July 20, 2017

July 20, 2017
Mary and Dosey

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Ring the bells that still can ring

I am not such a terrible puppy-educator after all! Two days ago and again yesterday, our puppy Dosey swiped at the bells hanging from the door handle, and my partner Ann let her out of the house and into the back yard. I've been trying to teach her to do this off and on for weeks, and the day before I just couldn't figure out how to make the leap from the sound of the bells to the opportunity to go outside, but in her rest time, she figured it out. 

I would have done well to get a puppy when I was teaching high school, so I could have applied all that I'm learning to the classroom of human teenagers. In the 17 years I taught high school students, they often mused on the fact that as kindergarten children they were required to take naps even though they didn't want to, and now as teenagers they wanted to nap and were not allowed to. At the time, I laughed and said they had a good point, but I didn't think much more about it. As I think on it now, napping may be a part of our educational system that is missing, along with adequate and varied physical activity, art of all kinds, and healthy foods. 

As a high school Language Arts teacher, I didn't think this way, but now I think of the ways of living that have become gifts to me now that I'm disabled: slowing down, napping daily, writing to discover myself, eating well, and exercising in ways that are not competitive but are fun for me. These are not the habits I learned or taught in schools. 

I taught about diligence and intellectual focus. I required students to be awake, and I organized my classes to keep students busy and learning. Even reflection required diligence: students often wrote reflections on their work, processes, and learning.  Sometimes, I evaluated their self-reflections using a rubric that detailed what I thought they should reflect on. 

I don't think Dosey would have done especially well in my classes, even if she could read and write. I don't think my system would have acknowledged the way that she learns during reflection time and learns from from other puppies in her agility classes. 

I wonder what grade she might give me as her student (because she is clearly training me more effectively than I am training her.) Somehow I suspect her rubric would come from a spirit of grace and forgiveness rather than the task master's idea of excellence. 

This is not the first time that it has occurred to me that my ideas of excellence may not be universal or even desirable. When I was in my twenties, after my second year of teaching, I went with Amigos de las Americas  as a "health volunteer" (building latrines and distributing tooth brushes) to a pueblo in the foothills of the Michoacan jungle in Mexico. I remember digging a latrine in the summer heat one afternoon while able-bodied young men watched. I knew they thought I was a sucker, and I felt like one. After all, I was doing work that they could do.

My best experiences that summer were with the relationships that developed. (I fondly remember SeƱora Alisa Lopez and her cooking lessons: one cup of lard for beans; two cups of lard for refried beans. She also attempted to teach me to cook tortillas, but the group of women and girls assembled laughed good-heartedly at my lumpy, dumpy tortillas and my dainty fingers, too sensitive to turn the hot tortillas over as they cooked on the fire.)

I also remember the teenage girl across the path who lived in a home of sticks with her parents and brothers. (Their family was considered poor even in this poor town.) She showed me how to wash my clothes using a washboard, and when it was clear that I didn't know how, she asked, "Does your mother wash your clothes?"

"No," I explained. "My mother lives a long way away. She would have to take an airplane to my house." This puzzled her. Why, then, did I not know how to wash my clothes? I explained that in my home, we used a washing machine.

Her brown eyes got big then. "Oh! You're rich!"

"No," I said. "Everyone in America uses a machine." Of course, I was wrong on both counts. Everyone in America does not use a machine, and I was--and am--rich. This awareness required some reflection (like Dosey and her bells.)

At summer's end, the fifteen of us who had been scattered through the Michoacan jungle came together to reflect. Each of us was expected to share. I quoted one of my favorite songs: "Slow down. You move too fast. You've got to make the morning last, just, kickin' down the cobblestones. Lookin' for fun and feelin' groovy."  I had learned that summer that getting a lot done was a cultural value, not a universal one. 

After that summer, however, I returned to my culture and to my hurrying way of life, until twenty years later, my first brain tumor taught me the same lesson again. (As I think Annie Dillard said in An American Childhood, I suspect that rather than learning new lessons, I am learning the same lesson over and over....but I can't find this quotation on the innerwebs and An American Childhood on my Kindle hasn't been indexed, so maybe I'm mistaken about the authorship. Too bad. It's one of my favorite quotations from her.)

Maybe I learned this lesson of slowing down from my brain tumor, and maybe I learned it from a classmate who quoted me back to myself: "Anything that slows me down is a gift."

In this new life after brain tumors, I am learning differently, and in this life with disabilities (and in this country that feels so dark right now), I take hope as I sing along with Leonard Cohen: 

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)

That's how the light gets in.

As I sat with Dosey on my lap and listened to multiple versions of Cohen's song, I reflected on these words, and I read his own explanation of the lyrics

That is the background of the whole record, I mean if you have to come up with a philosophical ground, that is “Ring the bells that still can ring.” It’s no excuse… the dismal situation.. and the future is no excuse for an abdication of your own personal responsibilities towards yourself and your job and your love. “Ring the bells that still can ring”: they’re few and far between but you can find them. “Forget your perfect offering”, that is the hang-up, that you’re gonna work this thing out. Because we confuse this idea and we’ve forgotten the central myth of our culture which is the expulsion from the garden of Eden. This situation does not admit of solution or perfection. This is not the place where you make things perfect, neither in your marriage, nor in your work, nor anything, nor your love of God, nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect. And worse, there is a crack in everything that you can put together, physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.
– from Diamonds in the Line 

And I read about the metaphor's origin

The line "a crack in everything" seems to come from a book by Jack Kornfield on Buddhism. The story is that a young man who had lost his leg came to a Buddhist monastary thing, and he was extremely angry at life, and always drew these pictures of cracked vases and damaged thing, because he felt damaged. Over time, he found inner peace, and changed his outllook, but still drew broken vases. His master asked him one day: "Why do you still draw a crack in the vases you draw, are you not whole?" And he replied
"Yes, and so are the vases. The crack is how the light gets in" 

I suppose the industrial people, the investors, and the customers might say that a cracked vase doesn't hold water, but they would be talking about utility rather than poetry, and my life is more poetry than utility. I'm coming to like it that way. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Journey: Marvelous Error! To Elusive Truth

Last night as I was sleeping, I dreamt—marvelous error—that my little brother was seven years old again, and my partner Ann and I were in our thirties. We were all in a house with a long hallway, and my brother and his friend chased Ann and me down that hallway. As I ran, I unplugged the many pole lamps along the way, and I thought to myself, “I’ll bet whoever invented the pole lamp made a lot of money.” (When I awoke, I looked it up: Z.W. MANN got the U.S. patent on Jan. 8, 1963. I can’t find any information about whether or not he got rich, so presumably he didn’t, but there are lots of pole lamps for sale on the innerwebs, so maybe someone is getting rich.)

But I digress from the dream’s logical trajectory: Just before we reached our room, Ann took a hallway to the left in order to check on the small baby we were caring for, and I ran into our room and slammed the door behind me. When I imagined that my little brother would be coming in the door, I let out a blood-curdling scream to scare him away. Though I was dreaming, the scream was real. Needless to say, I woke Ann, who woke me. I was again 53 and in my own bed; Ann was 73, and presumably Little Brother Matt was still 47. (Fortunately, our puppy Dosey slept on.) I don’t think this dream was a marvelous error, like the ones in the original poem, but it was marvelous that this was an error.

Later in the night, I dreamed—again marvelous that it was an error—that I was in a psychiatric hospital. Though I was glad when I awoke to find myself in my own bed, the experience was a pleasant one. I remembered the dream when I woke, but now this pleasantness is all I remember. (So then there’s the intriguing connection between memory and reality, but that will have to be another entry.)

The night before, I dreamt that my college friend Jenny and I were at a meeting, and Jenny was wearing a green dress with a peacock feather (that I remember mocking at the only debutante ball I ever attended.) I find this error marvelous, but perhaps neither my friend nor the original wearer of the peacock feather would think so.

How can we know what’s real if we can’t tell dreams from reality? (Perhaps this recalls for you, too, Chuang Tzu’s story, which is all over the innerwebs Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things. --As translated by Lin Yutang). This version is from https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Zhuangzi . A better (and slightly longer) version is at http://www.taoism.net/living/2007/200703.htm

I know this isn’t an original thought, but dreams are so interesting, aren’t they? Is there truth, or are there only shadowy illusions? Do dreams mean many things or nothing? Are they visions (as Keats asks about his experience in “Ode to a Nightingale”) or illusions?

Do you remember these lyrics: “A dream can mean so many things. Something, something, something on angel wings…” I could have sworn the line is from The Muppet Movie’s excellent song, “The Rainbow Connection.”

I was wrong. I found the lyrics to “The Rainbow Connection” (Listen to it, and your heart will lift), but I can’t find the words I’m looking for anywhere…. Egads, here in the Google Age.

Oh. Wait. Maybe the lyrics are from the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat….Yes, I feel sure of it. Googled that, too. No luck. (I can’t find the lyrics to “Shadrack, Meshak, Abednigo” either. Puzzling. Everyone knows that song, don’t they?)

New idea. I think the lyrics are from the children’s musical, It’sCool in the Furnace. Though I can find references to this musical, I can find neither the song titles nor the lyrics.

So now I’ll ask the question a different way, How can we know what’s real if we can’t (or can) find it on the innerwebs? I’ve certainly found (and yes, I’m ashamed to say, spread) fake news because I thought it was real. Perhaps this is the conundrum that makes fake news so prevalent these days.

Those of us on the left tend to discount such news consumers as not-so-smart (I believe this is essentially skepticism fallacy), but maybe we on the left need to give them more credit and they’re just philosophers who lean right.

No. To quote Shakespeare’s Lear out of context: “That way lies madness.” I can’t conclude so cynically about truth as that. But how do I untangle myself from this philosophical muddle? What is truth and how do I recognize it? Or is there even such a thing as truth?

I must stop here and sleep because sleep is where I figure most things out. (Though, of course, my sleep is where this whole mess started.)

Okay, it’s been a few days, and I’m back now. Serendipitously (say it five times fast), my friend Pat sent a link to a Today Show interview with lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Stevenson is a lawyer who started a legal practice in Montgomery, Alabama, to represent people on Death Row. His excellent book Just Mercy  tells that story.)

Stevenson talks about the things we don’t talk about as Americans, the ways we don’t tell the truth: the genocide of Native Americans and enslavement of Africans.
Stevenson points out that we can’t have reconciliation until we have truth, as in South Africa’s Apartheid, Rwanda’s genocide, Germany’s Third Reich, etc.

Stevenson says we as Americans need to learn the truth of our history in order to  be free. I heard a similar call to knowing the truth about my own country in April 2001 from a friend in a Salvadoran town whose older denizens had been traumatized by that country’s Civil War  (the right in that country being amply fundedand too often trained by the U.S. military). As I learned about my own country’s role in El Salvador in those months before the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Towers, I thought about so much that I had not learned in my history classes, and about how dangerous the white lies of omission are.

As is so often the case, I turn to poetry for wisdom, but as much wisdom as I find in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, her poem “Tell all the Truth, but Tell it Slant—“  disturbs me. I believe this habit of not facing our truths has been—and continues to be—dangerous for us in the USA. (For example, when you studied World War II in school—including college—did you learn about the Japanese Internment Camps? I didn’t.)

So what do we do? Some people don’t need to know no more and get right to activism. Bless their work. In my younger years, I have done that, too. However, now I need to know more. I don’t want to act out of ignorance anymore.  I just don’t see anything more important than truth—not truth seen at a slant, but directly.

And to learn, I can’t go to the academicians I’ve always gone to, those who talk about experiences of individuals and peoples different than they, but I need to go to those who have experienced oppression and learn from them.

That arena of activism, the act of listening to peoples’ stories, is much of my work now. It was my most important work as a teacher, too. And as a partner, daughter, sister, friend. But now it’s not an additional thing I do. It’s the center of my work, my faith, my life.

Telling my own story is an important part of this work. And telling my story is no good if no one is listening. So thank you, as always, for listening.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Both Exquisite and Mundane

Tonight as I sat in the big chair (Dad thinks it's his chair, but it's Dosey's now), our puppy Dosey and I struggled for control of her favorite toy, Bear. Bear is grey with a Teddy Bear face and a long, crinkly body. He ends in a bulb for his bottom, a bulb that I squeeze so that he squeaks when I’ve won him, always temporarily, from Dosey.

As we wrestled for control of Bear, Dosey was getting the best of me, holding Bear in her sharp puppy teeth by his crinkly throat. Then a moth, one of many in our home these days, flew by, and she lost her concentration, so I won the advantage. Dosey forgot Bear and continued to follow the moth. Out loud, though neither Dosey nor Bear knew the allusions, I said, “And then it was, there interposed a moth.” Amused with myself, I chuckled and then went to my computer to read again Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I Heard a Fly Buzz when I Died and Virginia Woolf’s very short essay, “The Death of the Moth.”

“I Heard a Fly Buzz when I Died” is Dickinson’s poem from the perspective of a dying narrator, and all the pomp involved in human death, until the narrator notices a fly that no one else probably notices, but perhaps a reminder of the earthiness and the commonness of death (I write “probably” and “perhaps” because I don’t think anyone ever knows for sure what Dickinson is saying, even when they—or I—think we do.) A key line in the poem is “And then it was there interposed a fly.” (I love the language’s formality ending with the thudding fly.)

In Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” Woolf also writes about death. She describes watching a moth die, its elegance and its powerlessness, as she learns about death. The moth’s dying, perhaps like ours Woolf seems to suggest, is both exquisite and mundane.

Because neither Dosey nor my partner Ann majored in English Literature in college, it’s highly unlikely that they think about this essay when they chase moths in the house, both with a kind of crazed and intense focus like Bill Murray in the movie Caddy Shack. (For this reason, I shared the movie with Ann, but I’m pretty sure she didn’t relish the similarities between herself and Bill Murray’s character that warred against gophers on a golf course.)

There are so many literary references to creepy, crawly things. Of course, there’s the spider in Charlotte’s Web. Though I love the fictional character, I cannot abide (as my Southern mother would say), these creatures. In fact, when there’s one in my house, I go in the other room and yell for Ann to take it away.

There are great poems about even creepier and crawlier things. There’s “Snake” by D.H. Lawrence, an encounter recalled by a narrator who missed out on one of the “lords of life” because he listened to the voices of an education that taught him to fear poisonous snakes. (Though I appreciate the idea that we should not fear all that we have been taught to fear, I still think it’s a good idea to fear poisonous snakes, no matter how kingly they may seem.)

How lucky for me that I’ve learned through literature to appreciate the exquisite in the mundane. I supposed many people see my life of losses from my brain tumors, watch me struggle with my balance as I traverse a Seattle sidewalk despite its cracks, or notice that I am too tired to finish my beer (As 45 might tweet: (“So sad.”)

As William Wordsworth wrote in “Intimations of Immortality:

Though nothing can bring back the hour 
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower; 
We will grieve not, rather find 
Strength in what remains behind; 

Though Wordworth’s losses were from age (I think he was a melancholy 34 when he wrote this poem) and mine from brain tumors, the sentiment buoys me. I do find strength in what remains behind: a life worth living, the love of my partner and family, puppy and friends, a lovely walk around Gold Creek Pond (though in my head I remember the movie and call it, “Golden Pond.”)

Along with the aged Wordsworth, I am grateful for the life after loss. As Wordsworth concludes this poem:

Thanks to the human heart by which we live, 
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears, 
To me the meanest flower that blows can give 
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.