Tag Archives: The Courage To Teach

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: February 15, 2018

Photo on 2-15-18 at 7.49 PM

Today I wrapped up three full days of sitting with my senior IB English students, listening to their oral commentaries on a poem by Seamus Heaney and holding discussions with them about Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I sat with almost 25 students, just me and the kid, one at a time, for 20 full minutes a piece. Each time I do this activity, as exhausting as it can be and sometimes frustrating, I am struck nearly dumb with gratitude for the opportunity. It is rare that, as teachers, we have the luxury of time, not to mention the resources that make it possible to hire a substitute so classes can continue in our absence, to sit down with a single student and listen deeply to their learning. It is, likely, the most authentic kind of assessment I’ve ever administered, and one that honors student voices while simultaneously holding them to a rigorous standard. It is intense, intimate, and hopefully an inviting experience. Some students are nervous and do strange things. They talk super fast. Or they stammer a lot. Or certain things they know suddenly slip their minds: What was the name of that character, you know, the main one? Did this detail come before or after that other one? Why, despite the fact that I know this is a work of non-fiction, do I insist on calling it a novel over and over again? Or why did I call this thing a paragraph when I know it to be a stanza? Why did I just call Seamus Heaney Shameless Hainley? How do sentences work again? And then other students speak with an eloquence you’ve never been able to hear in the context of the classroom: That quiet student who likens Virginia Woolf’s speech to a chemistry experiment. A couple of students who are so excited about the material that they seem almost giddy talking about their favorite scenes and favorite ideas: who knew that Woolf’s description of the androgynous mind could have such a profound impact on an 18 year old woman’s consciousness? One student was so meticulous and thoughtful about each sentence she uttered, every one of her thoughts seemed weighty and perfectly formed. And this time through, without exception, every student spoke for 20 minutes. And I listened as deeply as I could and asked open and honest questions to the best of my ability. It was exhausting and glorious.

Two weekends earlier, at the close of one semester and at the opening of the next, I was in San Antonio, Texas for five days with Parker J. Palmer and The Center for Courage and Renewal, learning further about The Courage Way, on a path to becoming a facilitator of professional formation work. Much of that practice is also about deep listening, to self and to others, hearing and listening ourselves into speech, always respectful of silence as a guest and fellow traveler. This seems a little woo woo, doesn’t it. Well, it’s not for everybody, and I remember Parker talking about wanting it, perhaps, to sound more woo woo than it actually is–because anyone with a complete aversion to woo woo would probably not end up receptive to the work, incapable of listening deeply, untrustworthy of the inner teacher, suspicious of the silences in which our greatest wisdom often resides.

Part of my job over the course of this training program is to discover ways of making this kind of work manifest in my professional life and in my community. Over the last few days I felt it working already as I sat with my students, listening to them speak, allowing them to hear themselves, inviting silences from time to time, allowing the inner teacher in each young person to come out to play. The only drawback: it was primarily an academic exercise, and ultimately, it was my job as their teacher and as a teacher in the International Baccalaureate program, to evaluate their performance. Not really the optimum circumstances for true formation work. And always, in the back of my mind, and in light of yesterday’s horrific and all-too-familiar news of yet another mass shooting inside of a school, I knew that many of their hearts were breaking, as was mine. And yet we didn’t speak a word about that. We proceeded with the task at hand. We talked seriously about literature. It wouldn’t have been the time or place to check in with each of them about how they were doing with the news, what their thoughts were on the subject, how they were coping, how they wanted to change the world. I wish there could have been space for that. I wish there could be a space where some caring adult could sit down with every single kid and allow them to speak. We might learn something.

The study of English Language Arts lends itself better perhaps than any other discipline to this, but somehow, in every discipline, I think, we must learn to better balance the academic work we do in schools with the soul work we know is necessary for fostering in our students a move toward deeper integrity, agency and trust. Inner work needs to be on the syllabus and in the curriculum. I think our lives may very well depend upon it: our lives, the lives of our students and children, the life of our nation.

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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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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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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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