Ginger

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I recently came across this photo as I was cleaning out the closet in my guest room, a project that got far enough to turn said guest room into complete chaos and no further. This glamour shot, taken when my mother was a teenager in the 1950s and displayed on a bookcase in my grandparents’ home, was little more than a curiosity when I was growing up–evidence of a life that I was only minimally interested in because it had nothing to do with me. With the egocentricity typical of a child (or maybe I was just a self-centered little monster), I didn’t think much about my mother being anyone other than my mother—the woman who made me dinner, yelled at me to unload the dishwasher, and kissed me goodnight before bed.

That changed somewhat as I got older, and somewhere in my teens and early 20s, our conversations shifted to include more of her history and the life she had before she became a wife and mother. But I was still fairly self-involved in my 20s, and the maturing process I went through to truly become an adult was her illness and death. Now that another fourteen years have passed and I am (gasp) a middle-aged person with students as old as my mother was in that photograph, I find myself reflecting on the complexity and contradictions of my mother’s life and identity—the fuller picture of a woman who wasn’t just mom, but an individual with a life and traits that defy easy categorization.

Ginger (she hated her given name, “Virginia”) felt everything deeply and intensely—love, anger, empathy, judgment, anxiety, joy—and she expressed it vocally. No one could accuse my mother of repressing her emotions. In our house, we saw them on full display every day. The stress of raising four children and the nearly constant pain and fatigue of fibromyalgia made her yell. A lot. And she could be harsh. But the same woman who could scream, “How could you be so stupid!” could also be incredibly tender and compassionate. I’ll never forget the time I found her standing at the living room window, staring at something in the park across the street from our house. When I asked what she was looking at, she pointed out a mother walking with her two young children. She was holding an infant in her arms and was trying to get a toddler to keep riding his toy tricycle. But the toddler also wanted to be held and refused to pedal the tricycle. The mother was forced to keep walking, carrying the baby in one arm and the tricycle in the other while her toddler ran behind her, sobbing and screaming out, “Mama!” My mother watched this unfold with tears in her eyes, murmuring, “Poor thing, poor thing.” At first I thought her compassion was for the child (and I’m sure some of it was), but then she said, “She can’t carry them both,” and I realized her tears were for the mother.

Motherhood was the be-all and end-all for Ginger, which my siblings and I mostly benefitted from, although there was also a bit of a downside. Her dedication to raising us (reading countless books on the subject, not to mention preparing thousands of healthy—if sometimes unappetizing—meals for us) was absolute, and she raised my sister and me with the ideology that being a wife and mother was the best and most fulfilling role for a woman. Even though my sister and I excelled academically and loved the intellectual life of our college experiences, my mother, who had quit her job upon marrying my father, discouraged us from pursuing graduate school (lest we become “too intimidating” to men) or any career that might be “too demanding” to raise a family. Though I have found deep joy and contentment in a very different kind of life than my mother lived or envisioned for me, it has still made me feel a little alienated from her—or at least my memory of her—to care about and pursue things that are so different from what she cared about and pursued. Or so I’ve thought.

Unearthing this photo reminded me of who and what else my mother was. She was a woman who left her family and home in Minnesota as a teenager to complete a B.S. and, subsequently, nursing degree at the University of Colorado. She was adventurous enough to go to Germany with a friend and work as a student nurse for six weeks in order to earn enough money to travel around Europe. Once she became an R.N., she had the gumption to drive to California in a VW bug and take a position as a public health nurse in the city of Pasadena. She had the nerve to marry a Chinese immigrant in the 1960s, in spite of the fact that both families were adamantly opposed to the marriage and people in her hometown openly stopped, turned around, and stared at her and my father walking down the street because they’d never seen an Asian before. Not in person, at any rate. She gamely went to Taiwan with my father and my one-year-old brother to meet my father’s family for the first time, beaming in every photo I’ve seen of that trip even though she must have been wildly intimidated by her complete ignorance of the language and customs. Not to mention going to the bathroom in a hole in the ground. She also had the strength of character and conviction to recognize that the church we had all been part of for so long–the one she and my father had met and married in–had a number of serious issues, and that we needed to leave it, a conviction that was, in part, inspired by reading the novel 1984 (part of her good mothering was that she kept up with what we were reading in school).

All to say, while my mother was deeply conservative and traditional in many respects, her life and character had its radical components as well. And this daughter, who also feels deeply and tries to live authentically according to her convictions, who loves travel, independence, and a life of the mind, might not be so different from her mother after all. At least not in the ways that matter.

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Power Loss

This morning as I was drinking tea, listening to classical music on the radio, and about to open my e-mail on my laptop, the radio suddenly went silent and the internet went down. When I went to investigate, I discovered that I had no power in any outlets. My ceiling lights were still working, so I remained fairly calm, assuming that something had tripped a circuit and I just needed to do a little reset. But flipping the power breakers had zero effect. At this point, my calm began to fray a little. I texted a few people (struggle demands witness, after all) and decided to go to church and figure things out when I got back. I think part of me was hoping the problem would go away if I ignored it for a little while. But the power was out in my garage as well. I know how to disengage the little doohickey so that I can manually open the door, but when I pushed against its heavy solidity, all I managed to do in the zero-traction shoes I was wearing was slide myself back a foot or two. Not in the mood to wrestle with the door and realizing I should probably start making some calls for help, I went back into the house. After searching for some local electricians using the internet on my phone, I left several messages, then proceeded to slide into further agitation. Because now all I could do was wait.

What, oh what, was I to do with myself? I couldn’t watch TV to pass the time. I hate reading and composing e-mails on my phone. Which only left about 25 other options. I could call a friend, I could attack some type of cleaning/organizing task in my house, I could write, and I have enough reading material in my house to last me about the next 20 years. In fact, I frequently bemoan how little time I have to sit and read. So why was I so paralyzed? Because this wasn’t something in my control. Because I hadn’t planned to do those things. Because I felt helpless, and I really really hate feeling helpless. This unpleasant confrontation with just how dependent I am on my electronic devices and internet reminded me of another such encounter from a week ago: namely, forgetting my phone and driving down the freeway realizing that if I got in an accident and ended up in the hospital, I wouldn’t be able to call anyone because I didn’t have anyone’s phone number memorized and could end up suffering alone for days before anyone would figure out where I was and find me (I’m a regular Pollyanna). I made a mental note to myself to do something to remedy that, and this morning is when the note finally resurfaced.

Scrolling through the contacts in my phone, I wrote down several numbers on a little card that I put in the back pocket of my wallet (I will attempt memorization some other time). Then I sat around feeling helpless and frustrated some more, then got upset that I was getting upset. The fruit of this double-upset was a new determination not to be trapped by my circumstances and, wearing different footwear this time, I went back out to the garage, tapped into my anger, and heaved the door open Hulk-style. At this point, one of the electricians called back and said he could be at my house in a couple hours. Hooray! A light at the end of the tunnel! I drove to Trader Joe’s, full of upbeat optimism once again. I navigated the busy aisles like a pro, weaving between distracted shoppers and grabbing items off shelves with systematic efficiency. I even found a checkout line that had just opened up. And then I discovered that I’d left my wallet on my dining room table, full of my emergency contact numbers, as well as all my cash and credit cards. Mortified, I offered to put everything back, which was rejected by the cashier, who said “it’s no problem” for them to do it for me, although the subtext I read was “It’s totally a pain in the ass, lady, but this is what I have to say to customers who are too stupid to bring their wallets with them.”

When I got home, I found that my entire house was now without power. As I walked from room to room trying not to wring my hands and wondering what the heck was going on, it suddenly all turned on–lights, stereo, internet. And a couple minutes later, a giant utility truck from the city went rumbling past my window. Though I am at a loss to explain how my house only lost some of it’s power due to a city power grid/utility issue, it seems that was the problem all along and it was now fixed. I immediately sent word to my friends and family so they could get on with their lives, cancelled my appointment with the electrician, and decided to attempt another trek to Trader Joe’s, this time with my wallet. I confess that I changed my clothes and put my hair in a pony tail, which I could argue was because I wanted to get out of my nice(ish) church clothes and get my hair out of my face, but really I was just hoping that no one at Trader Joe’s would recognize me.

Some take-aways from this morning’s adventures (you know, like you sometimes get in a Sunday sermon):

  1. I am more capable than I give myself credit for. I did everything that any other person who is not an electrician could have done. When my engineer brother who lives on the opposite coast texted me suggestions, they were all things I already knew and had tried. I know where my circuit breakers are and what to do with them. I also know, from past breakdowns in power and mechanics, how to open and close my garage door by myself. With the right shoes, that is. I am also pretty competent at using a phone and calling for help. One of the things that can contribute to my emotional meltdowns when house problems occur is an irrational but weirdly convincing fear that everyone else who lives in a house knows how to handle these things better than I do and that I am not competent enough to live in a house by myself. Which is not true. I’ve been living here for a decade now, and have overseen and dealt with two bathroom renovations, a flooded kitchen, landscaping, a new section of roof installed, and more minor repairs and patches than I can remember. Sure there are people out there with far more capability than I have, but there are also people who have less. And a lot of people who are probably at about the same level. All to say, yes, I can live in a house by myself and not die.
  2. There are some really nice electricians in my area. Besides the one who said he could come out later, two other electricians called me back and, in spite of the fact that my voicemails were left in the desperate tone of someone willing to cash in her retirement savings to get this situation resolved as soon as possible, did their best to help me over the phone so I wouldn’t “have to pay someone to push a button or flip a switch” as one of them put it. Even though their suggestions didn’t work, it was encouraging to realize there are some good guys out there. I am saving their numbers.
  3. All that mumbo jumbo out there about mindset creating reality is kind of true. Okay, very true. The reality is that this morning I was totally fine and I had plenty of useful and enjoyable things I could have done sans outlet power and the internet. Instead, I spent a lot of time dithering, not to mention driving and shopping fruitlessly, because of my emotional state and the fact that my brain could not deal with the unexpectedness of this turn of events. But here is what is also true: even though I knew I was over-reacting and being a ninny, I couldn’t stop. And getting upset with yourself and telling yourself to get a grip and stop getting upset! is about as effective as going to the store without a wallet.
  4. Frustrating and silly situations can turn into writing material. Even though I’ve been writing poetry pretty steadily in the last few months, I haven’t really been able to think of anything to write about here, and I’ve been missing it. While (let’s be honest) there’s not a whole lot of value to this post in and of itself, the fact that this morning’s kerfuffle got me to write something and have fun with it redeems it at least a little.

 

 

Three Poems

Walking with Benen

He is telling you about the turtles, how there were seven of them, no, actually seven frogs, but lots of turtles too, and a large snapping turtle who was this big, and they caught them and held them, but no, they didn’t keep them, they put them back in the water and none of them were hurt and they were really happy, the frogs and the turtles, of which there were many, tons of them, and the urgent joy in his eyes and his motioning hands and the little skipping walk, as if forward is not enough motion but up and down too, and his hoarse bright voice rising, rising above even the generations-old trees with their low swooshing of leaves, because the turtles and frogs, with their legs and beaks and beady eyes, are the whole world, and you want to take this world and tuck it in your pocket and carry it always, like a bright jewel or a stone smoothed by many waters.

(first published in The Lake http://www.thelakepoetry.co.uk/poetry-archive/nov15a/)

 

What a Poem Is

Both wound and consolation
the wound being truth
the consolation also.
Not truth as a scalpel
cold, precise
but more as a silken net cast wide over the world
and gathered back full
of living things.

Worded desire
or a loss unfurled like a towel shaken out
before you lay it to rest on the sand.

The rope thrown over the edge of the cliff
and the someone on the other end
to pull you up.

The pluck that sets you thrumming.

Little torn off corners of eternity you can stuff
in your pocket.

The old man inching his way through the evening air,
the metallic plink of his walker marking his steady progress.

(first published in The Lake http://www.thelakepoetry.co.uk/poetry-archive/nov15a/)

 

The Headline Reads Processed Meat Causes Cancer, Says WHO

and again I hear my mother’s voice, Says who?
challenging some claim asserted
by an expert on the radio or the President
in his State of the Union address—Says who?
she would throw back, wearing her flowered apron,
her arms akimbo, the roll in her eye visible
even when we couldn’t see her face.
No authority save God was safe from her
Says who?

Says the World Health Organization, Mom, that’s WHO,
I’d tell her if I could.  If she hadn’t died fourteen years ago
of a cancer no one had heard of, not even the specialists,
even though she disdained processed meat and ate more fruits
and vegetables than anyone I know.  Because whatever we eat
or drink or smoke or think, we’re all going to die someday.
Says who? A little patch of green under an arching tree,
the bronze letters on a plaque spotted with rain.

(first published in Rattle  http://www.rattle.com/poetry/the-headline-reads-processed-meat-causes-cancer-says-who-by-katherine-lo/)

The Days Between (Advent 2015)

The one who is in love
waiting for a phone call from the beloved.
The one who interviewed
waiting for an offer.
The sick and suffering
waiting to recover.
The prisoner
waiting to be freed.
All in the expectation that
something is coming, its arrival
an inevitable conclusion.
Unless it doesn’t.

And the certainty that it will come
becomes maybe it will come, as in
when God is less busy with other customers.
Except that it doesn’t, so maybe it will come becomes
it probably won’t happen
because you don’t want to expect too much
and maybe God will finally glance
your way when you stop tapping his shoulder
and go sit in the corner instead. Except that
he doesn’t, and it probably won’t happen
becomes silence. His and now yours.

To wait for something that won’t ever arrive
is the soul stretched on the rack
ever tightening until something tears.
A friend tells you all prayers are answered in the resurrection,
both beautiful and unbearable under the weight
of all the long hours of all the long days stretching before you.

So you go to the stories living on tissue-thin pages
and mouth the ancient names. Abraham, Sarah, Joseph
waited lifetimes in the space between
chapters that speed us all too quickly toward
a resolution they dragged their way to.
The stories don’t us tell what they thought
during all those days in between, what they cried out,
though our own mouths do, our own thoughts,
the longings we have learned to bury deep
like the thirsty roots of a tree in dry land, not knowing
when the storm clouds gathering will release
all their darkness into quenching rain.

Afraid

In the wake of the recent attacks in Paris, there has been much in the news and on my Facebook feed about the issue of whether the United States and European countries should close their borders to Syrian refugees.  Emotions are running high, and what I’m seeing over and over again is the three-headed beast of anger, fear, and self-righteousness.  And here I am, about to add to the heap.

Before I do, let me acknowledge a few things:  1) I have no expertise on anything I’m writing about in this post,  2) I am just as hypocritical and selfish and crummy as the next person, and 3) No one asked for my opinion.  That said, since none of those three things has stopped anyone else from venturing into the fray, I’ve decided to also ignore them.

So, a few thoughts about people calling for us to keep all those refugees out:  It seems the predominate fear is that terrorists will enter into our country along with the completely innocent/harmless refugees and have greater access for committing more acts of terror and violence against U.S. citizens.  Is this a possibility?  I would have to say yes, it is.  I think any thinking person has to admit that this is a possibility. Dangerous people entering the United States with the intent to do harm is always a possibility as long as ANY people are entering our country.  Here is what is also true:  the large majority of violence committed against American citizens in the last decade has been committed by…American citizens.  In some of the most horrific mass shootings our nation has seen in recent years, the perpetrators have been white (American) males.  White males who, technically, had legal access to numerous powerful weapons.

Secondly, if we are genuinely motivated to take action against things that might harm us, here is something else to consider:  the actual probability of American citizens dying due to terrorist attacks is extremely small.  That is, in part, due to the hard work and vigilance of our law enforcement and government agencies, for which I am deeply grateful.  There are ways they keep us safe on a daily basis that we are oblivious to.  Even so, here is how most Americans will die:  from heart disease, diabetes, car accidents, and cancer.  I don’t see a lot of outrage about that on the internet.  I imagine at least some of the people calling their senators or signing petitions or whatnot to keep out the dangers associated with refugees are also texting while they drive or not exercising regularly or eating far more fast food than they should.  Do Americans have the right to eat their burgers?  Sure! Enjoy them! You’re going to die someday anyway!  But there’s a rather significant failure of logic in fearing a very remote possibility of harm while ignoring a risk of harm that is far more likely to affect you.  If you’re going to walk around afraid of something (and, really, is that any way to live?), be afraid of distracted drivers and that second donut you’re eating.  They pose more threat to you than some refugees moving into the neighborhood.

Aside from that, why should we let anyone in?  Well, as overly simplistic as this might sound, because someone let you in.  If you’re Native American, I guess that doesn’t apply (your ancestors just walked here over the land bridge eons ago, although I bet the bears and buffalo weren’t too happy about it).  But for the rest of us, it totally applies.  I don’t care if your relatives came a generation ago (as my father did) or centuries ago on the Mayflower (as some of my mother’s relatives did)—someone in your family came here from somewhere else, was let in by someone already here (in some cases, involuntarily) and they came because they wanted something.  A better life.  Freedom.  Safety.  A job.  Just because we’ve been lucky enough to be born here doesn’t mean we’re entitled to keep it all to ourselves.  Do we need to act as responsible stewards of what we’ve been given?  Yes.  But good stewardship isn’t hoarding, especially when hundreds of innocent people are dying.

Those of us who call ourselves Christians have even more responsibility to be compassionate and to help.  If we truly believe that God is sovereign and our lives are in his hands, then what are we so afraid of?  How are the terrorists in any more control than they were a week ago?  “God is a mighty fortress” isn’t meant to be literal.  No verse in the Bible says we shall be known by our tough security measures.  Scripture calls on us to love our neighbors and to cast out fear.

This is where I fully confess my own hypocrisy.  I’m happy to write a check to an organization, but if someone were to ask me to take in a Syrian refugee family right now and have them live in my house, I’d probably say no (a week or two? sure; indefinitely?  ummm…sorry).  The reason I wouldn’t throw my arms wide open as I should is that I like my space and privacy, which I’ve written about several times on this blog.  It’s no secret that I like my alone time.  I also like predictability.  Those are things I fear losing.  That’s not how I should feel, and I hope, through the grace of God, my heart might grow in love enough to treat others the way I ought to, the way I’d want to be treated if my world suddenly erupted into violence and I was in need of help. In this discussion about how we are treating other human beings, where we are making decisions that impact their lives, let’s be honest about what we’re afraid of.  And let’s honestly assess whether those fears are really legitimate reasons to turn suffering people away.

Defining Wisdom

Last spring I wrote about a period of malaise I was going through, which, as it turns out, had a lot to do with the fact that I was getting burned out at work.  And a little bored.  While there was some variety in my early years of teaching, things settled pretty quickly into my having the same two preps (AP Lit and sophomore English) for the next 17 years.  And I was teaching sophomores for three periods a day, which meant summoning the energy to act like the passage that was brand new to my students wasn’t something I’d already read and discussed so many times that the thought of doing it yet again made me want to weep.  That’s a lot of acting.  All this to say that I realized it was time to make a change, which led to my requesting two sections of Beginning ELD (also known as ESL) this year, keeping my two sections of AP Lit, and going down to just one section of sophomore English.

Most of the people I encountered thought this was a slightly insane decision.  More than one person said, “I’m sorry” when I told them about taking on that class, and when I’d clarify that I had requested it, their eyebrows would go up and they’d say, “Really?”  Because the sad truth is that ELD has sometimes been a dumping ground at some schools—the class assigned to some of the most underperforming teachers because their negative impact will be less visible.  It isn’t the type of class teachers tend to request.  When my principal announced at a meeting last spring that someone needed to take on these classes, I could see the other teachers in my department slanting looks at each other that clearly said, “Not me!”

I had what I thought were some pretty good reasons to say “Me!” For one thing, the paper load and essay grading from my other preps was killing me (especially after a day of Broadway performances).  With ELD, I would have a smaller number of students and much shorter papers to grade.  The last several years, I’ve had over 190 students in the course of my day.  This year I have 147.  I also thought it would be good for me to try something new, to challenge myself and get out of my rut.  And while it’s been incredibly stressful preparing and teaching an entirely new curriculum and feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing at all after years of knowing exactly what I’m doing, it’s already helped me grow in some areas I needed to be stretched.  I also liked the idea of helping students learn English because my father had to learn English, as did many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins, and it feels right to invest in helping other immigrants get a leg up as well.

Still, I had some doubts, one of the biggest ones being whether it would be hard for me to teach such simple and basic things for two hours every day.  I have the second year students, so they know some English, but their comprehension and skills are still at a very basic level.  Would I just be exchanging one form of boredom for another?  So far, that has not been the case.  Each day presents some type of challenge, mostly behavioral as I am dealing with students who are extremely familiar with each other and who were accustomed to acting pretty much however they wanted to last year.  A lot of my time and energy goes into trying to teach them that yes, they need to listen when I’m giving instructions, and no, they shouldn’t be yelling across the room or throwing baby carrots at each other.  But most days also present some type of unexpected delight.

One of the routines I’ve established with my students is that we all read silently for about 10 minutes each day.  I have a classroom library of simpler texts for them, but a lot of the students struggle with this activity.  At the end of the ten minutes, I have them write one or two words on the board that they came across in their reading and didn’t understand.  They love this.  Part of it is just that they love to get out of their seats and write on the white board with my many colored markers.  But they also seem to genuinely love learning these new words.  And I love it too.  I love these lists of words on the board, words like shimmer, tugged, deny, encourage, portion, hopped, scary, and wisdom.  I say the words aloud and they all chorus them back to me.  Then I do my best to explain the meaning of each word.  Sometimes this involves me physically acting things out (and can I say that few things are more humbling than demonstrating a bunny hop across the room in front of your laughing students?).  But often this involves telling a kind of story or scenario.  “You know when you’re at a lake or the ocean and the sun is shining on the water and it makes a kind of wave of light [with accompanying hand motion] on the water? That’s ‘shimmer.’  Or when a girl’s hair is very smooth and shiny and the light hits it–you could say ‘her hair shimmers.’ And ‘wisdom’ is like intelligence, but it goes deeper.  It’s knowing how to live a good life and understand the world.  It often takes a long time to get this.”  You can see in their faces when they understand.  Their eyes widen slightly and their mouths relax into an O.  Often one of them will shout out the Spanish equivalent when he or she gets it before the others.  I usually ask them to tell me the word again and repeat it after them, and every time the students clap, delighted that I have learned one of their words and pronounced it properly.

And here we are as a class enjoying language, celebrating words.  It struck me the other day that the last time I engaged in this kind of collective word-savoring was at breakfast with a table of poets, some of us aspiring, some long-established.  It was during a week-long conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and somehow we got on the topic of what our favorite words were.  Some of us shared words we loved because of their meaning, but a lot of us shared words we loved just for the sound of them and the way they felt on our tongues, like two of my favorites: kumquat and sasquatch.  In other words, it was a language-nerd love-fest, and I was in heaven.

I never expected to get glimpses of that in my ELD class, and yet now that I think about it, I don’t know why I wouldn’t have expected it.  This class is about language and the sounds of words and the meanings of words and the logic (or lack thereof) behind those sounds and meanings.  In other words, the perfect class for a poet/writer to teach.  The kind of class where a boy will ask you why a flashlight isn’t called a “handlight.”

Hooray for the Humanities!

If you are an educator, parent, or just someone who keeps up with current trends in our country, you are probably aware that the humanities have taken quite a beating in the last decade or two.  In public schools, there has been an increasing shift away from literature to informational texts, as well as an emphasis on reading several short texts about the same issue (often informative/nonfiction essays and data sets with a poem, short story, or short excerpt from a novel thrown in) and synthesizing them vs. reading a full-length novel.  At the college/university level, there has been tremendous focus on whether or not a humanities major is a complete waste of money, the underlying assumption being that the value of higher education is strictly whether or not it can land you a high-salaried position and make your loans a worthwhile financial investment.

Even if everyone isn’t going quite to the extreme of this 2012 article from Forbes, which suggested that humanities majors were useless and such programs ought to be cut from colleges and universities, there has still been a strong push from both government and industry leaders for more and more emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) courses and programs.  Because everything of value in this world is now about technology, science, and information, right? Oh, and making lots of money.

Except that’s just not true.  In 2014, Forbes acknowledged that a humanities major might not be a complete waste of money after all.  And just last month, they even went so far as to recognize that even high-powered tech companies are hiring more humanities majors than STEM majors these days. Why?  Because people who major in fields like philosophy and literature tend to be good thinkers, possess the ability to make mental leaps and connect seemingly disparate ideas, understand and are comfortable with nuance and ambiguity,  have greater insight into people and what drives them, and have the skill to communicate effectively about all of these things.  Which, as it turns out, can be pretty useful and is becoming more and more attractive to businesses.

Another article that caught my attention was this piece, written for the NY Times by a Harvard professor.  In this article, the professor discusses a non-credit seminar developed for students based on feedback the university got from graduating seniors—poignant feedback like this:

“My experience in classes here at Harvard was excellent overall. Yet I wish I had a chance as a freshman to discuss with fellow students, in an organized way, some questions about ‘how to live my life.’ I did quite well in economics and history and chemistry. There were plenty of such courses. Yet there was no class where I could discuss questions such as, ‘what do I really stand for?’ ‘Where have my personal values come from?’ ‘Are these values immutable?’ Do I expect them to be any different by the time I graduate from here in several years?”

and this:

What constitutes living a ‘good’ life? Is this a different question from asking what constitutes living a ‘useful’ life? And how about what constitutes living a ‘successful’ life? They sound similar, yet the nuances are different.

and finally, simply:

What do you believe are life’s essential conversations?

Some of the most “successful” students in the country, most likely on their way to lucrative and high-status jobs, are still feeling like they’re missing something–that some of the most important lessons in life haven’t been addressed in all their years of coursework.

This is not to say that a humanities major necessarily provides this missing component, or that some of the students writing these comments weren’t humanities majors.  I have no way of knowing that information.  But when I looked at the topics and activities Harvard developed to address these needs, I was struck by how many of them either overlap or are exactly the same as the activities and discussions I have with my students as we read various works of literature.  Because literature–which is, essentially, the story of humanity, identity, values–explores all of these deep questions.  You can’t truly engage in reading good literature without engaging with these issues and thinking about them and being shaped by them in some way.  And quality literature not only presents the issues, but it also teaches you how to think about them in a rich and complex way.  In other words, those who read regularly and read deeply can’t help but emerge with not only knowledge but also wisdom.

From a purely anecdotal perspective, as someone who has gotten to know literally thousands of people over the years (just living my life and also teaching for over 19 years), all of the most interesting and mature thinkers—all of the most wise and self-aware people I know—are readers.  This applies to a number of STEM folks as well.  I have quite a few friends (and two brothers) who are in STEM fields, but what differentiates them is that they are also lovers of books.  I have yet to meet someone who reads regularly who is not an insightful and interesting thinker.  Of course, anyone who has access to quality books, whether they are a janitor or an engineer, has access to this development.  But few people have the motivation or ability to completely ‘go it alone,’ especially when it comes to more challenging works of literature or philosophy.  For most, the opportunity to read works they might not otherwise select for themselves, the opportunity to reflect on these works and the issues they raise with a group of other people with whom they can discuss and explore, the opportunity to learn how to express their own thoughts and have their thinking refined by others’–well, that sounds like a humanities class.

Communication

In the past 24 hours, I’ve experienced a series of communication breakdowns, both large and small.  The first was when I ordered a decaf iced latte at an airport Starbucks and the woman taking my order interpreted those sounds as “iced tea.” The second was when, after a long day of travel, I hurriedly responded to a text message only to realize a few minutes later that it was talking about that not this and my tired brain had somehow mixed up the two and cause me to answer a question that wasn’t being asked. More serious and significant is the third incident, which has actually been occurring for over a week but I finally only understood this morning.  This one involved my sister telling me something born out of a world roiled by major and difficult changes with deep emotional impact, and me interpreting it through the lens of pragmatic concern. In other words, I categorized what she was communicating as a frustrating obstruction to what I thought was a sensible and easy way to help her, and was reinforcing my perception of this situation with an entire history of personality and family dynamics. Which was not entirely fair.

There were probably many other communication misfires and failures in that span of time that I didn’t even notice because I, like so many others, default to believing my own perception of reality is the correct/only one and assume that everyone is understanding me and I them just fine. But these three interactions remind me just what a fraught and fragile path anything we express travels on its way from our heart and mind to the heart and mind of another human being. I learned about “affective filters” my first year of teaching and how easy it is for a teacher to assume she is being explicitly clear about an assignment, only to have students turn in something that doesn’t even come close to resembling what she thought she assigned. These filters are everywhere. It could be something as basic as noise interfering with your ability to hear what someone is saying to you. It could be that you are too tired to process and understand what they are saying. It could be that the way you feel about them changes how you hear what they are saying.  It could be that the way you feel about yourself does. It could be what someone once said to you ten years ago that you’ve never forgotten. It could be your self-consciousness about sweating too much and that maybe they’re noticing. It could be forty previous conversations you’ve had and your assumption that this one is exactly the same. It could be that you see the world and think in a way that is so different from the other person, that even the most seemingly obvious thing to you is a mystery to them. And vice versa.

When you think about it, it’s kind of a minor miracle that we ever understand or are understood at all.  And, like so many things in this broken world that is also full of grace, while there is such possibility for misunderstanding and the damage and loneliness it causes, that very likelihood makes those moments of true understanding and connection all the more profound. I suppose that’s why, at least on an intuitive level, I’ve always gravitated towards written communication. As a reader, I have the chance to process and think about what’s been written and test, at least to some degree, whether I’m understanding things the way they’re meant to be understood.  At the same time, the best moments of reading are when none of that carefulness is needed, because the words on the page leap out as something deep and true in my own heart and mind, and the author has named it in a way I recognize even though I have never been able to name it myself. This, among many other reasons, is why book lovers are so passionate about their books–they recognize them as true intimates. The same thing applies to the writing side of things.  On the one hand, when I write something, I have the same opportunity to be more careful and thoughtful about what I am saying and how it might come across to someone else. I also have the opportunity to share some of those deeper parts of myself that might cause someone else’s heart and mind to leap with recognition. And when that happens, and I am actually made aware of that, it is a source of deep joy.

I started reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet on yesterday’s flight, and based on what I read, part of me wants to categorize all of this as an introvert’s issue. I suppose, at least in the way I’ve written about it, it primarily is. But even if all those extroverts  are just chatting away out there and not worrying very much about deeper meaning and significance, I’m pretty sure they are still feeling the effects of communication that does and doesn’t work. We all want to know and be known. And we all, in spite of all those filters (including self-protective fear), want to span that distance between ourselves and the Other. Which makes me think that some of our obliviousness to our gaffs isn’t always such a bad thing. It buffers us enough to keep trying and get to those moments of true connection.

Forms

About a month ago, a good friend and I both found ourselves wanting to get back into a regular writing practice, so we resolved to write for just 15 minutes a day at least five days a week and report to each other how we were doing.  Fifteen minutes isn’t much time, but really it’s the time that matters most, because it’s the time you have to actually sit yourself down and try to write something.  And once you’ve managed that, it’s usually pretty easy to keep going for longer.  At the same time, knowing it only has to be 15 minutes makes it seem very non-threatening and achievable.

So far, it’s been equal parts fun and frustrating.  The fun part is that with such low expectations (you can’t usually do a whole lot in 15 minutes) and low pressure (if what I write is terrible today, that’s okay because I’ll be writing something else tomorrow), there’s a lot of freedom.  I’ve found myself writing things that are far more experimental and random than I might normally write.  The critic in my head is pretty much silenced by the understanding that it’s not really the product that matters so much as the habit itself, which gives me permission to play.

The frustrating part is that sickening drop in the stomach that happens when I’m sitting there with a blank screen or paper and have absolutely no idea what to write.  When I feel like I have nothing with which to fill the void or to pattern the blank space.  It’s just there: empty, waiting.  In a rather serendipitous coincidence, I’ve been making my way through T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” lately and came across this chunk, which sums things up far better than I ever could:

Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

Later he concludes, somewhat more hopefully, that “For us, there is only the trying.  The rest is not our business.”  Of course, he’s talking about his own long career as a poet and a craftsman of words at the very highest level, but his observations are true even for me at my most basic, clumsy, and amateurish level–my 15 minutes a day.  Difficult as it may be, there is a value and satisfaction in the trying, in at least making the attempt to put some kind of language or form to those inarticulate impulses or responses of the heart and mind.  It is, in its own way, in the tradition of Adam and Eve giving names to creation, mimicking the Creator with an attempt to create something of substance out of words.

Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once stated, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”  Recognition of the significance of an event, and the precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.  Those words could easily be applied to poetry as well, minus the “simultaneous” and “fraction of a second” parts. Rather than a fraction of a second, it might take months or years or never happen at all.  And that, too, is the wonderful and frustrating part–putting something down when you’re not entirely sure of its significance, and you’re definitely not sure about form.  That uncertainty is painful, but in many respects, it’s also a highly beneficial practice in faith and communion.  As Wendell Berry observes, “the given word implies the acceptance of a form that is never entirely of one’s own making.”

I think that’s my favorite part of writing–that when we give words to something and create our forms, it’s never entirely ours.  There’s no voice that’s purely my own–it’s  a manifestation of all the experiences and people and words and writers who have impacted me over the years, along with that ineffable Other that emerges in any creative act.  And if it should come out lumpy and crummy and not at all resemble what I’d hoped it would?  There is consolation for that too, again from the wise and wonderful Wendell Berry, who says, “The unknown is the mercy and it may be the redemption of the known.  The given word may come to appear to be wrong, or wrongly given.  But the unknown still lies ahead of it, and so who is finally to say?  If time has apparently proved it wrong, more time may prove it right.  As growth has called it into question, further growth may reaffirm it.”

The unknown has always terrified me and makes me want to grasp (however illusory it may be) whatever control I can.  But that same unknown is also the the one hope of it all turning out the way it was meant to be.  For the right form to finally emerge.

 

One Week After Resurrection Sunday

The rose bushes are in full bloom
in a frilly abundance that would border on shameless if they weren’t
so beautiful.  If they weren’t so perfectly crafted to make
you sigh, like the bee so drunk with nectar he can’t even fly
straight, but does a kind of airborne stagger.

It will not last, of course.  Tiny stick bugs already cling
to the pale undersides of petals, their microscopic jaws working.
The summer sun will scorch the edges black, and fall
will rust the leaves, the months diminishing
each bush until the day I cut them all down,
stripping away the few rain-soaked buds that lack
the strength to open.

My father, whose body is becoming a stiffening husk
that other hands now bathe and dress,
tells me how at his college in Taiwan the students would gather
in the courtyard every Friday night to play records
borrowed from the American Embassy.

They would set up the record player and the oversized speakers.
They would hand out programs and play Beethoven,
Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Bach,
all of them perched in silence, their heads tilted with listening.

After the cutting down, Lord, this is what I imagine,
the mercy hoped for in the blade—
my father once again that rapt young man,
every nerve and cell alive and singing.