A Day’s Autonomy

Mondays get a bad rap, but when I start a new work week, I often find myself entertaining an attitude of openness that speeds my morning commute.  After a weekend knocking around the apartment and walking around town, it feels good to be in the car again, taking in the views afforded by the hills of Northern Virginia and enjoying the alchemy of suburban landscapes through the presence of crows.

But as the week progresses, I get more and more into the details and demands of work.  The mental landscape shrinks, and the days collect in my mind like playing cards in the hand.  I’ve got a Monday and a Tuesday.  I wonder if Wednesday will be like Tuesday or maybe like the last Wednesday life dealt me the week before.  I’m strategizing, predicting, planning, comparing, reacting, and lots of small preconceived notions pile up.

The weather today is ___, so today will be ___.

My schedule today is the same as on Tuesday, so today will probably be ____ again.

It’s ____ week in the semester, so today might be ____.

The last time I had to do ____ I had a ____ day, so today could be ____ again.

Tomorrow I need to ____, so today should be ____.

Sometimes preconceived notions help me manage my time and keep things in perspective, as when I remind myself how long it generally takes to grade a particular assignment and that grading marathons are only one part of my job.

But I wonder if preconceived notions, as harmless as they might seem, don’t precondition me to expect and notice certain things at the expense of others, constricting my view like a pair of blinders.

After two days of heavy rain, last Wednesday was sunny and blue-skied.  It was hard to miss the newness of that day as I drove into work.  The trees’ autumn colors were bold, and the smell of cold conjured memories of other places and times that enhanced my appreciation of the present moment.

During my walk from the parking lot to my office, a worm waved its curled self at me from a concrete step.  I continued on my way but then thought, there was no worm yesterday, and no one else may notice this worm on the steps.  I went back and, with a stick, removed the worm from under foot and placed it on the neighboring dirt.  It felt so good I was astounded.

Upon reflection, I think part of it was the worm but part of it was the thrill of participating in a day as something unpredictable and unique—something with a kind of autonomy, like a person you could meet who has a wealth of surprises to offer—something far different from the things we collect and chop up into hours and classes and meetings and meals and good things and hard things that happen to us.

I went into this week wanting to be more open to each new day and whatever unpredictable things, big or small, it might bring.  But I’ve hardly gotten any traction.  But I think that’s another thing that can block my view of today—wanting to find in it the good things of yesterday.

 

Musings on Collaboration

This month, selections from a collaborative manuscript of hybrid correspondence between me and my creative partner Rebecca Hart Olander appeared in the August spotlight of Duende and in They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing from Black Lawrence Press.  It’s an exciting co-incidence.

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It’s been a summer for collaboration and other things “co-“.  Rebecca and I have been at work on another manuscript, and in May we co-taught a workshop on collaborative writing at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival.

In June and July, I co-taught a graduate research course for international students who collaborated in the completion of group projects.  In just ten weeks, the students reviewed literature on sports marketing, transformational leadership, and co-opetition, which is cooperation among business competitors.  And they did it all with much good humor despite little sleep.

When I think of the word “collaboration,” I think of a complex and colorful dynamic like a Kandinsky painting.  But the Latin roots are “col” meaning together and “laborare” meaning to work, and to collaborate is simply to work together.  That phrase takes me back to grade school, but there’s nothing elementary about collaboration.  Every time I see students working together productively, I feel like they’re adding a weight to the world’s scales on the side of harmony.  I’m particularly inspired when I see people from around the world working together not only in spite but in appreciation of their differences, as I have at English Now! (a school I can’t recommend highly enough to anyone in the D.C. area wanting to work on English language).

My first month teaching at English Now! I learned an important lesson in collaboration and communication.  It was July, and I had a group of young teen students who were visiting D.C. and studying English for a month.  They were from Belgium, France, Gabon, Italy, and Russia.  It was my first time back in an ESL classroom in quite a while, and I was struck by the differences in the students’ listening and speaking skills.  But the bigger challenge was one particular student who was there through parental coercion–an eye-rolling, distracting, snoozing, begrudging participant.  I could quite literally see the collaborative nature of communication as my instructions and explanations had widely varying results depending on the students’ skills and motivation.

Having just spent the previous two years working on an MFA, this was a humbling illustration of how the best preparation and presentation of words is only part of the equation of communication.  Meaning is a collaboration between speaker and listener, though those categories hugely simplify the work together in which everyone is simultaneously speakers and listeners and so much more–eaters who did or didn’t have breakfast, philosophers working out the meaning of life, kids on the playground trying to make friends.  Which words and nonverbal cues will be taken in and how, what feelings, thoughts, and responses they’ll elicit are all up for grabs.  Seeing this was actually a huge relief, as it clarified what I could and couldn’t do.  I could do my part, but everyone else had to do theirs too.  It was kind of like being in an orchestra, but I wasn’t the conductor.  I was a fellow musician, and the conductor was our mutual interest or goal–our desire to make music, or learn.

In case the lesson wasn’t clear, life handed me another illustration.  I began co-teaching at George Mason University.  My first semester, I hung back a lot and observed my teaching partner.  Every day I saw how we noticed and thought the same things.  For example, if I saw the students were dragging and felt they could use a break, in the next moment my teaching partner would suggest we take a break.  If I thought I would relate an idea back to something we said earlier, in the next moment she would do that.  I think this showed an overall compatibility between us that would become more apparent to me over time.  But it also made me feel less personally responsible for ideas.  They were out there to be discerned and acted on, like notes and rhythm.

After I’d learned the course, I took a normal active role in the classroom, and occasionally my teaching partner and I would have different ideas about how to do something.  One memorable time, a technical problem resolved the issue for us, and I watched my teaching partner lead the lesson her way.  It worked out well, and this was a another huge lesson to me.  It didn’t mean that my way wouldn’t have worked, but it showed me that what I thought was important (doing something a particular way) wasn’t as important as I thought.  I saw that when everyone wants to play the music, the music gets played.  The idea that my planning and best ideas weren’t as crucial as I thought came as another relief.  I haven’t stopped crafting lessons using my best ideas, but I don’t feel like those things will make or break the learning, which I’ve begun to see has an autonomy of its own, like a piece of a music, and also participates in the collaboration.

Evading Planning

I wonder who first described lawns as manicured.  It’s an expression hard to resist–it’s so on target yet out of the box in its connecting herbage to finger nails.  My guess is we like how the surprising association adds a touch of irreverence to the description of something so controlled, precious, and planned.  The expression is a little wild in its depiction of this cultivated characteristic of civilization.

Is it human nature to enjoy a little irreverence, to want to see at least one tiny hole punched in an otherwise perfect facade?  And what is the appeal of the faded and dilapidated?  I, for one, am easily charmed by unique surroundings such as the  weathered towns of Luquillo in Puerto Rico or Tokmok in Kyrgyzstan.  On the other hand, well-tended and planned-out places like American suburbs, including the one I live in, often provoke skepticism and rebellion in me.

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I wonder how many people share my responses.  My husband has a much greater appreciation for the nice suburbs of the U.S. and is less impressed with the charm of disrepair.  I could chalk it up to our coming from different places–I from a Chicago suburb and he from a town in Central Asia–but I suspect more American suburbanatives would share his tastes than mine.  I wonder if that’s true, and if so, what’s up with my predilection.  But this is hardly the first time I’ve pondered this, and I do have some thoughts.

First, I know I dislike homogeneity, which the suburb where I currently live has in spades–central Arlington is a relentless pageant of brown contemporary apartment buildings.  I also have a snobbish distaste for the predictable.  Of course I like it in some things–the operation of a car or computer.  But as the dominating characteristic of my environment, I find it numbing.  I also value spontaneity, originality, and authenticity.  It can be hard to spot these qualities in a place where everything is pre-planned and highly controlled.  I’m also a connoisseur of warnings against “the planners.” John Berger, Wendell Berry, Walker Percy,  and Joy Williams illuminate the ways that planning (especially the planning of specialists) turns us into consumers and creates ignorance, complacency, and disappointment.  I’m thinking of Ways of Seeing, “The Pleasures of Eating,” “The Loss of the Creature,” and “Save the Whales Screw the Shrimp.”  Like predictability, planning has its value, and it’s something I do a lot of, as I suspect most of us do.  But these writers have persuaded me that planning should be questioned and even evaded.  In fact, I built a course around the idea.  But that’s another story.  On to the one at hand.

Well, I was leaving one of my Arlington cafe haunts when I noticed a refreshingly untended strip of earth in the parking lot.  It tickled my eyes, and I set my iced coffee on the ground and took some pictures.

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I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to find as many of these untended places as I can and take some pictures?  Maybe they could inspire a poem or something.  And so I did.  Sort of.  I didn’t go out of my way, but I kept my eyes open for any raw spots along my usual paths through town.

It was even more difficult than I expected.  There were only a few margins where I encountered the unplanned.

 

While I thought my project would enhance my appreciation of these rare bursts of spontaneity, it had a greater opposite effect.  I became more conscious of how thoroughly and consistently people care for this town.

 

Planters in front of buildings, tree-lined streets, groomed and landscaped yards, and every opportunity for a park keep Arlington green, blossomed, sculpted, and composed.  My project evaded my planning.

Puzzles and Classic Rock and a Picture of Pine Needles, Rocks, and Fried Rice

Although I’ve been a grad student and/or teacher for the last five years, this is the first winter in all that time that I’ve had a proper winter break.  I realize most people don’t get these breaks.  It’s a great aspect of being a teacher, though I suspect most teachers

I’m in the middle of winter break—my first real winter break in several years—and I’ve been doing a lot of puzzles while listening to classic rock.  I’ve been doing other things too—cooking, catching up with friends, working on writing projects,

OK, wait.  I feel like I have to apologize for having a winter break or make it known that I know what a privilege it is to have a winter break or explain defensively how I learned not to work through my winter breaks—why they’re so necessary for teachers—or show how I’m actually being kind of productive this winter break or

So, I want to talk about how I feel like I have to apologize for or defend taking a break and how problematic I think that is (and, by the way, I’ve lazily (barely) achieved that, all the while saying I don’t want to).  But more than that, I just want to talk about puzzles and classic rock.  So can I do that, and you can hold off on concluding I’m unaware of what a privilege a winter break is?  (Not to assume you’re all judgy or anything, but I’m supposed to at least not alienate you if I want you to keep reading.)  Maybe you could even let me off the hook of addressing this whole—I mean, I just don’t know that I want to address this.  I mean, it’s an important idea, the difficulty of taking a break, but I’m so so enjoying . . . I’m so so into just . . . I just . . . I just can’t even . . . I mean, it’s winter break.

So, I’ve done six puzzles so far and listened to Amazon’s classic rock dinner party playlist more times than that.  It’s a cozy groove I’m in.  Puzzles absorb me in a way that only visual projects do.  And I love the fact that I’m creating something that already has a complete outcome.  It’s like creating without any burdened sense of responsibility.  I suppose cooking is a bit like that for me too.  I trust the recipe the way I trust the puzzle makers.  I trust the process, have no real worries about the end product, and just lose myself in the making.  And there’s the satisfaction of creating something so tangible and whole.

Actually, I didn’t know I was going to write about this idea of creating with an unburdened sense of responsibility.  That idea came up as I wrote the last paragraph, which is something so cool about writing—how it lets ideas emerge.  But I digress.

I have long known that I get sucked into puzzles because of how the colors, patterns, and shapes catch my eye speak to me.  It’s almost like they’re telling me what to do: “try this,” “over here,” “me next.”  And it’s hard to keep up.  I scan the table hunting for a piece with a big whale-head shape or gather up pieces with purple next to white, I hear the satisfying click of one piece after another fitting into place, and before I know it, an hour has passed, two hours.  If only there was some way I could make money at this.

So, sitting at the table, zoning out, listening to Neil Young, Elton John, Chicago, Pink Floyd, Stephen Stills, the Stones, with a thin and heady winter light at the window like the carbonation in a glass of 7 UP, well it takes me back to my senior year of high school, 9th period—Mr. Duno’s sculpture class.  This class!!  Everyone, no matter who  The tables  One time in the hall  Every afternoon Mr. Duno, or Duno, as everyone  9th period was the last period of the day, which felt only natural—inevitable—in this class where we would just totally relax, where we felt so free.  Sitting on our metal stools at big wooden tables, we’d work in clay or lost wax, talking and joking with each other while the classic rock station played in the background.  The sculpture studio was a corner room with two walls of tall lead paned windows suspending us like the peaceful preciousness within a snow globe, first in that fine and heady light of winter and then in that fruitier yet still effervescent light of spring.

I swear every kid in that room was equal in the sight of sculpture.  In a big and cliqueish high school, this was a label-free zone.  I remember one day Duno called us all out into the hallway.  He had a huge iron hoop—something that would have been around a big barrel—and he just spun the thing and we all stood around it and watched it lope around and around making a zwombing noise, its arcs swooping lower and slower until it clanged on the cold floor and Duno said something like “That’s just so damn cool.”  I don’t actually remember if Duno swore, but if he didn’t he said something else that showed that he was just so himself around us, so real.  So that was it, and then we went back into the studio and picked up our pieces where we’d left off.

Ah.  I’ve been wondering how I was going to incorporate this photo into this blog post and had decided that, in the spirit of “I’m on winter break” I didn’t need any connection, transition, or whatever—that randomness was the order of the day.  But now I see that the connection is that I just think this picture is just so damn cool.

Tree Stump With

I was walking home from a café on Tuesday and something caught my eye called out to me.  It was freezing.  But I pulled over, scuttled down a bank of grass, and bared my hands to take this photo because it’s just so damn cool.  It is Tree Stump with Pine Needles, Rocks, and Fried Rice.  Watch it spin.

So, yeah, I’m not going to talk about the difficulty of taking a break. I’m on break.

‘Tis the Season to Erase

One of my favorite blog posts has been Balance, in which I made erasure poems from my students’ final projects at the end of last spring semester.  I found myself thinking about it a lot last week, at the end of a rigorous fall semester and in the thick of grading final papers.  I was itching to erase!

Grading can be so serious, and this has felt especially true the last few weeks.  Taking these pieces of writing that have been wrapped up in layers of bullet-pointed requirements, comment bubbles of feedback, and ppt slides of prompts and pitfalls, and cutting through it all with a laser beam focus on a few words and phrases,  playing with it all in the face of so much seriousness–this is more than some fun preoccupation, this is

Oh gosh, what is it?  Do I really have to think this hard right now?  Ok, ok.  An act of rebellion, maybe?  A necessary measure to preserve sanity?  A rescue mission?

Whatever it is, I confess it felt more urgent last week when I was still grading–maybe because of the seriousness of grading or maybe out of a desire to procrastinate.  And maybe those things aren’t so separate.  At any rate, I did finally get around to these after the grades were in, which seems somehow less than satisfactory.  I wonder what I would have come up with if I’d thrown on the brakes in the middle of all that work to erase.  Then again, maybe the promise of erasure helped me get through my work.

Erasure Watching Eyes

 

Erasure Budding Heart

 

Erasure Other Words

 

Erasure Genius Brains

These strike me as wintry and peaceful, as calm in their uniqueness as snowflakes.

Do any of you teachers and students out there want to join me?  Is there anyone out there, regardless of jobish label, who wants to take the texts in their lives back from all seriousness?  Send me your photos or poems, and I will publish them on this blog of mine.