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!

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.

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.

Resurfacing

A couple of recent comments–one by the inimitable Joe Lambert to my husband about missing “bg’s blogging days” and the other made both by @jonmott and @tuchodi on Twitter about whether a show I’ve landed some photos in could be viewed online–combined with a sense of missing something in my writing and connected life, have sent me back here. I haven’t stayed away all these months due to boredom or new avenues of reflection, but because I’ve really been at a loss as to how to write about my new work.

without peer

My storytelling work in small rural towns feels like such a gift to me, a chance to help communities recognize one another and their future in their stories. It’s really something to be in the presence of their story sharing. The participants in these towns are taking some real risks in putting themselves out there, giving of their own story, extending a hand, engaging in the storytelling work. Every time I see it, I am blown away by the power of story to build bridges within even a deeply divided town by identifying common ground but also by sharing a bit of the self, one’s own story, townsperson to townsperson. Life slows down for a moment; people look at one another and are no longer strangers–they live Bahktin’s words:  “Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction” (Bakhtin, 1984, p.110 as quoted here).  But precisely because of that, I don’t yet feel as though I can narrate or reflect upon much about the particulars in such a public space as this–some of these communities are not really into the Web due to a lack of broadband access and practice, mostly, and I would never wish to jeopardize the new relationships and the efforts being made.  It isn’t necessarily my story to tell.  Not yet.  And so I stay a bit quiet over here.

tracking time

But I can share my own personal creative work, my photography and fiction, something I’ve mostly done over on bgexperiments and Flickr.  I’ve been sharing lots and lots of photos this past year, thanks to the 365 group.  Today on Twitter I shared my news that three of my photos were selected to be part of a juried show, opening this evening.  I feel shy about this news (almost didn’t tell anyone here) because thinking of myself as a visual artist is new.  I’ve never seen my photos hung in a gallery, or had people look at them in that kind of formal space, or indeed had them juried, or had people consider buying them.  But hearing back from my Twitter network soothed my jumpy nerves.

My friend Barbara Sawhill tweeted that she sensed a bit of the imposter syndrome stirring.  I think she’s right.  Online, I choose to share my photos on my sites–it’s not as though I’m putting them into an exhibition.   There’s something quite different about this sort of formal publication of my work–I feel exposed, uncertain (I see all the mistakes in the photos)…and yes, well, shy in a way I never do in my Flickr 365group.  I see my work online as in process, evolving, part of a conversation.  If I write something half-baked on my blog or Twitter, or in a comment to someone else’s post, well, the next day I try to think and write better.  It’s all about the communication, the co-creating of  the learning conversation. It’s about stretching, playing, exploring, failing.  When you print a photograph, mat and frame it, then put it on a wall with a price tag, well, then it becomes an object, a thing, and DONE.  Gulp.

mystery framed

But I’m getting over myself.  I’m beginning to put my photos out there the way I do with my writing because I know I will become a better photographer from doing so.  And I like the idea of someone perhaps being moved enough by one of my photos enough to put it on their wall, to live with it.

Now the question is,  will I actually dress up and go to the opening this evening?  Face the public?

(The images I have woven through this post are the photos selected for the show, “Evolving Patterns: In Honor of Darwin’s 200th Birthday.”)

Flickr, I blame you…

Dear Flickr,

It’s all your fault. I didn’t grow up taking pictures. One brother kept a brownie strapped around his neck on our trips, snapping away at who knew what (I don’t remember his photos or if he ever shared them, but I do remember his flash going off in my face…); my mother had a Minolta that she and my other brother commanded, he growing into a photographer of elegant moody abstractions, she capturing the family in all its boisterous moments. My dad and I just looked. And I jotted things down in a notebook.

last sunset in january

Okay, yeah, I majored in art history. That choice had as much to do with it being the only major in my college in those days that pushed students to look at culture from a variety of perspectives: history, literature, religion, science, political science, anthropology. That I loved looking at pictures never struck me as anything special–it was a way to see how artists saw the world, and artists saw the world. (Besides, looking at slides in class and hanging out in museums as homework sure beat listening to famous teachers drone on in lecture and reading indecipherable textbooks or having beloved novels and poems shredded by this theory or that.)

from window to window, Wiscassett Maine

So why do I find myself as drawn to my camera as to my pen? It’s you Flickr, it’s you.

Interested as I am in transformation and transition, in creativity and culture, I wonder about this shift. Am I an example of the fact that “our historical moment is experiencing a pictorial turn” ? (W.T.J. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation, p.13) Evidence of Michel de Certeau’s assertion: “From TV to newspapers, from advertising to all sorts of mercantile epiphanies, our society is characterized by a cancerous growth of vision, measuring everything by its ability to show or be shown and transmuting communication into a visual journey” ? (The Practice of Everyday Life, p.xxi) Am I incapable of paying more attention to something than the seconds focussed before snapping the photo? Am I using images because “they are no longer just representations or interpreters of human actions[?] They have become central to every activity that connects humans to each other and to technology–mediators, progenitors, interfaces–as much reference points for information and knowledge as visualizations of human creativity.” (Ron Burnett How Images Think, p. xiv) Am I part of the tide of vernacular creativity?

And yet I am not a collector of moments. Of human moments, that is. I’m not trying to convey directly what I think & observe & experience. I work in metaphor. I am not a chronicler of much of anything except the detail of light and color and bits of things. I’m a fragmenteur. Funny for a slow (long-post) blogger.

from the hibiscus

But it’s true, Flickr, I find myself at the screens of groups such as this and this more than blogs, or books. This is nuts. You’re my first stop each morning, before email, Twitter, blogs, Facebook. I comb your riches for clues about taking better pictures. I read the conversations, leave comments, check out the tips, and wander around sideways, discursively, looking looking. I check to see if Alan has written any more Flickr posts, bits and pieces of his everyday musings. I look to see if Bryan has fresh bread on his counter. What Jen’s kids are up to today. What new drawing Nancy has posted. What D’Arcy has seen from his bike. I haven’t even met Jen or D’Arcy. I “see” all these folks on Twitter and blogs, but it is here on Flickr where I find them most compelling.

But there’s more I blame you for–. There’s that one group, especially that group. That group, you know. Or perhaps I need to blame D’Arcy or Alan for the 365 Day Flickr Group, that fascinating slice of vernacular creativity. Some people capture everyday moments, some work in metaphor. Some are serious about each image, others about sharing their lives. Conversations abound there. Little ones that spread out between group members. It brings more viewers to my photos, and then me to other Flickr-ers. People whose work I admire in other venues, for instance, also take photos that charm and surprise.

What this group has really done to me, for me is make me stretch to take one really good photo every day. Some days I’m pleased. Some days I think, not so much. I have looked harder at my regular haunts; I pay attention to qualities of light and air and angle and color and shape when I travel. Yesterday, as I drove back from Maine, a bald eagle flew over the road and banked so beautifully that the light infused his white belly with an unearthly glow. All I could think about for a moment was how great a shot that would have been–Yikes! Only later, a mile up the road or so, did I realize that it was the first time I had ever seen a bald eagle in Vermont. How extraordinary that moment was. He wasn’t a picture or the subject of a picture, but a bird endangered in this part of the country. Put the camera down, Barbara. But…would I have seen him if I hadn’t been looking around with that kind of intensity?

overseeing the last sunrise of the month

I’m getting up before dawn to watch the light slip up and over the mountains. I have a favorite tree I check out every morning. You see, Flickr? This is getting out of hand.

I have so much to learn. My brother (of the elegant moody abstractions) scolds me for not attending to the corners of my images. My daughter, who has studied photography and takes gorgeous shots that make me re-see her subjects, urges me to sharpen my depth of field. My old student and soon-to-be intern critiques my photos in Flickr,
recently expressing his ambivalence about a photo I had thought was pretty interesting, and suggesting ways to improve it. These are invaluable responses to my work; I wish more comments were of this ilk. Now, dear Flickr, I would like nothing more than to spend a week in a photography workshop, learning the technical aspects of shooting in RAW, of composition; looking at photos, having my photos critiqued. I even slid in a suggestion for a pre-Northern Voice WordCampEd session on shooting pictures and attending to blog visuals.

After checking out Flickr each morning, I head tosome of my favorite blogs, and why look at that, they are all about the visual. And only then do I move into the day.

I’m out the door now, headed to New York City for a few days, both work and play, and I’m thinking about the great people and meetings and dinners and museums down there, but really, it’s all about the camera, as About New York knows.

So, thanks a lot, Flickr. Having a place to share my photos, to connect with others around photography, and to learn more about my aesthetic, and about the ways in which people understand the world through image, has transformed my creative expression, my more scholarly discourse, and, well, my life.

Now, where’s my camera–it’s 8:30 a.m. and I haven’t yet taken a single picture today.

picture-1

A Process Experiment

“Like those birds that lay their eggs only in other species’ nests, memory produces in a place that does not belong to it…

Memory comes from somewhere else, it is outside of itself, it moves things about.”

Michel de Certeau The Practice of Everyday Life, pp. 86-87

“Man is nostalgia and a search for communion.

Therefore, when he is aware of himself he is aware of his lack of another, that is, of his solitude.”

Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude, p.196

As I develop a firm grounding for the rural digital exploration centers I am planning, and work with several rural communities on a range of digital and analog storytelling projects, it’s important to push my own creative work as well, experimenting and developing more skill with image and text and sound and how they crash up against one another. I definitely need to return to FinalCutPro even for the drafts of digital stories. I’m interested in playing around with a somewhat transparent, interactive process, learning from Oliver Luker’s experiments over at dispatx, an online art collective I have followed for a while now, and the work of Camille Utterback, which I am just getting to know.

While I was teaching, I kept a blog for my creative work, bgexperiments, so as to differentiate between art and commentary. Now I’m going to muddy the waters by pulling pieces of creative works onto bgblogging, entangling them with theory, reflection and commentary. I’m hoping to learn more, to write better, to think better as a result. I’m eager to see what will happen.

The first experiment is a large, multi-strand, multimedia (sculpture, photography, video, interactive sound capture) installation, an exploration of the relationship between nostalgia and art, memory and creativity, identity and desire. I won’t reveal the full overview of how I envision the installation to work and what it will encompass; suffice it to say that it will be composed of different kinds of fragments intended to stand on their own as well as interfere with other fragments.  Its working title is (dis)locations and (contra)dictions.

I’m interested in what posting drafts of pieces and inviting commentary-in-process will teach me. And how lacing through other posts that might touch on themes swirling about the pieces might influence the outcome. Will it be useful to anyone else? Will readers feel comfortable telling me straight about my creative work, the way they do about my critical? How will seeing these fragments influence the way readers see my reflective blogging? Will the conversation be able to draw from both or will this experiment fail?

Anyway, here goes with a draft-fragment:

I’ve also posted it to the Internet Archive and to blip.tv searching for improved viewing quality. For me, at least, the Internet Archive version is superior though smaller.

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)

Taking Stock of the First Six Months Beyond the Walls: I Had No Idea…Really…

I taught my last class at Middlebury College in May, six months ago almost to the day, packed up my office, said goodbye and left. What a gift, I thought: to be 51 and launched on an adventure to explore learning and communities outside the safe, constricting walls of higher education. I escaped.

away

But, to what? Exquisite freedom? Or do I feel “exterior dizziness” instead of “interior immensity”? ( Supervielle as quoted by Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p.221) Some days I live Michaux’s “Trop d’espace nous etouffe beaucoup plus que s’il n’y en avait pas assez.” (Bachelard, p.221) These are concepts I explored with my poetry students–the freedom of the sonnet, the tyranny of free verse. Is this what I am experiencing by imagining Centers for Community Digital Exploration in a country without cybercafes, even, except marginally, in cities? Am I mad?

the house as if in a fairy tale, November late afternoon

With the shredding economy, people are wondering (aloud) about my timing. I left a decent-paying job with excellent benefits for the great, lean unknown. What a time to depart! And for what–something without much precedent–a new idea for challenging times, times when funders are scaling back, communities overwhelmed by the financial impact on citizens and services. Planning physical third-places that combine workshops designed by the community, open lab-workspace, exhibition and meeting space when people need jobs and help with mortgages and health care? Crazy? A luxury?

the old slate wall

I think not. On the contrary, I am convinced that this is precisely the time to play around with new ways of connecting, creating and communicating. Instead of sitting around waiting, for instance, for Obama to solve the world’s woes (and waiting to be told what to do to help, or worse, doing what academics do best–expending our energies criticizing and complaining while doing nothing), we have to engage with our communities to bring about change and help on local levels. Centers for Community Digital Exploration could help communities build bonds and bridges as they build collective intelligence, innovate new business and nonprofit models, and negotiate the trickiest of issues facing local governments.

wild apples at dawn, november

But wow oh wow, I am being pushed to the ends of my abilities as I learn how to collaborate in the world. As a college teacher, I thought I was all about collaborative learning, about students taking responsibility for their learning and their lives–together–but how can you do that within an artificial environment? Within a closed environment? Scott Leslie’s recent post, and Jim Groom and Tom Woodward’s recent NMC presentation demonstrate how academic institutions prevent innovation and sharing and openness. Brian Lamb’s stream of posts from Barcelona this week point at ways in which even Open Ed thinking hasn’t popped out of the school box...yet…completely. It’s scary out here. I risk everything every day as I stumble along in uncharted territory. Agoraphobia? Could be.

Nora's room from below, November late afternoon

As I collaborate with another nonprofit and a small rural community on a storytelling-to-engage-citizen-participation-in-planning-for-the-future project, and as I try to articulate the mission and vision for Digital Explorations, I am learning some big lessons. Teaching and collaborating and learning and working inside an academic institution have absolutely nothing to do with how to do those things out in the world. Really. I struggle even with my language–my fabulous board (right now consisting of Bryan Alexander, Sarah Kramer, Alan Levine and Nancy White) has urged me to shed the eduspeak in my documents. Argh! Me, writing eduspeak! Horrors. But true. And so I have started using Twitter to experiment with voice, tone and diction–how far is too far with the poetic voice, or a conversational tone in writing about the work–the kind of thing I thought I had practiced with my students. What had I practiced with my students??

Working with community and nonprofit partners is a huge revelation for slow-bg. It sounds so obvious. School’s comforting confines do not, unfortunately, often lead to extraordinary creativity; rather they give that impression. They talk about Bachelard’s doors, perhaps, but they do not touch them. Little we do in school prepares students for negotiating common ground in a real-world context where the stakes are considerable and real. We do not teach real sharing of ideas or negotiating with the Other, if our institutions, as Scott Leslie suggests, do not do so. We do not explore listening. We reward glibness as much as deep consideration. We honor the “maverick” but not the collaborator. We do not know how both to be the creator and collaborator. I like Brian’s idea about encouraging students to build on the ideas of their classmates as a way to engage them in this kind of negotiation. Community and nonprofit partners don’t sit politely, quietly waiting for me to tell them exactly how we’re going to proceed. They do not need me to urge them to action, to participation, to questioning. I have to learn how to shut up and follow while being passionate and outspoken. To sink into ongoing relationships instead of semesterized hurry-hurry-think.

up the side steps, late afternoon

I like this searching for form. Making mistakes. Trying again. Making it up as we go. Learning how to be in the world. I guess it’s about dang time.

A Glorious Morning to Commit to Making Changes in Our Lives

Like so many people across the United States and throughout the world, I am filled with energy and joy and wonder this morning. I wish my father had lived to see this day. I wish Barack Obama’s grandmother had lived to see this day. What a moment.

yes we can

We CAN transform ourselves; we CAN take responsibility and work for a better world. I live in Vermont, a state that in some ways has come to represent progressive ideals and civic engagement–our town meetings are still alive; I can run into the governor in the movie theater; our federal judge sells his daughter’s goat cheese at the farmer’s market on Saturdays. Yes, I’m proud of Vermonters, again.

But, wow, look at what happened in places where people do not feel so connected to those in power, in places where it is not so easy to participate, to feel included, to have a voice, a say. If a country as divided and diverse as ours can come together like this and demand real change across the political landscape, we can and must do it in our own backyards, our neighborhoods, our towns, our schools, our states by doing more than going to the polls–by participating actively in civic life, by speaking up and by listening to our neighbors, by moving beyond our own personal concerns and needs and wants and building a real conservation ethic.

Sentiments like these spill out effortlessly into this post. I am getting used to writing about politics. Words are easy. Some actions are easy. It was easy, for instance, to get involved in the campaign. It is hard to make the real changes necessary to healing this deeply wounded earth, this damaged world. But I saw something so hopeful while making calls for the campaign–how lonely some people were –how alone in their homes, some of them shut-ins, clearly—and yet how excited they were to be a part of something bigger than themselves. What courage.

I’m making a change in my own life because of those calls. With my daughter, I used to volunteer for Meals-on-Wheels, delivering daily meals to shut-ins across our town. And then I stopped because my busy work schedule didn’t allow for my consistent participation a couple of days a week; more and more the ways I contribute to my community are abstract and distanced, through being on advisory boards to nonprofits, writing and talking, moving out of an elite college to work in small rural communities. But how often do I just roll my sleeves up and do hands-on service in my own community besides being on committees, offering workshops? Time to get to work.

bristol, vermont nearing peak foliage

Yesterday while canvassing in my childhood state, New Hampshire, I was shocked by how almost almost unrecognizable it was to me. I grew up when it was one of the most right-wing states in the nation and yet so important to the candidacy of democrats running for president. My parents were actively involved in the primaries; during election season, we often had candidates in our home. The first vote I ever cast was for my mother when she ran for the state legislature (and won) as a Democrat, a woman(!) in a sea of reactionary white men.

Yesterday when a small group of us stood at a busy intersection waving our signs and our arms, we were amazed by the response: so many waves, so many honks from all kinds of people in all kinds of cars–old and young, truckers and Prius drivers, women with children in mini-vans, disabled vets in their vans. We found ourselves nearly silly with hope. We returned home to Vermont, a state that we knew would go overwhelmingly to Obama, with the very real sense that our neighbors would join us.

At a busy intersection

And it wasn’t just New Hampshire that seemed transformed. Young people, too. The numbers of students in that NH campaign office and campaigning here in Vermont, the deep interest my daughters showed in the process and their eagerness to participate seemed so very different from anything I had seen in twenty years as a college teacher. These young people were thinking about the world beyond themselves.

To hear my daughters’ excited voices on the phone (ages 22 and 19) when the news of Obama’s victory broke–to know their political awakening was such a joyful one–gives me great hope about their generation. One daughter, who works in the heart of Wall Street, believing that change can come from within, sent me all kinds of things to post to the Smalltown Mamas (and Papas) for Obama blog. The other daughter, still in college, contributed actively to the blog and the campaign, sending whatever money she could and making calls to Ohio. For them to hear not just the news that Obama had won and to feel the vibrations of those around-the-world celebrations, but also Obama telling us that the road ahead is long and difficult, that we all need to do our part to clean up the mess, to heal the earth’s wounds, to bring about peace, was critical. They know that it is up to them, to us, to make small and big changes, to educate ourselves about the issues facing us, to contribute our own creative thinking to solution-making, not to wait for someone else to tell us what to do, to move beyond our own self-centered-ness.

Easy to write. But what to do? This first day?

My personal plan is to devote a good portion of each day to rolling my sleeves up:

in my home (more bike-commuting, more energy efficiency in the house, more conserving and recycling and composting, more time spent connecting with my extended family);

in my civic life (more hours in the community contributing in whatever way I can, an even more concerted effort to support local merchants and manufacturers and avoid chains, attending more community functions);

in my creative contributions (thinking even more creatively about the new nonprofit, the advising for other groups, my blogging here; speaking out boldly while learning to listen better).

first fall dawn

Yes we can. WE.

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