Tag Archives: The Courage To Teach

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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Filed under Education, Literature, Poetry, Self Reflection, Writing and Reading