Life lessons


Desert Room, with Desert Gold Star

Yesterday on NPR, I heard a story about a super-bloom of wildflowers in the California desert: a surge of lushness caused by an unusually wet winter. I listened to this story as I loaded the dishwasher, my eyes looking out on our snowy backyard.

Congregating

Flowers in the desert seemed very far away, but that wasn’t the best part of the story. Instead, it was this: the park ranger they interviewed said these seeds had been lying underground, dormant, for decades or even centuries–that in some places now covered in flowers, they didn’t know how long it had been since it had rained.

Right then and there with my wet hands in the sink, I knew who my new heroes would be: faceless seeds, buried and smothered in arid darkness, waiting. “Nevertheless, they persisted”–cotyledons coiled in seed cases, more patient and resilient than any of the rest of us.

Spiny

Trump’s budget has felt like a kick to the gut–so much cruelty masquerading as conservatism. I get conservatism–it’s about values and sacrifice–but Trump understands neither. It’s heartbreaking to think of a party so small-hearted, it would grab food from the elderly, care from the sick, and shelter from the poor. Trump claims to be rich, but he’s the most tight-fisted man I know: a miserable miser who wants to steal beauty and kindness and compassion from the rest of us.

Desert florets

And yet, we are seeds, and we continue to grow and germinate because the “force that through the green fuse drives the flower” cannot be denied. Trump’s roots are shallow and his will weak: “Low energy! Sad!” In two years, four years, eight years–however long it takes–we seeds will sprout and flower, a super-bloom of beauty.

Letter to Maezen

The photos illustrating today’s post come from a 2012 trip to Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh. The text of today’s post comes from a letter I wrote yesterday to Karen Maezen Miller, who lives in the lushly flowering state of California. Before I sealed that letter in an envelope to mail across the country, I realized it was a letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

Wall at Central Square

I recently started reading Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. The main premise of the book is that many of the things people do to study or memorize things actually aren’t effective, and what does work is counter-intuitive.

Wall at Central Square

One of the things the book insists, for example, is that pure repetition doesn’t implant long-term memories. You might memorize something for a test by repeating it over and over, but you’ll quickly forget that information: a nugget of wisdom that matches pretty much every student’s experience with cramming.

According to Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel, repeatedly re-reading a textbook or class notes won’t help you master the material because repetition lulls you into thinking you understand underlying concepts when actually you’re simply memorizing someone else’s explanation. Instead of memorizing material through blind repetition, you need to apply the material, either by re-stating concepts in your own words or using those concepts to solve a problem.

Wall at Central Square

The example Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel use at the beginning of the book involves aviation. You can memorize the parts and functions of a plane engine, but that knowledge won’t become real–it won’t be yours, something you’ve truly mastered–until you face a situation where you have to use that knowledge, either in a flight simulator or actual plane. If you can connect abstract concepts to your own life–something you’ve lived and care about–those concepts will “stick” longer than facts you’ve simply drilled into your head through repetition.

Wall at Central Square

The other insight I’ve gotten from the book so far is the importance of “interleaving”: the cognitive multitasking that happens when you study multiple subjects side-by-side rather than focusing your entire attention on one subject. I haven’t read far enough into the book to understand exactly why interleaving is so powerful, but I suppose it’s the mental equivalent of interval training. In my own experience, studying more than one subject allows you to take breaks by switching back and forth between topics, and it also allows you to draw novel connections among subjects. (As a professor, for example, I’m always happy to hear students connect something they’ve learned in another class to something we’re discussing in mine.)

Wall at Central Square

The concept of interleaving reminds me of the intricate clockwork desk naturalist John Muir built when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin. Muir loaded the desk with his various textbooks, and it would automatically open each of his books at pre-arranged intervals so he couldn’t spend too much time on any one subject. Although it might be a bit obsessive to design a desk that forces you to cycle through a set number of subjects, I often read more than one book at a time: when I grow tired of one book, I move to the next, and the connections and I make between the two keep me engaged longer than focusing on merely one.

Wall at Central Square

So, while I’m reading Make It Stick, I’m also reading Sam Quinones’ Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, which is about a whole other kind of “sticking.” Sometimes you want to etch information indelibly into your brain, and other times, you want to disentangle yourself from habits that stick too tenaciously.

Snowy day

I was in my office grading papers just over a week ago when news broke that billionaire campaign donor Betsy DeVos had been confirmed as Donald Trump’s education secretary. The news came as no surprise, as I knew Democrats didn’t have enough votes to block her confirmation, but it still felt like a punch in the gut: a reminder of how little Senate Republicans value public education and educators.

Framingham ram in snow

February in New England is a bleak time: a month of meteorologic mood swings, when it’s easy to give way to hopelessness. That particular Tuesday was a gray day, with a thick swirl of morning snowflakes tapering to drizzle by midday. It was a day to stay inside listening to plows clearing a shallow sludge of snow…unless, of course, you were one of the ones who skipped class to go into Boston for the Patriots’ victory parade, the ink-wash sky a perfect backdrop for confetti cannons, colorful signs, and cheering fans.

Snowy tables

I am the product of public elementary and secondary schools, and I went to a public college thanks to the generosity of my home state, the University of Toledo offering full scholarships to bright students who offered nothing in return but promise. With an education gained from twelve years in public elementary and secondary schools and four years in a public college, I was accepted into graduate school here in New England, paying my way with teaching assistantships and and a seemingly endless onslaught of adjunct teaching jobs. I was able to earn both a Masters and PhD because my public education got me into those (private) programs. Public schools opened the door, and hard work pulled me through.

Stairwell

All I have to show for the initial investment the state of Ohio put into my schooling is almost a quarter century spent teaching first-year college students, many of them (like me) the first in their families to go to college: each one, teach one. I haven’t leveraged my education to pursue fame or fortune: I can’t (unfortunately) buy Senators or befriend billionaires the way Betsy DeVos does. Instead, I’ve spent nearly 25 years teaching writing and critical thinking to students stretched thin as they juggle work and school, the costs at even public colleges skyrocketing even as the ranks of underpaid part-time college faculty has burgeoned.

It's true. Frederick Douglass is doing an amazing job. Big impact.

But what does Betsy DeVos know of any of this: DeVos, who has absolutely no public school experience? Yesterday I heard a radio story about the hidden problem of homelessness and food insecurity among students at Massachusetts public colleges: do you think DeVos has any understanding of that? When you decide to become an educator, you aren’t motivated by fame and fortune: there are no confetti cannons, signs, or screaming fans when Any Anonymous Teacher succeeds in teaching little Johnny how to read. (The humor of this skit comes, after all, from the very fact that teachers aren’t treated how professional athletes are.) You can tell a lot about a society’s priorities by paying attention to where it spends its cash, and by all indications we live in a world that values billionaires over children, so-called reality TV over genuine news, and self-centered celebrities over public servants.

Modern

I keep two collections of random thoughts. First, I have my handwritten journal pages: on mornings when I’m not teaching, I try to write four longhand pages in a Moleskine notebook over my morning cup of tea, and on teaching days, I try to use time between classes to write four pages in one of the slim, softback notebooks I keep in my teaching bag.

Terry Winters

In addition, I have an assortment of typewritten documents I write and store on my Google Drive: each of them dated, and some of them titled. The entries with titles usually end up on my blog, but the entries without titles usually get abandoned or forgotten: pages where I’m basically talking to myself, rehearsing the usual complaints and quibbles.

On an excellent day, I’ll write in both places: I’ll spend a half hour or so on my handwritten pages, then I’ll spend another half hour transcribing any ideas or insights that emerged there. On a good day, I have time to write only in my journal, and on bad days, I don’t write anywhere at all. But even though I don’t manage to write every single day, I still produce a lot of odds and ends. I post some of this random writing on my blog, but much of it lives a quiet, forgotten existence in closed notebooks and forgotten Google Drive folders.

Terry Winters

Sometimes when I have time to write but little to say, I’ll open a random notebook or Google Doc, just to see what was on my mind weeks, months, or even years ago. It’s as if my life were a book, and I open to a random page.

Recently, for example, I re-read a Google Doc titled “No timeline” that I wrote in September, 2015:

Last week, I was at Angell for Groucho’s oncology check-up, a ritual we’ve reenacted every month since he was diagnosed with small cell lymphoma over two years ago. As I was leaving our appointment and walking toward the reception desk to check out, I heard a sound from the dog waiting area that stopped me cold: a high pitched squealing whine that sounded so much like Reggie, I had to stop and collect myself.

It’s been over three years since Reggie died, but that doesn’t matter: when I heard a dog that whined like him, the intervening years evaporated and I had to stop myself from rushing into the dog waiting are just to make sure Reggie hadn’t come back to find me. This is, of course, a crazy thought, but a grieving heart knows no logic.

Terry Winters

Groucho died in November, 2015, so the monthly oncology appointment I describe in these paragraphs would have been one of his last. But I had no way of knowing that at the time, of course. In September, 2015, Groucho was alive but reaching the end of even the most positive prognosis: chemotherapy for cats with lymphoma works really well until it doesn’t.

In September, 2015, Groucho was alive and it was Reggie I was mourning, even though he’d been dead more than three years. Rereading that entry brings it all back: the still-raw sting of lingering loss, and the too-familiar ache of anticipatory grieving.

Terry Winters

Last year, Bunny the cat died; this year, we’re worried about Rocco. This week, J took Rocco for his first oncology appointment after his recent diagnosis with the same kind of cancer that claimed Groucho: deja vu all over again.

There is no timeline for grief: that’s what I never got around to saying back in 2015. They say time heals all wounds, but that assumes time moves in a straight line rather than circling like a dog before sleep. Just when you think you’ve grown past expecting your dead dog to be underfoot at every step–a phenomenon J calls “phantom dog”–you hear a stranger’s pet at the vet who sounds so eerily familiar, you wonder if grief is the only thing on earth that doesn’t die. Just when you’ve almost forgotten one cat dead to cancer, another gets diagnosed with the same disease, history echoing and repeating, this year not much different from then.

Twas the night before Christmas

I recently finished reading On Living, Kerry Egan’s memoir of her work as a hospice chaplain. I took my time reading the book: like dark chocolate or strong medicine, On Living is best in small, savored doses. Each chapter describes patients Egan has met over the years and the lessons she’s gained from those encounters, and these seemingly simple accounts are surprisingly powerful.

Going places

Early in the book, Egan struggles to describe her job to a woman at a party who can’t quite understand what it is, exactly, that hospice chaplains do. I suppose the word “chaplain” evokes images that might not match the reality of the person standing next to you at a party: Egan isn’t a priest, nun, or pastor, and her book isn’t full of the God-talk and conventional piety you might expect from clergy. But that, actually, is what makes the book so powerful.

Caroling

Egan doesn’t spend much time preaching, praying, or enacting overtly religious rituals at the bedsides of dying patients; instead, she describes herself as showing up and spending lots of time listening. Egan calls this endeavor “being present,” and it seems a deceptively simple thing: surely anyone with a backside to sit on and a mouth that closes is equipped to sit and listen, but of course it isn’t that easy.

Ice cream shop

Judging from the stories Egan tells, a chaplain’s most powerful skills are the abilities to listen, empathize, and refrain from casting judgement. A good chaplain, Egan suggests, suspends her desire to jump in and fix the situations she encounters. Better than even the best advice and encouragement is a well-timed nod or genuine question that reflects a patient back upon her own lived experience: gestures that say “Tell me more” rather than “Let me tell you how it is.”

Bearing gifts

This practice of “being present,” in other words, is amazingly difficult exactly because it is unbelievably simple. “This is a real job,” Egan’s fellow party-goer asks her with a mix of hostility and incredulity, “that people go to graduate school for?” This question points to the paradox of pastoral care: the things that seem the simplest to do are actually the most difficult, many friends and family members avoiding awkward visits to the hospital or nursing home exactly because they don’t know how to act, what to do, or what to say when faced with a person who is terminally ill.

Carolers

I’m not a hospice chaplain, but I found myself nodding as I read Egan’s book, her experience at the bedside of dying patients ringing true with my experience giving consulting interviews as a Senior Dharma Teacher. When I started giving interviews, a Zen Master friend gave me a bit of advice that has proven to be invaluable. Giving consulting interviews, he explained, isn’t about answering questions; it’s about sharing an experience.

Photo opportunity

In the years I’ve been giving interviews, I’ve decided he’s exactly right on that point. The folks who come into the Zen Center interview room aren’t asking for advice; instead, they want the reassurance of knowing they aren’t alone in whatever challenge they face. Faced with a receptive listener who has reined in her desire to jump in and fix their life situation, the folks who come talk to me usually come to their own clarity and conclusions. All I do by being present is give them permission to listen to their own gut.

Band

Being a hospice chaplain, Egan explains, isn’t about being a storyteller; it’s about being a story holder. As people face the end of their lives, they are in a unique position to look back and reflect, and sometimes what they want is nothing more than a nonjudgmental person to sit quietly alongside them, ready to cherish whatever stories they want to share. On Living is a repository of these stories, and that is what makes it priceless.

DISCLOSURE: I received a free copy of On Living through a Goodreads giveaway.

My favorite part is the wrapping

We’ve reached the almost-end of another semester:  I taught my last Fall semester class this past Tuesday, and now I’m hunkered down at home with my end-term grading.  English professors love to complain about their grading piles, and I’m no exception…but even grading piles of exams and essay portfolios isn’t too terribly bad when you can lounge around the house doing it.

Supermarket snowman

After more than two decades (!!!) of college teaching, I’ve established a tried-and-true routine for the almost-end of the semester. The last week or two of classes, I lose sleep commenting on student papers, offering last-minute feedback on rough drafts my students will revise and re-submit to me in their final portfolios. This final push to the end of the semester feels like the end, but it’s only the first step: I liken it to a mountaineer’s trek to base camp. The way is all uphill, but you haven’t even begun the real climb.

Pellegrino Christmas tree

Finals week is when the big paper piles roll in, but before I get down to the business of grading, grading, grading, I invariably spend an inordinate amount of time getting all my organizational ducks in a row. In the past, I’ve likened this to a painter preparing a canvas: before I can tackle my grading piles, there is a long laundry-list of other, unrelated tasks to tend to, like sending Christmas cards, wrapping presents, and sorting through the bills and other mail that accumulated over the sleep-deprived final weeks of the semester.

Today I almost-finished these mundane chores, so tomorrow I’ll start grading in earnest, my proverbial deck cleared of other demands. So far, the weather has cooperated: today was snowy, so I left the house only when J and I walked to lunch, and tomorrow is supposed to be warm and rainy, a sloppy, snow-melting day that will offer the perfect backdrop for a day at my desk, reading exams and essay portfolios over a bottomless cup of tea.

Wake up and do good

At first I wept, sobbing myself to sleep last Tuesday night when it became clear that hate would triumph over hope. Last Wednesday was gray and drizzly, and I spent the day at home half-heartedly grading papers while cycling between despair and rage. I wasn’t upset because my candidate lost, but because my country and fellow citizens had.

Together we are an ocean

While driving to campus last Thursday morning, I struggled with what to say to my students. It felt like an entirely different world since I had seen them on Election Day, when we had hoped to make history. My grief and anger were still raw: if we couldn’t shatter the glass ceiling, I told myself, then we’d just have to smash the whole goddamn patriarchy. But anger isn’t a plan, and my job is to teach, not sputter with inarticulate rage.

Unity

At some point between parking my car and walking into my morning class, I decided what I wanted. Instead of breaking things, I wanted to build things. Instead of letting my fears and anger turn into divisiveness–the very thing that swept our President-Elect into power–I’d turn my rage into awareness, my disappointment into determination, my fear into ferocity. I didn’t ask to be on the front line of a resistance, but in the aftermath of an election where a demagogue deceived the most vulnerable with hateful slogans and empty promises, teaching critical thinking is a revolutionary act.

Love trumps hate

Regardless of who’s in the Oval Office, I told my students, we’re the ones on the ground doing the real work of democracy. Now that the ballots have been counted, we’ll get down to business of protesting, letter-writing, and loving our neighbors. While others use rhetoric to divide, we’ll speak words of encouragement. And when we see hatred or bigotry, we will refuse to be idle bystanders. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and we’ll fight like hell to protect them. Regardless of who is in the Oval Office, we are the ones who will look hatred in the eye and say “Not on my watch.”

Don't despair, don't hate

Today’s photos come from a student-led Unity Walk and Hope-in-Action Rally at Framingham State. You can read more about the event here, and you can view additional pictures here.

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