To learn is to…

It is relatively common knowledge that Socrates liked to ask questions, to ponder, to unsettle more than arrive at conclusions our resolutions. (Ironically, the Socratic seminar, as it is sometimes practiced in educational settings, bares no resemblance to the person for whom it is named.)

I’ve been thinking about Socrates a lot recently, and taking refuge in a way within the quote attributed him: “I know that I know nothing.” To my ears, there is tremendous freedom and power in these words. How wonderful to remember to enact humility as human beings at the realization that even when we arrive at a conclusion, questions lurk in plain sight.

Or, put more artfully by Emerson: “Every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.”

It’s that last bit that I especially love and that is simultaneously the source of much angst — wherein it is still a shock to my system to encounter people for whom these words hold no meaning… those for whom bottom line refers to a dollar amount and excel spreadsheet and not the last line of a poetic stanza.

Who bends & sways, only to be interpreted as inchoate, and thus left alone to wither?

Whose rigidity, read as conviction, is rewarded?

Is it disappointment that has settled in me (perhaps the sentient experience hardest to make sense of)? It is for this reason I have long resisted identifying heroes, yet am not immune apparently to expectations; tis a burden (even as it is a gift) to be human.

So the best we can do in response to disappointment is to take a learning posture.

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” — Lao Tzu

Ok.

Denouement — sabbatical as pilgrimage, part 2

Denouement. In dramatic terms, the denouement follows a narrative climax and signals the conclusion, which is sometimes marked by resolution although not necessarily. In flight terms, we might think of this as the moment the wheels touch down on the runway. In lasagna terms, it’s the point at which you remove the foil to initiate the browning process for the top layer of cheese a few minutes from the end of cooking. It is sunset, the after dinner drink, the autumn of a calendar year. Everything in life, it seems, has a penultimate stage, a moment that is both of and also precedes the ending. Occasionally there are surprises, but more often than not this stage is characterized by affirmation and conviction. And so, with less than three weeks remaining before the start of the new school year, my sabbatical denouement is well underway.

Thoreau understood that “This world is but a canvas for our imagination.” When colleagues and friends ask me, as they no doubt will (some more perfunctorily than others), to describe this past year, I have decided to simply say, “I worked on my imagination.” To kindred spirits, this response will more than suffice, will be the germ of future dialogue about how one cultivates the self, not merely for selfish or hedonistic purposes but to be better able to live as a person in the world who can work with others in service of larger, collective goals (perhaps). To cynics who are overly concerned — as they are wont to be — with “the point,” who, I think it is safe to say, may be the type to use “found time” such as sabbatical to keep dotting “i”s and crossing “t”s to the exclusion of the many other letters in the alphabet, not to mention the many other alphabets and sign systems with which to make meaning…. well, to them, the simple answer may annoy, confound, or give further reason to dismiss. And that’s ok with me.

Almost exactly thirteen and a half months ago, I started this blog. Its primary purpose was to keep friends and family informed of the goings-on as the year-plus of “time off” took me to strange, distant, occasionally familiar, and always educative places. In the course of blogging, and perhaps because of the commitment I made to this handful of people to whom I had originally given this url, I have read more widely, written more consistently, engaged robustly in the practice of noticing and attending, and played – with language, with photography, with art making, with food, with ideas… — more than I can remember doing in a very long time.

And during that same period, owing to the great stumbling-upon characteristic of the internet, I have had the great pleasure of hearing from and learning about the blogging adventures of others who also hock their discursive wares online. So ensconced have I been in the bosom of perpetual inspiration, is it any wonder that I have grown quite fond of this space – one in which I feel “free to be?” (Cue: Marlo Thomas and friends)

In her collection of essays entitled “Letter to my daughter,” Maya Angelou writes with her usual unapologetic frankness – a manner of poignancy that is less and less common today – on qualities of being human; she writes, among other things, of home and belonging (these are two words that are currently on my mind, in part because they are at the heart of a manuscript I have been shaping for what seems like forever). In an early chapter, she offers the following observation about what others have insisted is a gap between childhood and adulthood:

“I am convinced that most people do not grow up. We find parking spaces and honor our credit cards. We marry and dare to have children and call that growing up. I think what we do is mostly grow old. We carry accumulation of years in our bodies and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.”

Have we, in the pursuit of growing up, allowed ourselves to suppress any remembrances of the selves we inhabited as youth? The consideration of the absurd or the releasing of long held beliefs-turned-grudges can seem anathema in environments where everyone is attempting to be taken more seriously than the person to his or her left or right. (Perhaps this is never truer than during elections, as evidenced in the media circus currently going on in the States.) Can we grow up and also remain playful? Or are these contrasted ways of being?

In Angelou’s words can be found a sort of vindication for the time taken — these past several months but also at other times – to grow while also attending to the shy magnolia within. Hers are words I hope to hold close as the proverbial garlic to ward off the blood-sucking forces that threaten to dominate academic life.

Ivan Illich wrote the following about public schooling, although I think it applies to higher education (and many forms of corporatized institutions) as well: “School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.”

My always-wise, never shy, highly observant, quick-witted spouse, who has been the recipient of such idle musings for the better part of two decades, recently posed a question that I have found hard to ignore: did I think that societal “norms,” which have formed largely at a glacial pace, would somehow change or be repealed overnight? Perhaps not, wise one. But it is also true that change is both catalytic and glacial. Illich, often viewed with skepticism or disdain, can be read as proffering an invitation to slow down, to resist a perfunctory mode of living and to adopt a more subjunctive stance.

To thwart Illich’s all-too-prophetic claim, to attend to the homes we never leave while also allowing new homes to blossom, to resist the pull of the de facto and status quo, to dwell in the space of the “might be,” it seems we might do well to internalize a few lessons.

An incomplete list (in no particular order; modified and extended from a post-vipassana post):

  • Look closely, look again, and resist the immediate impulse to judge.
  • Mistakes happen. Make them.
  • Don’t lament “that” when you’re doing “this” (and vice versa). In other words: Now, you, this.
  • Wonder.
  • Contentment is not complacency.
  • “I don’t know” can be freeing.
  • Be willing to leave the cave.

I know what you’re thinking… and I, too, fear for my students this year…

The remainder of this month will be devoted to the completion of unfinished blog post drafts, a few wrap-up posts, and a consideration of how to use this space once the Seine is once again a dream…

the possibility of what can be seen

If photography is about seeing and showing, then could photo editing have something to do with the possibility of showing and what is seen? I’m not talking about the endless scandals of hazardous photoshopping in which a model’s ribs, hips, or appendages have been eliminated for the sake of preserving some strange ideal of “beauty” or, quite simply, to market and thus sell things. No, I’m referring to the art of photo editing in which a digital image taken of the world is made to look somehow celestial, even as it maintains a representation of this reality.

In short, I have been captivated recently by the work of Leanne Cole, a photographer whose blog is full of such artful photographic treatments. What first brought me to this blog escapes me, but I know that I keep revisiting it and at first I didn’t quite understand what I was seeing — only that I was full of questions about how and what. Only later did it become clear that what I was seeing were artistic renderings of photographs.

Here’s an image of Leanne‘s that I absolutely love, in large part because of its Hopper-inspired quality:

Counter

The red face of the counter corner is, of course intriguing, but with each look — and there have been many — the street, the back of the road sign, the lampposts and trees become increasingly interesting. And the wooden floor, weathered and reminiscent of the surface being meticulously attended to by Caillebotte’s scrapers: (image courtesy of Musee d’Orsay website)

The Floor Scrapers (Gustave Caillebotte)

But Leanne Cole does not keep her secrets secret. She has shared some of the photoshop techniques she uses, including posts that offer excellent tutorials full information about sliders, layers, masks, and more. I haven’t tried it yet, but, inspired by her technique of seeing and then seeing again I present a respectfully doctored image of a stone staircase near the beach in Cromer (manipulated using the basic exposure, contrast, and saturation functionality allowed by iPhoto).

Cromer Beach Stairs (edited)
Cromer Beach Stairs (original photo)

How to explain the strange fact that the first image is what I recall seeing when I first decided to take this photo? Has a camera yet been invented to do what the eye seems to do effortlessly? That is, processing color and shape and shadow and scope, all while triggering memories, intertextual connections, and adjusting for light exposure.

Hung on the walls of the cafe from where I write are paintings, several of them by the same painter, most of which depict people in naturalistic settings — next to foliage or biological life of some sort. The painter’s brush and palette of paints here work in the same way that the mouse and video editing software does in the images above. An entity exists in the world, and instruments are used to render a version of it — never can a painting or photograph or film or even exact replica be the thing, itself. So, if all representations are, at most, approximations of the truth, why not dabble in the practice of creating entirely new worlds with their own truths? That is, to conceive of photographs as paintings, as not merely captured or clicked, but composed long after the shot is taken.

What kind of photography is this? In a world of instagram filters and readymade schemes anyone can apply to enhance a photo, what is this practice of carefully manipulating an image to create an altogether different artifact? Are we all just auto-tuning our pictures?

In John Berger’s words, “Photographs bear witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation.” In asking questions of photographs, therefore, we are implicitly questioning the photographer who is implicated in every image, in every choice made to document or not, and in doing so, to “bear witness.”

What does one do with a manipulated photograph? How do we read an image that has been stripped of color? Whose shadows have been augmented or minimized? Haven’t photographers always dabbled in photo making? In deciding how long to let an image burn onto the photo paper or how quickly to take it out of the developing liquids — no image is free from mediation, yet the chase for some unreal sense of purity persists (though not among photographers, I suspect).

For the inspiration, for the provocation, and for the beautiful work, my thanks to Leanne.

“Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.” — Emerson

“…under every deep a lower deep opens”

An editorial note: The title for this post was originally going to be “…but every end is a beginning,” which WordPress informed me was already the name of a previous post made almost exactly one year ago, near the beginning of my sabbatical. Thus, the revised title, also from Emerson’s essay “Circles,” follows shortly thereafter the original; the titular coincidence merely reinforces the prescience his words hold.

***

Jottings made on a subway ride from uptown to midtown.

The hot car. A clear sign that my senses are dulled. Sparsely populated, people fanning themselves, riders sitting still and trying to not move unless necessary — I would have noticed in an earlier time. But I’m not too bothered. My body temperature starts to cool soon enough. And I am in a fairly good mood after a day spent in the company of friends and colleagues with whom laughter is the first language. In between was a meeting with new colleagues that left me feeling as if I could imagine returning, not just to New York and not merely “to campus” but to the actual institution, to the minutia that signifies the elements of the institutional apparatus that I most loathe: arbitrary and seemingly intractable procedures and policies that people — some people — adhere to seemingly without thinking, without bothering to ask why and assessing their relevance in service of some warped sense of justice or equity or efficacy.

Transfer at 96th Street to the express 2 train. Cool car — as it should be, my internal monologue asserts, chiding me for thinking anything else would be acceptable. Still, I am thankful the underground heat is not saturated with the humidity of the days preceding. My thoughts quickly return to the events of the day, to conversation that meandered from art exhibitions about dust to video art and essays, from home improvement projects to projects of self-improvement, that included the sharing of texts of… well let’s just say texts of all sorts… Suffice it to say, my earlier post about a place and its people rang true again and again today.

I think, too, of this time of transition “back” — about the moments of anxiety that arise each time I realize August is looking me in the face, those moments that I was desperately trying to wish into abeyance. The anxiety is the manifestation of a fear that has been building since that day in late June, while walking back to my hotel from an effecting visit to the Anne Frank Museum, when the image of a way of living untethered to a university first surfaced. That is to say I could imagine a life in which the elements that too often are relegated to the margins, in order to accommodate the aforementioned minutia that swells and multiples with little provocation, are brought into the center — fear, of course, is conjured out of anticipation that the minutiae will overpower all else.

So I set my subconscious loose to formulate a plan to form a writerly commune somewhere in the south of France… or in the north of France… or perhaps in that little town in the middle of France… Well, you get the picture — while the plan simmers and coalesces, the mission at hand will be the practice of mindfulness — not back or forward, but here, now. Tolstoy’s story, “Three Questions,” introduces the idea in this way:

It once occurred to a certain king, that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid, and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.

And this thought having occurred to him, he had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that he would give a great reward to any one who would teach him what was the right time for every action, and who were the most necessary people, and how he might know what was the most important thing to do.

In short, Tolstoy, via the king and his quest through the land over which he rules, wonders:

  • What is the right time for every action?
  • Who are the most necessary people? (Another interpretation: Who are the most important people?)
  • What is the most important thing to do?

The answers, we might venture, are, respectively: Now, you, this.

And for the panda lovers, here is a frame from John Muth’s picture book take on Tolstoy’s philosophical offering:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

… and few more words from near the end of “Circles”

“The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment.”

(im)mortality

“And when he died, I suddenly realized I wasn’t crying for him at all, but for all the things he did.”

Those words, from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, were tweeted and retweeted with great frequency in the past 48 hours. These prescient words offer an unlikely form of comfort as they suggest both acceptance and reflection. I will make a confession now: it didn’t occur to me that Ray Bradbury was still alive, so when the news of his death first flashed on my twitter feed my immediate thoughts turned to the impending public response. The quantity of tweets and chirps that filled the communicative airwaves after the passing of poet and author Adrienne Rich in late March pales in comparison to the voluminous outpouring of tributes and reflections that have consumed the various social media spaces in honor of Bradbury, who was 91 when he died. And in the wake of his death, the musings and sharings of others have provided incredible insights into the man. Take, for example, this letter the author wrote relatively recently in support of libraries in which he describes the impact of being surrounded by shelves of books:

“How could I have written so many words so quickly? It was because of the library. All of my friends, all of my loved ones, were on the shelves above and shouted, yelled and shrieked at me to be creative.”

Incidentally, a large collection of letters, written by Bradbury as well as other persons of interest, can be found on the Letters of Note website.

I keep returning, however, to Bradbury’s words that begin this post. Certainly tears are shed at someone’s passing, but what do our emotions actually signify? If we know — or are at least in some way aware — that each of us is just passing through, as it were, why and how is it that we form such deep attachments? Like the wise author writes, we seem to form attachments for “all the things” people do. Stranger yet are the deeply formed attachments we make to veritable strangers who, because of their words, do not remain strangers for very long. How is it, like many have said about the likes of Sebald and others, that an intimacy is evoked simply through the act of reading? Not merely the sort of intimacy akin to routine and familiarity, such as we might experience with the person who checks us in at the gym or the ever-present barista at the local coffee shop; I am referring instead to the kinship that is nurtured between a reader and a writer even when the actual distance, both spatial and temporal as well as social and cultural, is vast. At moments of death (and, by extension, a recognition of our own mortality), do we mourn the end of what might yet have come into being at the writer’s hand?

Perhaps we are moved to remember how it is that we encountered these intimate strangers in the first place. Who are these authors who come to live inside of us and whose penned and typed words take shape in the form of our thoughts and questions, and whose views of the world intersect, challenge, and comfort our own? Of course, this is not only true of writers but also of others who creations — paintings, films, the city landscape of buildings, and more — are absorbed into our beings; we are because they made. … thus, moving us to make, create, question, live differently.

Emerson wrote that “every end is a beginning”*, an assertion that is shown to be especially true in the socially mediated world in which we live and communicate. Following Rich’s death, for instance, I engaged in an exchange with a friend via twitter about the ways in which her words are effecting and how her death is even more so; in the space of our exchange was the additional comfort that comes from recognizing familiar glimpses in another. The various spheres and universes of communication were filled with people sharing favorite quotes, passages, and memories that predictably led to me increasing my “must read” list. Similarly, with Bradbury — and perhaps more so — I have delighted in learning more about who he was in the eyes of others, the larger extent of his writings and genres (including letters to various parties), and the many forms his influence took across nine decades of life. (These nonagenarians are putting the rest of us to shame!) A few of these literary treasures are included here:

Indeed.

And now I will correct my earlier confession — it’s not quite precise that I didn’t realize Ray B. was still alive; in truth, I am merely trying to “wrap my head around”, as Joseph McCabe from FearNet describes, “a world where Ray Bradbury no longer lives.”

*The phrase is part of a longer quote from Emerson’s essay “Circles“: “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.”

a meditation on vipassana

I’m not sure how old I was when I first realized that not all salads contained leafy greens. For much of my childhood, with the exception of egg salad which is not really a salad at all under any definition, salad consisted of iceberg lettuce, shaved carrots, sliced cucumber rounds, and tomatoes, which were at first cut into thin wedges and later sliced once my father unearthed his “famous” egg and tomato slicer with a larger than necessary rectangular slicing section and curiously short, teal handle that tapered near the end.  Occasionally, my mother would throw in garbanzo beans (or chick peas as they were known in my house) and kidney beans for protein, a key concern for a household of vegetarians, and top things off with store bought dressing. Even though we had immigrated to this country and had a different cuisine from which the daily menu was primarily drawn, I don’t think our initial salad ventures were that different from those prepared in the homes of my “born and raised” American friends. As I grew older and began experimenting more with cooking, I entered the world of romaine and sunflower seeds and various other goodies I’d glimpsed at the salad bars that were starting to crop up in different restaurants. But I was an adult or at least in college when I first was conscious that salad didn’t need to contain lettuce. It was a revelation that was nurtured by the discovery of tabouleh, salads with grains (rice salad and the quinoa salad I mentioned last month would apply here), three/five-bean salads, salads with fruit components – the list goes on. All of these things I recognized as salad – unlike the time when my friends and I, tired from yet another day of driving during our Western US road trip, stopped into a family style restaurant in Elko, Nevada where the “salad” placed in a large, clear, plastic bowl in the middle of the table contained exactly 2 ingrediencts: hastily torn leaves of iceberg and romaine that looked aged past its prime drenched to the point of suffocation in what appeared to be slightly watered-down mayonnaise.

Like lettuce-free salads, silence came as a revelation to me when I participated in my first Vipassana meditation course.  How, I wondered, does one live as a human being in silence – that is, free from all forms of communication, the very essence of living a human life? But this is what I did for nearly a fortnight in the summer of 2007: essentially, volunteering to live like a monk for ten days while learning to practice this most ancient of meditation techniques.  In that first instance, I went running toward this course following a tense, work-related exchange that had occurred a few month earlier.  My emotional stores were low and my proclivity for taking things personally and giving into the worst possible interpretation of a situation – a trait that concerns me in others and frustrates me when I recognize it in myself – was becoming higher. Something wasn’t quite right and thankfully I followed my instinct to pursue participation in this course about which I had extremely little prior knowledge save a very brief description shared with me by a childhood friend in a passing exchange and Elizabeth Gilbert’s reference to Vipassana as “the Extreme Sports version of transcendence” in her best-selling memoir. I’m not sure I transcended anything, but for ten days during that summer over four years ago, I sat quietly and gave myself over to the experience of observing myself more closely and deeply than I had done before. (This is actually not as narcissistic as it probably sounds.)

When I returned a couple of weeks ago to the bucolic setting where the meditation center is located, nestled in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, I arrived there a much different person. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I had a different relationship to my place of work, the source of the tension that pushed me to this endeavor in the first place had dissipated and evolved, and my practices of communication and expression had undergone a sort of awakening following a long, unwitting slumber. Four years ago, I found myself stuck in a myth I had created about what and who I needed to be in order to successfully meet the requirements of tenure – that ever-looming and gripping force – and the mind, with all of its amazing affordances to transform, illuminate, and nurture, can also be guilty of deforming reality and endless wallowing. The undoing of what was a state of perpetually shrugged shoulders, teeth grinding, and unfinished manuscripts came in a few different forms starting with an initial acceptance that I was the one not letting me be me. So I accepted the invitation to participate in a faculty seminar, even when I thought had not a second to spare; I resumed my practice of taking aimless walks; I allowed myself to get lost in the kitchen, where many of my most blissful moments take place; I pursued publication in a relatively new online journal and included a few animations as part of the piece; I took a painting course; I taught a video course; I remembered that I loved to read, fiction, and fell back in love with words.

This renewed, perambulatory self was the one that showed up at the meditation center last month. And as the course began, a strange set of emotions and reactions swept over me as I encountered and experienced my second, 10-day Vipassana meditation course.  It may important at this juncture to note that prior to the first course, I had never before meditated. And in between course 1 and 2, my success rate was about the same. Still, something drew me back.

Vipassana is not for the faint of heart. In brief, it is a practice of meditation premised on the belief that our reactions to the world around us originate as physiological sensations on the body and if we are able to remain equanimous in light of any and all such sensations, then we will be able to live better and free from misery, of both the large and small variety. At the heart of this technique is the concept of impermanence (anicca – a Pali word, I think, that is pronounced “anicha”) and during a ten day course, participants are eased into the practice of sitting completely still and at first simply observing their breath as it touches the area on the upper lip. From there, meditators are guided through the practice of observing the range of sensations that arise and pass throughout the surface and later inside their bodies (including vibrations and tickles as well as extreme cramps and the spiky tingles that emanate from limbs that have fallen asleep) and to engaged in this practice of deep and focused observation without a reaction of craving or aversion. There are no mantras to chant or icons to visualize. It is by practicing and personally experiencing this meditation during controlled sittings, the theory goes, that one can train the subconscious mind from unthinkingly overreacting when, in our everyday lives, someone calls us an ugly name or something doesn’t go our way – situations that, once again, start as barely perceptible sensations on the body and have already begun to produce a reaction based on previous reactions long before we can compose ourselves to respond appropriately.  The teaching, based in the non-sectarian teachings of Gautama Buddha, is delivered in the form of audiotaped guided instructions each day and videotaped discourses each evening featuring S.N. Goenka who is credited with returning the practice to India from his homeland of Burma, whereupon it spread like it once again as it had centuries before. There are assistant teachers present at this and the other centers around the world who can answer questions about technique and one’s experience; this is, incidentally, the one speaking that is allowed during the 10-day period. Stillness, silence, and solitude – these are of great importance as one learns, and later if one chooses to more deeply cultivate, this practice. Those who fully embrace Vipassana’s invitation, which may seem extreme to most, pursue a life free from attachments – not only to sensations, but also to material goods, ideologies, any sense of i/me/my/mine, and people – because when we have fewer attachments, we are better able to maintain that sense of peace when something happens to those things in the large net of “my”: losing a favorite pen, damaging my grandmother’s ring, the transformation of a beloved café for the worse, a change in institutional policy that is no longer favorable to what i/we do, a rejected publication, and on.  Even if most are able to see the silliness of attachment to these aforementioned things, the practice of detachment becomes more difficult to conceptualize when we think about some of our deeper attachments: chief among them, family/loved ones and institutions (marriage, citizenship, religion), although the cynic in me suspects that humans are far more attached to their institutions; how else to explain the parent who can cast aside a child because of who she marries?

With that said, Vipassana and the promise of equanimity and peace can be for everyone. I’m still questioning…and while I continue to contemplate how this practice might fit into in my daily life, I’ll share the following musings that took shape as I watched and listened and tried hard to not think and just observe:

Contentment is not complacency. As I sat on my cushion on the ground in the large group meditation hall, cross-legged and trying to remain completely still by maintaining my equanimity in the face of cramps that were ripping through my left thigh and sharp pain that was piercing my right knee, I began to think about possible jeers that might be hurled toward this meditation. For instance, the accusation that to observe and resist any and all threats to one’s sense of peace is to become, essentially, a doormat. It was at this moment, near the middle of the week, that my mind transgressed yet another time and instead of observing sensations allowed in the following wondering: what is role of contentment in the pursuit of innovation? Actually, the exact question I asked myself on Tuesday or Wednesday of last week was: “If everyone became a Vipassana meditator, would the iPad have come into existence?” Because of our temporary monastic existence, I did not know at the time of Steve Jobs death, but far from being some sort of cosmic happening, that my mind conflated the entirety of the cosmos into the creation of the iPad is further evidence of Apple’s ubiquity in our conscious and unconscious minds. That point aside, with the help of some time to sit and observe and experience I arrived at the conclusion that people much wiser than I have realized long ago: that to be content need not diminish the active pursuit of innovation and design and creativity; rather, the intentions for the innovation and creativity shifts, away from purely financial or material gains and toward the larger benefit of one’s creative endeavors for the social well being of others as well as self.

Don’t hate or inflate. We tend to do both of these things: denigrate or, perhaps in a less volatile sense, minimize the victories of those we perceive as our competitors and sometimes even those whom we consider to be our friends. And, in direct contrast to a pursuit of equanimity is also our tendency to heap praise on ourselves, perhaps out of fear that others may not? While watching a discussion with Robert Gates earlier this evening, I heard him echo this thought in another and possibly more elegant way. He said [paraphrasing]: We hear an excess of talk about our rights as citizens of this country and yet disappointingly little about our responsibility as citizens and members of our [local/global] societies. I wish those who have assumed positions of leadership in this and other countries would resist the fear of being called some ridiculous label (e.g., “Socialist”) and earn that moniker of leader by asking more of us to contribute. This is not a call for increased governmental involvement in private lives, as the “anti” rhetoric always spins, but rather a recognition of the potential for what small changes across a mass populous can achieve…

Look. Closely. Again. Sometimes, during an activity or while attempting to introduce a concept in one of my courses, I will literally interrupt myself and ask the students to engage with me in an exercise of close description. For instance, I’ll take something out of my pocket (on an unplanned day) or, if I’ve thought about it ahead of time, I’ll bring in an object – past objects have included a disposable camera, a keychain with keys, and an orange – and initiate rounds of description. That is, each person in the room (and we are most likely arranged in a crude circle shape) has to describe the object before passing it to the next person. And on and on we go, sometimes for 4 rounds. This can be painful when there are over 20 students in a class and the object is, for instance, a tennis ball. What else can you say other than that it’s fuzzy, used for the game of tennis, often comes in a neon-green-yellow color, and bounces. But then someone will smell it, and someone else will describe what it feels like to squeeze the ball as different from merely petting it, and by the 3rd round someone may decide to look at just one part of it and describe the texture of the number imprinted on the ball’s surface. Our loquacious tendencies, it seems, have given way to a default setting of instant and often knee-jerk, split-second evaluations of situations – good in the operating room, not so great in various other places – a trait if left unchecked can have detrimental consequences. We never seem to have time for anything anymore.

Ah, I can hear it – even I know I’m rambling, so I’ll turn your attention to the rich legacy of Patricia Carini and Margaret Himley, two educators who have spent a considerable number of years emphasizing the need for teachers to look, really look, at children’s work and to resist evaluation as the first response, which is no response at all and is, instead, squarely in the realm of reaction. While they document and have developed this approach within a process they call the Descriptive Review, the ethos is more wide reaching and as I strolled in the wooded walking area around the center during breaks, my mind continued to wander in the direction of an imagined curriculum grounded in the “art of living” and “being present” that each us might pursue…

In his essay “Circles,” Emerson wrote “Everything looks permanent until its secret is known.” I wonder if the secret to some of our social ills might be found lifting the veil of speech that is saturated with staid meanings, unyielding concepts that don’t merely maintain the status quo but instead strip even the status quo of any traces of luster. Vipassana is a practice of meditation committed to making the secret – to equanimity and sense of peace within oneself – known. If, knowing this, we continue to play the game, the least we can do for ourselves and each other is to acknowledge that we could stand to have a bit of quiet, stillness, and that we need not always consume the limp lettuce placed before us; we can add fruit, nuts, grains, roots, flowers and even eliminate the leaves altogether.

don’t judge me

“it’s summer. there’s not a lot on tv.”

“i like to be entertained while i eat my mystery-refrigerator dishes for dinner.”

“no one can see me.”

none of these excuses can quite fully explain away why i just watched an episode of “melissa & joey.” ok 2. maybe 3. but that’s it! i’ve always said that i don’t feel guilty about watching what others may label “the crappiest stuff on tv” because I have that very excellent cover of academic research that lets me call explorations of popular culture of various sorts research!  would it be stretching the truth too much to view these piece of television programming in the same way that i ask of my students — that if each engagement and interaction truly does hold educational potential, with education defined broadly, then wouldn’t the attempted-comedic stylings of sabrina-the-no-longer-teenage-witch and joey-call-me-whoa-from-blossom be fair game for the same assessment? truth be told, i did get a handle on the idea of futures as joey lawrence’s character — named joey, naturally — did bicep curls while filming a financial literacy-type podcast.

but as i sat, eating my reheated winter-squash-pea-penne medley from the other night, i was overcome with shame like never before. i suspect it had to do with a conversation i had with a more senior colleague last week who reminded me to “make every day count” — could i really be said to be living up to that bar if i willingly sat through arguably bad television? (ok, fine, four episodes!) these are the moments that make me wonder whether that over-hollywoodified image of people’s transformation upon learning they have a terminal condition has any truthiness to it. or at least whether it applies to me in any way. could i approach the sabbatical in the same way: that is, not in the morose sense, but in the dead-poets-society, live-each-moment, no-regrets, be-fully-aware, see-possibilities, no-time-is-wasted kind of way. or perhaps the better way to ask the question (since all of those hyphenated descriptors pretty much sum up how i already do live life, and that’s even before i had my dialogue with emerson) might be “how will i schedule my time in the days ahead, for the next twelve months, when i have significantly fewer demands on my time?”

i was reminded of just how precious the sabbatical is while talking with a member of staff at the program where my research team and i locate our project. he asked what i’d be doing during the sabbatical, and i briefly outlined the book projects and other writing i looking forward to spending time with and ideally finishing. he was nodding as i talked and when i finished he remarked, “oh, so you’re gonna be working. ok.” and then, after another pause he said, “that’s what i need, a sabbatical, to finish my book.” just then i noticed his first book  lying open, cover up, on the desk behind him. we continued to talk about writing retreats and time — that much-too-precious fact of life that, no matter what, cannot be stopped; and after much thinking i have concluded that if i were to have the opportunity to ask for a superpower, it would indeed be the power to stop time. to pause. to take a breath. and not worry that things were being missed, progressing, leaving me behind. that and the ability to be a fly on the wall. but mostly time-stopper. — and this exchange must have worked its way into my subconscious because that night i had one of my characteristic vivid dreams and the reality was so simple and so real: educational reform that included sabbaticals for teachers to pursue project such as writing a book, taking a class — truly cultivating their own flourishing as human beings.

now, before you judge me for having lame dreams, a) i already know that they’re lame; and b) sometimes, that’s where my best ideas are born. well, ideas for opening paragraphs to articles that is. ok, yeah, they’re lame. but lame or not, wouldn’t it be grand indeed? to have reform (or initiatives or whatever fancy word we want to use) be focused on supporting the creativity and imagination of teachers? what a different rhetoric would saturate the public airwaves if such were the case. either way, the exchange made me thankful for this time. yes, the tenure process was intense (and that’s all i’ll say about it for now). but i couldn’t let my 14-year-old-sabbatical-dreaming self down and sometimes that was motivation enough…

so you see, watching crappy tv need not always be a bad thing: provides perspective for the relatively low, low price of secret humiliation.