Viewing entries tagged
Musings

A Measure of Stardust

1 Comment

A Measure of Stardust

Impressions Vol VI Editors' Note.jpg

The spring semester rushes by in a torrent, a blur of lesson plans and grading, family and board games—and, always, writing. My favorite moment of each school year is also my most busy: publishing my school’s literary magazine.

My ragtag group of writers, artists, and unsung heroes never fails to amaze me. Their passion and talent spill across the pages as they design and create content for the yearly publication. The magazine is the culminating event of months of reviewing pieces, submitted from students throughout the school, and countless hours of effort. I love to watch as my students’ vision unfolds and everything—typically at the last moment—comes together.

I created this literary magazine class because I wanted a space that celebrated the creative arts. But more than that, I wanted students to embrace their identity as creators at an earlier age. And each year, I have the privilege of witnessing that happen. These teens write as writers; they paint and photograph and sculpt as artists. And yearly our school community is blessed with their works of beauty.

There is so much in the world today that doesn’t encourage hope. From the humanitarian crises to the political landscape, the future often appears heart-rending and dark, fit more for a novel I’d write or read than what I hope for my son as he grows older.

But these teens exude such wonder and curiosity and life. They organize protests and play impromptu D&D; they juggle afterschool jobs and forensics tournaments; they listen and ponder, laugh and cry; they fumble and stumble through all of life, mountains of stress and expectation weighing on them in ways I cannot imagine, and through it all they inspire such hope.

I’m thankful for the privilege of this time they pass through my classroom. I’m grateful for who they are, and the measure of stardust they leave in their wake.

1 Comment

One Election to Rule Them All (And in the Darkness Bind Them)

1 Comment

One Election to Rule Them All (And in the Darkness Bind Them)

Thank God this election cycle is coming to an end.  It has been so tortuous, a plot too unbelievable to be penned across pages (Seriously?  Anthony Weiner again?!?).  We’re all glad to be rid of it, though its bitter taste will last for months, years perhaps.  I hope that we can move beyond a post-facts politics driven by fear, reassert a posture of optimism and, dare I say, mutual respect.  Time will tell.

But what interests me on the eve of this election is how the same result—the election of either Hillary or Trump—will be heralded as either apocalyptic or a saving grace for our country, with few people’s reactions falling in between.  So many of us—myself, at times, included—regard our own views with such certitude.  We know that our view is the correct view.  We light the beacon of truth or civilization or whathaveyou.  Those others are part of the dark tide threatening to drown us all.

Granted, if ever there were an election to be certain about, this would be it.  But I see this certitude in issues beyond the presidential candidates.  So many of us seem to have the answers so much of the time, about a whole host of issues.  My friend the peacenik knows what has led to the cycle of violence in the Middle East, sees a simple path forward to a peaceful resolution.  My friend bernin’ for Bernie sees the corruption of money in politics and knows how easy the revolution would be if only Washington would allow it.  My friend the conservative holds forth on how laissez-faire economics is the only morally just, God-ordained system.  And my libertarian friend proclaims the gospel truth of… whatever it is that libertarians believe. 

And I find within myself a different set of rigid certitudes, ones that set my teeth to gnashing whenever someone spouts off anything that deviates from my doctrine.  Yet at the same time I don’t view the world in bichromatic black and white, so why do I react this way?  I should hold my opinions with a greater sense of humility.  If I recognize that the issues of the world are more complex than I, from my static position of race, socio-economic status, age, and background, could ever understand completely, I should stop every once in a while to see if I could maybe learn from those across the aisle. 

So that’s my hope for us moving forward.  That we would entertain doubts, proclaim less, and listen more.  That we would offer our pronouncements about the world more gently, hold our opinions less as etched tablets from Mount Sinai and more as drawings in the sand. 

Grace and peace to you all, my friends.

1 Comment

Man the Sum of What Have You

Comment

Man the Sum of What Have You

What is man?

What The Sound and the Fury says:

"Man the sum of his climactic experiences Father said. Man the sum of what have you. A problem in impure properties carried tediously to an unvarying nil: stalemate of dust and desire."
............................
"Father said that man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you'd think misfortune would get tired, but then time is your misfortune Father said. A gull on an invisible wire attached through space dragged. You carry the symbol of your frustration into eternity."
............................
"Father was teaching us that all men are just accumulations dolls stuffed with sawdust swept from the trash heaps where all previous dolls had been thrown away the sawdust flowing from what wound in what side that not for me died not."

What White Noise says:

"But you said we had a situation."
"I didn't say it. The computer did. The whole system says it. It's what we call a massive data-base tally. Gladney, J. A. K. I punch in the name, the substance, the exposure time and then I tap into your computer history. Your genetics, your personals, your medicals, your psychologicals, your police-and-hospitals. It comes back pulsing stars. This doesn't mean anything is going to happen to you as such, at least not today or tomorrow. It just means that you are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that."
............................
"Everything that goes on in your whole life is a result of molecules rushing around somewhere in your brain."
"Heinrich's brain theories. They're all true. We're the sum of our chemical impulses."


Interesting the difference 57 years make.  I wonder what answers the next decades will bring.

Comment

Do We Live in an Amnesiac Culture?

Comment

Do We Live in an Amnesiac Culture?

I attended a workshop recently and the presenter offered the following pronouncement: we are living in an amnesiac culture.  He argued that people today, and in particular the youth, understand the world and their lives ahistorically—without knowledge of or care for the past.  As we have exported such trivial things like knowledge of the past to the external hard drives we all carry in our pockets, we circumvent the past’s ability to inform the present.

He went on to argue that this added to the corrosion of deep, interpersonal bonds among teens and twenty-somethings today.  This melded with a broader national conversation, played out in newspapers and scientific journals that bemoan the plight of today’s secondary or college-level student.  Hours of texting and tweeting, so it is argued, have left them ill-equipped for face-to-face conversation or sustained thought.  With scores of Facebook friends (though in fact most high schoolers eschew Facebook as the refuge for the elderly), they maintain a façade of greater connectivity, but in truth their connections are threadbare and illusory.  Their acquaintances may have multiplied, but their friendships have all been weakened in the process.  They think they have gone farther and wider, but that is merely because they skim across the surface, mistaking breadth for depth.

Certainly, there is some truth to these assertions.  Across the nation, there has been a push away from content knowledge in favor for skills training, a skepticism of the richness of the humanities and a corresponding prioritizing of the more practical STEM subjects.  Furthermore, this past year, when I polled my students about their technology use, I learned that a majority of students use a tablet, phone, or computer for over three hours a day—and a shocking (at least, to me) number of them confessed that their main use of their time online was the consumption or creation of memes.  Just this past week, walking on the college campus where the workshop was held, we passed by students who stood face to face and yet ignored each other in deference to the glowing screens they cradled in their hands.  We are all guinea pigs in this grand experiment of ubiquitous social media, of living in the distraction economy, and none of us knows the consequences. 

However, I think overgeneralizations like this do a disservice to today’s youth, who on the whole have impressed rather than depressed me, filled me with an optimistic rather than a dour outlook on our future.  I do indeed encounter people with no understanding of the past.  But wasn’t that always the case?  There have always been those who won’t invest the mental energy to investigate the past.  I can’t speak to whether the numbers of these amnesiac people are greater or lesser than before, but I can speak to the fact that I have encountered countless students with a staggering awareness of the world for ones so young.  Many of the students who pass through my classroom are just as invested in their learning and their friendships as I was as a student.  While they are moored to their technology in ways that do concern me (as are so many of us nowadays), they often use it to fuel their curiosity and to deepen relationships with people across the world who share common interests.  Theirs is a generation of striving, and I for one am heartened as I watch them etch their mark on the world.

Comment

Aesthetics of an unabashed frolicker

Comment

Aesthetics of an unabashed frolicker

Driving partway across the country this week, I was awash with welcome sights of lush, rolling hills as well as long stretches of unappealing flatlands.  Driving through the former, I stared contentedly out the window, my soul nourished by the surrounding beauty.  Driving through the latter, I leaned on the gas, eager to be free of the monotony. 

I’ve noticed this my entire life.  The Plains States (with apologies to its denizens) bore me.  They’re obstacles en route to better scenes.  The desert I can appreciate, sand dunes folding into each other in smooth contours, but it is an academic affinity, a fondness felt in the head rather than the heart.  I understand the appeal of destinations like Utah and Northern California, but the land is draped in colors too drab for my liking.  There are too many tones of brown and gray, a land of death too seldom punctuated by sparse shoots of green. 

In contrast, places like Colorado, with its alpine meadows and verdant valleys, call to my deepest parts.  Switzerland, a land of too-green woodlands and noble, jutting peaks, captivated me every moment I was blessed enough to be within its borders.  Beauty in these regions is insistent, glutting the eye with resplendent greenery too overwhelming to ignore.  

While most acknowledge these places as striking, I don’t imagine that my criteria for beauty is universal.  I know that there are those who would praise the plains, who would savor the savannah, who would revel in the red rocks of the badlands.  But these lands are not for me.

I am struck by how much my sense of beauty is shaped by the land I grew up in: the Ozarks.  My birthplace is a land of gentle hills and flowing streams.  It produces in miniature everything that I treasure in the Swiss Alps and the Colorado Rockies.  I wonder how much my cross-country travels would change if I had grown up elsewhere.  Were I born in Wyoming, would I find refuge in more rugged beauty?  Would Arizona have taught me to look for splendor less-gilded, more lean and muscular?

Regardless, I remain an unabashed frolicker.  You’ll find me near streams and fields of green.

Comment

The Gift

Comment

The Gift

What a legacy fathers leave. 

My own son, at three and a half, mirrors my actions in so many ways.  In me, he finds his bravery, comfort, and joy.  He laughs my laugh and sillies my sillies. 

It’s an awesome responsibility, one full of mini-failures.  For he also takes on my impatience, reads my fatigue at the end of a hard day.  But those failures are couched in love, and that is a banner that I hope envelops all.  My son knows he is treasured.  He understands that he should value others the same. 

What a gift, to be a father.  It’s one I try never to take for granted.  Happy Father’s Day to all of you fathers and non-fathers out there. 

“The Gift” by Li-Young Lee

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.

Comment

Words Create Worlds

Comment

Words Create Worlds

Written across the banner photo on my home page is the phrase, “Words create worlds.”  As a writer of fantasy, this phrase holds significance for me on an obvious level.  Much of my job is world building, creating new landscapes with my words.  But this phrase has come to have greater significance for me. 

At the end of each school year, I give the same lesson to my students, the first words of which are this familiar phrase: “Words create worlds.” 

As an English teacher, I’ve spent the year emphasizing to my students the power of language when wielded with precision and care.  Mostly this discussion has remained in the sphere of dry academicism.  This is still important—I want my students to achieve their academic and career goals, and strong communication skills will propel my students to greater success—but more important to me is how my students use language in their everyday lives.

While I am pessimistic at times about politics, about change efforts on a national or global scale, I’m extremely optimistic about the transformative power of interpersonal relationships.  I believe that people who live purposefully can part this world with a wake, and they change all of us in their passing.  I want to be that sort of person.  Despite my repeated failures, I try my best to keep that aim centered in my focus.  I want my students to be those sorts of people as well.  It starts with how they use language.

Our words change the way we view ourselves and others.  Words of love can uplift those around us, and a biting remark can pierce them with barbs.  An offhand remark can implant a lie that poisons a person’s sense of self-worth, and a heartfelt compliment can awaken the truth in people of their inherent value.  Used correctly, our words can sow the seeds of insurrection of love and grace that have a ripple effect that changes lives.

Looking around at the world, it’s obvious that this approach to life is sorely needed.  In recent years the streets of cities across the globe have erupted with riots.  Public discourse on any topic reverts almost instantly to demonizing opponents, drawing hard lines of division to separate us from them.  We see this in our politicians and newscasters, our internet forums and podcasts.  But more than that we see it closer to home.  We see it in ourselves.

But if our words create worlds, we must take care not only to avoid these negative paradigms with our language, but also to speak purposefully into the void messages of positivity and grace.  All of us are surrounded by people sorely in need of a kind word.  There is much truth in the old adage: Be kind to all that you meet, for we are all in the midst of a great battle. 

I appreciate giving this lesson every year because it serves also as a reminder for myself.  I conclude my lesson each year by giving each of my students a written compliment, and every time I’m reminded of the power of such compliments.  I’m also reminded of how rarely I use my language so purposefully with this intent.  There are so many people in my life whom I value deeply, but seldom do I take the time to give voice to these feelings. 

This was cast into harsh relief for me recently.  A dear friend of mine was given a few months to live after years of battling cancer.  In the weeks that followed this pronouncement, I, along with scores of others, wrote messages and letters that expressed what he meant to us.  I was so thankful for the opportunity, and luckily I delivered my letter to him before he passed away.  It was significant for my friend to receive this outpouring of love, and it was significant for us to be able to express it. 

This opportunity to express words of love is always before us.  Words create worlds.  Let us use them well. 

Comment

The Beginning!

Comment

The Beginning!

And so my foray into the blogosphere commences!  I am thrilled to finally establish a foothold on the interwebs (may it never be the same!).   

The best place to begin is probably to explain the title of my blog.  It’s a reference to a poem that recurs often in my thoughts, Robert Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something.”  In the poem, the speaker is kneeling at a well-curb, gazing into the depths of the water.  At first, he sees only his reflection, but one time the speaker peers “beyond the picture” to catch a glimpse of “something white, uncertain, something more of the depths.”  But then he loses it.  The poem concludes with the speaker pondering what that whiteness was: “Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.”  

I have always loved that line for the sheer magnitude of it, for its incomparable breadth.  In it the pendulum swings from the most abstract, Truth, to the most concrete, a pebble of quartz.  I love, too, that the speaker finds that even the pebble of quartz, in the long absence of graspable meaning, would be something.

Perhaps, too, in our daily lives we might come across a pebble of quartz if we would only watch for it. If we looked and listened, we might even come to find something deeper.   

I hope you’ll join me as I chronicle my own journey.

Comment