Advice and Dissent

I have a friend who asks for advice then argues over it. I’d like to give him advice about THAT, but…

Still, it made me think about advice and criticism. When it comes to advice — especially unsolicited advice — I guess I argue, too. Unsolicited advice seems to inspire the knee-jerk “Yes but…” Solicited advice? I hope I accept it with more grace. In that case I believe the right response is, “Thanks. You’ve given me something to think about,” or something along those lines.

The worst advice is when you’re doing something the way you want and someone jumps in to straighten you out. I know that makes my blood pressure rise. I have to hold myself back to remember they are not the boss of me; they’re trying to help.

Criticism is a species of advice — thinking about my friend yesterday I realized that. If he asks what I think about something, and I think differently than he does, he thinks (feels like) I’m criticizing him, and not criticism in the good sense — analysis and a studied opinion — but fault-finding. Sigh…

When I destroyed the future of the best novel I will ever write by NOT finding an editor for it early on (I didn’t know what an editor did, frankly, or how to find one) I learned a major lesson. The agent who rejected my book with the note, “Great story, but you need an editor” said the most useful thing to me maybe anyone ever has. I have a great editor now. She said something to me that made me feel really good. She said, “You know how to take criticism.”

Huh? I didn’t know that. We kind of talked about it and it seems that when she offers an opinion or advice to someone who’s paying her for that very thing, some of her clients get defensive and angry. I just said, “I don’t have to do what you tell me. And, when a suggestion you’re giving me looks like you don’t understand what I meant, that burden is on me to be more clear.” I understood she was trying to help me tell MY story. For a few hundred bucks I had a captive, interested, intelligent, supportive critic who was authentically interested in helping me tell MY story.

My attitude toward her criticism resulted from nearly 40 years of teaching other people how to write. That’s not intrinsic to me or my personality. I’m definitely a “I want to do this my way” kind of person by nature. Now, because of having been a writing teacher for such a long time, I get it. An editor is not an authority, but it probably feels like one to many of the people whose work they’re editing. We’ve all had so many teachers in our lives and they have all held red pens. It actually happened in one of my classes that a student handed me a purple pen with which to grade my papers. I don’t think I ever went back to red even though — for me — red, blue, green, purple it was all the same. For some of my students, that red pen was a sword slashing at the skin of effort and ideas, replacing their ideas with mine. Blinded by various things — the fact they hate English, they’d had mean teachers, pressures at home, they didn’t want to write the paper, the project was way difficult, etc. — they couldn’t wrap their minds around what the red ink really was. It seemed that — for many — a different color of ink sent a different signal.

I think the same might be said of advising my friend. My new strategy? “Cool. Try it and see how it works.” What the heck do I know anyway? 😉

Fair?

As a teacher, I was not a natural “lecturer.” And then, my first teaching career, teaching English as a Second Language, I learned that people learn skills — like language — through practice not by someone standing in front of the classroom divesting him/herself. It was best to “run” a “student-centered” classroom where the teacher facilitated learning. That meant class projects, group work, teacher checking in with students as they learn, conferencing with students. Great for me. I never learned much from lecture classes and was happy not to lecture. BUT, in 1999, when my career shifted to teaching writing to university students, I had to learn to lecture. And why?

Most people learn from lecture, from being told something. It’s a very efficient way of transmitting information. The thing is, writing is not exactly a “content.” Writing is a skill, but content is part of it. Once the content is transmitted, the students work, but at a certain point, usually the first two weeks of classes and whenever new material is introduced, a teacher has to lecture. I was so bad at it, and I wanted to get better FAST. Teaching at the university had been my DREAM, and I wanted to keep living it.

Some years earlier, I’d sat in on some classes with a friend — Introduction to Comparative Religions — taught by a guy named Dr. Mueller. My friend thought Dr. Mueller was the BEST TEACHER IN THE WHOLE ENTIRE WORLD. After I’d seen him lecture a few times, so did I. Searching for a way to improve my ability to lecture, I suddenly remembered Dr. Mueller. I decided to sit in on his classes for the first few days of the semester. In the back. He wouldn’t notice me and I had to figure out how he did what he did.

Freshman composition and Introduction to Comparative Religions might not seem to have much in common, but from a student perspective, they have a LOT in common. They satisfy requirements. Dr. Mueller’s job and mine were the same; get the kids interested enough that they show up for class and do decent work and — inshallah — learn something and develop some enthusiasm for the subject. It didn’t really matter that composition and philosophy are miles apart for the interested student; our “market” was the UN-interested student in his/her first semester at university.

Tough sell.

Dr. Mueller was energetic, enthusiastic, captivating. He didn’t cling to the lectern, but moved around the room and spoke to the students. He asked interesting rhetorical questions and not-so-rhetorical questions. He related to the students’ actual lives. He was older than I was by maybe a decade, so it wasn’t his youth that appealed to his students (they are funny that way). It was his way of lecturing.

I sat in that class — and another of his introductory classes — for the first three lectures for, I dunno, maybe four semesters? I saw that he gave essentially exactly the same lectures every semester. I understood that this was theater, not lecturing, per se. A-HA! His goal was less about transmitting information and more about getting students curious. After that? I knew what would happen after that. They would start TEACHING THEMSELVES. Teacher as facilitator. I could do that.

The content of one of those lectures has stuck with me. Dr. Mueller made up a situation in which (as I remember) a guy (or girl, depending) got dumped for someone else. “It’s not fair!” cried Dr. Mueller in the role of the dumpee! Then, “Is it?” He’d look at a student for a response. “C’mon, maybe you’ve been in that situation. No? How about you?” He’d pick on someone else. “Is it fair?” The whole class would be engaged, wondering what was going to happen. Invariably the kid would shake his/her head.

“Fair is for soccer,” pronounced Dr. Mueller, returning to the front of the class, reassuming his professorial role, through body-language telling his class “OK kids, here’s the thing you need to remember from this play-acting. “Life isn’t fair. It doesn’t have a referees or rules. And if it did? Would YOU be the person who made the rules?” Heads shake all around the classroom. “No,” Dr. Mueller would say, softly. “Probably not.” Then he’d make his serious point, “Our sense of justice is centered on us, on what we want. If we get what we want, it’s fair. If not, it’s not fair. Is THAT fair?”

Years went by, and I was lecturing well on my own. Then, one day, I was teaching a class in the building where Dr. Mueller had his office. I came out of my classroom just as he was going down the stairs. Our eyes met. Of course, I knew who he was. He only knew he’d seen me before and felt he should say something. He said, “Well, hello! How have you been?”

I’m 100% sure he didn’t get the full message in my response, “Great, thank you!”

How did I do? Here’s my report card. My students wanted to make sure all my classes filled so they put up advertising all over campus. Business Majors do what they do. IDS 290 was Basic Business Communication.

Selective Memory

“…you must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home. People talk to you a great deal about your education but some good, sacred memory preserved from childhood is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days.”

Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov


I don’t know if anyone ever described Dostoyevsky’s work as “scintillating,” but I loved his books. Thinking of them, though, I have to laugh. When I was writing The Brothers Path, and I was (briefly) in an online writers workshop, one of my “classmates” asked what I was trying to do, be Dostoyevsky? Like there was something wrong with that as an aspiration? My novel, The Brothers Path, has no central protagonist, and that may or may not be a failing, but since the story IS about six brothers all living in the same historical moment in the 16th century, contending with the sudden smorgasbord of alternative Christian faiths, and it’s a book about a family not about a person.

A long time ago I did a dramatic reading of a play for a graduate seminar in James Joyce. The professor had invited my friend, O’Donnell, to read his play and he needed a “Maeve.” It was fun, and I met the chairman of the English department, Sherry Little. She was amazing. We got to be friends and the three of us would sometimes meet in Irish pubs and read to each other. As a result of this, when an opening for a lecturer appeared in the Creative Writing Department at San Diego State, she nominated me. The jury of the Creative Writing Department categorically said, “NO. She doesn’t have a masters in creative writing.”

“No,” said Sherry, “but she can WRITE! And she’s been teaching writing for years!”

“Not creative writing,” they said, and that was that. I was disappointed, but the three of us went out for Guiness, discussion, poetry and stories. I figured I’d gotten the better end of the deal.

The quotation from The Brothers Karamazov has stuck with me since my Dostoyevsky days back in the mid 1980s. I believe it is true. I suspect that those memories emerge when things are dark and in some small, quiet way move us forward out of whatever trench we’re in at the moment. I also suspect that we horde those memories and keep them where we can see them. I say this because all the abuse my mom heaped upon me has never been in front of my mind; in fact, my aunts had to talk to me straight to get me to look at those events as they really happened. I’m grateful for those talks and the truth revealed, but at the same time, except for a deeper personal understanding of myself and “mistakes” I made as a result of deep-seated fear, my life has gone on in its comparatively optimistic look-at-the-brightside kind of way. In fact, I didn’t look at what she did as “abuse.” It was just the way she was.

The holiday season brings up memories for most people, I think, and I hope for everyone it brings up good memories from childhood, but I know that’s not the case for everyone. I’m grateful that, for me, it is. Sure, some of my good memories involve Lutefisk, but… Anyway, the thing about memories is we can make new good memories.



Featured photo: My family on Christmas Eve, 1961. We opened our presents Christmas Eve as was traditional in my mom’s family and over much of German speaking Europe. Christmas Day was for more serious, less materialistic, endeavors such as dinner and playing with presents though there were stockings with an orange in the toe, some walnuts, small toys… I still have the stocking on which my grandma embroidered my initials.

Just another Mafioso

One of the first castles I ever saw was referred to by my friends as Castello Erasmo and it’s in Predjama, Slovenja. The story that brought me there is long and probably incredibly interesting in tabloid news style, but I’m not writing it here (maybe no where). The original structure (long gone) was built in 1274. The castle has since been rebuilt many times. Its protective palisade is the mouth of a cave. The castle butts up against a rock face.

I had not become a Swiss Medievalist Historian yet. It was my first trip to Europe — 1994 — and the trip was fraught, plain and simply fraught, but being born is NEVER easy and being born as an adult into a new life is REALLY not easy.

The guy for whom the castle is named was a robber baron who got into trouble with the Hapsburgs (pretty easy to do, I think, since they were everywhere). Legend has it that he met his demise (always wanted to write that) when he was hit by a cannon ball while sitting on the toilet. The coolest thing about the castle is that there is a way out the back that leads to the top of the cliff, pretty handy in times of siege especially as there was water up there.

“Wow. I didn’t even know Erasmus was in Slovenia.” I remembered reading In Praise of Folly in college. It was an interesting if fairly inaccessible satire for me at 18.

I did not know that Erasmus was a common name back then. In fact, I didn’t know anything. I got home from Europe and found myself reading Erasmus (the famous one, the one who wasn’t a mafioso). I struggled with the Latin (never been one to take the easy or sensible or even POSSIBLE route) then gave up and read the words on the facing page (English). Sigh.

Live and learn.

I have a lot of respect for ignorance. THAT benighted journey took me to the Reformation, not Slovenia. OK.

You never know where ignorance will take you — ignorance + curiosity have taken me a lot of places I never imagined I would go. There’s something cool about being a self-taught kind of person, I don’t mean the person who ignores science and believes what they “learn” on Youtube about the Corona virus, I mean the person who wants to find out more about something and does real work, real research to find out. It’s different from school which goes in arbitrary stages — grades, exams, finals, finishes, OK, kid, you got this — but that doesn’t stop. As a teacher I really didn’t think I “taught” anyone anything. I just put the stuff in front of them and showed them something about how to do it and how they would know if they succeeded. I couldn’t “teach” them if they didn’t want to do the work needed to learn it. It was really ON them. At best I showed, facilitated and guided. The best thing I could do — I thought — was inspire in them the desire to learn it, to help them become open to a new experience (writing). Sometimes the magic worked and sometimes it didn’t.

One thing I learned about school in my later years is that it gives you skills you can use your whole life to learn things.

There are other castles built against cliff faces. I wanted to write about a castle like this and found one in Switzerland. I wanted to go see the ruins during one of my trips to Switzerland, but it turned out to be impossible for a lot of reasons — weather, family illness, time… It’s in the Canton of Solothurn, Ruine Balmfluh. It’s built against a cliff in the Jura Mountains.

It’s true what Europeans say about Americans, that we like castles. 🤪 Oh, and the word “palisade?” It is a pretty word, but not such a pretty thing. Some of them were pretty sinister.

Dancing on the Queen Mary

A couple of years after I got back from China, I gave a paper at the international conference for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). TESOL had seen that China was going to be a big market for English as a Foreign Language Teachers and dedicated the whole conference to teaching in the People’s Republic. Many professors from throughout China had been invited and many attended my session. The thing is, my paper wasn’t directed at these men; it was directed toward young teachers who hoped to find jobs as Foreign Experts in English in China.

Even though China was developing quickly, in 1986 most places weren’t “there” yet and the conditions under which I lived in Guangzhou were still prevalent throughout the country. The paper talked about living conditions (don’t expect hot water in your apartment), student expectations (these students aren’t used to open discussions in class), what I saw as the relationship between Confucianism and Maoism (turned out that was accurate).

The conference was held at the Anaheim Hilton — very nice — overlooking Disneyland. As I recall there was a field trip set up for all the Chinese to go to Disneyland! I might have gone, too, but (if you can believe it) back then I went to Disneyland a couple times a year with groups of students from the international school where I was teaching, so a trip to Disneyland wouldn’t stand out in my memory.

I gave my paper and afterwards it was challenged by the Chinese professors from big cities where conditions for foreign experts were pretty plush. I knew this because I’d traveled to Shanghai and Beijing and had stayed in the hotels where foreign experts lived in those times. My university, however, housed us in an apartment building where other Chinese professors lived. One of my points was that it was important to ask how one would be housed and to prepare for it. I did that by taking an electricity converter and a toaster oven, a year’s supply of tampons, and a supply of various medications. Chinese healthcare turned out to be great, but there were still things I needed from home.

Face is important to Chinese and my presentation had made these Chinese professor lose face, but not really. It wasn’t directed to them. It was an interesting reminder of the one and only not-all-that-great aspect of my year teaching in China. China was (is?) also a very paternalistic society and these were older men and I was a young woman. OH well. I didn’t care. Those who needed the message would hear it, I hoped. But I felt a little bad. I never wanted to disgrace China or the Chinese. The country and the people had been so kind to me. “Kind” isn’t even a big enough word. Things don’t have to be perfect for us to love them with our whole hearts.

That evening there was a “gala” on the Queen Mary which is parked/docked in Long Beach. It’s — with all its incredible history — now a beautiful, Art Deco floating hotel. I’d been there a couple of times as a tourist but the idea of a dinner dance in the grand ballroom! How amazing. I had brought my good dress — red silk, of course — and the Good X and I were gussied up and ready to go. It was beautiful. All the Chinese professors had been bussed over and sat at the round tables set up around the dance floor smoking (1986). The Good X and I danced and then one of the professors asked me to dance. He wasn’t from Beijing or Shanghai, but a city in the interior that had faced a lot of damage in the anti-Japanese war and was even then struggling with reconstruction after all the years of Mao and poverty.

He was an amazing dancer. As we danced a couple of dances I found myself in one of those those secret conversations held out in the open I’d experienced so often in China. “My colleagues think they lost face because of your talk, Ma Sa. But I know you are right. If American teachers know what to expect, they won’t be shocked. Some of our foreign teachers went home before the term ended. America is a very comfortable country.” I told him that was my purpose in telling prospective teachers what I had experienced teaching in one of China’s biggest cities.

“But you love China,” he said.

“I do,” I said, my throat catching.

“I love America,” he said in a soft voice. “When I was a young man, I studied in America. Then the war…” Like many Chinese in the earlier decades of the 20th century he’d earned a scholarship to study in the US. “All during the Cultural Revolution, I remembered those days even though…” He sighed. Lucky for him he wasn’t a language teacher but a science professor. I heard everything in his silence. “I never thought I would come back and here I am, dancing with a beautiful American girl on this historic ship.”

Memories like this have a way of receding into the dim recesses of “almost forgotten,” then some random thing stirs them up, thank goodness! As for “myocarditis,” the prompt this morning, this kind of memory doesn’t stimulate heart-muscle pain, but the sense that there really have been some miracles along the way. ❤

“Normal?”

Last night I read a CNN article written by a therapist — John Duffy — that described people who weren’t all that anxious to return to “normal” life after the pandemic was over. “These people thrived in pandemic isolation — and aren’t ready to return to ‘normal’ socializing.”

The writer essentially labeled such people as “socially anxious” and described it as a kind of pathology. Personally, I don’t think being reluctant to wander around in a world in which a deadly pandemic is flying around is pathological but definitively sane. I know that social avoidance CAN be a problem for people, but not all people who are not super eager to return to “normal” life are struggling with a mental health issue. One thing the article never mentioned was people like me who do things — enjoy things — that you just don’t do with a bunch of friends or out in the world.

I remember very well the night I typed the last word on the finished rough draft of my first novel, Martin of Gfenn. I had little time to work on it — an hour or so in the evening which made the finished (ha ha) draft very repetitive because I had to catch up where I’d left off. Anyhoo I shut down my computer (an old Apple) stood up and wondered where everybody was. I’d spent so much time with all these interesting people, the characters in my book, and now my house was completely empty. It was one of those moment in life when you think there should be champagne and a big celebration but my house was empty (except for six dogs). That’s when I realized that to write I’d have to accept a kind of solitude most people might never even know.

At the same time, I’d had this incredible experience that was impossible to share with anyone. I’d written a novel. I’d brought my story, my vision, for Martin (the character) into real life. I’d done the work, the immense research, all of it, the library time (back then). Because of my book, I KNEW people who’d lived in the 13th century. The experience catapulted me into a different Martha, but I couldn’t share that, either. I remember sitting in my living room thinking, “If you’re going to do that, you’re going to have to accept solitude.”

My mom had social anxiety and she was always afraid her kids would, too. It was one of the reasons she didn’t want her two artistic kids to be artists. “You’ll always be alone.” But she didn’t know. Maybe the great designer puts each of us together exactly right for who we are.

I don’t dispute that there are people with social anxiety and that maybe it’s a problem for them (it was for my mom because she wasn’t happy). But not all people who are less than eager for a return to “normal” life fit into that slot. I came to understand this when I was teaching. There were meetings in which NOTHING happened. Problems weren’t solved. Some people talked and some people didn’t. I seldom did. Then someone would end the meeting and invariably say, “This was a good meeting. Thank you so much for sharing your concerns.” They would point to a list they’d written while the talkers were talking.

Two things went through my mind. First, only the concerns of the people who’d spoken up were on that list. Second, the REAL reason for the meeting had nothing to do with solving problems. These people just needed to get in a room together and yammer at each other. The act itself was meaningful to them. For me it was a complete waste of time. When I felt something needed to be changed I’d go find the person who could change it and talk to them or write them so they could share my thoughts clearly and compellingly laid out rather than in an emotion-laden rambling rant.

Social anxiety or not, we’re stuck in the world with each other and extroversion is “normal.” Many an introvert (like me) has no particular social anxiety, it’s just that “out there” is tiring and requires effort that being alone probably requires for the extroverted. I have friends who’ve had significant stress during the past year because they have been precluded from doing the things that they love to do. They’ve engaged socially much more than I would (or did). For them the risk of NOT engaging was worse than the risk of getting ill.

“A year ago, most of us could not imagine a world in which we not only didn’t have to go to work, school, restaurants, concerts and churches, much less that any such activity would be forbidden. And my socially anxious clients have now been basking in a wholly false sense of security for the better part of a year.”

https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/09/health/social-anxiety-post-pandemic-life/index.html


In other words, the world in which the socially anxious are comfortable can’t last. They don’t own the world.

And then…in reality when I was 12, and had to give a prayer at church, in front of the congregation, I passed out, fell on the floor, humiliated myself and my mom. I was THAT afraid of public speaking. I knew even then that I could not live the life I wanted if I was that afraid to stand and say my say. I worked hard to overcome that. The moment I knew I HAD overcome that happened almost 40 years later, when, at the invitation of one of my students, I gave a lecture (one I’d given to this student’s class) on overcoming the fear of public speaking. There were 300 students in that room waiting to hear me. Some were there because it was required or extra credit for their communication class; some were there because they wanted some hope. They, too, knew they couldn’t go forward in their lives without overcoming that. I had a good slide show and a good speech. I also wore clothes in which my armpit sweat wouldn’t show because yes. I was terrified. But what’s the point of terror like that? There is none. It was a bit of an operation to set up and prepare, but…

I gave my speech. It was well accepted, applauded. Then, afterward, when nearly everyone had left and I was packing up my stuff, a young woman came to talk to me. She was so nervous her face was shaking, her hands were damp and shaky, too.

“Can I ask you something?” she ventured.

“Sure.”

“Did you REALLY get over being afraid?”

“No.” I slipped off my jacket. My pit stains went to my waist.

“How do you do it? I never imagined you were nervous.”

“I had something important to say,” I told her. “More important than how I felt when I started to speak. That’s my secret. I think of what I have to say and who needs to hear it. And, I prepare. And I know that whatever happens, it’s not going to kill me.”

She wrote all this down, no longer shaking. Then, “Thank you, thank you so much. I think you helped me.”

ONE person in that room NEEDED that message. Was her personality a pathology? No.

But after that…I gave several papers at conferences and all the normal things that were part of my life and job, but I was (with the exception of my book reading in 2019) never nervous again. Social anxiety — which I believe everyone has — is not “abnormal.” It’s human.

I Get my Gold Watch

I don’t have much contact with former students and don’t much want it. Most of my students were OK, some of them were fun, some were astonishingly great, some of them were unspeakable monsters. But teaching is a kind of transactional relationship. It’s a calling for many people. For me it was a calling, but in reality it’s a bunch of people (remember I taught college and university writing and business communication) who pay some money to learn some stuff they hope will help them earn a living when they’re finished. They pay. The teacher is paid in turn to teach them something useful to their future lives.

What that might be, however? That’s a big question especially when you aren’t teaching hard skills but soft ones.

You sign up for “a world of pain” when you sign up for this. Last night, for some reason, I thought of all the really horrific experiences I had as a teacher that included being pushed up against a wall with a student’s hand on my throat. I wondered why I was remembering this of all things in a world that’s scary enough as it is. Then I realized that it’s because a student emailed me a couple of days ago.

She is from Iraq. Her family refugeed to the US during the GWB war. She was young, 19. She was in my critical thinking class at a community college. She was aggressive and arrogant (defenses?). One day, as we were starting Fahrenheit 451 she said, “Why do we have to read this? It’s boring.”

Her whole strategy for going to school and approaching life, her whole feeling toward existence, all of that was encapsulated in that question. She was going to endure life by rejecting it out of hand. That would teach it.

I looked at her, kept my composure, and said, “Because it changed the world. You need to know what it says or you’re going to live in a future just like that. How far are you?”

“Two pages.”

I laughed. “Keep reading. Every book is boring two pages in.”

She kept reading and her attitude changed. Her attitude toward EVERYTHING changed. She never stopped challenging things, but she didn’t challenge me in that way again. She needed someone to stand up to her. She loved all three novels we read and saw herself as Milo in The Phantom Tollbooth, driving her car out of The Doldrums to conduct the orchestra of Chroma the Great.

We’ve corresponded off and on since I moved here. She finished her degree and has done a lot of traveling. I think for her, now, life is a journey. She wrote about her most recent trip which was to Iran;

“What I enjoyed the most, was the fact that I was walking on land where the Persian Empire started. Every step I took was a step in history every building I entered some famous scholar once sat their to conduct their studies. That to me was so powerful. It is as if you are walking in the past but right now. I don’t know how to really explain it. If you have ever stepped in a historical place you might know what I mean.”

And that, folks, is why I put up with everything for so long.

And, as I post this, this song plays on Mohammed’s Radio:

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/05/06/rdp-wednesday-composure/

Charmed

Any of you who’ve had kids and grandkids probably know what it’s like to watch a little kid learn how to read. Until yesterday I had not had the experience.

When they arrived to set up the deck, Connor told me he was Hobbes and Michelle was Calvin. I said, “How come you get to be the tiger?”

“We played for it and I lost.”

Personally, I think it’s better to be a tiger, but that’s just me.

Lots of stuff happened in kid time while the project went on. At one point,
Michelle sat in front of me with a well-read Calvin and Hobbes comic book. She read slowly, not totally getting the essence of what the words said, but pointing at the words and sounding them out old-school.

One of the new words was “garden.” I commenced the Socratic method almost instinctively. “Where do flowers grow?”

“Yard?”

After a couple failures (this is not university) her mom said, “Sound it out, honey.”

“Gar-den.” She jumped up in delight! “GARDEN!!!”

Then she said down and kept reading to me. I had tears in my eyes at the beauty of this. I looked over at her mom who was kind of teary, too. In my mind I saw the WHOLE WORLD OPEN for Michelle.


P.S. Obviously I’m not a stickler for writing to the prompt.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/04/26/rdp-sunday-stickler/

Whim

19th century writers used a lot of words. It would be another hundred years before a different style of writing would catch on. Emerson is wordy. There’s no way around it. It’s an incontrovertible truth. When I taught “Self-Reliance” I did it by making a worksheet that had one question per paragraph. The idea was if the student could answer the question, he/she had the jist of the paragraph.

My students hated it, or, anyway, I thought they hated it. When I wrote my thesis advisor, who had edited the Emerson’s Essays we were using, and told him I was teaching it, he said, “Find out who likes it. Get their names and I’ll send them autographed copies.”

The next time I went to class I asked, “Do any of you like ‘Self-Reliance’?” 3/4 of the class raised their hands. I said, “It doesn’t affect your grade. I just haven’t tried this before.” No one put their hands down. Dr. Robert D. Richardson had to send 25 autographed copies of the book.

The message of “Self-Reliance” is that through self-knowledge, a person can learn to act and live in harmony with his/her true nature. The essay is full of beautiful passages buried in the labyrinth of Emerson’s prose. One of the loveliest, densest and (to me) truthful passages of “Self-Reliance” is very dense, but the message contained within it strikes home for me. It concerns “Whim.”

I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation… Self-Reliance” Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Whim” in this case is essentially following your heart. You don’t know where it’s going to lead, but the thread to which it attaches might be the heart’s goal. It might not, but, as Emerson says, “…we cannot spend the day in explanation.”

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/04/18/rdp-saturday-whimsical/

“The Truth is Out There”

One of the chapters in Beyond Feelings, the Critical Thinking book I used for years and years, was titled “What is TRUTH?” It was a very hard chapter to teach because it went against most of what my students had learned in their lives about Truth. It was fun, though, provocative and engaging.

The author of Beyond Feelings — Vincent Ryan Ruggiero — made the case that:

  • Truth is not a matter of opinion
  • Just because we don’t know what it is, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist
  • Truth is not personal
  • Belief doesn’t make something true

The search for truth is the essence of curiosity. Its best friend is humility.

Ruggiero’s objective was to stimulate students to question, and they did, sometimes loudly and fervently. “No! That’s my truth and you can’t change it!” My job at that point was to help them understand that what they were defending wasn’t truth at all. It was their belief about something. It’s a threatening idea that can leave a person — especially a student who’s worried about his/her GPA — feeling like they’re standing on the sand by the ocean while the water pulls the sand out from under his/her feet. Students who had been penalized for saying, “I don’t know,” had a hard time with the fact that “I don’t know” is a valid answer when they, uh, don’t know. In my class it was never a wrong answer.

Those who understood (and most did after a while) felt a sense of liberation. They didn’t have to waste any more time defending anything.

Personal taste and personal belief, however, are always true. A person can speak for him/herself in that dimension and always speak the truth. An example:

“Does God exist?”
“I believe so.”
“But do you KNOW he does? Can you prove it?”
“No, but I can’t prove that God DOESN’T exist, either.”

The pure essence of belief. One endless (and easily escalated) argument bites the dust. Belief is a choice and requires no defense. Truth, however, is an objective reality and needs defense through demonstrable evidence.

I had a colleague at one of the colleges in which I taught who HATED the idea of objective truth. He said it was fascist because it insisted everyone believe the same thing. He absolutely didn’t understand it. First, objective truth is not an idea. Second, it has nothing to do with personal belief. This guy also hated it when I subbed for one of his classes and presented a PowerPoint (1998!) on Kafka’s life. “What does PowerPoint have to do with Kafka?” This teacher never saw the show, never saw the streets of Prague in Kafka’s time or photos of Kafka “writ large” and projected to the class so they could SEE a world that, in space and time, was completely alien to them. (Because, really, what did Kafka’s world have to do with Kafka? Or the fact that he was a real person not a concept?)

No point arguing personal belief. I shrugged and avoided him from then on, not so much because of his opinion about truth, but because he dismissed a technological tool just because he didn’t want to learn it, even if it was relevant to the world in which his students would live.

Here is an interesting analysis of the “truth vs. belief” phenomenon.

Why Smart People Believe Coronavirus Myths

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/04/12/rdp-sunday-truth/