Keep Reading, Keep Learning, Keep Growing

Some ideas and observations are worth a revisit. This entry was originally posted about 3 years ago and I find that it has relevance still today. I’ve  changed the title and did a bit of editing but the essence remains:

Perfection is an inaccurate term to use for a human being, I believe. There is a positive force to embody in our lives regardless of the term we apply to it. As I continue to savor random moments alone with How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach, I find myself kind of floating emotionally in a soft cocoon. My head hums a bit, my chest alternates between tightness and the most clear and weightless expanse of breath I can ever remember having. Realizations and fear, regrets and hope all ebb and flow. It’s like having a misty aura pulsing around me. Very spiritual. Very new. Very different from the reactions to the texts I usually read and write about.

A current passage that has insinuated itself into my thoughts contains references to the dilemma of pride. Pride is especially troublesome when it has installed itself within a student and the master or teacher must find a way to refocus it. One of the pending titles for my blogging is Teaching People How to Learn. I still may use it later on, but for the moment it serves as a better example of the trajectory of this post rather than a guide for a separate entry. As the narrator tells us, pride must be hit or beaten with a figurative stick until it becomes “a healthy kind of confidence” ( 135). One holds onto pride jealously but confidence is flexible. It can be shaken, it can be restored, and it does not begrudge change.

Confidence is what many of us lack when we endeavor to write. Pride is what stops us from learning. Those of us that have allowed rejection letters or the disinterest of influential people or difficulty with insecure bosses  to define our worth have allowed a perception to dominate our overall sense of ability and worth. That is not to say that there is a ceiling to learning and that writing is a static medium. The negative must be analyzed closely to find the realities within that collapse of hope or momentum.

This leads me back to teaching people how to learn. I have students who go into throws of anxiety and confrontation when they get a C rather than the expected A (Read: grade earned for simply producing the work). I see them as people with potential to evolve if I can assist them in realizing that earlier grades came at earlier periods in their education. Perhaps the standards were lower as well–let’s be frank about that. Many do not know how to evolve from the platform they have rested upon and refuse to find that there is more work ahead. Their pride is blocking the growth of their knowledge base. I am the wall they hit or the stick that beats the barriers down if I can.

What overcomes the obstacles? Reading of course. The text is life. Each text is a portal into a new perspective on life as it was or is if you see it for its potential rather than only its concrete form. How Yoga Works teaches us that things are not “themselves” or, rather, don’t have an unyielding unchangeable identity. Our engagement with the world creates or molds the nature of what we behold and that nature “itself” is not static. Roach offers us an example when the narrator engages her jailor in a discussion about a bamboo pen on his desk. Is it a pen? To him, yes, but is it only a pen? He comes to realize that it is also  a tiny piece of nourishment: “I mean that impression, that sense of division is so strong . . . I simply never realized that I make the pen itself ; my mind takes the pen a pen, just as the cow’s mind draws the same green stick as something good to eat” (118).

Now, I don’t  believe that our perceptions are an illusion or that people do not create texts, art, or even meals in an unconscious state that only others can give concrete form to as they engage with them. We are not passive vessels nor are our accomplishments eradicated by lack of witnesses or missing accolades. What this text brings to me and what I take from my interaction with it is that we can change our perception so that pain and discomfort do not concretely define an experience. If someone is cruel, the unhappiness is real, but the root cause of our pain may be suppressed or veiled by the surface actions. What is truly cruel in the moment?  The actions or the causes of these?

For a non-spiritual on non-philosophical example, think of the “kick the dog” syndrome. Someone is raked across the coals by his unhappy boss who is looking for someone to abuse because his wife made nasty comments that morning. The employee, feeling victimized and powerless, then spits profanity at someone who accidentally bumps his arm causing hot coffee to burn his hand. The person soundly abused for an honest mistake cuts someone off at a turn feeling the need to assert her authority and presence. The person who narrowly misses hitting that car comes home shaking and, as the dog trips him in his glee at finally having someone to play with, kicks the animal for also being in the way.

These examples and questions are not meant to confuse your sense of order or make you doubt your eyes or heart. Doubt is not the goal. Doubt is real at the moment you feel it, but it should not be a  manipulative tool for preventing the emergence of self-assertion and confidence. The key here is that self assertion must be based in awareness and tempered by acceptance of the changeable nature of what Roach calls “universal powers” and of perception.

The text I am reading is life. What you are reading is life. As it should be? As you agree? Does it matter? We are experiencing the opportunity to learn and grow from the nourishment that is found in the narrative.

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Let’s Weigh in on Fan Fiction

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As I sat with a friend of mine on a recent evening, we started talking about these last posts about the Memoir and the subject turned to other genres that I had not spent time reflecting on. Then she said, “Write about fan fiction!” Hmmm, I don’t really know much about fan fiction actually but I am definitely in favor of any medium that gets writers writing and finding their own voice.

I actually have the button  you see pictured here. I used to work in a comic book store in Baltimore and we had these as promos for an issue of a Wolverine comic. It cracked me up in general but I never really thought about who the fans were and why they were dedicated enough to earn so much ribbing. After all, aren’t fans the only thing that keeps you in business?

When you think about it, we’ve all been inspired (or annoyed) by the authors we read when in school or that we found in our excursions to the library, or Amazon, or the bookstore (remember those?). I just never really thought about the concerted effort so many people have put in to developing entire stories and lives around existing characters. To write a vampire story is not new. To create an entirely new planet is not new. But to write about existing vampires or colonies in other universes is very curious to me. But I do know what it is to feel lost or lonely when a story or trilogy or some such ends. I have often missed some characters and wished they would return somehow. I remember when Anne McCaffrey died. I was faced with the end of her dragon riders. Even if she were not planning to do more with Pern, the possibility was open as long as she was here. Now, even with her son carrying on, it’s still not her. BUT this is where the fans come in right? They keep the legends and the people alive and offer a continuation of the world she created or let this one branch out to the next, much like the originators of Pern did when they arrived on this new planet. Why not stay in touch?

Basically, everyone has a story and it’s important to tell it. Is it for family? I have worked for year for my dear friend Ruth Wolf as she compiled a family history for her many grand and great-grandchildren. Is it for the public? An in-group of other avid fans of particular authors who all feel connected through particular stories? Is it for the love of writing alone and you allow what boils up from inside to guide you?

You are interesting. Whatever you want to write is up to you as long as you hone your craft and never feel that you are done learning and observing. If emulating a stye is what drives you to experiment, great. If writing fan fiction and staying within the existing world that another created rings true with you, great. Are you a Memoirist who shares your experiences for those who could learn from your life or be inspired by it? Great. Maybe your memoirs work for personal as well as professional goals.

It’s all what truly resonates within you and never let anyone tell you your choices are not marketable or timely. You decide what you create and then decide how it will live on. If you reach enough people, maybe your own tales will continue on when you’ve stopped or have moved on. So, write on Fan Boys and Girls!

Memoirists: My Educators

I was so pleased to read the comments and see the “likes” that appeared in response to my last post. I am always trying to stay in learning mode and keep from atrophying intellectually or creatively, so the feedback I get is always of interest and importance.

Through my newfound colleagues in the blogging community, I have learned even more about the Memoir.  I find myself enlightened as to the fact that a Memoir’s value should be gauged by each reader and their preferences or needs rather than by a preconceived idea of who the Memoirist should be or what their “qualifications” are.

Because I focus my blog content on the pursuit of inspiration for writing in general–rather than in one particular genre–and because I frame my work in relation to the principles and patience of yoga, I cannot remain inspired if I don’t investigate my stubbornness or even snobbery about the varied aspects of these disciplines. To look critically at the place the Memoir holds in my academic background is the first thing I needed to do. The Memoir or an Autobiography, in my literature studies, has always been part of a larger pattern of investigation that helped me to understand a particular writer’s process in life and art. The texts brought to me an understanding of their methods and moods as well as their social or historical influences (I’ll not argue theory here). I adore the work of Edith Wharton, but, without reading about her, I don’t feel that I could claim to begin to understand her work and I would be more passive in my engagement of her books. How is it that she so adeptly censures the suffocating world of the New York aristocracy of her time? How does she so aptly understand the poor or extreme choices one makes when in love or in need of status?

But what about non-academic studies? What about the study of the immediate world around me? What are other people doing with their lives right now and what are the events that shaped them or that must have been navigated to survive or thrive? Can’t they be of interest? Can’t they be included in the Humanities? If I am going to be a reliable teacher of writing, I must understand the modern reader and not just my literary predecessors of both fiction and nonfiction. This is where the modern Memoir comes in to play and takes me out of my institutional sense of propriety. This is where I continue to learn: By letting the discussion or debate happen around me and letting the new voices, the current thinkers and writers tell me about their standards. Let’s face it, unless I need to get a grant or need to gain tenure, do I really have to subscribe to one way of approaching my studies? Yes, this is going to be related to yoga but only briefly: There is no one way to practice. There are many ways of learning and progressing. It’s only up to you if you choose one path of study. That is fine. But do know it is a choice and that there are other paths for other people! Maybe a stroll down one will bring you closer to your own goals!

The Memoir: A Saturated Trend in Publishing or Beneficial Genre for All Readers?

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In last April’s edition of The Atlantic, Leslie Jamison defended the Memoir and other forms of published personal reflection as being effective tools for readers to use in order to understand or investigate ways of being. She argues that books in this genre need not be trendy and vacuous or narcissistic and confessional outlets. Alongside “Self help” or “How To” types of texts, the Memoir connects the audience with a journey or a path that someone else has followed and that the reader may be about to embark upon or is in the process of experiencing in some form. For many, to sit quietly and privately with another person’s viewpoint on an odyssey through an illness, a pursuit of spiritual and physical healing, or a path to success or failure and redemption is enlightening and empowering. The reader is anonymous. The reader does not need to ask questions or share their own experience. They can simply be with the words.

I must say that I have, for a long time, been skeptical of the current popularity of the Memoir. Of course, someone who has had an impact on the world or in their field is someone who should write a Memoir or an Autobiography. Scholars and fans alike want the inside story in the individual’s words. Even if rhetorical authority is in question, the entry into this person’s world is at least a lead that can direct you to other research or leads. But what about the Memoir that is from a person who does not seem to have accomplished anything substantial except that they were published? I hear Terry Gross from NPR often interviewing someone whose just published their Memoir. Someone who may not have written anything previously and has been obscure otherwise. Or, perhaps this person has not been writing long enough or prolifically to have much to offer in the way of life experience yet. Why in the world do I care what they did or when or how? Jamison enlightened me.

We can take from these writers’ reflections what we need or want to know. We can adopt for ourselves a person’s approach to life or feel less alone in our own dilemma. Overall we engage and respond rather than just coming to their texts as voyeurs or passive audiences. Jamison writes that “[l]ife is evidence. It’s fodder for argument.”

I still choose to read about someone who has lived at least 50 years or who has been in a business or discipline for at least a few decades, but that is my preference. I want to read about long-term events and experiences. Someone else may need timely events mapped out and have access to immediate answers. Ultimately, I am converted. The Memoir is of value and the wider the variety of authors and discussion points, the more people who can benefit from the wisdom imparted.

Adjuncts’ Prospects: An Open Disgrace With No Foreseeable Consequences (For the Schools That Is)

Follow this link to the New York Times article: “Crowded Out of  Ivory Tower, Adjuncts See a Life Less Lofty” http://nyti.ms/1aCBVpb

As much as I love academia, I cannot abide the persistent devaluation of adjuncts’ worth. We are more than merely replaceable cogs in a degree machine. We are qualified professionals who, regardless of the poor pay and often less-than-hospitable treatment by senior colleagues, actually care about the educational welfare of our students and the learning outcomes of our courses. The students that that we often encounter have been ill served  by their high schools and sometimes given a false sense of their abilities. Many universities then admit them without any statement of remedial work needed or recommended and may offer certain unrealistic academic shortcuts (passes on taking foundation courses and placement right into a higher level) that further their unrealistic  ideas of the level of difficulty and work expected in the adult, graduate, and corporate world. Those of us who seek a balance and offer students a chance to truly learn and excel based in their own initiative, effort, and individual talents are relegated to the ranks of necessary evil and minimum expenditure.

Lets do our students, our children, a justice and teach them properly from the start that each of them have different strengths and that some academic areas may be more challenging for them. They must step up and meet these challenges. Any subject they are not strong in can at least be met with competence. Why lie and lead them to believe that nothing should be hard or, if it is, that it’s the fault of someone else? A grade of “C” is average work and must be worked up from, not complained about. An “A” is not a right but an accomplishment earned via hard work met according to nonnegotiable guidelines the educators are trusted to set and maintain.

Let adjuncts dedicate themselves to the students’ right to truthful feedback from valued professionals. Let the scholars of the world be respected and compensated properly rather than discredited and starved.

Responsibility Comes with the Pursuit of Power and Education

Over the past months, I have noticed a connecting line of behavior between my friends, family, students, and colleagues. Some are intensely aware that their presence in the world has meaning and that their actions affect others. Some tend to look out for their own interests or act out of fear. How much we should let a person affect us and to what extent we should react is often debated, but you must admit that no one takes any action without there being a reaction. The action we choose often influences the reaction someone offers. We could argue endlessly about how much a person’s reaction to us is “their problem;” however, we should all agree that we must be confident in having done our best to plant the right seeds or be of assistance in remedying or preventing a problem. We all have a responsibility to each other to balance our goals alongside the impact of our actions. Proper communication is key. Timing of this communication is of the utmost importance.

This idea of responsibility to others is not only reserved for people in senior positions. Students should be aware of this as well. In your pursuit of education, especially a degree, there must be the understanding that you must learn rather than simply attend and get a grade—let yourself be taught. It seems to come as a surprise to some students that they have to meet certain standards to earn the grades to get the degree. Earning these are not so easy if the course is taught right. No, the course does not have to be torturous, but each step should need more effort. The “A” student in earlier courses may be a “B” or even a “C” student in the harder ones until the effort is put into learning these new skills. Ultimately, you must be the one you hold up to scrutiny first. More often than not, you’ll find that taking responsibility for your learning empowers you to take on many other tasks and challenges with confidence and self awareness.

Now Arriving, 7th Chakra

Trust. Faith. Courage. Inspiration. Devotion. No need to watch your step as you leave the elevator, you know you will touch solid ground.

Yes, messages arrive when you are ready for them. Looking for these messages is fine, but you can’t rush the connection. This resounded for me when I attended a workshop one Friday offered by a man named Dalien (aka Thirteen Hands: http://www.13hands.com) at Sphericality in Flemington, NJ. This building is an amazing place to study yoga as it reminds me very much of the wonderful old brownstones and pre-war buildings I’ve lived in Baltimore and NYC. Large windows. lovely wood floors, high ceilings. But even if the location were not ideal, the workshop would have made it so. I attended solely because I’ve been to one other workshop of his and loved it. I did not actually know ahead of time what the focus would be. This is my lax attention span, not his or the studio’s lack of info. Either way, I was gently elated when I found out we were going to work very much in faith and trust. My hardest nuts to crack!

Faith and trust. Faith in my ability. Trust in the outcomes. They can’t be man-handled into submission and agreement. They need to be allowed to form and be welcomed no matter their timing. I rely on them every time I begin a semester of teaching. Nope, not a wing and a prayer. I have too much experience to just hope it will all work out. My effort creates the results. The kind of effort is what gets particular results. I plan, revise, and remain flexible as I see the ability and interest level of my students. None of this can make it absolute that the semester be successful. I need to have faith in all of my experience and trust that I will continue to let myself learn from it. I trust that the students have faith in their own abilities and trust that I am pushing them for their sake, not for the sake of creating rules to enforce.

Courage is a tough one. We can believe that faith and trust will keep us focused and hopeful, but it takes a certain fortitude to actually act upon our mantras and intentions. Can you challenge your natural or learned inclinations towards self protection when your abilities and even your integrity are challenged? After all what happens when you have faith in your talents and trust in your learning and training and then bomb at your first attempt to teach, sing in public, even just speak up on behalf of an unpopular idea? This is where courage comes into play. There is no guarantee that your faith and trust are enough for success. Experience is important too. To be able to apply your talents strongly and consistently, you’ll need experience. That means making mistakes or being stumped and having to find solutions on the fly. This is where courage comes in. Face the possibility of failure and even embarrassment while you maintain your faith and trust in your ultimate success.

Inspiration. Perhaps this should be listed first, but as it does for me, it appears at many stages in your practice. My own journey of teaching did not actually start with inspiration. I did not have any intention of pursuing this aspect of my career. I kind of fell into it via a casual conversation at a conference with a colleague. That was 9 years ago. The inspiration came when I was assigned my first composition classes. It was time to create the best syllabus I could based on advice and experience of other colleagues. I had faith in my ability to write and communicate well. I trusted myself to do my best for the students’ sake. I had the courage to try this because I’ve been in front of audiences before when I sang or when I competed at horse shows. The failure had already happened and I was still alive. The successes had been experienced so I knew to look forward to the peaceful feeling of release of effort. But what keeps you going? Inspiration. Even the most satisfying job or hobby becomes stale if you don’t keep reaching to learn more, to discover new layers of ability. Don’t hit a wall and stagnate while others pass you by and continue to be filled with wonder and curiosity.

Inspiration cannot be forced, it can only be found. All you can do is live every day mindfully. Let yourself engage in every experience, good or bad, and find the  lesson in each. Take every chance to explore new places and ideas because you never know what will ignite that fire and send you on your way.

We now come to devotion. If you don’t have a true connection to your practice or profession, no amount of inspiration can become more than momentary. How many people have told you about their great ideas that were actually really great but that stopped at being thoughts only? I’m guilty of this myself. It’s especially frustrating when someone else has has a similar idea and not only believed in it as a reality, but made it one. Some of us are idea people. We are better at the formulation of an idea and knowing the market for the product. Then, when it comes to following through and going through the tedious or slow process of building on the inspiration and actually recruiting like minds, finding funding, promoting the project or product, your sails slacken. We can all sit over a glass of wine and change the world. Early morning hours of stillness are when I am certain I’ve got the solution to a particular problem or think of something I feel must be written about. The next morning of business, phone calls, house keeping, etc. takes a whole new kind of attention from me and sometimes pushes that dawn-inspired elation to the sidelines. It’s up to me to hold onto my intentions and stick to my intentions, my practice, my effort.

So, as you go into the new year, keep in mind what you have just read, and, hopefully, your 7th chakra will feel like a solid floor to step out onto.