Meaningful work … one shovelful at a time

Digging a hole

These days I do a lot of digging. Sometimes in the garden. Sometimes to fix the septic system. Sometimes as a first step in building.  

One of the things about digging… I find quite a few surprises. They feel important.   Hard clay gives way to softer soil then rock. It takes quite a bit of focused attention to chip my way through it. One small piece at a time. Sledge hammer, digging bar, pick. The going is slow, and I just know it’s going to carry on like that until I get where I need to.  But then, soft soil. I didn’t expect that.

No, I suppose it isn’t something to which many aspire. But there’s something in it that feels like it makes good sense. Like it’s teaching me something about this new life. You see, retiring wasn’t actually about stopping.  More like moving on to the next thing. A third act. Something meaningful.

Poet, David Whyte reminds me

‘Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.’

That’s the thing about digging.  I can’t repair the drain pipe before I dig six feet down.  It happens one shovelful at a time. No matter how much I want to build the deck, unless I dig holes for those footings, I just can’t. I will plant that new vine, but not until I dig my hole deep enough.  Start close in, start with the first step, not the second or the third.

“Retiring” was certainly not intended  to mean “retirement.”  More like seeing if there is a next adventure. A next chapter. Meaningful work.

After spending so much time at the center of a community, it’s hard to see close in.  It’s hard not to mistake another’s question for my own. And that’s it.  That’s the thing about digging. You have to start close in. The first thing, not the second or the third.  The step you don’t want to take.

rejecting college ‘acceptance’

Hammer glassIt’s almost that time: second semester. Although some high school seniors who have chosen the college route  are still completing their applications, many will begin hearing from the schools to which they have applied.  It’s an exciting time … filled with anticipation, enthusiasm, anxiety, celebration, resignation, and renewed vigor … all the stuff of a great sporting event.  Some schools say “Yes,” some “No.”  Rejections feel bad, and students take them personally.  Acceptances feel good, and they make the same mistake … they take them personally.  When the whole process has ended later this Spring,  you’ll be able to stand by any open window on any evening and, if you are quiet,  hear the collective sigh of parental relief.  “Whew!!  S/he’s in!”    

Across the country, young adults will begin readying themselves for many of the real challenges ahead: laundry, meal plan vs. cooking, bank accounts, bursars, registrars, majors ….   And then, next year, another group, and the year after, another, and then the next, and the next, and ….  For so many of our sons and daughters who can afford it, it has become part of what it means to grow up.   

 Acceptance into college is the sort of acceptance we want for our children.  There is another sort, a more dangerous one … the acceptance of authority, of expertise, of the professor, the teacher, the class, the pundit, the book, the truth.  Were the university the only place we find that danger, it would not be as worrisome.  But things are not that simple.   The invitation merely to accept comes from many places, and it  begins far earlier than college.   One of the central goals at a good school is to have our young people recognize the many and ongoing efforts to have them accept that which screams for the opposite.

 Education is one of the most conservative of society’s institutions.  It is supposed to be that way.   It is our job to help prepare the next generation to take its place in a world we helped create for them.  Things need to continue, to progress, we need to build on the past and sustain that which has sustained us and those who have come before.  Perhaps with the exception of the family, educational institutions are most responsible for preserving  business as usual.

 Invitations to accept are everywhere.  In education they are especially obvious in those tests our students take.    We all know them:  SAT’s, ACT’s, ERB’s  and the like.  Even though we ought to know better, every few years we reform, redraft and recreate them, rather than let them go the way of 8-track tapes.  And despite their periodic facelift, they remain carefully designed  to convince us  all – and especially our young people – that we know very little … far less than those far smarter people who make up the tests.

The questions are familiar and predictable.  They reinforce the popular beliefs that (1) what matters most are facts, no matter how trivial, and  (2)  if one does well on tests of this sort, s/he is smart and can go on to be a great success … perhaps even to the White House (although clearly good test scores  are NOT required to become President.  Sometimes you do not even need to get the most votes.)  You will recognize the questions right away – questions like:

Which came first, the  Homestead Act or the Stamp Act?

Did WWI come before or after The Spanish American War?

Who was the President during the Mexican War?

Let me be clear.  I am not suggesting that asking questions is wrong, or even that facts are unimportant.  In fact, just the opposite.  But so much of the time questions that indicate a good education demand that we focus on the unimportant. It need not be that way.  There is no shortage of important questions for test makers, teachers, and classes to ask.  Several years back, I heard Howard Zinn remind us that instead of wanting to know whether a student remembers a name, they might instead ask, “What was the cause of the Mexican War?”  Now that’s interesting.

The Mexican War  – 1846-1848.  A relatively insignificant war, rarely more than mentioned in so many text books.   After it was over, the United States had taken nearly 50% of  Mexican territory.  Many in the Western United States are living in that territory right now.  Many of our schools, our homes, our deportation centers. Like so many wars, it was started by an incident.  As best we can put together the real story, it seems that there was a small piece of disputed land on the Mexican and US border.    And as so often happens when a bunch of heavily armed young men are brought together and whipped into a patriotic frenzy,  one thing led to the next, shots were fired, and  people on both sides were injured.   The next day the papers read “We cannot allow American blood to be spilled on American soil.  OUR  NATION IS AT WAR.”   What the history books, teachers, newspapers, magazines and tests rarely tell us is that the President Polk was implementing plans that had already been formulated to take all that territory  from Mexico.  Because we wanted it!  Because it was in the interest of America!  An incident was created to give the President an excuse to do what smart people – people who accepted what college had offered — deemed necessary.

So what?  What’s the big deal?  Is it a big deal? Maybe not … but then again, maybe!!  Were test writers to ask questions like this one, then perhaps more teachers might teach about it.  And if they did, then perhaps more young people might be driven to ask about the causes of wars in general … which might lead them to insights about the ways in which young people (usually young, poor and working class people) are either forced or manipulated into fighting wars created by older wealthier people who stand to benefit from those wars.  Whether it is the Mexican War, WWI, Vietnam, Panama, Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan… OR MAYBE even the next war.

 I am a fan of college … and certainly of college acceptance.  But not college acceptance!  Or any other acceptance that would have our young people – that would have any of us – dress up, line up, nod dutifully, cheer blindly, and wave whatever is supposed to be waved, when it is supposed to be waved.

People will, schools will, professors and other professionals will try all sorts of things to get our children – to get all of us – to accept  the unacceptable, to embrace as inevitable that which should never be embraced, to keep us calm in the face of the outrageous … until it is time to whip us into a frenzy so we will do what you are supposed to do.

AND if they succeed  … well then … one day our kids (or perhaps we) might grow up to be …well … completely acceptable !

christmas koyaanisqatsi … remaining naive in the new year

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It’s upside down, isn’t it? It’s backwards.  Not the Buckminster Fuller Quote. The world is Koyaanisqatsi, right?! It can’t just be me.

From where I am sitting, it’s especially obvious during the holidays.  Peace on earth.  Good will toward all.  New beginnings.  Resolutions. Gifts and garlands fill homes with good cheer. Friends surprise us with visits and kind words. It feels as if something better is right up ahead … just around the corner. Dickens described the holidays as “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

Yes, I know, of course it’s too commercial.  Yes, it is an over-shopping fiasco. (We all saw store decorations go up just after Halloween!) And I know it’s not everyone’s holiday. How about if we call it solstice-celebration?  The point is, whatever we call it, this holiday time of year still feel magical, as if there is a new and better world just up ahead, and it is filled with possibility. No matter where you are, you can imagine snow falling.  As if the the whole solstice-celebrating-world is encouraging us to see a truth that is otherwise obscured: so very much of our world is shaped by human choices, by the choices we make.  We can choose peace. We can choose good will.  We can choose to live another way, where we ‘open our shut-up hearts” and ‘think of others as fellow passengers to the grave’ rather than ‘other.’

I want to be clear: I am not a Pollyanna. This is not some glib assertion about simply choosing other work.  I know there’s a big machine out there, and it can and will try to grind us up if we so much as point in a different direction.  But we do – human beings individually and collectively do – have choices.  The fundamental assumptions within which we live are not the only ones out  there.  They were created by people: people who could, who might… sometimes easily, sometimes with great effort … create others.

And then, perhaps even more quickly than they arrived, the holidays are gone. Within just a week or two, we return to the conventional ‘audio and video feed.’  Back come the grey men in grey suits with grey brains as Helen Caldicott used to call them. Back is the world as it ISN’T. Back upside down.  

I am not just talking about going back to work. You might have a job you love, or perhaps not. It’s not that we need to set the alarm again, that our schedules are driven by the need for the wheels to keep the machine moving. It’s that suddenly what we have all been told about choice just goes away.  As quickly as it appeared, it just vanishes!

“But wait. It was obvious: we can choose other possibilities!”

You know … like ‘Peace on Earth’ or ‘Good Will Toward Others.’

No. Gone! The idea that perhaps We do not need to go to war to end the conflict in Syria, is met with the hardboiled thinking of the hardboiled analysts who know otherwise. “No more drone attacks?  So naive. You don’t really understand what we are dealing with.”

“What do you mean health care is an inappropriate arena for insurance profits? No insurance profits involved in health care? Health care for everyone? It’s really quite preposterous.”

Perhaps we would be used to it.  Perhaps it would be easy to swallow. But the holidays. It’s all so fresh! For those couple of weeks every year, we see our world as it actually is: A mess to be sure, but pregnant with the possibility that we might do otherwise, we CAN do otherwise. And then… gone. An abrupt about-face. It’s koyaanisqatsi.  Out of balance. Maya, the world that ISN’T.

Why do some people have more than they will ever use, can ever use, while others go homeless and hungry? “Well you see… there will always be those who must go without. Without enough food, without a place to live? It’s the way the world has always been. You have to be ‘realistic.’ You are so delightfully naive.”

Why, if we know that factory farming and an animal heavy diet is responsible for as much as 50% of greenhouse warming (Yes, check it out: Goodland and Anhang, 2006) won’t we mandate a change in farming techniques? Why won’t we report that our widespread assumptions about food and diet are not only inaccurate, but destroying our future.  I mean Miley Cyrus?  Really?

If we know our continuing reliance on fossil fuels is killing the planet at a pace far faster than we imagined, why don’t we change?  Wait… there are sustainable alternatives? Why don’t we require them?

We know corporations are not people.  Why do we pretend otherwise?

How about this?  You are hunting for a worthwhile New Year’s resolution.  This year, let’s all remain NAIVE. When one or another economist tells us we cannot feed people who are hungry, even though we have the food, let’s remain naive and insist on the obvious: we can.  When a group of unelected experts tells us that because corporations are people, we need to allow them to upend democracy by behaving as if they are, let’s not play pretend: we know they are not. When they tell us we must take up arms, just this one more time to prevent … well  to prevent war, to put an end to violence(??), to assure access to oil, to ______ …  let’s not. No, we cannot shift our resources away from a meat-based diet… Yes… we can.  We cannot be sure that the earth is warming… Yes we can.  We cannot to anything to ….  Chances are we can!

So perhaps we can agree to make 2014 a year for reality.  Let’s all make a bid for reality.  Let’s make ourselves as naive as we can be.  Happy New Year.

Slow Knowledge

TurtleFinishIt’s difficult not to feel the weight of time.  Especially as the holidays approach.  It surrounds us; it saturates us.  As if always there, and always rational!  Our cars go from zero to 60 in _______ seconds.  Our printers print thirty pages per minute.  Our copiers make sixty-five copies per minute.  People in the office are excited because soon we’ll have an even faster one … and it will be networked so we don’t have to “waste all that time” walking to the printer. Email.  Email on my phone! Twitter and Facebook updates wherever I go!!

Certainly this is true at schools where I worked for the past 30+ years. Parents want their children to complete Algebra in 8th grade.  “How else can they get to Calculus before they apply to college?”   Students want to get ahead.  AP this, Honors that … “How many AP’s does the school offer?”  Teachers would rush to get final assignments posted … after all, it is the end of the semester.  “I need to make sure I cover _______ by the time the semester ends, or I’ll never get to _______ by Spring Break.”   Students try to complete everything they have not done up to this point.  “Can I still make up the work I owe you from September?”    … teachers get crazy, kids get crazier, parents get craziest!  Or is that parents get crazy, kids get crazier and teachers get ….   Whatever … It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that education is not really supposed to be all about speed, about quick answers, about solving problems and getting work done quickly.

I realize it is sometimes difficult to imagine a different approach.  Who can argue with the value of the quick and facile mind?  But although we do not think much about it – and we rarely find it in schools – a different approach is possible.  There are other kinds of knowledge than the sort to which we usually attend in school.

Essayist, poet, novelist, farmer, Wendell Berry, writes about the need to teach and learn things that can only be learned slowly, things that we simply cannot learn quickly, that we cannot learn with the speed we have come to expect from excellent students doing excellent work in excellent classrooms at excellent schools.  David Orr, professor of Environmental Design at Oberlin College calls it slow knowledge.  For so many of us, it has become difficult even to imagine what these two gentlemen might mean.

In his book The Clock of The Long Now, Stewart Brand tells a story of the Swedish Forestry Department reporting in 1980 to the Navy that the 20,000 oak trees they had ordered were ready for delivery.   The trees were ordered in 1829.  I do not know whether the story is true, but I want it to be.

“Absurd!!  Wait 150 years for an order to be ready!?!  No one would do that.  It makes no sense!!”

Really??  Ask any carpenter over the age of forty, and s\he will tell you that “lumber is just not the same as it used to be.”  Although we have been able to breed trees that grow taller, straighter and faster, mature wood – wood from trees that have grown slowly – is very different.  It’s stronger.  It shrinks less.  It is … well … it is better.   You just can’t grow that sort of wood quickly.

Of course, It is nearly impossible truly to have this conversation with many educators. Speed is all but synonymous with progress and success.  Knowing the answers quickly will get you higher SAT scores, higher AP scores.  Surely it is good to be able to find the area of this and the perimeter of that … very quickly.   To solve the chemistry or physics problem very quickly.  To know when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, who signed it, and why… very quickly.  We applaud those who code quickly, who write quickly, who gain acceptance to college early … those who can quickly recite all the states and their capitals, the Presidents and their Vice Presidents.  Their wives.  Their home states.  Their ….

But how much more important is it to learn to evaluate evidence?  How to recognize patterns when direct observation reveals nothing?  What are the qualities of character?  Of beauty?  Of courage?  How does one bring about justice?  What does a careful and thoughtful evaluation reveal about our ethical landscape?  How do we ignite imagination?  What does it take to sustain a community?  To be kind and compassionate?  How do we listen to the whispers of the world?   The whispers heard by animals before an earthquake?  The whispers heard by farmers before a rain or a particularly hard winter ahead?

Why?  I mean really, why?  Why do we want to insist that our schools ignore the slow, the enduring, that which has taken lifetimes to learn, centuries to learn, civilizations to learn?  Why should our schools ignore wisdom, to be driven instead by media, markets or elections?    After all, isn’t it wisdom that we can call on – in fact it is all we have to call on – to discover, to grow, to remember the courage we need to engage all those unknowns yet to come in our lives, all those unknowns guaranteed to come in our lives?!

I am not suggesting we throw out “the curriculum.”  “Fast knowledge” has given us much.  In so many ways our lives are better now than they have ever been.  Our food is safer and more plentiful, we have warm homes, public libraries and freedoms to explore and express the likes of which were never before contemplated.  (Yes, yes, yes … I know … war, aviary flu, mad cow, shrinking public funds, the Patriot Act … But the point is still correct!)

The problems we face today are many, and our children see and fear them.  They fear that during their lifetimes they will see the end of so much of what they have come to see as necessity.  They are living at that time we first heard of when we were their ages.  A time when the earth will warm appreciably because of our industry.  A time when oil and other fossil fuels will have an end in site.  A time when clean water and clean air will no longer be guaranteed.  Problems … BIG problems.

During such times, human beings find hope and direction for a better tomorrow, not from the next timesaving invention or quick and abundant access to and processing of information.  Yes, sometimes they can help. But more often, hope and direction come from a sense – a deep, slow and abiding sense – of our collective cultural heritage, our human heritage, our organic heritage.  A sense of the dilemmas and struggles with which people have wrestled for years, for centuries, for millennia.  A deep-down sense of the effort we need in order to come to terms with values, with morality, with questions of good and evil.  An understanding that individuals and communities have faced problems before.  BIG problems.  The Plague.  Revolutions.  Fascism. ..

And those senses, those deep and elusive senses come slowly; we learn them slowly.  They are things with no easy answers, things around which we must circle and circle, around and around, again and again and again.  Slowly, intentionally.

Some places (some teachers, some parents…) do a pretty good job of remembering this, of reminding one another of the value of the slow and enduring.  But as I said, this is a difficult time of the year, a crazy time of year, a time when it is easy for schools to become even crazier than they usually are.

So I offer this, as reminder to us all, that so much of enormous value will not, will never, can never be done quickly, be learned quickly.

Wishing you all the best, the fullest, the richest, warmest, sweetest … and slowest of seasons.