Saying Goodbye

skiing

It is a wobbly dawn. Fog on snow shifts the fields into otherworldly realms. Most appropriate for this morning. Last evening we said goodbye to Finn-dog, encircled him in our love as he died. He was all lightness and grace.

He was one of my most important teachers. Every day this exuberant spirit reminded me to lighten up. To enjoy the infinite pleasures of daily rambles on the land. To follow my nose. To be in the moment and stop thinking so much about everything all the time. To show my joy and express my love.

finn ready for the snow

I will miss him sorely.

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Bits and Pieces: Learning from Great Blog Conversationalists

A playful tweet by Jim Groom this morning responding to one I wrote (about proposing something for Northern Voice) has me thinking. He jokingly suggested:

picture-3

I laughed. Very funny. Hmmmm…. But what is it about bavablogging that distinguishes it from what I do, what do I learn from him and others who keep blog company with him.

I thought about being a kid. How at my childhood dinner table, my mother would shake her head at my father and one of my brothers, who, she said, did not engage in dinner conversation, or in decent discussion about the explosive events of the day (Civil Rights, assassinations, riots & protests, Vietnam, Watergate–pretty wild time, that), but in adjacent monologues. It was pretty tough to get a word in some nights, I remember.

early december loneliness

The monologue versus the conversation or the discussion.

Sure, linking out helps even the long post become more than a self-congratulatory harangue (or musing ;-)). But the long, intricate posts do not invite conversation really. My previous post, for instance, included a couple of side pages, one about three books I highly recommend. I’m pretty sure very few people had the time or the inclination to click through to those pages. I understand. The long post is, after all, mostly an open letter to oneself. But slow-blogging shouldn’t mean plodding blogging, or deadly monologing. The monoblog. Yikes. Oh no.

birdtracks

The hoopla about slow-blogging has been good all in all. It has brought some fine posts, some funny ones, some angry ones. Mostly, it has made me restless in my own blogging. And so I’ve been paying a lot more attention these days to bloggers who not only write well about ideas, but who also know how to lighten up, and most importantly, how to mentor a great blogversation. (Okay, I’m getting a little carried away with these terms…) I’m spending more time leaving comments and listening in on conversations, learning from the give-and-take, often far more than from the original post alone. Sometimes the topic is rather silly–at least on the surface, such as Jim’s recent post about blogs and the insignificant — and he covers such a range of topics and pushes out more posts than seems humanly possible, with mad energy and intelligence and humor–yet he always responds to his commenters, gratefully, respectfully. He’s a great blogversationalist. He clearly takes in what they say and thinks about each comment, synthesizing them as he pushes the conversation further, into discussion. No monoblogger he. Geeky Mom, too, dares to mix it up. She’ll post a cat video, or a poll asking what she should blog about side by side with some musing about the state of politics or education or gender issues in her profession. I’ve always felt I could learn a lot from her.

Brian Lamb‘s another blogger model. Yes, he’s inventive, has on-the-edge ideas, but he also gets interesting conversations going. His prose alone makes you have to read on–the opening phrases of his last three posts: “Being an anxious sort…” “It came as an unpleasant shock…” “”Part of me feels…” invite you into the post, not just as reader, but as someone who might have some advice for him. His posts are generous, thought-provoking invitationals. And people respond.

trio

I’m going to learn from these three and play around a little. Stretch my blogging wings. And try hard not to sound like those dinner “conversations” of my childhood.

December Arrives: A (Quasi) Hypertext Musing on Storytelling and Stories

the end of november

I’m ready for December. November unsettles me with its wild swings set beneath a heavy-lidded sky, even during years without presidential elections and collapsing dogs and intensifying troubles around the world. I spend the first half of autumn missing summer and the second half seeking winter. Fall and spring swell with their neighbors, never completely themselves, in palpable transition, leaving me fidgety, restive–so much to do on the land and on the computer. I waste a lot of time in November.

But December, now there’s a month, the seed of great poems about winter coming on, ends of things, light returning. Winter solstice and our yearly bonfire. Snow.

December opens to stillness. The gardens quiet (the birds have stripped what’s edible); outside chores have stilled for the moment. We turn inwards; even when we venture out to ski across the land, to skate on the pond, to walk with Finn through the cold wet season, we think about getting home. We read the papers more carefully, finish magazine articles, delve into novels, poetry. We talk and talk. Swap stories.

November Interior

I work and live in story–here in my reflective/connective practice, in my creative work and in the work I do with communities, and so every month is about stories and storytelling, then. But it is this month that especially embodies storytelling for me, for the stories come home as I slow down and focus, as I think about the long take, about technique versus craft. As I try to grow as a thinker, as a writer, as a storyteller, as a catcher of stories.

Today, listening to the recording I made on Friday, during the National Day of Listening of my family spinning childhood memories, I notice how the stories themselves, as told, are not especially memorable, nothing anyone outside the family would find interesting. If I decided to blog them, for instance, I would have to cut, add, tinker a bit. But I also notice how we soon forgot the recorder and in the pulling out of those old stories, we recaptured the past for a moment through someone else’s words and found one another around the table, listeners and co-tellers. It was about the telling, not the stories. No, that’s not it exactly–it was about the sharing, not the art or the thing being shared.

We go on and on about the power of storytelling, its role in human culture, but how are we using the telling, the sharing and the art itself within classrooms and communities? As a classroom teacher and now in my work in rural communities, only rarely do I see sustained, connected use of both stories and storytelling to build healthy bonds and bridges, to synthesize thought and experience, or to imagine a better future. Certainly not in higher ed. Not in community work either. At least not enough. I encounter stories and storytelling to promote a brand or to perpetuate a particular point of view (see Miller again–indeed, if you have not read Writing at the End of the World, you really should).

Which brings me to December as end-of-term season. Over Thanksgiving break, I watched my younger daughter wade into the four term papers she has to write, the three presentations to prepare and several final examinations to study for. And she attends a college that on paper, at least, understands the foolishness of grades and short-term-memory learning and the disconnect that comes from single-discipline-based majors. I also see on Twitter that people across the world are grading papers and preparing exams. Every course in every institution seems to follow the same pattern, the same kinds of assignments over and over and over. Where is the creativity? The larger view? Do we think students are that dull that they need to repeat the same exercise scores of times?

radio

What about communal, connected storytelling in person, orally, and through ongoing blogs and wikis and creative projects dreamed up by the group that grow, build, adjust, evolve, reach out, connect, revise and give life to the stories by making them about something beyond the classroom? Making the stories transparent and enduring? For years many of us have talked about this kind of learning narrative. Some embrace narrative portfolios–but those mostly seem to trace a single perspective through learning. What about exploring multivocality, which George Landow ascribes to hypertext and thus to the ways in which we read and write now everywhere but in the university? Perhaps UMW’s grand experiment in blogging across the institution comes close to multivocality. I’m eager to watch how much movement grows associatively, across course/subject/discipline through the blogs. Do professors assign one another’s courseblogs? Do students from one course interact with students in another? Are course lines blurring? Course participants? How much storytelling goes on there in the face-to-face meeting spaces as a result of the blogging? Are students finding their voices while exploring what has come before them? How about the community outside the university? How much informal, ongoing storysharing; practiced storytelling, and storycatching goes on in and between schools and towns?

I am invariably struck by how unusual it is to tell stories outside our closest circles of family and friends beyond the anecdote sort, the you-gotta-hear-what-I-saw variety. When I open a workshop or a course with a simple storytelling exercise–the participants telling stories about themselves and their link to the work at hand, be it Irish literature or land-use planning, people find themselves simultaneously uneasy in the moment of “telling a story”–“I’m no good with words” many protest–and amazed by the impact of listening intently and sharing with a group. Participants feel closer to one another, trust builds, and differences are honored. People laugh. But it is a tender, fragile trust, one that can easily fade out once the “workshop” or the course ends.

When this storytelling extends, however, through sustained practice, and stories are caught here, commented on, revised, and extended on blogs, on wikis, on sites such as Orton Family Foundation’s newly unveiled Community Almanac, where they become threads woven together of a complex story, the moment of person-to-person connection has the potential to deepen, to open up through contact with other stories, and to move others–if the story is told well. Hence the need for practice, for developing a practice where storytelling is used.

inthefalls

I see evidence of this kind of practice in blogs that have made their way to me recently as a result of the NYT article: Beth Kephart’s Blog, a deft, melodious threading together of image and word; and the remarkable work of Jeff Gates (how did I not know of him?) whose In Our Path project epitomizes the kind of storytelling that can happen, first as a single voice whose idea triggers responses from others, institutions even, to share and extend the story, in his case about the Los Angeles Freeway Corridor. It is incredible. And then there’s his own blog, Life Outtacontext, and Eye Level, the blog he started for the Smithsonian where he now works as a new media specialist. These are three very different examples of what blogs can do and be, and how they wrap the tendrils of story around whomever happens upon them and takes the time to read.

And so this month, this December, I will immerse myself in stories, storysharing, storytelling and storycatching, hoping to help those I work with understand how “Storytelling is central to the well-being, the confidence and sustainability of communities. It allows communities to generate and sustain a sense of belonging and cohesion and purpose even through periods of tumultuous change–especially through periods of tumultuous change. It allows them to constantly define who they are and who they want to be.” (K. Longley, 2002, Stories for Sustainability, Sustainability Forum, Perth)