Writing My Way Out of a Paper Bag

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I can write my way out of a paper bag.

There, I said it.

“I am large, I contain multitudes” wrote Walt Whitman.

“Me too,” I replied.

I’m trying to pull a book together. I won’t say write a book because not all of it will be from scratch. The goal is to compile, gather, thread and punctuate several pieces of writing with new connective works. On some days I am fully convinced that this is a great idea. On other days, I end up shaking my head and walking away. And here’s where it gets interesting.

When I walk away (or even run away), what do I do?

I go hustle for approval. That’s right, hustle for approval.

I do this at home, at work, in the car, on my phone, in every imaginable context. I make the play again and again, always hot on the heels of some kind of affirmation goodness. Like this:

I run the dishwasher before my partner gets home.

I pull the secret sweets out of my backpack and hand them to my grumpy 10 y-o late in the afternoon when I still have to go grocery shopping.

My students ask, “Is it Awesome Gym Day?” and I think for a moment before saying “Yes, but you’ll have to set it up.”

I return my library books on time and take out two new books. The librarian smiles at me.

I get on Twitter and start scrolling and read two or three blog posts. I quote retweet with a passage from the piece so folks know that I actually read it.

I sweep the bathroom floor after combing my hair because, you know, all those brittle ends go flying all over.

Of course I braid my big puffy hair so that it lays graceful and flat against the side of my head and provides little cause for comment.

I put plenty of cream on my face so my skin looks smooth, even the bags under my eyes.

When I’m talking to others I try to focus on listening even if I’m not all the way in the mood.

I stand at the far corner of the track so that my athletes struggling through the last 150m of a 400 can hear me cheer them on.

So I far I’ve kept my body in about the same size category for about 40 years. People see me and say “you haven’t changed in years.” The effort required is an ongoing accomplishment and never ending challenge at the same time. The hustle is real.

At the end of the school day, I pack up my equipment and drag it back into storage and try to make sure it goes back into the right spaces. My colleagues trust me not to leave a mess.

At home I maintain a particular level of messiness but I can still find things pretty easily. It’s a skill. I may straighten my space up if we have company. (Rare)

I don’t write on a schedule. But someone somewhere always reads what I post and I can’t really quite get over the miracle of how that all takes place.

When I meet parents I usually know their child and have something good to say about him, her or them.

I read to my youngest before he goes to bed. Both of us love this ritual. There’s a special mutuality to this hustle.

Lots of people I know have a hard time imagining me angry. They have simply never seen me that way.

So these are some of my every day hustles. Writing this post certainly falls in that category, too. Hustling for approval is what I do. I want to be seen, liked, appreciated, and loved.

When I am not working on this larger piece of work that is begging for its own future, this is how I am spending my minutes, hours, days. No mask, just the real deal.

I contain multitudes as much as Walt Whitman and I can write my way out of a paper bag while I run around gathering approval points anywhere I can. Truth.

 

  • I am borrowing the term “Hustle for approval” from Brene Brown who uses “hustle for worthiness” in her work.

 

*Cough, cough* Is this mic on?

Once upon a time, I was a runner. I rose each morning filled with thoughts of what my workout commitment was and how everything else fit around that. Work, child care, housekeeping and all the rest were all set up to insure that my running time was secured. I was focused on achievement and I experienced, for my standards, reasonable success. When it came time to shed this blanket identity, I struggled to find a replacement. When I could no longer call myself a runner, I felt somewhat adrift. For a while I became a seeker without a title.

I discovered new interests. I invested in education, became a frequent-flyer at personality seminars and coaching workshops. Within a few years, I arrived a new identity: coach.

*Reached this point in the post, looking for a possible exit*

*Blah, blah, blah, coaching… passionate…blah, blah…*

Part of me hates telling these kinds of stories: I did this, learned that and became this. Introduction, build-up, (there’s rarely a climax), and resolution. The stories make a circuitous path seem like a neat and straight trajectory. Such stories are so incomplete and flattened that they undermine whatever truth remains in them.

*Decides to continue with flawed narrative format anyway.*

The reason I started all this was actually to make sense of where I am now: conflicted, overwhelmed, strung out on identity finding, making, affirming, doing. Without question this inner dialogue turned outward, made public for consumption by strangers, friends and loved ones has a lot to do with it. Since I have chosen a path in social media, in the blogosphere, that has consequences; benefits and costs which I continually weigh.

Sorting myself, my thoughts, my identities in public is a choice that is fraught, fraught, fraught. Knowing that feels like a win, though. So cognizant of this tension between being and performing, telling and dramatizing; seeking and shunning attention at the same time, I’m writing to say, I am tired and I’m still here.

Because while I arrived here (online) as an educator, coach and former runner, what I’ve become is a writer who sometimes struggles to live up to the all the other pieces of me that ultimately are on display. I go to sleep thinking about the read and unread, the writing completed and the writing ahead. I wake up with new ideas and old ones. I walk through my day immersed in composition of one kind or another, forming images that beg to be recorded but for which there are not enough hours in the day. My day is awash in words I want to use and bend to my will.

For now I have stopped denying myself the mantle of writer. Perhaps that will offer some relief. My privilege in this respect stretches far. I can do and be many things at once and few will contest my claims.

(Many, many thanks to @hypervisible for introducing me to my new favorite GIF which I plan to use as often as possible, even incorrectly.)

Die Sprachbürgerschaft is on the way

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I decided to publish a stack of poems I wrote 14 years ago.

In my e-mail inbox I have notice that the books will arrive on Tuesday.

Surprise, no surprise, I have feelings about this development.

I could tell you that I am happy, proud, relieved and/or excited.

For the record I think I’m some of all of those things.

And I am also nervous (in the little-girl-who-might-get-in-trouble kind of way), which makes no rational sense but the feeling is there.

The poems are in German. Like, literally, auf deutsch.

I am not a native German speaker, nor do I sound like one.

I am fluent in German, I live in a German-speaking country and engage my surroundings often in the local vernacular.

I am an immigrant in this particular German-speaking republic.

And now I’m publishing some poems as part of my journey.

Again and again though this voice comes and asks: Really? You? Writing poems, calling them poems in a language you didn’t even grow up speaking? In a language you don’t have a degree in?

That’s real, too.

One piece in the collection is actually a dialogue and also provides the title of the book:

Die Sprachbürgerschaft

which loosely translates to Language Citizenship.

I suppose it’s the dialogue in my own head played out between two people: The language immigrant and the language native. The native asks the immigrant about how she came to the language and what she does in it; then goes on to inquire about the immigrant’s qualifications to write, play and publish in the language. The native becomes increasingly irritated by the immigrant’s laid back attitude to accessing and using this language they have in common and concludes the conversation by threatening to report the immigrant to the language police at the local language protection office.

 

Several weeks ago, my mother-in-law, a native German speaker, read this dialogue aloud to me and in that moment, I could hear that my words had a relevance I hadn’t accorded them previously.

The poems exist as a kind of ode to my immigrant-ness of almost 30 years. Being in this country, yet never fully of it.

The poems are also a tribute to this language I have embraced and loved and which in its own way has loved me back and even chuckled at some of my creations.

What I found is that poems allowed me to play with German in a way I cannot play with English. And I wonder how other multilingual folks encounter these differences in use.

So yes, a premier is on the horizon. A book, a book!

One that few folks in my current circles will be able to actually enjoy but one I hope that we will celebrate and contemplate together.

Which language, whose language, which words, whose interpretations?…All the things.

Tuesday. Dienstag.

 

Because Someone’s Listening

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The sign that’s not on my fridge but should be:

“Don’t go there.”

Of course, I go.

Damn social media. Damn me.

The time I spend in my own head is no longer solitary.

I can hear myself think (still)

but

my voice is tempered for your possible reception;

my words carefully tested for palatability

before they can be released.

And I keep writing, writing, writing

straight onto the screen, so few

filters between this thought

and what you might make of it.

 

But let me say this:

I have an Alice Walker T-shirt from the Writing Project and the quote says:

“Writing has saved me from the sin and inconvenience of violence.”

And every day that I come to terms with concentrated power

in the (tiny) hands of a federal administration bent on

harm, revenge and unmitigated selfishness,

I thank God for writing saving me from the sin and inconvenience

of violence.

 

My moral outrage is but a drop in the bucket of

untold suffering among

too many.

Some of whom understand what is in the making and many more

who have no inkling that they will not be spared

the pain and humiliation

of being discarded, dismissed, and annulled.

 

I regret to inform you that

I have spent time reading the incomprehensible

transcripts of a figurehead

who struggles to express one thought

coherently.

 

I regret to inform you that

these elementary and primitive

patterns of speech

appeal to some,

to many, in fact.

The joke that was now lays like detrimental oil spill

over the gulf of what we thought

was a semi-functioning democracy.

 

The bill for the clean up will be paid

by our children and grandchildren

But the spill is ongoing,

widening its toxic reach

seeping and tumbling past each new measure

designed to contain it.

 

I can be angry about social media

about myself on social media

and I can write

because someone, somewhere

is listening.

and sometimes that is just enough

of what is needed.

 

 

The Archive Project

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I was looking for some information in my archives. I’ve written and kept a lot: Workshop descriptions and agendas, decades of report card comments, professional letters, application essays, you name it. In the process I have come across some documents that remind me of what’s important still. Here are a couple of brief examples.

This is from a workshop introduction I did in 2014. The topic is trust.

 If the members of a large organization are surveyed, among the most common wishes expressed are those for better communication and greater trust. Not surprisingly these two aspects go hand in hand.  As members of an organization and community, we seek belonging and purpose. We join forces, bundle our resources, commit our energies, share our results and take pride in our accomplishments.  When our channels of communication are clogged, crossed or even haywire, we suffer.  Our contributions may be squandered, go unnoticed, never reach fruition.  What is our response? We doubt our leaders, withhold our best efforts and bemoan our organizational dysfunction.  In short, we lose trust in the very organization and community which we sought support and improve.

So often we wait for our organizations to finally change. We find new leaders. We restructure our staff. We announce sweeping reforms and initiate widespread training initiatives. And once again, the critical ingredient of trust remains outside these bargains, and the desired change almost never takes hold.

I also found this gem in a letter about professional development to an author educator, not sure that I even sent the letter, though.

The more I think of it, the more convinced I become that we only improve our educational offerings at the rate at which we improve ourselves by becoming students – struggling students, in fact. We need to spend more time not just attending PD, we need to be creating, reinventing, challenging the very notion of PD. Frankly, I’m tired of sit and (for)get. I’m in for get up, get busy and take charge of your own experience. That’s the direction we need to be moving as educators and our kids are already paving the way a million times over.

What sorts of treasures are in your archive? Just because it wasn’t written or created last week or last year doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.

Think about this with me. Dive into your archives and find out who you were, what you prioritized, how you’ve grown. Share out on your blog, in a reply, on Twitter or anywhere else. I wanted to give this idea a more formal kick-off because it’s been rattling around in my brain for a while. This will have to suffice for now. It probably needs a hashtag. Maybe #ArchiveProject?

Writing, Academia and Freedom

Silence Won’t Protect You by Kelly J. Baker

On Poverty by Alison Stine

Confronting the Conditions of Contract Faculty by Melonie Fullick

I read quite a bit about higher education these days and the news I frequently come across is sobering to say the least. There are multiple areas of concern: rising tuition fees and students with obscene levels of debt, increasing reliance on adjunct faculty who are above all underpaid for work loads which lack both security and status, and institutions that are run more like businesses rather than centers of learning (if that is what they should in fact be). These are the topics I am most likely to encounter in my circles of contact.

Two recent reads speak to these concerns from different angles and the third points to the issue of solidarity and privilege and how these play out both within and outside the academy.

Melonie Fullick (@qui_oui on Twitter) provides a handy recap of panel discussion on the casualisation of higher education teaching in Canada and a few other countries. This is helpful because it teases out a number of different aspects of the whole package of dilemmas posed by the widespread use of faculty whose jobs lack stability and often adequate compensation.

Describing specific CAF working conditions and their effects: While contract faculty jobs are precarious and underpaid, so is an increasing amount of work in the current economy; the “big picture” is the decline of stable work that provides livable wages, and how that gap affects people’s lives. At the same time, when people hear the words “university professor” they tend to think of privilege. So it’s important to communicate in detail how, for contract faculty, precarious conditions combine with low institutional status and lack of professional support, leading to financial and health problems, low morale and burnout. None of these things is in the best interests of students or those teaching them, thus they’re not in the best interests of universities, either.

A second aspect that stood out for me was the conversation around solidarity and who can and will support whom under which circumstances and the conundrums that many casually employed faculty face in daring to speak out against lousy work conditions. There are very real risks involved.

Depending on context, it can be difficult for contract faculty to participate in organizing because often naming the problem means becoming the problem, which brings the very real possibility of losing access to jobs in the future.

And this is precisely where Kelly J. Baker picks up the baton and takes the conversation a step further and names the future of academic freedom as concurrent risk in the current higher ed climate. What she documents in her article lends heft to Fullick’s suggestion that naming the problem is often tied to becoming the problem, particularly for adjunct faculty.

Academic freedom doesn’t rest easily with colleges and universities’ attempts to brand their institutions. Brands require consistency, conformity, and simplified messages. Your speech is protected if your words fit neatly with the university’s brand, if your institution chooses to stand with you, or if your university cares about your tenure.

In conclusion, Baker leaves no doubt as to the necessary course of action:

If you care about academic freedom, then you should care about all of those who lack academic freedom. You should stand with them and support them. Use your academic freedom, while you still have it, to make academia a safer space for everyone or lose it in your silence. Use it to include more voices and protect more people. Don’t try to save your own academic freedom, but try to save it for all of us. That’s the only way it will continue. Silence nor complacency will save us from the increasing adjunctification of higher education, the corporatized university, the growth of the administrative class, or the continual devaluation of teaching. The neoliberal university will grind us down until there’s nothing left. Choose solidarity. Choose academic freedom for all scholars. Stand together.

Your silence won’t protect you, but solidarity might.

Alison Stine’s piece ‘On Poverty’ comes at us from a very different place – outside the academy, from coal mining country where lack is tangible reality. In describing her personal decision stop teaching in an adjunct position because she could no longer afford to continue, she writes:

Then I was offered a section, and when I asked how much it paid—because I have to pay a babysitter for my young son—I was only told by the (male, white) department head: “We have adjuncts who will do it at any price.”

As disgusting as this statement is, it’s true. And it means that only writers with working spouses or families who support them, or who have independent wealth, can teach. And that most college English Departments—we’ve long known this, but don’t seem capable or willing to do anything about it—run on exploitation.

But this is only a part of the picture. What Stine further laments and draws our attention to is the poverty we are likely creating in writing as an art as it becomes the domain of the well-off and academic.

I also believe that contemporary literature’s heavy focus on the professor class is a detriment not only to writers’ lives but also to the work being produced.

It reinforces the damaging message that the only lives worth writing (or reading) about are the ones professors lead…

…There are other voices beyond professors. Other kinds of lives, other struggles that are real, vividly imagined, and deserving of time. One of the ways of validating lives is by allowing them space to speak, by setting up your conference or your contest in a way that supports writers who are poor and less connected, in a way that actively looks for them.

This is why we need to look carefully at where we are and who we are when we are speaking up and out and on whose behalf. It may well be the case that our best work is not speaking at all but creating space for someone else’s voice.

The experiences and imaginations of the poor are as rich as those of anyone born into privilege or tenured as a professor. Sometimes, imagination is all we have.

We are not poor out of lack of hard work. We are not poor because we “want it less.” We stay poor because of institutionalized sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, and classism.

We stay poor because doors stay closed.

Stine reminds us all that freedom is not a given and that some, many in fact, lack the freedom to simply change. The nudge that I received from ‘On Poverty’ was that I have a choice. I can choose solidarity or not. And solidarity requires more than admiring so many beautiful problems. It requires self awareness, perhaps in the form of recognizing my own forms of privilege for starters. Solidarity requires listening first and creating space. Solidarity means I need to open doors for and with others wherever possible.

I am fascinated by higher education. I love being able to ‘hang’ with my PhD friends on social media and feel welcomed in their conversations. Yet these reads encourage me to go deeper, to look at who’s speaking and what are we really talking about and ultimately what my choices convey about my priorities in these spaces. Keeping our conversations open and routinely asking ourselves who is not present moves us in the direction of solidarity. I wish I had a better, tidier conclusion. In the end there is more work ahead. Work that demands consciousness and fortitude and engagement. Not tidy, necessary.

 

 

A Way (Away) With Words

I cannot stop thinking about language.

I saw a tweet this morning that resonated. I chose not to retweet because some of the word choices are a bit too over the top for my tastes but the fundamental message is spot on. The title is “How To Talk Like an Entrepreneur” and it offers a list of handy translations of typical start-up talk:

“I’m passionate about…” becomes “I’d like to make money from…”

“Change the world”  implies “make an app to do something we already do marginally faster…”

“Disrupting X” actually means “Taking market share by temporarily avoiding regulations that larger companies deal with”

You get the idea.

We who write tend to be good at finding words – words to illustrate, evoke, provoke, reveal, cover up, distract, focus, frame, shape, manipulate, determine, lead astray, pass judgment, ignore, beautify, decorate, downplay, exaggerate, say, show, tell. We find words and string them together in hopes of conveying a thought or thoughts which will make sense to someone else. We find words, we commit words, we imbue them meaning and we let them out onto the page or screen to be read by someone else, aiming for reception and resonance – sometimes hitting the mark, other times missing spectacularly.

I’ve been thinking about my own use of language, particularly in how I communicate with parents and colleagues to describe students in my class. For years I have considered this a strong point – my capacity to write specifically about each individual student. In fact, when I reread comments written 10, 5 or 2  years ago I see evidence of that expressive strength. At the same time, these comments reveal my distinct teacher values and preferences.

Here are some of the phrases which crop up fairly often:

“wanders off task”

“maintains a busy social agenda”

“is a pleasure to teach”

“struggles with listening to and following directions”

“Finds it difficult to separate from a favorite buddy”

“requires several reminders”

“shows visible progress”

“can-do attitude and strong work ethic”

“is adjusting to our routines”

There are several more and when I think about the students and the behaviors I am trying to describe, these phrases seem to fit. There is a great deal of emphasis on compliant behavior (i.e., listening to and following directions) and considerably less talk about creative expression and student latitude (although these do appear). When I teach, it’s true that much or even most of the time I want to have things done ‘my way.’ And some would argue that is the nature of the job: teacher directs, students follow. To be fair, I would suggest that most teacher direction is necessary in the gym where students’ potential for injury is entirely real. Being able to move safely in a tag game, say, requires parameters, structures, and instruction. That’s a big part of my job – providing the necessary structures and parameters for each student to be able to practice and improve safely and with both the necessary support and creative release.

Yet when I comment I usually have more to say about student behavior – how they interact with me, with classmates, with the equipment – and affect than about their specific skills. This, I suppose, reflects my desire to show parents and colleagues and the student, exactly whom I see in my class. I want to offer a window into (and my take on) that child’s experience of physical education throughout the year. I am aware of my special teacher lens and can also see, the more deeply I read, how much I wish for each child’s success socially, emotionally, physically in my class and far beyond.

Like so many aspects of education, of school, of teaching and learning – it’s a balancing act. While I wondered at the outset of this post if I was in the habit of using “code” to speak to parents and colleagues about students, I am thinking now that my comments present more than code and jargon. Sometimes I feel like I manage to get the mix almost right.

Here’s one example I think works:

“I enjoyed working with L.* this year. He may have tried my patience from time to time but he also could hardly have shown more enthusiasm for movement, sport and activity.”

And one more where I realize the truth of our teacher-student dilemma:

… Currently his greatest struggles are in keeping quiet during instructions, stopping on the signal and holding equipment still when asked to. Mainly these are problems for the teacher, not necessarily for R.* Because R.* is literally having the time of his life in the gym – he’s active, among great friends, in a big space and often the center of attention – his tremendous exuberance is understandable… (emphasis mine)

As I write about students, it’s clear that I, too, am striving for understanding, for clarity, for some sense-making, both of their behavior and my response to that behavior. My teacher lenses (yes, plural. I am sure I have more than one set.) are enduring and well worn. Seeing beyond them and without them can pose a challenge when I want to accurately interpret student behavior. What have I observed? What data do I have? What and how has this been communicated before? These are the questions I need to answer in order to insure that my interpretation and recounting have some foothold in reality.

The whole process is fraught. And complicated and challenging and rewarding.

In conclusion, and only fitting, a taste of my own medicine:

While Ms. Spelic appears to place a high value on capturing student individuality in her comments, her preference for big words may get in the way of achieving the clarity she claims to prize. Short and simple sentences can also be effective in describing how people act. In the future, perhaps we will see Ms. Spelic reduce her word count while boosting her use of concise and simpler language to achieve the same or better results.

*Names changed.