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

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

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

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

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

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: The Next Frontier

Look, a metaphor!

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

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

And then the conversation shifted.

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

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

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

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

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

Try this at home.

 

 

 

 

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Mindfulness in 2016: A Reflection

Here’s the new year’s resolution I settled into last year:

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.

I wonder how I did. Let’s look, shall we? Two years ago I bought an application for my stupid smart phone called The Insight Timer. It’s a meditation bell app that also keeps track of your meditation statistics, your mindfulness “stats,” if you will. Hey, I took some screen shots. Look:

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Wow, that’s a big screen shot. What’s most useful about this lovely little graph (besides the notification that the phone is only 36% charged) is that it demonstrates quite nicely a gigantic mindfulness upswing over the last two years. 2016 simply dwarfs the previous two years in mindfulness. And, during the year, my best run was 87 days in a row of mindfulness meditation. 87 days in a row! It looks like, currently, I’ve done poorly, but that’s just because I took a break three days ago, and the counter starts fresh each time that happens. I don’t like it, but that’s the way it goes. Let’s look at another gigantic screen shot:

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Almost 59 hours of meditation in single year with an average meditation time of 16 minutes. You might be curious (or you might not be curious) about my longest session. 2 hours seems like a long time to sit with oneself, doesn’t it? Well, the answer to this question brings me to the second part of the resolution I made for 2016, and that was to seek out a community. Call it kismet or serendipity or synchronicity or whatever you like, almost immediately after writing that resolution a friend of mine, Scott Duvall, posted an invitation for like-minded individuals to start a group meditation practice. I have been doing this all year every other Sunday. I missed a few here and there, but typically, if I’m there, the group spends about an hour and a half to two hours together, not meditating the entire time, mind you, but several times over the duration of the session interspersed with some guided work and teaching from our ringleader Scott, all meditative. So there you have it. I have fulfilled my 2016 New Year’s resolution.

But I have not achieved total mindfulness; I do not yet feel enlightened. That wasn’t the resolution in the first place, but ultimately one has to ask oneself what it all means, what the effect has been, what has been the benefit of this focused attention on meditating 16 minutes almost every day over the course of a year. One thing I think we can safely say is that the phrase “mindfulness statistics” is a nonsensical oxymoron. I could have spent every single one of those 58 hours and 52 minutes thinking about sex, or thinking about things I want, or revisiting the past, or fantasizing about the future, or planning an evil plot to take over the world. To set your mind at ease, I was NOT thinking about all of those things, only some of them. It’s just really hard not to think of some of those things while I’m meditating. So let me just list, if I may, the benefits I believe I achieved through my dogged but imperfect efforts to make good on last year’s resolution, mainly, to develop a regular discipline of meditation practice:

  • Moving into my work as a high school English teacher, I have felt more relaxed through the course of each frenetic day.
  • I have come to really look forward to sitting on my cushion each morning; it is a comfortable, restful, peaceful oasis before all the noise of the day; it feels replenishing, nourishing.
  • I have learned, though, too, that the meditation cushion is not the only place to meditate.
  • I have been able to pay close attention to my mind, in essence, to know myself better.
  • I have become conscious of issues in my life and have been able to do some work around them–not to solve them, but to be more aware of them, to understand them, essentially to answer the question: what is the cause or causes of my suffering?
  • I have become, I think, more even-keeled in my response to difficulties in work and in relationship. I have not killed a single one of my high school freshmen.
  • I have been helped through the general grieving process of living through 2016 and have even discovered some strength and some hope to help me forward.
  • I have been reminded of the powerful paradox that good inner work requires both solitude and community.

There may be some things I’ve forgotten. For now, this covers it pretty well. These are the gifts of the work of the last year toward a mindful, meditation practice. I know that it’s been moving me slowly toward something greater, the specifics of which I do not yet understand and cannot visualize. So, it must be that 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 ad, perhaps, is that with the continuation of this work, I might find more specific transformations are possible, personally, creatively, professionally, and politically. The inner transformation resonates outward and comes back again. It’s a feedback loop of meditative goodness, baby. So happy new year.

 

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A Single Dispatch from Writer’s Camp 2015

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It’s quiet on campus.  Everyone has gone home.  It’s just me and Mark, the dorm all to ourselves.  He’s here still because he can’t travel on the Sabbath.  I’m here to simply take a few deep breaths, to take advantage of some solitude before heading home. I went down to the cafeteria tonight for dinner, and where there were swarms of people from all places and ages buzzing around in that huge room over the last six days, tonight I dined alone in virtual silence, maybe a half a dozen other individuals scattered throughout the dining room.  Only two choices tonight: salad bar and mac ‘n’ cheese. I chose both. I went for a walk after dinner through this lovely campus, ghost-town quiet.  I couldn’t visit the reflection pool one more time because the only action anywhere on campus, a wedding, had reserved for private use the entire lower gardens. I skulked my way back to the dorm where the last two writer’s camp campers are all alone in a five story dormitory.

I like this quiet ending of Writer’s Camp, the Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference, this year, hosted and coordinated by yours truly at Lewis and Clark College here in Portland, Oregon. For six days we have been teaching each other classes: we learned about Orphan Trains, we talked about revision, Elizabeth Bishop, bad guys and gals in fiction, characterization and computer programs that write good poetry.  We had conversations about agents, poetic resonance, writing about childhood, submitting our work. We read Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the round almost all the way through. We did a table read of a new screenplay by one of our campers. We attended workshops where generous, thoughtful, wise, and spirited writer friends helped us along with our work. We heard each other read: 48 of us read 10 minutes of our work to the smartest and most appreciative audience any of us have ever had.  We recited poetry from memory to each other at 1 o’clock in the morning. A handful of us meditated every morning for a half an hour. We wrote. We laughed a lot. We made new friends and reconnected with old ones. We held a silent auction and raised a bunch of money for our program. And we danced. All of this seems somewhat miraculous, and yet, the Warren Wilson Alumni Conference happens every summer, and every summer, at least for me, it is a peak experience, the pinnacle of my year.

And I like the quiet of the campus now that all my official duties are done.  I’ve never been to a conference before where I had any official duties save for reading for 10 minutes or teaching a single hour long class.  But all week there were things to attend to, phone calls to make, arrangements to arrange, decisions to decide, people to help, things to set up, a meeting to facilitate. It was far more intensive than I expected it to be–and yet, I couldn’t have been more happy to do it.  My only frustration the entire week had to do with things that were entirely in my control: not getting enough sleep simply because, just like my 9 year old, I didn’t want to go to bed, and losing my water bottle on campus at least three times every day and having to hike around in the heat to find it.  Otherwise, my labour was a labour, as they say, of love, pure, stupid, inexhaustible love for this group of people and the program and purpose that ties all of it together.

Most of the way through the conference, and even now in this quiet evening as I sit alone on our outdoor patio at this ginormous picnic table on concrete slabs in front of the dorm, and even though I am a 20 minute car ride from the front door of my house in Milwaukie, I have felt far away, very far away indeed.  I have felt like I might as well be at one of our other regular conference locations.  I could be in Amherst, Mass, or I could be in Moraga, California, Mt. Holyoke or St. Mary’s, or even at  Warren Wilson itself in Asheville, North Carolina.  I could be anywhere.  I hardly feel like I am in my home town because every year, even this year where the responsibilities were many and opportunities to freely choose when and when not to be engaged were fewer and far between, I feel utterly transported.  I am with my tribe in a veritable magic freaking bubble of goodness.  There aren’t many places in my experience where it gets any better than this. As I said to my campers during our last formal minutes together at the end of the last reading of the conference: I am more exhausted than I have ever been in my life–and simultaneously, I have never been happier.  Maybe my wedding day–yeah, that tops the list. Wally conferences are in a close second.

My fellow Wallies, and to anyone who is lucky enough to have a community like this: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”  We arrive together in this incredible community, and, as quickly as we arrive, we vanish into the ether on the way to our homes all across the country. But there’s the certainty that there will be other opportunities, another brilliant chance, as our gods or as good fortune will have it, to come together again in just one short year. Until then, goodnight and godspeed.  Having finished his Sabbath observances, Mark and I are going to have a drink together.

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Of Neighborhood Schools and the Threat of Losing One

No decision has been made yet, but a couple of weeks ago now a letter went out from the North Clackamas School District leadership that the closure and consolidation of my son’s elementary school, my elementary school 40 some years ago, is on the table for next fall.  Half of the kids at his school would go to other schools down the road, but the other half, the students enrolled in the Spanish Bi-lingual Immersion Program, would bus 10 minutes further down the road to the only other school in the district offering a similar program. Enrollment is down, they say, and my son’s school, in terms of its student population, is running far short of its capacity.  It’s expensive, apparently, to keep the building itself, the physical plant, running at less than its full capacity.  We are to understand that this makes fiscal and logistical sense, that it’s the least disruptive and most efficient choice, that the program won’t expire or be compromised.  At first I thought, well, IF they can keep the same kids together, preserve teacher jobs and avoid class sizes from getting any larger than they already are, about 32 first graders, what harm could there be in a move like this?

I’m afraid on further reflection I see all kinds of harm.

The program in which my son is enrolled is what we call a magnet; district kids from outside the neighborhood and some kids out of the district can apply for acceptance into the Spanish Immersion Bi-lingual Program–but my wife and I deliberately moved into the attendance area of the school even before our boy was officially offered a spot–because we wanted to live close to the school. There was something important, we thought, not just about the convenience of living close by, and not just about the quality of the program, but about the concept of the neighborhood school itself.

Beyond a purely sentimental attachment, neighborhood schools are meaningful places; they can bring communities together, create cohesion and unity, foster a sense of home as being not just the place where children live, but where children learn and engage with their environment. Neighborhood schools have a history, a tradition, and a cultural identity all their own–all tending toward giving young people a sense of stability and belonging.  Especially in a suburban environment like ours where homes are spread out and the business district is full of big box stores and strip malls, a neighborhood school becomes the very center and heart of the community–no other such place exists close by.  It just seems to me like folly to close a successful and effective elementary school, separating kids who have begun this educational journey together into three different far flung buildings, in the name of efficiency.

Our superintendent and other folks in the district leadership held a community meeting at the school and the board of directors held another one in a different location the next evening.  We are told that the closure of the school is not a foregone conclusion.  But a half a million dollars must be saved.  Actually, six million dollars must be saved–and the closure of our elementary school is 1/12th of the potential solution to the problem.  I can’t help but think there must be other ways to find the money, and I worry that a move toward efficiency now may have some far reaching consequences for our community down the road, that we may never get our school back, and that my son and his classmates will miss out on something that seems to me almost the equivalent of a good program taught by effective teachers: a sense of ownership and belonging and continuity that only a neighborhood school can provide.

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