Wisdom isn't an old guy on the top of a mountain with a loin-cloth and waist-length hair. Wisdom isn't an answer. Wisdom is a question. I went to see a shrink once. And I was so disappointed that the shrink didn't have a big bag of answers. I came to be very grateful for it later, that what they have is a big bag of questions. You have the answers. Wisdom is the constant questioning of where you are.
Exploring a few more questions:
What is the simplest truth you can express in words?
All we have is now.
If you had to teach something, what would you teach?
I actually learned how to teach because there was an idea that so inspired me I had to teach it – that we all have stories to tell, and all those stories are important.
With the growth of mass media/communications in the last century came the subsequent explosion of targeted messaging, public relations, spin and the manipulation of information in general, and we seem to be subjected to versions of “reality” that are increasingly narrowed, ironically. If we all told our own stories from the perspectives of our own personal windows on the world, we might use our own critical skills and reject certain “realities” being constructed by those with louder voices and taller platforms.
So, I did it. I learned how to teach so I could encourage people to tell their own stories.
What is the most defining moment of your life thus far?
There are a few. My interest in memoir and personal stories has caused me to examine these at length; for people who write in this vein, these moments – the points at which everything changes and nothing is ever the same again – are a goldmine to explore. Here’s one I tell to most of my classes at some point in the semester:
I went to university when I was 30. I was in the process of ending my marriage, and my girls were still really young. All my life I’d been called an underachiever in school; that my output was not reflective of my abilities. I just wasn’t that interested in some of the subjects, and my brain refused to process others – usually those involving numbers and equations. Many years later I would learn about the concept of learning styles, and that the way curriculum was disseminated in the 60s and 70s didn’t much accommodate mine. I’m not here to throw blame – I just didn’t bother corralling my mind and imagination within the walls of the classroom; I got by as a mediocre student, and that was good enough for me.
It is with this background I find myself in an English class, a few weeks into my first semester of university. I am in a class with a bunch of kids that got to university because they got good grades in high school. I am there because as a “mature student” they had to let me in.
So I’m sitting there in misery because we’re about to get back our first papers. I submitted a critical analysis of a William Faulkner short story which I am sure is a piece of crap; I am certain Professor Long will call me aside after and ask me what in heaven’s name am I thinking in hanging about these halls that were built for academic types, not underachievers like me.
Before handing back the papers, Long begins to write a breakdown of the grades on the board; first he writes down the letters A through F and under each the number of students who got that grade. I believe he is trying to illustrate that most everyone did badly, to ease the shock of those grades at the tops of those papers. There is one A, a couple of B’s, several C’s, lots of D’s and one F – which I am convinced is mine. In my head I’m making plans for quitting this nonsense and getting on with my life without a degree. I’m not one of these people.
While I consider hightailing it out the door and avoiding the humiliation altogether, my paper is dropped in front of me and at the top of it is the A. I’m in danger of hyperventilating, and I leave the room to collect myself in the hall while all the complaining smart kids are standing around Professor Long’s desk seeking some sort of explanation as to these foreign looking letters at the tops of their pages.
Ken Long would go on to shine light on more understandings that year, but this moment was the first time I understood that knowledge comes not only with study, but also with living. That my own critical perspective has weight and value. It was at that moment that the concept of lifelong learning, and idea that education could have something in it for me, revealed itself like the proverbial clap of thunder. I left that room feeling considerably more valuable as a human than I did when I walked in.
Another ten years down the road I would go on to pursue another degree in adult education because I wanted to share this type of experience. If I could make learning experiences a fraction as meaningful as Ken Long did for me, I will have made a difference in my little corner of the world. And what more could one ask for?
Is there such a thing as perfect?
I like to think that it’s imperfections that make the world and its people interesting and beautiful. In fact, I think “perfection” is a dangerous concept. Who’s to say how perfect is defined? By its implication, everything considered not perfect is somehow lesser than the thing labelled perfect by the person who has somehow acquired the right to name it so. We’ve all got a lifetime of experiences, beliefs, understandings that would cause us to see a thing in a different way, and what if we don’t see it the same way as that person who labels a thing perfect? Does that automatically render us imperfect?
It seems I’ve written myself into a theme here. You know that “A” paper I wrote about above? It was technically an A-. Not perfect, and yet the most beautiful thing I had seen in a very long time. Let’s call it beautiful thing number 35.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of the personal story these days. Not that such thoughts are exactly new – anyone who’s read the stuff on the other pages of this space will know it’s exactly why I develop and deliver courses in writing stories and why I’m here. But in the past few days I’ve read some stuff by some fellow bloggers who have illustrated again how the personal story can take something – something so big, so out of control that we feel powerless to understand it, let alone do anything about it – and make it, well, understandable. The personal story gives you cause to experience something like, say, a tanked economy or a major flood disaster, through the eyes and mind of the storyteller – and through that experience you find a bit of yourself reflecting back.
Most semesters, I wind up telling my class about a couple of students I had when I worked for a short time in a small private “school” teaching English as a Second Language. Ronaldo* and Michel* were required to spend six hours a day in this little class because they had been injured on the job and were receiving workers’ compensation benefits. In order for these benefits to continue, these guys had to be enrolled in a school like this to learn some alternative skills so that they could go on and find different jobs and get off the benefits.
I can tell you it wasn’t much fun for them. Michel had been in Canada for more than ten years, Ronaldo more than twenty; both employed in labour jobs since soon after their arrival. Ronaldo injured his back when he fell down a hole. He found it difficult to sit in the classroom for six hours a day, and sometimes would take his book to the back of the room and rest it on the top portion of a computer desk so he could stand up during the lesson. Michel had a repetitive stress injury and suffered substantial pain doing small tasks, like writing and using a computer.
They would talk about how they’d loved their jobs. Ronaldo worked in the Public Works department, and he told me he felt such satisfaction when he got ready for work every day. He loved the physical work, the look and feel of the hardhat on his head and the “good” tired he felt when he got home at night. Michel had always felt a great sense of pride in that he came over to Canada alone, worked long enough to eventually send for his family, and ultimately start his own business.
You might, then, imagine how drilling through pages of ESL grammar workbooks every day didn’t mean a whole lot to these guys. Each was competent, intelligent and hardworking, and would have much preferred to be out working than stuck in a classroom plodding through sentence structures and verbs and tenses and collecting compensation benefits. They were allowed a few sick days a year, and no vacation. No vacation. Collecting worker’s compensation benefits precluded them from the meagre two-week vacation the rest of us are allowed by law.
Knowing that adults have meaningful learning experiences only if they are able to apply what is being taught to their own lives and circumstances, I took every chance I got to apply their personal lives to the lessons. Thus I heard many stories – about their favourite meals, fishing and camping trips, family gatherings, soccer matches, weddings, boyhood games and the challenges they faced when they first came over to a new culture.
At the time I was participating in a minor travel writing competition – and it occurred to me that these guys could learn to write English much more effectively if they were writing their own travel stories. At first they said “NO WAY….I don’t have that kind of education….I can’t write a story….I couldn’t even do that in my home language!”
“Pffft” I said.
I assured them that we would work slowly – sentence by sentence. Each would prepare an outline and that turned out to be not so bad. Then they worked one paragraph at a time, present that paragraph on the board, wherein we, as a group, would critique it and make grammatical and spelling corrections.
They were empowered. They found pleasure in it. And then magic happened – both Ronaldo and Michel purposefully went after bringing out the beauty in their minds’ images with techniques that were way ahead of their appointed learning schedule, according to those dreaded workbooks, things like metaphor and symbolic language – naturally and without prodding by me. They closed their eyes, saw the images and put them down on paper. I’ll never forget those images – Ronaldo’s sand that looked and felt like fine sugar, or Michel’s soft moon hanging heavy over the spruce forest. Mostly I won’t forget the pleasure of living the stories through them.
The best thing learned was this: One story, down on paper, meant it belonged out there on the stage with all the others. And after being sequestered in a small classroom to plod through meaningless grammar lessons as though they were being imprisoned and punished for their chance injuries, these guys managed to turn the language into something that mattered to them.
I had to leave this job not long after because it just didn’t pay me enough to live on, and I’d found another one that did. But I’ll never forget Ronaldo and Michal for showing me what I’d sensed all along – that personal stories are not only important documents of the lives of people and their families, but they invite us to look at ourselves and others and find elements of our experiences that are shared. I suppose that’s the humanity part – there even when we’re seemingly worlds apart.
*Ronaldo and Michel are pseudonyms.
It's International Literacy Day today. This is a re-post of a piece I did a year ago. I hope you'll read it and think about how lucky you are to be able do so.
I teach creative writing courses in a continuing education department of a college. Most would consider these to be “special interest” courses, which people take for enjoyment. And that’s great – one of the reasons I teach these courses is because I enjoy it.
But there is another really big reason I do it. It’s because I believe that lifelong learning is a fundamental right of every human being, and that lifelong learning makes better citizens, communities and countries. I teach courses because I want to help people achieve that feeling of satisfaction and power I get when I expand my own knowledge. When a learner says to me “I’ve changed because of this course” the sense of gratification I feel in having engendered, just a little, someone’s personal growth and the power they feel at having told a story is enormous.
But adult learning is so much more than that which I promote in my own little world. According to UNESCO, one in five adults is not literate. Two-thirds of those adults are women. 75 million children on this planet are not in school. You want to talk about how literacy is about personal empowerment and human development?
Then think about what it means that that 776 million adults lack minimum literacy. It means that 776 million people lack the skills necessary to overcome poverty. 776 million people lack access to information about how to take care of themselves and their children, about how to find help and support, how to achieve gender equality and how to carry out sustainable development so they can support themselves and their communities. Literate parents raise literate children. People who are literate participate more in their communities and they make their voices heard through actions – like voting.
And just as literacy is a tool of personal empowerment and human development – illiteracy is a tool of oppression and domination. We all know the Taliban work hard to oppress and dominate by withholding education. It’s not a new idea – it’s been going on for centuries, and continues around the globe.
Today is International Literacy Day. Stop for a few minutes and think about what literacy means in your world. What your access to education and information affords you and those around you. Think about what it means as you sit at that computer, accessing and contributing to the world of ideas and information on the World Wide Web.
Think about the sheer courage that girl in Afghanistan must drum up just to go to school in the morning because she probably heard stories about angry dudes throwing acid the faces of girls who go to school. Think about your laid-off neighbour who is suddenly faced with navigating the “information society” for a job his high school education didn’t equip him for all those decades ago. Think about your new neighbour who has escaped an oppressive regime but lacks the language skills to read a simple street sign, a carton of milk, a prescription bottle or the newspaper.
And maybe instead of buying coffee at Starbucks this week, give that ten bucks to an organization like this one or this one or one in your community (check your local library), and imagine the possibilities for a world in which 776 million people don’t lack basic literacy skills and have a chance to rise above poverty and oppression. Literacy is power. Share the power.
“There’s no secret to balance. You just have to feel the waves”
~ Frank Herbert
I've had a couple of conversations with people lately about a yearning I'm feeling this summer – that some sort of change is wanting in me. I'm not exactly sure what that is, I need to get with a journal and paints and do some serious reflection about what the hell it is that I want.
I've been here before – and it was summer then too. Maybe it's just a desire to hang on to the summer, or to engender in me the feeling of peace and "slowing down" that comes with it. It's summer, but there's peace missing.
Something's off balance. It's not a particulary bad feeling – if one weren't up for changing or growing or enhancing, life would seem pretty dead-end, wouldn't it? Or maybe that's just the ever restless me. I don't feel balanced unless I'm moving, otherwise some sort of vertigo sets in.
Face forward, that's my strategy. If you're always looking down you might miss the signs.
"Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving."