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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Eve 2013-2014

Sufficient Moment

Where we live
Overhead the stars are quiet, 
their heat a glow,

fire a distant promise.

I feel your eyes on my words tonight,

searching, searching.

Tarot cards are on the table. I know what I wish to see.

The night is full of it already: possibility.

Mary Chase
Dec. 31, 2013

Happy New Year!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Adventures in Dreamtown

Paul Klee Dream City 1921

There's a town  I visit in my dreams almost every night. It's the same every time I'm there--only the plot changes.

I've come to know the neighborhoods, shopping malls, an enormous grocery store, the school, hospital, even a small casino. In homes, towels and mixing bowls spill from partially packed boxes and I never know if the residents are moving in or out. Some of these are houses I used to live in, but they are no longer my home. Wandering through the neighborhoods I used to know, I cut through back yards and living rooms, encountering children who run to find their parents. After all, I am sometimes in a hospital gown, dragging my drip IV behind me like a hobbyhorse.

I'm often on my way to a hospital which I enter through a loading dock.  I never really know if I'm there to visit or to have another surgery. I try to find out at the nurses' station, but it is always deserted, except for an old man smoking a cigarette. He has nothing to say. Sooner or later I encounter my mother who is strangely calm. She wanders off find someone to help me, much as she would to find a cup of coffee.

Dream window
Walmart-esque nightmare
I shop at a mall where most of the stores are closed or understocked, but through the windows I sometimes see outlandish but beautiful clothing: tall hats made of silver fur, silks figured with scenes from a fairytale, whimsical crafts clicking with magic. When I open the door I am in a Walmart-esque nightmare.

There are a few spots of brilliant beauty in Dreamtown, for example, a bare silver tree in whose branches a hundred yellow canaries wearing red pagoda-shaped hats trill Vivaldi. For the most part, though, the light is always dim and ramshackle buildings sway under matchstick scaffolding. Every street ends suddenly and my dreaming self asks endlessly, What is this place? Why do I return here night after night?

Freud might say that the houses, which in women's dreams represent their bodies, demonstrate my unhappiness with the way my own aging corpus betrays me. Jung might identify the old man smoking as an archetypal gatekeeper or mentor who will remain silent until I unlock his tongue with the right sort of magic. In these dreams I trespass in homes no longer my own and in hospital wards marked DO NOT ENTER. According to Dream Moods, one of the most popular dream interpretation sites on the Internet, "To dream that you are trespassing suggests that you are forcing your beliefs on others." Perhaps. Readers? Students?

Writing, we are told, is a process of discovery. I write this blog as a way of thinking, more than as a means of communication. And as I've written this particular post, I've remembered that, whatever else dreams may be -- portents, warped figments of the mind at rest, echoes of the deep, dark past -- they are always metaphors. But what does this one teach me? Perhaps that I know more as a dreamer than as a waking being. As a citizen of HereAndNow, I am so often frustrated, afraid and angry. I curse while I drive and as I read the newspaper. I worry about the prices of gold and gas. I continue to despise Karl Rove and Reinhard Heydrich.

My Dreamtown may have emerged from unresolved fears and thwarted expectations, but oddly enough, I am never afraid there or angry, merely curious. So, is this series of nightly vignettes instructing me to meet what I encounter with curiosity? With acceptance? Not expectation or judgment? Will calm consideration dispel the threat of whatever I confront? Turn a bomb into a bubble or a serpent to a string of pearls?

I don't know, but I suspect there is something to this lesson.  I will try for now to unclench my mind from expectation and my heart from fear. I think that such a change can at least do no harm.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


September the Eleventh

If you, knowing what you know,
Having read what you have read,
and remembering
All the tales you’ve heard

Should despite these warnings
name your son Icarus,
You cannot feign surprise
When blood of your blood
reaching wide as a swan unfurled
steps forward from the sill
And into the arms of flames.

The updraft buoys him like cinder
So that he might instead be flying
And for a moment the air is his.

So, too, Daedalus treading the shore, brushing
feathers of ash  from his dusted shoulders
Still thinks of cheating disaster.

Mary Chase

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Overcoming the Gruesome Legacy of English Composition

Like many in education, I have been plagued for some time by just how useless the whole endeavor seems to be -- and how meddling in education by non-educators has made it even more lame, bored more students and made teachers' jobs even harder than ever (viz., the disproportional amount of time spent preparing for and taking standardized tests that focus only on what can be quantified--therefore multiple choice questions at the expense of  descriptive/analytic responses). It's more than this, though.  It's sacred tradition as well. 

I taught Writing 121 - Introduction to Composition this summer, trying once again to make it both interesting and useful. The class, as you might suspect, is dedicated to the production on large scale of unreadable essays whose uniform badness exerts an intellectual lethargy on those who must write or read them. 

Half-wits will work for less.
The essay as a form was invented in the 16th century by people who were no good at writing poetry. It did not reach its apex of unpopularity, however, until the late 19th century. Then it became the most ubiquitous and effective means of ensuring that students became disengaged from their educations and asked only the questions that would get them through the assignment. After all, who wants the world to be full of thinkers, when half-wits work for less?

In any case, the notion that emphasis on formal essay-writing is not only responsible, but also right and good, has become so fixed in the traditions of writing departments that debate is all but pointless. And as for students, is there any among you whose heart actually cried out with joy at the notion of outlining, creating a thesis statement, adding supporting details whether or not there were any to be had? If so, you were not among my charges who lined up obediently, if listlessly, for their dose of educational castor oil. They knew (because they'd been told) it was good for them, no matter how bad it tasted. Even when I allowed students to chose their own topics, write from experience and share with peers, the writing was lackluster more often than not. It was still something they had to do to get through my class on the way to some other goal.
From The Hapless Child by Edward Gorey (with my textual addition)

Age prompts us to be reflective and reconsider the various decisions we've made in life; for example, I used to require essays. Age also makes us less fearful -- we know where we're headed, so the threat of temporal consequences (losing my contract!) becomes less frightful than a sprinkling of gnats. Age has its benefits.

Taking advantage of the courage age bestows has brought about one of the most successful writing classes I've ever taught. How?  By not requiring any essaysStudents don't want to write them and I certainly do not want to read them. 

So what did my WR121 students doing instead? What they did instead was focus on research and reflect on what they'd found by keeping an online blog. "The blog," I told them at the beginning of the term, "has not yet defined itself as a form. We are pioneers, exploring a new, emerging genre. There is no length, except what your reader will bear. There is no formulaic way to begin or end. It is interactive. There is a real audience beyond the teacher." 

And what were they to write about? Donald Graves, one of my dissertation advisors, was keen on allowing students to "pursue their obsessions". So I told students to write about whatever drove them, fascinated them, made them angry or confused. They were in charge of the topic and the form. Graves' friend and colleague, Donald Murray, famously said, "We don't write with words. We write with information." So they would use the information they discovered as the raw material of thought.

I didn't know what would happen, but I knew that the writing could be no worse than what I had read over the years. I was floored, however, when I read the first posts: it was some of the best student writing I'd ever seen. Topics were important and unexpected: government surveillance, NRA funding, child soldiers, art therapy, rape as a weapon of war... Gone was the awkward flailing about for topic and theme, the padded sentences and crippled logic so often prompted by the need to support a thesis or find accordance with format. Instead, their writing was tip of the pen (or cursor) excitement. 

In some mysterious way, the requirements of the course combined to create a successful writing and learning experience. I have some notions as to why -- the discovery that their readers included not only me and their classmates, but perfect strangers who had stumbled across their blogs ("I have a reader from Russia!"); the luxury of deciding the content of their studies and the time to investigate it over weeks and weeks; the comfort of knowing no one was counting words, telling them how many paragraphs they needed, or even expecting them to arrive at a conclusion. Magic arises from the interaction between reading and writing, and from a marriage of investigation and reflection. 

There's a lot to consider about this pedagogical experiment. For instance:

  • Why did students think that this was one of the best writing classes they'd ever taken, when I didn't teach them about writing? Our discussions focused on where their research was leading them, which direction to follow, what new questions had emerged. 
  • Is this the kind of experience necessary to bring students to the point where a great piece of writing could really be crafted? In the past I'd spent untold hours trying to help students revise writing not worthy of revision. 
  • Why have teachers become an unimportant, nearly invisible audience for their student writers? 
... and more.

I'll try it again this fall with two more classes. I'll let you know what happens.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Since last I wrote

It's been a long time since I made an entry here. Several ideas have drifted by and faded into the collective morass of abandoned possibilities we call yesterday. Much has happened since last I wrote. To begin with, we have a new...


The Pope's nose
My family members have long been followers of all things Papal, beginning (in my experience at least) with Pope Pius XII. My memories of him coincide with my Protestant and highly anti-Catholic grandfather who always referred to the nether regions of a turkey as "the Pope's nose." This epithet  made my parents uncomfortable and did little for my piety during formative years. It may, in part, explain my eventual separation from Holy Mother Church.

Consequent with my own life, a sequence of popes has reminded me that we never really left the Dark Ages.  Jolly John XXIII wrought havoc with the Latin Mass. Dour Paul VI brought us back in line. The abbreviated reign of John Paul I prompted one of my favorite questions from a precocious child: Pope dead again? John Paul II was both flashy and saintly, a tough customer who looked the leader. (J-P I looked like a clerk). Benedict, our new Pope emeritus,  looks guilty, as befits a former member of Hitler Youth. And Pope Francis? Interesting.

I wonder about Francis a lot. Will he miss the land of the tango? The sultry nights full of animal cries, barking dogs and sirens? Almost certainly he will miss his little apartment, anonymous rides on the bus, and perhaps even the Coriolis Effect. I picture him in his new digs, waiting impatiently for everyone to leave at the end of his first day so he could look in the closets and drawers. There he undoubtedly discovered his new papal duds-- all embroidered with the papal seal. Almost like going to parochial school and having to wear a uniform...hmmmm. I know he's conservative, but he is such a Bilbo Baggins type and has already offended fundamentalists that I have decided to like him, for now.


Observant readers will recall that I visited Brazil last year so that my husband and I could attend to the business of his late mother's estate. The cargo ship wended its way through the Panama Canal and arrived in January. Since then I have been spending much of my time finding places for, researching and generally shifting around the contents of 181 boxes and 500 cubic feet of furniture. Now...

I live in a museum!
Display cabinet with portrait miniatures
Pitching a TV series on the life I live now would include the sell line: Antiques Roadshow meets Hoarders. Honestly, I cannot get from the kitchen to the living room without having to side-step stacks of engravings, rolled carpets, Victorian curiosities and even four enormous cupboards circa 1600. Jose comes from a family of diplomats who travelled all over and collected whatever they liked: portrait miniatures (what rich people had before photographs), china (there are no sets with fewer than 20 place-settings), hat pins, books, snuff boxes, figurines, and unidentifiable Hindu gods in bronze.

Yamantaka? Anyone?

This is a delightful burden, but a burden nonetheless. At my best, I am a very bad organizer and very good procrastinator, a perilous combination. My housekeeping has always been "casual" and my tolerance for states of flux admirable. I need help. Help!


So, how do I survive? As ever: avoidance. Summer has brought the summer to-do list in the garden, but when I am avoiding that, I write instead.


High Spirits at Harroweby,
my Regency ghost story
I began this blog to help me overcome writer's block so I could work on my novels. Lately, I've had blogger's block, so I've had to work on my novels.  Ironic, isn't it?

I wrote five romance novels in the 1990s, short Austen-esque comedies of manners set in Regency England. They went out of print, rights reverted,  and I've finally gotten most of them up on Amazon. The interesting thing is that in the last 3 weeks they've sold better than they did in a traditional venue and I am finally earning something from them. Maybe I should abandon the mystery novel I've been working on and go back to the early 19th century. I have the furniture to go with it. 

and Teaching Writing...

I thought I was taking this term off, but about a week ago I got a call asking if I could take over for a staff member diagnosed with cancer. I could and did, and it has been a wild ride taking over with five sessions left before the end of the term and 50 students who had not yet received a paper back from their instructor. She was too sick. I was left with about 300 pages of partially marked work and the assignments were badly at odds with anything I would have done. Different philosophies are necessary in schools, of course, but I wish there had been a closer match. We are all working hard, reaching up to touch the ground. Let's hope we all come out the other end enlightened in some way.

But overshadowing all of this...

I write above about distractions from what has really been going on.

Our darling Irish Wolfhound, Silver, passed away two weeks ago after walking a long declining path. He's been my best friend for eight years--smart, funny, charming and demanding. It broke our hearts to see this big strong boy weaken with pain, stop eating, and finally have to be lifted into the taxi-van (I can't say enough about these good people) that took him to the vet. 
Where is my hero, my heart, my hound?
Where does he prance, my bright pawed darling?
In the fields where rabbits run, and roses are always blooming.

I was prepared for Silver's dying, but not for his being gone.  It's one thing to see the end of his suffering. As a student reminded me, putting a pet down is the final act of love. But Silver started and ended our days. He woke us in the morning, alerted us to strangers, oversaw cooking and eating, and, peeking around corners, grinned at us from doorways when he wanted a treat. 

I look for him everywhere, but all I can see is absence, in the shape of a dog. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Heartache and Privilege of Teaching Writing

I learned again this week why I am teaching writing at a community college. It isn't about semicolons.

Community colleges are strange places, or such has been my experience. I am a part-timer here, as are most English instructors. Budgetary constraints being what they are, I share a desk with seven others, each of us holding our office hours there for two hours per teaching day, and then moving on so someone else can have the desk. Sometimes I see another instructor in passing, but I know the receptionist far better than anyone else in the department. Still, I am bonded to the place. Why? My students.

Students at CCs are often those who have not prospered in traditional educational settings, but find they must pursue an education -- or at least a certificate -- in this degree-glutted job market. Many students are ADHD, suffer from depression or bipolar disorder, fall somewhere within the autism spectrum or are recovering from the ravages of a misspent youth. There are also ESL students, this term Chinese, Russian, Korean, Viet Namese, and African: halfway across the world from what they know, strangers in a strange land.

Combine these hurdles with the fact that community, despite the "community college" moniker, is as scarce for students as it is for instructors. I teach on one of several campuses connected by a shuttle system. Students migrate around the city in search of credit fulfillment as no one campus meets all their needs. Whatever bonds they might form in the classroom grow small on the horizon as they embark on the journey to another campus and further isolation.

When we teach writing authentically (that is, allowing students to write about and explore issues of personal importance) we often end up as one of the few in their circle whom they trust, in whom they can confide. By the end of the first month of the quarter, the vortex of emotion swirls about me and most students who approach me do so to confide.

On my way to class on Wednesday, a student came up to me and said he wouldn't be there because he was getting the flu, but he wanted to check before he left campus to see if his idea for a paper was all right. "I'm going to write about addiction," he said. I asked if he had narrowed his topic. "Well, it's really about my addiction. I'm an addict."

Later, as we were brainstorming topics for the paper, one of the very quiet ones approached me and said, "I want to write 'Leaves of Grass' -- my version of it. Can I write a poem for the first paper?"  I had told them to write what needed to be written. Could I say no? No. "Just let me know how it's going," I told him. "You can change if you want." Another told me, "I want to write about the last time I saw my father."

At the end of that class, one of my African students came up  to apologize for missing class. She had written to me two weeks earlier about a vague family emergency. I asked her if everything was all right and the tears started to roll down her cheeks. "My uncle was missing," she told me. "We didn't know where he was. In my country it is not the same as here. He was politically active and now we have learned that he was kidnapped and tortured. We learned they cut his head off. Now my father wants to go back to Africa and I am trying to stop him. I don't know what to do."

My head and heart were spinning. There was no response, no words, no frame of reference. All I could do was try to be of comfort.

I have reached an age where I am trying to fulfill my job on earth, not necessarily the one I've been contracted to do. If I am to be a teacher, what is my curriculum? Not, anymore, finding and correcting errors, or binding student thought with rigid parameters for expression. No. I think my job is to help my students tell their stories and to listen in the way the story requires, to create a space where ideas can open onto paths that lead to right action, where the first response is thoughtful rather than angry.

I don't know what my African student will write, whether she will take on this recent horror, or soothe it by exploring something else. Regardless, it will be shared in a safe space by those whose job it is to listen. The semicolon will take care of itself.