Head Over to My New Website

If you are an old reader of bgblogging posts, you might be interested in heading over to my new blogsite, attached to my consultancy, Community Expressions, LLC. I hope you will visit me there and put your two cents in about my thoughts and work. While the writing I do there isn’t necessarily directly related to the formal classroom, much of what I experience in my work in community-building efforts around storytelling has clear and interesting applications in formal learning contexts.  Of course, I welcome you as well to Open View Gardens, the blog I keep with my daughter, filled with stories about the earth, the food we grow and the meals we make.

Yes, it’s about learning–lifelong learning!

In case you’re wondering…

I’m moving (mostly) to a new blog, to a new chapter in this post-school journey.  Finally I think I’ve discovered how to weave together the various strands of my interests and abilities as I grapple with the relationship between the local and global: through a new LLC, Open View Gardens, I’ll be combining writing, photography, storytelling,–and my two other creative passions: cooking adventures and gardening.  Please visit me at Open View Gardens–I’d love your feedback, your conversation, your wisdom!

So This Is What It’s Like… Sort Of…

With a less than a week left of the Motley Group reading of Joyce’s Dubliners, I am lingering a bit too long, I realize, mid-collection, thinking about what I’ve read, how the stories talk to one another, undercut or intensify each another. I get pulled out of the book altogether for a few days at a stretch by the other calls on my time.  I have to get going here…onward into “Clay” and “A Painful Case” today. I might even have to set a reading schedule to make sure I have enough time to hang out in “The Dead.”  I can’t remember when I have ever read a collection this slowly, with breaks, and rereads, and trips out to my fellow readers’ blogs and to this site.  And I know I have not walked down the long driveway in search of the mail with such anticipation in a long long time.

remnants

This is as close as I have ever come to what I asked of my students and their blogging back in my teaching days. Yes I blogged with them, but never on equal terms, at best as guide. In fact I stayed off our class blogs for the most part, posting on my own blog in meta-reflection so as to keep their conversation open, playful and free between peers instead of performance for the teacher, something I’ve written about many times over the years here, including the final paragraph of one of those long-long posts of mine from 2005 (with lots of broken links):

“And it is the Motherblog that keeps them linked within a community–they venture back and forth onto one another’s blogs, taking comfort in their peers’ experiences, pushing one another, and learning from one another. And I’m rarely on the blog at all. Isn’t this what we’re after in a liberal arts education?  The students naturally, on their own, gravitate towards the learning ecology.  I’m keeping these second-wave bloggers in mind as my young first-years wonder aloud why we’re doing this public blogging thing.  I want them to read the Blogging-the-World blog, and I want them to look down the road at where they might be in two years.  If I teach them the grammar of the blog well, and they take to it, they can use the medium (or whatever other tool will be in play by then) to make their learning real, active, and worth crowing about.”

as if

I’m realizing that this Motley reading experience is as close as I’ve ever come to being absolutely inside classroom blogging–as a reciprocal apprentice.  I see the personalities come into play–who likes posterous, who their own blog, Flickr, postcards.  Who dropped out, never started, is still thinking about starting, is on the fence about continuing, is doing her own thing with responses.  Absolutely fascinating.  I’m learning more about my own inclinations as a reader as I hear Lanny’s puzzlement over the postcard I sent him, and how the image is linked in any way to the reading experience. In learning about how the others are approaching and responding to the stories, I think more deeply about my own readings, my own way of reading.  I really don’t think I did that enough as a teacher.  I see now how much I continued to dominate my classes even when I tried my best not to, even though I believed that students would learn how to think and communicate if they had to rely on one another as  much as on me. This experience almost has me hankering over another go in the classroom.  Almost.

Something else has me stumbling over my departure from the classroom. My old student, now my good friend and teacher, Stephanie Saldana, has been visiting for the past couple of days as she tears about the country on her first book tour.  Yesterday she gave a splendid, moving reading at the college. Four former students were in the audience: three still at the college and another, Stephanie’s best friend here fifteen years ago, another gifted writer, who drove over from Maine.  Stephanie read to an audience made up of townspeople, students and her former professors–a reading that showed her big heart as well as her considerable intellect, a reading that allowed us to glimpse her struggle with a broken world from the vantage point of living in the Middle East.  I thought, how brave, to come back here where you were a star poet/scholar and read from a book so human, so real, so true.  Later, a young Palestinian remarked to me that this was the first lecture/reading about the Middle East he’d been to here that hadn’t been dissecting, theorizing, and/or intellectualizing the trauma.  There was no sense of the personal, the lived in those other lectures and readings as though problems could be understood and solved purely from knowing enough. Stephanie’s reading and discussion gave him the space for his own story.  There it was again, the heart, the heart.  Later that evening, my two old students and another grad from that time sat on the floor of my livingroom and shared how they felt that their undergraduate classes had been far too much about the intellect.  Where was life in the classroom?  How did community outside the school have anything at all to do with what was going on in the classroom?  Where were the hearts of their teachers?

If I could do it all over…I would have been a more radical teacher than I was, and isn’t it too bad that I have to say that teaching from the heart in a liberal arts college is radical?  For a moment, I wanted another chance…but no, I am getting another chance…this way: with Motley readers, with my students turned teachers, with my messy work with storytelling in communities (ALL about heart), with my fumblings with camera.

It’s funny how I’m coming across this reminder repeatedly this week.  This morning,  I opened T.S. Eliot’s essay on Dante to find:

“In my own experience of the appreciation of poetry I have always found that the less I knew about a poet and his work, before I began to read it, the better.  A quotation, a critical remark, an enthusiastic essay may well be the accident that sets one to reading a particular author; but an elaborate preparation of historical and biographical knowledge has always been to me a barrier.  I am not defending poor scholarship…At least, it is better to be spurred to acquire scholarship because you enjoy the poetry, than to suppose that you enjoy the poetry because you have acquired the scholarship.”  (“Dante” 1929 Essay p. 205 in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot)

That’s what I so like about writing and receiving postcards as well as posts–they feel like little bursts of felt response–by readers who love to read and love to feel the pen on a card, having to move within the confines of that small white square, and caring enough to take the time to find a postcard, a stamp, go to the post office after engaging with the text.  Bound together by a love of reading, the freedom to come and go as we wish, the playfulness of responding however we like, and, for me, a commitment to speaking from the heart as well as head and to stick with it even if I don’t have time, love all the stories, or feel I have anything useful to say.  You just never know when you’ll stumble upon the new, or touch someone, or learn something you thought you already knew.

Alan's Mount Fujiaraby

jenjen2

Learning from Writers, Learning from Readers: Hearts and Minds in Balance

What an interesting time.   As I continue to shed my classroom-teacher identity, I am learning more and more about the imposter syndrome and semantic gaps in our culture between professional expert and layperson, and about the power of reciprocal apprenticeships.  And the delights of mixing heart and mind.  I am learning from young writers I know, and all over again from writers long gone, and from readers engaged in this fascinating un-book group, Motley Readers of Joyce’s Dubliners.  I’m learning ever more about myself as a writer and thinker as I finish a position paper for Orton Family Foundation (on why community storytelling is essential for the health of rural towns), in which I must balance knowledge and passion.

beneath the facade

Hearing from some of my fellow Motley readers about how they feel vulnerable posting their “unschooled” thoughts about Joyce’s stories bothers me.  Not because I wonder why they feel this way, but because I know all too well that they feel this way for good reason. It is similar to what I hear in communities about ordinary people participating in planning processes:  they often don’t feel welcome because the gap in language between professional and nonprofessional is so difficult to straddle.  It’s something that storytelling works at bridging in rural communities.  And here, in social media spaces, we must work at those bridges as well, even in a reading group.

Literature should grab us by both the heart and the mind, I think, and not let us go–to help us to articulate why it does so, sure, we want to learn more about how it is that language and narrative work.  Some of us want to know about the context in which the writer was working–and certainly what was going on in Ireland and in Europe and in Joyce at the time of his writing has quite a profound impact on our understanding of the collection.  This is all good.  Great books should, I think, lead us to other books, to other learning, to other thoughts.  And then we should have our own.   My father used to urge us to read from across the political spectrum before we entered the daily dinner-table debate over current events.  It makes sense that we need to hear a variety of views from across the spectrum of experience and knowledge. That’s one of the beauties of a diverse physical community–coming into contact with all sorts of life views, understanding, knowledge, expertise, taste.

One of the beauties of great writing is that it can also move us and speak to us without all that knowledge of theory or history.   I love reading Joyce, 100 years after he wrote those stories, for what they tell me about beauty and life now.  They’re timeless.  I don’t think we should close ourselves to expertise, but it shouldn’t be our only guide. It isn’t heart or mind, feeling or learning, but both.  And unfortunately, school is really trying to educate the heart right out of us.

In a postcard I just received from Chris Lott (more about the Motley reading postcard experience in another post soon), I love how comfortable he is in both the poet’s skin and the scholar’s (and believe me, he’s one of the most learned, brilliant guys out there)  as he expresses the heart-rending beauty of reading Joyce:
chris
He weaves his learning in, his passion–without feeling bad about it.  Balance. I’m learning about balance from all of these Motley Readers, the ones who have a background in literary studies and those who do not.

I’m also learning about heart and mind from one of my former students.  As her first book hits the bookstores, I am bursting with excitement.  She did it.  Anyone who knew Stephanie Saldana during her college years knew she would publish, but in those days we thought it would be poetry.  Her nonfiction book, The Bread of Angels, brings her poet’s heart and eye, and her scholar’s training and knowledge into unusual balance.  A bit like how Chris does in his Motley posts and postcard.  It’s a beautiful book, a book that takes us through layers of life in the Middle East as it brings us along on the journey of one young woman on a Fulbright in Syria.  I learned a great deal about the common ground between Christianity and Islam, the beauty of daily life, Stephanie herself (and I thought I knew her and this story well), and about the power of mixing poetry and scholarship.  Wow.  What a teacher.

I’m also learning more these days about weaving together the parts of oneself from my daughters.  Talk about reciprocal apprenticeships. My daughters teach me all kinds of powerful lessons about life, about art. The one who lives in New York writes gorgeous songs. When we talk about them, I learn ever more about the ways rhythms and sound intersect with words, about how silences work with sounds.  My other daughter has long had one foot in the writing world, with several articles published about her travels. Now she is pulling together her love of food, photography and writing on her new blog and in an internship with an Italian food magazine (real incentive for me to stop pretending I speak and read Italian and learn).  I’m learning from watching her thread her various passions together.

This is one heck of a classroom.  The further away from school I get, the more convinced I am that this is the most powerful kind of classroom of all: the messy one engaging in learning relationships across group, network and diverse community.

A Heartbreaker: Joyce’s “Araby” (More Motley Reading)

I can’t help it–this story gets to me every time.  It’s not my favorite story in Dubliners; in fact, I avoid it in the gazillion anthologies it graces (mostly because I don’t want to read it to death).  But then when I do read it,  every ten years or so, the narrator sends his story right back around my heart and squeezes.  I love the boy–his questing, his longing, his normalness, his imagination, his possibility.

Araby

I love how each of these first three stories builds, one to the next. (Another reason I don’t like it to be anthologized, for it belongs with the other two, grows out of them, revising my sense of what was going on in the one before, and the one before preparing me for the one I’m reading and the one to come.  “Eveline” changes things up big time..but more on that story after I read it again.)  The images from one story call to the next as though they are houses themselves along North Richmond Street. I’m thinking here, again, about Alan’s observation that reading these three stories is like “peeking into a musty window of these people’s lives.”  The shuttered world of “The Sisters” becomes the full city in “The Encounter” becomes the wild swing between inside & outside, imagination & reality, domestic and other in  “Araby.” The rhythms and sounds of the first two–those remarkable cadences– prepare us for the astonishments of this story:  “…shook music from the buckled harness” or “Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.”   So simple those soft syllables. The boy has slowed down enough from the “career of [their] play” to notice, to sense, to feel.

Chris mentioned in his post the indebtedness of so many twentieth-century writers to Joyce.  I think here in “Araby” of Flannery O’Connor’s use of sentence rhythm and sound–the way Joyce breaks up a sentence– in  the magnificent opening of her “Parker’s Back”: “Parker’s wife sat on the front porch floor, snapping beans. Parker was sitting on the step, some distance away, watching her sullenly.  She was plain, plain.”  I love to reorder Joyce’s sentences to learn from him, to see how the meaning comes out of his grammar, his syntax. The opening sentence, for example–What if it read, “Being blind, North Richmond Street was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ school set the boys free?”  Or even worse, “Except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ school set the boys free, being blind, North Richmond Street was a quiet street.”  What he does with word order and punctuation.  (Watch out–wait until we get to “The Dead” and that opening sentence!)  There are many, many sentences in this story that just knock me down.

I love the language of “Araby” and how it, too, grows out of “The Sisters” and “The Encounter.” We’re ready for the mix of peculiarly childish perspective and adult use of language–the child’s fresh hearing of “Swaddlers! Swaddlers!” from “The Encounter” becomes the more nuanced language of longing when he describes her hand on the railing .  Something has intensified in “Araby,” sharpened and matured–the gauzy confusion felt by the boys in the opening stories lifts in the presence of longing.  Where in “The Encounter” the streets are “noisy”, in “Araby it is “flaring.”  “Araby” ends in “anguish and anger,” a stressed declaration of feeling that the other stories do not find, one just ending mid-sentence, the other penitent. (Going back to my earlier point about the sounds and rhythms carrying so much of the power: imagine if Joyce had ended the story in “anguish and rage”…)

I love that this story (the other two, as well) are narrated in the first person, but using the past tense, and thereby keeping us–and the narrator– at a distance from the events.  This is told through the scrim of memory, and that the narrator is telling the stories must mean that he keeps returning to these memories, catches on them like a wool sweater on a nail.   In fact–and this is in response to something Chris said in a discussion with Nancy about the language–I do not think at all that Joyce missteps a bit with the swings between elevated and simple language.  I think he offers us another divide here between adult and child, a deeper angst, sadness, and impossibility precisely because the stories are told by the older self re-entering the younger self.

Araby, II

So much to respond to in this story, so fun to read it slowly aloud, but I’ll leave it here for now.  I’m rather enjoying this motley reading:  writing a bit here, responding a bit there, sending off another bit in a postcard, messing around with photos I took on my last trip to Ireland. What a gift to be on this journey with such a motley crew.

It Takes Reading A Favorite Book…

…to get me back in a bloggy frame of mind.  Thanks to Chris Lott, I have, for the moment, put aside the many books piled up waiting (just finished Alexandra Fuller’s truly beautiful The Legend of Colton H. Bryant), to return to James Joyce’s Dubliners, a book I first read in ninth grade, and that didn’t do much for me then–I was a confirmed Hardy Girl (Thomas, that is–having read all of his books once and some of them twice by then) but found its way to my heart in college and several times since.

throughbarnwindows

I’ve never joined in a loosely-connected reading group, and I’ve always hated book groups though I have cherished some classroom/discussion rooms around books.  Since leaving teaching I’ve become a bit of a solo reader, ravenous, making my way through books I never seemed to have the time to read.  I’m ready for company.  I miss fellow readers embarked on the same adventure.  What I love about this reading experiment is that it’s bringing people together from all over the reading map, people I know, people I don’t, and we can respond however and wherever we like.  Already people are talking about some creative approaches to responding.  Who knows where we all will post/respond/connect.  Postcards are going to wing through the air.  Blogposts, Twitter, Posterous–who knows what else, where else, how else we will discuss and respond.  How different from a book group or most formal settings.  How intriguing…

I’m only one story into my reading, but already I have been struck by how much there is to get out of reading aloud (and committing to heart).  Perhaps especially the work of Joyce who struggled with poor eyesight and thus felt the world acutely through his ears?  Some think so.  Some think his musicality has to do with his being Irish (the Irish English being a sort of music, the Irish language resonating through accent and phrasing), leaving Ireland and moving about so much, country to country, languagescape to languagescape.  I think he just understood how language and storytelling, the world of place and people, are so much about meter and sound.

Nancy White’s post about finding an Italian copy of the book, and then links to audio recordings of the collection got me to thinking about how important it is to me to read aloud and to listen to others reading.  And how sound creates such a problem in translation, especially for a writer so sensitive to the soundscape.  I just read the first story aloud to myself, and wish I could hear my fellow readers’ voices on the stories–not someone hired to read–but those trying to understand the text alongside me as part of this exploration.  It would bring me closer to them as they respond and it would, I am sure, bring me ever closer to the stories and make them live again.

To that end, I’ve recorded the first paragraph of the opening story, “The Sisters”, and in so doing slowed down enough to feel with the narrator that night, the power of the words in their sounds–paralysis, gnomon, simony, to notice the “darkened blind” and feel the flicker of the candles through the staccato notes of the phrase’s syllables.


dreams before dawn

I had no idea that when I joined this group for the month of February that I would be recording myself reading the opening paragraph, dusting off the dormant blog, and searching about for stamps for postcards…

Come join us–see what crazy things you’ll do!

Tacit and Tangible: Two Sides of the Creative Teacher

“…I think of how much beginnings have to do with freedom, how much disruption has to do with consciousness and the awareness of possibility that has so much to do with teaching other human beings.  And I think that if I and other teachers truly want to provoke our students to break through the limits of the conventional and the taken for granted, we ourselves have to experience breaks with all that has been established in our own lives; we have to keep arousing ourselves to begin again. ”

(Maxine Greene p.109 Releasing the Imagination)


in the belljar

I’ve written here before about struggling for balance between tangible creative output in the form of art: short stories and now photos and multimedia narrative, and tacit outcomes through raising daughters and mentoring young writers in the college writing classroom and now rural-community storytelling projects.  I’ve written about how I firmly believe that teachers must be practitioners of what they teach, and yet for years, the best I could do on that score in my creative writing classes was to keep a writing notebook with bits and pieces of conversations, character sketches and snatches of scenes.  Later on I did the same with image/text and digital-story fragments and shards.  Nothing complete, though.  Nothing finished, very little put out into the world except through the personal space of my blogs. Academic thinking/writing/presenting, on the other hand, was easy to do from inside the walls, and is much more challenging now.  I am sloughing off my academic self for someone who works in the unpredictable, shifting spaces of local community and personal creativity, and some days I’m just plain old nowhere.

last flight2

I envied colleagues who went on publishing creative works through those years of teaching and child-rearing–I just couldn’t sort out how they did it all.  (How do they do it?)  I tried, believe me, but failed.  I’m slow. I wrote a novel during the year I spent on sabbatical in Ireland, but at the end of the year, the demands of full-time teaching and parenting re-focused my creative energies and the novel slipped under.  I felt acutely what an old Irish farmer said to me one time during my daily run past his farm: “We’re putting our energies to different ends.”  Writing a novel felt incredibly self-indulgent, whereas helping students stay connected with their imaginations felt significant and way more than I could ever do on a page. How silly to be running just to run, to stay in shape, but not actually to go anywhere that needed to be got to.  (Sometimes it’s how I feel about hopping on my bike in the middle of the day just to ride–how privileged–versus commuting on it or using it as part of my livelihood.)

And so, I turned my classrooms into disruptive creative studio spaces.  We were going to do something, go somewhere, explore, experiment, create against the grain, to put our ideas into contact zones, to adopt a practice, to commit to that practice.  As my students went on to pursue creative lives that included writing, teaching, mentoring, activism, I told myself that whatever loss I felt at not being in full touch with my own writing was more than made up for by the magic going on in class.

But now, a year out of the classroom, I feel new and shiny in my creative skin, somewhere between tacit and tangible creativity, between searching for form and having to conform to forms already given, between mentoring and practicing.  I’ve had photos accepted in a show and now one (“Heading Home” just above)  in an online annex to another show; I’m deep into short stories again, even experimenting with sharing drafts on bgexperiments–I’d love to have your feedback) while writing a white paper on storytelling and participatory planning, and continuing my work with rural communities and storytelling. I watch Laura working on a book, Jen writing like crazy, Keira dreaming up learning parties–all women who left the higher ed scene; all mothers; all still sharing knowledge, connecting, mentoring, teaching, but just look at them finding deep pleasure in their creativity.

Sure none of us is raking in the dough. And it’s easier for me as I’m a bit older than they are, with children in college and beyond.  I don’t have the same pressures of saving up for tuition, much less paying the rent or mortgage. When I was in that position, I was teaching.  I didn’t have the courage and will that they do.  They are my heroes.

here the morning

So maybe I still don’t have the mix down,  and I’ll continue to struggle with the balance, but being in this disruptive space sure feels good.

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