Category Archives: Culture

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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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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Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light

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Last year, I remember talking in my classroom about the terrible news, the deaths of two British cultural icons, both personal heroes of mine, David Bowie and Alan Rickman, both dead at 69. And from that discussion, this has remained in my memory: a student actually said these words to me, “So you’ve got about twenty more years to live, then.” Even though I probably should have been, I was not offended and I laughed the comment off, even sort of went along with the gag. Sure. That may be true. At 69, I too, might shuffle off this mortal coil–that is, if I get sick, or if I have some terrible accident. I don’t plan to do either of those things, but, as I understand it, these kinds of things aren’t really planned.  So, whether it’s likely or not that I’ll only live another 20 years or less, the deaths of David Bowie, and days later, Alan Rickman moved me to a surprising degree, and got me thinking, as I am still thinking, thinking seriously, about mortality and impermanence, about living a life, and about what might be learned about dying from the passing of these two giants.

My youth, as is true for most all of us, was punctuated by the deaths of celebrities. The ones I paid closest attention to were the deaths of musicians. Elvis. John Lennon. Bon Scott. These are the ones that come immediately to mind. And I know, that as a young person, these deaths shook me, saddened me, especially because all three of them were tragic, senseless, preventable. But I moved on, as young people do, and things would return pretty much back to normal for a long long time. The deaths of people I know, mostly family, mostly well into their 80’s when they died, stay with me in my vivid memories of them tied directly to experience. My father died at 83, 7 years ago now, after a year long recovery from a cardiac arrest, and while I mourned his death more deeply than any other, my memories of him are a constant presence for me. I feel him with me all the time, most powerfully, sometimes happily and sometimes not, in the ways that I realize I am so much like him, in the various and spooky ways I feel I AM him or have become him. With Bowie and Rickman I have no genetic connection, but insofar as their work has been with me off and on for 30 or 40 years, they too, feel like family; they too, feel like a part of my genetic make-up. As I am my Dad, I am also Bowie and Rickman.

In a way, especially for musicians and actors and writers, they remain very much alive: we have a tangible record of their artistic lives and we can revisit that record over and over again on our turntables, our televisions or computers, in our libraries, and in our memories.  My dad left no recordings. He left no writings, or at least I don’t think he did. He left me his wedding ring. He left me two brothers and a sister, he left me half of my own genetic self and 45 years of example through his parenting and husbanding. So while I can keep Bowie and Rickman spinning in the exterior world, my father must remain inside. But all of it will be with me so long as I can operate the audio-visual equipment in my house and the audio-visual equipment inside my head. I’m going to try my best to keep both in working condition past my own 69 years.

And finally, in our current state of affairs, culturally and politically in this United States of America in 2017, I feel more than ever a deep need to keep exposing myself to and attempting to create the ineffable, the deathless, the lasting, humanizing record in art of our existence. I feel now a kind of urgent need to listen to more music, make more music, write more poems and stories, to read more, and to live more deeply in the world. Bowie made music until the end. Rickman made films until the end. My friend Carlen Arnett kept contributing her art until the very end. I hope I can do as much in my own humble way. And so I begin with this little meditation that I have titled after this exquisite and famous poem by Dylan Thomas. I hope you enjoy both.

Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas1914 – 1953

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

 

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#239: 24 Hours, No Facebook, No News Redux (Inauguration Day, 2017)

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It’s inauguration day and I have once again sworn off
Facebook and any internet news or television media
for 24 hours. All I know is that my son watched
the thing in his 5th grade classroom today
and he said some kids and his teacher
were crying. He and a friend, he said, were
angry and felt that no one understood.
I heard a teacher in my building say that
the inaugural address was more of the same
and if that’s an accurate assessment
apparently I did not miss a thing.
My pledge to abstain from the news is
simply an effort not to give any attention
to this man who is not and never will be my guy.
And it’s disingenuous to say he deserves
a chance. He’s had tons of those and blew them all.
It’s disingenuous to say, this is how it is and
it’s your country after all so buck up and get in.
I believe the more patriotic move is to resist
what in no possible light could be considered good
or just or wise or anything noble and high,
anything other than an embarrassment.
What I am missing, I assume, is the good
news about the spreading resistance.
And why wouldn’t I want to see that?
To be honest, I do, I really do want to see that
and it’s very difficult not to climb on board
the media wagon to view the spectacle of this
historic refusal in marches taking place today
and tomorrow and the next day all over the land.
I can always catch up and I know that I will.
To stay away today, to have been completely
present for my students, and for this poem,
to be reflective without the images and the audio
and the punditry of the day, makes it possible,
perhaps, for me to sit with it in solitude
and to prove that it is finally possible to look away,
at least temporarily, until I understand better
what is most needed and how I can be there
in some meaningful way.

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#236: Media Fast, Anyone?

no_social_media

I cannot help it.
I can’t look away.
It’s a train wreck,
a complete cluster,
and every morning
begins with the same
question:

What’s the outrage of the day?

And now that I’m on
a holiday break I’ve got
something like free time
to keep checking in on
the downfall of my
civilization.

I think I need to stop.

While it might make me
more informed, this incessant
checking of the news, it does
nothing for my present
happiness. I remember a
time, about 16 years ago,
before Facebook was a thing,
when I took a break from watching
the news. I perused the paper
at work so as not to live
completely under a rock,
but I spared myself from
the pictures and the talking
heads and the bullshit
advertisements, and I think,
for awhile, it made me feel
better, smarter even, and
certainly, less anxious.

It might be possible to skip
the stuff that makes me anxious
and only do those social things
that are pleasurable or that
create connection with loved ones,
but even these things, as
necessary as they sometimes feel,
can drive me a little drunk
with dependence.

The power and the influence
of the internet has changed
everything. It’s a bombardment
of the senses and its making
me, I fear, senseless.

So I am entertaining the idea
of a fast with little confidence
that I will be successful at its
implementation. I am thinking.

I am thinking.

And with me, that’s how it always
begins: a desire or a thought,
some words spoken or written,
a visualization in repetition,
and then finally an effort
to make something happen.
What mysterious gifts might
take the place of the ubiquitous web?
How long could I stay away?
What will I miss?  And will it matter?

 

 

 

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#228: On the Day After the Election

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Having wept myself to sleep the night before,
I got up and went to work in the school house
where we met in small teams in the library
to plan or do curriculum work or talk about
assessments, where instead I chose to color
with crayons at the table our new librarian
set up for art. It was the only thing I could do.
I colored inside the lines with several different
shades of blue and some pink here and there
while I tried to keep myself together.
Talking to anyone, to any friendly face,
I had to work hard not to break down.

I was thankful when students arrived inside
my room. They gave me a focus, a place to
channel my energies, an opportunity to make
some kind of difference. My 9th graders,
unusually subdued and cooperative, dove with
some enthusiasm into a Sherman Alexie novel,
a novel about race, culture, and class divide,
but a novel, too, about hope. Arnold Spirit Jr.
realizes it feels good to help others, and I could
feel that thought resonating inside the room.
Later, my seniors came in for a study of
A Room of One’s Own, and rather than talk and
have to face the reality of this particular irony
head on, I asked my students to make art,
to talk about what was going on in Virginia
Woolf’s head by drawing it on the page.
Students must have paused for a long time
at the passage about the cat without a tail,
the cat pausing, “as if it too questioned the
universe,” as Woolf realizes that, suddenly,

“Everything was
different”
and
“Nothing was changed”
and yet, “the change was there”
not in substance but in sound.
What did men hum before the election?
What did women hum before the election?
And now what, after?
We carry on. We cling to hope.
We agitate and advocate for what we know is good.
We color, and we do what I found today
to be most healthful, finding comfort in
kindness from others and the kind attention
I could give, a hug I received from my son,
and solace in the words on the page.

 

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Melt The Guns

For those of you who have been following my project of listening to my music collection from A to Z and writing reflections on each album: no, I am not jumping ahead from D to X.  Instead, inspired by a friend of mine posting this tune in Facebook on the day we learned of yet another  school shooting, this one in my own backyard, so to speak, I felt compelled to post it here–not just the audio, but these lyrics, penned by Andy Partridge of the great XTC (an English pop band) in 1982.  Nineteen-eighty-fucking-two.  It only takes a quick google search to learn that school shootings in the United States did not originate in the late 20th century and into the 21st. We have a long history of them going back all the way to the 18th century. However, I think it’s safe to say that none of these shootings were of the magnitude and the devastation of the ones that we’re now seeing in our time. In 1982 Andy Partridge could not have imagined the depths to which his brethren across the big pond would sink in their efforts to hold on to their personal arsenals despite one devastating loss after another devastating loss. And yet, here’s this tune, so spot-on, so embarrassingly true.

Please read along while you listen.  Neither the audio or the lyric are reproduced here by permission. I’m hoping, that if he ever finds out, Andy Partridge will forgive me.

Melt The Guns

Programmes of violence
As entertainment,
Brings the disease into your room.
We know the germ
Which is man-made in metal
Is really a key to your own tomb.

Prevention is better than cure,
Bad apples affecting the pure,
You’ll gather your senses I’m sure
Then agree to

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more to fire them.

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more desire them.

Children will want them,
Mothers supply them,
As long as your killers are heroes.
And all the media
Will fiddle while rome burns,
Acting like modern-time neros.

Prevention is better than cure,
Bad apples affecting the pure,
You’ll gather your senses I’m sure
Then agree to,

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more to fire them.

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more desire them.

I’m speaking to the justice league of america.
The u s of a,
Hey you,
Yes you in particular!
When it comes to the judgement day and you’re standing at the gates with your weaponry,
You dare go down on one knee,
Clasp your hands in prayer and start quoting me,
‘cos we say…
Our father we’ve managed to contain the epidemic in one place, now,
Let’s hope they shoot themselves instead of others,
Help to civilize the race now.
We’ve trapped the cause of the plague,
In the land of the free and the home of the brave.
If you listen quietly you can hear them shooting from grave to grave.
You ought to,

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more to fire them.

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more desire them.

“Melt The Guns” is track #7 on the album English Settlement by XTC. It was written by Partridge, Andy.

Lyrically, this song is not perfect–not very many rock tunes are.  There are places in this lyric that confuse me and bits of it that don’t seem quite right, philosophically. But what I most admire about this indictment is the attention it calls to the way in which guns have been embraced by American culture to the degree that our society lacks all imagination for any other vision. It is a madness so pervasive that we do absolutely nothing after grade schoolers are gunned down in Newtown. I also appreciate the song’s bridge where Partridge points the finger directly at the United States! And in this fascinating move (if I understand it correctly) Andy points the finger right back at the U.K.   –as if somehow England left us not only with our independence, but with our guns and our second amendment–an abused and misused and misunderstood little piece of the constitution if ever there was one.

I have very little to add to this conversation.  It’s all been said so well and so eloquently by countless others.  It’s more personal because I work in a school and because I have a child in school–along with millions of others who must also be tired of this new terror and sick to death that our politicians do nothing about it. It seems to me that any politician who takes money from a gun lobby should be ineligible for office. Vote these fuckers out, please.

I’m way anti-gun.  I’m in favor of strict gun-control. I will never have a gun in my household. I have mixed feelings even about my son’s nerf gun arsenal. No, actually, the feelings aren’t mixed.  I feel bad. But I understand that it’s not just about guns; it’s about a lot of other things too. I’ve read so many articles over the last couple of days about this subject (I should probably stop), that I have difficulty remembering all the sources, but this piece by Mark Manson stands out, not only because he calls attention to much of what we don’t understand about the issue and its causes and effects, but because his conclusion comes down to a level where every individual has some agency and control–and that is about the way we care for one another, the way we are in our communities, the way we love and the way we listen. Empathy. He’s right.  I think about the way I could help. I think about the way I could take better care of my students. And then I remember that I have 178 of them. I have classes of 36 kids in the same room at the same time. One of my principal charges as an educator, a core-value of mine, to KNOW my students, is next to impossible in these conditions. It is the nature of the beast that the students I most need to help are suffering in silence and I will never know it.

Andy Partridge of XTC was correct, too, decades before it would be up in our faces like it is today, but he only described part of the problem, albeit a huge part of the problem.

Do we want to live in a less violent society? Do we want teachers and students to work and learn without constant fear? Do we want to feel and actually be safe in public places, in movie theaters, concert halls, malls, fares and markets? Do we want automatic weapons and assault rifles out of the hands of any civilian, no matter how upstanding, no matter how law-abiding, because we understand that these kinds of weapons have only one real purpose? If we can keep our cities and planes safe from terrorists abroad for 15 years running, can we not do something to keep our citizens safe from the terrorism of gun violence at home? We must act as if these things are not only possible, but absolutely non-negotiable. The eternal optimist: I think it can be done.

I’m out of things to say for now. Here’s some material to consider:

Say No to ‘The New Normal’ — Five Things You Can Do About Gun Violence

http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-simple-truth-about-gun-control

Need “ammunition” for an argument against the pro-gun crazies? Look here.

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/4-pro-gun-arguments-were-sick-of-hearing-20151001

And then there’s this from The Onion, which strikes me as not even a piece of satire, but an honest statement about our insane belief that we are helpless against terror: http://www.theonion.com/article/no-way-prevent-says-only-nation-where-regularly-ha-51444

And we’ll leave it at this:

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