Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Conviction of Things Not Seen

A few weeks ago, Keith and I went to see Hector Olivera at the performance hall on campus. We went because there weren't enough tickets sold so the school was offering two for one tickets to faculty. I had never heard of Hector Olivera. I just knew I was starved for something different. How many times in one semester can we go to Target? To Barnes and Noble? To Ross? To Papa's Pizza?

I pretended we were going to the symphony in San Francisco and put on black velvet and crazy-high heels. I wore a pashmina wrap, tried to pretend we arrived on the train instead of the Subaru, tried to pretend we could walk, after the show, to any number of bistros and cafes for an after-show drink and dessert (um, Denny's anyone?). I am a writer. I have great imagination.

Hector Olivera is an Argentinian pipe organist. I won't pretend to know anything about music or about the pipe organ. I made it through a sketchy Fur Elise on the piano when I was a child, but that's the extend of my musical expertise. But without understanding music, I love it. Live music makes me cry just about every time, any kind.  Live performances, even the not-so-great ones, take my breath away.

We arrived about ten minutes early. There were only a couple of hundred people there. We were the "young 'uns". Hector came out in his tuxedo, bowed, and began to play.

In between arrangements, he spun around and talked to us as if he were at Carnegie Hall instead of the Yavapai College Performance Hall. He told us of playing the funeral mass for Evita in Argentina when he was seven. He tried to make cowboy jokes. He has been touring internationally for decades. He has designed organs. And he is in love with late nineteenth and early twentieth century western United States history. He'd spent the afternoon at Sharlot Hall Museum, a local museum honoring Prescott's early settlers. He was enthralled and did a set of pieces for us focused on spaghetti westerns. He made the organ go "clop clop" to imitate the horses' hooves. He filled the room with an orchestra.

And, (here's where I fell in love) he had a friend named Harry. Harry is a stuffed green German Lutheran frog who sits on his organ and carries on conversations with him and the audience.

"He plays puppets!" I said to Keith, knowing at that very moment that Hector was a soul mate and a true artist. "Only a real artist would admit to playing puppets publicly."

But it got better than puppets. After the intermission, he introduced all the members of his orchestra. He nodded to invisible people on both sides of the organ. He had names for them. Personalities. Foibles. (The trumpet player drank too much. The violinist was always late.) He acknowledged all sections of his orchestra, then sat down to play, nodding to each invisible player at the appropriate time to enter the composition.

When he stood to bow, he commented on how silly he was. How he appreciated our patience while an old man played with his imaginary friends. But then, after the laughter, he said, "You are even more silly than me if you think I don't believe they are there."

And there you have it. That's what makes an artist -- a writer, a dancer, a painter, a musician, a singer, a sculptor. He believes in what and who he cannot see. He believes in these things enough to share them with a group of strangers in a small town in the mountains of Arizona. He believes in play enough to take his German frog Harry on the road with him across the world.

As writers, this play emerges as your characters. You are not making them up from nowhere. You are entering the spaces where they live. You must believe they are there. Only then, will they talk to you. It helps if you smile and open your arms a little, too.

I am in love with Hector Olivera, and I am sure that the world is a better place because he embodies his music, his not-so-imaginary orchestra, and his German frog Harry.

Hector and Harry working on the organ.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Faculty Development Day! Hooray!

Warning: Snarky Rant Full of Judgment and Generalizations Forthcoming.

Alright. I am basically a good employee. I am a dedicated teacher. I show up when I'm supposed to. I get papers returned quickly. I am generally friendly to everyone. And, I do love my job. Until days like today, which actually have nothing to do with my job.

Every few months or so it seems like people (who said people are and where they live remains a mystery) feel we need a day just to be collegial. Just to check in with each other. I know you know these people -- they're the Team Builders. The ones who think pitting the science faculty against the liberal arts faculty in a ropes course helps build trust. The ones who think it's fun to play get to know you games and arrange for holiday gift exchanges.  These Team Builders are administrative staff.  Every place I've ever worked has these people. They are nice people. But oh, how they love to group.  Everything can apparently be done better if there's a group, a committee, or -- I'm all a-quiver -- a pot luck luncheon to discuss such absurd issues as grade inflation (yes, we're all doing it apparently. No more academic integrity. We just pass 'em all through), textbook costs (can we really do anything about that?), whether or not we should keep the dorms, and technological literacy (no, Virgina, just because they can reach level 5 on Grand Theft Auto does NOT mean they can attach a file properly).

I'll concede that the world is probably a better place because there are Team Builders, but I am not one of them and I don't want to play in their reindeer games.  Faculty, generally, are not groupers. We work in academia because no one else will have us. Because we won't chant "Yay Corporate Employer X" or take the battle over sales numbers in women's accessories seriously. We're here because we don't play all that well with others.  Our loyalty is to our field and to our students. I am a teacher. I don't want to be an administrator. I am not cut out for it. I am either a loner or a dictator. It's better for all if I'm left alone.

It's not just me.

Standing in line for the coffee at 8:30 this morning, one after the other of us murmured, "What a waste of time."

"I have mid terms to grade."

"I need to prep."

"I could be sleeping."

But here we are, because in these "trying economic times" we are all relatively happy to have work.

Today I learned these things about my job (via PowerPoint):

- The Original Sin in Academia: Question Everything, but Do We Question Our Own Establishment?
- The Pony Express went out of Business Because the Horses Weren't Fast Enough (I'm actually not making this up)
- We Have Inefficient Classroom Usage Between 8 am and 9:30.
- We Waste 15-20 minutes per Classroom Period Taking Attendance; Therefore When The Swine Flu Outbreak Hits and We Have to Close Campuses, We Can Just Give Students A Final Grade at 85% Completion Because We (did I mention) Waste 15- 20 minutes per Class Period.
- We Do Not Need to Teach Psychology to Nursing Students
- We Need to Focus on Job Preparation
- Why Do We Have Liberal Arts at All? The Education Model We Are Using is From Ancient Greece. They Are Dead.
- We Are Our Own Worst Albatross
- Private Institutions Are Making Money. We Are Not.
- We Should Offer Baccalaureate Degrees.
- We Need To Save Money.
- Each Student Costs the College $8000. Why Is That Not Enough For Them To Transfer To a 4-year Institution?
- Traditional Education is a Failed Paradigm. Directed, Skills Based Programs Like Sustainability, Public Service, Hospitality Management, and Nursing Are Our Future.
- Did I Mention the Pony Express Went out of Business Because The Horses Couldn't Run Fast Enough?

Oh, there's so much more, if that wasn't clear and uplifting enough. With each rambling run-on, I watched the faculty in front of me and around me cringe. The old-timers took it all with a grain of salt. "It's been the same rhetoric since 1994 when I got here," one of them told me. The brand new hires got really angry and started challenging the administration. We wrote notes to each other on the tables, sucked in our breaths, tried to let it roll off our backs. Tried, some of us maybe more successfully than others, to let the rhetoric just bounce off.

I get that we don't have any money. I get that there aren't any jobs. But I cannot reconcile any of that with a devaluation and deprofessionalization of teaching. I believe in the education of the whole human. I believe in a liberal arts education. I believe that understanding more about who we are and what we believe may be the only thing that prevents us from killing each other. I believe that we are better humans by reading, by writing, by painting, dancing, creating and listening to music. To try to make education even more narrow seems like it will create a world I want no part of. To be striving to create a person with skill but without soul seems a foolish and short-sighted goal.

This semester I've had several problems with fundamentalist students and the readings we've done in class. They've dropped. I don't have the energy to fight. I teach my classes. I go home. I avoid situations where I might have to get involved in campus politics. I cannot try to change minds. I can only open doors. Lead the horse to water as they say. (Hey, maybe if the Pony Express horses had drunk the water they could have run faster...)

I am glad there are administrators who get money for us and keep us paid and happy with indoor plumbing. Every school needs them, and we have a good one. But I am not OK with being told that what I do does not matter. No one gets into teaching for the money. We love our subject and we love our students. Mr. Administrator, don't you dare try to make critical thinking obsolete. Don't you dare devalue the arts. As William Carlos Williams wrote, "It is difficult to get the news from poems. Yet men die every day for lack of what is found there." It is not always, Mr. Administrator, about money.

I dare you, Mr. Administrator. Spend one week in the classroom. Listen to the students. They are not commodities. They are not dollars. They are not excel spreadsheet numbers. They are human beings. Our job as an educational institution is to help them be deeper, broader, richer human beings. And no, you can't measure that outcome (so I know, it's not valuable. I read that memo). And no, you don't always know at the time if you made a difference at all. But we keep showing up because we believe in something bigger than ourselves. We believe in our collective histories -- at its most brilliant and its basest. We believe that the more a mind can open, the softer we can become. We believe this when the world tells us it, and we, are irrelevant. We believe this when it seems no one hears or cares. We believe this because somewhere in the back of our hearts lives that teacher who first put on Beethoven for us, or who first read us Dr. Seuss, or who first showed us how the human heart works, or opened up a geode to its full sparkle.

It may be inefficient to believe in these things now. It may even be irrelevant. I may already be irrelevant. But I do hear my students. And I do love them. I show up every day for them with all that I have. And I do love stories and language more than anything else in the world.

You will not take this away, Mr. Administrator. There may no longer be a Pony Express, but there are still horses.


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Can a Leopard Change Its Spots?

How do you know if you've actually done any work? You go to classes. You do the practices. You change your eating habits. You keep peeling back the layers that have, you thought, kept you safe. You keep showing up even when you don't want to, but you still don't know if your central beliefs about yourself and the way you navigate the world can fundamentally change.

How can you tell?

When every trigger you have gets pushed in a short period of time and you find that your responses are not the responses of the past. And, you find that you can't even really access those past responses. There's this whisper of a whisper, "Shouldn't I be feeling contraction? Shouldn't I be undone?" But the whisper has no place to stand, so it soon enough blows away. You are somehow no longer making assumptions about the present moment based on past experience. WTF? How did that happen?

We all have tendencies and patterns. My dad wrote to me, in my 11th birthday letter, that I resisted change more than anyone he'd ever known. That says something about an 11 year old! But it was a very perceptive observation, and perhaps a belief about myself that I have solidified, in part because it has truth to it, in part because it was something dad saw in me and so by holding on to it I was holding on to him, and in part because I didn't think there were options.

I have worked for most of my adult life on issues of attachment and aversion.  Generally speaking, attachments arise from our previous experiences of pleasure and happiness. Aversions emerge from previous experiences of pain and suffering. Over time, our sense of self-identity is largely formed by a long list of such likes and dislikes. We have a tendency to define ourselves as a collection of our previous emotional experiences. For me, these issues have surfaced most around times of change -- when a relationship ends, when someone dies, when others around me are changing and I don't want them to, when I am afraid of moving away from what no longer serves me.

For years I've had this line posted above my desk in my office:

Unconditional acceptance of whatever is arising in the present moment is absolute freedom.

I posted it so I would see it every day because I know my tendency is to resist whatever is arising. My tendency is to attach to a particular moment that rocked and hold on to it until it's dead. My tendency is to be sticky. To root myself so deeply I can't move. To solidify inside and outside.

When I figured these things out about myself, I thought that was a pretty big piece of work. I thought at least I will have greater awareness when I'm living my life. Now that I know I do this, at least I can not project my own stuff onto other people. But I didn't really think I could actually cellularly shift those things. I thought my job was to work with them because they would always be there (see the false assumption I had that there is permanence?)

In the past few weeks, I've been hit with everything that would have previously unmoored me. It started when Patrick Swayze died and I spent a few days crying for him and for dad. I could cry though, and go on with my day. It wasn't debilitating. It was cleansing. Then the following week was the one-year anniversary of my friend Jeffrey's death. In the past, I would have created a drama around that -- something along the lines of I'll never see him again. I'll never have another friend like him. I'll never see San Francisco the same way again. And on and on. I did experience sadness, but it welled up, moved, and was gone. I went to his Facebook page (one never really dies on-line) and left a note on his wall, along with many of his other friends.

I finished the final draft of The Writing Warrior and sent it to Shambhala a few days ago. This is the first book I've written that Jeffrey didn't read ahead of time. The first book that will not have his keen eye on the text. When a manuscript is finished, there is a period of silence. A space where there is nothing to do but wait for what is next. In the past, I would have attached to wanting the New Book NOW. I would have attached to how much I missed Jeffrey's input. How much I miss Jeffrey. But I didn't. I sent the book off and I am now waiting, both for the response from the editor and for the next book to start to speak.

But the biggest awareness of the internal changes occurred on Sunday at a workshop I attended. My fabulous friend Ciara attended as well. Ciara was on her way out of the state to a new life in Arkansas after the workshop. Cain was teaching the class, and he was on his way out of the country for a retreat. Ciara and I met in yoga and both studied a lot with Cain. We shared lots of growing together. We rubbed warm jade balls on our abdomens and coughed up ickiness. We poured salt water through our nostrils and did hours upon hours upon hours of shaking practice together.

I was already weepy by the time the class started. Cain had done a third cupping session with me on Thursday (see pictures below) and that one moved a ton of remaining sludge from a frozen shoulder I've been working on for several years. (If you're interested, the internet has info on Chinese cupping. I was going to attach a link to a video, but I thought it would be too much for my mom! And I have to admit, if I'd have seen the videos before I did it, I'm not sure I would have done it.)

After the cupping, I found myself spontaneously crying, leaking, essentially, from every possible place once the sludgy sticky water in me finally moved. I wept in a way that was more like washing off a muddy sidewalk than a weeping of attachment. I just let everything move. I also found freedom in my shoulders and back that I did not believe was possible. I felt like I had a whole new body, and that made more tears come. I just felt so grateful to be able to raise my arms above my head without contraction. Raising the arms seemed somehow connected to opening my lungs and my heart. Each time I did it, I felt freer, like I imagine a newborn must feel as she explores her new body. I didn't know how much blood was stuck in my shoulder until it moved.

In the past, if I knew I was going to an event that was going to involve saying good-bye to two people I cared about, I would have created a drama: This Is The Last Time The Three Of Us May Ever Practice Together. I would have decided that was a terrible thing, rather than a precious thing, and I would have held the as-yet-to-occur moment of good-bye as the Thing To Be Endured. I would have added my personal favorite storyline of abandonment. Of loss (based on a previous history of loss). I would have added the storyline of attachment and aversion -- I am Attached To My Practice Continuing As it Has Been and I am Adverse to Anything (ANYTHING) Being Different From How It Currently Is. I would have spent the entire class focused on the ending storyline, rather than being in the class with the present moment experience. But I couldn't do that. The class was not about the ending of the class. It was only about the class.

Ciara and I went to lunch at the Raven at the break. Previously, the storyline in my head for that lunch would be: This May Be My Last Lunch With Her. I would try to attach to her not leaving. I would try to avoid the end of the lunch. I would not, in any way, be able to be present and enjoy the lunch. But I didn't do that either. We simply had lunch.

Class ended and Ciara and I went to say good-bye to Cain. I was weepy because I've been weepy now for weeks. Previously, I would have snuck out of the class to avoid actually saying good-bye. I wouldn't have been clean and clear about it. But this time, I told both of them how they helped me. I told both of them I was grateful. And we all said good-bye.

And I didn't die. :-) And I did not get tossed away. I couldn't even attach to trying to get tossed away. There was only the moment. I couldn't create the contraction that I would have experienced before. I just felt what I felt when I felt it.

I tried to bring back the feelings I was expecting to feel -- the contraction I was sure would come. The inevitable (I assumed) triggering of grief onto and into grief. But I couldn't. I felt sad and I felt grateful and I felt happy, all at once and one after the other. 

I'd been given a chance to see if the internal patterns I have previously shaped my identity around could change. And they did. I don't know when they fell away, but they are gone. And there's a freedom in that I didn't know was possible. The bruises on my back and shoulders are fading, but the space inside them is still there.

Whaddya think, Dad? I walked right into change. I walked right into the ending of a phase of learning. I walked right into sadness and it didn't stick to me. On the other side of it is the next right thing.

Now, note to self: don't attach to this ....  OK, OK. It's already different. Oh! Different again! And I'm still standing! Who'd have thunk it.

results of cupping 3 days afterwards (see, Mom, I'm smiling! It's OK)


back results of cupping 3 days afterwards 

my friend Ciara

One of the trainings with Cain a few years ago. 
(I'm in the green skirt and Cain's in the white shirt in front of me.)

You can see I'm not convinced I can move my shoulder like that!