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.

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