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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Sticks and Stones . . . and Trigger Warnings

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Why do we educate? To meet a demand? What kind of demand are we addressing? I’ve been thinking about what it means to educate as opposed to teach. And then as I read, yes, The Atlantic, there was an article  related to my ruminations. In “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt address the limitations that are being heaped on professors as they work to provide students with reliable and unabridged content in their classrooms. This is really a tangled and complex subject to discuss and cannot fully be addressed in a single blog post, but the core of the issue, to me, is this: Anyone able to access higher education (i.e., they have graduated from high school) is presumed to be old enough and academically experienced enough to engage in open discussion and debate in relation to specific subject matter that is voluntarily received (i.e., attending college is optional, not compulsory).

Even the required core courses can be dropped and taken another time or online if a student does not like the professor, classmates, or topics. So, is it really necessary, even logical, to put the onus on the professors to offer Trigger Warnings to students in case an individual has experienced some form of trauma that may or may not be triggered by a reading, discussion, or even word that no one not related closely to said student could possibly predict? Can the individual even know ahead of time that something may trigger him/her? If the student does know that they cannot tolerate certain subject matter, shouldn’t they be obligated to ask the professor the overall trajectory of the course’s subject matter? Isn’t that what the first day and the syllabus are for?

Now, for those who think in terms of difficult schedules and the student’s inability to simply drop or change classes without their entire academic or work schedule being dismantled or seriously affected, I ask: Isn’t life littered with such inconveniences and dilemmas? What happens if someone breaks their leg and their job entails moving around quite a bit?  Does this mean the employers change the nature of the job or the employee figures out how to do the job, take a leave of absence, or go on disability? The latter of course.

So, if a student cannot tolerate, for any reason, the nature of the subject matter in a course, the course does not need to change, the student must regroup and figure out how to work with the need for change. Like an employee, the student can always approach the professor or the Chair or the Dean and discuss possible alternatives. BUT if the alternatives change the nature of the learning outcomes for that course, the student then is not actually engaging in that class. This then means the student must meet their objectives for core coursework or major concentration by changing classes, period. The student must acknowledge that there is more personal work to be done before they can fully engage in their academic ambitions.

There is no law or rule that says one cannot return to school when more mature, secure, or confident. After all, putting education on your terms is not about treating learning like a commodity or creating a rigid protocol on what you are willing to encounter, but acknowledging that you have limitations to overcome and strengths to draw from and taking the responsibility to make the changes and adjustments needed rather than forcing very carefully considered and scheduled materials to be altered.

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!

Lost: L-dog. When last seen, quite strong and ready for hand stands. Reward offered.

This is not the first time I’ve written about a yoga pose that has eluded or plain left me for a time. Yes, lack of practice of a particular pose or series of poses does account for the weakness, but it is frustrating to regress. I call it a loss because it’s not as simple as just practicing again. It is a mind set as well as a muscle memory that needs to return. It is about relearning and not only rediscovering how the pose felt, but also about discovering a new strength and finesse.

When I realized I could not simply move into my L-dog the other day, it was humbling to say the least. I had a group of much younger women around me simply stepping up and staying put—no shaking arms or anything! I was struggling like I’d never done it before. The ole legs just didn’t have it. Still, I found something to take from my practice that day: don’t neglect anything you’ve learned. Don’t assume it all stays with you. Age is only one factor. Ability is another. The more adept you are at something, the more you might get away with neglecting your practice, but, eventually, the staleness shows.

As I watched some of the Olympics on TV, I saw the same dilemma for some of the athletes. Some simple or routine moves did not work out. Some of the skiers had terrible times. Speed skaters didn’t start fast. The weather was an issue and still is, I know, but that is part of what I am talking about. Messed up schedules, unexpected obstacles, stress, they all contribute to the level of performance of even elite competitors. How is it not going to be a problem if we amateurs or lower-level competitors don’t keep up the work?

For the writers who read this blog, take heed. This is a reminder that your writing chops need to be honed no matter what. Time off, stress, doubt, fear, you name it. They can stifle your efforts. Or, simple complacency can hobble you. My L-dog was curbed by the expectation that it would always respond when beckoned. Wrong. Nothing, not writing, not yoga, not any sport or skill can stay sharp and graceful without attention.

Practice—stay fresh, stay strong.

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.

Are You a Magnolia or a Milkweed?

Last spring, my yoga instructor, Allison Levine, was talking about the glorious blooms on the Magnolia tree outside her window. While the other trees and plants were taking their time waking up, this tree was already in the throws of spring exultation. This observation led to discussions of our own identities and inclinations. After a while we were trying to figure out what plant represented a different rhythm in the cycle of growth.  A mid-to-end-of-season species, Milkweed popped into my head. Now, it is not a fall plant like many crops, but it is a late summer bloom and one that brings fresh sweetness to the thick air of late July and August.

Some writers are Magnolias. They have these intense bursts of energy and crank out work speedily.  Others ruminate for periods of time and gradually produce their blossoms. I am definitely a Milkweed. I like the gradual progression of time to bring me into focus (or bloom). If I burst onto the scene ahead of the rest, I feel exposed and awkward. Perhaps I’m not a trend setter or a mover and shaker so much as a thoughtful observer. I’m my own breed (or species) but not a follower for certain. It’s important to identify which one you are so that no writing guides, blogs (ahem), or courses influence you to put your writing habits on the wrong timeline. However, I do recommend setting some kind of  goal and timeline. Otherwise you become like Camus’ character, Joseph Grand, in The Plague who perpetually rewrites the opening line of his novel, and never progresses beyond. This is not just a lack of deadline pressure for him, but a lack of connection to what he wants to express. Still, procrastination tends to reflect a lack of direction.  But what timeline and what goal you wish to meet needs to be something you know inside feels right. Your goals should fit like a soft pair of slippers that you look forward to settling in to. Some may think they are homely and need changing, while others like their coziness and envy your ability to relax into them.

Returning to the Magnolia/Milkweed analogy, I was just finishing Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Overall I like his work and I do think that his output has a nice rhythm, Not too much too fast, but we are not left waiting interminable months or years before he resurfaces. I think he is a Milkweed. I may be wrong. But even his voice caresses and his reading of his works smoothly flows forward without dynamic intensity. It is subtle and powerful. Just like the blooms and the fragrance of the Milkweed. I recently thought of him  when my friend’s 6 year old very primly informed me of the substantial size of her family’s flat screen TV. She was suffering through watching my standard television that I see no need to replace as long as it still does its job. She helpfully suggested that I give mine to someone so I could have a nice TV like hers. In that moment,  I realized that I am also disturbed by large flat screens in the home. It’s the void they represent. Think about it. You have a large black hole on your wall or on a cabinet. A large black nothing sitting passively but expectantly for you to activate it, much like the “varmints” in Gaiman’s book, tearing bits of the world away so that there is nothing but a kind of old fashioned TV static where life used to be. These large black square holes are much like the emptiness that these creatures, the hunger birds, inflict on the world until someone stops them. Do I want to eradicate a large space in my room? Absorb light instead of welcome it?

Not sure how all of the above connects together and to my theme of mind/body/spirit and the writing life? Teaching and learning? Well, my understanding of the many objects that surround and influence us and our relationship to them has matured as I continue to follow the path of awareness that regular reading and listening opens before me. Lacking the ability to truly observe and understand the inanimate world we create around us prevents our ability to describe and communicate it without images. Without the mindful community of yoga practitioners sharing their observations and inspirations with me, these thoughts would not have been initiated nor would they have taken root. It is not ourselves alone that bring forth our work. It is engagement with the world that fertilizes our imaginations and allows our ideas to germinate and grow into the particular plant, bush, or tree that is our writing selves. We cannot even become a Magnolia or a Milkweed without the entire process, the changing of the seasons and the insect and animal life  shall we say, that enables the entity to grow at all, much less healthily and to fulfill its role in a larger cycle. Random discussion among a discourse community, reading a talented and enigmatic author’s work, listening to a child’s reasoning, sitting with a seemingly irrational or unfounded discomfort with an appliance, writing and experimenting with your work and output—these all create a kind of compost to fertilize your talent and instigate growth patterns.

I am a Milkweed. I would not change this if I were offered the opportunity. I like the pom pom balls of blooms.  A gathering rather than a single bud. The memory of the beautiful spring Lilac’s scent is resurrected in late summer by this plant allowing the admirer to participate in two seasons at once.  I like the Monarch butterflies that rely on me (my students and readers) and enhance the setting with their fluttering contributions. I am ubiquitous. I reside in a world of small clusters of writers and practitioners rather than towering alone. Most importantly, I like to see the seeds of my work spread tangibly out into the world. I rely on the impetus of the wind to assist me (translation: openness to the universe’s rhythms). Be a Magnolia proudly if that is your style. Be the harbinger of beauty and renewed life and be exciting and bold. But don’t ignore the simple Milkweed in your literary horticulture. Look forward to its arrival.

“There is Now A Level Zero.” But Is That Reality or Perception?

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Yes, I quoted Kung Fu Panda, and I’m proud of it. Even though a film or a book is geared towards a younger audience or is not intended to be an intellectual or overtly educational experience, many writers of these materials are well educated in literary history, philosophy, logic, rhetoric, religion, and history.

One of the most profoundly thrilling moments in the film for me is when Master Shifu realizes that it is not Po’s inability to learn or belong (Po being the “big fat panda”–the hero), but his own failing to learn how to teach Po. This causes the perpetual chaos and frustration that everyone is experiencing. Shifu judges Po’s ability from outside appearances (as self-conscious and comedic as they are) and sees him through his own filter of expectation—not Po’s own essence and possibilities.

When I teach my students or work on my own educational, literary, and spiritual growth, I cannot fail to remain conscious of the possible causes of any setbacks, stagnation, or failures. Is my student refusing to make use of his materials? Maybe. Is it me that has not acknowledged that these materials or the medium I use to disseminate them are suitable to this person’s style of learning? It is up to me to figure this out. If I stop learning, I am not worthy of being a teacher.

I am currently working on a text for an educational publishing company that should be a breeze for me. It’s a 5th-grade-grammar workbook for ESL students. Very basic layout via Word. How simple is that for a professor and long-time writer/editor of similar materials? Not at all. The book map is not as detailed as I’ve worked with before or even created before. The distribution of work (writing, editing, layout, and proofreading all in separate stages with different people) is not part of the process. I have to design and write simultaneously. Yes, there are existing texts to use as my guides. Yes, the content has already been chosen. But I have to be creative and write entertaining exercises while being conscious of what images to use and how to fit them while I keep to the objectives of the grammar for each stage. Too many hats for me. Maybe not for anyone else, but yes, for me. That made me feel quite ashamed frankly. How can a person with a master’s and who has been in publishing and academia for years be so unable to do this with ease?

I return to the movie: At one point, when Po has been repeatedly pushed physically and emotionally to his limits, Shifu finds him high on a shelf in a perfect split (that he could not master on the training grounds at all). Po cannot not perform even basic moves in standard training, but he can accomplish quite a bit when what he relates to best (food) is involved. It was Shifu who insisted on making Po fit in the wrong mold more than Po’s being an ill fit.

Maybe my “level 0” has more to do with a structure that I do not relate to. I work in larger grammatical structures, vocabulary that addresses many disciplines, and freedom to choose my own topics to write about. I just buck at the limitations of this project.

Maybe we all have a “level 0” just as we all are masters in some aspect of our lives or work. What you see as “level 0” at the moment may be really that your mind rejects directions and motivations that are not framed the right way for you right now.

So, how do you see yourself? Is how you define yourself or how others define you truly who or what you are? Can you see a person struggling as someone in need of a new perspective or motivation rather than a person who is failing or a misfit?

I’ll take my “level 0” in stride right now and see if Master Shifu (my editor) can figure out how to frame the structures differently for me. Or, when I must take the role of Master Shifu, I will try to figure out how to connect with my own versions of Po without the obstruction of judgement and rigid form.