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In Seeming Chaos, Hope

I gave a lot of thought today about hope and its lack of it. I do not confuse hope with positivity and positive mindset. Instead, I understand hope as grounded in reality. Emily Dickinson described it as “the thing with feathers,” suggesting we cannot fully describe it. Its ineffeable nature creates a metaphoric meaning for each of us. Without dreams and hope, Langston Hughes cautions “life is a broken-winged bird/that cannot fly.” With hope and dreams of previous enslaved generations, Maya Angelou repeats the title of her poem “I Rise” as a prayer and refrain against hopelessness.

Too often, people want to pigeon-hole others in binary and dichotomous ways e.g. conservative or progressive. It appears easier and less ambiguous if we can label someone, somehow providing a sense of stability about who this or that person is. What we mis-understand is “and” means something. It acknowledges how complex each human is. We are not usually one thing or the other. Instead, we are mingling of things, experiences informing how we live, and the context within which we live. I want to conserve things e.g. Nature and, at the same time, progress e.g. equity regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. Neither is premised on political or, in our case, reality TV, sloganeering.

Paulo Freire and bell hooks write about hope, unconditional love, and dialogue in educating children, youth, and adults. I think the critical theory is incorrect. What they propose is critical pedagogy/andragogy where I ground dialogue in listening with lovingkindness to those with different lived-experiences. In mindful, non-judgemental listening, I seek to open up space where the Other shares their reality and wisdom. In acknowledgeing the humanity of the Other and greeting them in dignified silence, I might offer the fragile hope so needed in today’s world. Imagine a world where we greeted one another with dignity, rather than making up slick political mottos and creating disparaging nicknames that assault others?

I wrote this poem after a long, hard day. I thumbed through some right-brain scribbles and this was the result.

Even in chaos, hope–

Faith springing forth,

Beloved Other sharing wisdom:

What do we hold in common.

Communal rhythm,

Symphonic voices arising–

Loving harmonies;

Binding and healing.

Listening,

Giving dignity–

Acknowledging shared ground.

Holding each Other gently,

Unsure together–

Breaking bread

Being safe in this space.

This was the first secular song I heard in church. It was the late 1960’s. Today, I think we do need mountains we have bulldozed, meadows we have paved over, and water we have contaminated. Having said this, we need love and hope equal measure to make those things happen.

Do Pigs Have Udders?

Part of educating for hope is “reading the world” in hopeful while living “in dynamic interrelationships” with others (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 102). This means opening the world to eloquent questions without presupposed answers and without the threat of violence of any form. I used the quote in a recent book chapter I co-authored with a colleague from North Carolina. The book is to be published in late 2020 or early 2021. What does it mean to live in a world full of hope; a hope(ful) world.

My first day back from the retreat I posted about in Welcoming Differences and Gentle Rain I noticed the students were subdued. In the afternoon, I was alone, which was unusual. Without an adult and teaching three grades, it could be demanding. Other times, it provided interesting moments, and this turned into one of those moments.

I had contacted a substitute teacher I had used several years before and who was available again after completing a long term assignment for an ill teacher. As we talked about what was bothering me, the students told me they had not enjoyed the teacher. I was surprised, as he had seemed a good fit before. I asked for an example and they told me he had told them their conversation was inappropriate. This was unusual, as the students in this group were well-behaved and respectful. I asked them what the conversation was about and they told me, while completing some Science, one student asked “Do pigs have udders?” Apparently, this became a hotly debated topic and it was brought up again today.

I laughed. For me, it was funny and pointed to an irrevocable human truth: curiosity about the world we live in and eloquent questions leading to exploring the world and learning about it. We had serious fun as we talked about what udders were and their role in feeding offspring. I even phone Kathy, who was raised on a farm, and asked he. She was not sure, but thought it was a structural thing and pigs probably did not have it. We left it as an open question.

Simple question,

Emerging eloquently,

Not presupposing answers;

Fueling curiousity–

Energizing learning.

What does this mean?

Is it true?

Querying and questing;

Seeking to fill gaps;

Not with certitude;

New questions emerging.

With passing years,

Recalling that moment,

Smiling, chuckling;

Appreciating simple, provocative question–

Do pigs have udders?

As best as we can learn, they do and it was fun trying to figure it out. Adolescent children ask the darnedest things. Laughter is an antidote for difficult moments. Something I learned as a student teacher was a safe classroom allows children, youth, and probably adults to ask provocative questions with no preconceived answers. In the polarized world we live in, we have lost that assurance of safety and are reluctant to ask questions needing answers.

I will save you looking up the answer on the Internet. Pigs do not have udders. Udders are a reference to mammary glands on certain mammals and it has to do with their structure. I read a version of this poem for a group at a retreat in Wisconsin. As I finished, adults wanted to know the answer. I said I didn’t know and someone looked it up on the spot.

I don’t have a picture of a pig. Here is one of a bear I took in Waterton Lakes National Park. Bear and pigs are related, so it was as close as I could get.

The Establishment

I wrote this poem when I was in high school, so some 50 years ago about the time I wrote Angry Young Poet. I updated both poems several years ago, but the underlying theme was evident in the orginals and I tried to keep that in mind in editing.

I found both poems as part of handwritten notes I dug through one weeked while Kathy was away. What struck me was how little things change. In fact, I might argue things are more entrenched than ever; the rich got richer and the poor poorer. One only has to consider the enormous wealth being accumlated by billionaires during the multiple crises we are experiencing.

Multiple crises, health, economic, and social justice, might give us room to re-imagine the world we want for our children and grandchildren. Instead, I am afraid we are more entrenched in our binary positions. Despite this, I hold out hope, not optimism and positivity, that we can begin the process of transforming the world to make it more democratic, socially just, and equitable. Part of my writing is revisiting an article I published in 2012 called Rocky River: Building a Learning Organization to re-imagine how we might educate children, youth, and adults. I begin re-imagining with a simple shift in language and call those engaged in teaching and learning educands a word Paulo Freire used in Pedagogy of Hope: Revisiting Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

More broadly, we can apply the learning organization’s principles to other institutions. Peter Senge cautioned it is hard work and takes time. Unlike other revolutionaries, Freire stated incremental change, based on dialogue between humans, was essential to transforming the world. Although Senge does not draw on Freire’s dialogic model, he suggests dialogue, with deep and caring listening, is at the heart of transforming institutions.

They know best for the rest–

Indoctrinating,

Not transforming,

Recalling non-existent good old days.

In disagreeing–

Simply wrong-headedness,

Daring to rebel:

Who are we to question?

Having it made–

Hunting and gathering,

Material wealth signaling success,

Repress, suppress, oppress.

Depending them to know best.

Maintaining existing order,

Demanding blind loyalty,

Failing to practice what preach.

I re-worded the poem again. I see how little changed in 50 years. Without a picture, I thought of which blues musician might best convey my message. I immediately thought of Nina Simone, who sings with edge. When I play her songs for undergrads, those with backgrounds of privilege demonstrate a visible level of discomfort.

 

Beauty

This tree stood all by itself on the crest surrounded by the pretty ones. What attracted me was it stood out from the crowd and thrived. I alluded to this in On the Edge. They were in the same area as we drove up to the Columbia Ice Fields in Jasper National Park. These trees do not just survive. They thrive in demanding conditions, sometimes for 100’s of years. There is little soil, water, and nourishment on the embankments, so they appear stunted. It thrives on the margins of its ecosystem. Perhaps, we find beauty in places we do not anticipate. We have to be ready for this or it will slip by.

In today’s environment, with calls for greater equity and social justice, it is not enough to ask people to survive with less than living wages, inadequate housing, little or no healthcare, etc. as if that is a major accomplishment. We must allow them to thrive as humans.

I took one class in special education in my B Ed. and another in my M Ed. I learned we have more in common than makes us different. Paulo Freire wrote of unity in diversity; John Dewey about communicating what we have in common to form community, and Parker Palmer about the paradox of living in community and with solitude. If we are more alike than different, we have a lot to communicate. It takes listening deeply, reflecting critically on one’s views (biases) of the world, and ethically transforming (moving beyond) the world, particularly that which is immediate to each of us. It is not enough to reform, but it may be a start to the process. It is becoming more and better, individually and collectively, in ways we cannot anticipate and can not be fully finished. There will always be good work to do, not matter how far we come.

On the margins;

Thriving–

Separate from the crowd.

Elements taking a toll;

World weighing heavy;

Thin, mottled.

Standing proud;

Reaching high–

Believing in something better.

Valuing who you are;

Individual, non-conformist–

Separate from the crowd.

Lonely, not alone;

Spacious, gracious solitude–

Revealing your own beauty.

Today, as I cruised Facebook, I found Parker Palmer posted Mary Oliver‘s poem The Summer Day. I love the closing lines: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It is a wild and precious life.


					

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.

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.

Mindful

I struggled for a few days with the overwhelming job, or so it seemed, of beginning to craft a purpose statement for the dissertation topic. Thankfully, my advisor told me to read and read and read the classics in education and the not so classic. I immersed myself in John Dewey, who I have read before, Alfred North Whitehead, who I had not read, and Ivan Illich, who worked with Paulo Freire. I am going to re-read Freire.

Last night, I fell asleep thinking about these people and woke up still thinking about them. As I got mobile, it dawned on me what happened and I recalled Mary Oliver’s beautiful poem. I don’t hold answers. I hold questions. Their eloquence lead me into life daily and the answers are often in the things I take for granted. I posted a re-worked purpose statement, based on just letting things percolate and doing some free writing, and one of my colleagues commented back that it was making more sense. Be mindful scholar.

Every day

I see or I hear

something

that more or less

kills me

with delight

that leaves me

like a needle

in the haystack

of light.

It is what I was born for–

to look, to listen,

to lose myself

inside this soft world–

to instruct myself

over and over

in joy,

and acclamation.

Nor am I talking

about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful–

but of the ordinary,

the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.

Oh, good scholar,

I say to myself,

how can you help

but grow wise

with such teachings

as these–

the untrimmable light

of the world,

the ocean’s shine,

the prayers that are made

out of grass?

pedagogy of the oppressed by Paulo Freire

I read pedagogy of the oppressed by Paulo Freire during my undergraduate experience and return to it as a source of reflection and when I write. Similar to Parker Palmer, Paulo Freire left an indelible mark on my life’s practice. Education is an uplifting, liberating experience which shines light on each step Antonio Machado described: “Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking.” Freire’ s contention was everyone can act as an agent in their learning thus freeing them and transforming the world they live in.

Freire used the Portuguese word conscientização which “refers to learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality” (17).   Humans become mindful of and present in the world and act to transform it. Freire used a banking metaphor and described traditional education where  knowledge is deposited into students. Teachers and the system act oppressively in determining what is important to learn. Freire felt education uplifted people and their learning. “Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it” (p. 60).  Learning occurs when  compliance and conformity are rejected in favour of dialogue based on love which allows each human to name their world and what is of value in it. The student is a teacher and student; the teacher both student and teacher.

Questions: What can we do to truly bring a new pedagogical structure into our schools and communities of learning? What function would school play in this pedagogical structure? What is dialogue based on love?  What role do educators and communities play in liberation education?

Recommendation: I love the book. It is a challenging, but I return to it often and find something new each time. Today, I became aware of the following: “Concepts such as unity, organization, and struggle are immediately labeled as dangerous. … These concepts are dangerous—to the oppressors” (p. 122). What does this mean in supposedly modern, liberated, and affluent societies?

A second point was the similar language used by Freire and Martin Buber. There is a shared understanding of respectful dialogue using the words I and Thou to describe the uplifting, liberating, loving dialogic process.

Freire, P. (1993). pedagogy of the oppressed. (M. B. Ramos, Trans.).  New York: Continuum.

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