Tag: mindbodyspirit

1. Read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Know what it says about the rights of every human being on the planet. Be prepared to stand up for your own rights, and be prepared to defend the rights of other humans.

2. Read the United States Constitution. Know what it says about the rights of every American citizen. Be prepared to stand up for your own rights, and be prepared to defend the rights of other Americans.

3. Build community. Wherever governments or other forces try to violate the rights of people, they have less success when people know each other. Meet your neighbors if you don’t already know them. Reach out to friends and family and reinforce networks of support.

4. Pick a specific movement for good and work with other people. I have been a member of Amnesty International for over 20 years, because I believe in its mission to protect the UDHR. Perhaps you’d like to work specifically to help children, or protect the rights of LGBTQ individuals, or stand up for religious freedom, or defend freedom of the press, or preserve the environment. Whatever issue is most important to you, be active and involved.

5. Stay focused on what people say and do. Avoid demonization and oversimplification. JaySmooth from the website IllDoctrine.com once made a very important video called How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist. If you’ve never seen it, please take three minutes and watch it right now.

6. Learn how to be angry for a long time. As I wrote in my book MindWipe:

It’s absolutely essential for people (especially young people) who fight the power to learn how to be angry for a long time. Otherwise the rage and fury will clot your blood and clog your pores. No one will protect you from the exhaustion and emotional toll these struggles will take; you must protect yourself. And in my experience, bitterness and bile are supreme enemies against which you must be vigilant. Nothing will make you burn out more quickly than succumbing to the belief that there’s no point.

The chapter “How to Be Angry for a Long Time” is on the Medium website. Please have a look.

7. Take care of yourself. Eat well, drink water, breathe deeply, and exercise. Watch funny movies and play fun games. Garden, take walks, or do whatever makes you feel good. Resist the temptation to escape into clouds of oblivion or bottles of despair.

8. Made good art. As Neil Gaiman said: “Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art.” Read the comic from Zen Pencils.

9. Find a book about history and read it. I recommend Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States or perhaps East Timor: Genocide in Paradise by Matthew Jardine. Learn about those people and organizations who have resisted violence and oppression in other places and times.

10. Educate others. If you are unhappy with the result of an election, you must know and/or believe things that other people do know know or understand. Use this opportunity to share important facts and perspectives with which others may be unaware. Stay focused on specific things that people can investigate for themselves. Find common ground where possible and challenge everyone to be their best selves.

Deer, Me

There I am, driving in to Sun Prairie this morning on Highway N like I do every day. Public Enemy is on full, Terminator X pounding through my system. I’m getting psyched for the day ahead as I pass the BP station, ready to wake some heads and rattle some cages.

Then BAM something hits my car — OH MY GOD I hit a deer — and there’s a black piece of something stuck to the door, dragging alongside the car and flipping up to hit the window. I’m freaking out and I kill the radio. My hands are shaking and I almost drop my bagel. I take crazy rapid breaths, trying to calm down as I pull over. I put the bagel in the dish beside me and hit the emergency lights.

It was a deer oh god I hit a deer! How could I hit a deer? I’m always so careful. People who hit deers aren’t paying attention but I hit a deer so I guess I wasn’t paying attention oh god that poor animal why did my industrial machine have to kill it? Is my car totally broken now? What the hell just happened?

I get out of the car and realize that a strip of plastic from the bumper is jammed in the the wheel well. I yank it out and drop it in front of the car. I expect blood and deer body parts, but there’s nothing. The bumper gap has exposed a plastic tank, and it’s dripping onto the pavement. I put my hand under — which I immediately realize is stupid, since it could be really hot or corrosive or something — and sniff the liquid. It doesn’t smell of anything.

A guy who lives in the house across the street comes over and assures me that it happens all the time. I ask if I should call the police and he says “Sheriff’s Department.” I ask if I can use his cell phone because I don’t own one. He dials and talks to someone. I look at my car. There’s no deer parts around, and the splotches look more like mud than anything. I look at my hands, which are filthy. I take the strip of broken bumper plastic to the trunk and put it inside. The towel I expect to find is missing. I look back at the road and there’s the deer corpse in the middle of it. Cars are slowly moving around it.

“They’re sending someone,” the homeowner says, hanging up his cell phone. I thank him and try to laugh.

“Whenever I hear about people hitting a deer,” I say, talking really fast, “I always think Oh they weren’t paying attention. What’s wrong with people? But you don’t realize how fast it can happen until it happens to you.”

He nods and says he needs to start packing up his truck for work. We’re a bit of a contrast — here I am in my suit with my pink shirt and pink tie (I totally forget about the LGBTQ-solidarity rainbow flag lapel pin, which surely adds an interesting element into the dynamic), and there he goes with his jeans and Packers jacket, ready to move stuff into his truck as his kids wait for the bus. I worry that I’m coming off like some effete intellectual (which I am), and I think about the perceived class difference and the probable actual class difference and my brain’s just racing.

Two people pull over and a woman asks if I’m alright. I say yes and she drives off. A second guy in a Notre Dame cap nods and stands near me, tapping his cell phone. I tell him he doesn’t have to wait because I’m fine and the car seems okay and the other dude called the sheriff. He just nods and I think Okay that’s weird. Then I look at his white SUV and I realize one of the headlights is gone.

“Oh wait,” I say, “did you hit it too?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I was going the other way and I guess it bounced off of me and hit you.”  He does that thing Scott McCloud describes in Understanding Comics Chapter Two:

The vehicle becomes an extension of our body. It absorbs our sense of identity. We become the car. If one car hits another, the driver of the vehicle being struck is much more likely to say “Hey! He HIT me!” than “He hit my car” or “His car hit my car”, for that matter.

Oh, so I didn’t hit the deer. I mean, I did, but only because it ricocheted off the other guy’s car. Maybe he wasn’t paying attention. Wait, really? Weren’t you just talking about how stupid it is to jump to conclusions like that?

These are the conversations that go on in my head all day every day.

“It could be worse,” the Notre Dame cap guy says. “At least it’s not raining.” He gestures to the sky. “We can enjoy this sunrise.”

“Yeah,” I say. I pull out my iPod and take a photo of the sunrise, which I often do anyway. Oh man he probably thinks I’m some weird arty geek (which I am) but he doesn’t realize I often take photos of the sunrise when I get to school. My brain continues racing. I get some napkins out of the glove box and wipe some of the dirt off my hands. I get out the manual and find a diagram of the engine area. The leaky plastic tank is for windshield washer fluid. Whew.

We wait. I practice being here now and count my breaths. Notre Dame Cap Guy points out that someone is pulling the deer corpse off the road into the ditch. We wave thanks.

The teacher who teaches next door to me pulls over. As soon as I see that it’s her I laugh and approach her car. “I’m fine,” I say as she rolls down the passenger window. “Everything’s fine. We hit a deer.” She asks if I need a ride and I say no. “Thanks, though. I should be in soon.” She nods and heads off.

We wait some more. Eventually a cop car pulls up and an officer approaches us. I think about Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and how different I might feel in this moment if I were a black man. The officer takes down our info — I’m visibly delighted to see that I have an up-to-date insurance card in my wallet — and goes back to his cruiser. A minute later he comes back with a report number scribbled on his business card. We thank him.

“So you’re both okay?” he asks. We nod.

He pauses. “Do either of you want the deer?” he asks. We say no, but I wonder if maybe one of the hunter kids at school would like the meat. Oh well. We pack up and drive off.

I feel really bad for the deer. I hear the line from My Cousin Vinny, in Marisa Tomei’s thick New York accent. “Imagine you’re a deer.” The only thing that animal did wrong was frolic through the prairie at the wrong time. Our industrial automotive fixation killed it, as it kills thousands of other animals every day. One of those hideous, acceptable tragedies that probably could be avoided if we transformed our entire society.

Oh well. It could have been worse.

Ventilation

There is an insane chaos going on in my brain, and I don’t know what else to do with it. So I’m just going to write and see what happens. The image was one of the first results in a Google Image Search for “meshugas“.

As I posted on Facebook recently, I could list some rationalist forms of material dread that are contributing to my state of exacerbated disconsolation. But they’re always weighing on me in some form or other, and usually my indefatigable sense of resistance/acerbic revolutionary je ne donne un damn pas can ward off the gloomies.

But once a month (give or take), something happens and all that iron-spined middle-finger-up-to-TheManâ„¢ withers, and I find myself immobilized by a weary sense of helplessness. My amazing special lady friend is invaluable in her patience and support, of course, and I am blessed to work with loving soldiers of pedagogical eminence who show me boundless compassion and moral sustenance. These experiences would be infinitely more difficult if not for these amazing people.

The episodes come and go unbidden — probably the result of some chemical hurleyburley, or (mis)alignment of the planets. I can never predict them, and nothing really seems to hasten their departure. (The music of Ministry, the playing of video games, and the consumption of classic films like Fight Club are taken in Extra-Strength doses, but they serve mostly to ameliorate the symptoms, rather than provide any comprehensive respite.) Sometimes I’ll deal with these episodes by using all my loquacious vocabulary that has no utility in the classroom, since it mostly befuddles my students.

Mostly what I have to do is wait them out. But when I’m in the midst of these demonic paroxysms, I find it harder than ever to turn off what DFW called “the constant monologue inside your own head”. Part of this is because I usually don’t do the most helpful thing I could (and should) do in times like this — meditate and take my own advice. Instead, I cling to my anger and woe, finding some bizarre comfort in the despondency of how brilliantly my intellectual ego can delineate and triangulate the true causes of post-millennial despair.

So as a result my brain starts dwelling on the deep sources of my existential crisis: failure to get books published, inability to instantly change students’ lives, frustration at the intractability of political oppression, police brutality, economic injustice, etc etc. Again, these things are not actually to blame for my atrocious mindstate, but at least they are things to which I can point. More to the point (ha ha), they are always lingering (or, perhaps more accurately, festering) just beyond my peripheral vision at all times — but my insurmountable sense of hope and revolutionary fervor (thanks a lot, East Timor and Chuck D) allow me to push them aside as I Fight the Power and Stick It To TheManâ„¢.

I can’t lie to people at school. So when someone inevitably asks “How’s it going?” I have to say: “Not great” or “I’ve had better days”. I’d most like to say: “Atrocious because the horrors of modern life are sometimes too numerous to contemplate.” But then the person would probably get really super-extra concerned and insist on some kind of intervention, or (more likely) laugh awkwardly and say “Well okay then.” And then where would we be?

In between pretending like everything’s fine and making some weird plea for help (which, trust me, I am not doing), there lies a constant desire for genuine human interactivity that goes beyond the platitudes of social media and banal workplace acknowledgement. On the other hand, what the hell is there to even talk about? “I guess it just beez like that sometimes,” as New Kingdom said — so if I know this too shall pass, then why waste time and breath enumerating all the fucked up shit that everybody’s already aware of?

I mean, I know how stupid that line of thinking is; so many people insulate themselves from honest and painful conversations because they’re convinced “there’s no point”, and that hogwash is just  few steps removed from the idiocy about how voting doesn’t matter and recycling makes no difference. So there’s the intellectual comprehension of my own over-intellectualist intransigence on the one hand, and a deep terror on the other hand about being some kind of emotional abyss requiring idiotic Stuart-Smalley-style affirmation.

But then, of course, our minds can’t save us, and neither can technology. So what’s left is a rejection of the yin-yang table in Tyler Durden’s apartment representing the facade of fake enlightenment. (The tao that can be made into a coffee table is not the eternal and unchanging tao.) I just gotta go sit somewhere quiet and wipe my mind. I know it will help, because it’s helped in the past. But I also know that it won’t actually solve the problem, and at most it will reduce the intensity of my meshugas by 10%. (I actually have an idea for a pretty cool cartoon about that ratio, but I’m feeling too run-down and overwhelmed by school stuff to create it.) So maybe I’ll just play some video games instead. (Scoring a goal in a ranked match of Rocket League is nearly as good as authentic kensho.)

Words are my life’s work, so it’s helpful for me to plow through several hundred of them. (As of the end of this sentence, I’m at 909.) It’s easy to get discouraged about those, however (see above about difficulty in getting published), so while I’m gratified to receive LIKES and positive commentary pursuant to various ramblings here and elsewhere (cf. memorials to awesome people, especially), it’s tough to feel like I’m making the kind of impact I’d like to make with my scribbles. (Of course the ego conveniently moves the goalposts of what the impact would actually look like, so it’s a fool’s errand to even contemplate that question.)

Well, it kinda feels like my rage and dissatisfaction is being overwhelmed by exhaustion, and I think I’ve run out of things to say in any case, so I’m just gonna stop here. I can’t remember if I turned off comments (the spam is ludicrous) or not, so you can try to leave a response here if you like. Otherwise, holler on Twitter or Facebook if you hear me.

Peace.

Remembering Antonio

My friend and coworker Antonio Turrubiartes died on Sunday after fighting cancer for many months. He was an academic, a watch-repair specialist, an ESL teacher, and — most recently — the receptionist at our school’s front office.

I bowled with Antonio. If Bowling Alone is a sign of community dissolution, then my time with Antonio on the lanes is a good example of something more than friendship. Like Walter and Donny to The Dude, I got to know this man on the planks. We shot the breeze, discussed current events, and cracked jokes. I met his lovely wife Kathy and got to hang out with his sons outside of school.

Recently I started making a half-hearted attempt to learn Spanish. A native speaker, Antonio used every opportunity to help me — he spit immersive questions at me and waited for a proper rejoinder. He corrected my sentences in a way that no website or textbook can. He was always friendly and positive.

One of my favorite things about Antonio was making a joke that took a moment to sink in, and then watching his face erupt in laughter when he realized what I was getting at. He had a sharp wit that not everyone got to see. I’m lucky for that reason among others.

I taught his son Manny for a few semesters. He has his father’s joyful smile and positive attitude. It’s always interesting to befriend multiple generations of the same family, and it was great to add this layer to my friendship with Antonio. Manny is creative and fun to be around. (I’ve met, but never worked with, his other son Tony. I can tell he shares his father’s best qualities.)

Antonio had an operation this spring, which supposedly removed all the bad stuff. He came back to school for the final days of the semester and I was delighted to hear his voice on the intercom once more. Then, all of a sudden, last week we got an email explaining that his condition had declined rapidly and he was in hospice. He wasn’t accepting visitors, but cards were appreciated.

I was at a coffee shop on State Street when I got the news. I closed my laptop and raced to Room of One’s Own to buy a card. Nothing seemed right; what kind of card is appropriate for that moment? Nothing is right or appropriate about a moment like that. The universe lied to me, dammit. He was beating the disease that took my father when I was in high school. Then it all went wrong.

I spent an hour in the public library, crying into a handkerchief and trying to find words to balance my pain and sadness with the warmth and gratitude I wanted Antonio to feel in this insane moment. Nothing I wrote felt adequate, but it would have to do. I sent it off and I knew that would be the last thing I would ever say to him.

Well, the last thing he’ll hear. For a while. In her essay “Women Like Us”, the Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat says: “Death is a path we take to meet on the other side.” I’m not a religious person, but I really want to believe there’s some kind of afterlife. I want to see my father again. I want to see my college buddy Evan. I want to talk to my Wikipedia friend Awadewit some more. I want to bowl again with Antonio.

You can’t work at a school for 13 years without saying goodbye to lots of people. People retire, students graduate, and things fall apart. Usually when tragedy strikes, it’s someone I don’t know very well. There’s a bond of collegiality and human connectivity of course, but there’s a distance too. You contribute to the memorial fund and sign the card and life goes on.

It’s different when you know the person well. Now I know who ought to be in that chair. I can tell that the voice on the intercom is different, and it’s wrong. I’m sure the new receptionist is — or will be — a lovely person, but it won’t be Antonio’s smile greeting me en español when I check my mail in the morning.

On the flip side, one of the greatest joys of working in a school is watching a person’s impact ripple out among the young people. This week I got to see hundreds of students declare their fondness for Antonio and their condolences for his family. He lives in their lives, and exists within his family.

He lives in me.

Goodbye, Antonio.

(If you can, please donate to his memorial fund. Thank you.)

Eulogy for an Educator

Note: I wrote this a few weeks ago, after we lost an amazing educator. I wasn’t sure if I would post it, but I had a discussion today that convinced me to share it. Thanks for reading.

There is a spirit of compassion in every educator that transcends infinity. What we do in those classrooms every day — We can tell you what it takes, but that doesn’t really tell you what it takes. It’s not just blood, sweat, and tears; we give our souls, our hearts, our memories. Our nightmares and our dreams, our minds and our fingernails. Every student who won’t listen, every book left unread, every lost opportunity — they weigh on us like rocks upon Giles Corey. “More weight,” we cry. Sylvia Ashton-Warner said: “Not just part of us becomes a teacher. It engages the whole self — the woman or man, wife or husband, mother or father, the lover, scholar or artist in you as well as the teacher earning money.”

I knew Jane Skalitsky, but (as with so many of the amazing women and men at Sun Prairie High School) not nearly as well as I should have known her. That distance is not a salve in this hour of pain, however — it is a burden of grief. What might I have learned from her, about compassion? About reaching young people? About holding on?

Some days, it’s really hard to hold on. I don’t mean sanity or hope — I mean holding on to the vision that drives us. Holding on to the people around us. It’s so easy to let those things slip and retreat into something else, something easier. Something that requires less energy. Lots of people do that; they stop holding on. Pablo Neruda said: “Between lips and voice, something went off to die; something with bird’s wings, something of anguish and forgetting. Like nets which can’t hold water.” I can’t speak with personal certainty, but I assume others will correct me if I am wrong: Jane held on.

Utah Phillips told a story once about a guy named Eddie Belchowski, who had lost a hand in the Spanish Civil War. He said Eddie taught him powerful things about holding on. When he heard that Eddie died, he wrote a death song for his friend. Then he got a call from Eddie. (He asked him: “Hey Eddie, where ya calling from?” He said Chicago, and Utah said: “Well, dead or in Chicago, it’s all the same to me.”) Utah sang Eddie his death song, and he was amused. Then, a few months later, Eddie died. And Utah Phillips sang his death song at the funeral.

That story is the last track on the album he made with Ani DiFranco, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, and it’s a perfect finish.

For teachers, the past doesn’t go anywhere. Our lives only expand with every new student; we absorb what the universe throws at us, like some kind of mutant pedagogical sponge. Our students don’t go anywhere; they live inside our minds beside our favorite teachers. And somewhere in the cluster of galaxies beyond our consciousness, our favorite teachers work with every student we’ve known.

Because as Chief Seattle said, there is no death. There’s only a changing of worlds. The Vietnamese zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh explains that we look at a cloud and think of it as a distinct entity. But when it is time for that cloud to become rain, we can still love the rain that it becomes, and take solace in the continued existence of the cloud-now-rain as a vital continuity of our world. I will add: This is especially true for teachers, because teachers imbue themselves into everything they touch. Teaching is an act of transfusion, a daily transfer of precious intellectual fluids. (Also mental, psychological, spiritual, emotional, and sociopolitical fluids.)

This teaching stuff is confusing. I’ve been teaching for 15 years, but I feel like I don’t really know what I’m doing. I wrote a book about teaching this summer, but I can’t help feeling like a fraudulent “expert”. I think we all feel this way from time to time. There’s no way to describe it, and if you’ve never done it, then you have no idea. Anne Sexton once said: “I am teaching … It’s kind of like having a love affair with a rhinoceros.”

But never is this more true than when we discuss special education. That name doesn’t fit because the students are special — although they are. But all students are special. They are all unique and beautiful snowflakes, to ironically appropriate the words of Tyler Durden. We call it special education because the teachers are special. Most of us can’t do what they do; I know I can’t.

The more I hear about Jane Skalitsky, the more she reminds me of my mother. My mom was the first teacher I ever met, and she devoted her entire life to special education kids. Her students came from backgrounds of every stripe and flavor. Abuse, illness, neglect, suffering, boredom, poverty, confusion, chaos, distance — these are the worlds from which her students came. (Plenty of students in “regular ed” deal with less acute versions of these experiences, of course.) Ordinary people like me can’t confront these worlds like special ed teachers do. When I was subbing in the Madison area, I always felt bad when I hit the “no thanks” button when the SubFinder robot called at 4:00 AM asking if I would fill in for a special ed absence. But I never felt confident that I could give the kids what they need. I watched my mom do it for years, and I was never as capable or talented as that.

Jane Skalitsky didn’t run from the challenges that came toward her. She poured herself into the students like we all try to do. I feel weird talking about her like this, since I didn’t know her very well. But — again — I trust those with the personal connections will stop me if I need to be corrected.

No one teaches who isn’t ready to sacrifice. Some of us give more than others, and that’s all there is to it. We’re all afraid that we’ll give too much, but we don’t let that stop us. Our love for the young people is stronger than our fear. I didn’t know Jane very well, but I know somehow from something deep inside me that her love always overpowered whatever fears she may have had.

My mother was afraid of what the chemotherapy would do to my father, but she loved him enough to endure it with him. And when he finally died, she was afraid that she might endure the same pain if she ever married again. But she did. And then she did. (My father died from multiple myeloma. My stepfather died from lung cancer.) And despite this pain and the fear that it might come back to haunt her again, she has never grown cold. She knows that her love is stronger than her fear, and she refuses to let the fear win.

You can’t grow cold, if you’re a teacher. Maybe some can — my 11th grade math teacher seemed pretty cold. But maybe I just felt that way because I never got the hang of pre-calculus. I don’t know any cold teachers at Sun Prairie High School, and I can’t imagine anyone with a cold heart lasting two days in special ed. Peter, Lance, Lori, Patty, Amy, Latrina — these people teach me every day about what it means to conquer fear with love. Because for all the talk of SLOs and PPGs and PBIS and RTI and IEPs and 504s and ELL and ESL and 21st century learning and differentiation and scaffolding and personalized curriculum and bundled classes and flexible scheduling and all the rest of it is one simple question: Can you love the students enough — and get them to love themselves — to conquer their fear of failure? Can you teach them how to be more human?

Ralph Ellison said: “If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and I will help to make the desert bear fruit.”

We’re in a desert of loss right now, maybe even feeling a drought of hope. But the cloud has become a rainfall, and as we sing Jane’s praises, her enduring presence is helping the desert to bear fruit.