Know Thyself… Explore, Assess, Reflect & Rethink
If we don’t learn from what we do, we learn little of real value. If we don’t make the time to explore, reflect and rethink our ways of doing things, we will never grow, evolve and reach our greatest potential or tap into the possibilities in our lives. Writing metacognition’s is our way to explore our experiences as students and teachers, and then to honestly assess our strengths and weaknesses, to willfully and wisely reflect on what we did—and did not—do, and to rethink how to move forward in a positive and more enlightened way towards a better and more applicable and capable future.
There are many sides to every experience, so when I ask you to “explore” an experience and write a metacognition, I am not looking for a simple summary of what you did. I expect you to write like you are walking the rocky and jumbled coastline of what you just went through. Recount and relive your experience in a stream of deliberate, dreamlike consciousness. This recounting and reliving can be as scrambled and unkempt as your emotions and memories; there is no “Fitz Rubric” to follow; there are no specific“details” to the assignment—there is only you and your own heart that you can follow with your own iconoclastic bent, will and resolve. You do not have to worry about being understood by your reader. You are only trying to understand and know yourself.
When you assess, there is no way around the need for a bit of cold and reptilian critique. Looking with clear eyes upon yourself is a hell of a hard task, but it is part and parcel of a thinking person’s package. Sure enough, the assignment might be so flawed as to be undoable, but that is, I hope, fairly rare. More likely the great flaw (or the great promise) starts with you, your attitude, and your way of tackling the work. And it ends with you. Pull out a scale and a measuring tape and tally what you produced; weigh it against the scale of time you stole from your life to complete the work, and ask yourself: do you feel like saying, “Check it out,” or do you feel like sighing, “Chuck it out.” To assess is to figure that out.
Once “that” is figured out, your head should kick into full reflection mode. A reflection scours the deeper trenches for whatever insights can be culled from the briny mud of experience. Pull these thoughts and splay them on the deck as they come, for they are all gifts from the sea of the mind, and their true value can be discerned later and kept or cast as wanted or needed. There is no such thing as unwanted catch in a reflection.
If you are unwilling to rethink your actions you are, to use an old adage, condemned to repeat that action. By rethinking approaches you can retool the machine of your being, and in that sense you are continually reborn as a better you. You make sense of yourself and are now clad in a stronger armor with a shield,pike and sword better suited to turn the tide and win the day in any future battle.
Sometimes a metacognition ends up as a disjointed ramble of thoughts and feels (and maybe is) a jumbled expurgation of contradicting thoughts. But that is fine. It is what it is…. Other times, it may flow together so cleanly and fluidly that it comes out as a pure and unified essay that reeks of the nuanced wisdom and strong wine of distilled thought, which is just as fine, yet infinitely more rewarding, more refreshing, and more fit to be shared—if that is the bent of your indefatigable genius.
Do this. Give a damn and figure yourself out.
Be that genius…
“Don’t let school interfere with your education…”
Grading is that part of a teacher’s life that should bring some kind of solace to our work. No doubt, it is an arduous chore most of the time for the sheer amount of time it takes to do it well, do it fairly, and to do it in a way that actually helps the student. I am the first to admit, that I rarely feel satisfied after a long round of assessment because I often wonder if I am a reptilian calculator or a warm-blooded human on a mission to inspire, cajole and enlighten a willing and eager student. We teachers (myself included) have to juggle the competing demands of reality with an objective mission to further a subjective aim—that of coaxing the best out of a myriad of living, thinking, feeling students who bring a mosaic of life onto the platter (and splatter) of our curriculums. Amidst the competing demands of a common day, doing what is best for them seldom coincides with what is best for me .
It really feels like (after thirty years of teaching) that I should have mastered the tools of the grading toolbox, but I certainly feel now that I have much to learn and do and practice to head off to my retirement—still some years away—with some sense of satisfaction that I am a “master of my trade.” I am cursed by my burdens of reflection that I am missing out on the path to enlightenment, for I am constantly doing what others do simply because it is what is being done or has been done for generations before me. I wonder if I actually have the strength or wisdom in me to rally academia towards a wiser and more just solution.
How much of a grade should be based on homework? Most of us have no clue what “home” is to most of our students, yet we continually assign homework that is graded like daily take-home tests. It adds several more hours of pressure to what is already an over-burdened day. Homework should never be a test, which usually only rewards the gifted—whether that gift is one of intellect, the gift of a stable and nurturing home free from distraction or the gift of financial resources to tutor, guide and direct a student through his or her paces outside of school.Teachers should teach in class and not expect a student to learn what has not yet been taught.
Parents and administrators have become masters at manipulating expectations and as teachers we are only the limbs and heads of some monstrous and manipulated marionette. For the good of our students and our school systems, teachers are tasked to do the bidding of forces we barely even know or recognize. Common core is never really “common” for it suggests there is actually a common student on whom to model these expectations. In our private schools (free from the constraints of common core) we have the equally insidious monster that expects those extra dollars and extra attention to bring a student further up the ladder and poise him or her well and squarely on the next higher rung towards admittance to an even more prestigious school. In both cases, we are removing the wing from the bird and asking it to fly.
If anything should be common, it should be common-sense. Parents deserve to know what their children are studying, and why. Administrators deserve to know how well a teacher is teaching what they have been hired to teach. Teachers need to teach what they know best, and if they don’t know it, to learn it well or beg to be excused—but don’t fake it, and don’t let myopic, budget-constrained business sense overrule common sense and make a fisherman rule over a farm.
I consider myself to be fairly well-rounded and open-minded enough (arguably, I am sure) but it seems like every professional day takes me further away from core of my passion. I am being asked to teach grit and resilience; I am being asked to develop the moral character of my students; I am being asked to instill honesty, empathy, respect and courage; I am being asked to eliminate prejudice and bigotry; in short, it seems like I am being tasked with shaping the form of a perfect society out of the hard-scrabbled flesh and bones of imperfect youth. Noble, maybe, but I would rather show all this rather than demand it. I bow and bend to these winds of pedagogical changes like a dory anchored outside of the harbor, but I don’t really go anywhere. Should I grade a kid on grit? Is there a way to assess courage or define lack of prejudice? Have schools become the arbiter of social change, policies and correctness? Will it be codified and ruined to the point where it can, should and must be graded? If so, there is money to made somewhere by some professional presenter to tell us how to do it–and soon it will edge and creep into another form of another demand in the life of a teacher.
And I will have to sit through it…
I am constantly asking my students (and myself) to reflect on the literature they, and I, read. As I have grown older—and not necessarily wiser—I find myself only reading literature that I am sure will prod me out of my intellectual and emotional torpor, like a lizard basking in the newfound warmth of spring. Right now it happens to be The Brothers Karamazov, a book I first read as an eighteen-year-old literary newbie. It might have been the first time I didn’t turn away from a book because of the daunting length of the text and the panoramic sweep of life it covers. It is now a completely new experience, though it still resonates with the young and restless soul that even now permeates the fibres and sinews of my aging and ageless self. That book made me think.—and forced me to think beyond and into my myopic experience of life thus far.
In short, I could not read without responding. The reflections of my mind needed an outlet, so I found myself arguing and assenting long rambles in notebook journals or with anyone who would listen to me, argue with me and explore with me. In that way the novel became—and still is— a part of me. The more I wrote about what I read the more I knew the book. By knowing what I knew (and did not know). I realized that only by exploring through reflection could I answer through an essay.
Most of us have to write essays about subjects we know precious little about; hence, our essays have the taint of soured milk—still milk, but hardly worth drinking…
Our teachers mark us down for inserting the I voice into our writing as if “we” don’t really exist—as if there must always be proof beyond ourselves that “knows” more than we know—as if that is something we don’t already intrinsically know. To me, a good essay reeks of what we know, what we have explored and what we are seeking to know, and it is a damn pity when a teacher robs us any part of that triad.
You are only wrong when your facts are wrong, distorted by prejudice or bigotry, or so steep in self-indulgent arrogance that your words fail to resonate with any kind of lasting ring—like a drum without a skin or a harp without a string.
You are equally wrong when you simply spin words into a song without music, words without meaning and foundation in your own heart—without the essence of the real and palpable you to speak with a clarity that helps others to see and feel and experience “your” experience.
A reflection is simply your recreation of your inner experience of experience. In reflecting we see our warts and blemishes clearly until those imperfections are diminished by the truth and sincerity of our search for meaning and substance to give voice to that search—and that search should extend beyond yourself. No doubt if you wondered something, someone else wondered the same thing, and maybe even wrote about it.
Keep exploring until your inkwell is dry and your head is emptied.
And only then should you write your essay…
Teaching Traditional & Modern Skills for Reading, Writing, Creating & Sharing in a Digital World
Create a Better Classroom
for You & Your Students
Teaching Traditional & Modern Skills
for Reading, Writing, Creating & Sharing in a Digital World
Creating video essays out of traditionally constructed essays bring a whole new dynamic and range of possibilities for every student. A hard wrought and well-crafted essay is no longer a static piece of paper tucked away in a teacher’s desk or stashed in a crowded hallway locker. It is a multi-dimensional project that is shared with the world. Check out some of these that were created by my eighth and ninth grade classes.
It’s Over: A Final Reflection
~Paul, Eighth Grade
A Trip with Thoreau
~Charlie, 9th Grade
A New Way of Creating Rubrics
No longer will the term “rubric” create dread in your students. The Crafted Word Rubrics are not checklists; they are guides to help students respond to almost any assignment in a clear and confident way.
Try them out!
Few of us can do well if we don’t feel confident in what we are doing, but neither can that confidence be a misplaced confidence that is more succinctly called arrogance–a presumption of skill rather than an actual skill. Every time I create a teaching unit or plan a lesson–or even when I sit down to write something like this–I have to ask myself: “Do I really know what I am teaching, and am I teaching what I know in a way that all of my students are learning what I presume I am teaching?” I have to keep asking myself if I am the sage on the stage or the guide on the side; I have to keep asking if I am teaching essential skills and content or am I teaching what some reading workbook or English composition textbook says I should teach. Thankfully, at heart, I am still the shop teacher I have been for almost twenty years, but I am also the writer and teacher of writing I have been for more years than that.
Teaching shop is pretty cool because every kid comes into the shop with an untamed enthusiasm and eagerness to build something that is already in his or her head, and they are remarkably unfazed by their limited woodworking skills or by the scope of their dreams. I remember well an old student of mine who came into seventh-grade shop some years ago with detailed plans for building a one-man submersible submarine (as if you could build a non-submersible submarine:) and he begged me to give him a chance to try and build his design. Somehow he settled for something like a knapkin holder, but I heard the other day that he is now in Navy Seal training, so his ultimate dream never died; however, he learned that dreams can be realized and built out of a series of steps, an accumulation of skills forged out of the iron of real life and a dogged clinging to a vision of what he ultimately wanted to build.
Young writers (all writers) need that dream and vision, too. They need to love the possibilities that writing offers to build something as awesome and real as a six-board chest or a sparrow whittled out of a piece white pine. They need to go to the empty page with the same sense of possibility as the kid walking into the woodshop, and they need to want to learn the skills that will get them to a place they want to be as craftsmen and craftswomen of words and sentences and paragraphs and stories. Most importantly, they need a place and a way to learn and practice those skills: a workshop of their own to walk into and dream and learn and create.
The Woodshop as a Metaphor
THOUGHT: The woodshop is a metaphor for what should be possible in the classroom
- “Ah, the shop!” It smells good!
- They can move:
- They get to use cool tools
- They learn to “cut the board all the way through.”
- They need help–hence collaboration is natural and reciprocal.
- Their hands work as much as their heads.
- They own what they are building–and it has a purpose and a destiny.
- They get the teachers undivided attention–at least some of the time.
- The teacher leaves them alone–most of the time.
- Mistakes are fixed, not criticized.
- They “never” worry about their shop grade.
- They are surrounded by the future possibilities of shop class.
- They can see that building their toolbox is just a first step towards something like a boat, a chair, a bed, a table, a sculpture, etc: [We can do this in the classroom by having publishing parties, sharing digital portfolios, blogging—anything that allows students to see where their education is going.]
- There is a completion of a cycle: Though my students usually have smaller whittling projects going on the side, there is always one “big” project that takes them the entire term to complete, and it is always a source of pride.
- What you build stays with you for your life, if you wish.
How Is Your Classroom Experienced?
Your classroom should reflect your students needs, not your comfort zone–and definitely not a pedagogy which is not your own.
- A class is a physical place but also a metaphysical place:
- We can alter both the physical and the psychical to create a better classroom.
- What does your classroom look like?
- Is it yours? Or are you part of the shared classroom model?
- Does it reflect that part of you that you want to reflect.
- What does your classroom feel like?
- Where do you sit, stand, or move when teaching? (There really is not a right way if it keeps the students engaged, interested, and ready).
- Is there any cool factor?
- Is your class any different than the classroom next door? Should it be?
- What is the temperature of the emotional warmth?
At your next faculty meeting have the faculty sit in rows of desks. Raise hands only if you know the answer.
- Only 30% can respond
- No talking allowed when leaving the room.
- The results of the problem are never published.
Have another faculty meeting where a common school problem or issue is presented and ask if small groups could possibly come up with some solutions. Have this group meet in a room with comfortable chairs or couches, and some refreshments. Let this group present their solutions to the rest of the faculty.
Respond To the Primal Needs of Your Students
How do you respond to and prepare for the real and most primal and essential needs of your students?
- They need you to be genuine: if you can’t then you shouldn’t teach.
- Notice them. As much for the good as the bad. Class Dojo maybe?
- Say hello when they show up for class. Students need affirmation that they are welcome in your classroom.
- Give feedback–verbal, visual, & written. They need affirmation that their efforts on your behalf will never go unnoticed and unappreciated.
- Show students you care about more than how they are doing in your class. This is where the power of blogging is unparalleled. In the shop, the very nature of the mentoring makes kids feel connected because the shop teacher really is helping “them.”
- Say goodbye when your students leave: make some sort of tradition surrounding the end of class. Your students last impression is a huge one, so make your goodbye a good and affirming ritual.
- Have special days, reward days, random acts of “let’s do something different days.
What Does an Engaged Student Look Like?
What does an engaged student look, act and feel like?
- What is Engagement and what does it took like?
- How do we create an engaging classroom?
- How do we nurture and sustain engaged students?
- How do we assess engagement?
- Create Rubrics, Folio’s, Videos, and blogging communities.
- You know it when you see it.
- An engaged student is willing and happy to figure it out.
- An engaged student feels like he or she has accomplished something worthwhile.
- An engaged student appreciates the value and or necessity of the content.
- An engaged student is alert, involved, and curious.
- An engaged student “can’t believe shop is over.”
- An engaged student will actually talk about what they did in class while driving home–and they might even bring it up on their own.
- An engaged feels like his or her time in your class is time well spent!
What Does a Disengaged Student Look Like?
It seems like there are a few switches that engage students, but a lot more that turn them off and disengage and disaffect, so focus on what turns them on–and keeps them on!
- They can’t move.
- Everything is boring.
- The content and delivery is predictable.
- They can only use a pencil and paper.
- They work on their own—even when struggling with the basic concepts.
- Their heads are exhausted.
- Their bodies are exhausted.
- They’re hungry.
- They don’t know how to do what they are being asked to do.
- They only get help when they raise their hands.
- There is nothing palpable to show when class is done.
- They don’t know what they just learned?
- They don’t know how they did it?
- There is no endgame.
- The teacher hates them.
….And, yes, the list can go on as long as there is strength in the body.
Limits, Rules, Expectations & Values
Kids spend a huge portion of their childhood in your classroom. What “family values” can and/or should carry over to your classroom?
- Set Rules, Limits, Expectations with the same passion and resolve as you would with your family.
- Let them in!
- Set rules, standards & expectations.
- Create traditions.
- Do fun things together.
- Laugh a lot and tell stories.
- Point out right and wrong. The moral compass!
- Forgive and Move on.
- Treat everyone equally. Get rid of tracking unless absolutely essential! It is a caste system by any other name.
- Treat each student uniquely: know your kids, accept them for who they are. This is quite different than being a “friend” to your students.
I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government
from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.
We need to give our students projects and possibilities that they create, own, oversee, and present. We should not try to own what they create.
- There should always be a project going on.
- Projects should include collaborative and individual work.
- There should always be some sort of self-assessment.
- Students need to be able to claim genuine ownership, be free to pursue new directions and ideas, and exercise responsible and mature judgement when developing and creating that project.
- There needs to be an endgame of sorts–some way to showcase and curate that work for future generations to share.
The Power of Portfolios
We need to create portfolios that capture and collate a history of every student’s journey through school.
- Collect. Collate. Curate: A new mantra for change!
- Our profession is only possible because of those who collected, collated and curated our bodies of literature, art, philosophy, history, and culture.
- Metacognition: It is important to remember, reflect and respond as a way of understanding who and how we are as learners (and teachers).
- Use journaling as a way to enable and practice metacognition.
- There are practical and affordable(as in free) ways to start doing this today!
- There is no downside. You are just being lazy if you don’t! (sorry)
The Perils, Pitfalls & Promises of Technology
We need to start bridging the digital divides that are separating teachers and department and find fertile ground (not common ground) to allow our collective and individual digital fluency to evolve in a dynamic and energizing way.
- Are technology decisions being made for the right reasons?
- Are there a few people making the decisions for all of you?
- Do you want it that way?
- What is holding you back from using more–not less–technology?
- Does technology engage or simply distract?
- Does it simplify or complify (I need this word to exist)?
- Keep the focus on focus!
- Does technology make you grumpy?
- Do you, as a teacher, fully grasp the implications, limitations, and possibilities of technology?
- Is being engaged with and connected with a broader, diverse world important to a child’s education—to you?
- Managing classes and curriculum: Using an LMS such as Schoology, Edmodo, Haiku, Canvas, Moodle, Lore, etc., allows for easy access and sharing of assignments, grades, student and parent communication and a relative transparency of process.
- Allows parents to “see” children’s grades as they are posted: [See “What doesn’t work” ]
- Extending the classroom: online discussions, portfolio sharing, flipped classrooms…
- Increasing collaborative opportunities.
- Leveling the playing field.
- Rethinking pedagogy.
- Teaches how to manage a digital footprint
What doesn’t work…
- That which attracts, distracts–and vice versa–that which distracts, attracts…
- Complicates the classroom experience: too many logons, computers don’t always work, not enough access at home, hard to find work.
- Allows parents to “see” children’s grades as they are posted.
- Introduces a world the kids may not be ready for emotionally
- The learning is too distant from the classroom: kids don’t bond with each other in the same way.
How To Help Teachers
How do you help teachers who are struggling to engage their students? How do you help teachers let go and grow and love and cope and change?
- As a teacher, you are the root of the problem or the source of inspiration. [No one wants to admit that they are not able to do well what they’ve been hired to do, nor do schools, private schools in particular, like to air their dirty laundry, and so change is made behind closed doors; administrators give advice, make demands, and press the issue and the teachers being questioned are fearful of losing their jobs, bitter at being unfairly targeted, and often still unable to change.
- Metacognition: Encourage teachers to “self reflect.” Explore and possibly embrace initiatives such as The Folio Project. [It has to start with how can we best adapt, change, evolve–whatever–in ways that make us better, more engaging, more joyful, and more effective teachers.]
- What can schools do to help teachers be more engaged and engaging?
- Set high, yet realistic, standards that encourage and enable teachers to feel empowered and energized by their career choice.
- Let teachers make the best use of their time.
- Get rid of content driven faculty meetings and focus on process driven meetings that invite participation, reflection, and renewal—stuff that might possibly energize, enlighten and transform—not simply educate and inform.
- Do all meetings have to be synchronous?
- Do all meetings need to be mediated by the same few people with responses generated by the same few teachers?
- USE TECHNOLOGY WISELY: Use discussion threads and require teachers to respond within a given time frame.
- Post power points and/or presentations online with a comment thread instead of making teachers sit through them.
- Take steps to lessens the work and time that keeps teachers from the core expectations of their jobs. Many schools still operate under the assumption that our parents only hear from us once or twice a semester, and so schools place great value on formal communications: conferences; mid-term comments; end of semester letters, etc, all without any built in time to accomplish these tasks in the course of their school days.
- Meet less or meet more, but never meet just to touch base unless it is a truly mutual meeting.
- Consider allocating days to parent meetings (a lot of schools already do this).
- Have a comment writing and proofreading professional day. If you give teachers the time—even if they do not use that time when it is given.
- Use an LMS/CMS that is open, interactive, and dynamic and which gives teachers room to evolve in their teaching practices and maintain communication with students, advisors, and parents.
Are You Ready?
Writing an essay for me is relatively simple. I choose what I want to write about, and I start writing. There is not a soul in the world who is expecting anything out of this essay—or even know it is being created, which will be great if it dies an early and ignominious death. I don’t have a teacher pushing me in any one direction–like I am pushing you. The writing prompt and the inspiration is already in me; but, though I try to write well, there are no real-life repercussions when I don’t write well. My audience for this (which is you—my upper school English class) is remarkably small and polite, and as much as I’d like to think that you are captivated by my writing, I know that in reality you are a “captive” to my writing, because, as my students, you are a prisoner in my classroom. You are somewhat doomed to read what I write, but your actual freedom to write is hobbled by a teacher who is intent on extracting (by what must sometimes feel like any means possible) what you know and think about a narrow range of literature–in this case, the first chapter of Walden: the essay called “Economy.” Throw into the mix your other classes and what do you get: a few more books, an era or two of some history; some idea of why leaves turn red; a handy way discerning volume from the breadth and width of a fruit–a smattering of Spanish words or Latin roots: a bookshelf from shop and an abstract oil painting for your wall. Don’t forget your soccer and football teams, the school play, band, and student life, and now your day is completely filled.
But is it full?
It is certainly filled with an exhausting range of activities designed and structured to educate, enlighten, inform, and inspire. Your teachers are a diverse mix of people who really do give a damn about you and who spend more time than you might ever imagine trying to create and perpetuate this living and breathing machine called school, but, as Thoreau writes, “we[teachers and students] labor under a mistake.” We fill the day, but we rarely fulfill the possibilities of each day, and we never will until we remove the blinders that keep us on the beaten path. Frightening as it sounds, the lunatics must run the asylum: students must be allowed to take the reins and become learners and explorers, while teachers and administrators must adapt or die. “New ways for the new; old ways for the old.” (HDT) The world really is a different place now. The “noosphere” or “omega point” predicted by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin almost a hundred years ago is becoming a reality. People can be–and are–connected in ways unimaginable to the visionaries and teachers who broke the backs of tradition to create the schools we have today. But times have changed. The desk is more a ball and chain of myopic restraint, while our opportunities for true learning–for all of us–have never been greater.
Something has to give. Society and its schools have become as much slaves to assessment as we are creators of destiny. Measuring someone by “the content of their character” seldom makes it onto report cards. Instead, we measure your progress and achievements with a reptilian calculation of the merits and deficiencies of your responses to specific inquiries and lessons we are convinced we have taught well. We critique what and how you write, but rarely consider why you write. Though we seem compassionate and practice empathy, we still erect a barrier that only a few of you can get over unscathed–and those are the celebrated few: the smart, hard-working, and diligent students who somehow manage to do it all. Everyone else plays catch me if you can, and so this paradigm is set in motion, and it becomes the foundation of almost every school and university in the world. The gifted student becomes a recognizable icon, sculpted, shaped, and polished by the whims of academia. As parents we stumble over each other trying to weave our child’s place on the honor roll or his or her SAT scores–or even the average score of the whole town in comparison to every other school in the district–into the most casual of conversations. On the flip side of this coin, these honors are hardly as respected by peers and classmates (perhaps because they sense the inherent fraud and advantage to the system) and past prowess as a student soon makes for unsavory and indelicate talk even just mere hours after graduation.
Maybe doing well in school is not such an impressive accomplishment. It is pretty cool that we have a black president raised by a single mom–and we use this as praise for what educational opportunities can do; but history is full of great individuals who rose from humble beginnings. It is a recurring theme of humanity itself. It is part and parcel of what Joseph Campbell has termed “The Heroic Cycle.” Schools do not create greatness; our primal need to be great is what creates greatness. No one reading this is precluded from realizing his or her individual greatness. We don’t have to be Telemachus facing up to the rowdy suitors in his house, but all of us have challenges that are unmet and untested, and we must meet them and we must test them if we want to be a hero. There is courage and strength of each of us, but not as much motivation, perhaps because the tools we use in school are not the best motivators. We instill as much fear as desire, and there is a subtle paralysis that takes hold. Only if the doors open wider and the walls fall down will we see the expanse of our opportunities–and only if you give enough of a damn to reach for the dream at hand, and then only if you see the dream. Realizing your dream should be your accomplishment, and layering dream upon dream should be your life.
Life has a way of doling out hardship in unequal proportions, but school should not be one of them. There is certainly very little that is fair about who goes to what school, but that is the unspoken inequity. We praise the notion of an egalitarian educational system, but we shudder at the thought of implementation. Few of my Concord friends would ship their sons and daughters to our schools in Maynard because…well, just because. Ironically, few of my Maynard friends would feel comfortable with their sons and daughters trying to mingle in a Concord milieu. And so we keep up a pleasant caste system that feeds off the tension between the rich and the poor. It’s like the old camp song: “Don’t chuck your muck in my backyard/my backyard’s full,” but because of the internet, our backyards have merged; the demarcation line is blurred, and there really is a chance for every kid to play on the same field–if we let them. Caesar accidentally burned down the Royal Library at Alexandria; we shouldn’t do the same with our new library of knowledge. During the first solo circumnavigation of the world, the Afrikaners in South Africa scoffed at Joshua Slocum’s claims that the world was round, even as he was ninety percent of the way around the globe! Wouldn’t it be ironic if our schools lost the race for knowledge because we dithered at the starting gate?
I certainly did not start this narrative with any plans to take on our educational system. Sharper minds than mine could tear this essay apart, but only because they have had so many generations to practice. The hurricane yesterday gave me a rare gift of time today, so I was just hoping to give you a few words to help you get started on your Walden essay. Words have that effect on me. Maybe my own rereading of Walden made me listen more closely to the drumbeat of my heart no matter how measured or far away; maybe in these political times of gloating, bitching, and belittling I didn’t want to be one of the thousand hacking at the branches of evil; I wanted to be the one striking at the root. The beauty and bane of Thoreau’s words is how easily they can prove either side of an argument, and my mind is so scattered that I could never get around to organizing all the facts; instead, I’ve simply scattered some seeds among the compost of my experience. Hopefully, one or two will be like the mustard seeds in that parable of Jesus. If not, I’ll have to till again and plant more thoughtfully.
All I know is what I sense: change is coming, and if you have your wits about you, you will be riding the edge of that wave.
Do You Really Want to Be a Teacher?
Let Kids Write
There are plenty of smarter, more gifted, and more interesting writers out there than me or you–but there shouldn’t be a more passionate writer. For better or worse, your blog is you–as my blog is me, and until you want a better you and I want a better me, readers will find another place to go.
Few things in life are more important than having a passion for something. It is an offshoot of “give damn.” To have a life without a focus on some something or somethings to do and explore and develop on your own is a pretty pitiful life. When I was your age, I had a rock collection that filled a bazillion egg crates with chippings and scrapings I hammered off ; I had snake and reptile aquariums that had specimens of most any cold-blooded creature in the White Pond area of Concord. I had a shortwave radio that I made with my father–and a huge antenna on the roof to help pick up conversations happening anywhere in the world. I had a collection of fishing poles and rods and reels and lures and baits to somehow tease trout, bass, horned pout, kibbers, pickerel and anything else out of the Concord River, Walden Pond, the Assabet, Nashoba Brook and Warner’s Pond. Best of all my family had a plywood sailfish sailboat my father built in our garage from plans he got in somehow to magazine, and in that 12 feet of arc, I got my first taste of sailing–a taste that is as strong today as it was back then. My bedroom was a mess of magazine both strewn and piled–but always read: Boy’s Life, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Field and Stream, Sears Roebuck, National Geographics and any other magazine, book, or journal that fed my passions. Most of those publications are still around to buy in some way today, but there is an even larger world of bloggers out there who cover everything those magazines covered–and a whole lot more. These blogs and websites are where people go to feed their passions and develop their own knowledge and skills. It is where you go and where I go, and the better the blog or the better the site, the more often we return, and the more we return–the more of a mark that writer has left on the world. And that mark says something about that person. You. Something good, I hope.
In ancient Rome there was a saying: “De gustabus non disputantum,”otherwise known as “There is no accounting for taste,” which is a good thing because it keeps the world to this day interesting, diverse, and dynamic. We don’t have to like what other people like, nor are there any compelling reasons why we should–but we should like something; we should want to be knowledgeable about something, and be good at something, and to constantly be getting better at something. Think of your passions, and think of what you can do to live out that passion or passions and share it with the world. Think of what you are going to leave behind as your footprints in this life. You do not want to be like the drunk sailor Elpenor who fell off the roof and died a death that no one remembers or cares about. As Odysseus himself said: “No songs will be sung about him.” Your “digital footprint” is the song that is sung about you.
When I first started blogging with my classes–now close to ten years ago–most people were paranoid about kids names being “on the internet,” and so we built firewall on firewall behind private servers to keep you safe and removed from the real internet. In most ways it has been great. It gives you guys a safe place to practice living and sharing in the digital world without the dangers of anyone knowing you are out there. But times have changed. Soon you are going to want your name be out there–and out there in a good and positive way. You are not going to want someone to google your name and come up with…nothing. I am really proud to have discovered that it is relatively hard to study haiku and not come across my website at some point in your studies. I like that if someone googles my name they get the best of me and not the worst of me. I want that for you, too.
If you’ve got a passion, then keep learning and practicing and experimenting, and then share it with the world. If the seed dies with the flower, there is no beauty left behind.
Close Your Eyes & See
A lot of things in life fall short of the mark, but thoughtfulness has never let me down. For some forty years I have faithfully kept journals of the wanderings of my mind—most of which is lost in some way or another, but the effect hangs on like a sailor clinging to a piece of flotsam: it proves to me that I am real and not lost; it creates substance out of what might otherwise be ephemeral ether lost to the vagaries of procrastinated time. In the meandering evolution of my words set to page is left a lingering mark etched into a marble wall of time that can never be sandblasted clean.
Simple reminders that I am what I am.
It is almost frightening to know that who I am is freighted with an urgency to continually change what I am. The irony is in how tightly I must shut my eyes to see clearly into myself. Stripped bare I am a meager and skeletal portrait of a man—a shaky scaffold of dreams and desires connected inextricably to the pulsing aorta of reality.
Life. Ineffable life.
But it can not be any other way.
I am doomed and emboldened to speak the voice that barks and sings, laments and praises, and shouts and drones the inexcusable and intransigent me in glorious triumph and ignominious defeat. I need to see my reflection in stark contrasts: I need a barometric gauge to sense and measure the depth of the coming storms or easy weather. I need to know when to set anchor or set sail.
And all I have is words to guide me.
Words and love are all that is real to me, but it is only words that I question. I do not question my love or unequivocal devotion to Denise or our children or the eclectic diaspora of extended family. I only struggle with the constructs I create. I question my words because they are not created for me—they are created for you; hence, they are weighted by all that preys upon me: vanity, desire and a mania for a purposeful and meaningful life—the very stating of which is almost an anathema, a self-aggrandizing denial and abnegation of human empathy!
Stripped of words I can only utter and respond to what is palpably real and connected to me. I protect my own in spite of all else. Viciously so. And that is good and right and is built into me, and it is unerringly built into me by the hands of a creator beyond my understanding, enough so that I question my reflection on any still waters I see. Beyond faith. Beyond the myopia of circumstance. Beyond anything we share. I am left with words.
It simply is.
I write because I know no other way, but I have no illusions that my path is leading to a greater source. I am constantly humbled by the misdirections I follow. I am less of a guide than a foot soldier commandeered to go foot-first into the minefields of a greater field laced with weed and flower. My solace is that I am still alive—that somehow I have navigated well enough to be where I am—safe, secure, and almost retired into a golden age. I covet my joy like a child his or her inheritance of perpetual splendor. I cannot count or measure my blessings; I can only pass them on.
So I close my eyes at night and expect an infinite dawn.
And so can you.
I stood in a long line waiting with Pipo for his first ever ride on a roller coaster. Things that move in strange ways are a big deal to him. When he first came to live with us, he was eight years old and had never even been in a two story house. On his second day here, we took him to Floating Hospital in Boston and strode into the elevator with an insouciance, which, in retrospect, reflected an utter lack of cultural awareness for a young boy in a strange land. The door shut, the elevator moved, and Pipo screamed and clutched me in his fear. Now, eighteeen months later, he stood wringing his hands, intermittently laughing and grimacing at the thought of the “The Yankee Cannonball.”
“Will it be scary?”
“Will I scream?”
“Will I throw up?”
“I don’t know. I might.”
“You better not!”
“We really don’t have to go.”
“Yeah, we do.”
I could see his head racing a hundred miles an hour. I distracted him by yelling at some high school kids who were swearing at each other. “Don’t do that.”
“Why? They shouldn’t be swearing.”
“What if they beat you up?”
“I’ll hide behind you.”
“Mama will beat them up if they beat you up.”
“She better. Comb your hair up so you’re forty eight inches tall.”
Leaning on his toes he was just the right height. Squeezing into the car the single safety bar held me in a crushing gut squeeze while leaving Pipo astonishingly free to squiggle and squirm. “Do people ever fall out?”
“What does ‘rarely’ mean?”
“It means that only kids who ask a million questions fall out.”
The cars slid toward the first hill and were grabbed by the chain. He held the hand grip, smiled, and raised his eyebrows in mock fear. “There’s the bus! I wish I was on the bus. I like the bus.”
“I like the bus, too.”
The first hill caught us both by surprise. “Oh, man.”
I couldn’t stop laughing. Pipo squinted his eyes and held the bar in front of him. I think he held his breath for ninety seconds. The girl behind us used every form of the F-word ever created. “Was it fun?”
“Want to go again?”
“No. Never again.”
We found the rest of the family in the water park. Dripping and shivering, they all ran up to Pipo and asked if he really went on the Yankee Cannonball. “Yup, but never again. No way, Jose’. Who wants to go on the bumper cars?” Denise looked at me like I was a bad father forcing his son to be a man. “He wanted to go.”
“Yeah, right. Was he even tall enough?”
“With a micron to spare. It was another one of those things he just had to do.”
Denise and I both understand that part of Pipo. When he decides to do something, he’ll do it, no matter how much angst it causes him—or us. He is not so much interested in overcoming fear as he is in facing his fears. He embraces fear as an experience and not merely as an emotion. It is a lesson in courage from which we can all draw inspiration.
The Yankee Cannonball is also a perfect metaphor for the written word. The empty page looms in front of us like the rickety roller coaster. We can’t call ourselves writers if we refuse to get in the car and go. We can’t call ourselves writers if we don’t tell the whole story, replete with every dip and turn of our inner and outer experience. We can’t give in to the temptation to leap from the car at the first sign of fear, and we can’t tell the story from a distance. But, that is exactly what so many writers do. They mistakenly believe that the cold reality of fact is more important than the multi-dimensional dynamic of experience. It is much safer to have opinions than to question assumptions. We want facts, and we want a sense of assuredness that we are making wise decisions in our lives, but are we always willing to take that ride with Pipo through the hairpin turns of experience? Are we willing to distill our facts through the directness of experience? Without the parable there can be no sermon.
Our lives our full of the parables upon which we can contribute an enduring legacy to the world. Those legacies are the journal entries, poems, songs, stories, novels, and essays that capture people’s imaginations and fires their passion, or simply stirs the embers of a world that needs pondering. I have no problem with the well-wrought essay that presents an impeccable line of reasoning and logical argument, but if I sense a fallacy, a hypocrisy, or a lack of magnanimity, I quickly create a distance between myself and the writer who is simply out to set me straight. Seek out the writers who know of what they speak, and you will be rewarded with a truth you can cherish and turn in your mind for years to come. To become that writer you need to return to the source of your own wisdom and chip away at the stone of memory until it takes a shape—the infinite and varied shapes of literature and writing—that can be held in our eyes and opened in our hearts, and our minds.
For years I have had an idea for a novel, but I never actually sat down to begin writing it. The idea was too complicated, the characters to diffuse, the length too daunting in the face of a busy lifestyle, but I thought of Pipo getting on the Yankee Cannonball in spite of every rational fear he had of roller coasters. So I began to take an hour or so out of every day and began writing my book. My car caught the clicking chain and took me to the point where gravity took over. I am barely down the first hill, but the ride is exhilarating and real. I see the track laid out before me, and, like Pipo, I’m not sure what every turn and twist will bring, but I do know there is an end to the ride, and that is where I draw my strength. Maybe I will walk away woozy and say “never again.” But at least I will know.
Think of what you “really” want to write.
And begin writing.
It seems like somethings is always obscuring view. My eyes try to wrap around the gnarled trunks of swamp maple lining this river. My poor students are somewhere between lost, aggravated and confused. What is the river to them? Perhaps it is just a string of water: cool because it is fall, or maybe just cool because I we are not in class. Or are we. I usually feel a bit boxed in in the classroom, while outside my mind does not wander, it embraces what is impossible to embrace: these woods, waters, bogs and trails that crisscross this, my childhood home. I wonder what great disservice I would do to my students if I simply opened the door of the classroom and pointed them toward this river and said, “Go, explore, think, write and learn what those woods have to teach. Come back to me in June and tell me of your time!” Nature makes me make promises I seldom keep. I don’t come back as often enough as I say I will. And that ain’t right.
Later… It was great fun making our way down to the river. Really, so much of my childhood was spent cavorting up and down the river with friends and often alone and old canoes and rowboats. It is something we should continue doing throughout the year. I hope that you got something out of our trip today that is just a little bit different than you would get in the normal class day. I know we only spent a short time sitting by the river, stepping over gnarled roots, and lifting our feet high enough to avoid the poison ivy, but we’ll know that in a day or two:) I hope you were able to get a few thoughts down yourself that you can expand upon tonight or tomorrow and craft into a journal entry that you can savor years from now. Most of my old journals are lost, and it is one of the true sole regrets of my life. Memories are great, but the ravages of decades of time take its toll on true remembrance. And this is what I am trying to give you: the chance, the opportunity, and the time to create your own remembrances of a blessed time in your lives. What you make of this opportunity is up to you. A good writer writes “fully,” meaning, he or she crafts words that are recreated in the mind with the imagery rich and exacting, with nuanced thoughts articulated
And this is what I am trying to give you: the chance, the opportunity, and the time to create your own remembrances of a blessed time in your lives. What you make of this opportunity is up to you. A good writer writes “fully,” meaning, he or she crafts words that are recreated in the mind with the imagery rich and exacting, with nuanced thoughts articulated with clarity and energy, and with actions and sounds pulsing with the original force. This is not something that just happens. It is painstaking work sometimes; other times the words flow as if from a flooded spring. But it is always worth it. Try to get your two journal entries posted to your blog before class on Thursday. I am eager to read them and share in your evolution as a writer and thinker. If you have pictures, post them too! I always had a pad of paper and a pen and rather horrible sketching skills. Do you remember what the sassafras leaf looked like? The Virginia Creeper? Can you remember the white pine from the red pine? The oak from the maple? And what of the burrs and scratches you were probably covered in? All time is
Do you remember what the sassafras leaf looked like? The Virginia Creeper? Can you remember the white pine from the red pine? The oak from the maple? And what of the burrs and scratches you were probably covered in? All time is
All time is important time. Remember time in words, not hours.
Remember time in words, not hours.
Write what you know.
I don’t always practice what I preach, especially when it comes to the simple, unaffected, and ordinary “journal entry.” Much of my reticence towards the casual journal entry is the public nature of posting our journal writing as blogs that are more or less “open” to the public. It is hard for me as a teacher of writing to post an entry that I know is trivial, mundane, and perhaps of no interest to my readers—but that is precisely what I need to do if I am to model the full spectrum of the writing process. Keeping a journal is more than a search for lofty thoughts amidst the detritus of the day; it is a practice that keeps our wits and writing skills honed for a coming feast by rambling through the meat of the day and drifting and sailing to whatever port is nearest to my pen. Writing is always an odyssey, and so I have to let my mind go and journey (journal) where it will.
Good words are built our of ordinary thoughts. At the very least, a journal, filled with the scraps and pieces of our daily lives, will outlive our own lives and serve as both beacon and reminder to future generations. Once, in my days as a junkman, I cleaned out an old barn in Maynard after the elderly widower—a man I only remember now as Bob—had died. Scrounging through the Bob’s boxes for anything of value, I came across a series of leather bound journals dating back to the 1930’s. I found a journal marked 1941, so I looked up the date of the Pearl Harbor attack, eager for insight on the profound effect that day must have had on the common man of his or her time. I turned through page after page of impeccable script and learned that Bob and his family went to church in the morning, during which they sang certain hymns (hymns that I can’t remember now—but he did.) Afterwards, they drove to Stow for dinner with his extended family. He wrote about the meal, the weather, the condition of the roads, and, in two brief lines at the close of his entry: “The Japs attacked Pearl Harbor today. I trust President Roosevelt will know what to do.” And that was it.
At first glance, I saw a xenophobic racist putting blind trust in infallible rulers. I couldn’t reconcile it with the kind and gentle old man, and best friend to my best friend’s father, who had recently passed away. I didn’t see it as a window into another time and another mindset. In the arrogance of my youthful pride, I couldn’t appreciate the elegiac beauty of his day—a whole day devoted to faith and the full circle of family. It wasn’t until years later when I sat on the bench by the World War Two Memorial in downtown Maynard and scrolled through the scores of boys and men from this one small mill town killed in battle that I realized the full extent of my myopia. I should have sat in his barn for days and read every word from his journals and then, maybe, I could have seen the evolution of a person through the fullness of time through the clarity of still waters.
Maybe Bob’s youthful ramblings, tempered by the death of so many of his townsmen, could have somehow transformed into the pearls of laconic wisdom that old age should bring—pearls that would fetch a heady price in the market of the modern mind. The greatest tragedy is that we’ll never know. I offered the journals to his son, but he was content to have me throw the whole lot into the back of my Chevy pickup and pay me fifty dollars for the load I scattered into the fires of the Concord dump. The irony of tossing those journals away not more than 150 yards from the site of Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond remained lost on me for many years, even as I trudged dutifully to the Concord library to scour through the massive tomes of Thoreau’s own journals. The old man had done exactly what Thoreau believed was required first of any man or woman when he admonished all would be writers:
“I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden
A further irony is that my own journals from my years between eighteen and twenty five years old, which filled a good-sized cardboard box, were also inadvertently tossed into the same dump by a roommate intent on purging all the junk we were accumulating in our Williams Road farmhouse. The Concord dump is now a series of perfectly sculptured hills slowly regaining the shape and character of the woods that Thoreau tramped and stumbled through 150 years ago. It is a noble idea funded by the well-intentioned, but a nobler action would be to dig through the mold and dirt of time and truly find what the past has to offer us, buried almost irretrievably as it is.
Poetry is what is left unsaid. The stolid words of brevity simply point us in a direction only the brave will wander, but through the daily words of an old Italian farmer, I found a new kind of poetry. Pine Tree farm, butted against the rail line on the far side of Walden and owned by the Ammendolia’s, was one of the last of the Italian family farms that used to be scattered in every corner of Concord. Tony Ammendolia was the patriarch who somehow kept the dream alive, even as farm after farm succumbed to the teeming aorta of suburbia. It was there where I worked on school breaks and on summer weekends, picking corn at 4:00 AM before the heat of the day and hoeing seemingly infinite rows of tomatoes, beans, pumpkins, and eggplants in the long, hot afternoons where success and failure crisscrossed and intersected in a struggle to just get by. My Goddaughters were raised there, and their parents, my good friends Deb and Jack, still keep a few acres going to this day. Tony died two years ago after defying for many years the cancer he fought with the same stubbornness that he did the vicissitudes of nature in the cycle of droughts and floods and insects he faced at every turn during his days as a farmer.
Every night for over sixty years Tony would sit at his desk after dinner and write in his journal. Tony knew I was a writer and would kiddingly tease me that he was a writer too, but in a good-natured poke at my transient approach to life, he was also a farmer. I was at Jack and Debs recently for dinner and asked about Tony’s journals. Jack perked up as the proud inheritor of this family treasure and immediately found me one of the many small notebooks that Tony kept. I opened it and felt the tears well in my eyes, for it read like a type of poetry I had never read before. Tony never meandered from the scope of his own life, but his words spelled out a conviction that celebrated both the common fragility and majesty of life with sentences both sparse and foreboding: “Potato beetles got the eggplants on Bedford Street. We will not sell eggplant this year.” “Three days of rain. Lucky, as the irrigation pumps needs a new valve.” Each entry is a sublime excising out of the ordinary: the sky, the temperature, what was done, what had to be left undone, how much seed, what was selling and what was not selling—but never a mention of the money made or not made. There is never a mention of personal angst or frustration for over sixty continuous years. Those details were best left to imagination and speculation. Some, myself especially, have to call it poetry.
Our own journals need the same attention that Bob and Tony put into their daily records so that our journals can also chart the common unfolding of our lives. As writers and sojourners in life it is our call and duty to map the expanse of our existence. We don’t need to lay our souls bare for all to see and gossip about, but we should find a place to keep a daily journal. Whether it is written in leather bound journals, spiral notepads, or saved as private or public drafts in your blog doesn’t matter, but just a few short lines each day will serve to spark your memory in a later age—and memories wizened in the vat of a thoughtful life will always produce a finer wine. Journaling is a word that has been antiquated before its time. Though fewer and fewer of us take the time to sit with pen and paper, there is still a time and a place for the spirit of journaling to continue.
Make the time to map your own quest. A friend asked me yesterday why I didn’t have a GPS in my truck. He simply shook his head when I answered, “First, I have to remember where I’ve been.” Today’s technologies offer us possibilities unimagined to our literary forbears. Our daily journals can hold both pristine images of our lives via photos, video clips, and music, and most importantly, words. The web allows us to scour the world for like-minded souls that share our particular interests with whom we can share our passions on sites like Facebook, blogs, or personal web sites.
My only issue with much of what is out there on these sites is their self-exploitive and indulgent banality. Bob and Tony’s journals seemed permeated with an almost religious devotion as they chronicled the recitations of their days in rhythm with the pattern of their everyday lives, while on the other side, many Facebook sites I have visited have a tiresome and sycophantic obsession with the painstakingly mundane and profligate side of that persons supposed interests and lifestyle. It is hard—and sometimes impossible—to wrest any kind of context out of the content. Nothing, except a prurient curiosity, keeps me interested—and that is no road to enlightenment for either side of the equation. On some few sites there are links to blogs and other artistic websites where a deeper and more invested side of that person comes through. For them, their Facebook page is simply an adjunct to their life—a social gathering place to rest and draw water with friends and community. There is nothing wrong with that, but it should never be the destination of your journey, and if you can’t see life as a journey—an odyssey of existence—then you simply can’t see.
I guess the word I am looking for is devotion. None of our lives are more complicated than Bob or Tony’s lives. All they did that is different is make time to look closely at what was important to them in the daily unfolding of each of their lives.
Take the time.
Remember where you’ve been.
If you want to learn to write well, start writing and do not stop. If you do not want to learn to write well, this will be a wasted class—empty time leading towards a deeper emptiness. We are all born communicators. We all feel angst when our words are misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misplaced. Our lives, and the lives of those around us, are surrounded and immersed by our words. It is the one continual reality that will pervade our lives, so why not create the space and the time to richen the time given to us to learn, practice and share in the process of crafting our thoughts, ideas, hopes, dreams and experiences in memorable and profound ways? For better or worse, we are judged by our words and our actions, but it is primarily through our words that we are remembered, especially if the power of our actions and our words are brought together to perfect our humanity and inform the directions our lives take.
I do not teach writing to help you get into a better school or get a better grade. I teach writing because I believe writing can make your life a more fulfilling, more wise and more centred life—a life that hopefully leads to a golden and ripe old age surrounded by family, friends and the contentedness of a life fully-lived. The academic benefits of writing well are just a no-brainer to me, and you will certainly not regret learning how to write a good essay in the crunch of pressure and deadlines, and much of this year will be spent learning to do just that; but, the true value in writing in a sustained and continual way is that it will help you find the words that truly express what is in your head and heart at any given moment—not simply in response to a writing prompt or assignment.
You will not grow old (or perhaps even grow up) wishing you had spent more time on your xbox or Snapchat, but you will always regret the time and opportunities you let slip away from you. I certainly do. My shelves are full of books I wished I read. My mind is full of the would haves, could haves, and should haves that I either ignored or passed off as, at the time, not worth the effort. My life is very, very good, and I am supremely happy, yet I know I have left too much trash in my wake. Too many times I turned around before reaching the peak of the mountain; too many times I took the road more travelled by, and too many times I let silence fill the void that words should have filled.
If I can get you to willingly fill voids with words, then I can say that my job is done. If you leave this year with more love and lust for words, I will at least know that I helped prepare you for the unexpected twists and turns your own lives will take. If you pick up a book or write in your journal simply because you want to, then I will notch that on my stick of life as a great and worthy accomplishment.
So this is why I do what I do. The hard part is that I cannot do it without you. You have to be the writer. I can bring you to the river, and I can tell you what I know, but you are the one who has to jump in and swim.
No one ever learns to swim by standing on the shore.
Years ago I wrote in my journal that my goal in life was to be small, be simple, be wise, be happy, and above all be ready. I cannot honestly say that I have achieved all of these goals, but these are still the “ideals” I strive to live in my life. These are my necessities—and as necessities they are by nature, finite, as opposed to my “wants,” which are seemingly endless…. Our essential question for the year is “What are the necessities of a fruitful and rewarding life?”
My necessities surely are not the same as yours. Perhaps you have never stopped to consider what you consider the necessities of your own life. But you should, and it is my earnest hope that you will. The great writer and philosopher James Henry once wrote that “thoughts are only made real when put into words.” My goal for the year is to help you make real what is in your head and heart. In essence: to begin to discover your true and most perfect self, and to build a foundation under your dreams upon which you can build a good and lasting life. I cannot tell you what this will look like, but I can point you in the right direction–or at least, a direction. The rest is up to you. Your summer reading books,
Your summer reading books, Into the Wild, and The Outermost House describe the attempts by Chris McCandless and Henry Beston to seek profoundly rewarding lives by removing themselves from “society” and attempting to live simply and wisely and as close to nature as possible. Chris, of course, met a calamitous end in the wilds of the Yukon. Beston thrived in a less harsh (though in many ways no less wild) year spent in a small cabin on the outer beaches of a Cape Cod that at the time was a pretty much untamed and scarcely visited stretch of lonely sand and surf. McCandless’s story was told for him by another writer, Jonathan Krakauer, who found Mccandless’s adventure to be newsworthy and worth telling. Beston told his own story in descriptive prose that is widely considered some of the best writing in the English language—though I am sure some of you will disagree with that assertion! For many of you, The Outermost House might have seemed like the most boring book you were ever forced to read. No harm intended. I get that, and I get why you might feel that way. Nothing much really happens: he walks on the beach, describes birds and waves and winds and storms with excruciating detail, but there is no obvious crisis, no looming antagonist to put him in peril. Putting the two books side by side is almost unfair. In
In Into the Wild at least there is true adventure—an adventure which killed Chris in a slow, lonely and cruel way. The Outermost House, on the other hand, reads more like an intellectual and overly detailed diary shared with kind and forgiving friends. So why is it that I am perfectly satisfied to read Into the Wild once and be done with it, yet I can pick up The Outermost House year after year and reread it with ineffable joy and satisfaction? Perhaps it is because Beston’s words grow with me as I grow (and yes, I am still growing!). Perhaps it is because Beston loved and studied the wild loneliness he experienced, while McCandless seemed to continually fight with an unforgiving and harsh nature (and his own harsh nature) in every step of his fateful journey. Perhaps I remember a side of me that was once like Chris McCandless—a darker side of my life best forgotten. More than likely, I return to Beston because he continually gives back to me. I feel wiser and more complete and more human every time I read his words. His words make me want to bring my life back to the wheel and polish it to a more perfect edge, an edge that can cleave apart the tangle of weeds I might be lost in. His words affirm my own desire to live simply and deeply. Mr. Farely and I did not assign these books in an inconsiderate way. In fact, the decision was quite considered. Our hope is that we can start a new conversation with all of you and each of you, and that you can start a conversation with yourself–a conversation that will fill our coming year together. So ask yourself: Why do you want what you want? What do you really need? Maybe there is power in simplicity….
More than likely, I return to Beston because he continually gives back to me. I feel wiser and more complete and more human every time I read his words. His words make me want to bring my life back to the wheel and polish it to a more perfect edge, an edge that can cleave apart the tangle of weeds I might be lost in. His words affirm my own desire to live simply and deeply. Mr. Farely and I did not assign these books in an inconsiderate way. In fact, the decision was quite considered. Our hope is that we can start a new conversation with all of you and each of you, and that you can start a conversation with yourself–a conversation that will fill our coming year together. So ask yourself: Why do you want what you want? What do you really need? Maybe there is power in simplicity….
Perhaps it is because Beston loved and studied the wild loneliness he experienced, while McCandless seemed to continually fight with an unforgiving and harsh nature (and his own harsh nature) in every step of his fateful journey. Perhaps I remember a side of me that was once like Chris McCandless—a darker side of my life best forgotten. More than likely, I return to Beston because he continually gives back to me. I feel wiser and more complete and more human every time I read his words. His words make me want to bring my life back to the wheel and polish it to a more perfect edge, an edge that can cleave apart the tangle of weeds I might be lost in. His words affirm my own desire to live simply and deeply. Mr. Farely and I did not assign these books in an inconsiderate way. In fact, the decision was quite considered. Our hope is that we can start a new conversation with all of you and each of you, and that you can start a conversation with yourself–a conversation that will fill our coming year together.
So ask yourself: Why do you want what you want? What do you really need? Maybe there is power in simplicity….
This is perhaps the biggest thunderstorm that I haven’t been in. The lightning is flashing and bolting to the ground, and the thunder is booming in every direction—though it is all five miles away. Here there is no wind or rain. The sky is bright directly overhead, but the tall pines on the far side of the field are backdropped in roiled, dark clouds.
Strange. There is a shift in the clouds. They are coming towards us now from the northeast….
I had to run from under the comfortable shelter under the awning of our RV and take some “shelter from the storm” as a huge gust of wind and pelting rain came at us from this strange direction. Just as suddenly, it shifted again and renewed its course to the southwest leaving me perplexed and dampened.
Writers often do the same thing with their writing. They build up a storm of unimagined intensity and create a looming confrontation between the opposing forces whom have been long at battle in their story line. Readers sense the impending conflict that will finally resolve the richly thickened plot; the wind whips, lightning flashes, thunder crashes and…
The storm takes a new direction—blows all hell and fury in another direction—and then returns to its insidious and relentless march to the sea (in New England, all thunderstorms march to the sea!) but the reader is no longer in the path of the storm; they are stranded like a desperate mariner on a now lonely shore watching the clouds boil away over the horizon. The writer, still caught up in his or her storm, assumes the reader is still with them anticipating the coming climax, but they are not. They’re more like me; they are left wondering why the storm took that irrational jog to the southeast, because that is the rational response to mystery—to ask why. There is no reason—aside from perhaps a schoolmasters admonitions—at require us to wade through the muck of tortured writing.
Most of us are rational and surprisingly intuitive, and a good writer needs to recognize and respect that reality. Good readers are like oft jilted lovers wary of another disappointing affair. They know when to put a book aside and find another writer, one who won’t let them down. They love the reward of a well-written story, an inspiring essay, or a compelling narrative; they love writers who consistently provide that reward, and they return to those writers over and again with their time, attention, and money.
A good writer is not in love with his or her own writing. They are in love with the process of writing well, regardless and because of their chosen genre! I will read and re-read Patrick O’Brien’s endless repertoire of naval sea novels, not because O’Brien’s novels are masterpieces of literature, but because he consistently provides a rewarding reading experience for “me” as someone who loves stories of naval battles! O’Brien found his niche, and he found his audience. It is an audience that he respected and worked tirelessly to please before passing away (sadly for his devoted audience eager for more novels) at a ripe old age. Though O’Brien will never be placed among the pantheon of “great” writers, what he aspired to do, he did well, and certainly well enough for me.
Thoreau once said, “Measure a man, not by what he is, but by what he aspires to be.” My readers are, by and large, writers who aspire to be better writers. In the greater scheme of things, I can only give you bits and pieces out of my own insights, experiences, and aspirations. I am only the proverbial finger pointing at the moon.
You will only reach the moon through your own labors.
When I was a kid it was the dump.
Every Saturday morning my father and I would pile a week’s worth of trash into the back of our Plymouth Fury station wagon and head the to the Concord town dump. Back then the dump was a place of perpetually burning fires and massive heaps of discarded metal: bed-frames, lawn mowers, refrigerators and two centuries worth of bicycles. They would only haul the pile away when it reached mammoth proportions, when they’d lift the tangled webs of metal with a crane that looked to have crawled out of Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel. The crane had a massive magnet that somehow shut itself off and dropped the whole load into the truck with a deafening and fatalistic screech, though I could never figure out how that magnet shut off—much to the chagrin of my crew cut engineer father—something to do with a solenoid, I recall. I’d sit on the bumper and guide him as he backed up to the hottest fire. I’d then start casting everything in to the pit—I mean everything, whether it could burn or not.
My father would leave me to my primal sport and go talk to the other fathers (and very rarely, mothers) who were always gathered around talking: politics, the war, cars, sports, or just handing out schedules and town meeting agendas. As they talked about everything under the sun, I’d find some classmate (there was always a neighbor or classmate at the dump) and we’d heave hair spray, spray paint and empty almost turpentine cans into the fire just to watch them explode. Occasionally, after a really good explosion, someone would scream at us miscreants, but we’d just nonchalantly holler back, “Sorry, didn’t know it was in there,” and the adults would go back to their talking, and we’d go back to our heaving and blowing up of things. I sometimes wonder how anything gets resolved in Concord now that they no longer have a dump. I wonder where everybody goes where they can talk on an equal footing with their neighbor. We all need a place to meet and speak and converse in brave and honest dialogues, no matter what the venture, time or place—and so it is with our writing community in class: We’ve got to get out of our metaphorical cars and say, “How you do?” to our neighbors, even if we don’t know them from a hole in the wall.
So, I like to think of our class writing communities as the Concord Town Dump because it is good to have a place where everybody can gather and get the news from a common place. Words matter, and in the end it is through our words and actions that we will be remembered. We are all an equal cog in a wheel of writers, and without your blog there would be one less of “each other’s” blogs, and so our community of writers would be diminished by an infinite degree—the degree of your potential.
You will be measured and remembered by the words you leave behind. Words are remembered because they are memorable, not simply by virtue of being spoken or written down. A good writer strives to craft writing that is memorable for the reader, and a good writer will do so in the same way that a cook tries to make a meal that his or her guests will remember fondly—a meal that will make them want to come back again and again. We will go to that restaurant as often as we can, and we will read every book that writer publishes—and we’ll go to the best blogs in our community time and time again to see what the writer—hopefully you—has produced today.
There is another small scale (and often frustrating) irony that comes into play: the best writers are rarely the most widely read or popular writers. Henry David Thoreau’s books were scarcely read by his contemporaries in his day. He spent four or five hours every day writing in his journals and crafting his now acknowledged masterpieces of literature, with only a handful of people ever laying eyes on his lifetime of labor.
But Thoreau continued to write because he believed in the value of what he was writing—and you need to believe in what you are writing, not because of what he or she or me says about your writing, but because you believe in what you write; because you believe that writing is important and necessary and needed; and because you’ve felt (or will soon feel) the power, majesty and mystery of good writing, and learning to write well is a mountain you are willing to climb. From that mountaintop you will let the world see what you see and feel what you feel, and you will be a part of the great cycle of searching for meaning that keeps us human. You are much more than a kid wanting to be a better writer; you are the beginning of your greatest potential.
Keep writing. It always pays off.