Warrior Writer: An Interview with Drew Cameron for Memorial Day

Author’s Note: This interview was previously published in July, 2008, in  The Museletter, a publication of the National Association for Poetry Therapy.

Updated 2015 bio from drew Cameron’s website Warrior Writers: I am a second-generation hand papermaker, trained forester and former Army soldier. I co-founded the Combat Paper Project and have been facilitating workshops with veterans and the community in which they transform military uniforms into handmade paper, prints, books and art since 2007. The portable workshop has reached thousands of people throughout the country in 29 states and more than 125 workshops. My work is represented in 33 public collections and has been shown numerous times including at the Corcoran Gallery, Courtauld Institute, Library of Congress, Museum of Contemporary Craft and Craft and Folk Art Museum among others. Combat Paper is now operating in four locations: New York, New Jersey, Nevada and California, with open and ongoing programming. I am based in San Francisco at Shotwell Paper Mill and continue to practice papermaking, teach and encourage others to do the same.

Drew Cameron, 25, lives in Burlington, Vermont. He served in the United States Army beginning in August 2000 for four years on active duty and subsequently served two years in the Vermont National Guard, separating in August of 2006. As part of his healing work from the trauma of the Iraq War, Drew participated in a therapeutic writing program called Warrior Writers. Out of that came his idea to create Combat Paper, paper made from the uniforms of people who served in Iraq. Drew and his fellow vets have produced numerous journals and two books of poetry from the combined Warrior Writers and Combat Paper programs.

Ann Bracken: Tell me about Iraq.

Drew Cameron: The reality was a lot more chaotic, more callous [than what is portrayed in the media]. And when we weren’t fighting, we’d get in our trucks and tool around the country. We were young guys with lots of bravado; we got complacent. We got very comfortable and did whatever we wanted. We got a kick out of stupid things.

AB: What do you mean, stupid things?

DC: We acted in what they (the officers) called a “show of force.” Guys would get a real kick out of it. You know, we’d drive fast. We’d go out with a number of trucks, all loaded up. If a car was in our way, we’d just push it to the side of the road or run it off the road. We had our sunglasses on and usually had our rifles hanging out of the windows, at the ready. The idea was that if we were really tough and looked like we were ready for a fight, people would be deterred. Instead, people felt harassed, brutalized, hurt and hunted. Innocent people were hurt or driven over. It was a real provocation. But when I got home, I told myself I had nothing to feel bad about since I had never killed anyone.

AB: You said you thought you had nothing to feel bad about since you never killed anyone. Are these the kinds of thing that people would feel bad about when they came home?

DC: Yes, most definitely. I am very fortunate that I never killed anyone. But that kind of behavior is a provocation. And those are the kinds of memories that play in your mind over and over, the kinds of things that wake you up at night. Even worse that that, many people will have a single horrible ex-

Drew Cameron

perience that will play out over and over in their minds. They’ll replay it and replay it, trying to make some sense of it and there is no sense in it.

AB: Describe how writing about your experiences has helped you. How has it helped others?

DC: I went from being quiet and all alone to being involved in art and helping my fellow vets. I am trying to bring about some kind of change through my work, through the art. Cre- ating art comes from a good place inside. This work is also a political statement. My friends come here to the paper studio and hang out. This project of writing and then making paper out of our uniforms spurs a very positive, creative, releasing activity. It’s cathartic for those who get involved in both the writing and the act of making paper. And the healing that happens is not forced. The people are really doing it themselves.

They [vets] come in here and start talking, making pa- per, doing art and the ideas just start bouncing around. And I’m in my studio, which used to be a place for me to hole up in and spend a lot of time alone. Now it’s a place where I just love to bring people in. I can be generous with this and I

6 The Museletter

want to continue in that vein. I went from being quiet and unable to relate to anyone to someone who brings his friends in here and can offer this opportunity to someone just home from Iraq. This healing is important and no one should have to do it alone.

AB: It really is an amazing transformative act to cut up your old uniforms and then use them to make paper for your journals. How did this idea come about?

DC: The story of the soldier, the Marine, the man, the woman, and the journeys within the military service in a time a war is our basis for the project. Creating handmade paper editions of the book and facilitating papermaking with my fellow veterans eventually led to using our combat uniforms. The story of the fiber, the blood, sweat and tears, the months of hardship and brutal violence are held within those old uni- forms. The uniforms often become inhabitants of closets or boxes in the attic. Reclaiming that association of subordina- tion, of warfare and service into something collective and beautiful is our inspiration.

AB: What would you like to see come out of your experi- ence? What do you want people to know?

DC: I want people to know that when we come home, we vets don’t fit in. Everything has changed. We’ve changed. I’ve been slapped in the face with a set of circumstances and I have a lot of choices as to how I can deal with them. I was sent to fight in an illegal, unjust, immoral war. I can wither away. I can reenlist. I can resist. I can organize. I have choices. I chose to write about it, reflect on my experiences, and move forward trying to do something different with my life.

AB: Can you share a writing exercise that was especially helpful for you?

DC: Sure. Here is what I wrote in my first writing workshop with Warrior Writers.

Warrior Writers has been an impetus for me, recollecting old letters and my overseas journal to pick apart the memories that I would carry on paper. Going back to a place that I have left over four years ago. Trying to remember, regard- less there hasn’t been a day that has gone by in the time since when I haven’t though about it. 1,460 days of thinking about war. I feel as though we must go to the beginning to tear apart the shroud of numbness. We have to find the way back, understand it, dig in and continue; there are no short cuts with this.

When I first moved here I didn’t want to be known as a veteran, I would ask my partner not to tell people. I didn’t

think it necessary, nor did I want to be known as Drew the Army guy. Pushing away from the experience only manifested it in undesirable ways. My affliction isn’t flashbacks or in- trusive thoughts, drug use or violent behavior. My affliction is nothing. Absolutely nothing. I didn’t feel, hate, love, fear, or even care. My life was a monotone of going through the motions, I so very wanted to be emotional. I know in my train- ing I enabled myself to build various walls. Methodically constructing walls takes time and effort, it is an effective way to enable positioning one’s self against the brutality of com- bat. Unfortunately they do not teach a soldier how to deconstruct these walls. This is my charge, to find the foun- dations, to understand them and perhaps permit myself to move in—there will be no moving on.

AB: What is the message you’d like readers to take away?

DC: It’s so important that you’re here. We’re nothing with- out a broader push of people in society. There are many dif- ferent components to culture writing, art, the fine arts, com- bat paper. We can encourage others to do this, to participate in this shared experience. We can influence people by inspir- ing others. There are many small things we can do. For me, it’s a unique opportunity. Before, I never spoke about being a vet. Now, it’s a big part of who I am.

The Intersection of Poetry and Memoir

How many times have you heard someone say  When I write my memoir……  It seems that everyone has stories that are important to their identity and that have shaped who they are. It’s a natural, human desire to share stories with one another and probably one of the oldest rituals that we have as humans. We seems to instinctively shape our conversations in the form of a story. But shape our story in the form of a poem?  Now that’s where most people pause and back away.

Until you really consider how we remember things–in fragments and slivers, in glimpses of scenes. We remember some of an event but not all of the details. Maybe we need to reconstruct a conversation, maybe we’re not 100% sure of the year, but we know approximately how old we were.  It’s the emotion that we remember and the emotion that helps us to build the story. And nothing is better for conveying emotion than a poem.

My friend Barbara Morrison and I have given several presentations on the intersection of poetry and memoir. Barbara has a wonderful image that she borrows from a friend of hers who is also a writer. She talks about the “colander of memory” that works by holding little strands of memory, the ones that get caught when you tip the colander over. Those strands are the ones that you can immediately recall and offer you an easy entree into beginning your memoir.

And poetry acts in a similar fashion to a colander–capturing images, snippets of memory, and glimpses of feelings. The short lines of a poem may be the perfect vehicle to help you retell an important moment in your life. And once you capture the images in a poem, more memories will begin to flow, as if you have primed the pump. You may have a waterfall of memory and detail all triggered by a poem.

One of my favorite memoir poems is by Edward Hirsch. He tells the story of being a little boy and spending the night with his grandmother. Hirsch conveys the pure joy and surprise of a small child discovering the mystery of his grand mother’s apartment. I hope you enjoy the poem and will try your hand at one of your won.

My Grandmother’s Bed~from The Night Parade, 1989

How she pulled it out of the wall
To my amazement. How it rattled and
Creaked, how it sagged in the middle
And smelled like a used-clothing store.
I was ecstatic to be sleeping on wheels!

It rolled when I moved; it trembled
When she climbed under the covers
In her flannel nightgown, kissing me
Softly on the head, turning her back.
Soon I could hear her snoring next to me–

Her clogged breath roaring in my ears,
Filling her tiny apartment like the ocean
Until I, too, finally swayed and slept
While a radiator hissed in the corner
And traffic droned on Lawrence Avenue. . . .

I woke up to the color of light pouring
Through the windows, the odor of soup
Simmering in the kitchen, my grandmother’s
Face. It felt good to be ashore again
After sleeping on rocky, unfamiliar waves.
I loved to help her straighten the sheets
And lift the Murphy back into the wall.
It was like putting the night away
When we closed the wooden doors again
And her bed disappeared without a trace.

A Blessing for Freedom: John O’Donohue

In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, I am dedicating this post to my Celtic hero, John O’Donohue, poet, author, and scholar.

I first encountered O’Donohue’s work in the beautiful book he wrote about friendship, Anam Cara. O’Donohue explains that anam car is a Gaelic word that means soul friend.  An anam cara is not a lover, but rather someone with whom you have a rich and nourishing connection. In his clear and musical prose, O’Donohue explores the beauty of friendship and the riches it offers to all of us. He also takes the reader on a journey into the Celtic world of the soul and its relationship to beauty, growth, and aging. Sprinkled through his beautiful book, O’Donohue shares his poems, many of them written as blessings.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Cliffs of Moher

Anam Cara introduced me to O’Donohue’s poetry, and because I wanted to read more, I bought his book To Bless the Space Between Us, the last book he published before his death in 2008. Celtic spirituality is rich with prayers of blessing for every occasion, including the start of the day, new beginnings, courage, exhaustion, and illness. I’d like to share one of my favorite poems which I think is especially appropriate for where we are today.  I hope you enjoy John O’Donohue’s inspiring poem, “For Freedom.”

For Freedom

As a bird soars high
In the free holding of the wind,
Clear of the certainty of the ground,
Opening the imagination of wind.
Into the grace of emptiness,
May your life awaken
To the call of its freedom.

As the ocean absolves itself
Of the expectations of land,
Approaching only
In the form of waves
That fill and please and fall
With such gradual elegance
As to make of the limit
A sonorous threshold
Whose music echoes back along
The give and strain of memory,
Thus may your heart know the patience,
That can draw infinity from limitation.

As the embrace of the earth
Welcomes all who call death,
Taking deep into itself
The tight solitude of a seed,
Allowing it time
To shed the grip of former form
And give way to a deeper generosity
That will one day send it forth,
A tree into springtime,
May all that holds you
Fall from its hungry ledge
Into the fecund surge of your heart.

Shape-Shift Reality With Words

Poets and writers know the importance of choosing the precise word to describe a character or a feeling. Those choices are purposeful and usually the result of many revisions. But does that kind of careful approach to language have real-life applications?  Linguists think it does.

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A study on the use of words and metaphors to describe a problem has revealed some important information about how the words we choose can shape both the problem and the solution.  Mitch Moxley, the author of a  Slate magazine article called “Can Language Influence Our Perception of Reality?” gives an example to illustrate his point. Suppose you describe the economy as being stalled. What do you do?  Jump-start it, of course, just like a car. A quick, rough solution. But what if you describe the economy as ailing? That word conjures up images of sick people who need long-term care and attention. As a policy maker, you begin to look at different kinds of  solutions rather than a quick-fix. A simple shift in language moves the solution in a very different direction. For more information and a deeper explanation of the University of California San Diego study on linguistics by Professor Lera Boroditsky, take a look at Moxley’s article.

As someone who studied linguistics in college, I am keenly aware of the power of word-choice to shape perceptions and attitudes. That’s why I object so strongly to using business language to describe people. And when I read that some college administrators refered to students as output, I knew I had to write about it. It was as if the language was reducing the people in the classrooms to products coming off of an assembly line. And I reject that notion of education.  My new book, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom, features this poem about the harm of using business language to talk about education–a deeply human and individualized process. The poem, “Value Added Teachers” was first published in New Verse News. I hope you enjoy it.

Value Added Teachers

She feels frustrated
as she rumbles around in cramped offices
with all the people shouting
Words don’t matter.

Especially when she hears graduates
of the university
referred to as output.

When people become output
there’s no need for nurture.
Sewage pipes have output,
as do factories that churn out row after row
of standardized parts.

In cramped classrooms and windowless lecture halls
teachers are gauged by their productivity–
here every human complexity is reduced
to a series of data points, quantified and measured
success or failure—positive or negative output.

These days she no longer relishes
seeing joy or surprise or the flash
of an ah-ha moment on her students’ faces.
Instead of planning for a field-trip to the meadow
for a sensory experience,
she spends time trying to quantify
commitment, measure amazement,
and determine a cut score for
how much inspiration one needs
for a journey into the unknown.

The launch reading for No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom is on February 24th at Zu Coffee in Annapolis, MD, from 6:30-8:30 pm. Co-feature is Diane Wilson Bond and the event is hosted by The Poet Experience.

Poetry for Challenging Times: “How the Stars Get in Your Bones”

When you come to a challenging place, it’s always comforting when a friend gives you a poem that speaks to your experience.  That’s exactly what happened when two of my dear friends gathered at my home the day after the inauguration for poetry, meditation, and mandala-making. We wanted to support the goals and intentions of the worldwide marches as well as each other, so to that end, each of us set an intention and offered a word that might guide our hearts as we move into the future together. One friend offered the word light, one offered the word tolerance, and I offered the word perseverance. We talked about some ways that we might put those qualities to use, and then my friend Mary shared her poem  “How the Stars Get in Your Bones”  by Jan Richardson.  We all agreed that this poem  captures all three of the words that guided our mediation day.  We found the poem inspiring and I hope that you will as well. Enjoy and keep hope in your hearts.

How the Stars Get in Your Bones
A Blessing for Women’s Christmas
—Jan Richardson

Stars Get in Your Bones
Wise Women Also Came

Sapphire, diamond, emerald, quartz:
think of every hard thing
that carries its own brilliance,
shining with the luster that comes
only from uncountable ages
in the earth, in the dark,
buried beneath unimaginable weight,
bearing what seemed impossible,
bearing it still.

And you, shouldering the grief
you had thought so solid, so impermeable,
the terrible anguish
you carried as a burden
now become—
who can say what day it happened?—
a beginning.

See how the sorrow in you
slowly makes its own light,
how it conjures its own fire.

See how radiant
even your despair has become
in the grace of that sun.

Did you think this would happen
by holding the weight of the world,
by giving in to the press of sadness
and time?

I tell you, this blazing in you—
it does not come by choosing
the most difficult way, the most daunting;
it does not come by the sheer force
of your will.
It comes from the helpless place in you
that, despite all, cannot help but hope,
the part of you that does not know
how not to keep turning
toward this world,
to keep turning your face
toward this sky,
to keep turning your heart
toward this unendurable earth,
knowing your heart will break
but turning it still.

I tell you,
this is how the stars
get in your bones.

This is how the brightness
makes a home in you,
as you open to the hope that burnishes
every fractured thing it finds
and sets it shimmering,
a generous light that will not cease,
no matter how deep the darkness grows,
no matter how long the night becomes.

Still, still, still
the secret of secrets
keeps turning in you,
becoming beautiful,
becoming blessed,
kindling the luminous way
by which you will emerge,
carrying your shattered heart
like a constellation within you,
singing to the day
that will not fail to come.

[The Wise Women Also Came image is © Jan Richardson from the book Night Visions. To use this image or order an art print, please visit this page at Jan Richardson Images.]

 

“So much depends upon…” “…my page for English B”: Writing Assignment by Michael Dickel

I had the pleasure of meeting Michael in Salerno, Italy, in July of 2015  when we both participated in the 100Thousand Poets for Change Conference.  Michael joined me, along  with Laura Shovan and Debby Kevin, my travel companions, in sharing a gourmet Salerno lunch in a wonderful ristorante.  Michael also served as the emcee for one of our poetry nights. His work speaks of struggle and peace, and he is committed to using the arts for social change. Welcome, Michael.

MIchael Dickel
MIchael Dickel

The Red Wheel Barrow

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens

William Carlos Williams 

A couple of years ago, I taught an English as Foreign Language (EFL) creative writing course at one of the top education colleges in Israel. The students were in the Excellence Program, an Israeli version of an honors program, where they receive full tuition if they keep their GPAs up, and also take additional courses each semester to enrich their learning and prepare them for professional life and graduate study. My course helped them get more comfortable with their English writing and their creativity.

The students had had a few writing assignments at the point in the semester when I introduced a poetry one. They had written to introduce themselves, practiced descriptive writing from observation (non-fiction), and developed a short narrative (fiction). For this assignment, I had them write a poem in response to another poem.

The assignment

I gave them two different poems to read and respond to, both of which have straight-forward language accessible to English-language learners. The poems involve observation and description, but in very different ways. One tells a story. They share a deceptive simplicity, but that surface simplicity also allows students to access them and to use them as a model for their responses.

One poem I used was William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” quoted above. It owes much to short Japanese poetry forms and Williams’ insistence on the image over ideas. Despite the simplicity of what is, in the end, only one sentence, the poem conveys a mood, and with its opening lines, the sense that something significant waits, an outcome, and that what it depends upon is beyond us—beyond our understanding or control.

Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B”, on the other hand, is more involved. It includes narrative. It opens:

The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it’s that simple?

In fact, I chose it because it begins with an assignment, and the persona of the poem responds by questioning the assignment (it is not Hughes speaking—the biographical details that come later are made up). The speaker of the poem goes on to ask what is true for him, as he describes his walk from New York University to the cheap housing at the Harlem Y, where he, “the only colored student in my class,” lives. He describes what he likes, what he does, and wonders if it is different for him as a “colored” person (the poem was written in the 1950s) than it is for his “white” instructor. He wonders if his paper will be white or colored, and suggests it will be both. He engages both the similarities and differences of the two of them—white instructor and African-American student—and their mutual resistance to be too much like the Other.

The poem ends with:
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.

I often use this poem when asking students in a course to write a poem, as a way to invite them to use any resistance that they might have to writing a poem, or to writing any assignment, for that matter. I also like that it suggests the fact that students and teachers learn from each other (I think this happens when classes go very well). Finally, the poem shows that we often give assignments without fully knowing or understanding the material- and cultural-realities of our students.

For the assignment, I asked the students to read the poems first, and then to choose one and write their own poem in response. Most, but not all, of the students responded to the shorter poem by Williams. Some responded to Hughes’ poem. A couple of the Excellence-Program students wrote two poems, responding to each.

How I respond to student writing

When I respond to students’ poems in my courses, especially in the EFL context, I don’t focus on issues of correctness in English. I mark spelling and grammar mistakes, of course, but without a written comment in almost all cases. I write comments, though, about poetic suggestions. Often, these poetic suggestions transfer to other forms of writing as well.

For example, one student wrote a very powerful poem using the image of an empty velvet chair by a window. However, she wrote it as a sentence, without line breaks. So, my comments suggested using line breaks, and where they might add drama or power to the reading of her “sentence.”

The students seemed to enjoy the assignment. Almost all of them took it seriously, from my reading of their poems. Many of them wrote good poems—that could be made better, which I hope my method of commenting helps them to see. And I believe commenting on content and poetics (while still marking errors) focuses on the students’ strengths and the potential of their writing. They still learn about their mistakes in the language, but they also see that they wrote something that their instructor took seriously as a draft poem.

Final thoughts

For this assignment and others, I choose strong examples to share with the class—both so that other students see good examples, and so that they see (for later, when they respond to each other in small groups) that even good writing could be improved, with the help of thoughtful commentary. I tell them that I revise my own writing all of the time. And, I think most importantly, I emphasize that the writing process is not about how to write perfectly the first time, but about how to perfect writing over time.

Often students tell me that they “can’t write” because it is so much work, that they struggle to write what they mean, and that they can’t just write it out the first time. I usually turn these narratives of “failure” as writers around and congratulate them on being “good writers” (or “good potential writers”)—writers who already realize that writing takes work, that it is a messy struggle, and that even the “best” results often don’t quite say what we are trying to say with our writing. I believe that providing students with content comments, alongside modeling for them in class how to use those comments to serve their own purposes, is a process that helps students learn how to negotiate the messiness and arrive at, if not perfect writing, at least writing that they feel comes closer to speaking for them.

Bio: Michael Dickel, a poet, fiction writer, and photographer, has taught at various colleges and universities in Israel and the U.S. He co-edited Voices Israel Volume 36 (2010). He was managing editor for arc-23 and 24. Is a Rose Press released his new book, The Palm Reading after The Toad’s Garden in 2016. His previous books are War Surrounds Us, Midwest / Mid-East, and The World Behind It, Chaos… With producer / director David Fisher, he received an NEH grant to write a film script about Yiddish theatre. Dickel’s writing, art, and photographs have appeared in print and online.

What Does it Mean for a Teacher to Serve as a Witness?

Definitions are important, I used to emphasize when discussed crafting an argument with my students. Definitions serve as the foundation for a common understanding of an issue. And when we want to find a definition, we usually consult the dictionary. While there are many definitions for the word witness, the following entry in Webster’s seems most appropriate to the work of teacher as witness: “to be present at, to see personally.”

Teachers are present at many events in students’ lives: reading a first book, winning a race, mastering an instrument, graduating.  But as teachers, we always need to bring the personal into the classroom, to see personally each of our students. To move past the challenging behaviors or the angry words and sullen refusals to participate.  As teachers, we are called to look at the student more carefully, more thoughtfully, so as to help them manage whatever challenges they carry.

“There’s beauty everywhere. There are amazing things happening everywhere, you just have to be able to open your eyes and witness it. Some days, that’s harder than others.” Sarah McLachlan

I learned this lesson most deeply when I taught adolescents in a psychiatric hospital several years ago.  To say their behaviors were inappropriate and challenging is to understate the situation. And while I was often at a loss as to how to break through the students’ defenses, I found my way in with poetry. The more I knew about each student, the more I was able to connect in a kind and understanding way.

The series of poems that I began while I worked in the psych hospital grew into a collection of poems that detail the stories of many of the students, teachers, and administrators I have worked with over the span of 40 years. Writing the poems helped me to go deeper into each student’s story and at the very least, to gain more empathy. Here is one of the poems about a young woman struggling with gender identity in high school. I hope her story will encourage you to witness the people in your life as personally as you are able. (Published in Mipoesias, Fall, 2015)

Rena

Rena’s brown eyes focus on something in the distance—
She slumps in her chair
cropped brown hair frames her frozen face.
Rena never smiles
except when she talks about her going back to Brazil
or about caring for her 5 year old sister.
They make castles together and later Rena writes stories
with a heroine named Marvelous Maggie.
Rena tells me I love reading to her and writing stories.
A smile spills across her face.

Rena fails every class in 10th grade—
despite repeating 9th grade work. At midterm,
she begs for the chance to take Honors English 10
I’m bored. If you challenge me, I’ll work, she promises.
When I ask Rena how she’s doing, she looks past
me, then shuts her eyes.
My parents work all the time, so I have to take care of my sister.
I want to take a drawing class. Have you seen my sketch book?
 
“How’s it going in English?”
I missed a test because I was sick, but I’ll make it up this week.
I’m doing great though.
Rena doesn’t tell me she has a D average. I’m going to Brazil in January, so none of this matters.

Rena’s hair is shorter every time I see her
She sports a spikey leather collar around her neck,
wears baggy tee shirts with old Punk band logos. She holds hands
with a girl when she leaves school. When we have a progress meeting, she says
I used to want to kill myself and I’ve been feeling really sad
again. I don’t think I’m going to hurt myself, but I’m afraid.
Rena refuses to speak to me because I tell her parents what she said.
She turns away when I approach. She continues to fail every class.

Rena shaves all of her hair and leaves a strip long, hanging over one eye.
She dyes it green. I see her hugging a girl in the hallway.
Her clothes more masculine, her face impassive, yet defiant.

My parents won’t let me go to Brazil, she tells me.
I’m dropping out of school.

What Must You Lose to Find Kindness?

When I was a child, my mother emphasized the virtue of kindness. I can still hear her soft voice encouraging me to be kind to my siblings or be kind to my friends. But what did kindness look like?

When I was a child, kindness often meant sharing my toys or taking one of my siblings along to the library–when I really wanted to be alone. And what was the benefit? My mother’s smile or even the surprise of a fun adventure with my sibling.

Ann in 1st grade
Ann in 1st grade

It doesn’t take long to see there is a great need for kindness in the world–often on a grand scale. Sometimes we may even feel overwhelmed by the need we see on the news–refugees fleeing from Syria, flood and earthquake victims, the families of drone strike victims. What do our individual acts of kindness mean when stretched onto the world canvas? How can we make a difference?

When we feel overwhelmed by the needs of our communities, often the first response is  shut down, to turn away. If we can just avert our eyes, then we are safe from acting. And then I remember what a friend who works at Baltimore’s Healthcare for the Homeless told me:  “Even if you don’t want to or can’t give a person money, please look at them. Our clients say the worst pain of being homeless is the feeling that they are invisible.”

Digging deeper into my psych after that encounter, I had to admit why it was hard to look into the eyes of people who are homeless: It’s that chilling realization that is could happen to me. And in that moment, I know what I had to do. I resolved that even if I didn’t have money to give or didn’t choose to give money, I could give my attention. I could say “I’m praying for you,” or “God bless you.”  It was in realizing that I, too, could lose something precious that I found a simple way to be kind. It was in realizing my connection that I could reach out.

Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness” exorts readers to do much the same thing. She starts by saying “Before you know what kindness really is/you must lose things,…”  Enjoy the poem. What do you have to lose?

Kindness  

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

~from Words Under the Words, Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye

Educating the Teacher: Michael Dickel

I had the pleasure of meeting Michael in Salerno, Italy, last summer when we both participated in the 100Thousand Poets for Change Conference.  Michael joined me, along  with Laura Shovan and Debby Rippey, my travel companions, in sharing a gourmet Salerno lunch in a wonderful ristorante.  Michael also served as the emcee for one of our poetry nights. His work speaks of struggle and peace, and he is committed to using the arts for social change. Welcome, Michael.

MIchael Dickel
MIchael Dickel

Does teaching have to contribute to the status quo? Must it be dominated by business models that value efficiency over humanity and greed over compassion? Yes and no. But, it doesn’t have to be this way.

This is my story. It just happened.  And it’s been happening for years.

I’m letting go of teaching. I’m kicking and screaming, hanging on with my fingernails, letting go.

I’m sixty. I’m “outside faculty” (literally translated from the Hebrew, adjunct in plain English). One of my bread-and-butter teaching gigs will evaporate with a just-launched Ministry of Education, free, online, self-study English reading course.

And things are not working so well at a new gig this semester, where an administrator seems to have taken a dislike for me. I don’t want this constant battle in my life anymore, the struggle to make a living doing something I believe should have value.

After three months teaching, a group of us who are “hourly” teachers this semester saw a contract for the first time. It was dated Monday, the 18th of January. It begins three months before, 18th October. And, the contract expires this Friday, the 22nd. Four-days after they presented it to us. That’s, not coincidentally, the last day of classes for the semester.

One of the many problems with this end date is that we had been told to be present at the final exams on Monday, the 25th. Please note, that is after the contract ends. And, in addition to the paragraph that say, “you are hired from this date to that date,” paragraph seven also says something that loosely translates as: to be very clear, after the end date above, you are no longer an employee of the university, unless you are explicitly given an extension in writing. There is no extension of the dates.

This attitude toward those of us who teach is as destructive to education (and, by extension, society) as almost any other force other than war.

I hate having to fight for employment rights, like getting paid. The constant battling leaves me feeling like a failure. I am letting go of this work, which is no longer teaching, but a form of war.

I am hanging on to a lot of anger. I felt it as I left campus today. Boiling under the virus, feeding its fever. I am seething. And I need to find something else to hold on to.

I teach English as a Foreign Language reading comprehension to international students, Israelis, and Palestinians, in a post-high school prep program, called in Hebrew a mechina. (Yes, these students study together in the same classroom.) I love my students. I want to hold on to those marvelous relationships with students we teachers have the honor of sharing with them, where we learn together.

Today was our last regular meeting as a class. As I often do, I invited them to keep in touch—they have my email. Use it, I said. I’m on Facebook, I added. Three have already sent friend requests. Two of them are Palestinian students.

And just before supper, a student sent me an email (uncorrected and shared with permission of the student):

Hi Michael, this is __________, from English.

I want to tell you that you are a awesome teacher. Since the first lesson, I want to stay in your class. When I heard that we have to redo the [placement] exam. It’s my first time that I started to worry about if I can still be in a specific class.

I love the way you teaching, although sometime it is a little bit boring. I still remember that you played guitar and singing with us. And you told us that the purpose of teaching us is teach us how to think, about critical thinking. Since that, I knew that I was in the right class.

This particular student comes from China. He wants to study in Israel. He knows English already, and has been learning Hebrew. He also takes math, history, physics…a full load of prep-courses that has most of the students studying from 8:30 to 5 or later.

What he wrote at the end of his email, I will hold onto forever:

And I mentioned that I have something to share with you, the topic is that the relationship between war and education.

I found that, if a country want to get strong, it must have to good education in the nation. And the way to show others that you are strong, is to show them you have high tech and strong military. I would like to say high tech in some way is for high tech weapons. So who will provide the nation researchers and scientists to make weapons? Education do. 

So in this way. I can say education make this world worse  not better. And it get worse after every year. I believe that one day this world will get destroyed by those weapons and war. So who cause this? Education. 

What do you think about this?

We had a unit on comparative education. The students spent a couple of classes online, looking at websites for places like Summerhill School (Democratic education), reading articles about Tiger Mom’s and Finland’s education system, and listening to TED Talks on the need for more creativity in education.

We did not discuss war, or its connection to education. That came from an amazing student. It didn’t come from me. Yet, providing students a chance to think such thoughts and to ask such questions—that is why I teach. And a successful teacher is someone to whom a student could write: I have something to share with you…What do you think?

I will hang on to the memory of this email. And hanging on to it will allow me to let go of frustrations with the difficulties and unfairness of a system that is stacked against him more than it is me. Hanging on to what matters will help me let go of what doesn’t matter.

It will also help me let go of this form of the work.

I wrote this student a long reply, which allowed me to hang on to what I really value. And, paradoxically perhaps, to let go of the job. The end of what I wrote went something like this:

If education doesn’t ask the questions that need to be asked, or, more importantly, teach how to ask important and critical questions, then you are right, education is part of the problem. It becomes an accomplice, helping to build the structures of dominance and power. Then, it feeds the cycles of greed. All of these things threaten our world today. If education is about training workers and obedience to authority, if it teaches accepted facts and does not challenge students to think for themselves, we are in trouble.

I think that this is one of the reasons why the Humanities are under attack, politically and economically, in much of the world today. It is why many politicians attack education—not because it is failing,” but because it challenges. And why reforms” are regularly introduced that use over-simplified models of manufacturing knowledge,” teaching doctrinal facts (in whatever discipline or doctrine)—serving a purpose of producing workers and even leaders who fit,” but not inspiring thinkers who question.

We need to find ways to inspire students to think—as I see you have been doing—about our world, about how to make it better, about how to find reasonable and well-reasoned approaches to fixing the problems we see and providing a sustainable, healthy, and worthwhile future for our species. 

I don’t have the answers. I hope that we will find the right approaches, or at least, good enough approaches. And I hope that education does not end up only serving the powerful, the military, and the greedy. 

However, it is always about possibilities. We must look for and welcome new possibilities into our lives.

From the Jewish tradition, we have this teaching, too: You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirke Avot 2:21).

I believe that we can stop the destruction you fear. I hope that we can. May we not desist (stop) from trying. May we continue to seek forms of truth, practice heartfelt communication, and learn compassion for each other. May we cooperate and share with each other solutions as we find them. And may we always look to improving the world, not simply existing, or, worse,using up” the world.

I believe that you could be someone who makes a difference. Start with your questions. And then, look for those possible solutions. That is all I know to say to you as an answer to your question about whether education is causing the destruction of the world. Yes and no. And, it doesn’t have to be this way.

With respect and hope for your generation,

BIOGRAPHY: Michael Dickel, a writer and digital artist, currently lives in (West) Jerusalem, Israel, and teaches in Tel Aviv. He is the chair of the Israel Association of Writers in English. His most recent book is War Surround Us  Rose Press, 2014), available at bookstores and online.

Holding On, Letting Go by Richard Botchwey

Richard Paa Kofi Botchwey and I met in Salerno, Italy this past summer when we both attended the 100 Thousand Poets for Change Conference. Poets gathered from all over the world to share ideas, read poetry, and brainstorm how we can be effective agents of social change with our poetry. Richard stood out for many reasons, including his warm and welcoming smile. I immediately felt comfortable talking with Richard and wanted to know him better.  But what made me want to share his voice on my blog is his amazing story of survival and the way he has used his own trials and painful experiences as an orphan to help other orphans.

Richard Botchwey visiting New Life Orphanage at Nungua Barrier in Accra,Africa.
Richard Botchwey visiting New Life Orphanage at Nungua Barrier in Accra,Africa.

I asked Richard to write a blog post on the theme of holding on and letting go. Here is his take on that topic.

I think what has really kept me focused and always pressing on is this. When my mother was alive, we had no option but to eat whatever food she cooked. And I mean whatever.

Who are you to say that you don’t like something, especially any food on the table? My mother wouldn’t mind you. Who are you to pretend as though you are allergic to a particular food? You will sleep hungry. She wouldn’t waste her precious time pampering you. As a result, none of us ever went to her crying for toys, a particular type of shoes, or anything kids of our present day are zealous for. We wore whatever clothes she bought. We wore whatever shoes, belts, or underpants—anything she would get us. For shoes and clothes, she always bought twice our size for the reason that we would grow into them.

And we went to church and gatherings always looking like some caricatures. We were so embarrassed by our clothes, we felt like we were covered in blisters. 
No matter the number of holes in our clothes, despite their magnitude, we remained calm. We had to remain calm despite the mimicking and mockery because it was insane to cry.

It was suicidal to bother our mother to get us things she had no money for—like toothbrushes, as if without them we couldn’t grow. Kids in our world today ought to be grateful. We never had toothbrushes. Forget about toothpaste. And we didn’t bother Mom. We used chewing sticks, because she and my father both used them. She knew that whether we had toothbrushes and toothpaste  or not we would grow. For her, our growth was more important than things.

When I look back, although Mom died about 17 years ago, I think I’m still angry. We thought she was being so hard on us. We felt she was denying us the joy children expect from their parents. But no. Mom was doing the right thing even though we saw ourselves as victims of pain and suffering, poverty and hunger. She saw us as victors. Now I realize that she was training us to become responsible adults although we saw her treatment to be very brutal.

When I look at children in our world today, I marvel. When I look at American children, European children, Asian and African children—who are blessed with many things—I expect them to be grateful. I expect them to hold their parents in high esteem for the effort they are making to get their children a life they never had. I say, applause for all the moms and dads. And especially for single mothers. They are treasures.

The other day I was at Accra Mall (a mall in Ghana). I saw a scene between a mother and her child that I had also seen while I was waiting to board my flight in the Istanbul airport last year. A little boy was pestering his mother to get him a toy car.  This wonderful mother didn’t give in. She stayed in the queue. When we finally boarded the plane, the little boy was still crying and sniveling. And I could tell that this elegant looking mother was greatly disturbed, because her son’s tears were attention-grabbing and quite frustrating. When we landed at Heathrow Airport, she rushed into a toyshop and bought her son the car he wanted. I didn’t see this mother to be rich. The little boy was just fortunate. As I was passing by, I saw the price tag and I was thunderstruck. £200 sterling? For a toy car? That’s my yearly rent back home.

I have also seen kids crying out loud for pizza in pizza shops. “Mom, buy me pizza.” I have seen children crying for all kinds of things. “Mom, I need chocolate.” “Dad, I need a new iPhone.” “Mom, I want to go to this-or-that University.” If we had said things like that to my mother, she would have given us a reason to shut up, if not a slap.

Sometimes I wish I were in that little child’s shoes. Anytime I see kids—and even some young people—behaving in that same way, it irks me. Sometimes, this feeling makes me mad. It makes me feel like I was imprisoned in my childhood days. It makes me feel like I missed my lucky days. For me, I see it as if my parents ruined my best days. But no. I have come to realize that Mom did her best for me .

And my best days are still ahead of me. So there is no need for me to blame my mother for whatever she did or didn’t do. Because whatever she did or didn’t do, I have grown, and I am still growing.  This realization has helped me to let go of the pains I suffered, the shame that befell me when I was growing up. This realization has helped me to put my past behind me. I used to get mad at my parents for failing to take us to the cinema, take us abroad, or even take us the mall to shop. But my parents never even heard of a mall.

Now that I am a man, I appreciate the efforts of Mom and Dad. They did not harm me. Instead they helped me. And this is why I cannot hold on to my childhood insecurities. Why hold on to those thoughts and feelings when you can let them go?  My past is behind. Today is mine to enjoy. Stop holding on to your childhood setbacks, pains, insecurities. Cut your attachments. When we hold on to the terrible experiences we had as children, we only ruin our future. We become hurtful adults with no sense of belonging. Today, let go.

Richard with orphans in Odumasi Krobo, a village in the Eastern Region of Ghana
Richard with orphans in Odumasi Krobo, a village in the Eastern Region of Ghana

“The place of great promise at times is the place of great pain as well. What you can do is more important that what you cannot do.”

~Richard Botchwey, The Tale of An Orphan: A Lesson to Learn

Richard Paa Kofi Botchwey is an internationally published Ghanaian writer, a poet, and a social entrepreneur. His first book, The Tale of an Orphan a Lesson to Learn, was officially published in the United States on April 1st, 2012, by E-Magazine Publishing.  He has appeared on the Pauline Long Show (SKY TV UK) and Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) in United Kingdom as well as several television and radio shows in Ghana. Through his non-profit organization, Orphan Trust Movement,  Richard has helped many young people across Ghana with his amazing life story. He is currently working on several charitable projects and writing his next book, If I Were an American.

To learn more about Richard Botchwey and his work, please visit his website at http://richardbotchwey.com.