Category Archives: Self Reflection

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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Filed under Education, Self Reflection, Teaching

#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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Filed under Poetry, Self Reflection

If I Am Not My Body and I Am Not My Mind, Who Am I?

Sometimes I have difficulty with the more woo woo aspects of mindfulness practice. I tend to think about my meditation, for example, in pretty straight forward terms. I sit. I close my eyes. I breathe. I pay attention to the breath. If my mind wanders, I notice that, and then I try to bring my attention back to the breath. Sometimes, I notice the mind wandering and then I allow it to continue wandering. Sometimes, rather than focusing on the breath, I might instead meditate on a subject, a theme, a wish for the world or the day, a mantra, if you will. Generally, I find meditation restful, rejuvenating, leveling, grounding, motivating, a place for deep reflection, and I think for these reasons that it’s good for me. Certain philosophical or spiritual aspects of the work come to me with more difficulty. For example, this idea of consciousness somehow being not a part of or beyond my physical self. I kind of get the notion that we are not our thoughts, that thinking is a brain function that fluctuates from moment to moment, sometimes (often) without our control. While we may, from time to time, have an evil or a perverse thought, this does not make us evil or perverse. A healthy approach to the mind might be like a healthy approach to one’s art: that poem is NOT me; it is a moment moving through me. I am not attached to it. Similarly with the body. This meat and water sack I walk around in is NOT me; it’s only a vehicle, a vehicle on loan, one that is destined to break down. We try to take care of the vehicle and try not to wrap our identity too tightly around it. A difficult job, no doubt. But the body and the brain seem to me to be the responsible parties for all the stuff we feel and think, are inextricably connected to each other; when the mind is sick so will be the body. I guess, what I’m trying to put into words is the problem I have accepting mindfulness, awareness, consciousness, enlightenment as NOT the result of stuff that my body and brain are doing, as not a part of my biology. If I am not my body and I am not my mind, who am I? If I am not the one who thinks but the one that is aware of the thinking, who’s that guy? Is he really everywhere? Is he traveling in outer space? Is he connected to people all over the world, past, future and present, as part of something like Emerson’s Oversoul? Can he affect change by thinking thoughts and sending those thoughts out as waves across the planet? Is the top of my head really a glowing purple orb?

I don’t know about these things.

What I do know is that if I love myself I can love others. If I am happy or joyful I can spread happiness and joy. I think these things are part of the practice, but still, they are material, they have to do with the way my thinking effects my behavior and the way my behavior affects the people I encounter and the systems within which I operate. This stuff can spread, right, because if I make someone feel joy they might spread it around ad infinitum. I believe this, and I tell my students this stuff all of the time, that the way we think and what we believe determines the way we live our lives. What we put in, we get out. What we give, we get back. And I acknowledge that this is not a simple matter. Patterns form, some nearly impossible to break. Some of these patterns are not ours. And then there are chemicals and shit inside there that sometimes betray us. I don’t know that it would be helpful to tell a David Foster Wallace, a Phillip Seymore Hoffman, a Virginia Woolf to simply sit on a cushion for 20 minutes a day. I don’t believe that depression is a choice. I’ve had moments recently when I’ve experienced melancholy for no apparent reason, almost debilitatingly so, but it passes, and I am lucky. I have had the good fortune to be able to locate it, look at it, and, as Thich Nhat Hanh would advise, hold it, love it a little, whereby it might transform into something more life-giving and useful. So when we say, this body is not me, or these thoughts are not me, I get that. We are more  than our component parts and thoughts and emotions. We are not that guy cursing because he has to clean up after the puppy, AGAIN. And we share atoms with everybody and everything. I am the puppy. You are my other me. I get that, too. Mostly, though, what I get is presence. How am I present in the world? And it still seems to me that that presence comes out of some combination of body and brain, for better or worse.

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Mindfulness in 2017: A Reflection

Here’s the new year’s resolution I made two years ago for 2016:

I resolve in 2016 to be more mindful, to find opportunities daily for meditation practice, and to seek out a community, some companionship on the journey.

This resolution was a resounding success. I found myself a community that still meets two years later (we met this morning, in fact), I established a regular practice of daily meditation, and I felt at the end of the year better than I had in a very long while about my secularly spiritual self. So here’s how I repurposed the same resolution for 2017:

. . . my 2017 resolution is mostly a continuation of the one I wrote in 2016, because primarily, unlike most resolutions, it was successful, and, so they say, success breeds success. What I would add, perhaps, is that with the continuation of this work, I might find more specific transformations are possible, personally, creatively, professionally, and politically.

So let’s see how we did! Call up the meditation stats, Bob! So funny, this idea of a kind of meditation score! Three sentences in a row ending in exclamation points.

I spent 83 hours and 11 minutes this year in meditation.

My daily average is 18 minutes, but some of my sessions, especially the ones I spend with my group, clock in at about 2 hours–and that happens on an almost bi-weekly occasion.

My best run of consecutive days with a single session: 121, up from 83 the previous year.

And check out this lovely and enormous graph of my overall improvement in a meditative practice since 2014:

Cool, huh? Nearly epic.

So, I don’t have a graphic for this, or statistics of any kind, but I want to reflect a little bit about the 2017 addendum to the 2016 new year’s resolution. Was I able this last year to find more specific transformations, personally, creatively, professionally, and politically? Let’s be honest, shall we?

Personally: For all intents and purposes, I am the same dude in essentials I was at the beginning of the year. I’ve got some demons that I’ve been unable to shake. Some bad habit energy. Some anger issues. I allow things under my skin. I find myself especially frustrated by shit I can’t control. As both of my parents are gone now, I find I have become them in some of these ways. I have failed this year repeatedly as a teacher, a parent, and a husband. These failures are punctuation marks, mind you, and not the entire sentence–so I’m thankful for that. But the ways I have of failing tend to be habitual, patterns of which I am fully aware but seem sometimes powerless to change. So, I guess I would say that personally, whatever that means, I have not transformed in any specific way.

However, just today, at our lovely group meditation session, our guy Scott Duvall led us through a cleansing of the year. We smudged up 2017 good and proper with some sage burning. We walked backwards through the year collecting all of our regrets, mistakes, hurts, transgressions, obstacles, and we put all that stuff imaginatively into buckets. We forgave all that bullshit perpetrated by others towards us and by us towards others. In my head I could envision how, at work with my students and with colleagues, at home with the fam, I could create new and better ways of being. I could see it. If you can see it, I understand, the possibility of a like manifestation in the world increases a thousandfold. It could be argued, then, my personal transformation started peaking its way through in the last hours of this crazy year. A big thank you to Scott Duvall and this incredible community he has nurtured.

Creatively: I wrote a book of poems! I continue to blog! I feel that each time I write something new, something new happens within–tiny little transformations in the intellect and in the heart. I’m still sitting on and procrastinating a revision on a short novel–but I have a good feeling I’ll be able to wrap that up in the new year.

Professionally: Serendipitously, but also intentionally, my professional life and spiritual life have come together at the beginning of a new journey. After October’s Gateway Retreat from The Center for Courage and Renewal, I applied and then was accepted into a facilitator training program for Courage Work–a description of which can be found in earlier blog entries. If I retire in 2019, this could be my new vocation. If I don’t retire in 2019, somehow this will become part of my work with my school and my district. This is about as specific as a transformation can be. Transformation into Formation. That’s a private little in-joke that I think I’ll just go ahead and leave there.

Politically: I cannot and will not hide my antipathy toward the new administration. It’s abominable, embarrassing, dangerous, potentially disastrous. I have never been a political activist. My activism tends to be quiet, subtle, but infused in everything I do. My poetry, my teaching–in the way I work and the material I choose, my musical endeavors, my meditative practice, and this blog–even when those things are not overtly political–are all in direct opposition to our current political climate and leadership. I like to think that in some ways the small work that I do in these arenas is sending out little sneaker waves that will in turn combine forces with all the other sneaker waves and will eventually make 2018 the year we all figure out our collective political shit. I have faith, and faith is not a word I use very often, that somehow the universe will course correct.

So the resolution for 2018 is just more of the above, only better. Do more of that, but better. Even if it’s failure. Fail again. Fail better.

Tonight, for the first time in a long, dark time it seems, I will ring in the new year with my very best, most beloved friends. Do likewise. Happy New Year. With gratitude and love, cheers.

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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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