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.

Something Tamed, Something Wild: Poetry from Mary Chapin Carpenter

Mary Chapin Carpenter is my all-time favorite singer—-I own at least five of her albums. If her albums were paths thorough the woods, they would be well-worn and smooth from all the hours that I’ve listened to them.  Her lyrics speak to me of shared experiences and secret longings, with humor and grace.

Last week when I heard that she had a new album, Something Tamed and Something Wild, I bought it immediately. You can listen to the song and read the lyrics. Enjoy this amazing music!

Something Tamed and Something Wild

Here’s a shoebox full of letters bound up neatly with some twine
Each one was like a diamond, now the jewel is lost to time
My reward is in the knowing that I held it in my hands for a little while

What else are there but the treasures in your heart? Something tamed, something wild?

For every time that I’ve been foolish when I’d wished that I’d been wise The power of regret still gets me right between the eyes
And sometimes I want to weep with nothing but the tears of a little child

What else are there but the lessons in your heart? Something tamed, something wild?

Here’s a map I’ve memorized of every where I’ve ever been
And the faces of everyone I’ve loved and left to try again
I couldn’t make out what they were saying, so instead I listened hard to what’s inside

What else is there but the voice inside your heart? Something tamed, something wild?

Some nights I’m woken up by something stirring in my chest
It’s a feeling I’ve no name for, it’s hard to catch my breath
I’m staring down the great big lonesome as I’m listening for the dwindling of time

What else are there but the echoes in your heart? Something tamed, something wild?

So the things that matter to me now are different from the past
I care less about arriving than just being in the path
of some light carved out of nothing, the way it feels when the universe has smiled

What else is there but the beating of your heart? Something tamed, something wild?

Here’s the shoebox full of letters, here’s the map I won’t forget
The voices and the lessons and the signals that connect us
Manifested to the spirit, way deep down where it goes unseen by the eye

What else is there but the love inside your heart? To a life like a firework’s to a spark
Over and above you in it’s arc
Something tamed, something wild?

 

 

 

 

Can Poetry Make You Laugh?

Humor in poetry is the next topic of our journey through April–National Poetry Month. Many readers will think about Dr. Seuss, some of you may even remember Ogden Nash, and of course, Shel Silverstein comes to mind when people think about funny poems. But sometimes, there is a serious situation that comes wrapped in a poem–making it more easily digestible. I am offering a two poems for your pleasure from some authors you may or may not recognize. I hope you enjoy them!  Perhaps you’ll even decide to share one as part of Poem in Your Pocket Day on April 21st.

Have you ever laughed about the wording of warnings? Here’s a poem for you!

Warnings

by David Allen Sullivan

A can of self-defense pepper spray says it may
irritate the eyes, while a bathroom heater says it’s
not to be used in bathrooms. I collect warnings
the way I used to collect philosophy quotes.

Wittgenstein’s There’s no such thing
as clear milk
rubs shoulders with a box
of rat poison which has been found
to cause cancer in laboratory mice
.

Levinas’ Language is a battering ram—
a sign that says the very fact of saying
,
is as inscrutable as the laser pointer’s advice:
Do not look into laser with remaining eye.

Last week I boxed up the solemn row
of philosophy tomes and carted them down
to the used bookstore. The dolly read:
Not to be used to transport humans.

Did lawyers insist that the 13-inch wheel
on the wheelbarrow proclaim it’s
not intended for highway use? Or that the
Curling iron is for external use only?

Abram says that realists render material
to give the reader the illusion of the ordinary
.
What would he make of Shin pads cannot protect
any part of the body they do not cover
?

I load boxes of books onto the counter. Flip
to a yellow-highlighted passage in Aristotle:
Whiteness which lasts for a long time is no whiter
than whiteness which lasts only a day.

A.A.’ers talk about the blinding glare
of the obvious: Objects in the mirror
are actually behind you
, Electric cattle prod
only to be used on animals, Warning: Knives are sharp.

What would I have done without: Remove infant
before folding for storage, Do not use hair dryer
while sleeping, Eating pet rocks may lead to broken
teeth, Do not use deodorant intimately?

Goodbye to all those sentences that sought
to puncture the illusory world-like the warning
on the polyester Halloween outfit for my son:
Batman costume will not enable you to fly.

“Warnings” by David Allen Sullivan from Strong-Armed Angels. ©

Here’s Collins reading the poem: Enjoy!

The Lanyard

by Billy Collins

The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room
bouncing from typewriter to piano
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the ‘L’ section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word, Lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past.
A past where I sat at a workbench
at a camp by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips into a lanyard.
A gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard.
Or wear one, if that’s what you did with them.
But that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand
again and again until I had made a boxy, red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold facecloths on my forehead
then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim and I in turn presented her with a lanyard.
‘Here are thousands of meals’ she said,
‘and here is clothing and a good education.’
‘And here is your lanyard,’ I replied,
‘which I made with a little help from a counselor.’
‘Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth and two clear eyes to read the world.’ she whispered.
‘And here,’ I said, ‘is the lanyard I made at camp.’
‘And here,’ I wish to say to her now,
‘is a smaller gift. Not the archaic truth,
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took the two-toned lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless worthless thing I wove out of boredom
would be enough to make us even.’

 

 

Inspiration from Lawrence Ferlinghetti

According the to Poetry Foundation’s biography of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one of his main goals as a poet and publisher was “redeeming poetry from the ivory towers of academia and offering it as a shared experience with ordinary people.” I think Ferlinghetti does that quite well with this little poem, “Airplanes of the Heart.”

Airplanes of the Heart

The little airplanes of the heart
With their brave little propellers
What can they do
Against the wind of darkness
Even as butterflies are beaten back
by hurricanes
yet do not die
They lie in wait wherever
They can hide and hang
Their fine wings folded
And when the killer wind dies
They flutter forth again
Into the new-blown light
Live as leaves.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I don’t know much about Ferlinghetti, but I do know that he was one of the main poets of the “Beat” generation and he started a famous bookstore in San Francisco called City Lights. I know that he published Allen Ginsburg’s anthem “Howl,” which certainly fulfilled Ferlinghetti’s mission to bring poetry out of the ivory towers.

And all of that information is valuable. But for me, the most valuable information is the inspiration and feeling that I get from a poem. And I feel hopeful when I read “Little Airplanes of the Heart.”

The Butterfly Beetle
The Butterfly Beetle

The first image that comes to me is that of the seedlings that will soon fill my patio–the propellor-like gifts that cover the ground in the spring as we wait for plants and flowers to wake us up in the spring. But more than that, the poem contains the seedlings of hope and of life that continues despite set-back and loss. The phrase “butterflies of loss” conjures images of friends and relatives that have passed away. I can still see their faces, hear their voices, and I know they are as close as a breeze.

And sometimes don’t we feel like the butterfly beaten back by a hurricane? Still, there is something so powerful about the human spirit, that no matter what challenges confront us or what losses we bear, we flutter forth and spread our colorful wings , buoyed by the winds of hope.

Thank you, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for your beautiful gift of this poem. Enjoy!

 

Practice: Holding On and Letting Go of Friends with Barbara Morrison

I first met Barbara Morrison at The Maryland Writers Conference in 2011 when her book, Confessions of a Welfare Mother, was published. Barbara’s memoir is full of heart and wisdom, and I was hooked from the moment  I started reading it.  For the past year, Barbara and I have read together all over Baltimore in a series we designed and call “Looking Back to Move Forward.” Welcome, Barbara!

Barbara Morrison
Barbara Morrison

Everything changed this year. The two volunteer activities that had taken up much of my time since I retired faded away. Even after retiring I had continued to do occasional jobs for the small company where I’d worked for 26 years, but it was time to make the final break.

By far the biggest change, though, came when a couple in my apartment complex moved away. More than friends, we had become family.

It started in a grocery store, where I ran into Eva and her 21-month-old son in front of the spinach. We’d seen each other around, so stopped to exchange greetings. Before we could say much, though, Alec started reaching for me, wanting me to pick him up.

“He never does that,” Eva said. “He’s terrified of strangers.”

I didn’t know it then, but she was pregnant and worried about finding someone to care for Alec while she and her husband were at the hospital. She and Noel came from overseas and had no family in this country, much less in our city. She needed someone to be a local grandmother.

I enthusiastically volunteered, and Alec started coming to spend one day a week with me. We built block towers and knocked them down, read books together, and went for walks. We danced to music; he was fascinated by my records and turntable, insisting on helping to remove records from their sleeves. He developed a deep attachment to Blue, my cat, and spent a lot of time communing with her.

Sometimes he came more often, when Eva needed to go to various appointments or desperately needed to sleep. A carseat made its way into my car and I sometimes drove him to and from the preschool he attended a couple of times a week. Then when the new baby came, Alec stayed with me for a few delightful days.

A-Blue-puzzle
Alec with puzzle and cat

During this time, a group of us in the small apartment complex—including Eva—became close. We began our own book club, went for walks, and did Qigong together. After the baby was born, Eva had a difficult recovery, and we took it in turns to provide meals and help out in other ways. Alec spent a lot of time with me, to give his mother a break.

For another year, Alec’s visits with me remained a regular thing. When Eva became ill, he came and stayed with me again. During her recovery, I ferried him about and took him on excursions. He loves trains, so I would sometimes take him on the light rail, up to the end of the line and back. Lulled by the movement, he would crawl onto my lap and fall asleep.

Then, this year, Noel’s residency ended, and he accepted a job out of state. Alec stayed with me during the move, and then I delivered him to his new home. I left the carseat with them that day.

As though that were the signal, our tight group of friends began to break up. Several people moved away, reluctantly, sadly.

My days now stretch in front of me. Oh, I have plenty to fill them, but sometimes I think about what has been lost, not just Alec and my adopted family, but the friends from my volunteer activities and my job whom I’m not likely to see much of anymore.

It’s not the first time that the things that filled my day suddenly disappeared. In August of the year I turned fifty, my last child left home; I sold the house; and my elderly dog died. None of these events were unexpected or even unwelcome, but I was surprised by the space that opened up in my days with no children to greet, no dog to walk, no grass to cut or rooms to paint.

Yet I have been happy in this apartment, and I found my lovely group of friends here. If this time is passing, as it seems to be, I have no doubt that the next phase will be equally fortunate.

David Hinton, who has studied and translated ancient Chinese poetry, talks of the Taoist concept of tzu-jan, the constant unfolding of things. Instead of seeing time as a linear narrative, the ancient Chinese thought of time as a constantly changing present, with things appearing and disappearing.

It is this way of seeing existence as waves washing over a persistent present that I am practicing now.

Note: Names have been changed to protect people’s privacy.

Bio: Barbara Morrison, who writes under the name B. Morrison, is the author of a memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother, and two poetry collections, Terrarium and Here at Least. Barbara’s award-winning work has been published in anthologies and magazines. She conducts writing workshops, provides editing services, and (as the owner of a small press) speaks about publishing and marketing. She has maintained her Monday Morning Books blog since 2006 and tweets regularly about poetry @bmorrison9. For more information, visit her website and blog at http://www.bmorrison.com.

Holding on and Letting Go: A Year in the Life of a Book

“Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?”
~”Seasons of Love”, from Rent

unnamed-1
Ann with the first book I unpacked

“I love the song “Seasons of Love,” and I remember humming along with it  well before I ever saw Rent.  The opening lines came back to me when I began to think about how to measure my first year with a published book. Was it really only a year ago that I had my opening reading on a cold February night at Zu Coffee in Annapolis? Cliff Lynn and Rocky Jones emceed the evening, with Cliff introducing the readers and Rocky providing music with his bongos. So many of my friends came to cheer me on, and I have special thanks to each of them. To Grace Cavalieri for her unfailing support and belief in my work, to Laura Shovan for her keen insight and good ear, and to Debby Kevin for her help with marketing and promotion.  My children were there at the first reading–Brian took care of video taping the reading and Christella sold the books for me so that I could talk to people while I signed copies for them.  The evening was magical, and I was humbled to have so many folks attend my first reading and buy my book, The Altar of Innocence.

I think that I could perhaps measure the year in friends–old friends who have celebrated with me and new friends that I’ve met while doing my readings in Baltimore, Annapolis, and DC.  To begin the list, I want to thank three good friends who are part of the meditation group that has become such a valuable part of my life.

Jane Nitsch and her husband, Gerry Cohee, have been steadfast in their support and love.  Jane and Gerry invited me to read my poems as I was shaping them and they offered both critique and support in a safe atmosphere. Additionally, they hosted my book party last May, graciously opening their home to many other friends who attended  my reading party. Thank you, Jane and Gerry.

Renee Rogers is another friend from the mediation group. Her special contribution came in the form of beautiful bookmarks that she designed and produced as party favors for all of the guests. The bookmarks are elegant and graceful, and now I give them  as a special treat included with every book I sell. Thank you, Renee.

Barbara Morrison invited me to read with her and to design a program  exploring memoir using our poetry. The program is called “Looking Back to Move Forward,” and we explore the themes of innocence, secrets, and burdens that emerge in both of our books. Barbara’s book, Terrarium, looks at her life through the lens of place. She does an amazing job of capturing both the joy and the sorrow of childhood as she leads readers to her favorite childhood haunts in Roland Park. Thank you, Barbara.

I want to thank all of the wonderful people who have come to my readings and shared their stories with me. It is deeply humbling to write a book that delves into difficult personal and family issues–alcoholism, depression, and verbal abuse–and to find that my stories touch my readers’ lives and create a bridge of experience that we can share. No writer could ever ask for more.

Here’s a shout-out to all of my guest-bloggers who have so faithfully contributed their talents and stories, helping to expand my readers’ horizons with their fresh perspectives. Here’s to Patricia Van Amburg for her thoughtful guidance as my critique partner and for the many hours she has worked with me to refine my poetry. Here’s to Peter Brunn of New Day Campaign, who invited me to be part of his work of using the arts to end the stigma around mental illness and addiction.

Christella and Brian, Christmas Eve in Hamden
Christella and Brian, Christmas Eve in Hampden

And lastly, here’s to my wonderful children, Brian and Christella Potts. They have always believed in my work and encouraged me to write poetry when no one else thought I could. Most importantly, Brian and Christella encouraged me to resist the urge to censor my story. I am so grateful for the advice that they both offered: “Mom, no one can tell you how to make your art.”  Thank you, Brian and Christella.

How do I measure my past year?

In friendships, and laughter, and fearless abandon. It was all about love.

Enjoy the music!

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.

What You Wish For: Clarinda Harriss

Sixty-some years ago I had to let go of my high school crush on Tom. We were both graduating, me heading up the road to Goucher and he taking off into the wild blue yonder (literally); besides, despite from his unabashed kindness to everybody (quite remarkable in a high school BMOC who was both an athlete and a schoolbook whiz), he had barely noticed me.

Clarinda Harriss
Clarinda Harriss

Actually I didn’t let my crush go altogether. I always inquired about him when our various five- and ten-year reunions rolled around. Via alumni chatter I learned he was a pilot and later that he had a glamorous, globe-encompassing career in the airline industry.   I held onto the idea of at least seeing him again someday, but I let him go again when, to my surprise, he showed up at a reunion—possibly our class’s 30th—with his second wife She was so clever and so lovely (to this day I envy her nose) that I knew Tom was lost to me forever.

Then came the months-long preparations for our class’s 55th reunion. The reunion dinner was to be held at my house, with close to 55 people in attendance. The pre-dinner months brought a frenzy of email. At one point I got utterly fed up with myriad Reply Alls about stuff that concerned only the sender and sendee. I pecked out a message: COULD WE PLEASE STOP HITTING REPLY ALL TO EVERYTHING? RE. THE CURRENT DISCUSSION, PLEASE JUST LOOK AT THE REPLY FROM TOM AND DO WHAT HE SUGGESTED.   But of course that message required me to hit Reply All.   So Tom was among the recipients.

To my huge surprise, he replied—to me only—that he was happy to re-make my acquaintance. In fact, he’d like to head up to Baltimore sometime soon. He had been holding onto the notion of revisiting the town he spent his youth in. Maybe dinner. . .?

Thus a long (time) story became short.   When the reunion dinner actually took place, I was barbecuing for the multitudes on a fancy new outdoor grill, courtesy of Tom.   Shortly thereafter he moved to Baltimore. Within the year I allowed as how it was pretty stupid of him to maintain a Baltimore apartment when he had so far spent a total of two nights there. My house had plenty of room. It was the “Old Manse” I’d lived in with my parents and grandmother when he and I met in high school: a perfect place for me to Live In Sin with someone who was quite literally the man of my dreams. He moved in.

Fast forward, but not very far.   I enjoyed being with Tom. My friends and family did too. I liked developing routines, his running, my writing, our multi-family holiday seasons, discovering our favorite places to eat raw oysters. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that something was very wrong. He was not a heavy drinker and he certainly didn’t do drugs, but he had the sense of time (or rather the absence thereof) commonly associated with potheads. Not much sense of direction, either. Strange indeed for the ex-captain of an industry where space and time were of the essence. Pressed for specifics about his last couple of decades, I discovered that he could barely remember them. Such discoveries slammed me like a runaway truck.   Especially because by this time I no longer had a crush on Tom.   I loved him. And the feeling was mutual.

The first appointment at Johns Hopkins’ memory loss clinic confirmed what had already dawned on me: Tom had Alzheimer’s. Had? Has.   Its grip on Tom was fairly light at first, but it is tightening, tightening.   The Big A is not something that lets a person go  It holds on as a cat holds onto a mouse, playing with it before killing it.

About six months ago I began keeping The Dementia Diary. I started it at the suggestion of a close friend. I’d too often emailed her screens-full of the latest losses of keys, glasses, wallet, the latest finding of the dirty laundry whirling in the dryer. Of all three pairs of lost glasses, crushed to smithereens.   Of being asked a dozen times in as many minutes what we’re doing an hour from now. Of his conflation of the TV remote with the phone. And losing them both. Of the time I freaked out and rolled myself up in the soft kitchen rug, screaming.

Luckily I had the D. Diary to turn to when I got home from an hour at a near-by restaurant lunching with some close women friends to find an ambulance and two police cars in front of the house. Tom had hit the “panic button” on our burglar alarm. Of course it was an accident—he’d been trying to make sure the alarm was off before opening the door for the UPS man—but I think he was, in fact, panicked.   Like many people with Alzheimer’s, he becomes agitated at the unusual, and the most unusual thing of all is for me to be somewhere else.   Those afternoons with “the Ladies Who Lunch” are my once-a-month two hours away. I hold onto them for dear life, as for dear life he holds onto me.

And that is exactly why, though I need to let go of the idea of Tom and me having what could be described as a normal relationship any more, I hold onto him with love, and I do mean romantic love—not just for the charming boy he was when I got that first crush, but for the remarkable man he is now. He remains one of the sweetest, best-looking, most generous-spirited, smartest humans I’ve ever known, despite how hard it has become for him to put his ideas into words. Though his children say he used to be quite impatient, he never makes a fuss when I myself do something dumb, forget something important. I believe he would lay down his life for me.

I understand now why he seems so much more fearful than I am when police helicopters shine search lights into the yards of our leafy, lovely, crime-ridden neighborhood. I used to think it was simply because I’m used to this ‘hood and he isn’t. But no, it’s because he feels he must protect me. I saw this in action last September at three AM when a cat burglar really did creep into our bedroom. Tom leapt for him, yelling threats, cussing like a sailor, and the robber ran like hell with Tom at his heels.

Tom has not let go of what makes him him. I hold him close.

Bio: Clarinda Harriss is a professor emerita of English at Towson University.  For more than four decades she has done several things dear to her heart, and continues to do them:  publish BrickHouse Books, Inc., Maryland’s oldest literary press, and worked with prison writers.   Her most recent book, THE WHITE RAIL (Halfmoon Editions, Atlanta, GA) ,  is a collection of short fiction, not her “real” genre, poetry.  She delights in her two children and five grandchildren.

Letting Go of an Old Mindset, Seeking the Divine Feminine: Siobhan Mac Mahon

This week I’d like to welcome my friend Siobhan Mac Mahon as guest blogger. Siobhan and I met in Salerno, Italy, this summer when we both attended the 100Thousand Poets for Change Conference. We shared some lovely meals in Salerno and discovered our mutual love of using language and poetry to help people heal. Siobhan is originally from Dublin, Ireland, and her poetry sings with the fierce fire of Celtic wit and humor. Welcome, Siobhan!

I am not very good at ‘Letting Go’. You would only have to cast your eyes around some of the messy, and as yet, unresolved areas of my life, (of which there are a few) to surmise that perhaps a good spring-cleaning might be in order!

Siobhan McMahon
Siobhan McMahon

Neither am I very good at letting go of things (Though don’t let on to my mother, whom I recently berated when helping her clear her house – a house groaning with things, every cupboard packed full of memories and 50 years of family life) They say that you turn into your mother and my cluttered house is beginning to resemble hers! A house littered with books, plants, candles, art, feathers collected on my woodland walks, pebbles from the west coast of Ireland, half- finished poems, photos, notebooks and journals….. Pieces of paper with inspirational quotes adorn my fridge door, making it difficult to get at the basics of life inside – milk, cheese, eggs. Not to mention the old clothes that I can’t bear to get rid of, the ridiculously high – and very uncomfortable – sequinned shoes that I will never wear again, but which remind me of glamour and glitter, the smart suit that I never have the occasion to wear, but which never-the-less represents to me the possibility of, one day, being more organised, efficient and possibly even in control of my life.

But what I am really struggling to let go of is a very old mind-set, much older than me or my mother or her mother before her; the mind-set of patriarchy. A mind-set that that has divorced the sacred from the body and from the earth and has banished it into some nebulous and ethereal realm, where it is ruled over by a judgemental and fearful God. A God whom we must eternally appease, seek on bended knees and in whose name we wreak war, destruction and violence on others and claim ‘dominion’ over the Earth.

Perhaps the truth is much simpler and more beautiful than this and perhaps what I need to let go of, more than anything, is the seeking for ‘enlightenment’/a God/the Divine – whatever you might call it – outside of the here, the now, the ‘ordinary’ Perhaps I could let go of my old conditioned mind-set and trust my inner wisdom which tells me that the Earth herself is sacred: Her rivers, seas, mountains, forests and wildlife and that we are the guardians of this beautiful planet; each of us with our own unique and beautiful song to sing and that together we create – ‘a symphony of wild delight’

But in the long struggle to let go of this mind-set, I find I meet the demons of doubt, fear, pride, guilt, despair and shame along the way. They ambush me when I am least expecting them, appearing in many different disguises- vicious, tenacious and voracious – they have, at times, crippled me. Especially shame and doubt. Those two are the most persistent. As a woman I carry within the very cells of my body centuries of shame and of silencing, and yet also, a memory of something more beautiful, something forgotten but always present, something sacred that lives and breathes within our bodies and within the Earth. Something beautiful and essential to life which has always been carried, silently, in the darkness of our bodies, which is now being re-born into the world

This is why I write. I write to remember the language of the Divine Feminine; a language that does not separate the body from the sacred, the soul from the soil. I write to break the silence of shame and of doubt, to clear out – de-clutter – my inner house. I write to name and to honour the wisdom, the power, the beauty, the un-tamed wildness and the sacred sensuality that lives and breathes within our bodies and the body of the Earth. I write to find a way home out of the deep forest of our forgetting. I write to dispel the demons – and on a good day – to laugh at their ridiculous antics!

As for my house, perhaps a little de-clutter wouldn’t go amiss after all! But I’ll keep the inspirational quotes on my fridge; the books, the pebbles, the feathers, the art, the candles and the half-finished poems littering my home. Perhaps I’ll even dust down those sequinned shoes and go dancing in them!

Mapping a New Reality
by Siobhan Mac Mahon

 

When all the old paths
have been concreted over,

Root tree Goddess by Debra Bernier
Root tree Goddess by Debra Bernier

the way forgotten.

When words shape-shift
beneath your feet,
spelling another reality,

When you don’t know
what to pray for anymore,
let alone to whom – you must leave

Behind The broken compasses,
burn The man-made maps
and head for home,

Following the knowing
in your bones, the aching
of your heart,

The song-line of your body.

Bio: Siobhan is Irish Performance Poet, living in Yorkshire, she performs widely in England, Ireland and Europe. Her poems, powerful and often funny, celebrate the beauty of the Earth and the return of the Sacred Feminine. She pokes fun at rigid, patriarchal religions and structures, giving voice to the outrageous, the silenced and the banished (and that’s just before she has her breakfast!)

Siobhan has been writing and performing her poetry, collaborating with other artists and creating mayhem/Spoken word projects for over 20 years, including the Arts Council funded projects – The Mouth of the Cave and Voices of Women. She has recently completed a short poetry film.

Website: www.siobhanmacmahon.co.uk