Friday, August 29, 2014

For A Friday

From The Morning
A day once dawned
And it was beautiful
A day once dawned from the ground
Then the night she fell
And the air was beautiful
The night she fell all around

So look see the days
The endless colored ways
And go play the game that you learnt
From the morning

And now we rise
And we are everywhere
And now we rise from the ground
And see she flies
And she is everywhere
See she flies all around

So look see the sights
The endless summer nights
And go play the game that you learnt

From the morning
                             Nick Drake (1948-1974)

Nick Drake was a singer-songwriter from the late 60s and early 70s.  He was brilliant and transcendent as a poet balladeer, yet also deeply troubled.  His problem was depression, and neither marijuana or anti-depressants helped.  He recorded three albums in his brief career before he died at the young age of 26.  His death was ruled accidental, but also possibly suicide.  He took an overdose of Amitriptyline, one of the anti-depressants he was taking at the time.  His parents, with whom he was living, said he often kept weird hours, and would stay up all night only to go to sleep as dawn broke.  He regularly needed drugs to sleep, and one theory is that he took too many anti-depressants in an effort to find rest.  In any case, the song and lyric above haunt me, and in fact, the lines “And now we rise / and we are everywhere,” are carved on his tombstone in England.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Summer Reading--Anam Cara

There are books for students to read over the summer but Anam Cara:  A Book of Celtic Wisdom (Harper Perennial, 1997) by the late John O’Donohue is for teachers looking to rejuvenate themselves during those long days of heat and humidity.

O’Donohue was a former priest and philosopher from Ireland who spent his life exploring the ways of silence and contemplation inherent in Celtic philosophy.  He died much too young, at the age of 52.  His life’s work includes such seminal works of poetry and wisdom as Echoes of Memory (Harper Perennial, 2000), Beauty:  The Invisible Embrace (Harper Perennial, 2005), and Eternal Echoes:  Celtic Reflections on Yearning to Belong (Harper Perennial, 2000).  These books are not fast reads but must be absorbed slowly in both mind and spirit.

O’Donohue opens Anam Cara with a poem entitled, “Beannacht,” or blessing.  “When the canvas frays / in the curach of thought / and a stain of ocean / blackens beneath you, / may there come across the waters / a path of yellow moonlight / to bring you safely home.”  With that, he moves into beautiful, poetic and deeply moving prose about the nature of this life, how we learn to be, and ultimately, how we should face death.  He echoes many Buddhist teachings as well as both eastern and western thinking, including the concept of non-attachment.  “If we become addicted to the external,” he writes, “our interiority will haunt us.  We will become hungry with a hunger no image, person, or deed can still.”

Anam means soul in Gaelic, and cara is friend—the title therefore means “soul friend”—and the person who fits this description for each of us is someone “to whom you could reveal the hidden intimacies of your life.”  Those who function as our anam caras “were joined in an ancient and eternal way” to us.  He uses this imagery to explore many aspects of human existence, including spirituality, growth, and finally, death.  “Death is the great wound in the universe,” he writes, “the root of all fear and negativity.”  Part of having a good death and facing this fear is to “celebrate the eternity of the soul, which death cannot touch.”  In his contemplation of the mystery of our lives, he presents the idea that “We are always on a journey from darkness into light.”  Existence has a recognizable rhythm, and one must surrender to this rhythm.  “You can only discover balance in your life when you learn to trust the flow of this ancient rhythm,” he says.  “The year also is a journey with the same rhythm.”

Like the medieval philosopher Meister Eckhart whom he admires, O’Donohue spends some of his poetic intensity discussing the necessity of silence in our modern, fast-paced life.  We must practice silence with others which really means listening.  O’Donohue writes:  “One of the tasks of true friendship is to listen compassionately and creatively to the hidden silences.  Often secrets are not revealed in words, they lie concealed in the silence between the words or in the depth of what is unsayable between two people.”  He is referring to two entwined souls, a mate or best friend, but this advice is applicable as well to the classroom.  Many times, it is not necessary for a teacher to tell students what they need to know, or to tell them how they should behave.  We must often listen to what the student has to say, or isn’t saying, to comprehend his or her true nature.  Especially with high school or middle school students, adults want them to keep silent and follow directions.  However, their issues resonate on deeper levels that can only be accessed by listening to them, by paying attention to what they say and how they behave.  Teaching is as much about knowing a subject as it is about understanding the students, their individual challenges, and how they learn.  He quotes John Henry Newman, a Catholic cardinal recently beautified by Benedict XVI, who said “To grow is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.”  We, as teachers, as well as our students, are always growing, changing, morphing into the people we are in the fullness of our identity.  We must listen to each other, the voices and the silence, to understand, to become an anam cara for others.

Within O’Donohue’s writing is the river of Celtic wisdom and philosophy.  He tells us that the Celts greeted each new day as a new beginning, a chance to make a difference in the world, to appreciate the wealth of time and place and people that we encounter every day.  He brings his philosophical underpinnings into the present, writing about morning traffic jams, modern anxieties and frustrations, the restless desire for security and safety in a dangerous and duplicitous world.  He believes that due to modern life, we suffer a loss of dignity.  “We often feel that our contribution, while it is required and demanded, is merely functional and in reality hardly appreciated,” he writes.  “The soul desires expression,” and therein lies the opportunity for healing.  One soul expressing to another, the relationship of two who are anam cara for each other.

That brings us to the conclusion of the book where O’Donohue meditates on death and non-attachment.  “Mystics have always recognized that to come deeper into the divine presence within, you need to practice detachment.  When you begin to let go, it is amazing how enriched your life becomes.”  He goes on to say that our trepidations are rooted in fear, and when this fear raises its ugly head, we must ask ourselves what is it that causes our anxiety.  He calls this the liberating question because “All fear is rooted in the fear of death.”  O’Donohue believes it “takes a good while to really die.  For some people, it can be quick, yet the way the soul leaves the body is different for each individual.  For some people, it may take a couple of days before the final withdrawal  of soul is completed.”  This is why the Irish hold wakes for the deceased, and why loved ones often sit vigil over the body until the funeral.  In Celtic traditions, the dead do not live far away.  The ghosts continue to remain as spiritual reminders of the deceased, inhabiting old ruins and fields.  But in the end, no one should fear death because “When the moment of your dying comes,” O’Donohue writes, “you will be given everything that you need to make that journey in a graceful, elegant, and trusting way.”

John O’Donohue’s work makes for profound summer reading for teachers.  His words have a way of centering us and assisting us with focusing on what is important.  Great teachers live the life of the mind and spirit.  Teaching is not a job you leave when you exit campus at the end of the day.  A teacher must be in touch with the spiritual, even the metaphysical, as well as learning styles and multiple intelligences.  There are great books to read about how to teach.  But works like Anam Cara tell us not only how to be for others, but how to be for ourselves so we can feel and understand the lives of our students.  His book is Celtic wisdom, the intuitive knowledge of the centuries from a spiritual and deeply intuitive culture.  It is well worth the time spent in reading and contemplating the wisdom O’Donohue has to offer.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Trigger Warnings

Stanley FormanBoston Herald American

Every time the 9-11 anniversary rolls around, we see clips of the media coverage of that day (sometimes, as in the case of MSNBC, they run their Today show coverage in real time).  I only need to watch a few minutes of those planes crashing into the towers to feel my blood pressure rise and my heart rate skyrocket.  Something about those people going to work in the morning, like any other day, only to become victims of a most horrendous act.  The falling people, followed by crumbling buildings, and then the pile of burning, ashy rubble.  The memories flood back.  The rage follows me throughout the day, and I wind up angry with myself for feeling the way I do.  It seems that if I am enlightened and balanced as a human being, I should not give into such primal instincts as hatred for another.  But in the same breath, I also feel that rage is wholly justified given the circumstances.  In short, I am again, as I was on that day, deeply conflicted and disturbed, even though I am 3000 miles away and more than a decade beyond the act itself.

As we head into another school year, there is a debate among teachers, parents and students regarding trigger warnings.  When we hear the word “school” and “trigger” we think of school shootings, and certainly a school shooting might warrant a trigger warning when it is discussed in class, but should students be warned ahead of time when the course content or the discussion of that content might disturb people?

According to an article in The New York Times (May 17, 2014), “Colleges across the country…have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as ‘trigger warnings,’ explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.”  Jennifer Medina, the author of the article, goes on to say “The debate has left many academics fuming, saying that professors should be trusted to use common sense and that being provocative is part of their mandate.  Trigger warnings, they say, suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace.”

I’m wondering, given recent events, if life should not come with a trigger warning.  The twisted bodies, some still strapped to their airline seats, victims of a missile fired at a commercial plane over war-torn Ukraine.  The torn and fragmented bodies on the dusty streets of Israel and Gaza.  The murder of an unarmed black teenager in Missouri.  The dead mounting up in dreadfully understaffed and under-equipped hospitals in Africa, the victims of Ebola.  The poor souls, some dead, some barely alive, huddled on mountains and in desert canyons, hiding from ISIS militants intent on killing every last person.  School shootings, murders of innocents, rapes, torture, brutality, cruelty to animals—all every day occurrences, all need trigger warnings.

One of the first harrowing and controversial sets of photographs depicting a news event was carried in newspapers across the country in the 1970s.  They were taken by Stanley Forman of the Boston Herald American.  (For a good analysis, read Nora Ephron’s essay in the November 1975 issue of Esquire entitled, “The Boston Photographs.”)  The three pictures show a fire fighter rescuing a woman and her child on a fire escape, smoke and heat swirling around them.  In the second frame, something goes horribly wrong.  The iron staircase pulls away from the building, and all three—fireman, woman and child—plummet to earth.  The fireman catches a rung of the extension ladder and saves himself.  The toddler’s fall was broken by the woman’s body so the child survived.  The mother did not.  According to Ephron, the newspapers debated whether to run the pictures.  “They are pictures of death,” Ephron writes, “of that split second when luck runs out, and it is impossible to look at them without feeling their extraordinary impact and remember, in an almost subconscious way, the morbid fantasy of falling, falling off a building, falling to one’s death.”  She ends her essay with these words:  “they are great pictures, breathtaking pictures of something that happened.  That they disturb readers is exactly as it should be…”

When I was teaching eighth grade in a Catholic school, a “Right-to-Life” group sent me a carton of full color brochures of various burned and dismembered fetuses to distribute to my eighth grade students as a way of proving that abortion is murder.  I opened the box and felt as if someone had smashed me in the back of the head with a baseball bat.  I guess my horror and nausea would mean the organization had a successful campaign on its hands.  I thought it shameful, and I refused to distribute the material.  I got more mileage out of teaching them that every human life matters, and that every human being has the potential to better the world, and that is why abortion is wrong.  I taught them that actions come with consequences, and they must be prepared to take responsibility for their actions so that innocent babies are not destroyed.  Beheaded, mutilated children were horrors that would overwhelm the lesson with abstract gore and violence.  The subject of Roe versus Wade, of abortion versus life, is more complicated and nuanced than that.  I thought the issue, and my students, deserved something better, something more balanced and less traumatizing.  Something they could relate to, there on the cusp of young adulthood and a future of difficult decisions in a confusing world.  Abortion is a moral issue, not just about dilation and curettage.

Should students receive trigger warnings in a classroom if something disturbing will be presented?  Should literature teachers slap warnings on books with traumatic scenes?  Do students need to be protected from bad things, disturbing images, violence and bloodshed?  As a responsible instructor, if I were to show a film with graphic violence or bloodshed, I would mention it to the class beforehand.  I certainly would not force a student to watch something he or she did not want to watch, and I would be sensitive to the needs of my students.  Good teaching and life-changing experiences in the classroom mean teachers must challenge thinking, awaken young minds, push people to confront unpopular truths about themselves, about the world in which they live and help them make the moral or ethical choice.

“Do I dare disturb the universe,” T.S. Eliot asks in his famous poem.  I would argue that we should be disturbed every day of our lives.  We witness human beings committing acts of atrocity on their fellow human beings, on animals, on nature, on our planet.  We are duplicitous, violent creatures who often use our much-ballyhooed higher order thinking skills to do some of the worst evil imaginable.  In short, it is a big bad world out there with some very nasty people.  But there is good, too, and truth, and beauty, and moments of pure grace and exhilaration.  But without the darkness, would we know the light?  We can be cautious and prepare our students for the difficult, traumatic experiences they will encounter in this life.  But we cannot coddle them or sell them a sugar-coated vision of a world that does not exist.  We must be sensitive to our students’ needs, but we should not fail to teach them the truth.  Life is hard and mean, but it is beautiful and magnificent, too, sometimes all together in the same instant.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Summer Reading--The Alchemist

Maybe I’ve reached The Age of Diminishing Memory.  I now find that when scanning the shelves that there are books I could swear I’ve read already, yet when I open them, there are no annotations.  The spine is solid with no creases or cracks.  The book is in pristine condition, and I am left to ponder, did I read it or was it a dream?  The Alchemist (HarperOne, 2006) by Paulo Coelho, a novel with a plot ironically supported by a dream, is just such a book.

At its heart, the story is a simple one, an allegory that reads suspiciously like a number of other works only lighter and with less philosophical depth.  A poor shepherd goes in search of his destiny after experiencing a recurring dream where a child tells him to go to the pyramids in Egypt where he will find hidden treasure.  He seeks out a Gypsy fortune teller who assures him that “dreams are the language of God.”  Once she is assured of payment, she tells the boy to go to Egypt.  This, of course, he had already decided to do.  The woman goes on to say that “It’s the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary.”  If you are following all of this so far, the story is one that is easily predictable and unfortunately, not very involving.  Coelho mixes in some Judeo-Christian philosophy and symbolism—the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Gypsy woman’s room, a rather strange choice of d├ęcor for a fortune teller, is but one example.

The boy embarks on his journey—quest?—to find the pyramids as well as his treasure, experiencing many different events along the way.  Echoes of nearly every other epic quest story rebound off the pages of Coelho’s work.  Our hero is often waylaid and forced to accept employment or interact with villagers throughout his journey.  The girl he falls in love with is named Fatima, and he learns that true love should not keep one from his “Personal Legend.”  Fatima proves true, but he leaves her behind to finish his quest.  And of course, the quest proves circular, taking him back to where he came from so that he can find his treasure.

The story is neat and derivative, and other writers have simply done it better.  I have heard that teachers assign this book for summer reading, and I guess that works.  The story is free of sexual acts and overt violence, which makes it the kind of G-rated text that will not offend while offering some overworked “philosophy” and platitudes.  I’m not sure it is the best book to keep students interested on those lazy summer days.

Coelho seems to want to make the case that his novel is important literature.  In his introduction to the tenth anniversary edition, he talks about what stands in our way when we try to achieve our dreams.  “First:  we are told from childhood onward that everything we want to do is impossible,” he writes.  Then we encounter the tethers of love:  “We know what we want to do, but are afraid of hurting those around us by abandoning everything in order to pursue our dream.”  Our third obstacle, Coelho believes, is fear, “fear of the defeats we will meet on our path.”  This all begins to sound very familiar, and for adults, one would be better served to read Chuang Tzu, Pema Chodron, or Thich Nhat Hanh.  Indeed, Greek philosophy, Christian mystics, and any of the retellings of the quest for the Holy Grail will offer those who are searching for their “Personal Legend” some inspiration.  Literature across cultures is rife with heroes searching for their destiny or living out their fate against the choices they have made.  The Alchemist is not exceptional nor unique.

In the end, Paulo Coelho offers a superficial take on the search for one’s ultimate destiny.  He never puts the central character at true risk.  The boy literally faces little challenge; he must sell his sheep, but he finds the funds to replace them many times over.  He finds gold and is later robbed, but he manages to discover riches far more valuable.  He is beaten by thugs, but recovers quickly without permanent damage.  His journey eventually leads him back to where he started, and we are left to ponder what all the fuss was about in the first place, and possibly why we did not pick a better story teller to take us there.  There is a reason why this book sat unmarked on my shelves if indeed I did read it once upon a time, and why the authors mentioned above, in comparison, have suffered creases, broken spines, dog-eared pages, and endless notes and highlighting.  Those books never leave you; The Alchemist was long gone as soon as I closed the cover.