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On the Edge

When I wrote this poem, it was at a time I was unhappy going back into the classroom and teaching. I loved the students and looked forward to being with them. So much had changed in the little school I taught in with change imposed upon us, rather than negotiated with us. In my writing, I am beginning to look at what is essential to the spirit for each of us to flourish. What gives each of us hope? it will be different. What is certain is we each want to have a voice in what we are doing.

When I wrote the poem, I wrote from a negative place. Now, as I look at the image, the tree on the dge of the cliff fourished in its environment, which is rock with little soil. The tree is actually quite old. Our tour guide said about 300 years old. Despite its lack of size, it flourishes and that is what I failed to see in the last two years I taught. It begs the question: “what might I have done differently.” I was not very patient at times. Cornel West tells young people looking for change to be patient. Real, transformative, democratic, and sustainable change takes time and patience.

In being with each student and present to them, I found something other than gave me the impetus to teach for two more years and find ways to cope with the imposed change. One of the challenges I faced was what we did was so different than what other classrooms looked and felt like it was difficult to convince other educators what we did had merit. Teachers teach one grade at a time in isolation with children separated from families, like a workplace. We had a parent in the classroom each day to assist, many of the families knew each other, and I had a multi-grade classroom with 3 or 4 grades together. Children and youth attend school each day and homework is something we assign, because often there is not time to complete everything at school. Students attended our school 40-50% of the time on a set schedule, depending on grade level. I negotiated with parents the extra things to be done at home. Often, they were large culminating projects at the end of a unit. I taught and students learned what was necessary in class and had little homework. I did not teach all subjects in school. Parents taught Math, Health, and some Phys Ed at home. I went on home visits to support their teaching and make sure we were on track. I had no desks in my classroom. We sat at tables usually based on grade level, but, during complementary courses e.g. Art, Food Sciences, Programming, etc., students sat in mixed grade groups.

In short, we were on the margins, the edge of what was perceived as “normal’ school. Today, in the midst of a pandemic that sent children home to learn online, the relationships and support we had in our small community would have helped many families and teachers cope with the sudden and unpredictable change.

With each step,

Closer–

Be bold.

Balance precariously,

Hover over abyss

Be brave.

Instability and stability dancing–

To soundless music;

Be graceful.

Quieting one’s self;

Listening to soul’s–

Be poetic.

Between lines and stanzas–

 Wisdom emerges–

Be patient.

On the edge,

Sisters and brothers–

What calls you with passion?

I try to walk in the neighbourhood each day. When I do, I listen to music. Yesterday, I heard a song by Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, which fit with this poem and how I felt when I wrote it. In talking to one’s younger self, they use words like bold, love, bold, and fear. I use passion, which suggests suffering as a necessary piece to flourishing.

The Weighing

Jane Hirshfield wrote the following poem, speaking to hope and resilience. At the end of our rope, we find we have more to give than we realized. It is a sense “this to shall pass” and we can only live in the present moment, which is fleeting.

Hard times reveal fissures in our world and society. Look at who has been hardest hit by Covid-19: people of colour, elderly, poor, etc. We can then see the fissures and who is left out. This became clearer with George Floyd’s killing. It is not enough to question who is left out, but how these humans are left out, dehumanized in the process. Injustice calls us to take account of the life we live, the world we live in, and ask how do we make this better, for each human being we encounter. Injustice calls us to weigh how we speak and act towards one another and to transform who we are for the better.

There are no easy answers to large questions, despite what politicians, carnival barkers, and reality TV hosts would have us believe with their divisive language and actions. We can embrace that we have more in common than separates us. As Paulo Freire proposed, there is unity in difference beyond superficial multiculuralism.

The heart’s reasons
seen clearly,
even the hardest
will carry
its whip-marks and sadness
and must be forgiven.
As the drought-starved
eland forgives
the drought-starved lion
who finally takes her,
enters willingly then
the life she cannot refuse,
and is lion, is fed,
and does not remember the other.
So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.
The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

When I hike in wildnerness settings, I wonder what is around the next curve, over the horizon, on the other side of the mountain, below the surface, etc. I am unaware of so much. What is essential is I lift into critical consciousness what I can to better understand how I can make the world a better place and act on that as best as I can. I will likely never get to the other side of Kootenai Lake or the mountains on the far side, so I can only imagine what is there, a utopia of sorts. The same applies for the world we live in. The difference is we can incrementally get there, together.

As I am called to be a steward of the world, I am called to be a steward and servant in leading others. Without fully understanding where I am going, I am going there.

After I posted, I was listening to the radio and they played this song. It seemed appropriate.

On the Road

As a result of where family and friends live, Kathy and I drive through the mountains on a regular basis. We see spectacular scenery and inhabitants. We met and lived in Prince George, British Columbia and then lived in other communities in the general area. Despite this, it is always exciting to see the wildlife in these trips.

These pictures and the poem emerged on one of our annunal trips. Barely on the road, we spotted a bear browsing on the shoulder above the highway about 10-15 metres from the car. We rolled the window down and he/she posed before disappearing.

A few kilometres up the road, I took this picture of mountains shrouded in clouds. In the foreground, there is evidence of colours turning as summer merged into autumn.

peaks peeking

snow trying to hide

clouds blurring my view.

colours changing

nature’s rich canvas

gentle brush.

Mount Robson appeared with a cloud-like frame. I enjoy taking pictures of Mount Robson when the clouds show something different.

 

Kathy and I hiked a few hundred metres along the Berg Lake trail. I settled for this shot of Mount Robson which disappears from sight as you move along the path. Peaking out between the trees, is the Robson River which has its headwaters on Mount Robson and flows into the Fraser River a few kilometres down the highway.

I borrowed this picture from Wikipedia . A bucket list goal is to hike to Berg Lake, camp, and bring back pictures. I am getting old, so who knows if it will happen.

 

Listening and Learning

I was going to press a wonderful post from Cheryl’s blog called Living in the Gap. Unfortunately, she does not have a press facility, so I did the next thing. I copied a paragraph from her post that I relate to:

“Am I ready to look at the part I play in the current reality, come out from the safety of the suburbs, and confront my own racism? To take a sober look at my own bias, privilege, and exclusionary practices. This is when I want to curl up like a pill bug and roll away, but this movement is not about me, it’s about listening, learning, and leaning into the race issues currently afflicting our country.”

We are in an unusual moment with the protests. They call us to stop and listen to one another in ways we may not be used to. They also call us to ask questions we have not asked in deep ways, such as “how do I confront my own prejudices? Am I even willing to confront them?” I use the word prejudice to open the space a bit more. It is not only about race. It is about gender, sexual orientation, class, etc.

Currently, I am co-writing an article for publication using Paulo Freire. Freire used critical theory and I paraphrase him here. He said prejudices are interwoven, arising from individual lived histories passed from one generation to another in unquestioned ways. It is listening to others without taking on a saviour role, without drowning their voices, and hearing them speak about their reality. They await opportunities to be raised into consciousness and critically questioned. How I understand this is through a Socratic lens where skepticism begins at home. How do I make the world better, more just, more democratic. Freire suggests it is a slow process. In his book, Pedagogy of Hope, he acknowledged using gender exclusive language in his seminal book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published 30 years earlier. He learned to use more inclusive language as he became critically aware of the harm done without it. It was a small and necessary step.

Freire argues we need to listen to one another, not denying difference. Instead, he calls on us to accept “unity in difference.” At our core, (in French coeur is heart and core) we are each human. Too often, we talk over each other and listen to defend entrenched positions. A key theme in Freire’s writing is human “unfinishedness,” always becoming. I reflect when I took-for-granted privilege and wonder how I might overcome this. It is not easy. It will not be finished. I understand my role, as an elder, as one of serving and listening. Leadership is serving, transforming, and mindful, rather than transactional and hierarchical.

Robert Greenleaf stated “the best test [of servant-leadership], and difficult to administer, is: do those being served grow as persons; do they become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous while being served: Since so many people seem afraid to grow, the true servantleader who brings it about is an extraordinary person.” If I look at the next generation and they offer me hope that there is better to come, perhaps I can take some solace in that. Without hope, we wither and flee from the scene, abdicating our responsiblity to one another.

I leave you with a video of Langston Hughes’ poem Mother to Son. If I expand the defintion of pedagogue to its broadest etymology, it is how elders interact with youth, allowing them to dream. Hope is not about a lack of obstacles. After all, no life is a crystal staircase and that is most evident for those on the margins of our societies, including in Canada with its history of residential schools and mistreatment of people of colour. It is, as Freire suggests, being willing to struggle and fight to overcome overt and covert injustices and inequities we encounter and witness. It is listening and testifying in those moments to offer a hand to those in need, regardless of race, gender, orientation, creed, and class without being dogmatic. How do we testify in each of those moments? It is not succumbing to historical amnesia and existential weariness.

 

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Angry Young Poet

In keeping with Why Do I Write Poetry, the following poem is one I wrote many at about the same time. This is the third time I visited the poem in terms of writing and editing. Several years ago and while explaining the importance of teaching poetry, a student asked if I wrote poetry in junior high school and I responded, “Yes!”. He asked me to share with them. I found them in a small lock box I keep at home and shared several with the class. We talked about the context I wrote the poem in. Even in Canada, I lived in the shadow of the Vietnam conflict and struggled with what that meant.

Sam Intrator suggested teachers expose adolescent students complex, existential questions of life as they move through those formative years. I wrote my poems in 1969. It was a time when identity was increasingly rooted in a global nature of the world, not just immediate community and family. War entered homes via television. Increasingly, I discovered my voice through poetry, expressing an abhorrence to institutional and government sanctioned killing. What set me apart from my peers, was I took no sides. Each was equally wrong in my mind, advancing their ideological stance. My teacher, Mr. McKenzie, an innovative English teacher, encouraged us to discover our voices.

I shared the following poem with my students. We talked about how metaphors of war are used commonly in various institutions and how I found this as troubling as the violence and trauma of war. That feeling re-emerged over the past months with describing dealing with Covid-19 in war-like terms and the troubling events of the past weeks where purported leaders feel it is OK to speak about human beings, not citizens, as an enemy and objects to be manipulated for financial gain based on the basest forms of self-interests. It is worse than the war as it takes on invisible and pervasive forms. It is a form of Social Darwinism where the strong survive, trampling on those further down what is understood as a food chain premised on unfettered oppression of other humans, including various forms of systemic violence. Consider billionaires, in the Covid-19 crisis, gained while those in most need lose what little support they had.

I contrast this with Jacinda Ardern‘s message as the Prime Minister of New Zealand. In The Atlantic, Uri Friedman describes her as an empathetic leader. What emerged in reading the article was we de-serve better leadership, mindful, transforming, serving, etc. focusing on people as humans, not objects.

Students asked me to share poems and I did, with the context within which I wrote them. Parents, who were in the classroom each day, asked about my candour. I responded “I am not about changing minds. I try to change how each student thinks about the world, to see under the surface, reveal a sordid underbelly, and revel in the wonderfulness of human life.” This is a hopeful message, and the leadership we need is evident e.g. Jesus, Buddha, Muhammed, Mary Wollenstonecroft, Anne Frank, Maya Angelou, Soujouner Truth, Rosa Parks, etc.

Win or Lose: What Difference Does it Make?

A game–

Darwin misunderstood,

No great thing to win.

War and it language!

Bells ringing hollow,

Men, women, children gone!

Woe! vanquished losers and winners;

Humans, vanquished in every sense–

Thriving on dividing.

Resenting conquerors,

Rebuilding ruins–

On countless graves.

Morally rudderless,

Blaming the fallen,

Beggaring humans.

Homes on streets,

Hollowing souls–

What war brings?

Innocence dying–

Prryhric victories,

What war brings?

Comrades fallen,

Enemies vanquished–

Proving nothing.

Will we learn?

I pray

For human survival.

I leave you with the following video and song. We listened to Harry Belafonte, and I still do, with his uplifting and hopeful message. We are in this together, not against one another, with each other.

Why Do I Write Poetry

During a professinal development event, a presenter spoke about teaching poetry. To my knowledge, this person spent little time teaching, yet he was a supposed expert about all things teaching. In the course of his presentation, he expressed disdain for poetry. He claimed, without evidence, we teach poetry without explaining to students why we teach it.

In my teaching, I described reasons why I taught something, opening up learning to include what students considered important. This included questions about topics and content. Often, students began with a negative view of poetry. With time, we got over hurdles together. Without a collective effort, we do not overcome issues in life and learning. We end up with haiku written through rote formula:

Here are five syllables

And here I write seven more!

Are you happy now?

The presenter indicated, despite having written poetry, he was unsure why teachers taught poems written. I think there are good reasons, but I could be wrong.

Poetry calls me to choose words, paradoxically spare and spacious. Spareness is in the number of words; the fewer the better. The space allows the reader room to interpret. What did the poet mean? What senses are invoked through the word choice?

Instead of counting something, poetry asks me to explore life and understand quality is not evenly distributed. I have privileges, maleness, whiteness, education, that others do not have the eauitable access to.

Choosing words,

Caring about each–

Describing feelings,

Experiences never identical.

Revealing thickness in meaning,

Experiencing sameness different–

Bringing us together,

Bridging worlds.

I told students, who struggled with reading and writing, poetry was an alternative to express themselves. I used ee cummings, as a model, to overcome worries about grammar, spelling, and capitalization.

i dig ee cummings

no punctuation

no capitols

won’t worry about spellin either

no sweat

aint no problem

i write poetry

I enjoy poetry. I always have. I remember a poem, The Elevator, I memorized in Grade 4. I think it Walter de la Mare wrote it. My friend memorized a poem called Douglas Fir. His name was Douglas. When I enjoy who and what I teach, I bring enthusiasm to writing poetry.

Artists, including poets, are often at the forefront, addressing social issues. In our times this includes Maya Angelou, Thomas Merton, Wendell Berry, Adrienne Rich, Parker Palmer, Thich Nhat Hanh, etc. Sometimes, I do not think of these authors as poets. Each of them wrote/writes poetry helping to raise my awareness about issues.

Below are the wonderful and poetic words of Thich Nhat Hanh.

Peace in our heart

I close with a poem I wrote many years ago as a 15 year old in high school. I have never been a fan of what we call capitalism. What we have is predatory and is at the root of current political, economic, and social issues. Only a handful are admitted to the club.

Captains of Society

Captains of Society

Shallow, superficial, arrogant

Single ambition

Greatness in the eyes of others

Only those with resources can apply

The rest

Forgotten

Pay a high price, but…

It’s their fault

They own their misery.

A cheque to charity

Assuages my conscience

What about the despair?

Don’t care

I claim I do

Donations in badfaith,

It’s a tax receipt

I really claim, but…

Done on the backs of others

Get the staff to donate time

Not mine.

Increase taxes

Not mine!

No way!

It’s wrong!

Tax others!

What is work?

I create jobs

It’s a spectator sport

This work, which

I manage from afar.

Drive luxury wheels

Shout

Curse

What’s the hold up?

Who’s blocking my way?

The ‘75 Ford station wagon

Engine shot

Dead broke!

Is it their home?

 Throw a party

Drink

Eat

Be merry

No concern for homeless

A romantic notion this ‘hobo jungle’

Not my world

What’s wrong?

It’s not my fault

I gave at the office.

After all.

Throw money at problems

It might help

Don’t

Stop, see, care

If it really helps

Denying, refusing, unfeeling

I pay for a clear conscience

After all.

 The misery

In surround sound…

Is out of sight;

Out of mind

Collectively Eliminating Racisim

via Collectively Eliminating Racisim

This is a great post by Shobna. We each have a responsibility to our part, our small part. We can only change the world we are immediate with.

For me, Michelle Obama‘s quote points to Socrates: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” How often do I critically examine my actions, my words, my life? What privileges run below the surface and privilege me in my life? Where can I go without worry of being stopped and interrogated?

Martin Luther King Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh remind me of the intertwined nature my life of as part of a larger garment of inter-being. What have I done to make the threads that link me to others stronger, healthier, and more whole?

Wendell Berry in his poem, Be Still in Haste, speaks to the need to pause. In each ensuing moment, I begin anew to set the world right. This moment is always the first.

How quietly I
begin again

from this moment
looking at the
clock, I start over

so much time has
passed, and is equaled
by whatever
split-second is present

from this
moment this moment
is the first.

Find a place where you are comfortable and reflect on life. For me, it is a walk in nature. I took the following picture in Jasper National Park several years ago. I could sit on the edge of this lake, soaking in the majesty and reflecting on how I made life better in the next first moment.

DSC00379

Guardians

via Guardians

I was going to post another of my poems and Balroop’s poem came through my reader. It fits with my recent thinking about the role of elders as guardians of what is to be passed on. Take a few minutes to read her wonderful poetry posted at her blog.

Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote “youth demands images for its imagination and for forming its memory.” I extended this, in my dissertation, to elders offering those images. Without the stories elders provide, youth are left without any sense of where humans have been and the accumulated wisdom. As well, this demand is a question for our youth to offer them something tangible.

Balroop captures this sentiment in the following stanza from Guardians:

Ask the village elders
Their valor shines in their faces
They earned your freedom
They exemplify human values.

Like mountains act as guardians in nature, elders act as guardians through stories shared with youth to pass on wisdom, not information.

I took this picture of Mount Kerkeslin standing guard over the Icefields Parkway between Sunwapta Falls and Athabasca Falls in Jasper National Park.

Transforming

Several years ago, I arrived home, after spending time in Spokane. I struggled in the first few days back and reflected on what was happening. Quite often, I resist routine and find it is hard work.

Rarely, are we alone in our travails. It is universal Real change, transformation is slow, purposeful, and patient process. Upon looking at pictures we took on our travels and for all of nature’s ability to sometimes erupt and change rapidly, most change is slow and transformational. For the most part, deep change, transforming, in nature is a great model to observe.

I wrote the following poem in response to those reflections.

Waiting,

Impatient–

Desiring more

Leaning into headwinds,

Transforming–

Slow, patient, with purpose

Lacking blueprint.

Journeying,

With one’s self–

With companions,

Breaking bread,.

Trusting–

Devoting,

Changing together.

Embracing,

No explaining,

Words unnecessary–

Smiling assurances.

Looking back,

Revealing worn paths–

Sharing,

Sheltering one another

Pressing ahead–

Certain in uncertainty.

I took the picture on the way to Kootenai Lake in Glacier National Park. Even on a well worn path, there is a limited view of what is behind and ahead. As well, there are many things hidden along the path, there and invisible. There is always a trust in other people and in the path as I move ahead with purpose. Paradox exists in the feeling of certainty in an always uncertain world.

On some mornings and evenings, I observe the sun rising/setting with the moon in the sky. Several years ago, early in the school year this occured. I began haiku class with poems describing phenomena we often take for granted. I emphasized poetry  often emerges from what is overlooked.

Great poets have a way of lifting extraordinary phenomena into fuller view for us. I modeled this with shared from Pablo Neruda, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, etc. I try to write poetry in a similar way.

Greeting and adieu

Sharing the sky together,

Guiding one’s journey.

I took this picture as I approached Waterton Lakes National Park enroute to Spokane. It was a beautiful evening with just a wisp of cloud below the rising moon. It was as if Nature decided a needed two guides on my trip.

On many trips, I pass mountains, which, even when I stopped, I did not grasp their majesty. It is as if they have their own language and ways of being.

Clouds surrounding,

Momentarily crowning,

In regal splendour.

I take many pictures of Mount Robson as I drive from Edmonton to parts of British Columbia. Even with clouds, it has a majesty about it.

 

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