Tag Archives: solitude in community

#344: I Drove Over the Mountain to Get Here

I drove over the mountain to get here. I drove over Mount Hood. I drove over the mountain into the desert. Eventually, I ended up close to three other mountains, the ones we call The Sisters. I drove over the mountain to get here. This is the place where I will try to help people look inwardly. This is the place where I will observe the silence. I drove over the mountain to practice listening, next to these other mountains. I drove over the mountain to a town called Wonder, or Solitude. I drove over the mountain to create community with complete strangers. I drove over the mountain to this place. Look up: the sign says, You Are Here.

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#276: Paradox–a Double Elevenie

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On day 23 of National Poetry Writing Month, I’m back to the suggested prompts: Here are the instructions for an “Elevenie” from Napowrimo: “The first line is one word, a noun. The second line is two words that explain what the noun in the first line does, the third line explains where the noun is in three words, the fourth line provides further explanation in four words, and the fifth line concludes with one word that sums up the feeling or result of the first line’s noun being what it is and where it is.”

 

Solitude
stands alone
near the ocean,
whispering nothing to itself:
needful.

Community
comes together
near the ocean,
bolstering each new solitude:
indispensable.

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Finding My Way Back to Courage

courage-to-teach

At the turn of the new year in 2016, I resolved to live more mindfully, and in January I joined a local meditation group. A year and some months later, the group still meets every other week, is facilitated by a super competent, compassionate and knowledgeable guy who earns his living as a hypnotherapist. We spend an hour and a half together in silent meditation, in guided meditation, in other meditative exercises and activities, and in discussion over our experiences together.

I enjoy my time with this group very much and in a year’s span I’ve only missed a handful of our meetings. It has inspired me to keep up my own private and daily meditation practice, it has given me some tools for cooling the fires, for dealing constructively with the common stresses of work and family life, for living more reflectively, and subsequently, it has been a boon for that 2016 resolution to work on more mindful living, a resolution that has had more staying power than any I’ve ever set for myself.

I realize, though, that I had another motive for seeking out a meditation group, a sangha, if you will, to enhance and grow my own spiritual experience. I find myself hearkening back and trying to find a way to recreate or recapture a much earlier and more formative experience with mindfulness practice. The search began for me in 1999, the year I embarked on a long relationship and several extended experiences with a program called The Courage To Teach, an educational opportunity based on the work of writer, educator, and peace activist Parker Palmer.

I had read Parker Palmer’s book and had seen him speak once almost a year before, but The Courage To Teach program was news to me several months later, billed as a series of retreats over a two year period and designed as a course in “teacher renewal.” It appealed to me then, closing in on my first decade as a public high school English teacher, because I felt like I was already in dire need of renewal, that already early in my career I felt not a little bit in danger of burn-out. Renewal. There was something about that word. And there was something about another phrase associated with the program: “formation work.” Both resonated with me in a serious and palpable way. Yes, I knew I needed to renew my teacher self, and yes, there was also something inside, gestating, some kind of formation, a sense of  “becoming” something more–or rather, “becoming” into something already there, but dormant.

What followed for me was a two year series of eight Courage retreats, in the late 2000’s another round of four retreats over a single year, and between that first experience and the second, and between the second and this present moment, a smattering, maybe three or four more individual weekend retreats. I have told colleagues and friends of mine that this work, my initial introduction to it and my continual revisitation of it, has been the single most impactful, meaningful, influential, and enriching experience I have ever had, rivaled perhaps only by the heady years during my work toward an MFA in creative writing.

My Courage colleagues and I often joked about the difficulty of describing to someone “on the outside” exactly what it was one “did” at a Courage To Teach retreat. At the center, perhaps, was a fascinating and invigorating paradox, that we were together in community and simultaneously in solitude. Our facilitators gave us poems or short essays to read; they gave us prompts for writing, meditating, thinking, drawing, finger-painting; they asked us questions for conversations in small group or partnerships; they told us to go on walks outside; they gave us two hour breaks during which we were asked to be completely silent, and they brought us together on the eve of our last morning together for Circles of Trust: the Clearness Committee, the centerpiece of the two day retreat. I could go on about any of these listed activities, but to make things snappy I’ll just enlarge this paradox a bit by saying that the goal of all of this work was not academic conversation, was not classroom pedagogy, was not teacher strategies, but rather, in community to invite the individual soul and “inner teacher” of each member of the group. We didn’t discuss things, but we spoke into the circle and were heard. There was almost a religious principle that commentary on what someone else might share was verboten–alongside a serious commitment to confidentiality. The ethos of the work spiraled around a set of community expectations or “touchstones” that worked so powerfully over the proceedings, they are worth listing here. They are repeated and discussed at the beginning of every retreat and often referred to throughout the process. The touchstones ask you to:

  • Come with 100% of your self
  • Presume welcome and extend welcome
  • Believe that it is possible to leave more refreshed than when you arrived
  • Know that there is always invitation, never demand
  • Avoid fixing–no fixing
  • Practice openness and learn from others
  • Speak for your self; use “I” statements
  • Turn to inquiry when the going gets tough
  • Listen to the silence
  • Observe confidentiality

Another complete blog essay could be written about each of the preceding touchstones, but I’ll just say here that these particular norms had such a powerful and positive impact on the way these groups were together, that in as many experiences as I had with this process and with as many different groups of people, almost all of whom were essentially strangers to me, I never, not once, had a negative experience, not even a single moment when I felt anything other than completely safe and taken care of.

It was not, never was, a class or a workshop about “meditation,” per se, but everything about it was meditative, reflective, truth-seeking, and most importantly, respectful and inviting of silence. This is where I learned to meditate. So in the absence of around-the-calendar opportunities for Courage retreats, I joined a meditation group, hoping, perhaps, to be able to recreate or participate in something somewhat remotely like the retreat experience inspired by the work of Parker Palmer.

My experience in a meditation group over the last year and some months comes close. I’m not sure that’s correct. It does its job to create some similar conditions to those of a Courage retreat; also, it’s clearly beneficial on its own as simply another avenue into the neighborhood of raising consciousness, awareness, and equanimity. But I realize now, as I was looking to my meditation group as a  way to recapture the benefits of an earlier experience, that there might not exist an adequate substitute. There are elements to my Courage experiences that might possibly only emerge from a Courage experience. And this was a question often asked in the closing circle of a retreat: how do we sustain this work? How do we embody or continue these practices? How can this influence who I am in the world, with my family, with my students? Some religious people find this in their churches. Non-religious people like myself, who nevertheless hunger for spiritual growth experiences, find it in other places if they are lucky. For now, I’m in a meditation group. In April, I’ll write a poem every day. I’m rereading Palmer’s The Hidden Wholeness. I am thinking seriously about training to be a facilitator of this important, transformational work. Slowly but surely, I am finding my way back to courage.

http://www.couragerenewal.org/courage-to-teach/

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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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The Power of Retreat

St. Mary's College, Moraga, California

St. Mary’s College, Moraga, California

The truth of the matter is I didn’t read a single word of Moby Dick. I remain today on the same page I was on a week ago. Thanks to the generosity and kindness of my wife and son, I have been on retreat for a week at St. Mary’s College in Moraga for the Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference, to write, to learn from and listen to and play with the best writing community my world has ever known, and, with some extra time left over, to read Moby Dick.  Only the last thing on this list got absolutely no attention.  I’ve forgiven myself already, mostly because the rewards of these other items were so immensely bountiful, and so I want to spend some words today reflecting about the power of this thing I’ve been able to do, the power of a thing from which everybody could probably benefit no matter what their work or vocation, the power of retreat.

Retreat: a quiet or secluded place in which one can rest and relax.  Well, yes, sort of.  But this sounds kind of like a vacation to me–only one that strives to avoid the usual hustle and bustle of tourism or the kind of camping trip that is chock-full of activity.  My sense of retreat has to do with a certain amount of quiet or seclusion, yes, and a level of rest and relaxation, yes–but a rest and relaxation that comes with work that one truly desires to do, work of the soul or heart or mind, creative work, work that sustains rather than exhausts.

I know of two such  retreat experiences in my life.  They have become for me pivotal, profound, powerful touchstones, helping to revitalize my work and my mind, providing inspiration for my creative output and the heart to pursue with humor and courage the more mundane aspects of life, domesticity, and gainful employment.

The first of these is the annual Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference.  Every summer, thirty to forty individuals who have graduated at some point in time from (I think) the oldest low residency MFA program for creative writing in the country, descend upon the campus of St. Mary’s in Moraga, of Mt. Holyoke in Amherst, or of Warren Wilson in Swannanoa, to recreate in a week’s time only the best aspects of their experience at Warren Wilson, jettisoning any and all of those parts of the program that made them anxious, tentative, or afraid.  What results is a veritable love fest (mostly platonic) between a huge diversity of individuals who have these things in common: they burn for the word, they revel in the art of poetry or fiction, and they benefit mightily by geeking out on all of this surrounded by a great number of highly talented, extremely generous, immensely forgiving, and supportive fellow writers.

We teach each other cool things we’ve learned about craft; we explore writing questions we don’t have the answers to; we turn each other on to new and old writers; we read each other’s work closely, honestly, kindly; we listen to each other read each night and applaud with wild abandon; we hole up in a dorm room or a library carrel or an outside porch somewhere and write for hours at a stretch; we buy each other’s books; we sing sometimes or drum on chairs; and finally, without fail, we dance.  No conference is complete without dancing.  And to say something about the unique gift of this experience, it is about the only place on the planet where you will see this writer dancing. And I do dance. Wildly.  At the alumni conference I retreat inside my fiction writer brain for a week’s time in a community that is intent upon supporting this nutty endeavor for each of its members, in whatever shape or form it takes. And I made no progress in Moby Dick because I was retreating in the way I most needed to retreat, and apparently, as it turns out, this did not include Melville’s novel.  I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.  And I danced.

My second pivotal, profound, and powerful retreat experience is my continuing participation in a teacher-renewal, formation-work program called The Courage To Teach, inspired by the work of educator-philosopher-Quaker-writer Parker Palmer.  It’s a totally different thing, a thing during which there is next to no dancing, but a thing that does for my teaching soul what the alumni conference does for my writing soul. I believe that this retreat work has made it possible for me to be continuously engaged in and rewarded by teaching and has been a key antidote to burnout.  Impossible to describe effectively in a paragraph, the Courage To  Teach work eschews talk about what teachers do and instead focuses completely on who they are, recognizing that each teacher, each individual for that matter, has inside of them sufficient wisdom to answer all their deepest questions, to solve all their most difficult problems in work and in life; they only require a community whose job it is to help the individual listen to that inner teacher.  In a very intentional way, we write, we read poems, we draw pictures, we invite silence, we meditate, we walk and talk, all toward the goal of helping each individual to know and trust themselves better.  No one ever tries to fix you or give you advice. While having almost nothing to do with classroom strategy and practice, it has been the most profoundly influential “staff development” experience I have ever had.  Life changing and career saving.

These are my retreats.  I find retreat also whenever I have an opportunity to be by myself for a time to write, whether it be at home or over a short couple of days in a cabin or a tent somewhere, but in both the cases I’ve described above, a community exists in which the solitude of the artist is honored and supported; these experiences exemplify the paradox described by Parker Palmer in The Courage To Teach, his pivotal exploration of the teaching vocation: “My inward and invisible sense of identity becomes known, even to me, only as it manifests itself in encounters with external and visible ‘otherness.'” This is the wonder and the gift of these kinds of retreat for me.

What does it for you?  How will you carve out of your life time for retreat?  And what might be the cost if you don’t?  Ultimately, it’s a kind of selfishness that I encourage.  Making yourself whole will send waves of positivity outward and benefit every one and every organization touched by your life.

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