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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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.

Writer’s Block and Missed Yoga Class Marathon

Yes, you read it right. My writer’s block has coincided with my inconsistent yoga practice. No, yoga is not about just going to classes. It’s about regular practice. BUT the rhythm of my week flows with my yoga class schedule and my energy is fed by the looking forward to going, joining, laughing, learning, and finally, the occasional coffee/tea session afterwards. Perhaps I have time to go to the barn and ride afterward.

Rhythm, pattern, balance. It’s all a physical, spiritual, psychological, and emotional ebb and flow. When one catalyst for joy is removed, the others may or may not falter. My mojo faltered when my schedule changed just briefly. No excuses, just observation. The world does change around us. Nothing should really be static anyway, but when joyfulness and lightness have such wonderful roots, I just don’t like pulling them up. I just don’t practice my mindful yoga well at first in the face of change.

The swing of things is becoming familiar again and the roots were really just neglected, not destroyed of course. Everything was waiting for me. There is always space for me in class. The horses are happy to be out in the field longer. I was able to remember why I appreciate the life I live by having to miss its best moments for awhile. I was able to miss blogging! It was never a burden, but the content needs to come from a real message waiting to be shared, not just a schedule so I don’t lose followers.

Stepping away is not removal if you don’t want it to be. It is allowing yourself the changes that feed your senses and emotions. If the change is uncomfortable, work on planting new seeds and growing in another direction. If it is just unfamiliar, embrace the unknown and learn from it. There is always a place for you upon return or a new path to follow when you arrive.

Does Your Vacuum Need to be Vacuumed?

When I reached to remove the canister from my vacuum, so I could empty it, I realized that the machine itself was covered in dust. I mean, really. Do I have to clean the cleaner? Well, I do wash the wash cloths and clean and replace toothbrushes. There are just some things that you figure are exempt from the process. Truthfully, the state of the vacuum is representative of how dedicated I am to my overall cleaning. Now that I’ve realized my negligence, it gets a wipe down too. In fact, when it looks bright and shiny, I want to reach for it more willingly.

This, of course, made me think about what else I was cutting corners on. I’ve been very ill this week and was not able to ride the horse I have come to have access to or go to yoga at all. Often these both make me feel better but I’ve been that sick. My face feels bruised when I lean over. My eyes are swollen to the point that I’m afraid my son will be scared to look at me. These days of missing my practice have made my body feel worse than the illness’ influence, and my psyche is definitely more fragile. I even had a bad people day. Didn’t have the compassion for any of us and gave up even communicating with anyone casually.

Now, taking the time to heal slowly and safely is not the same as intentional corner cutting, but this lack of flow really made me think about how off kilter other things must be. First thing to meet the magnifying glass was my writing practice. I have been procrastinating so much. I have two gigs to work on, a book proposal, and this blog on the burner. My literary vacuum is getting dusty. We must keep our intellectual and imaginative machines shiny. Not like new—writing gets better with age—–but like a well-cared-for necessary tool. Perhaps I should reflect on the state of my yoga mat or my saddle. Both looked so nice freshly purchased, but I slipped around a lot on both of them before they were broken in properly. Regular use changes this. The saddle molds to my body. The mat supports my poses. They become uniquely mine. This should be the same for writing. I may struggle with anything new or difficult but must persist until my own form affects the framework and melds with it.

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.

Yes, pain is inevitable

Of course, many of you know the follow up statement: Suffering is optional. I was reminded of this when I was reading Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. It’s not reaching me as well as How Yoga Works, but it is a valid and meaningful read just the same. In this case, I’m talking about emotional pain, psychological pain. This is mostly because I relate my posts to my career in editing and writing and teaching. Outside of potential carpel tunnel syndrome, I don’t have much in the way of physical pain to relate to my job. Ok, I get a pain in my head when I read some of my students’ work but that is another story. No matter how good I am at my work or even just proficient, I always relate the outcomes to my self worth. Ouch. Can we all really do the job perfectly all the time? Can’t life get in the way? Can’t the perspective of what is good and what is not be subjective to a degree? Yes, right? So why insert pain into the mix?

In my work, tangible results are the measurement of my worth. What I think of it is not relevant to the paycheck or continued success. What I write must not need much editing if it is to be considered good. My editing should enhance the written page. The majority of my college students should be able to meet the basic learning outcomes when they leave my classroom. Sometimes, though, I’m not up to snuff. My writing may not be as dynamic as I’d like. But isn’t that what an editor can take on?

As an editor, I can answer, yes. There is a difference between sloppy or weak work and good stuff that needs some tweaking sometimes. Needing support is not a failing. As an editor, I can be very judgmental, but I do my best not to antagonize the writer. He/she might be having a bad week. It’s my job to find out what makes him/her tick and keep the clock going. Finally, as a professor, I can’t guarantee that the whole class will get what I’m teaching, but I should be able to know I did my best to be clear and  consistent with them.

How do these connect to mindfulness and pain-free living? If Yoga teachers were judged on concrete outcomes, they’d all be in trouble. Which of us can say we never regress in our practice? Who can say why some days we cannot keep our balance or pose as well as others. In some cases, we know what affects us. Just one glass of wine affects my energy in my morning practice. But did I screw up by drinking it? No, I just learn to know my body better by remaining mindful–aware.

I really like feeling comfortable with being human, mistakes and all. Pain should bring insight, not a sense of futility.

Have You Lost Your Chaturanga?

I have, at the moment. Some days I am so focused or mindful that I can lower myself smoothly down and hover for a moment before moving on to cobra. But other days, I can’t do it. I just have to do knees-chest-chin as if I’ve never had the strength or the practice. That happens in life as well. Just when you think you are at least at a certain level of practice or ability, something comes along that lets you know that you still have more to learn or that you are not on the path you thought you were.

I recently had a tantalizing job lead that at once elated me and troubled me. The opening was in the publishing industry and I had about 85% of the requirements down solid.  One area, budgeting, I had no experience with and I have not been actively working in online formatting. I am still print-based in my employment. Well, it’s not that I did not know that online publishing is a major force in the industry, but I’ve been kept busy with print—and teaching, and tutoring, and, and, and. But now, even with all of my experience in this field, I am no longer strong. I’ve lost my publishing chaturanga.

Do I stay at knees-chest-chin and hope the groove comes back or do I allow the good days to flow and show the bad days some compassion? I’m not a stay put kind of person by nature. I am easily frustrated though and that often gets in my way. But I’ll practice mindfulness and compassion and let the publishing world do without me for some time while I take some classes to get myself current in the online medium. That wasn’t the only gig out there. Yoga? I remember how smoothly the poses have come when I did not fight them or worry about them. But I do need to keep up with my practice and learn more so I can give myself the room to grow.

Don’t let yourself lose your chaturanga. You may misplace it for a little while, but know it is there waiting for your mind and body to come back to the mindful path.

“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.

Plant the Right Seeds

Plant the right seeds in your students as you endeavor to plant them in yourself.

What seeds? Well, I’m still reading How Yoga Works–very carefully and slowly. I’m savoring every bit of it and doing my best to restructure my own perspectives on life by practicing what the instructor in the text, Miss Friday, directs her students to do. The seeds are of course not actual plant seeds, but metaphors for right behavior. Good habits take root and grow and these beneficial plants then spread more seeds. Hopefully, you can influence others to rotate their own inner crops and let the bad seeds die off while the good hold fast and flourish.

I’m doing my best to crowd out the bad seeds that many events and choices in my life sewed deeply. The more I read this text, the more often I actually cry. I am in mourning for what I did not know and for the things I cannot undo. I’d have written “yet” and the end of the last sentence, but I’m learning that there are some things we cannot change because it takes the participation of others to allow the soil to become fertile for change. Well, maybe the “yet” still stands. The others involved may come to their own desire for change and allow me to participate.

Planting the seeds sounds easy enough, right? It depends upon where you are in your own stage of life. My current thought process as a professor and tutor is to try to offer some of the wisdom I am endeavoring to retain and practice to my students and hope that these seeds take hold somehow, someway, someday. I can ‘t make them be ready, but I can’t cheat them of the chance to learn if they are ready now. I don’t presume to be a master by any means, but I can’t be anything but an observer if I don’t act consciously.

Planting the seeds in my college students is a tricky matter. Not everyone is in my classroom for the same reasons. Some are there under duress frankly. The composition courses I teach are mandatory. Not everyone likes to write. Fair enough. Not everyone is in school to learn and many are there to “buy” a degree so they can be “qualified” for a job. What they learn seems to be secondary to the framed paper on the wall. I have to weed through (no pun intended) and see if I can find a way to reach them all–to help them value themselves enough to value what they can learn even in core requirements seemingly unrelated to their major.

There are times when students are unable to meet the requirements of my course or focus regularly on tutoring sessions. The reasons can range from not being properly prepared educationally, to not caring enough to want to bother, to not having the confidence to think they can do this. Maybe life threw them a physical or emotional curve ball and they just don’t know how to regroup. At these times, what seed is it that I should plant to help them for their sake?

It would be easy to let them make their decisions and let them take the consequences. So I could let a student who has not participated all semester suddenly drop a bulk of back logged coursework on me so he can graduate on time. What about the quality of the work? I could work hard to lead him to the good grade and go easy on him because life just got harder or his GPA is balancing on my final click of the mouse. Who are these decisions really benefiting? These last options seem pretty cushy really for the student. But what about real life after school?

Let me tell you about real life. I was a student. I had serious setbacks. I did not get coddled. I had to take the hits, financial and educationally to catch up. I had to face the reality that no one was obligated to change standards and requirements just because I could not meet them. Sound harsh? Sound like a grudge? Sound like I’m taking it out on them? Nope. My falsely smoothing the path now will plant seeds of false expectations for later and that, my friends, would be a disaster. My bleeding heart now could lead to a lost job and lost opportunities later on. I must plant the right seeds for their sake.

This does not make me very popular sometimes with parents or colleagues. Often, their goals are for the student to stay in the time frame expected and with the grades demanded rather than earned. Somehow, education for education’s sake is getting more and more lost in the mix. Colleges tend to worry more about attrition rates rather than the reputation that comes with the quality of learning the person holding a degree with the school’s name represents. There is no big picture. No thoughts about the reputation of the family or the university later on down the road when a degree from this place is not respected and when the person fails at bigger challenges later on. The seeds planted so often are for now and not always for the student. My desire is to have my students and clients value now, for the sake of now. I want them to value what they have in hand and demand of themselves that they earn their grades, degree, and respect the right way. I plant the seeds of responsibility and reality while doing my best to overtly acknowledged their discomfort and fear.

I do care, that is why I challenge the  shortcuts and compromises. I hold onto the good seeds that were planted in me early on and the seeds I am endeavoring to plant now. These were and are very much about self respect and earning–not demanding–something and having to redo or revisit what I could not complete the first time around. While I mourn for the losses that the bad seeds produced, I look forward to letting go of them and continuing to plant the right seeds in the fallow soil. With any luck, some will be cast beyond my own fields.

It All Depends on How You Read It

Reading is the necessary rehearsal or preparation for the act and art of writing. But so is listening. Really, have you ever just had to put a book down and give up on it? Even some of the greatest authors just make it hard to sit still and pay attention for long. And by “long” I don’t mean the “short attention span theater” type that has a million devices dinging and buzzing all around, but the avid reader who looks forward to the quiet moments alone with a book. The first author I think of when I admit great admiration of, but little patience, for is Salman Rushdie, one of the most wondrous minds of our time. How he can write so extensively about so many disparate character types and subjects, not to mention locations and cultures, is beyond my comprehension. How do I know he is so wonderful if I just admitted that his verbosity makes me squirm? I LISTEN to him.

Audio books are not a new phenomenon nor are they hard to find, but did you ever really consider that the medium through which the story is delivered can affect the enjoyment factor and even affect comprehension? Of course it can. Professional storytellers are professionals for the very reason that they are able to deliver a tale through the expert command of language, inflection, diction, pace, and tone. Now, these vocal skills are enhanced by body language. Take away the body language, and you have only the one tool left to catch the audience. The voice.

I adore listening to Rushdie read his books. I can listen to him for the hours it takes to complete a novel and even look forward to a re-listen. I believe that his ability to capture the reader lies in the fact that he is the only one who has the personal connection to the text to deliver it as it should be with all the inflections, ironies, pain, and even objective distance that a reader must provide the listener. This is not to say that only the author can engage a listening reader, but the voice artist must seem to fully immerse himself in the telling.

Neil Gaiman is another author whom I cannot help but be captivated by when he reads. I don’t think I could listen to anyone else read his works though. He has such a wonderful and highly individual speaking voice that I’m definitely prejudiced in favor of his voice being the only one for my ears. I will also add that I can sit with Gaiman’s texts easily. He does not factor into the “can only listen to or I’m out” category.

The first time I actually listened to Rushdie, he was read by one of my favorite actors Art Malik whom I remember best for playing Hari Kumar in Masterpiece Theatre’s production of The Jewel in the Crown, in, gads, 1984 (I’m feeling old right now). It might have been that I was inclined to enjoy the text hearing that lovely voice of Malik’s, but I don’t think he would have lasted if he was not sincere in his verbal interpretation of the text as a whole. Once I listened to Rushdie read some of his other works though, I decided it was Rushdie or no one.

Perhaps it is simply that I can picture Malik, or Rushdie, or Gaiman as I hear them. Perhaps the visual aspect of storytelling does come in to play here as well. I envision them performing. That is something to consider. Regardless, while I’ve covered the easy part—listening to famous authors—let’s think about how to find new authors in the same way. With the little time that I have to read or re-read even the texts that I have to spend time with for my work, I find it hard to get to the pile of those I am interested in for pure enjoyment. And how do I find new works to add to my list of “must reads”? I LISTEN to these new voices. I make the time to go to readings and observe the writer deliver her work. Even truncated tales or works in progress are worth the time spent if the author can draw you in and make you want him to finish the work soon or deliver a signed copy into your hands before the night is through.

My recent personal literary resolution is to find as many local authors as I can and familiarize myself with their works. I say “personal” because my work as a professor (adjunct assistant, read “broke but happy”) and tutor does not always allow me to be as exclusive in my choices. A couple of weeks ago, I found a flier on the counter in my husband’s gallery in Flemington, NJ (small plug: Kissimmee River Pottery; www.riverpots.com). It announced that the SOMI Fine Art Gallery, just down the sidewalk from our studio, was to host an evening of readings by David Galef, Mia Siegert, and Cassia Rainne (aka Keisha Thorpe). This announcement came just in time. As my yoga instructors always remind me, when events or experiences are ready for you and you ready for them, they will become available. Well, we were ready for each other. I’d been dying to learn again. I spend so much time teaching writing and being isolated with my own projects that I begin to miss the thrill of being guided by someone and of sharing ideas. I try to encourage my students to find themselves in even the least desired or interesting assignments they must complete. At the least, I tell them, you don’t have to love writing, but you must be able to respect your own language and ideas to present them clearly and fully. That goes for fiction and nonfiction. All well and good, but where is my guru and guide these days? It’s good that I never feel competitive with other writers. I feel inspired by the gifted ones, hopeful for the weakest or beginners of the group. The point is finding the right group and, on this particular night, the right group came to me.

*Galef is a prolific author and is currently professor of English and director of the creative writing program at Montclair State University. I picked up a copy of his latest book of short stories My Date with Neanderthal Woman after he read to us about a kleptomaniac as described to us by her loving husband. It was amusing, enthralling, bizarre, and poignant. As now go through my notes from the night, scribbled on the back of the flier for the readings, I remember something very interesting about this couple, the kleptomaniac and the CPA. Well, I’ll start with the fact that the husband is a CPA. Order vs. chaos and unpredictability? Too obvious? I feel it to be more amusing than predictable. While Galef lists off the strange behaviors of this wife and her obsession, which happens to spiral inwards and affect her husband’s own belongings, he refers at times to Plato. This switch from mundane weirdness to cerebral ruminations did not isolate those who had not taken Philosophy 101 or one of The Great Courses on DVD. His references guided us to an understanding of the characters and Galef himself, rather than weeding us out and making us feel embarrassed. I feel that a great read should of course contain believable events and that the historical, literary, philosophical references, etc., must be accurate. But must it necessarily require extensive research for the reader and audience to understand all references? No. Galef helps us out knowing we might need it and without holding a grudge.

It was freeing to hear him acknowledge that the works in My Date with Neanderthal Woman have no particular connecting thread. What a relief to know that not all writing must be so perfectly definable. Let it flow.

Wow. Yes, I am partial to the short story form, but with so many volumes of work competing for my attention, listening to Galef put me over the edge and into ownership of his text. I found him in it as he read. Galef enjoyed the text as much as we loved giving him our attention.

Mia Siegert graduated with an MFA from Goddard College and has been teaching fiction courses at Southern New Hampshire University as well as various locations in Hunterdon Co., New Jersey. Her bio notes that she has been published by Word Riot, Capboard House, and soon, by Robocup Press. We were treated to an excerpt from a YA novel in progress that, from what we experienced, will most probably be a must read for both the YA crowd and adults who appreciate a mature and believable approaches to adolescent and teenage  perspectives on family and personal development.

Siegert also shared a brief passage from a novel she is in the process of developing based on real-life events in the “A” circuit equestrian world. Honestly, when I heard “horse” I thought, “oh, not another person trying to pass whinnies and rolling eyes off as knowledge of horses.” But, as it turns out, she has worked under the tutelage of George Morris, the top of the heap in the Hunter/Jumper world for those who have not travelled that route. While I was too faint of heart to work with the fierce Morris myself, I did train with a number of his students and colleagues. Siegert is the real deal. She knows the A circuit. She knows the scandals too and I can’t wait to see what she makes of them. I hope in some aspects, only the names have been changed. The stories need to be told, but not for the sake of the “gotcha” factor but for the sake of the people now entering the business and the horses still in the field. Awareness can only lead to better practices. Siegert is not obligated to hold the torch for change though. I would not be averse to her own interpretation for her own reasons. After all, her work is fiction and at this she is no slouch.

Cassia Rainne is also a graduate of Goddard College with an MFAW. Like me, she is an adjunct professor but also an academic advisor. I was astounded to find that she also acts, directs, and produces. I can understand why she was a radio host for a number of years. Her soft but clear and direct voice holds your attention during both her readings and her casual discussion. I love that the end of her bio tells us that in what I assume is her minimal spare time she can be found “standing in tree pose focusing on what’s next.” Wow, as a yoga enthusiast myself, I completely get that. The balance and focus it takes to stay in proper tree pose is much like the focus and attention that one needs to stay on the creative path. Many distractions want to pull us off our delicately balanced stance and our own doubts or competing desires can prevent that foot from even lifting off the floor to begin with.

What can I say about her work? What I remember most pointedly is the mood she created. She had us all in a trance as her warm voice told us of a woman simply preparing eggs. But the eggs were not the point so much as what memories and musings their presence triggered. I am probably not doing her story justice, but what I can say is that I’m dying to hear it again and more of it. Her style is a mix of observation and intentionally limited explanation. We are both voyeurs and confidents as we stand in the room with the character and listen to her history while watching her every move. We are with her, yet her privacy does not seem violated by our presence. The delivery here is all in the rhythm of the words and their patterns of logic.

Now, none of this is to say that I would not have wanted to read any of these authors’ works if I had not heard them first. A bad book is a bad book as far as I’m concerned, but quality work is illuminated by empathetic reading, no matter how brief the encounter. This experience brought to this intimate gathering 3 worthwhile pens and voices.

Here are some memorable statements and sound ideas from the authors given during the Q & A session and so graciously in casual conversation afterward (as I recall and decipher from my notes):

Galef: When asked how much of the author must be expected to seep into a narrative, Galef stated simply but strongly that “the self is inescapable.” I take this to mean that a work must not necessarily at any point be autobiographical, but one must not expect to disappear entirely, nor desire to. What you learn often becomes what your characters know, don’t you think?

Rainne: When I asked her what ignites the idea for a story, she discussed not needing to plan or brainstorm so much as letting a moment of inspiration or even a simple object like an egg take her on a path. She lets the moment be “the moment.”

Siegert: “I don’t want to write about me,” she smiled and said. Siegert does not argue that our own selves and experiences may very well feed our creations. After all, her forthcoming novel about the world of A-circuit horse shows is inspired by real life. She does share with us that one of her most challenging assignments was to write from a boy’s perspective or someone she could not readily form just by reaching inside for like a kind of Eve’s rib.

For more on these wonderful writers:

Cassia Rainne: contact purpleshamrockmedia@gmail.com or visit Purple Shamrock’s Facebook page

Mia Siegert: http://www.miasiegert.com or contact siegert.mia@gmail.com

David Galef: http://www.davidgalef.com

*I had unfortunately conflated two of David’s stories when I wrote this blog. The CPA and his kleptomaniac wife can be found in “Petty Larceny” while  “More Than a Platonic Relationship” is the tale that, as the title reflects, contains the references to Plato. David was very gracious in his correction and I am pleased to be able to make good on my mistake.