Walking the Land with Hard Thoughts

woodland floor One of the greatest gifts I’ve received from leaving the Academy is a clearer perspective on what matters. As layer after layer of those years slip from my shoulders, I can see, breathe, think more fully than I have in a long time. I often feel delighted by the promise of what is possible.

And I walk. Every day. In a slow-blogging kind of way. Usually without human companion because my communing on those walks is with nature, and people can be, well, so distracting. And so much of my life is about people, so the walks are for other connections and reflections.
water silence leaf
Right now, though, I struggle for perspective. I am scared. I am torn up by thoughts of friends who have recently been diagnosed with cancer–so many, so young–I have already lost one of my dearest life friends to the plague and sense the planet’s sickness in this. Here on the land, though, things seem so whole and beautiful; walking helps me move back to a more positive space. I am wracked, too, by the clatter and jitter of this crazy presidential race and find that I have to walk fast and hard before anger and fear subside. Voter suppression. Sickening robo calls and leafleting. Distortions of fact, even downright lies pouring forth from McCain’s and Palin’s mouths, and people cheering them on. Political pollution. Obama should win in a landslide. Should. Walk walk. I am so lucky to live in this place.

Over the next two days two different photographers are coming to accompany me on my walk to take photos of me in my fields (for articles about slow blogging, communities, and/or the new nonprofit). Today in a Skype call, Bud Hunt asked me about my deep ties to place and to community and how those two are connected for me. It’s funny. I write and think about these connections, but I never figured other people were interested in this part of my blogging. I roam, camera in hand, dog at my side, looking looking closely for the subtle shifts from the day before. And now someone will capture me in them. Strange. Meta-perspective, I suppose. I’m pulled out of the being to observe myself there.

Some days I leave the camera behind on purpose so that I miss it and so that I pay attention in a different way. I think that’s important, to keep things moving around, to stay a little off-kilter, surprised, ever developing my sensory awareness.

last wild apples winter stole

And almost always, when I walk camera-less, I come upon something I really want a picture of; sooner or later that image will burn so intensely in my head that it will spill out into words on this blog. Somehow. Yesterday was one of those days. One walk with camera. One without. And sure enough, Finn-dog and I came upon two perfectly pressed impressions of deer bodies–hoof-embossed snow all around two green patches in the shape of sleeping deer. Their warmth melted the snow as they rested. Snow angels into the grass. Now I keep seeing those two forms there, and feel glad that there are simple moments of incredible beauty in mad times.

And mad times they are. Throughout the world. But so shockingly here, playing out across our screens in full color, the smear campaign, the robo calls and leaflets–how corrupt, how vile, how cynical and deeply frightening. I can hardly speak to people who continue to support McCain in the face of the lies, the distortions, and the transformation of this man into a crazed, desperate figure who will go to any lengths to win. And what does that say about me?

caught

My California sister-in-law is in North Carolina volunteering for the Obama campaign. My California brother is in Nevada doing the same. I have friends who drove from Vermont to Ohio, another who has gone to Virginia. I make phone calls, link to articles and videos on the Smalltown Mamas (and Papas) for Obama blog, will help out in New Hampshire on Sunday and Tuesday, but mostly I walk the land and fret, send out links on Twitter to the Voter Suppression wiki, freak out when Chris Lott’s tweets articulate my own fears. My 75-year-old mother, who has been volunteering for Obama in her retirement community, has said she will take to the streets if the election is stolen from Obama. If McCain wins, it will be a moment of intense disgrace for the United States. Unconscionable. Unspeakable. As another of my sisters-in-law said to me today, we like to condemn corrupt politicians in developing countries for their abuses and evil, and here we’re seeing in bold relief our own corruption.

arcadia lake late fall

Walk walk. These next five days. Hope hope.

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The Depths of Fall: Planting Garlic, Meeting Old Students & Slow Blogging


Time moves inexorably towards November. An enormous flock of robins clusters in the near copse, resting and feeding; the yearling deer have separated from their mothers and are hanging about together as hunting season approaches. The turkeys gorge on wild apples. What leaves remain, deep gold or rust, rustle noisily, catch and hold the clear afternoon light.

We humans careen about inside the steady tick of days and seasons as though they don’t exist. The very real threat hanging over the UBC farm–condos as invasive species–(go read Keira’s post!) shows how hard it is to hear sense, to make sense. We’re at the brink of madness. Especially this fall. Panic fills the air. Trouble. War.

And yet there’s also hope. Next week we’ll all know whether the U.S. can transcend the deep and closet racism; the fear of difference; the insular, selfish, wasteful individualism and greed that characterize so much of who we are and how we behave. We’ll see if we can be better than ourselves.

As I plant garlic today, clove after clove in the cooling soil of my raised beds, I ponder what the winter will bring. I think about where the world will be when the green tips push up in the wet, even snowy late spring. Will my daughter, recent college graduate, still have her job? Will my neighbors have suffered through a long, lean winter, scrimping on food in order to heat their homes? Will we hear specifics, glad tidings, like good news from UBC that the farm has been saved? Will I find funding for the Centers for Community Digital Exploration and start helping communities explore social and creative digital media practices as a means of coming together, sharing, collaborating, solving problems? Will conserving become as natural as expending? Will more bikes fill our roads? Will schools be moving away from NCLB and towards modeling deep creativity, connectivity, collaboration? Will we start acting as connected and inter-dependent with the rest of the world? That troops are being brought home while clinics and community centers for learning are being built? Will the crashing economy shake us from our consumerism?
Will spring bring the first shades of new growth?barn details

I’m thinking about the future today not only because I am all a-jitter about the election next week but because something is going on with my former students. Malaise. Over the past week my mailbox, my email box, Facebook, phone have been awash in contacts from my old students. They’re nervous, uneasy, confused. The ones still in school are restless, missing the wild cycles of disruption and repair we experienced together in class. Why aren’t their courses electrifying, they ask. Why isn’t there the sense of community they now crave? Creativity? Risk-taking in the classroom? What do traditional disciplines taught in traditional ways have to do with the world exploding around them? The ones outside of school are reporting back with examples of digital creativity, and with questions about how to find or create spaces for creativity, for connection, for collaboration that will help change the world.

I’ve been telling (retelling) them my favorite James Martin story, the one in which his daughter poses one of the great what-if questions: If you could live at any time in any place during human history, when and where would that be? And he shocks her by saying, “Right here, right now, because we stand at the door of the most crucial time in human history. Your generation has 50 years to solve the problems my generation and the one before it have created. Fifty years to save the earth or there will be no earth to save. You can either move humanity forward, to become better than it has ever been, or that’s it.” I say to them, “If he’s right; if that’s true that we have fifty years to reverse the environmental degradation and related political and social turmoil we have caused, what role are you preparing to play? How are you using these four college years to equip you to participate actively?” I also like to remind them of the Richard Miller quotation about how we have mastered the art of teaching about how worlds come to an end, but we do little to help our students bring better worlds into being. How to connect, how to collaborate, how to be intensely creative, how to take risks, how to fail. How to be inclusive, to get off the hill and into town. Meaningfully.

the woods dance before winter

I’m also thinking about the future because there’s new interest in slow blogging, thanks to a recent post by Chris Lott, a wonderful post in which he explains slow blogging better than I ever have:
“Slow blogging is mindful wandering is meditative reflection is an attempt to face the fear, to take a stab at the heart, take responsibility and risk, and in the process create a gift of immense value to others, a manifestation of our particular truth.”

This blog has never attracted a great deal of traffic or attention. Indeed, the Small Town Mama (and Papas) for Obama Blog I started just a few months ago routinely pulls in many more readers, many many more readers, yet the posts I do there take me maybe five minutes, and that’s when I’m adding a few lines of commentary to the links I’m posting. Don’t get me wrong—I like that blog and I like blogging there with my six fellow active posters. It gives me a positive outlet for my deep concern about this country, my perspective on this being a watershed moment. But it is a blog for the moment, not the one I have returned to through the years, seasons, job changes, idea shifts. It is a blog to spur immediate action rather than more thought. Perhaps that is something missing from the slow blog, from this slow blog.

Chris’ s post brought new readers here for the moment; my blog stats spiked, incoming links, too. I’ve been asked for interviews, even, by journalists wondering if the new interest in slow-blogging comes in response to the convulsions occurring on the world stage. A yearning for the local, the meaningful, the dependable–contact that is enduring, deeply connective, both serious and not. Balance. Interesting question. I am hopeful that next spring when I am watching the the garlic break through the earth, I can honestly say that we have become more actively thoughtful, more thoughtfully active, combining action and reflection and connection as a response to the world in crisis. Moving beyond fear. At the polls next week. And after Tuesday.

venerable resident of the woods

From Academy to Community and Back Again: On Being a Visitor

deep in the woods

Three times this past month I have traveled back to school all while steadily journeying far far from that world. What a strange feeling to have so much I want to say and explore with people still on the inside while rejecting the structures of formal education. My closest colleagues, even in the Centers for Community Digital Exploration, and many of my mentors work on the inside. I am deeply influenced by the Academy even as I resist it. And that gets my fiercely independent, passionately fiery hackles up.

So while prepping workshops and talks (at Middlebury, University of British Columbia and St. Michael’s), I found myself tempted to confront and confound expectations of what talks and workshops are and do, to stretch my own understanding and experience. Brian urged me to do just that for my UBC long session (3 hours). And goodness knows he embodies that tack, brilliantly so, even when he writes for formal periodicals. I wanted people to explore the free-fall of searching for form and meaning–but together and have them experience, even in an hour or two, the benefits and joys of working in reciprocal apprenticeships, of having to think creatively and collaboratively, of moving past what is already known. I wanted them to be learners as though for the first time, working from disruption to repair. Meta but even more than that.

I spent a ridiculous number of hours coming up with some wild stuff from mash-ups to out-there exercises, rejecting each in turn. I needed to go through that process, to be recklessly creative, wildly irreverent in my drafts, but fortunately, the years and years of teaching & presenting at least taught me to remember my audience for the short talks. And so for Middlebury & St.Mike’s, and a classroom presentation and meetings at UBC I held back and listened, felt my way into the moments and pulled from collections of Flickr slides when I needed to show something. Presentation as conversation, meeting as mash-up.

barn view

But for the UBC three-hour session, I couldn’t help myself. It was a rare chance to push beyond what even I felt was safe, and so I plunged this brave group into learning chaos. I threw out the mash-up movie, the pirate images, the sixteen other plans, and worked from a blog I had created for the occasion and moved the group through an (exhausting, I’m sure, and often mystifying and frustrating) afternoon of thinking about learning within community, remembering to contextualize the experience within the personal and the local and the global, engaging with questions of what really needs to go on in classrooms and workplaces.

salmon leaping

I came away from that experience delighted and surprised and disoriented and not sure what people walked away with that they could use. They asked excellent questions. They articulated their wonder, their frustration, even their anger. One group hugged one another at the end of a particularly trying collaborative exercise. Another group wanted to know why on earth we were doing these things. I am certain that they were worn out–I gave them no quarter at all during three hours. I was unremitting. Yikes.

after a storm

The other talks and meetings were more easily satisfying and comprehensible, and the time with Brian, kele, Cyprien and Keira was absolutely fabulous. To spend an afternoon at the UBC farm with folks trying to save it from the wrecking ball, to be among people who are championing viral, emergent learning that will benefit the lived-in community, to hang out with mentors far more imaginative and wise and smart than I am gave me renewed incentive to keep traveling down this path. How lucky to be taught far more than I teach, to have the time for conversations. How incredible to shift from several days in the university to the stunning wilds of the west coast of Vancouver Island.

where's that salmon

It was only on the beach and in the woods that I saw what I had done, trying to bring the wild winds into a place that might not want or need them. But how freeing to know that it was okay to throw myself against those rocks from time to time. How valuable to have this time before the centers have become full-fledged reality (soon soon, that) to risk glorious failure, to learn through experimentation and improvisation, to move back–for a moment–inside to test my theories and practices. If conferences included a track for experimentation–not to describe experiments but TO experiment right there with peers–I’d be more inclined to attend them. Perhaps Northern Voice this winter? NMC next summer?

wave against rock

I’ll promise (sort of) to tame the hurricane winds that whip up when I think of the Academy…
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at dawn west vancouver island