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In Silence

Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk known for essays, letters, and writing books. He was an artist and poet, as well.

Sabbath is a retreat from the busyness encountered in daily life. It is less about separation from the world and more about finding bridges linking us with the world and others in the world. The word treat suggests healing and making whole.

We seek bridges allowing us to let go of baggage we carry and skeletons we dance with. Parker Palmer used Thomas Merton’s writing explaining the need for peace, solitude, and silence in life. This is not a withdrawal, but a different way of encountering the world and hearing the words it speaks more clearly.

Part of Taoism is seeking principled paths and ways forward. Parker Palmer and Thomas Merton drew on this thinking in expressing a need for silence in life otherwise the noise of daily life is deafening.

Be still.
Listen to the stones of the wall.
Be silent, they try
to speak your

name.
Listen
to the living walls.

Who are you?
Who
are you? Whose
silence are you?

Who (be quiet)
are you (as these stones
are quiet). Do not
think of what you are
still less of
what you may one day be.

Rather
be what you are (but who?)
be the unthinkable one
you do not know.

O be still, while
you are still alive,
and all things live around you

speaking (I do not hear)
to your own being,
speaking by the unknown
that is in you and in themselves.

“I will try, like them
to be my own silence:
and this is difficult. The whole
world is secretly on fire. The stones
burn, even the stones they burn me.
How can a man be still or
listen to all things burning?
How can he dare to sit with them
when all their silence is on fire?”

O Captain! My Captain!

The character John Keating, played by Robin Williams, used this Walt Whitman poem to set the stage for much of the movie, Dead Poet’s Society.

I do not dispute the original writing of the poem might literally be about the captain’s death and today it pays homage to Robin Williams. The movie did deal with the difficult issue of suicide. Having said this, I think it is important to consider a figurative meaning about teaching which was Keating’s profession in the movie so ably brought to life by Robin Williams.

I critiqued the movie from a teacher’s perspective while completing my Master’s degree. I spoke about the passion teaching brought into my life. I extend this to anything we choose to do. When we lose the spirit and voice that a vocation offers each of us, it is figuratively and literally a death, as well.

I recall using Parker Palmer’s quote about vocation and voice coming from the Latin vocere. Voice gives us life. Robin William’s portrayal of John Keating spoke deeply to me about holding true to the purposes we are called to in life.

                         But O heart! heart! heart!
                            O the bleeding drops of red,
                               Where on the deck my Captain lies,
                                  Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
                         Here Captain! dear father!
                            This arm beneath your head!
                               It is some dream that on the deck,
                                 You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
                         Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
                            But I with mournful tread,
                               Walk the deck my Captain lies,
                                  Fallen cold and dead.

Hope (A Zen Perspective)

Mindfulness is being present in the given moment. Parker Palmer speaks about fidelity and faith as being linked together. The faith we have is not that we follow a predetermined, linear path where hope lives. Rather it is a speculative hope and faith born from deep faith that each moment is transient and what exists in each moment comes and go.

Richard Schiffman proposed hope is not an appetite for this or that concocted future. With faith in ourselves, others, and things beyond explanation, fidelity to phenomena never fully explainable and indescribable, the present unlearns the past and the present moves comfortably into an agnostic future.

When we take time, pause and breath, we enter each moment able to let go of fictitious pasts and fantastic futures, living in this particular moment, no this one.

Hope is not about some future meadow.
Hope is not a triumphal march toward some brighter,
bloodless field. Neither is it lighting a candle
or cursing the darkness or calling the glass half full.
It is this half-empty tumbler turning cartwheels
above the chasm. You, for example—
poised above your own private precipice,
bruised and bloodied, sifting through the ashes
of ten thousand burnt offerings.
Don’t scatter those ashes; don’t stuff the corpses
into body bags just yet. Don’t launch a fleet
of skyrockets to cheer up Gehenna. Don’t pretend
that you’re still hungry, like those battle-blind birds
pecking for seeds between the corpses.
Hope is not an appetite for this or that concocted future.
It is the present seeking itself, the present—
unlearning the past, agnostic of the future—
breathing, in its chains, like the sea.

An Observation

We live in paradox in the world. Parker Palmer uses May Sarton‘s poetry in his writing to bring this point to life. It is hard to be sensitive and being gentle requires a certain toughness.

Since I arrived home, I have read more than I have written. In part, I am exploring the aesthetic qualities that life shares with us. There are qualities that allow us to live in the world in ways that we do not bruise or wound the hidden fruit. Yet, we are left with scars in that work  forever making us stronger when we are not wearing gloves. The paradox of life is gives us strength and sureness and, at the same, we are tender and vulnerable.

Teaching, and for that matter any pedagogic work, requires that sensitivity. It is always rough as there is no how-to-manual. We learn this work through the tact and sensitivity of the work itself, reflecting more on what goes well as opposed to what goes well in pedagogic forming. We come to be observant, patient, and see the particular of each situation revealed in the universal.

True gardeners cannot bear a glove
Between the sure touch and the tender root,
Must let their hands grow knotted as they move
With a rough sensitivity about
Under the earth, between the rock and shoot,
Never to bruise or wound the hidden fruit.
And so I watched my mother’s hands grow scarred,
She who could heal the wounded plant or friend
With the same vulnerable yet rigorous love;
I minded once to see her beauty gnarled,
But now her truth is given me to live,
As I learn for myself we must be hard
To move among the tender with an open hand,
And to stay sensitive up to the end
Pay with some toughness for a gentle world.

Lie Down

Nancy Paddock wrote this wonderful poem about letting go and just being in the world and not separate from it. I loved her imagery created in getting me down to ground level where we can live differently.

When I am at ground level, I am in the world and not outside and over it. I spend time in sabbatical wandering uncharted territory. This theme is emerging in my dissertation where I compare teaching to a hermeneutic exploration of the classroom, it participants, and living topics like a rich, textured landscape we navigate relationally. At ground level, teachers encounter, interpret, and understand a particular world that is their teaching and no one else’s teaching.

Parker Palmer has a quote about teachers using technique until the real teacher shows up. It takes time and patience; togetherness and solitude to bring this about. As I write and read, I think about what that meant and means to me as a particular teacher who is still coming to be in new ways particular to me.

Lie down with your belly to the ground,
like an old dog in the sun. Smell
the greenness of the cloverleaf, feel the damp
earth through your clothes, let an ant
wander the uncharted territory
of your skin. Lie down
with your belly to the ground. Melt into
the earth’s contours like a harmless snake.
All else is mere bravado.
Let your mind resolve itself
in a tangle of grass.
Lie down with your belly
to the ground, flat out, on ground level.
Prostrate yourself before the soil
you will someday enter.
Stop doing.
Stop judging, fearing, trying.
This is not dying, but the way to live
in a world of change and gravity.
Let go. Let your burdens drop.
Let your grief-charge bleed off
into the ground.
Lie down with your belly to the ground
and then rise up
with the earth still in you.

Inviting Silence

Until yesterday, I had not heard of Gunilla Norris and her poetry. Parker Palmer sent a Facebook message with this beautiful poem embedded. It is a long poem, but is worth whiling and lingering over. Parker Palmer writes about the need for silence in life. This allows us turn inward and listen as our soul speaks to us.

As I move forward in the dissertation process, several things stood out in this poem. Sharing silence as a political act reminded me of how the polis consists of persons where exchanging anything suggests we act politically. In the early writing stages, I argue that teaching is a series of ongoing political actions as we choose the way we teach and what we teach.

Thich Nhat Hanh suggested we find the extraordinary in the ordinary. It is in the lives of each person that the extraordinary potentially emerges. It is in a thoughtful pedagogy that this can emerge in our self, our children, and their children. It is Sabbath’s silence we find space.

Within each of us there is a silence

–a silence as vast as a universe.

We are afraid of it…and we long for it.

When we experience that silence, we remember

who we are: creatures of the stars, created

from the cooling of this plant, created

from dust and gas, created

from the elements, created

from time and space…created

from silence.

The experience of silence is now so rare

that we must cultivate it and treasure it.

That is especially true for shared silence.

Sharing silence is, in fact, a political act.

When we can stand aside from the usual and

perceive the fundamental, change begins to happen.

Our lives align with deeper values

and the lives of others are touched and influenced.

Silence brings us to back to basics, to our senses,

to our selves. It locates us. Without that return

we can go so far away from our true natures

that we end up, quite literally, beside ourselves.

We live blindly and act thoughtlessly.

We endanger the delicate balance which sustains

our lives, our communities, and our planet.

Each of can make a difference.

Politicians and visionaries will not return us

to the sacredness of life.

That will be done by ordinary men and women

who together or alone can say,

“Remember to breathe, remember to feel,

remember to care,

let us do this for our children and ourselves

and our children’s children.

Let us practice for life’s sake.”

A Noiseless, Patient Spider

When I looked for a poem to post, I found this Walt Whitman verse. It reminded me of the writing of Mary Oliver, Parker Palmer, Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh, and others who write about the quietness needed for the soul to emerge. It is like to a wild animal, perhaps a spider, which is timid and reluctant to emerge as we crash around. As we sit quietly and listen, it emerges for us to see and listen more closely.

A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

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