Witless Perseverance

Organizational mourning is a thing, I've decided. It's a putting off of what you could do today, could have done yesterday, might have done weeks ago yet still the task goes undone, hour after hour, day after day, week after week. Your organization, that is you, your personal capacity, or in this case, incapacity to do what ought to be done - all of that, is stalled. Your ability to plan and execute has run aground. You are organizationally stuck. In the mud that might as well be quicksand; you are making no progress. That much is evident. Your task immobility has roots, is rooted in an ill-defined sadness: a pervasive, persistent dread that renders you limp and distracted and distressed all at the same time. You are in mourning. You are grieving a loss you cannot easily name, a loss that makes you seek out the difference between lonely and lonesome only to find that in the American vernacular they are said to be the same. Loss that makes lonely, loss that makes lonesome - same, same. There you are, there you find yourself without really having to look, ah, submerged and silent in the throes of your organizational mourning. 

But wait, what about this? Perhaps what you mean is not organizational mourning but procedural grief: the prolonged reluctance to act in accordance with a known number and sequence of steps which stems from residual and cumulative sadness and/or potentially, despair. Procedural grief - a deep sense of loss preventing or blocking forward momentum created by taking concrete action. 

The habit becomes one of pressing onward, groping your way through eventualities while still managing to avert disaster with surprising regularity. The lights stay on, you continue going to work, time passes and you do not dissolve. You keep yourself and the tasks that dog you in a time-worn holding pattern; circling, circling, never landing. 

Calling it as you see it, calling it as you feel it, calling it out, calling it by its name, calling it heads, then tails. Called it. Whether in grief, in mourning, in sadness, in place, you make the call. Call forth, call back, call attention, call home. Do not despair, this fog will lift. You will proceed. You will accomplish and complete. Hold your pattern for now. Let your organization mourn, let your procedures acknowledge grief, accept the task and the disorientation it provokes, you shall not melt.
Photo by Joey Kyber on Pexels.com

Hide and Seek: On Kids, Power and Resistance in Education (OTESSA 22 Keynote)

Image by S. Spelic

Below is the text of my keynote talk for the Open Technology in Education, Society and Scholarship Association given on Tuesday, May 17th, 2022. A recording of the talk will be published later. The slides to the talk are here.

Welcome

I’m truly honored to have this opportunity to be in community with you today. I want to thank the OTESSA organizing committee of Valerie Irvine, Terry Greene, Aras Bozkurt and Kathy Snow for the kind invitation to speak.

Getting to this moment has been a process. Not just for me, I imagine, but for all of us. What have we each done and needed to do in order to be here, be present, right at this current moment?

Pause for a minute and consider all the actions you and I have taken to be in the same time and space together. I’ve closed my door, arranged my lighting and tech set-up, cued up my slides, turned my phone off, closed up all those precious tabs in my browser, had a glass of water… and that’s just within the last hour.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the fact that however we got here, we relied on other people in ways large and small to make it possible.

Introduction

I chose this topic or perhaps I should say the topic chose me. Around the time that I proposed the title I was faced with a problem: several of my students were resisting my instruction in a lot of different ways. And truth be told, I was struggling in deciding how to deal with it. 

So, this title alludes to not only my specific situation but also the never ending context of teaching and learning systems. Even as we pursue our interests and attempt to satisfy our curiosity as learners, we are also negotiating power dynamics. As educators tasked with the responsibility of conveying knowledge and engaging students’ thinking, it’s very common for us to experience learners who resist our pedagogical offerings. There’s hiding and there’s seeking. There’s movement and there’s stalling. There’s clarity and there’s confusion.

What I hope we can do together is consider several of the ways we interpret learner resistance and also acknowledge the both helpful and hopeful means we have to lessen its reach and impact in the classroom without diminishing the personhood of our students.

A necessary digression

One of the miracles of this particular interaction – that is, me, an elementary physical education specialist addressing you, an international audience of educators, scholars, thinkers with a particular interest in open technology and education – is how unlikely it is and would have been 15 or even 10 years ago. 

I am here in no small part because of a collection of networked circumstances that flow through one specific digital platform: Twitter. Without Twitter, I doubt that I would have found the types of audience and community for my writing and thinking that have enabled me to appear before you now as a keynote speaker. This is not simply about follower counts or a niche form of mircocelebrity. Rather, my engagement on Twitter has been life-altering, life- enhancing and often life-giving. The friendships, deep conversations and ongoing connections that have arisen from showing up, showing myself and showing care mean the world to me. These are the connections that I bring to bear here, today. My intellectual world is broader, brighter and emotionally sustaining because of so many connections made on a certain bird app.

That means that the recent talk of new ownership has felt threatening and surprisingly personal. Without knowing exactly what’s ahead, recognizing the frailty and vulnerability of the neighborhoods that we’ve built online has been deeply sobering but not entirely surprising.

I say this as a Black educator of young children.

I say this as a Black American woman writer who no longer shies away from the mic.

I say this as an elementary educator who has formed deep, meaningful connections with colleagues across a spectrum of institutions and disciplines.

I say this as a middle-aged Black American woman contemplating the loss of a well curated, life-changing platform.

We can all still watch, wait and hope and against hope that the worst does not transpire. At the same time, let us have no illusions about the durability of for-profit platforms as reliable containers for our dreams of social justice.

I mention all this to situate my talk in a larger, yet distinctly personal context. While we contemplate learner refusal and resistance, I am also considering my own instances of resistance and willingness to adapt to new situations. 

Throughout this talk, you’ll notice that I have feelings about all of these things.

A note about the images on the slides: several of these are photographs that I have digitally altered with LunaPic to offer an artistic flair and also to preserve the privacy of my students. It means a lot to be able to share my students and our spaces with you in this way. 

About me in PE

As you’ve heard, I am a PE specialist at the elementary level. Telling you about my context must also contend with the overt and covert associations happening in your mind with regard to the topic of “elementary physical education.” Consciously or not, a compare and contrast machine is running in the background. Our sense-making relies on calling forth whatever resources our minds have to offer at the moment. Before I continue, I want to ask you to please respond to this prompt: 

What comes up for you when you think back to your own childhood experiences in PE? 

If you’re willing, please share your reflection in the chat.

Asking adults this question is often fraught. Elementary PE can bring up really awful things for some folks, I know. I regret that but it is a frighteningly common reality: humiliation, physical injury, significant emotional damage. At the same time, it also illustrates a teaching and learning dynamic characterized by deliberate power imbalances, a frequent focus on competition and ranking, and a potentially widespread dismissal of students who do not conform to a specific athletic norm. Of course this is neither the whole nor only story, but it’s the one we are more likely to hear in the public sphere and that matters.

Physical Education as a field has come a very long way and the current mission statements, national standards and recent research, the emphasis on healthy social emotional development within and alongside physical development has become commonplace. Cooperative, team-building activities are firmly embedded in programs around the world. Wider ranges of movement options are being offered to students in the hopes of encouraging lifelong physical literacy and engagement.

The key here and in any conversation, really, is to make space for whatever ideas, perceptions, emotions we may be bringing to a topic first.

My students tend to do this automatically:

Me: Friends, we’re starting our soccer unit…

Them: “ Oh, I hate soccer!” 

“Yay! Can we play a match?”

Add to that the various body language expressions of dread or exuberance. Their messages in such situations come in loud and clear.

That said, it’s important to understand that my students share a few fundamental priorities when they come to the gym. They have expectations and standards.

  • They arrive looking for fun.
  • They want to play with their friends.
  • They want to challenge themselves and be challenged to varying degrees but in the right measure.

[Repeat each with appropriate image]

As their teacher, I of course have choices:

  • I can focus on planning in ways which incorporate these priorities.
  • Or not.

I have learned, often the hard way, what happens when I do not take student priorities into account:

They resist, they refuse, they avoid.

Examples of student resistance

Let me give you a couple of examples:

Several years ago when my training as a coaching professional was still fresh, a group of first graders were sitting on the gym floor watching me put down markers for our next activity. The longer I took, the louder they became. I stopped what I was doing and asked: You all just got very loud while I was setting up, what is it that you want me to understand?

They responded rapid fire: We want to have fun! This is boring! We want to play!

“So with your noise you’re telling me that I’m taking too long, I’m keeping you from having fun. I’m sorry. Let’s fix that!”

I remember the situation so clearly because it may have been the first time that I had ever asked students such a question and actually heard their response on a visceral level. I literally ‘stood corrected’ and we were able to proceed.

More recently among my youngest learners I was finding it hard to get them to participate in concert – meaning that they were all over the place. Herding cats syndrome. Also, my responses were not always helpful: frustration, exasperation, anger. So many individual cases of resistance and outright refusal. 

I clearly needed to rethink my approach.

That’s how I landed on obstacle courses as a possible remedy. I created them for nearly every lesson. Obstacle courses satisfied several criteria:

  • They are fun and exciting.
  • Students can move through them autonomously for the most part
  • It’s a recognizable pattern students can quickly make sense of
  • They provide lots of practice of different movement skills

 Watching students line up on their own without a struggle was the telltale sign that I was onto something.

In that same group I also made story time a fixture at the end of class. I read one or two picture books that I select from the library. Of all the things that I offer these learners in my PE class, nothing has been as reliably unifying and compelling as the read-aloud. I mean, who knew?

Accepting Resistance; Working Around and With It

What I’ve learned from students and experience is that resistance is part of the bargain we enter in education. 

  • Students resist things that they fear, dread or feel they cannot handle.
  • Students resist not being regarded as individuals
  • Students resist when their contextual priorities go unacknowledged.

Now, I’m going to repeat those statements, but replace “students” with “educators”

  • Educators resist things that they fear, dread or feel they cannot handle.
  • Educators resist not being regarded as individuals
  • Educators resist when their contextual priorities go unacknowledged.

See what I did there? I’m talking about student resistance, yes and, I want us to also consider our own instances of resistance. There’s a connection. Just saying.

Please keep that in mind as we go.

But now, back to students.

Resistance (and refusal) are forms of power at our disposal. Children use resistance frequently in my classes. There are plenty of things they are asked to do which, in the words of Bartleby, the Scrivener, they would “prefer not to.”

Their resistance is both physical and metaphorical.

  • When asked to make all gender groups, they drag their feet.
  • When asked to create groups that are balanced in terms of skill and enthusiasm, they take their sweet time.
  • When asked to replicate a skill as demonstrated, they reinvent the wheel.
  • When asked to hustle up and get started, they dawdle …

We have on the one hand, the adult-teacher demand and expectation of certain responses and on the other hand, we have students demonstrating, well … if you really think about it: 

Will, Autonomy, agency, creativity

And it drives us nuts? (ok, drives me nuts)

What I mean is, it rubs my ego the wrong way. What I mean is, I want to have things my way. I resist their resistance. There’s power and we struggle over who gets to hold it.

Let’s take a step back. I offer you this poem to illustrate.

What Is Going On?

Refusal in a world where choices are few
Or not obvious
To say no
To rather not/ also to choose otherwise
Where choice exists but is not advertised.

What happens?
I/we ask
What is going on?
There’s a confusion

An assumption or series of assumptions
Dictates
Our response
Which is an active interpretation of what we believe
We’re seeing
Measured against 
What we thought should be happening.
Ah, a disconnect.

We ask about/for understanding
We are seeking clarity
A way out of the confusion
A way out of the cognitive mismatch.

Again,
What is going on?
A way of asking
Why
Are you not doing what I expected
In the way I expected?

Why 
Don’t your actions correspond to the 
Picture in my head?
Why, I am asking,
Are you not reading my mind
Correctly?

Why 
Are we visibly at odds between
My thinking and your doing?

Why 
Is your aim to be more you
And less me?

Let’s pause here. What do you notice? What do you wonder?

I penned this poem while asking myself what it is I really want to get across during our time together. I’m asking myself (and by extension, us) to take another look at the student behaviors we typically identify as resistance or refusal.

I often ask students: What is going on? 

When I might do better by asking: What is it that you want/need me to understand?

And I would probably do well to ask: What else can I see in my students’ behaviors? 

Towards an Irresistible Pedagogy

Thinking about and through all of these questions has helped me recognize what I’m trying to do in my classes. Some kind of resistance will always be there. What can I do to make this (lesson, class, experience) irresistible to students?

I use “irresistible” as aspirational rather than as fact.

Here’s what I’ve figured out so far:

  • It is deeply relational and requires being our whole selves 
  • It is visibly responsive to student priorities
  • It includes apologies where necessary
  • It is inherently adaptive

Let’s talk about those in turn:

Relational – 

I have to develop some kind of relationship with each of my students. It begins by learning their names and how to pronounce them correctly. I observe them carefully in order to notice their unique access points. This one loves cartwheels, while that one fears balls; another one tends to blurt out during instructions, while their classmate will hardly say “boo” in class. These details form the basis of our year together. At the same time, my students get to know me. That I’m kinda strict, I remember names and I can do a pretty good cartwheel.

Relational also means that I think about my students when choosing my attire for the day: fairy tale hoodie? Fruit shaped earrings? Broccoli or strawberry socks? These details matter. Changing my hairstyle or shoes can never go unnoticed. These can be great conversation starters or just reminders that I’m a person with particular tastes. These are more crumbs on the path of getting to know Mrs. Spelic.

Visibly responsive – 

Along the same lines, I try to plan activities that will appeal to my students. I only make promises that I can keep. Although students will ask me every lesson if today is Awesome Gym Day, they know that it will happen and I’ll give them ample warning. 

It also matters how the gym is set up, what’s written on the board, which equipment is in view? These provide clues that students parse like expert detectives. Reading the agenda on the board allows them to confirm their suspicions.

And of course they press me with further requests which I most likely cannot accommodate on the spot. I note their requests, however, and hold onto them for future lessons. And when I say no, I can cite a good reason.

Includes apologies

The most common injuries in my classes are hurt feelings. When students come to me to share a complaint about a classmate, I often ask if the other person already said sorry. The response is usually “no.” 

Irresistible assumes that we’re going to make mistakes and fall short of our proclaimed goals. 

It means that I model using apologies to start over and acknowledge doing the wrong thing. My students learn that we’re not in class in pursuit of perfection. No, we’re in class to build something useful and interesting with each other. To do that we have to be prepared to stop and unpack what went wrong. And we all practice listening, even when it may feel like the hardest thing to do.

Inherently adaptive

Of course, my students and I have to be prepared for changes during our time together. We may run out of time to do all the activities written on the board. Or discover that we’re missing the skill level to play a certain game. Also no two groups, even at the same grade level are ever the same. Above all, it has helped to let go of my expectations of stasis.

There are some things I can relatively easily identify as “irresistible” for the vast majority of students:

  • First and foremost, Awesome Gym Day,
  • But also the team building activity, Bridges.
  • Choosing their own partners and groups
  • Having music on in class
  • Fun on their terms,
  • Being heard, seeing their ideas put into practice
  • When I wear my Lego earrings.

To capture the conundrum of sharing all this with you while also wondering if it even makes sense or holds value, I offer you another poem: 

“What I mean by irresistible”

Look at me, look at this
Me trying to tell you ‘bout something irresistible
A pedagogy of all things! Pathways to learning, 
Means of instruction
Irresistible, my foot!

On the other hand,
What you know about kids
And movement and play?
Given the chance, kids can make
Nearly anything a game.

What I’m saying, what I’ve learned is
Just not to mess it up
Irresistible respects desires
Irresistible salutes the right challenge
Irresistible knows how to kick it
And have fun

What I’m saying, what I’ve learned is
We make awesome the standard;
We are always aiming 
For satisfaction, this way, then that
Sometimes we make it, sometimes not

Make awesome the standard
So we know what to do with choice
When we have it
 know how to pursue our heart’s desire
Even going solo
We learn how to try and fail
And try again

Irresistible means I have to let go
 means I have to stop resisting
means I have to acknowledge the wealth
Of drive, creativity and self
Running wild across the canvas
Of our class

Irresistible is about making options 
Visible, legible, real
Irresistible is about discovering possibility
In the tiniest thing
Irresistible is about learning the truth
That control is rarely a monopoly

So, no, it’s not an answer
Or a solution, please note.
It’s an aperture to look through
Once, then again
A flight of fancy disguised as work
A chance to see
 as if you hadn’t been looking
All along

What might “irresistible” look, sound and feel like in your context? 

Space for negotiation in our pedagogy?

Irresistible pedagogy has no interest in perfection or some (marketable) manufactured ideal; rather it’s about discovering the things, the conditions that keep us in the game; that keep us wanting to come back and practice a little more. Just enough of the right stuff and close watch on avoiding the worst stuff. From all sides.

Just enough of the right stuff – for our students, for ourselves, for and also from our institutions

A close watch on avoiding the worst stuff – especially in our institutions as well as in our practices.

Irresistible pedagogy tries to hold breathing space for change, adaptation, and sharing power.

As illustrations I want to share two very special valentines that I received from students last year and this year. The first from a 4th grader reads: “Dear Mrs. Spelic, thank you for sharing all the power with me!” 

And the second, from a 5th grader: “Dear Ms. Spelic, You are a great PE teacher and make the best out of terrible situations.” 

These both remind me of the work we, my students and I, are doing with and on each other. Reading each I feel seen, known and utterly understood. I mean, “make the best out of terrible situations…” 

Troubling the waters before we go

Take 3 minutes to think about what we’ve talked about so far. How is it landing? What questions might you have?

One of the questions I have to ask is: Does my notion of an irresistible pedagogy assume a certain level of privilege? Given my particular context and relative positionality, how can it not?  I am a veteran employee in a well resourced institution. I enjoy considerable professional autonomy and feel trusted to use my judgment in implementing our curriculum. I have the space and freedom to engage students in ways that highlight their agency and decision-making capabilities. And this approach is supported in my particular setting.

What if I were not party to these several advantages? Would I still be as open to sharing power and fostering student choice as much as now? I wonder and I cannot say. 

Could it be that it is easier to share power when you feel you have some power to begin with?

As I’ve offered stories from my own experience and attempted to bundle them into a way of looking at my work, these questions about the role of privilege have needled me throughout. It’s no coincidence that the title includes “Hide and Seek”. However compelling the idea of an irresistible pedagogy may seem, we need to be clear about the conditions that support its pursuit and sustainability. What might an irresistible pedagogy hide or obscure? Who is at liberty to seek out or provide what could be deemed irresistible by students or teachers? What happens if hide and seek is not a game but a survival strategy? Does “irresistible” stand a chance?

What if hide and seek is what is required of you to keep your job or to protect and serve students? What good is an irresistible pedagogy then?

Never Done, Always Beginning
What I’m learning, what I’m seeing is that
Just one thing 
Is hardly a thing
Because it cannot serve
All of our needs today
Or tomorrow

Just one thing
Is hardly a thing
Because we need more tools
For many tasks
Both seen and unseen

If I try to build something
I hope my students will want

It doesn’t mean that they 
Should never learn to struggle

It doesn’t mean that they 
Should never learn to protest

It doesn’t mean that their
Wants won’t change shape or direction

If I try to build something 
I hope my students will want

It means I’m striving to
Champion their independence

It means I’m striving to
Help them choose wisely

It means I’m striving to
Let go of my need to control the outcome

If my students and I build something
We find useful

If my students and I build anything at all
We must build imaginations

If my students and I build 
A city of care

A province of justice
A nation of acceptance

We are never done 
And always beginning.

The End

I’m going to stop here and encourage us to rest. I hope that I have sparked your imagination and offered some nourishing food for thought. The theme of the Otessa Conference is Critical Change. My students are living exemplars of critical change. They demand change with their needs out front. They use questions to investigate ideas. When they resist, avoid and refuse instruction, they usually have cause. 

If my aim is to build something irresistible for my students, it is clear that I must also do that with my students. They are fierce, savvy and also caring negotiators. 

If the notion of “irresistible pedagogy” seems far-fetched or unrealistic to you, I imagine that you have reasonable cause. Which is why it is key to interrogate what this concept might be hiding or obscuring? How might irresistible pedagogy be understood as less than inclusive or just?

I raise these questions at the end again as reminders that like our learners,

We are never done 

And always beginning.

Thank you.

Women Writing Nature

closeup of a thistle pods, after they have blossomed.
Nature & The Outdoors by Lafayette Wattles is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0
Because I don't know where to start, I will.
It occurs to me that among my readings I am listening to women in nature, women
gardening, bird watching, describing flora, attending to clouds and winds.
Women digging in dirt, discovering insects, rodents and snakes, these women.
they tell me about their insides by capturing the complexity of their outsides
I read and I listen, placing a hand over my heart, hearing my full laugh.
Women outdoors and indoors seeing double
seeing more because they must
seeing twice because it's a habit
seeing over and over because that's how you make yourself sure when you're not.

These women in nature, talking of nature, defining nature
making sense. Sense making women talking nature walking nature stalking nature.
Naming flowers and weeds, breeds and seeds; clocking reasons and seasons
and they tell me all about loss
in ways I understand
in ways that make sense
in ways that tell me I'm not the one who's confused. These women
in nature.

Of feathers, fur, nests and burrows; mating, preying, hatching and losing.
Of blue jays, red wings, yellow tails and cottonmouths
Of chokecherries, gooseberries, honeysuckle, and rambling roses
Of grasshoppers, crickets, spiders and monarch butterflies
Of compost, fertilizer, peat and the true composition of dirt
Of becoming, abandoning, returning, adapting
These women writing on nature
The nature of these women
writing 
on nature
because it's where we are
because it's what we are
yet so oblivious, 
it hurts. 

Dedicated to Margaret Renkl, author of Late Migrations and Antonia Malchik, friend and author.

Let’s talk about fear

Of course the terms I would rather use include trepidation, hesitancy, or reluctance. Fear seems so stark, too strong a word to describe the feeling I get as I marshal my resources, gather my gumption, brace myself and go meet that class.
Fear before teaching? Before greeting a boisterous line of bubbly seven year olds or know-no-patience fourth graders? Fear of children seeking the the things that children seek: excitement, fun, attention, distraction, etc? What on earth is there to be afraid of?

I stopped saying 'practice makes perfect' because nothing can ever be perfect. I know it's just a saying but it's easy to get attached to the perfect part. I've been practicing showing up for kids for most of my adult years and I am no closer to perfect than when I started. I am practiced. 'Practice makes practiced' is true but has no ring. So there I am, practiced and handling my reservations (there's another nice term) like a too hot potato with no one to toss it to. I appear before students, practiced and masked, moderately prepared, while hoping against hope that the worst that could happen, does not.
 
The worst that could happen is this giant unknown - unpracticed, unrehearsed, unpredictable - that travels with me, never fully identified but weighty nonetheless. Visibly invisible, kind of like my fear (there, I said it!), the giant unknown turns out to be a me rather than a you problem. Turns out, the giant unknown is me. I arrive practiced and masked but know, by chance, by circumstance, by 9:45- the mask may drop, and I shall be revealed - the monster within becomes the monster without- and then we have a real problem on our hands.

Routines help. Rituals soothe. Sometimes there's a groove that cradles us all, holds us captive in an engrossing, absorbing kind of way. We run out of time, happily. Sometimes all my practice produces mysteriously inventive interludes; I exceed my wildest expectations. We experience a learning high. We - the kids and I and our ridiculous imaginations - pull it together and pull it off - the impossible possible: A good time, no take-backs.

A balancing act, the act of balancing. but that's exactly not it. Balance remains a myth, a thing we talk about in the abstract because we know it hardly exists in reality. I know no balance. I am present and I am praying. My spirit perturbed and jumpy; vigilant and at attention - time seeps through me from one end of class to the other. Not even the illusion of balance, my body performs a lucid survival ethic. I go down on one knee, I stand on my hands, I do cartwheel of uncertainty.
My education is physical.

Directions, instructions, reminders, requests - a relentless parade of communications. Containers for procedure, often leaky, never airtight. Written, oral; direct, in passing; an elaboration, a gesture. A shopping cart's pile of options, so often an excess. What needs saying can be hard to find. It takes time to dig through all that's there. So I improvise and miss the mark or catch the drift. Hearing and listening are not the same thing. I employ loud music to cover my tracks. What you see is what you hear is what's happening. What is happening?

Hello, experience, my old friend, home of all my educated guesses. Even knowing what I know, having seen what I've seen, when the going gets tough, I'm sure that's when you hide. I become a novice all over again. but not young. No, an old and tired and uninspired novice. How it feels to meet my match, to catch the resistance, to counter the pushback. I throw up my shield and appeal to their better angels. From the outside looking in, I am holding my own. I am breathing through the storm. Disaster averted. Miraculously, we are back on track.

The fear, the trepidation, the dread, the frightful anticipation - These all reside in me, in my practice. 
I recently received the most generous valentine from a students who wrote:
"You are a great PE teacher and always make the best out of terrible situations."
The best out of terrible situations... 
The fear and the discovery, the fear and the movement, the fear and the next time.
make the best out of terrible
make, not take; best out of, not best instead of
make the best out of terrible.
grow alongside fear; change while scared; shift under stress.

So this is what it means to be seen.
Sherri (black woman in a fleece red panda onesie wearing a black face mask) stands in a small gym with equipment set out in an obstacle course with mats, benches, wall bars, low balance beams.
Subject as masked red panda.

Tired of Achievement

Close up of tan short-haired dog stretched out on a sandy beach. cloudy blue sky and sea horizon in background.
Photo by Ruel Madelo on Pexels.com
I took my thoughts for a walk. Cold/cool/brisk air on my face feels good/not bad/needed. I walk
while others along the same route jog/cycle/push themselves. Few pant. Everyone in their own way is dressed for the elements. Everyone in their own way seems prepared for cold/cool/brisk air. All of us are out. I walk neither fast nor slow. This is no workout. I am walking to drop off our PCR tests then circling back, strolling through the little Saturday market, then past the side-by-side cemeteries. For a moment I think of ascending the big hill drive that divides them. That would feel like a workout. I easily decide against it. I walk and my head brims with useful and less useful thoughts. It's OK because I'm taking my thoughts for a walk. This is their chance. I don't begrudge my thoughts their moment in the sun.

I walk past the hillside vineyard which is striking in the midst of otherwise residential territory. The vineyard as breathing space, a clearing for the eyes to recalibrate. It is always a welcome break in the visual action. Today there is a small team of eight workers pruning the vines. I wonder which language they speak with each other, how much they get paid, how long it might take them to finish the whole plot. When I return on my way back they are absent, but their van remains. It's lunchtime. I wonder where they take their lunch although it is everything but my business to know.

I'm near the tail end of my loop. I notice the same venturers on bikes, on foot completing their own loop-de-loops. That's where it hits me that I am tired. Tired of achievement. Tired of driving/striving/edging myself and others forward, forward. Tired of achievement to measure my worth. Tired of achievement to identify belonging. Tired of achievement as the price of admission. Tired of achievement as the lens I use to recognize others. Tired of achievement as a false god to whom all sacrifices must be dedicated. Tired of achievement as gospel. Tired of achievement as mandate. Tired of achievement as an institutional safety blanket. Tired of achievement as a broken record. Tired of achievement as the only record.

Isn't it ironic that I have made a career working in schools? In achievement factories. 

But that's the thing. Students insist that there is always more than silly achievement. They show it. They speak and sing it. They write it. They play it. They dramatize it. They outsmart/outrun/outpace it. They skip it. They perform it. They hold it hostage. They hold it back. They hold it over our heads. They override it. They fake it. They make it. They deliver and withdraw it. They illustrate it. They erase it. They toss it. They remix it. They've got it. They are over it. 

They are why I stay in schools. I am studying their achievement of resisting/retiring/releasing achievement. They teach me. They make me less tired.

I make it home, allow my thoughts to run wild on the page. We are all relieved. Peace is a challenge and always only temporary. I can accept that on a walk in the cold/cool/brisk air. 

Poetic Conversations

wooden ruler with four horizontal levels of measurements which seem to include cm, inches and two others I cannot identify. Black print against faded, off white background.
Image credit:<a href="http://Photo by <a href="https://unsplash.com/@roberto_sorin?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Roberto Sorin</a> on <a href="https://unsplash.com/s/photos/overlap?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Unsplash Roberto Sorin on Unsplash

Sentences I’m thinking about as we crack open 2022:

Rather than link increasing velocity to liberated exuberance, Virilio, in Speed and Politics, suggests that “the more speed increases, the faster freedom decreases”: By the time an action is required in real time, the moment to act is already swiftly disappearing into the past. Freedom requires the time in which to deliberate and to act, and extreme speed deprives individuals of that time

Zachary Loeb, Inventing the Shipwreck, Real Life Mag, Jan 3, 2022 (emphasis mine)

Freedom requires the time in which to deliberate and to act, and extreme speed deprives individuals of that time.”

Rather than anticipating what might happen out of the myriad and unknowable possibilities on which the very idea of a future depends, machine learning and other AI-based methods of statistical correlation “restrict the future to the past.” In other words, these systems prevent the future in order to “predict” it—they ensure that the future will be just the same as the past was.

Chris Gilliard, Crime Prediction Keeps Society Stuck In The Past, Wired, Jan 2, 2022 (emphasis mine)

In other words, these systems prevent the future in order to “predict” it—they ensure that the future will be just the same as the past was.

Untitled
anticipating what might happen, the moment to act is swiftly disappearing.
the time in which to deliberate the very idea of a future
depends on the past:
ensure, predict; restrict, prevent.
“the more speed increases, the faster freedom decreases”
"the future will be just the same as the past was."
Rather, rather.

Rather than helping us to manage social problems like racism as we move forward, as the McDaniel case shows in microcosm, these systems demand that society not change, that things that we should try to fix instead must stay exactly as they are.

Chris Gilliard, Crime Prediction Keeps Society Stuck In The Past, Wired, Jan 2, 2022

It may seem obvious today that there had never been a car crash before the car was invented, but what future wrecks are being overlooked today amidst the excited chatter about AI, the metaverse, and all things crypto?

Virilio’s attention to accidents is a provocation to look at technology differently. To foreground the dangers instead of the benefits, and to see ourselves as the potential victims instead of as the smiling beneficiaries.

Zachary Loeb, Inventing the Shipwreck, Real Life Mag, Jan 3, 2022

amidst the excited chatter

what future wrecks are being overlooked today?
things that we should try to fix
helping us to manage social problems like racism;
To foreground the dangers instead of the benefits
may seem obvious.


as we move forward
these systems demand that society not change;
to look at technology,
to see ourselves 
as the smiling beneficiaries
instead of 
as the potential victims.

things
must stay exactly as they are.
 

Welcome 2022 and take this thought with you, too.

Protect your energy and help your friends and loved ones do the same.

Writing trouble; Trouble writing

Finding it hard to write. To focus and shake down an idea for the insights it offers.

That’s a very extractive take on a practice that ideally seeks to be generative. Yet, here we are. Here I am.

Photo by Annika Thierfeld on Pexels.com

I don’t write because anyone has asked me to. I write to let go of things, to exhale my concerns or at least breathe through them. I would love to believe that my writing has nothing to do with sales. But social capital is capital; a currency. Writing can be a way to build social capital which leads to other opportunities to expand reach and influence. Appearing publicly means participating in a specific economy of attention, of favor, of visibility. When I write publicly – when I blog, tweet, newsletter – I am negotiating attention, favor and visibility. I am both spending and accruing social capital.

I listen to other writers. I hear their wisdom, envy their capacity to say so many things I wish I could say, too. Colson Whitehead says we should write the things that scare us the most which is hard. But what’s the point of doing it if it’s going to be easy? he adds. I am a scaredy cat writer. It’s not that I’m harboring great secrets that I dare not tell but I know, for now, pretty well, what I’m not gonna do. Remember that social capital? Part of playing the game is limiting the risk of losing that capital. Reducing the risk of falling out of favor. Hedging against the danger of disappearing or being disappeared.

Writing as trouble. Writing to trouble. I do these things but usually so politely. I choose my words carefully, resisting the impulse to offend. “I” and “we” are my preferred pronouns. Call it a humility strategy. Never wanting to get “too big for my britches” I stay contained, restrained, palatable. If I hold stock in anything, my portfolio runs deep in respectability. My good girl legacy remains in tact. Even if social capital is contingent, I suppose I came to this particular marketplace with a certain endowment comprised of an elite educational pedigree and a rich collection of professional connections. I’m a conservative investor. I imagine I’m playing the long game.

And we have to ask for what? What is this capitalist rumination on a practice at once globally irrelevant, yet potentially contextually meaningful? Illusions exist. Which is to say, yes, I have illusions, perhaps like every other person who writes, who creates, who persists in showing up. I have the illusion that some words matter. I have the illusion that my words can matter sometimes to some people. Sometimes I have the illusion that writing matters. I have the illusion that my writing matters.

How do we engage in a capitalist framework based on scarcity, extraction and fear and still expect to create beauty for ourselves and those we love? How do we resist the deadly pull to produce and become content (I hate that word) in an economy that tells us we’re only as valuable as our last big click generator? Even as I quietly and civilly rage against the machine, it’s impossible not to notice how it eats me and feeds me back to myself. It’s an ugly process made to look sleek and appealing. It’s a wildly efficient robbery; always underway where everyone’s a perpetrator and witness at the same time. We stay busy. We stay busied.

Writing trouble, writing trouble; trouble writing, trouble writing. Where is the emphasis? What seems to be the trouble? The trouble is neither paucity nor order of words; trouble defines the context into which the words are released. The trouble is the world we inhabit. The trouble is in the world we’ve created. The trouble is in us. The trouble is us. We are the trouble. The writing speaks of trouble. The writing shows the trouble. Trouble shapes the writing. The writing consumes trouble. Trouble consumes the writing. Writing made of trouble. Writing made for trouble. Writing trouble is not the same as trouble writing. Troubling trouble while writing writing, we create an illusion. Maybe it matters. Trouble writing no longer an illusion but a fact.

Repeating, repeating, repeating, repeating, repeating. Repetition may not save us. Repetition, though, shows us patterns. Repetition can help us see and then unsee. Help us hear and then unhear. Repetition can take us to clarity. Kicking and screaming, if necessary. Repetition got patience. Repetition can hold the note. Repetition will wait you out. Repetition been down this road before. Repetition ain’t afraid of you. Repetition knows its purpose. Repetition never forgets. Repetition is a song that keeps singing. Repetition is a beat that keeps beating. Repetition is a breath that keeps breathing. Repetition is neither the beginning or the end. Repetition keeps going. Sometimes we need to follow.

Writing here, now, becomes a release valve. A relief release. A loosening of the shoulders, an unclenching of the jaw. I am not free but at ease. It’s a start, a return, a diversion, a turn, an entry, a temporary arrival.

Welcome.

The Writing Retreat

I did and I didn’t do/go on/ experience a writing retreat. In the most basic sense I took a solo vacation. Booked a package including flights, transfer, hotel stay with meals. 6 nights, no complications. I brought my laptop, a stack of books, 2 notebooks, a couple of good pens. For this cordoned off period I enjoyed two great resources I often lack: time and opportunity.

Indeed, I read generously, journaled frequently, scratched meaningfully at two or three ongoing projects with actual deadlines. I also spent time in the sun; took naps, walks and a handful of photographs. I got my hair braided! Rather than explore the surrounding territories, I remained within a few kilometers of my hotel, exploited the convenience of requiring little extra diversion beyond my own imagination and the steady beat of waves against the beach.

Sun, sea, horizon. Image: Nadine Aish-Longden via Unsplash

About a week before I booked the trip, I downloaded directions for a DIY Writing Retreat. It’s designed to help writers of any kind create the conditions that allow them to achieve some writing goals. As a tool, it is well thought-out, encouraging and accessible. While I didn’t follow the steps, per se, I can say at the end of my stay, that writing happened. I met some goals which I hesitated to articulate in advance. I’ve decided I can leave here with a little feather in my writing cap.

But there’s more. Of course, there’s more.

I didn’t come here expressly to write. I mean, this was my first vacation abroad in two years. While not the first time going solo, this trip held a different character – an unspoken potential for adventure, perhaps. Or a weird extra acknowledgement of my recent status as a single single; fully unattached and at liberty. That said, what I actually did was read, write and stroll around. I did not talk to anyone besides service personnel. I enjoyed each and every meal at a small table with good food and a book. I went to the bar maybe twice, again with a book. I realize that I don’t have much faith in random encounters. And with time and opportunity, my choice to engage with authors on the page rather than surrounding tourists can hardly come as a surprise. I have no regrets.

I also spent huge blocks of time in my own head which is where a lot of my writing still resides. Part of recognizing the week’s outcomes rests on accounting for all that remains unaccounted for. All the thoughts, fragments, ideas that didn’t get written down does not mean that they don’t exist. It might be a passage I underlined while reading. An image that comes to mind while I’m observing people at the beach. The way my scalp itches two days after having these tight cornrows with extensions put in. My language is varied and multifaceted. My writing is more than words on various pages.

And here is where the retreat feels palpable. The retreat I took was from expectations of what one is to do on vacation. I took a retreat from my day-to-day in order to view it more clearly. What I found out is that I’m still mourning a loss that has accumulated slowly and steadily over years. Behold, an ambiguous grief that is heavy but lacks clear dimensions or handles! I took a retreat from my usual markers of productivity. I worked on some stuff but I found myself in a very forgiving state. Not too pressed about grasping at oddly shaped ideals. I let whatever out onto the page or screen knowing that it might all change again and be fine. I retreated from the people in my immediate vicinity and found fellowship with the characters who genuinely interested me in my books or through the screen.

My day job is deeply social, communication-intense and physically demanding. Only now, a week out of the routines that shape my normal workdays can I appreciate how urgent my need for retreat actually was. I needed this time to retreat into myself.

One of the outcomes is the chance to rewrite my own stories.

“As the relationships I crave become more and more difficult to find, as the consistency I need from other people seems almost impossible, the one thing with which I have a consistent relationship is my writing. So it’s hard to take any part of that away.”

Mattilda Berstein Sycamore, The Freezer Door, p. 250

Enough said.


*In case you’re wondering which books I brought along…

I arrived with about 150 pages left of The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom. I continued with MBS and The Freezer Door which I had also begun before leaving home. Next up was Zora Neal Hurston’s Baracoon and I’m drawing out the final chapters of A Separation by Katie Kitamura which will likely blow my mind before I get on the return flight in the early morning hours. To my surprise, I actually cut it pretty close. I almost ran out. Oh, yeah, I also started Jessie Daniel’s Nice White Ladies on my laptop, so there’s that.

Writing On Your Own Terms Of Endearment (an ode)

A pile of writing. Photo by edifiedlistener.

If you’re a writer, and even if you don’t call yourself that, you know how it happens. One day you hear a voice saying all the things you needed to hear in the just right tone and tempo and you suddenly commit. All further work will be dedicated to emulating this new voice from what appears to be, surely must be, the heavens. You have a model. Now you will find your way because someone else is holding a flashlight over the path you think you’d like to follow. Maybe you’re also like a new puppy: super eager, begging for treats, sniffing and test chewing everything you can find. Everything is interesting and when you sleep, you sleep deeply, curled up on the floor, so content that you have found your purpose.

Maybe that’s going too far. Maybe you’re not a puppy, per se, but a temporary hyper enthusiast. You are so hungry for changing the things you’ve been doing. You crave being done with the things you’ve been doing. But you still can’t stop because then no one would be able to find you. You fear getting lost in the shuffle, becoming unrecognizable. It’s like when your favorite running shoe is discontinued, you mourn the loss. Whatever comes after is never as good as the 33 previous pairs you had. So, to stop doing what you’re doing would mean to discontinue your series. To phase out that long line of production. You really want change, but not into oblivion.

So here comes this voice, this singular voice, that seems to say, “Hey! Relax! Breathe. Write or don’t write. Walk or run. Be who you are. Breathe again. Now try writing.”

The message feels prophetic even if it’s just a talk on a podcast that you listened to on a series of devices. You feel singled out. You feel heard although you never uttered a word. It feels as if this person, this author you had never heard of before, sat right down across from you and said, “Honey, What you’ve been doing is what you’ve been doing and it matters, and it’s worthy and it’s exactly what I mean when I say we should all be writing on our own terms.” That’s what it feels like and so you listen to this voice over and over again telling you, you’ve been on the right path all along. “Most great writers never get published.” And even if that’s not your primary concern (neither being a great writer, nor getting published), it still feels healing to hear it at the right time from the right direction.

You think to yourself about the mountains of writing you will leave in your wake. A never ending coming to terms with being and doing. Writing, writing, writing. The outlet, the release, the correspondence, the container, the magic hat, the timepiece, the storage – all this writing – multipurpose, year-round, all-season habit that finds no end.

What you know about your own writing could fill a book. And here comes this voice that reminds you: we who write are never in the singular. We exist in conversation with each other, in conversation with language, in conversation with conversation even if we can barely stand it to hear that word again because it seems to stand for everything. Yet here we are saying that word to mean that we are talking to each other, we are witnessing and creating exchanges, we are operating in what amounts to the opposite of a vacuum. What’s the word for that? Not every gathering or collection of people, things, voices creates a community. At any rate, we exist in the not-vacuum and together (and apart) we create what we create: messes and havoc, beauty and symphony, struggle and breakthrough, lapses, gaps and gasps. No list is ever exhaustive which is part of what makes them so fun to write. Make a list. Exhaust yourself. That is writing, too.

Of course, you’re thinking too about joy. Why can’t we talk more about joy? We all have more than enough responsibility. So who’s going to advocate for joy? You will and yes, because the voice also does this. The voice talks about making space for sentences to breathe. The voice talks about all of us writing together in a single document and seeing what would emerge, all the mysteries and magic and magnificence that might surprise and scare us at the same time. The ridiculous pile of energy we would produce. It wouldn’t necessarily be all joy, nor all pain, but it would be space – for all of us to be in and breathe.

And sometimes to be in space where you can breathe is all the joy you need for a moment.

Now you’ve written this thing which doesn’t care about what it is so much as it is relieved to have spoken. Finally. To have said the things that have been swirling around and put them down on a page – this is a fantastic relief! You don’t have to know exactly where you go from here. You can go wherever you want, actually. You can write wherever you need to go. That’s the beauty of this thing; this occupation that is not your occupation. You belong to each other. You are your own symbiotic not-vacuum in a world full of other not-vacuums.

Audio version:

Deep gratitude to Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore for her revelatory talk “Writing On Your Own Terms” via Tin House Live and host, David Naimon.

Saying Some Things/Hearing Some Things

Two voices: a call and a response. Speaking and listening; hearing and being heard: A process.

Saying Some Things

I’ve been saying some things. Some are true. Some are wishes. Some are exhales. Some are just so damn necessary. I’ve been saying some things that keep me up at night, that make me wonder, fret, and suck my teeth. I’ve been saying some things I’ve been meaning to let out. I’ve been saying the things that might be hard to hear but I say it nicely in my white lady voice and it turns out okay. I’ve been saying some things that will tell you that I’m a little old and kinda tired and brave in a smoldering kind of way. I’ve been saying some things that matter. Not just to me but to other folks too. I’ve been saying some things and I guess I’ll just keep on.

Hearing Some Things

I’ve been hearing some things. Some are real. Some are dreams. Some are gasps. Some are silent screams for being. I’ve been hearing some things that keep me up at night, that make me question, fumble, and grind my teeth. I’ve been hearing some things that have burst whiteness. I’ve been hearing some things and responding without saying it nicely in my white lady voice and it didn’t turn out okay for me, but it’s okay.. I’ve been hearing some things that will tell you that I’m new at this and kinda exhausted even though I’ve just begun. I’ve been hearing some things that matter. Not just to me, but to my students, the future. I’ve been hearing some things and I guess I’ll just need to do more.

Saying Some Things first appeared on Sherri’s Slice of Life Project and Hearing Some Things was shared by Melanie White in response. She was kind enough to allow me to post it here.