The Tenement and the Farm, an Allegory of Awareness

The tenement is packed with people suffering from too close quarters, getting sick and spreading disease among themselves without even knowing what’s happening. The tenement dwellers cry and scream from want and seek relief from anywhere. They are not evil; they arrived in that tenement mostly by fate, but they know their only way out is to gain attention from anyone on the outside—a passerby, a delivery person, a neighbor. The deep- down cry for attention is as much as saying “I want my mommy”. I want someone to rescue me from this hell.

Some of these tenement tenants can fool you. They are friendly and familiar, almost like you, like one of your best friends. They are sometimes very good actors, enticing you with their smarts, their cunning, even their beauty. They beg you to come along with them, as long as you free them from their confines. Give me the light of day, take me out of my dark corner and I will show you I am just like you, better than you, or an easy target for you to conquer; but you have to free me first so you and I can talk, complain, gossip, worry, hate, or picture ourselves as the top of the heap, right where we belong, where you, certainly, will finally conquer your insecurities.

Yes, there are tenants who plant the seeds of doubt and who cannot wait until these little plantings bear fruit, until they have proven themselves to be good sowers and you finally believe that you are one of them, that you always were one of them, that you were foolish to have doubted there was another way to your own liberation. You become another tenant in the crowded, diseased, dark tenement caught in the darkest corners screaming to get out, knowing that something is wrong there, but without the light to follow into fresh air and breathing. You have been consumed by the doubt of all those voices already consumed by fear.

Yes, you know they are you, you are the landlord of this broken house, you know these tenants are slender slivers, shattered mirrors of your own experience and your distorted conclusions. They have never left you, but they do not really need your attention. They are confined to that tenement for good reason. You cannot kill them, but you do not need to nurture them. They can stay alive on their own, or they will suffer so much from inattention that they will not be heard from, except by some strange twist of fate, they pop in to say hello.

And then there’s the farm. This is where you live when you are not lost in the tenement. This is not the beach, or the vast open ocean with a million stars out at night. This is the farm with all its austerity and beauty, but this farm has every possibility to turn itself into a 100- acre version of a tenement.

The farm has no guarantee that tenants will avoid taking up residency there and some of them will be attractive, strong, showy, full of wit and wisdom. Desperate creatures have a way of finding a host and one with a vast open space is easy prey. And why not? All the better to increase and multiply and find their way into the homestead, the farmer’s living quarters. They come with offers to help, to improve the farm’s productivity, to double the output and nurture the land and the animals and increase the farmer’s prosperity. And they are convincing. They are persistent. They begin to look like the host or the host starts to resemble them.

Soon the farm itself becomes crowded and every acre is occupied. The farm grows vertical, the use of this land is pillaged and laid to waste. The farm resembles a crowded city and living there is dense and difficult. Soon the sky is hard to see, and the air is thick, hard to breathe.

Soon the farmer no longer recognizes her land, her dreams. She lives in a corner of this vast farm and watches all around her and wonders how she ever got to this place. It’s her own fault; she took this life for granted; she assumed this farm was her good luck and her own hard work.

She failed to see that she was a tenant there himself, that she had to be vigilant to take her good fortune, both in inheriting the land, and in the innate gifts she had within to make this last and to move with the natural world to create this larger gift for others who would come after her. But the others who have come now and throughout her lifetime destroyed that clouded her vision and she often failed to stop and notice. Be vigilant in your next lifetime, she told herself, hopeful she would get another run another time ahead that she could not yet see.

Could the farmer have intervened? Of course and she still can, any time, even now at the almost end of her life while she had this new awareness and enough energy to move pieces of her devastated farm to a higher ground, a better place.

To be continued…

Reflecting on a Year of Teaching

The following was published in my ePortfolio for the annual merit review in 2016 at my university in Boston. MA.

The Last Word

 The following is a quote from the book:

The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life by Parker Palmer

As I have come to understand my students’ fears, I have been able to aim my teaching in a new direction. I no longer teach to their imputed ignorance, having rejected that assessment as both inaccurate and self-serving. Instead, I try to teach to their fearful hearts, and when I am able to do so, their minds often come along as well.

A good teacher is one who can listen to those voices even before they are spoken-so that someday they can speak with truth and confidence.

*******************************************************************

The above quote fairly well sums up my reason to be in the classroom and to put in all the hours required to fulfill my own purpose in teaching. This purpose has grown very slowly over the years, as I have used my protective ego to bolster my own confidence, and have discovered the absolute folly of such self-deception.

I am not there yet. I am still too nice, too forgiving, and sometimes too generous. I am far from my ideal—setting the stage for students to more fully trust their own curiosity in a way that allows them to flourish as writers and thinkers, if not precisely in my classroom in any single semester, then surely later on out in the bigger, fiercely competitive world.

My own ambition to move ahead is my commitment to playing the long game. This is my own risk level and if I don’t live that way, then that can be felt in the classroom. Encouraging risk from an inauthentic self is transparent to students, and fails in that long game.

Little by little I do less for approval and more for challenge. From one semester to the next I vow to bring more challenges so that they just might remember some day in the future they will not die if they get a B. They will never know true joy without resilience, elasticity, and an ego porous enough to know they don’t know much at all anyway.

Quickie on the prompt: When I stop my momentum, I…

When I stop my momentum,,,

I am eating my own body, inhaling too much my breath, fighting feeling death.

I am shrouded in fear and doubt, engulfed in some idea of not good enough, never get there, the doors are closed and it’s just too late.

I am convinced I do not have what it takes and I never have before and never will. I had it once, didn’t know it, or knew it and turned a blind eye, but I blew the opportunity through a deep-seated fault I picked up as a baby, toddler, teen or in my insanely wild twenties. A past life?

I never believed in momentum because it stands in the way of reality, opposes the natural cycle of life where momentum is only temporary . Sooner or later the pendulum rests, the market corrects itself, and momentum reaches a stasis; it is normal to reach this point, this pause, only because momentum always does, so it’s natural.

It is never a good idea to blind trust momentum, except in the short term. We must redirect ourselves, move into new, even strange habits to get “back on track” with whatever we thought we were aiming for, or to simply construct a new track. Either the aim was short of value within our own hearts, or we hit a block that looks too hard, too painful, too high a climb for us to try.

I do not stop my momentum; my momentum stops me; it wears out, gets old and dies on the vine. It is not mine to stop but to notice and to recast in a new light and to patiently wait for that new insight, tiny shaft of light and awareness to open up so I can come back to myself stronger and more flexible, more fluid and resilient, more willing to recreate a new energy to use until that momentum (predictably) dies.

And that’s all she wrote. Momentum, schmoementum.

Emerging from the GREYS

I don’t usually write about depression, but here goes. I grew up with a mom who suffered with bi-polar depression her whole life. I seemed to have not inherited that condition, but occasionally I get a bit too excited and some years back I occasionally got a little lost in the excitement.

The depression side is another story. As a young woman I cried a lot, even hoping that if I cried enough, I would empty the depression tank. Didn’t work. Years of therapy, mostly CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy, helped a lot.

But just in  the past three months I fell into something “grey” and it lasted longer than usual, much longer than I expected.

Reasons for depression are not necessary if you suffer from the clinical kind, which I have never  had specifically diagnosed. Mostly my life has included situational depression, pretty much the way of the world for most people.

This was different in the fall of 2017. Doors of opportunity closed in my mind before I could even consider taking action. I even began to feel unliked and unloved. I had some good days, even ones I believed were a full escape from the “grey”, but sooner or later the underlying prowler caught up with me.

The fact is that right now and for the past eight days I am out of the grey and into technicolor. What happened? I got a call to lead a funeral/memorial for a young man who died at the age of 32. Cancer.

Why did this change me? I can only speculate and hope this might be helpful to anyone reading this.

I was needed. This was devastating for his family and I could help; I had the skill to come in and facilitate a dignified and temporarily uplifting event in his honor. I would throw myself into this preparation with one thing in mind for the following three days: gather tributes, design a celebration with music, poetry, speakers and readings from two dozen friends and family who could not attend in person.

The focus shifted dramatically outside of my own life and into the lives of those grieving for a truly wonderful person, into the life of a 32 year old full of wisdom and kindness, quirks and goofiness.

The depression is quiet, the grey is lifted and I could not do this alone or even with therapy in the months of November and December. But I never gave up hope that something was out there, something would happen if I kept my heart open. And it did. Fulfilling a purpose larger than myself was my response to someone’s need. It was the great gift this young man’s life provided.

Twas a Couple of Days before…

When I was ten or eleven, my Dad told me that most of life is lived in anticipation. I understood him at the time as saying we live in hope.

Another year passed and I understood anticipation as wanting to accelerate my growing up, desiring to be old enough for the good things to happen: turning sweet 16; becoming 21. Every age or stage after that was too much to think about,

Now in my autumn years,  I can look back and see anticipation’s influence over the years. In a few more days, I will experience Christmas for the 73rd time. Anticipation sweeps over me, but not like it did when I was a child. The magic is in my memory but the rush and push and society-pervasive anxiety is all too clear.  I am living in this anticipation knowing it will be over soon. It will pass. Soon, the love I have for others will have no strings of hastily assembled wrapping paper, overspending, making buying mistakes, and worry. WHO NEEDS THIS NONSENSE?

Christ was a good Jewish boy who left us inspired messages and excellent role-modeling. How did His birthday turn into such craziness?

Maybe next year I will draw the line on this holiday. In a couple of days, this will be done. Anticipation. Sweet anticipation.

Last Day of the Fall Semester

Message from an Empty Classroom

It’s December 6th and this date has been in my calendar for the past three plus months, always looking like it was very far away. There’s something in the air here today, a networked vibe pulsing across the campus that says: “Whew! Almost over. Going home. Graduating soon. Gonna see my sweetheart in another week.”

Snow is even in the forecast for this weekend and amnesiac zombies are looking forward to it. Snow is the one thing we love to love when we first see it and the bloom is very much off the rose as soon as the second snowfall settles in.

The four weeks ahead till the Spring semester used to feel like a long time as well, four weeks without having to get up at 5 AM to start my day. But that, too, is amnesia. It goes so fast and all the plans I have to accomplish so much over the break are reduced to one or two.  But there is today, the only day I have. It is alive and electric, even under grey skies, and that has good energy. Happy December 6th.