Talking With Turkeys

14 May

I was thinking, as I sat down to type, just now, of a woman I knew of, but never met, who was a telemarketer and who worked the night shift –that is, eleven to seven or some such hours. A neighbor of mine who knew her said she chose that job because she so much enjoyed talking to people.

When I am down in the dumps, I think of this–and feel instantly better about my own circumstances. And, since then, I have seen telemarketers in a completely different light.  I picture them in the dark somewhere, rows and rows of them, talking to strangers, asking their questions, selling something, and then going home like Hemingway’s older waiter in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” home to a place that doesn’t feel like a home, that has no feeling of connection, that has no real dialogue in it. “Doubtless it is only insomnia,” the older waiter says. “Many must have it.”

I  often enjoy talking to people, but, mostly, I enjoy ENGAGING with them. There is such a difference between talk and engagement. With the latter, it matters tremendously whether we care about the other person’s spirit, and feelings, whether we e are trying to empathize, whether we are all IN it–as opposed to just going through motions, and only half-listening. One can’t be on auto-pilot and feel engaged, and neither can the other person in the conversation. When we are both interested and when we both care about hearing the other, when we both feel up to being engaged intellectually and emotionally,  how wonderful it is–to be talking or listening.  

This kind of conversation, which I refer to as DIALOGUE, strikes me as exceedingly rare, and sometimes even non-existent.

It was not rare, in my college-teaching days. It has only been rare SINCE them. I don’t know why.

It is not rare when I am around children, and it is not rare when I am around animals, so I would like to spend some time exploring how dialogue works, and why it seems so effortless and so delightful sometimes–and why it doesn’t seem that way at all at other times.

Take, for example, the  encounter I had with a domestic turkey on the Theler Wetlands path. Now, granted, that is the only encounter I ever had with a domestic turkey or any other kind of turkey, but it left me feeling eager to go out and look for more turkeys to talk with.

Here’s how our meeting went. I was about to cross one of the foot bridges on the trail when I looked toward the far side and saw what looked to my shingles-infected eye, like a pack of large dogs. Wondering how they managed to get on the trail, when signs at the start proclaimed, “NO DOGS ALLOWED,” I thought perhaps they simply couldn’t read. Nevertheless, I decided to wait on my side of the bridge for the dogs to come over. I talk to dogs just about every day, so I was looking forward to conversing with them about this.  However, as they neared the center of the bridge, I saw that they were not dogs at all, but a pack of very well-fed turkeys. It’s not a wide bridge, so only two could walk abreast, and even that was a tight squeeze.  

“Hello, turkeys,” I said cheerfully. “And what are you doing here?”

Well, of course, they told me immediately that the sign at the entrance did not mention that turkeys were not allowed.  I apologized for sounding so confrontational, but, alas, it was too late, and five of them flew with a loud rush of wings straight up in the air and over the fence into the farm next door–which, I assumed, was where they belonged.

“Huh!” they all snorted. “See if we walk on your crummy old trail again!”

I apologized repeatedly, but, alas, it was of no use. They refused to give me the time of day. So I turned my attention to the remaining turkey, who waited patiently at the edge of the trail for me to be done with the others.

“Hello, Turkey,” I said, just as cheerfully as before, to the  remaining  turkey. “How about walking with me for a while?”

I motioned with my left arm, “Come on,” as I turned and started up the path in the direction I had just come .

The turkey tilted its head slightly to one side, the way robins do when they’re listening for worms.

“Sure!” I said. “Why not? Come on!”

I motioned to it again, and saying nothing more, I turned and walked ten paces, slowly and deliberately, glancing back at the turkey, who had decided to follow me–and, furthermore, had decided to  inch a little closer to me with every step. More steps were  required of the turkey than of me, I might point out. 

When I had completed my tenth step, I stopped and waited.  After all, the turkey was a heavy one, for its size, and its weight was, shall we say, distributed in a rather awkward and tiring  way.

“You did GREAT!” I said. “I’m really proud of you! Okay, now! How about ten MORE steps?”

I started out, and the turkey followed–at the same pace as before, again inching a little closer to me with every step.

We continued on down the path like this for about one hundred human steps, and then I looked at my watch, surprised to see that so much time had passed, and I was due at a meeting in just ten minutes.

“Oh, my goodness!” I said. “This is so disappointing! I was enjoying your company so much, but now I must go to a meeting! I don’t know if you turkeys have meetings. They are dreadfully dull things, really, and I do abhor them, but I must go. Please know that I would much rather be conversing with YOU!” And then, reluctantly, I headed down the path at a much faster pace, without looking back over  my shoulder.

Oh, it hurt me, not to turn around, but I did not look back until I was far down the straight stretch from where the turkey had been, and I saw no sight of it. So–I turned again and jogged the rest of the distance to my car.

I don’t remember a single thing about the meeting I went to afterward. I don’t remember where it was, or who it was with, or what was discussed. I just remember that lovely, willing turkey–who, probably, has long ago  been eaten for someone’s Thanksgiving. Maybe I was the only human being who walked the trail with it, so maybe it had nothing to compare our journey with, but I like to think that it enjoyed our time together as much as I did.

So, of course, I have thought of this encounter many times–certainly just about every time I walk the Theler Trail.

I rarely go to meetings of any kind anymore.

Not long ago, I gave a children’s magazine to a children’s library. It had been on their wish list, the librarian said, and I was happy to make that one little wish come true. Recently, I received a thank you note, proclaiming that photographs were enclosed, to show that students were already using the magazine. The note was signed simply “Staff.” The photographs clearly showed a few students standing near the magazine, posing for the camera, but showing no interest whatsoever in the magazine–not so much as glancing at it.

How I longed to run out to my car, jump in, and head for the library to see what was the matter with the children. Oh, but I resisted the impulse. I know there was nothing wrong with them. It was just a set-up. That was all.

I have worked with hundreds, even thousands of children–more than that, if you count teenagers and college students and what we used to refer to as “returning adult students.” I don’t ever remember any of them participating in a set-up photo  shoot.  I took photos of my students at every opportunity–because, no matter what age they were, I knew they would be full of what I would refer to as “mischief.” That is to say, they would be  good at playing.  I really shouldn’t call it mischief. I should call it just plain MAGIC.  They were all hilariously funny, without even trying to be. It was , I think, just their love of being alive and open and free and adventurous together. It just poured, danced, and cavorted out of them.

 The “kids” in my ten-year project with a group of third graders used to send me notes. They would say things like this: “Dear Nancy. If you think you have a sense of humor, you are mistaken.”  Or they would call out something like this: “Hey, Miss Gill!” “What?!” I would answer, in a whisper. “I saw you walking your dog on Market Street!” “DID you?” I would answer excitedly. “Why didn’t you come over?”  “I was with my mom!” they would answer. Another, in the same tone, would call out, “Hey Miss Gill!” “What?” “Are you passionate?” “I don’t know,” I would say. “It depends. Why do you ask?” “Well,” they’d say, “Isn’t that a mood ring you are wearing?” “No,” I would answer. “It’s an agate. It stays one color.” “Hey Miss  Gill!” “What”” “Do you really keep our papers under your bed?” “Sure!–in boxes. That’s so no one reads them but me until you’re so old you’ve forgotten what you said in them.” “Wow!” They would say, “You sure must have a lot of room under your bed!”  “Hey Miss Gill! I’m going to attack you.” I’d pick up my notebook with the photo of a snow-covered mountain on the cover. “I will defend myself with this mountain!” “No, it won’t work!  Want to see the airplane I made?” “Sure!”     

On and on our conversations would go, year after year. I still hear the sound of their voices, and I still hear from them too.  They’re forty-seven this year, and I’m seventy-one.  .

Adult conversations, though–real ones–are very rare. So often, they’re formalities, small talk, business talk, generic talk. We don’t know each other any better, or trust each other any more afterward. 

It is wonderful, to talk “real talk” with people–of all ages, talk we both remember for a long time, talk that has managed to become part of who we are, talk that has shaped us, clarified us for each other and for ourselves, brought us closer, made us more real, more understood, more understandable, more visible, talk that has nurtured our spirits. How I treasure that kind of talk. But, even after all these years, the process by which it is achieved remains, to a large degree, something like a miracle,  a mystery, and a great gift. I don’t  understand it as fully as I would like to.  But I think the capacity to play–and remember how we felt playing– is at or near the center of it. There is an element of affection and acceptance there, an eagerness to be open enough to let others in, an eagerness, or a willingness, to be vulnerable,  to  become  more than we were, to take some risks on behalf of our own growth–and the other’s.  To be able to grow, and willing to grow, at any age–what a blessing that is.Image


Thinking About the Case Against Imitative Art, Part One

20 Apr

I’m seventy-one. I have a Ph. D. in  English. I’ve taught for over thirty years at the university level. I’ve done many years of hands-on research with children and teenagers in public schools who struggle in school, or who are just not happy there. I’ve “adopted” several hundred students, worked with them in their homes, visited their school classes, met with parents and teachers, and written two books about the kinds of kids I work with and the way I work with them. I’ve also managed to weave art into the way I teach English, and to “do art” myself, and now I “teach art” to people of all ages as well. I don’t teach “the product.”  I teach “the process”  that usually leads to some kind of product.

What I do and why I do it is the subject of my next book. But, for now, I want to focus on some of the teaching/learning lessons that moved me to think in some fresh ways about my own creative abilities.

I began to think of myself as an artist in second grade, thanks to our second-grade teacher at McDermoth Elementary in Aberdeen, Washington, my home town. I don’t remember anything about this woman, or about her class, except this: She came in one day with tiny little newspaper clippings of what she said were famous portraits and handed a different one to each of us. “Please take this home,” she said, “And ask your mother or someone else in the family to create a costume for you that will make you look as much like this portrait as possible. Then we will all take turns climbing a few steps into a “frame” on the stage of the auditorium. You will stand there a couple minutes posed in the way the person in your picture is standing or sitting, and then you will walk slowly down the steps on the opposite side of the frame. In this way, you will all become a gallery of famous art, and we will introduce the entire student body to great art.”

I don’t know why she chose the clippings she did, or why she gave each of us the one she did, but my friend, Diane, had the honor of being “Pinkie,” –a pretty girl dressed in a long pink dress with a pink satin ruffle, carrying a ruffled pink parasol, and wearing a pink bonnet with long pink ribbons. Oh, my heart ached to be “Pinkie.” How beautiful I thought she was, and how lucky my friend was.

The picture she gave me was called “The Lark.” It was a portrait of a young, barefoot  peasant girl, standing with a sickle in a field at dawn, looking up at a bird in a tree. She wore a brown ankle-length peasant skirt, a white apron, and a white blouse, and her hair was tied back with a kerchief. What a disappointment! What could this mean?

I thought it meant that I was to grow up poor and work on a farm all my life. I thought it meant that I would never be happy and pretty; I would just work hard and long,outdoors, and struggle to get by. I thought, “No prince will ever come looking for me out there!” Oh, I felt so disappointed. But my Swedish grandmother made me a skirt, a blouse, an apron, and a matching kerchief, and my father lent me his sickle, and I stood on the stage for the art assembly, looking up at an imaginary bird in an imaginary tree, at an imaginary dawn, and, actually, felt very blessed that my grandmother had made all those things for me. They fit me perfectly, and it was kind of nice to stand barefoot on the stage, and think about standing outside in a field somewhere. It was a pleasure to be part of the art show, and I was proud to be a member of such an unusual class.

From then on, I thought of myself as an outdoors sort of person.

At about the same time, I was allowed to spend a weekend at the farm of another classmate’s grandparents. We spent two wonderful days exploring the barn, playing in the fields, breathing in all the wonderfully pungent farm smells, measuring ourselves against cows and horses, and, tired and happy, gathering around the dinner table at night, talking and laughing about our day. “Gosh,” I thought, “Being a farmer isn’t so bad! It’s really wonderful! It’s really free! It’s really outdoorsy! It’s really an adventure!”  I was ready to stay there for the rest of my life, and was truly disappointed to learn that I had to go back home and live in town.

Fast-forward to freshman registration at Grays Harbor College in 1960. “So what do you want to major in?” the woman at the desk asked me. “Well, I said, not knowing how things were done there, “I’d like to major in art, music, poetry, drama, science, psychology, French, debate, sales, and applied philosophy.”

“You’d better see the Dean,” the woman said sternly.

To her credit, the Dean did not snicker when she asked what I thought I might DO with all those majors. I told her that I didn’t think life came in all those little boxes, and what I really wanted to do was major in LIFE, but it was not in the catalog.  I said I’d like to teach LIFE at the college level, because I knew LIFE is what everyone in the world is truly interested in, whereas I knew many students were not interested in school at all, and were used to just sitting there daydreaming until their classes were over. I said no one could ever learn enough about LIFE, including me, the teacher, so students would see right away that I myself was still a real student, just like they were, and they would see how exciting and meaningful learning about life WAS!”

The Dean said calmly that I would probably want to change the SYSTEM once I became a college professor. She cautioned me to be sure I majored in Liberal Arts English–because that was the broadest major she knew. But, she said, I should stay out of the college of Education, because they would try to tell me HOW to teach. “Don’t let anyone tell you how,” she said. Use all those interests you have to design your OWN way of teaching.” I thanked her–cheerfully–pleased that the system could be so flexible, and wondered what she thought was the matter with it. It sounded GREAT to me, so far!

In college, I hasten to add, all teachers  in those days, except the Music, Drama, Debate, and Physical Education teachers, used the lecture method and/or question  / answer / recitation method.  There were no discussion classes, and there were no experimental classes of other kinds, as far as I knew.

At the end of my sophomore year, I transferred to Washington State University, and, that fall, walked into my first English class in College Hall. It was eight o’clock in the morning, and I was the first one there. I reached to turn on the light, and, to my amazement, there on the wall next to the light switch, was a LARGE framed print of “The Lark!”  I was eye to eye with the peasant girl I had tried to be in second grade, AND I saw CLEARLY that her MOUTH was open, and she was SINGING! “Oh, my gosh!” I thought. SHE’s the lark! WOW!” I stood there, alone in the room feeling instantly transformed: I, Nancy, was THE LARK! I was out in that field singing the sun up, singing the new day into being, singing with the life that was IN ME!

It was an incredible moment. I was part of nature! I was just as much a part of nature as the bird in tree, as the wheat in the field, as the dirt under my feet, as the air around me, as everything. It brings tears to my eyes, still, just remembering  what a wonderful feeling that was.

Well, I’ve refined my career choices somewhat, over the years. I have lived on several farms, and in houses in the country, and I’ve loved  the freshness and openness of it, but, although, officially, I was referred to as an English professor for over thirty years, I always thought of myself as an artist, and I used art to teach English–took my composition and literature students to art openings on campus, to  galleries in New York –to New York sometimes just to walk up and down the streets and look at everything, and listen to everything, and encounter everything. I encouraged them to draw their responses to literature, to write poems, stories, plays–anything–of their own, as their way of showing me what they were learning. My classes performed at nursing homes, retirement homes, a prison, and in a community, once, that had a mine fire burning under it. Our assignments were as unconventional as I could make them. Each semester was different from the previous one–because WE were different, because we might have learned something over the summer that changed our way of thinking and feeling and of viewing the world. All my classes were discussion, and hands-on classes. Students worked in groups to share what they were learning and thinking about–groups of four or five, groups of two. We became writing tutors that way, in classes outside the English Department, so that my students could help other students get over the same sort of dread of writing that they themselves first came to class with–that fear that they were not good enough, not clever enough, not smart enough, not something enough to BE THEMSELVES  in their writing. They could now pass on the idea that those other students could be whatever they were at the time, whatever felt most real to them, and most important–as long as what resulted was a DIALOGUE that involved  mutual listening, mutual reflection, mutual realness, mutual effort to make that dialogue  meaningful, focused, and understandable.

As a society, this is not where we are yet. There is a lot of talk that is not real. There is a lot of talk that is not meaningful, that is not dialogical, that is not sincere, that is not  concerned with what the truth is or might be, that is not exploring anything freshly, that is not open to learning and growing and changing, that is not breathing, that is not open to life. Our institutions are still, too often, mechanical,  impersonal, indifferent, even hostile. They stifle us, they kill our hope, they ignore or trample on our basic human dignity. We have much to learn before we can make our society into something human and humane. I think we will go forward. Maybe, in many ways, we are moving forward. But forward is not a direction we can go in–unless individuality is valued, treasured, nurtured, and encouraged. And we will never move forward if all we do is clone ourselves, if we expect others to be or become only what we ourselves are, or what we ourselves believe they should be.        

Thinking About Nils and Diane Lou and Toshiko Takaezu

15 Mar

I learned today that Nils Lou died on Christmas Day, 2013. We’d been trying to schedule a time when I could visit Linfield and sit in on his classes for a day in November, but the weather was not cooperating. There was snow and ice down there on the day I was to go, so we postponed my visit until spring. And now spring is here–and it’s too late.  It makes me very sad.

It’s not that I haven’t learned from him. I’ve learned a lot, and keep on learning–and WILL keep on learning. I’ll never lose that wonderful, quiet, direct, wise, watchful, cut-to-the-chase spirit of his. Like Toshiko Takaezu, he did not talk a lot; he was not one for small talk, but, like her also, he was wide, wide open to living a life that mattered to HIM, and one of the things that mattered tremendously to both of them was having their hands in clay, speaking WITH it, THROUGH it, as only they could. Both had that sense that time would run out, that their special consciousness, which longed so much to continue, would be silenced by circumstances beyond their control–long before everything that needed to be said was said. And that would deprive both of them of one of their greatest pleasures, and one of their greatest sources of meaning, and happiness.  

“So much clay, so little time,” is what Nils used to say. If they could just go on feeling, seeing, listening, expressing,–without that feeling of urgency, that sense of imposed deadline, what a blessing that would be. And yet it was that very sense of deadline that helped create the meaning.

Both of them had such high standards, such high expectations of themselves: Nothing mediocre, commonplace, imitative, mechanical, predictable, overly controlled. Let your hands be your instrument of choice, but let them be wise hands, alert hands, ready, fit, well-practiced hands. Let nothing distract them, or harm them, or get in their way. Let them understand  timing, down to their fingertips. Let them know when to press down, when to lighten up, when to let go, when to begin, when to stop.  

These are not the kinds of hands most people have.

“”Play HARD,” Nils said in his book, ART of PLAY–and aloud, so often. Not “play” as in “pass the time when you have nothing better to do,” but play as in ” take yourself seriously, be what you are, reach out, make a mark, make another, be IN it, be engaged,–follow where the clay leads. Immerse yourself. Let go of your preconceptions about what something needs to be, about what the result will be. Be all in the process.”     

 “Look at these beans,” Toshiko says, in the You Tube Video, “Portrait of an Artist.”  “Look at this potato. You cannot just throw them into the garden and expect them to grow.” It takes WORK to help that potato become what it can become. And, likewise, it takes work to make a pot. Sometimes, she said, she believed that she had already made “the perfect pot,” but she couldn’t allow herself to believe that, because then her reason for devoting so much of her self and her life to the process of creation  would be over.  And then what?

“I have to do it for my own SELF,” is how she puts it.

Every year, she went back to Hawaii, where she was born, once she realize that, while she was gone, change happened–overpowering change happened. So then she began going once a year, so that change could not sneak up on her so fast, so that she could see it and feel it, and be aware of it. Was the sun about to rise? See it as if for the first time–there, this very second. Feel the huge mystery of it. Was Desolation Forest, with its bleached and leafless trunks and dark sand as far as the eye could see stretched out there before you in all its beautiful loneliness? See it, feel it now. Put everything aside now. See, feel, only this place., only this moment. Perhaps, if you were so lucky, then some of the beauty of it would find its way into your art. It was not that your focused, attention made it happen. It was that it could not happen WITHOUT your focused attention.

Nils lived far out in the woods, on a forested hillside, off the nearest paved road, onto a gravel road, onto another gravel road, beyond all mailboxes, beyond the sight of another house, where bits of sky were visible way up there, beyond tree tops, where horizons were not visible.  It required a different sense of focus, the kind of focus that would let you collaborate, gather materials, create a horse in a barn without horses,  create the bones, wrap them like a cage around clay pieces. Feel the horse-ness of this one-of-a-kind horse, its delightful height, the space in it and around it.  Still the trees towering there, the bare branches twisted like a perpetual curtain between you and the world. You had to engage the world somehow, not isolate yourself. And so maybe the way to do that was to tie your new painting to your tractor and allow it to bump and scrape, face down, along the road behind you–allow the earth to “texturize” it in whatever way it could, or would.  Or maybe it was even better to build a new studio, to welcome a new wife, her half and his half, and be there, together, he on his side, she on hers, she with her wonderful collection of materials gathered from everywhere, reassembling themselves for her, and he  with his oversized  blank canvases on the high and open wall opposite, waiting for a new mark, a new line, a new color, and assemblage of color, a new nude magically appearing there, out of the lines. Or, as Nils sometimes put it, “I paint naked ladies now. Sometimes I put clothes on them.” It was a place where light came in, and passed overhead, and new lives took shape–with  light hands, and a light heart, with just a little mischief in it. It was how their days kept on dawning.

There is something so lovely, and so meaningful, about the clay–about touching the clay, Toshiko says. “I tell my students that the piece is ’rounder than round.’ You hear it. You touch it. It has life on the inside. There is a kind of pressure, pushing back. Maybe they understand.”

Maybe they do. But some of us listen, and care, and listen again, and keep on caring, and keep on listening. And we see her, and see Nils and Diane speaking, and creating, and being conscious together, and  feel our own consciousness rise with and because of them, feel so much a part of what they and their wonderful spirits have made possible–and so so grateful for them.            

Fixing Up the World

9 Feb

From the time I was about two and a half, I have thought there was something really wrong with the so-called grown-ups in my little corner of the world. I use the world “thought” loosely, of course. What does a two-year-old know about analysis and synthesis? About inductive and deductive reasoning?  About ad hominem arguments? My own little mind didn’t know very much, and couldn’t have put into words what it did  know. But it KNEW for certain that certain kinds of meanness were “over the line” and that certain people were not worthy of her trust, and never would be.  

I’m seventy-one now. I’ve worked my mind, left and right, as hard and as long as I can, and I will keep at it until I can’t keep at it any longer, but I am still in the dark about very huge things–not to mention a lot of little things that add up to sums I still can’t total.

I don’t understand meanness, violence, nastiness, sneakiness, sneering, bullying,  condescension, blatant lying. I don’t understand pretension–pretending to know and be what one knows one doesn’t and isn’t.

Where does any of that, all of that, come from? I assume such things come from somewhere. I think I assume they start out small and get bigger, but maybe they don’t.  

I wish there were a place to go where we could ask the universe a question: “Dear Universe–Why are so many so-called grown-ups so mean and nasty, so intentionally hurtful?”  I don’t know the universal zip code. I wish I did.

When I was younger, I used to spend many hours driving on back roads. I found them so peaceful, such good places to let go of the pain I encountered in the human world.  I would  speak to the cows  about these things. Cows always seemed so docile, so patient, so unruffled.  “Hey, cows,” I’d say, rolling down the window. “Do you have a minute? You seem like the kind of creature that would understand. Did you ever have anyone yell and sneer at you, and intentionally hurt you? Did you ever encounter a bully, or a whole room full of them? What did you think of them? What did you say, or do?”

It helped a lot to talk to cows. They just went on eating, and swishing their tails. I kind of figured they were above that sort of thing. I remembered Frost’s poem about cleaning the pasture spring.   He’d just wait long enough to watch the water clear, he said–and to  check on the newborn calf that tottered when its mother licked it with her tongue. 

Frost gave me such a nice view of cows in that poem. It was kind of like he was saying that mothers, soon after giving birth, teach their offspring kindness not by precept, but by example. They touch them with kindness and gentleness. I had a cat that did that–a male cat, too. I came home with a tiny kitten, and set the kitten on the kitchen floor, next to my full-grown male cat. “This little kitten needs you,” I said to the cat. I pet each one, one with my left hand, the other with my right. “Nice kitten,” I said. “Nice kitten.” Each of them thought I was speaking about it. As I knelt there, the male cat, to my amazement, picked the kitten up in its mouth and carried it to the food dishes, then  sat next to it and waited. After the kitten ate, the male cat again carried it, this time to the litter box, and dropped it in. And, finally, he carried it into the bedroom and jumped up on the bed, dropping the tiny kitten between the two pillows on the bed, so that only its ears were visible. It was wonderful to see how patiently and gently he did these things, and how easily the kitten became accustomed to the routine.  

There must be a lot of human beings who lack such skills, such instincts–both mothers and fathers.  And, I guess, there must be a lot who were taught the opposite of kindness. Remember the song, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” from  “South Pacific”: “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate. . . .” 

 It’s a pity there’s nowhere we can go to read and think about the meanness in the world. There should be times and places before there are crises, where people of all ages and circumstances can go to reflect–alone, or together. There should be  calmness centers, for introspection, quiet music, flowing water.  These things should be part of our everyday lives–places to balance the constant motion, and noise, the constant chaos, the pushing, the shoving, the fighting to get ahead, something to counteract the mindless crowd’s urge to be first. There should be cooperation to balance all the competition, calm to balance stress. It says something about our society as a whole, that we do not have such places, and do not think of them, until after centuries of premeditated hurtfulness, but maybe it is not too late to consider such things, to build a truly humane society where bullying is simply not practiced, and not imagined, and not necessary, because human beings have finally learned to value empathic listening and cooperation.

Some might say such a vision is “soft,” but perhaps those are the ones who would need it the most. The kind of softness I have in mind requires fortitude, strength,  patience, and insight–and perhaps a lifetime of practice.    

I know that there are people that some refer to as religious who believe that an old book spoke the truth when it said “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”  I think one of the requirements of adulthood is to examine the teachings of the past, and to decide if they are or are not wise. Just because a practice is advocated by someone does not mean that it is wise. We should think such matters out for ourselves, and compare our experiences.  I was always proud of A.S. Neill for disputing that teaching. When he started Summerhill, in England, he went on record against that teaching, and accepted students at his school who had already been harmed by such treatment. He described very well how difficult it was to unlearn such violence. Neill  decided to do the opposite: Hug kids, listen to them, talk with them one to one, give them room to play, to make art, music, dance, places to rest, places to explore. He decided to ask them how they were feeling, to give them a fair share of responsibility, to give them chances to lead and not just follow, to teach them cooperation, and not just competition. It was very clear to me that he was able to remember his own childhood, and to reflect on what caused him too much pain. I have always been grateful for his courage, and his wisdom, and wish all the bullies I have encountered in my life  could have known him , or at least could have read his book and thought about the alternatives he provided. How wonderful it is to know that there are such kind and such imaginative people in the world.

It seems to me now that there should be a place where adult bullies and other nasty people can melt down without harming anyone–including themselves–but what sort of place would that be? It seems to me that when adult bullies were children, there must have been adults who indulged them–or who did the opposite and bullied them. Once that has happened, it seems that it is so easy for ugliness to spiral out of control. Other adults indulge adult bullies. It seems to me that none of them has the capacity to look inward, to “center themselves,” to listen to their feelings, to appreciate their own complexity. Truly, I don’t know if adults can learn such humane habits. Perhaps, for some, it is too late. And maybe their egos are just too inflated to allow thought, or empathy, to enter. It seems, then, that the only people who are capable of insight might be those who have been hurt by them, those whose hearts ache, those who suffer the beatings and the bruises, those who already have tenderness and gentleness in their character, those who have never sneered at anyone and who know they never will. Those are the people who understand that compassion is a struggle, and that wounds that take advantage of one’s good nature sometimes take a long time to heal. 

My heart goes out to all children, both the victims and the bullies. I know that violent and unthinking parents often do harm that lasts a lifetime. I know there are no easy solutions. Dorothy Corkille-Briggs offers some helpful suggestions to parents who want to consider non-bullying alternatives, and many authors who write about child-raising and about self-esteem also deal with these issues. All of them understand that wounds go deep, that there is a great deal of meanness in the world, and that far too few adults understand it and know how to heal from it, or to help others heal.  

It is so much easier when children are small. Just the simple presence of a caring and thoughtful and aware adult can do so much. At the very least, such an adult can speak words and use tones of voice that demonstrate insight and compassion, and can provide outlets for creative expression that prevent feelings from “piling up”  too much and too long. How helpful it would be if all children who are “six or seven or eight” could spend time in the company of such adults.







“Started Early, Took My Dog”

26 Jan

Remember Emily Dickinson’s poem that begins, “Started early, took my dog?”  Never mind the rest of the poem; I borrowed the first line decades ago, and will always keep it close to my heart. It’s what Robert Frost would call “My first line laid down.” (He thought a poem began that way and then “ran a course of lucky events,” and “ended in a clarification of life”–“Not a great clarification,” he hastened to say, “Such as sects and cults are founded on,” but  “a momentary stay against confusion.”  I’m not with him on the ending. For me, it’s the journey. But the beginning and the middle? Always. A wonderful way to write or live a poem or a life. Nothing confusing about it.  Often one rebirth after another, like Cummings, or Thoreau. “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” “We can never be born enough.”  It is the mystery “which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves.”

It bothered him that some writers thought of the end first and worked up to it. “No surprise in the writer,” Frost said, “No surprise in the reader”; “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader”  either.  I’m with Frost there. The kinds of surprises he talks about allow feelings in and out.  Feelings are attached to tears, or vice versa. It shows that those feelings mean something.

I always referred to that no-surprise no tears way as “Poe’s way.” Poe, after all, had to pay his rent with what he wrote. He had to think about who would buy the thing. He decided he could remind them of their fears of death and torture and things like that, but it was artificial scariness. You put the book aside and went about your business afterward. Not so with Frost and me. The poem, or life,  lodged itself somewhere near your heart and stayed there forever.   Thinking Poe’s way about anything, I believe, changes whatever it is, makes it into a commodity.

Frost and I, and Thoreau and Cummings, and Isaac Singer, and oh so many others, take the non-commodity approach. What we create comes from our whole spirit, no matter how poor we are in the eyes of the bean counters  and the rent payers of the world.

We’re with Julia Cameron, and all those who can verify that, when you commit yourself to something,  wonderful things pop up like toast along the route less traveled by, and that makes , as Frost would say, “all the difference.” 

So–my spirit was my dog’s spirit’s best friend. When I found her, she found me at the same time. I happened to be walking through the dog section of the humane society, which was filled with guard dogs, at the time. I didn’t want a guard dog. I wanted a dog that loved  cats–in general–and my cats in particular,  a dog that cats could cuddle with, and  sleep with, and  think of as family.

 As I came to a corner at one end of a long row of kennels, I bent at the waist and looked at the black and white spotted floppy-eared, bushy tailed goofy dog spirit that, just at that moment was peering at ME from the opposite end of the row.

“Oh, my gosh!” I thought, as I headed for her.

“Oh my gosh!” thought the dog, as she watched me.

I eased myself into her kennel and sat on my heels just inside the door. She immediately came forward, sat on her heels next to me, and rested the left  side of her nose on my right knee. We adopted each other. I asked the attendant to please take our picture. “My old film Nikon is in the car,” I said. He obliged.

This is that day. It happens to be fifteen years ago, but, when I look at the picture, I feel its todayness all over again.

She was one year old then and, they said, had been found wandering in traffic on the Holly-Seabeck Road. No one even called to inquire about a missing black and white Springer Spaniel/Border Collie Mix.

As we drove home together, I said, “Well, Holly, this is what we should do: We should drive across the country together. Wouldn’t that be a nice way to ‘bond’?  And, after that, we could take short drives in the country, looking for cows and horses to bark at. And, after that,  we could  drive the back roads to the Grand Canyon, and tour a slot canyon together near Page, with a group of photographers, and then we could  just go for long and short and medium walks together, up the steep hill and down, and drive to Fred Meyer’s, or the Post Office, with the windows down, just sniffing the scenery  and enjoying each other’s company.” 

And she was all for it,  so, we did that, year after year, for  thousands upon thousands of miles, until neither of us was young anymore, and she, in fact, was wearing out so much faster than I was.

She reminded me of this many times. “I know,” I said. “I know. I do know. But I wish it weren’t true.”

“It IS true, though,” she said, as gently as she could.

“Yes,” I said. “I think, in fact, tomorrow is the day.”

“I think so too,” she said.

“Is there anything special you’d like to do?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe go for a ride.”

“We could look for cows and horses, on the way to the Montesano vet,” I said.

We started earlier than usual. Neither of us knew those back roads.

“Here’s one,” I said. “And, look! There’s a beautiful horse over there, by the fence, right next to the road. We can park right there and talk to it.”

I rolled down the passenger window nearest to her.

“Hello, horse,” I said. “This is our last day, almost our last moment. We’d like to share it with you. We love horses. We think you’re beautiful.”

The horse  put its nose over the fence and stood silently, listening.

Holly managed to stand up, and leaned a little closer to the window, talking quietly, telling the horse how things stood.

The horse listened intently,  without an ounce of uneasiness or fear.

“We both thank you,” I said, with a sigh,  and slowly backed the car up, and made the next left turn.

“Now’s the time,” I said. “Maybe we can take a little walk on that old road behind the vet’s.”

We did that–slowly, slowly, savoring the sky and the grass and the brown earth , and the trees, and the fallen fir needles, and the fence, and our white VW Rabbit. 

“Our last time,” I said. “I’m so thankful for all of them.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Me too.”        


Thinking About Spirits

21 Jan

I long to believe that all people have something I would call “a spirit.” I behave as if they do, but I don’t know how to know if my belief has any foundation in reality. By “spirit,” I don’t mean an invisible something that lives on after we die. I mean something that is in us as long as we are alive, and conscious–something tender and warm and genuine and  vulnerable and open and introspective and capable of growing in insight and awareness and a profound and unmistakable quality I would call love. 

 And, no, I don’t necessarily mean romantic love. I mean what Erich Fromm would call brotherly love–and self-love.

And, no, by self-love, I don’t mean self-absorption or narcissism or vanity or arrogance, and I certainly don’t mean nastiness and meanness and cruelty and violence and destructiveness and bullying.

If there is such a region, or quality, in all people, I wonder where it is when I and others can’t hear or  see or feel it. Is there an underground, undercover place where it hides out, watching and listening through a tiny peephole in a fence of some kind, like Frost’s poem about the creature with a two-door burrow? Is it asleep? Has it died of fright? Is it frozen solid?

As you see, I don’t know. And, frankly, I never hear people talking about this. Maybe there’s a better word. Maybe the word should be cut out of the dictionary–or should be marked “extinct.” I would vote against that, though, because I feel as if I have one myself. There is something in me that is not ever sleeping–for sure never asleep while I’m awake. I feel as if it is my constant companion. I listen to it, and it listens to me, my conscious self–with total attention, missing nothing–ever. It knows when I am sad, mad, indifferent, worried, pleased, hungry, delighted, anxious, resentful. It knows everything about my emotions and my memories, my tense and sore muscles, my relaxed, content muscles.  It knows all the songs I have ever sung, or thought of singing. It knows all my tears. It knows all my laughter, and smiles, and playfulness and silliness. It knows my sorrows inside and out, my questions, my doubts, my confusions,  my hopes, my longings, my simplicity, my depth, my complexity, my ambivalence, my everything,  

So isn’t there some corresponding something or territory in other people? And can’t that part speak to my part, and listen to it, and think about it, and puzzle over it, and send kindness to it, and realness, and tenderness, and all those things?   And can’t it think and think forever, without stopping, about all the things that really matter, all the things that are most urgently in need of care and consideration?

How I long for a sign. 


John Day Fossil Beds

23 Dec

John Day Fossil Beds

Painted Hills