checked. I had NOT locked all the windows. I climbed back into the trailer through the emergency exit window and happily liberated my keys and my sunken heart.
  • I learned NEVER to be without your trailer key.
  • And then I drove home for seven hours.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: A Few Goodbyes, Reading with a Friend, Writing Some More, Going Home


I’m sitting in the airport in a beat up arm chair looking out over the tarmac through these gigantic windows. I’ve got three hours to kill because the ride from Mt. Holyoke dropped me off early. It’s an ugly, long flight clear across the country, from Hartford, Connecticut to Chicago and then home to Portland. I will get home tonight at 11, but it will feel to me like 1 in the morning. If I can keep from sleeping on planes, I’ll sleep well tonight after a little reunion with my family. As much fun as I’ve had, I miss them very much, my wife and boy. Dogs too. I can’t wait to see the place. It should be freshly painted when I get home, a project going on all through my absence.

I’m struck by how the Writer’s Camp has a way to linger on until the very last minutes. I slept in this morning so, missing breakfast, I was able to say goodbye to only a few of my writer buddies–my departure felt less like a closing and a little bit more like an opening. A little breakfast and coffee with Dave and Dawn, and then a road trip.

David gave me a ride to the airport from the college, and while he drove, for about 40 minutes, I read out loud to him from a novel that I’ve been jonesing to read for several years now, Renata Adler’s Speedboat. So we had ourselves a little experience. I suspected I would dig this novel, as it came with some super duper high recommendations from other writers I love, but I had no real idea what it would be like to read or what it would be about. It turned out to be about the most perfect book for a road-read one could possibly hope for. On every page there seemed to be some key thing that we wanted or needed to stop and discuss. And because the novel, at least in the first section, is broken up into these little vignettes, it lended itself perfectly to interruptions for driving conversations. From the opening epigraph from Evelyn Waugh, to the first chapter title (we couldn’t decide whether the single word title was a noun or a verb, decided it could be both, and then after reading for awhile decided it was indeed both, and that both interpretations worked equally well); each little piece we read, short, punchy, puzzling, enigmatic, surprising and funny, distinguished from the other vignettes by a double space between paragraphs, intrigued us, brought us together trying to puzzle it out, made us hunger for more, made me sorry David wasn’t driving me all the way to Oregon.

Reading out loud to another person, especially a friend, is a heavenly experience. I mean, I think David liked it, at least he said he did, but I loved it. Because the book was awesome, yes, but also because there’s something of constant discovery or surprise in it, and a phenomenal intimacy is forged as these funny shapes on paper turn into words spoken and sentences uttered and those utterances become a shared experience, a common or mutual understanding, constructed in partnership. What’s cooler than that?

So in the car with David I was giving a reading, taking a class, and here, at the airport, with a three hour window of waiting by a big window, I’m writing. I’m still camping. Oozing with gratitude and missing the tribe already. I’m reading, writing, napping, having a meal clear across the continent, getting on a plane again and again, going home.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: We Cried And Then We Danced

Yesterday was a day unlike any day I’ve ever had at a Warren Wilson Alumni Conference, and that’s saying something, because there have been lots of them, lots and lots of days. I want to say that maybe this is the sixth year in a  row and maybe my tenth attendance altogether for a whopping total of about 70 days at Writer’s Camp over the last 15 years or so.

Yesterday was a little bit of a perfect storm as conversations, classes, and our readings all reminded us about how this has been a year of losses. And while this conference has been for me (and I’m almost certain for others as well) life-affirming, intellectually inspiring, intensely productive, and just downright fun, those losses have been with us all along, coloring our conversations, sobering up some of our meal-time talk, darkening our discussions in classes. But worse than any of the ugliness in our body politic, as bad as that is, most all of us are still reeling from the loss of our dear friend and fellow alum Carlen Arnett, who died suddenly in January of this year. She was beloved by everyone who knew her and even by those whose interactions with her were brief. She was generous, kind, funny, lively, full of great stories, a gifted poet who in her last years had embarked on an ambitious novel inspired by “The Snow Queen.” Carlen’s main character was a friend of Gerda, the tale’s protagonist, a friend known simply as The Robber Girl. We’d been hearing her read from that novel in progress over the last several years at our conferences, so even though she was not able to finish it, that work of hers lives within us and we are lucky enough to glimpse its process and progress captured on a Facebook page Carlen set up for her work. I’m struck by how what she was doing in that fiction, bringing to a fully fleshed-out life a minor character from a German folk tale, is a lot like what she did for the real people she encountered. She brought people to life. She added vigor, and enthusiasm, and fire to every exchange. Hanging out with Carlen for any length of time, one felt infused with energy and lightness. I wish I had known her better. I can only imagine that those who did know her well have felt truly unmoored by her passing.

So our reading last night ended with a tribute to Carlen. We cried and then we danced. Our final ritual of Writer’s Camp is always the dance. And verily we danced. I wore my disco shorts. Carlen would want us to be joyful, to celebrate her life by living ours. I think she would have been proud of us.

Concluding Note: the audio at the top of this entry is an interview Carlen gave to her great friend Marcia. Marcia was kind enough to share that audio with me, and I superimposed it over the top of some music I had written with my wife René around the time of Carlen’s passing. It’s a beautiful little bit of storytelling about grocery shopping. I find it astounding and inspiring and beautifully representative of the kind of wonder Carlen had about the world. Produce is an extravaganza, she said. Yes. Yes. Yes.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: The Next Frontier

Look, a metaphor!

Remember that on July 3rd we campers were treated here at Mt. Holyoke College to a fireworks display of stupendous proportions. Yesterday, on the 4th of July, it was quiet. I’m not kidding. After the reading I sat on an Adirondack chair in the dark sipping whiskey in the middle of the lawn and I watched some stars shoot across the sky in relative silence. Not a single explosion. Well, maybe one or two, intermittently, distantly. Whoever was in charge of the display from the night before must have wanted to get all the pyrotechnic ya yas out early. That’s fine. It seemed to have worked swimmingly. I’ve become kind of a grump about fireworks. They are beautiful to watch if you can forget that they are, after all, mostly a gussied up reenactment of warfare. Not to mention the expense. Someday, perhaps, in a perfect world, in a new frontier, people will celebrate the fourth of July by blowing soap bubbles.

At the end of a class yesterday that described the literary history of American frontier exploration, both literal and symbolic, Alison asked us what we believed would be the next frontier. It was a brilliant, thought provoking question. And our responses were revelatory. We began, as you would expect us to do, with some more literal predictions. Well, there’s space, still, the infinite expanses of the universe. There’s quantum physics. My understanding is that there’s a boat load of stuff we still don’t know about the ocean. The human brain remains mysterious territory. Medicine. There will be technological advances every bit as revolutionary as the one’s we’ve experienced over just a few short years. That kind of stuff. Then the discussion got darker. As Alison’s talk had culminated in a description of Dystopia as the most recent literary “frontier,” we began to discuss the bleak, depressing, backwards, and absurd state of affairs in our country in the age of a Trump presidency. The new frontier seems dark, indeed. It was inevitable that we should land here, our first writer’s camp since the election. I can’t speak for everyone, but my guess is that as creatives, as artists, as makers, we are in this community nearly unanimous in our outrage over the current state of American politics. We are all still smarting and trying to figure out what role we have to play in these next months and years.

And then the conversation shifted.

Bookstores are inundated with readers looking for rigorous political satire. African women are writing science fiction novels. People like us are here, in this place, in this time, coming together to write, talk about writing, celebrate each other, learn from each other, lift each other up emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. Literature matters still. Literature teaches us how to be human. Literature teaches us how to be more empathetic and compassionate. Literature teaches us how to love. It was decided: we have to keep writing. And there, in this conversation about the power our words might have to make substantive difference in the world, someone suggested that the new frontier is in relationship, deep understanding and connection, the way in which our behavior in the world and our way of relating might have a ripple effect louder and farther than any firepower ever could.

And then we moved from that wonderful, enlivening conversation to an experiment with receiving and giving feedback about writing. So accustomed, as we are, to “workshops” in which the writer cannot speak but must listen as others try to communicate, sometimes helpfully but often narcissistically, what the writer needs to do to improve their work, what if instead the writer spoke the entire time and in response to honest, open questions from peers and friends, the sole purpose of which would be to elicit inquiry, reflection, discernment, to inspire the writer’s inner teacher to speak?

We tried that. The results, I think, were stunning. I believe there is almost nothing in the world more affirming than to feel and be heard. I know from personal experience that almost every moment of conflict in my life with another human being was the result of my inability or unwillingness to listen or from the perception that someone I loved or cared about was not listening to me. But what’s especially phenomenal and important and potentially transformational about this idea, is that this same gift can be given to or received from relative strangers.

There were individuals who had never met before yesterday partnered up to have this kind of conversation around writing, where one writer described a dilemma in his or her practice and then the other asked only honest, open questions and allowed the writer to speak in response. No suggestions. No advice. No fixing. No judgement. We listen attentively to others, we listen to our own responses, later, we help each other hear  and see what we might not have been conscious of, and this listening then percolates its way into clarity–immediately in some cases, in a few hours sometimes, or after weeks or months of slow cooking.

So the new frontier might be a transformation that occurs when individuals, when groups, when cultures, when whole nations learn to listen. I’m no Polyanna. But I do sometimes tend toward rose-colored glasses, or glasses half full. I’m pretty disgusted with a lot of things, but I am also heartened and hopeful where I see sense, integrity, decency, kindness, compassion–and that stuff is all around us. Over the last four days I’ve been soaking in it, Palmolive-like. We start where we are. My friend Mark insisted that we begin with those in our immediate reach. It will ripple outward, like fireworks, only softer, like soap bubbles.

Try this at home.

 

 

 

 

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