Category Archives: Self Reflection

A Journal of the Plague Year: #26

What a terrible time to stop drinking. In the first week of this glorious new year, I was so disheartened by the attempted coup, the insurrection in our nation’s capital, it would have been SO easy to drown out that despair with alcohol. Similarly, it would have been so simple (and yet impossible) to self-medicate away the death toll of 420,000 Americans lost to the Coronavirus. Conversely, a celebratory drink or two or three would have been totally justified at the inauguration of our 46th President, Joe Biden, and the first ever female, Asian-American, African-American Vice President in the history of the United States, Kamala Harris, not to mention an inaugural day that, across the country, was marred by not a single act of violence in protest, at least not on my radar. I might have raised a glass in approval at Trump’s ban from Twitter and Facebook, his second impeachment by the house, and I might have raised still another glass as his sorry ass, in a helicopter, lifted into the air from the White House, never to return. And then, I decided to dye my hair purple, the kind of decision a man of a certain age makes while drinking. I even went through with it! So many good reasons to be drinking! But I have not been drinking. You might call it a dry January–but, to be fair, I had my last drink on January 2nd, have abstained then, as of today, for only 28 out of these 30 days in the month, and, of course, the month is not over. A single day is a long time.

It hasn’t been easy. Two or three nights ago I watched Jimmy Kimmel, in celebration for his sideman Guillermo’s 50th birthday, show a montage of about 50 celebrities taking shots in honor of the occasion. Today I drove by an open-air beer garden and my favorite liquor store on my way home from an errand. It’s getting a little bit more difficult as the month closes itself out and I know I have a decision to make: was this a dry January–or the beginning of a longer commitment to live without–or with significantly less–alcohol? The jury is out. I miss it and I don’t miss it. As I’ve felt in other years when I have made this same prolonged abstinence, I am mostly glad to know that I can do it. Without withdrawals, without lapses, without any kind of detrimental side-effect (save the purple hair), I have been able to live for a time, quite contentedly, without booze.

I didn’t mean for this entire blog entry to be about drinking or not drinking. It just seems to be a little bit front and center. Maybe, for me, it feels less casual of a thing than it does for most Dry Januarians. My parents drank every day of their lives for as long as I can remember, and in my middle to late-middle years, I find myself to have become the same kind of drinker. I am trying to be super conscious about how my life, or how I feel about my life, changes without it. I know that when I am not drinking, I tend to be more creative. I tend to be more productive. I feel smarter. I tend to be happier–less likely to enter a funk of melancholy. And, as much good news as there is in this new world regarding a more engaged, more compassionate, more representative administration, and regarding an impending mass-inoculation against COVID-19, there is still the residual bad news abounding and leftover in the wake of Trump; for example, today, in Los Angeles, a protest by far-right conspiracy goons prevented people from getting vaccinated! –despite this, as angry as that makes me, I do not feel the impulse to self-medicate. I am less easily rattled or annoyed. I am more present to others–maybe. I’m more engaged, as much as I can be, with my students in distance learning. I think I sleep better and my dreaming is more vivid. I snore less. This is all to the good, but there are things, sadly, that haven’t changed. Without all of that empty calorie, and even with a fair amount of exercise, I don’t think I’ve lost an ounce. I was kind of betting on that. I don’t think I’m eating more to compensate, or eating worse things for me–you know, replacing one poison for another kind of poison. But maybe I am. A single serving of my favorite gummy worm, seven little worms, is only 90 calories. That’s not bad, but there’s an occasional cookie. Too many carbs, perhaps. Thankfully, the resident teenager beats me to most of the snack food. But I bet I snacked less when I was drinking! The dumb part of my brain just wanted to see more miraculous results, and thinks to itself, alas, if there aren’t clear and positive health results (ignoring for a moment the list of benefits above), why bother? Man, I so much wanted to take a shot with all those celebrities! I mean, Guillermo only turns 50 once in his life!

I don’t know how to close. This entry feels somewhat confessional. I don’t want it to be. I don’t want to confess. I want to say that I don’t feel shame about drinking and I won’t feel shame about breaking my abstinence in February, if I choose to do so. I know there are forces in my life and in the culture at large that both want to shame me about alcohol use AND encourage me to keep doing it. What it’s about, I think–what it’s always been about, is consciousness, understanding, being awake to and honest about the relationships we have to the stuff that’s bad for us. I know I’ve said this before in past entries written around the turn of a new year: we need (I need) to drink more mindfully, to be fully aware of why I’m doing it and what it’s bringing to me, both good and bad. Meanwhile, on the eve of the last day of January, 2021, I’m still dry. And I have purple hair.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #25

Cheers!

This morning I got up to find a comment posted to one of my blog entries! How exciting is that? I will tell you. It’s pretty exciting. It’s rare, these days–it’s rare in general, but it seems more rare these days–in part, I know, because I have not been writing. Guess what the blog entry was about–the one that received a comment? “Stop the Block by Writing About the Block: A Resolution.” It was published on the blog site a year ago, right after Christmas, 2019. Curious about what I had to say about writer’s block a year ago, because, as I stand here with my coffee after sorting the laundry on this bleak, wet, Saturday morning, I am fully aware that I have hardly written a word since September, I re-read my blog entry. In the first paragraph, I confess, “Inexplicably (or not), I have hardly written a word since September.” Hmm. I sense a pattern. I wonder if I went back another year I would find a similar confession. I think it’s true, generally speaking, that the time between September and January seems to be a creatively dark time for yours truly, inexplicably (or not). Mostly I think it’s explicable. Let me explicate.

I blame the beginning of the new academic school year. Getting the ball rolling in a public high school and in my own realm as a classroom English teacher, is always a monumental undertaking. Even though, most often, everything is already in place in terms of planning and curriculum, there is just something pretty exhausting about the first few months of a new school year. But this year–oh my–this year was an entirely new jarful of bees. Is that a thing? I was going for a colloquial metaphor there, and I think I may have missed the mark. Bucket of rats? Nest of wasps? Barrel of monkeys? No, none of those are good. Let me just say that it was terrible. This fall we had the monumental undertaking of reimagining everything we do for the virtual-world classroom, for distance learning. That means that every single lesson had to be re-written, re-formatted, transformed into some interactive slide-show. Curriculum had to be condensed. Time had new meaning. The school day itself, reinvented. Suddenly, we relied on help from our colleagues more than ever before and we were feeling blessed and lucky if we had a strong team. The boundary between work and home became completely blurry. I found myself grading or planning until 7 or 8 o’clock at night and receiving text notifications that Johnny had finally turned in his essay at 1 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday.

Needless to say, it was difficult, if not impossible, to write a poem, a story, or work on my memoir, or record a song, or read a book for pleasure. This is how I explain the lack of creative productivity from Autumn to Winter, especially this year. And while this transition or transformation from the school house to the virtual google classroom was, in itself and by necessity, a creative act–it did not satisfy the soul in the same way as writing what you think might be a pretty good poem.

So, how do we get started again in this new year, a year that promises to be a continuation of the pandemic nightmare of the last nine months–with the optimism added to the mix of a couple of vaccines and a new administration? If I look again at last year’s resolution blog entry, I find that I had set myself a number of goals and even went so far as to design a kind of checklist to track my progress–inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s virtue checklist from his autobiography. And just like Franklin admits about his project, mine, while it yielded early results, ultimately failed–but not in its entirety. Write a thing a week? I think I was able to do that, or close to it, at least until September. Read for pleasure more often? Not nearly as much as I would have liked. I did not, for example, read a book a month. Write an album’s worth of songs? Nope. However–music was made this year in small increments and in some new collaborations. Close, but no cigar. Make arrangements to speak to people who will help me? No, I did not do that. This one rankles, perhaps, more than the others. Why is it that the things we know are necessary are sometimes the hardest things to do? I’m no psychologist. Meditate more often? Well, no. In fact, while I didn’t give it up and maintained a loose practice of meditation, I jettisoned altogether the tracking of stats on my Insight Timer. Spent some time, instead, with Sam Harris on his Wake Up app–which yielded some good results, but still, was insufficient on its own. I’ve never quite gotten used to the idea that someone should be talking at me while I’m trying to meditate, even if it’s Sam Harris. And lumped into the goals about seeking the help of others and a stronger meditation practice was some totally sincere and earnest stuff about better general health. This didn’t work out too well, either. I don’t think I’m alone when I admit that I do not think the isolation during the COVID 19 pandemic has done a single bit of good for my health–except for the fact that I have not contracted COVID-19.

If I were to set goals for myself again for 2021, they would look almost identical to these. But we all know instinctively or intuitively, and the research bears this out, that resolutions often fail. I know I’ve written about this before. We also know, though, and teach our younglings, that goal setting is somewhat paramount to self-improvement, yes? So what’s the mystery? What’s the key? I think it is possible, and advisable, to go ahead and make the goals. Yeah, write them down. Revisit them often to remind yourself about what it is that you want. But ultimately, you must be kind to yourself, you must be forgiving, you cannot beat yourself up, wring your hands, gnash your teeth. And you have to accept the fact that certain things may happen that are completely out of your control, things that may wreak havoc on your best laid plans: a pandemic comes to mind. 330,000 American casualties. The death of a mother-in-law. The dire cancer diagnosis of a brother-in-law. Another dire cancer diagnosis for a friend. Wildfires. A democratic society on the brink of dictatorship. An election year fraught with danger and divisiveness unlike anything most of us have ever seen, an election that feels to everyone of all political stripes to be of monumental, earth-shattering, history-making, dire consequence. The continued violence against black and brown Americans in the streets of our country and a justice system that repeatedly fails to do the right thing. We’ve had a lot this year to take us away from our goals, to make us feel pretty sheepish, frankly, about self-improvement, especially when and if we have been lucky and/or privileged, as I know I have been.

Meanwhile, it helps to find things and people that inspire you and move yourself in those directions. Even during the pandemic, when attendance at a yearly writers conference was impossible, we found a way to conduct a mini-conference through zoom. I participated in a manuscript exchange with some friends from the Warren Wilson MFA program, and this weekend, on the first and second day of the new year, we have organized a virtual reading for poets and fiction writers from that same program. We are finding ways to connect to the tribe. And these things, just over the last couple of days, plus this lovely comment that I found this morning on last year’s blog entry, have put a charge in my creative reservoir. Lo and behold. I have written almost 1500 words.

So, finally, happy new year to you, readers, friends, family. Let’s hope 2021 is less of a shit show. I’m guardedly optimistic about that, but the bar is pretty low, isn’t it? Nevertheless, we have lots to be hopeful about. I wish you the best of luck with your goals for the new year. May you tap into your own creative impulses, whatever they may be, in order to experience a rich, productive, life-giving new year. Cheers!

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #6

This morning (upon waking? in the shower? during meditation, while Sam Harris spoke to me about conscious awareness? over breakfast?), I found myself thinking Thoreau. Passages from Walden were emerging from the memory banks where favorite books are stored. It occurred to me that if one were to grab a classic from American Literature off the shelf that might be of great use during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be Walden. In particular, the section called “Solitude.” If there was ever a prince or a king of social distancing, it would be Henry David Thoreau. This particular passage comes to me first, as he imagines what he would say to those who question his nutty project of living in the woods alone for two years:

Men frequently say to me, “I should think you would feel lonesome down there, and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days and nights especially.” I am tempted to reply to such,–This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way?

As things get more and more serious we tend to be more and more careful, and the difficulty of today was in telling our son that it would be best if his friend did not come over. She lives right down the road, is more than likely practicing her own social distancing, is likely safe to have around–but at what point can you know with any certainty that someone outside your family, no matter how trusted, is not carrying this stupid virus? What chance are you willing to take? It appears, at least today, we’re not taking chances. We’re only eight days into this thing and the chances are that it will get worse and that this conversation will get harder and harder. Us married folks, especially us long-time married folks, take each other’s company for granted, I suppose. If we had to, it probably wouldn’t kill us to be apart, but we don’t have to, and so we have each other’s company all through this thing, a huge comfort. But if you’re young and smitten, think what the prospects of weeks away from your friend might signify! The bloody end of the world as we know it. You’ll have to settle for your parents! And for solitude.

I am, I would say, a social person in small doses. I love small, intimate gatherings but I loath crowded social events–and I do love solitude. Thoreau again:

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

I think that my son has inherited some of this from me. He’ll spend gobs of time in his room “alone.” Most of that time he is not really alone, occupied as he usually is with communications in real time with his gaming buddies. But when he practices his drumming, or when he does his homework, or when he reads, he seems content often to be alone. But this will be difficult and it will get more and more difficult. And my thoughts move from Thoreau to Rilke.  In his Letters to a Young Poet, offering more advice about loving and living than he ever gives about writing, he gifts to the young poet and subsequently the entire world that famous and absolutely incalculable good advice: Hold to the difficult. Today’s reading, not a poem but a piece of prose–from a poet, a selection I hope you find as comforting as I do in times of difficulty.

 

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Life Envy: The FOMO

 

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I want to be living that life. By myself, late at night, sitting in the dark of the back yard with my phone, the dog, and a drink, I actually heard myself say this out loud: I want to be living that life. It’s crazy, I know, but looking sometimes at pictures of people on Facebook doing things you would like to do, having experiences you would like to have, you get this feeling, an inescapable feeling that you are missing out. We call it FOMO. I must admit that I have experienced the FOMO. I try as best as I can to massage my FOMO into something like happiness for the person in the post: I am so glad they get to have this experience. Then, I take it a little bit further by thinking that I am so glad they decided to share this moment with their friends, of which I consider myself one. Then, the conclusion of the exercise is to think or actually say out loud how grateful I am for the experiences I have had, the luck, and the privilege. I know, in these moments, I have had experiences that some of my friends have never had, and I know that I am super fortunate because of that. In 95% of my waking existence on the planet I would not trade my life for anyone else’s. But on this last occasion, when I caught myself expressing the FOMO out loud to no one in particular, to the trees, to the dog in the yard, to the martini I was sipping, to myself, I panicked for a moment. What is it about this that I desire? The person in question may be beautiful. It may be that they seem extremely happy or content. In all likelihood, they are in a place I have always wanted to go, seeing something I have always wanted to see, learning something I have always wanted to learn, successful at something at which I too would like to succeed, or doing something I know I would enjoy but find I have not yet had the opportunity to enjoy. It is ridiculous and ridiculously human, a tendency we have always had, to be envious of others, but now exacerbated by social media because we are not only hearing ABOUT the experiences of others, we are seeing them in photo, or seeing and hearing them in video, ALL THE TIME. And that pushes the buttons of desire and envy. But . . .

It’s like meditation. You don’t beat yourself up when your mind wanders. Instead, you simply notice its wandering, you pay attention, and then you come back to the breath or the mantra and you continue. Maybe that’s why I said it out loud: I want to be living that life. I was paying attention. It was kind of an alarm set off by my internal brakes to the wheels of envy and desire. This is better than what I suspect a lot of people do: they see their friends and acquaintances living a great life and they begin to feel anxious and sad without being aware of the connection. And we have to remind ourselves, don’t we, that our facebook personalities are self-curated. Some people select only the happiest moments and ignore the trauma and sadness, others, in an effort to be authentic, balance the joy and the suffering, while still others use social media to essentially suffer in public. While the middle way seems most admirable, none of these strategies are inclusive of a life. They’re still just snapshots. Judging me from my facebook posts, it might seem like the only thing I ever do is play the drums and listen to music and that I am an extremely cheerful guy. Only partly true. There are things that make me fearful or anxious; there are issues that need attending in my own inner and outer work; I sometimes question, as William Stafford does, if “what I have done is my life.” It is pointless to haunt one’s self with What If questions. If one is haunted by a What If question, perhaps some action is necessary. But if one is suspicious, self-reflective enough to recognize the FOMO for what it is, sure, go ahead and say out loud, I want to be living that life. In the next moment, though, allow the gratitude to bubble up for this one–and then put your phone away, write a poem or read a book, or have a drink outside with your dog.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: Time On Our Side?

time-perception-mysteries-e1521774277250

Synchronicity, as Jung described it, is a meaningful coincidence, an “acausal connecting principal.” Things happen back to back that seem to be meaningfully related; even though the first thing could not be said to have caused the second thing, we still feel the buzz or the chill of revelation, usually in a thrilling and positive way. We’ve all experienced these, but some of us experience them more often than others, some of us perhaps experience them all the time. I tend, when I am feeling inspired or especially creative, on the cusp of the next big idea for writing or teaching, or in the company of inspiring friends, to experience synchronicity in pretty heavy doses. Like now.

Last week, wrapping up my study with 9th graders of e. e. cummings, I shared with them a poem I wrote a couple of years ago about time, or rather, how we live within it, and whether or not, as cummings is constantly asking, we are being or unbeing in our experience of time. Today, at my bi-weekly meditation group meeting, time was the subject and the theme, our relationship to our past and future selves and the way in which we might have dialogue with those selves on our way to a spiritual goal. Then I got in the car to drive home, turned on NPR, and began listening to the TED Radio Hour, and guess what the topic was at noon? Time. I’ve been writing a blog series titled “Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year.” There have been two penultimate years now in a row, hence the “Redux” in the current title. Both the words “penultimate” and “redux” are inextricably time-tied words. I don’t know how many more years will be penultimate ones, but it strikes me now more than ever that I am increasingly aware of keeping track, counting up, remembering, thinking about, appreciating, and playing with TIME. I don’t know that I have anything wise to say about it. Let’s find out.

The current wisdom, one that I aspire to and espouse, is that one should try to live in the moment, to be fully present, but one of the Ted Talk Time Theorists was saying that this is a mistake, that only the past and future are real, that the present is illusory, that each moment is behind us in the instant we give thought to it. Maybe that is true, but I still think there are huge qualitative differences in the way of being present in the present–as everyone knows who has ever tried to have a meaningful exchange with someone who is looking at a smart phone, or has ever failed at a task in the moment because of anxiety about something in the future or in the past. I meditate, in large part, to mediate distraction, to ground myself in the moment, to have 15 or 20 minutes a day when my only concern is the breath going in and the breath going out. And while I say that, I know how sometimes excruciatingly bad I am at this–even in silent meditation, my mind is alway teetering between the past and the present, remembering and planning, remembering and planning. So, here are a few more takeaways about time that I gleaned from today’s meditation and today’s TED Radio Hour:

  • People tend to think of themselves as having “arrived” in the current moment–to see themselves in the present as the best yet version of themselves.
  • We feel gratitude toward our past selves, even if he or she was an asshole.
  • Our future self is very encouraging to us, mostly telling us to keep doing what we’re doing, that everything’s going to work out for the best.
  • There’s something really weird, special, and ubiquitous about 4 in the morning.
  • Our memory of our past is not very good–we should make some kind of record of it.
  • Time can make us simultaneously happy and sad: Exhibit A–finding yourself in tears when you look at a picture of your kid from four years ago. Exhibit B: being so happy in the presence of a beloved friend that you want to cry and often do.
  • Time is experienced differently by young people than it is by older people, creating the illusion that it passes more slowly for children and more quickly for adults. That’s because the older you are the more understanding you have of your own mortality.
  • We don’t know if time existed before the Big Bang. The universe is expanding at an ever increasing rate. The universe is a big place and it’s not the only one. We are hurling through space.
  • Time will tell.
  • Time after time.
  • It takes time. These things.
  • Time is probably not on my side.
  • And a joke I saw on Facebook today: What did Dickens have in his spice rack? The best of thyme, the worst of thyme.

In the not so distant future, I will write a poem every day in the month of April for the 7th year in a row. In this way, I will make a record of the time. I’ll close with a blast from the past, my 264th blog poem, the poem I shared with my students last week inspired by e. e. cummings and a prompt from the napowrimo website to compose a thing called a “bop.”  

#264: to be anywhereish

(a bop inspired by e.e. cummings)

to be anywhereish and everywhereish
all at once is to be at the mercy of somewhereishness,
and that’s a huge, unmindfulish problem.
someplace else is really no place and you
wander about sheepfully looking for anywhere
but where you are in the nano of the moment.

time is not on your side; no it ain’t.

you may have holdings in the future tense.
you may have findings in the yesteryearly nest.
but the problem is still that there is no now here
and there is not even there anymore, besides.
don’t look at me like that, you goat, not when,
not where. you sit there in your forward engine
and you, clueless, mathless, autocorrect yourself
until the starstuff between your ears spills outwardly.

time is not on your side; no it ain’t.

i think there’s an unsolution. Look deeplyish
at the center of anything and do what no one ever
tells you to do: that’s right, don’t eat that peach.
a friend of mine around sunday kept naming
a tangerine a nectarine. so in the now he forgot
everything, even names. Somewhere in there: that’s it.

time is not on your side; no it ain’t.

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Mindfulness in 2018: A Reflection

My meditation stats were stunning in 2018, comparatively, that is. Here’s the snapshot: one hundred and seventy-one consecutive days on the cushion as compared to one hundred and twenty four days the previous year. That’s an improvement of almost an entire two month’s worth of meditation on a cushion. However, I must confess that my daily practice has severely fallen off since the day I reached the 171 day record, way back in June–for reasons I might be able to get into here. Welcome to my fourth annual year-end reflection, wherein I try publicly to figure some stuff out about the previous 12 months and set some new goals for the new year.

I’d like to say 2018 ended well, but truth be told, the end of the year finds me in the midst of several upsetting little quandaries. Let me list them.

  • My meditation practice has fallen off considerably.
  • My writing practice has fallen off considerably. I have not been writing nearly as regularly as I would like–and that’s a common writer complaint–we’re never as productive as we’d like to be. But sometimes it’s a real anxiety machine–not being able to give yourself a little slack, worrying that the last thing you finished might be the last good idea you will ever have. The stuff of nightmares. Similarly, the last time I wrote a song was a year ago. Also not good.
  • The current state of American politics infuriates and depresses me, literally.
  • I’ve got a cold, damn it, one that’s been tenaciously holding on for dear life for the better part of two weeks now. Merry Christmas to me.
  • Apparently, I have a torn meniscus.
  • Over the last couple of years, I’ve been struggling with what appears to be my first serious health challenge of my “middle” age: I have hypertension, high blood pressure. Most of the time I feel pretty great, but blood pressure issues are sneaky and scary, my numbers waffle wildly, sometimes venturing into some horrifying territory, and since a colleague of mine recently had a triple by-pass surgery after a heart attack, I have been of late filled with dread and trepidation about my imminent demise. Truly, I do not think my demise is imminent. I am prone to hyperbole on this first day of 2019. But, I’d be lying to you if I said that I wasn’t a little worried. So my doctor keeps prescribing increasing doses of a blood pressure med called Lisinopril. We haven’t arrived yet at a dosage that works for me, and he just prescribed the largest possible dose of this stuff. Okay. I am supposed to check back with him in a month. My condition may require a cocktail of pills. Yippee. Better than the alternative, I must admit.
  • I have felt over the last year somewhat disconnected from my family. My wife, son, and I seem to be ships passing. Very busy, all of us, doing our own thing.
  • Motivationally, regarding almost anything, I have felt rather sluggish of late. I have spent too much time over the last year when I could be reading, writing, making music, or exercising, falling into the internet rabbit hole, habitually checking the national bad news, reflexively perusing the social media, and drinking too much. I have concluded that I think I drink too much. I’m noticing my choice of words there. None of this seems very mindful.

And it all seems like bad news.

We make our own realities, the wise ones tell us. Our behaviors have consequences, and sometimes our realities are shaped by the way we choose to look at them. So perhaps it might be helpful to simply try on another lens, to look at the above “issues” in a more positive light, or to think about the positive things that moved through 2018 instead of just the shitty ones. Okay. Let us try this experiment, addressing a different perspective on the above yuck in the same order.

  • I think I am learning to let go of the idea that meditation is something that one must keep track of faithfully like an athlete keeps track of their accomplishments and stats. I have meditated and will continue to meditate when I feel like it, when I am able, when the spirit moves me, when my meditation group meets every other Sunday, even, perhaps, when I am driving (remembering, of course, to keep my eyes open). There are opportunities to meditate outside the confines of the cushion, and I don’t need my Insight Timer app to be with me on a walk, or in silent moments in the classroom, or when I’m cuddling with my dogs. Is it important that I even know how many consecutive days I’ve meditated? Or how many total hours? Probably not.
  • I have written less this year, yes, but I have come super close to finishing two manuscripts. I revised the novella I’ve been working on for several years now, and I have a book of poems essentially ready to go. And yes, I haven’t written a song in a year, but I played the drums more this year than I have in the previous eight combined. I have found myself a gig in an 80s cover band that has kept me very busy and refreshed my drum set chops in a big way–AND–I’ve made new friends in the process.
  • The infuriating state of affairs in American politics was seriously shaken up in the midterm elections, especially in the House of Representatives, where democrats now have the majority, and the make-up of these elected officials actually comes somewhat close to representing the people it serves by gender, ethnicity, faith, orientation. There is hope. We are self correcting. More of that, please.
  • The cold is on the mend.
  • I’ve been seeing a chiropractor for the knee, and she is kind and lovely and an appointment with her comes with an hour of massage therapy.
  • The blood pressure, after a hair-raisingly high rating Sunday night, seems to be coming down. What was it that Twain said so famously: reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated? I have only died a little bit–rather, I have reached a sobering conclusion that as I get older I cannot ignore my body and its inner workings. My blood is telling me something and I need to shut up and listen. I’m all ears.
  • The fact of the matter is that my wife René has been working very hard and very successfully at building her own business; she is doing, most importantly, what she WANTS to be doing–and she’s making a living. This requires from both of us a bit of negotiating–a difficult balancing act–but one that we have been for the most part successful at for 33 years. We are not deterred by these challenges and have begun to acknowledge to each other that certain aspects of our lives together may require some care in 2019. My son, on the other hand, is 13. That explains most of it right there. I’m coming to that sad state in the parenting life when we begin to realize that our babies no longer need us. I mean, they do, of course, but they are eking out their independences from us, no longer see us as the center of their universes, and consequentially, are often making us feel rather superfluous. I can make this a celebration of his growth rather than a personal loss. He is significantly less needy, that’s for sure. Bonus.
  • Last night, I had my first dry New Year’s Eve celebration in memory. No alcohol. I was in a venue to play music for the big celebration and I was surrounded by alcohol. Not a single drink did I take. I am now four days clean and sober. I say that only somewhat jokingly. It has been two years since I last went a significant stretch without alcohol. Last month, once, I think I may have gone 6 or 7 days, but seriously, my modus operandi has been to drink nearly every single day. I conjecture that if there is one thing that’s messing with my motivation to do the things I really want to do (write, read, make original music, be more connected to family, feel generally more energetic and alive in my work), it is likely alcohol. That, and the stupid internet. And maybe the combination of the two. I know, I feel it in my bones, that I read and write less because of the million and one distractions on the web. And I know, not in my bones but in my brain, that it is next to impossible to pick up a good book when I’m tipsy. But I can be tipsy and easily drop in and out of these tiny little reading experiences on the web, where it feels like I might be learning something, but in reality I am like a pebble skipping across the surface of the river only to land on the other side in the dead and dry sand. It’s just not nourishing and it’s not deep. There’s writing to be done, books to read, love to make, a retreat to plan, music to hear and play–all of these things need to come closer to the forefront of my life in 2019.

Well, that’s my reflection, my act of mindfulness about 2018. The second half up there seems to be serving as a very wordy and elaborate kind of New Year’s Resolution. I could probably narrow it down, tighten it up, create some pithy and memorable slogan, something suitable for faceplant or tweeter. Something like this:

2019: More life, more love, better health, more books, less booze.

I can live with that for now.

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Stuff, Stuff, Stuff; the Excavation and Removal (?) of Stuff; Holding On To or Letting Go of the Record of Me

A burst pipe (circa 1930) in the basement necessitates the removal of 40 some years of accumulated stuff buried in a storage closet we fondly refer to as “the scary room.” There’s a bunch of shit in there, we know, that needs to go, stuff that’s doing no one any good. Now that we’ve had to move it out in order to remove an old slab of water-soaked, rotten linoleum, we’re given this opportunity to check this stuff out, to finally look at what has hitherto been, you know, out of site and out of mind:  Old photos we never look at, in frames, in albums, in boxes, photos of René and I over the last 32 years, photos galore of our beautifully photogenic progeny, a whole lifetime of photos from my parents and their parents, super 8 family movies from cousins, storage crate after storage crate of holiday crap, boxes and buckets of various memorabilia, original packaging for gear and electronics and doodads back to which these various things will never return, and, of particular annoyance to my wife but of a kind of introspective curiosity to me, is tons and tons of old writings and art projects of mine: my first attempt at fiction as a 6th grader, album art for imaginary bands I was in, a couple of pieces from high school English, but tons of writings, almost everything I’ve ever done quasi-seriously, from 1984 to the present day, literally reams of college essays, research projects, writings about teaching, and boatloads of poetry, abandoned novels, and short stories. I posted on to facebook the question: why can’t I toss this stuff out? And someone replied (a former student of mine, if I’m not mistaken), that these things are my extra limbs.

I think she’s right, to a certain degree. Someone very wise once said that we are not our writing, but rather, our writing is a record of moments moving through us. Fine. I get that and agree with that. No longer limbs, they are vestigial limbs, part of my evolution as an artist, a snapshot of me throughout various stages of my life, much more vivid and certainly more revealing than a photo. And yet, will I read this stuff ever again? Well, I read some of it today and it both embarrassed and impressed me. The 6th grade fiction was clearly terrible, but perhaps not for a 6th grader. This kid wrote like 400 pages. The stuff I wrote very early in college was perhaps more embarrassing, because I saw myself there as a very silly young person who was preoccupied with his own overblown sense of cleverness. Maybe not until I’m 20 or 21 do I start to develop some skill, I start to develop something of an authentic voice, I begin sketching the outline of the issues and themes that would become my obsessions and wouldn’t find themselves into novels of somewhat mature fiction for another 15 years. Some of the poetry I wrote when I was 20 I still think is pretty darn good.

So I decided today, for the most part, for better or worse, to hold on to the record of me. Interestingly enough, and maybe not at all surprising, is that the academic stuff I had very little difficulty discarding. I tossed report cards and transcripts. I tossed my CBEST and NTE results. I tossed essays about books I was studying as an undergrad. I tossed blue books. I tossed creative work that I had done as exercises in response to books I was studying. The original fiction and poetry, however, and the journals, I could not toss because I found those held a much more indelible impression in my memory of self, like, yeah, I remember these pieces. I’ll keep these. And maybe that’s what it’s about. For as long as I live I have a record of my life and my thinking unlike the record that most people have, which is primarily photographic and, even less reliable, residing only in the memories of people whose lives they touched. At some point in time, all of that disappears. I have no narcissistic delusions that the written detritus of my past will be of any value after I’m gone to any number of people, but while I’m alive it might be of value to me in my never-ending pursuit to know this strange individual that inhabits my body a little bit better. And I can’t imagine what it might be like to discover a similar trove left by my father or mother. They left me nothing of the kind–maybe a few letters, a couple of love poems. But my son will have a field day, if he’s interested. And he may not be. It’s a chance I am willing to take.

It’s spelled “juvenilia,” I discovered just today. 

The LC Review: my first published work of note

I think I kept this one. I’m embarking on a career! 

It never ends. 

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: June 12, 2018

Please excuse my absence. After 30 poems over the 30 days of April, one needs a little rest. But on top of all that, I’ve been having a transformative experience. On Sunday, May 20, I came down from the mountaintop. My hair turned white and now looks blown back by a great force of energy (see photographic evidence). I have seen the fiery bushes and received the tablets. I will present them now to my people.

I’m only being silly in part (in large part, yes, but nevertheless, in part). I am no Moses. And Pendle Hill is no mountain, despite its prodigious distinction as the intentional Quaker community which, during the 70’s and early 80’s, gave rise to the work of Parker J. Palmer. And he is no god, certainly, but he is (and his work is) exceptional to say the very least. I can think of no single figure in the literature of educational philosophy and practice that has made anywhere near the impact that Palmer has made on my career and on my life, frankly.  And I’ve been able to be with the guy for about 10 days between the retreat in January at the Oblate Center in Texas and the experience this May at Pendle Hill outside Philadelphia as part of my facilitator preparation program for The Center for Courage and Renewal. So I have been dying to write a blog post about this experience and this work, but it has taken me some time to digest and compost and winnow and recover from April’s poetry festival and my time at Pendle Hill.

I have written about this subject before here in the land of Blog. I will try not to repeat myself. We call it “Courage Work” for short. The elevator speech for work that defies elevator speeches is this: we try to live with integrity, and that integrity can only come when who we are interacts with and is in harmony with what we do, when soul meets role. It’s inner work, but it requires community. We do not go it alone. So at the center of the work is the paradox of finding solitude within a community, a community whose sole (soul) responsibility is to honor the stories and inner teachers of each of its members–without judgement, advice, rescue, or fixing of any kind.

The work that I am preparing to do may take any number of forms: sessions that last a few hours or a day, a full-on weekend retreat, or a series of seasonal retreats wherein the same group reconvenes four times over the course of a year. My clients might be teachers, they might be other professionals in the helping professions, they might be neighbors, they might be young people. What began as a program specifically with K-12 teachers in mind has expanded over the last 20 years or so to include school leaders, psychologists, physicians and nurses, elder care professionals, and clergy, but what strikes me about this work is its potential universality: if you are interested in living more consciously, more reflectively, more deeply in touch with who you are and more deeply connected with a community, then this work should be extremely relevant. It’s interesting to me to see if a process geared toward groups of professionals might be tested in new places and with more heterogeneous groups. Neighborhood Courage. Courage for Kids. What transformations might be possible for folks who have traditionally been out of reach of the Center for Courage and Renewal? These possibilities have been racing through my penultimate-year teacher-noggen over this entire nine months. And where will I do this work? Also a mystery. Do I stay on and integrate these principles and practices in my school building and in my district? Do I contract with some other institution familiar with and supportive of Courage and Renewal work? Do I build a retreat center in my backyard?  Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, I’m wrapping up my 29th year as a public high school English teacher. After the seniors have flown the coup, I gave my first remaining final Friday to a group of sophomores. Three to go, today and tomorrow. Friday morning I felt a kind of giddiness. It wasn’t the caffeine. And it wasn’t excitement about sending the rest of my kiddos home for the summer. It wasn’t about my own summer break. Maybe it was about all of these things, but it felt more amorphous–simply a deep, abiding gladness, a sense of gratitude to this place, these kids, these people I work with, and my principal–who retires this year. Super happy for her, and sad for our loss of her. She’s worked really hard and shown some super fine leadership, the kind only possible from a principal who started out with a couple of decades in the classroom as a master teacher. I have huge respect for her and will miss her. In a little goodbye ceremony on Friday there were lots of laughs and a good number of tears, a big bbq, and the festivities continued after school hours at a teacher friend’s house on a big covered deck in the rain.

I’m finishing this blog entry, having graded everything I could grade from my first finals yesterday, while my 7th period sophomores are taking their final essay exam. It’s my most difficult class, only because a number of them are anything but serious about academics, but today, for the most part, they are quiet and working hard on their essay on the novel Frankenstein. One little guy, super frustrating, is playing video games on his phone, claims his final is finished, pulls it out of his bag as proof, and I have to remind him that he wasn’t supposed to work on it at home. Here’s a kid who is absent mostly, does nothing when he’s present, and then miraculously shows up weeks late with work completed. Of course, I have no way of verifying that it’s his work and doubt that it is. Another guy shows up a half an hour late to the final. Also super frustrating, because here is a kid with a good mind and decent skills who believes he can’t think and can’t write. Instead of completing part one of the final the last time we were together, he writes a note to me, sincere, well-written, impassioned, basically begging me to fail him for the semester, saying he’d rather take the class over again to learn what he was supposed to learn during his sophomore year than feel like I allowed him to squeak by. Ironically, he comes into the final at 64%. Some energy toward doing his best work could conceivably bring him to a C. But he’s convinced he can’t write. He’s convinced he’ll never be a good student. His please-fail-me letter belies both of those claims. Now, though, it appears that instead of giving up, he’s giving it the old boy-scout effort. He’s writing and I’m happy. I think I will have to defy his wish for failure.

One of the things my experience with The Center for Courage and Renewal has done for me is to make me question most things I do as a teacher of English Language Arts, except in cases when I can defy a student’s wish to fail. It has changed my work, certainly, made me a more reflective practitioner, made me more authentically human and more authentically ME in my work, but I long for a classroom that somehow transcends evaluating, sorting, fixing, ranking, testing, grading and competing, the way every Courage experience I’ve ever had has transcended these evils. How could the classroom be not those things and equally rigorous and valuable? Could it be, that in my 29th year in the teaching profession, that I have finally come to understand the true purpose of education, or at least, the true purpose of an English Language Arts education, and that maybe I’ve been doing it backwards all along?

Better late than never.

I know I’m being hard on myself. I know that I’ve done good work. For the most part, I’ve done the best I can. But I also know there’s another way, one that through all the years of my long career I’ve been grasping at and reaching for, always just out of reach for a variety of both good and stupid reasons. I would like to lay my finger on it, to experience it, to arrive, at least in brief, before I walk away. I’m on the verge of something.

I can feel it.

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#292: Two Sides (a Dialogue with Self)

Photo on 4-7-18 at 11.05 AM

Recently, I was thinking about self talk, or, literally, the act of talking out loud to oneself, and decided finally, even though I suspected it all along, that it is a necessary and healthful behavior. I mean, what’s the signature feature of Shakespeare’s soliloquies? To me, the key feature of a Shakespeare soliloquy, beyond the fact that the character is talking out loud to themselves, is honesty. And I thought to myself, and maybe I even said it out loud to myself, that if one could overhear another real human being talking to themselves, this would be one of the most intimate of experiences. It would be, for that moment, just as we can in one of Shakespeare’s soliloquies, as if we were reading someone’s mind. And then I wished that, as a child, whenever I used to overhear my mother talking to herself in the other room, that I would have listened more closely. And then I’ve been thinking a lot, because I’ve been teaching it, of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in which Guidenstern says, “A man talking sense to himself is no madder than a man talking nonsense not to himself.” Truer words were never spoken. I would amend that statement, though, by replacing “no madder” with “infinitely wiser.”

Sorry for the long preamble, but it all leads to today’s prompt from napowrimo, which is to write a dialogue poem between two of your identities, one that makes you feel powerful, and another that makes you feel vulnerable. I’ll begin with the list I made of my various identities, in no particular order.

husband
father
teacher
fiction writer
musician
avid music fan
reader
poet
blogger
meditation practitioner
friend
brother
recovering Catholic
atheist
secular humanist
liberal/progressive

And here’s the poem between the powerful and the vulnerable, essentially, between the teacher and everybody else on the above list. Maybe because it is the way I usually structure my own self talk, I’ve chosen the second person pronoun. Is this a paradox? This turned out to be more like one voice talking to the two sides, than the two sides talking to each other. A dialogue, nevertheless.

Two Sides (a Dialogue with Self)

You are doing good work
in the lives of young people.
You know, that even though
what you taught might not
stick with them forever,
how you taught will, and
more profoundly, perhaps,
how you treated them. And,
to your credit, mostly, as far
as humanly possible, you
have treated them well,
and you have presented
to them your authentic self.

That’s all very well and good, 
but you also know that in your
capacity as a public servant
you have hidden away a great
deal about who you are. To a
certain extent, professionally
speaking, this is necessary, but
on the other hand, it sometimes
feels like a betrayal, doesn’t it?
Even though you know that
your politics, your philosophy,
your artistic aesthetics, interests,
your deepest beliefs and proclivities
have no place in the classroom,
you sometimes wish that they did.

But you do feel authentic there
because, again, you know that
to be authentic does not mean
that you must be all-revealing.
That guy in the classroom is
the real you, but only part of the
real you, and there’s nothing
wrong with that, is there?

No, but you still long, don’t you,
to have a place, a sphere, a community
with which you can be fully
who you are in every moment.
You doubt sometimes that this
is even a 
possibility.

Ah, so this is not just a struggle
in the classroom, is it?

No. 

It’s everywhere. In every sphere,
it’s a balancing act, as a husband,
a father, a friend, a member of
a community. To be known–
one of the great projects of a
conscious life, of an authentic life,
remains elusive, slippery.

But worth it, my friend. 

 

 

 

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#285: A Poem Against Nothing

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During meditation practice today I wrote some words and phrases on two notecards in response to the following three meditative prompts: Nothing, Form, and Intention. As a writer, I live in the world of specificity, concrete detail, or in ideas expressed explicitly and with clarity. Sometimes I struggle with some of the more esoteric aspects of the practice. I had a real hard time today with these meditations and my mind was interrogating the process through the entire hour–until the end, when it became about something else, something palpable, embedded in the messiness that is life and loss as human beings. Anyway, the material on those note cards became a poem. And the strangest experience to date with my meditation group turned out to provide the greatest gifts, the least of which became the following piece of writing.

Poem Against Nothing from Two Notecards

Nothing
Nothingness
No thing ness

I cannot describe what is not.
There is never nothing.
There is never not something.
There is always the thing
that came before the thing.

Once, there was
the generative void.
I think I understand
that, and it continues
to generate forever
and ever, but even before
the anything
there was something.
You can call it
whatever you like.

But in the way that
I can’t or won’t play piano
because I don’t know how,
I cannot see, hear, or feel nothing.

It’s all form, baby.
There is always form.
Even a thought–
even in the before-thought
when there is no thought,
there’s thought.

Creativity even comes
from a place.
I didn’t know I would sing
those words but now I am
singing those words
and it may feel as if
they came from nowhere
but you would be
wrong about that.

I do understand
intention, and I value
it over the default–
but that’s the point:
less auto-pilot,
less fear,
less self-sabotage
more intention,
more integrity,
more truth,
more consciousness.
And none of that
comes from nothing.

And we are not changing
from one thing to another,
but becoming what we already
are—and that’s something.

And love is another matter.
Given freely it multiplies
like weeds. Never out of
nowhere. Never from
nothing. It emanates.
It moves, is moving.
Right now. In this room
with relative strangers.

 

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