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.

A Gratitude Post

I’m calling these “gratitude episodes.”

I met Amy on a plane ride. Within the space of about an hour we had a conversation that led us around the world and back, together. I have no idea if I will ever see Amy again but the gift of her insights and experiences that she shared with me about teaching, learning, pet care, and leading an authentic life was huge.

An elderly man made his way through a buzzing crowd of educators. I was able to read the name tag on his lanyard and strode over to him with intent. I offered my hand and he shook it firmly, leaning forward in order to hear me say my name clearly. This was the man who, as the founder of a recruiting agency I was aiming to leave, called me personally on Skype in order to intervene. He was 78 at the time and planning on retiring but he still felt it necessary to talk with me and explain that not all of his recruiters were equally creative in their thinking. I will never forget that phone call and so it was an honor to finally meet this gentleman in person to say “Thank you.” As we chatted further we found time to speak glowingly of mutual friend and to sing the praises of Vienna. The encounter proved to be an absolute highlight of my conference weekend.

A dear friend and I took a time our during the conference and enjoyed a one-on-one conversation which felt like a deliciously satisfying four-course meal by the time we were done. We sat in the sun, gazing out on the Adriatic Sea and talked about yoga, solitude, the wonders of life and gratitude. This conversation filled my cup and boosted my energy.

I shared a vacation apartment with two colleagues who are both teachers of music. We have known each other  and worked in the same school together for a long time. Yet spending time with them in this context felt like a revelation. I was (re)acquainted with their generosity, humor, and sense of order. We shared stories about our lives which for me felt so fully enriching and edifying. At long last, I was getting to know my colleagues more deeply, and they, me.

At the close of the workshop that I facilitated, one participant said: “You practice what you preach.” This was in reference to the way in which I conducted the workshop on inclusion activities – paced according to the participants’ needs, invitational in atmosphere, going for experience rather than just description. While this is what I aim for every time, to hear someone say it to me directly in response to a learning experience we’ve just shared – well, that is a rare instance indeed. It reminds me of how incalculable our efforts of teaching, sharing, facilitating, coaching, and guiding ultimately are. We almost never know for sure how and to what degree we have impacted others in the short and long term. For this reason, I hold this one piece of feedback as precious.

While I was enjoying the beautiful setting of this conference, I walked a fair amount, sometimes with others and also alone. I’ve been reading Atul Gawande’s extraordinary new book, Being Mortal which examines how we handle dying and aging in our modern Western societies in particular. And as I walked I thought about these topics and so often I was infused with moments of breathless gratitude for my good health, for the privileges I was enjoying in that moment, for the warm sun on my face, the respect and friendship of my colleagues, for the freedom to be and do as I see fit, for the wonders of nature: sea, stars, blossoms and stones, for time on my own, for the connection to my family which makes all of this possible. The list continues. Yet in reading about being mortal, about grappling with the prospect of imminent death, I gained a renewed sense of purpose and also relief. “All I have to do is to make this the best it can be right now. That’s it. Not more.”

This is my gratitude post today. Tomorrow’s or next week’s or next year’s will be different, I suspect. That the gratitude continues to flow and find a generous home in my day-to-day habits, this is my wish and also my intent.


Vienna Gratitude


September 2015 will mark the 30th anniversary of my arrival in Austria. At the time I was planning on a semester. That semester extended to a year and after a few years of back and forth between the US and Vienna, I settled here in 1991.

As a US Citizen and an African-American one at that, I am a foreigner here. While I did not grow-up here, this is the city and country in which I have come of age. When I move through town I know where I am going and people ask me for directions. I am a foreigner at home.

Vienna is an exceptionally beautiful city which is kept remarkably clean and well groomed. It has a clear and seemingly unconflicted understanding of itself as a primary tourist destination. The historical buildings, extensive parks and central pedestrian areas remind the locals  exactly what part of the economy is paying a good chunk of the bills. Having lived here so long it is easy to forget what a downright marvelous location this is. That’s how it is when you become local – you find faults much more easily than wonder.

At the same time, I didn’t settle in Vienna because of its imperial history or architectural gems. Rather I stayed because of the people I met: the welcome they offered, the interest they showed, the curiosity they shared, the enthusiasm I encountered when I spoke the language.  During my first few years here, brown people were not a particularly common sight. I fielded a lot of questions from Austrians about where I was from and how I liked it here “with us” (“Wie gefaellt es Dir hier bei uns?”).

Several years in I found that the question no longer fit. I had somehow outgrown it. When I asked myself I found that my questions had less to do with whether or not I liked it here, rather the emphasis was on what I liked here and what made it evident that I would stay; what made it unlikely that there would  be a return “home” (to the US). Small wonder, home was and is right here.

And the “what” that keeps me here? Let me count the ways:

  • Vienna is a remarkably safe city.
  • It’s clean, tidy and well-groomed to a fault.
  • Water and air quality are impeccable.
  • City services are numerous and work reliably well.
  • Public transportation deserves awards – it’s extensive, user-friendly and affordable.
  • City-run early childhood care (Kindergaerten) stands out as child-centered, family-friendly and simply well-planned.
  • Health care is guaranteed.
  • The city has green spaces large and small throughout and is buffered on 3 sides by the Vienna Woods.
  • Cultural offerings are off the charts in terms of quality and variety and access to public museums, concerts and opera is made possible through city support.
  • Stores are closed on Sundays (which means that people find other ways to spend their time and money).
  • Public education, while traditional, works.


And those are just several external variables that make for an excellent quality of life. Of course, relationships to  family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances create the foundation for staying and flourishing here. That said, it seems important to point out those every day conveniences and privileges which contribute to a great life. They are huge blessings and not to be taken for granted.


*Fotos: CC via Pixabay.com



In Praise of Women Who Make Me Think

The end of a calendar year and the accompanying holiday season strike me as a time for gratitude to move into my life and take a front row seat. This is where it starts.

Among the many blessings of this year, I have felt the tremendous effect of so many phenomenal women in my life. They have buoyed me, sustained me, encouraged and also challenged me. They have written to me, spoken with me, made me laugh, made me cry and most of all they seem to understand me. Some of these women are family, some are old friends, some are new friends, some are acquaintances and some I have barely spoken with.

All of them have made me think.

They have made me think about myself, my identity, my reasons for being.

They have made me think about my now, my future and also about my past.

They have asked me to look at my practice – in my home, in my work, in my relationships – and see both my strengths and my shortcomings.

They have offered me examples, templates, their stories, their complexity without shame or reservation.

They have jolted my thinking and spurred me to action.

The have reminded me day after day how wonderful it is to be female and oh so human.

These women are old and young and in between.

They have ambitions and ideas and language that speak to me in multiple ways.

They are my role models, mentors and partners in crime.

They are educators, activists, entrepreneurs, tech mavens, scientists and artists.

They are all that and more.

They all have made me think. And think again.

And for that I am eternally grateful.



If you are reading this post…

If you are reading this post, you took a journey to get here.  At some point, you learned to read.

If you are reading this post, it is highly likely that you are involved with education in some form.

If you are reading this post, then you are actively engaged in online media.

If you are reading this post, you are expending a portion of your most precious personal resource -your attention – on the ideas of someone you may or may not know personally.
If you are reading this post, it’s possible that your curiosity has been sparked. It’s possible that you are on the lookout for something in particular. Or perhaps for nothing special.

And yet, if you are reading this post, you are making a choice in favor of exposure, of taking a peek, of experiencing something you will not experience elsewhere.

If you are reading this post, then you are taking a moment to connect with someone else. You are venturing outside your own mind to investigate what someone else has to say and how she chooses to say it.

If you are reading this post, you may well have arrived here through serendipity. Or by design. You may be a follower. Or a leader.  What has your path been and where would you like it to take you?

If you are reading this post, you probably own your literacy and take measures to nourish and enhance it.  How are you encouraging others around you to do the same?

If you are reading this post, please take a moment to reflect on the many contributors to your literacy journey.  What are their names? How have they influenced you?  What would you say to them now to acknowledge their unique and priceless gifts to you?

If you have read this post and experienced resonance, then I want to say, “Thank you” and “Please, come again.”

This post is dedicated to my mother, Dorothea Lyons (1924-2014), who consistently fanned the flames of my curiosity, tirelessly insisted on my exposure to so much otherness along the way and inspired a love of the literate life like no one else I have ever encountered.

My mom, Dorothea Lyons
My mom, Dorothea Lyons

A Few Thank Yous

THANK YOU: Two words that have changed my life and helped me find my better self when I most needed to.

About a decade ago, I made saying “Thank you” a genuine habit a of mind.  While I had certainly used Thank you, please and you’re welcome often enough in the past, what changed was when I found myself able to say it when it felt most difficult to do so: When I was hearing criticism, when I felt defensive, when I was otherwise at a loss for words.  Saying “Thank you” in those situations allowed me to pause, recognize some of what was going on inside me and be open for the other’s full message. As a habit of mind, Thank you becomes my ever present reminder that I did not get here on my own. I have had much help, support and encouragement along the way.

With respect to this blog, I have some initial Thank Yous to share: for encouragement and attention, for inspiration and material, for providing impetus to keep going. First to my friend and colleague, Jalene, who kindly and simply invited me to join twitter this summer.  A simple invitation in my inbox: all I had to do was click on it and start my journey.  So it began.

To one of the premier gateway voices on twitter who has sparked my interest and learning again and again: Tom Whitby.  It didn’t take many links to find Tom’s outspoken blog on matters educational and once I began following him on twitter, my field of vision was widened immesurably. For that I am extremely grateful.  It was also on Tom’s blog that I found material which necessitated a response: I replied and used one of those responses to relaunch this blog.

Through Edutopia Edutopia and Tom, I have been introduced to another host of educator voices whose contributions have inspired and fascinated me: Joe Bower , Bill Ferriter and Elena Aguilar , to name but a few.

To my cohort colleagues and the leadership team of The Klingenstein Center, I owe many thanks for the ongoing encouragement and willingness to take and share my enthusiastic suggestions for great reads and worthwhile initiatives.  In many ways, they formed my first online audience and their influence runs deep.

cburke2012 was the first follower of this blog since its relaunch and I want to say thanks for opening my eyes to this avenue of connection and reciprocity.

Thank YOU for taking the time to read this.  To whom would you say “Thank you?”