Saturday, July 15, 2017

On practice


I learn a lot about practice through my painting classes--most importantly, without practice, there is no good art--in fact no bad art, for me. And "bad art" is ultra necessary in order to get to the good, to align with my process. There are students in my beginners class that are impressive in their advancement. They're slow, methodical. My painting is brisk, rushing to get the picture down, the exact opposite of how I watercolor.  My teacher, always with the right words at the ready, says, quick is good. You're going to go over this when it dries, define, shade; you had to do this to get to that.

I haven't been practicing at home this summer, save once. All I have to show is the canvas to the right. I attempted to copy in acrylics, a picture of a floral arrangement done in watercolors (Deb Watson painter). I look at my reproduction and say, not too bad. Now comes the real work. Define the flowers, go over the first layer to shade and create dimension. Mimic my teacher, who with a flick of his wrist, a petal appears, a real flower is born! I memorize how he holds the brush, whisks it over the bubble of a flower(?) I've done. I try, but amnesia sets in within seconds How does he do that? Question to self: can I bring a similar attitude of acceptance and grace to my students when classes start? Demo demo demo--and lots of practice.

My teacher is always in beginner's mind. I carry my beginner's mind to yoga practice. In fact, yoga is all about practice for me, but it wasn't always so. My first two years in yoga class I watched my neighboring yogis, became frustrated when I couldn't align my posture, balance, twist my arms and legs as they did. It wasn't until I read Donna Farhi's Bringing Yoga to Everyday Life that I learned, the poses were only 5% of the point. Perfect was only perfect when I could do the pose without pain. Perfect was perfect when I practiced against a wall or with props, or sat it out. The perfect practice--using my inner wisdom about what's right for me, taking that mindset off the mat and into the painting studio and the rest of life. And practicing that every day.

This nonteaching summer has led me to spend many afternoons at my new favorite city hangout--Bryant Park. Specifically the backgammon tables. One of the teachers spent some time explaining  strategy to me and philosophizing about life. On one particular day, my dice were loving me--doubles, almost every throw--lucky, I said, modestly shrugging. The teacher said something like, there is no such thing as luck, unless you show up to receive it. I'm not kidding. My world is filled with Buddhas. They keep me practicing.

Friday, June 16, 2017

On becoming a good teacher

In my last post I wrote about having had a good spring semester. What contributed to that was having had a course theme that I felt passionate about--activism and societal change. That passion energized and inspired me. I discovered the other day in my painting class, another route to being a better teacher--become a student. It doesn't matter what subject and whether the teacher is great or awful.

When I studied memoir writing in grad school--I learned what kind of teacher not to be--my first writing teacher talked about her life stories--the basis of her numerous memoirs--at least 50% of the time. I didn't have the guts to talk to the program director. Instead I looked across the table at my one friend, we rolled our eyes, and swallowed our disappointment. But I learned a lot-- good and even great writers aren't by default good or great teachers. And, too, I made a mental note to never do that to my own students. It's their class. Their money. Their time.

A few years ago I began studying watercolor painting. I learned from my teacher that patience and practice were the road to talent. She said it over and over (in not those exact words.) I have little patience, no room in my apartment to Practice...or this is the lie I tell myself. And I firmly believe there is no painting talent in me waiting to emerge.  But I brought that philosophy into my English classroom, and I became (at least that day) a better teacher. At least one who understands when a subject doesn't come naturally.

Now, I'm taking an acrylic painting class. My teacher is--I apologize in advance for the word I'm about to use--Awesome! Yes, he is from the school of lemons to lemonade, a thick mess of green on green paint strokes into shadows and light. For two hours a week, I'm immersed in a world where mistakes and messes and screw-ups don't exist. That eye-sore of paint? Necessary in order to layer and develop.

I wanted to take a pad and write all the mantras down. I want to bring them to class in September and tell students-who-fear-English class (which is 90%), "I know and feel your pain." Instead I will bring them a montage of photos--the one I took at 79th and Amsterdam, the painting in process (above right) and still in process (below left). 

     

Monday, May 29, 2017

On knowledge

I woke up this morning thinking about Martin Luther King's 1961 speech, "Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience." Lofty a.m. thoughts are in complete contrast to my usual egocentric waking self, especially on non-work days.

But this morning I was languishing in end of semester freedom--grades posted, no emails from students complaining about grades, the whole thing--over and done. And with that, I thought of all I'd learned this semester, and here's where MLK comes in. His speech was required freshman reading. As we unpacked the dense 8-page excerpt (single spaced!), we talked about protests and sit-ins and what it means to civilly disobey the status quo.

The reading was a perfect entree into discussing the political situation that is upon us. I pounded away at current and past actions people have taken when they had no rights or their rights were threatened--the Women's March, Black Lives Matter, rallies for immigrants and on and on. But when I asked students to contribute to the list, so few had ideas.  Have you signed any petitions on social media? I asked. Yes, a few nodded. Been to any rallies? One or two. Are you happy with the status quo? No no no no no. There was one outspoken activist -- an environmentalist, animal rights worker, one socially aware and vocal student. You're in college, I said to the rest. This is your world. And that's when I remembered myself as a college student, a very long distance from activism and protest. I wasn't happy with the status quo because my generation wasn't, not because of my own convictions, the few I had.       

When someone I've just met asks what I do, I say I teach. Lately I add, I don't know if anyone learns anything. I had a passionate teaching semester. I was riled up about world injustices, big and small.  We talked about Schindler, Malala Yousafazi--courageous people who challenged laws. We read about a river in New Zealand that a tribe fought to preserve--and they won. The river was given legal person status. (True!) I retained all of this, think about it, am energized. Did my students learn anything though? How do I know? Maybe knowledge will crop up here and there when they least expect it--as it often does for me.

As much as being a student (in school, in life) is an opportunity to learn, teaching is a hundred times more so. My brain pops with the histories we uncovered; I'm dizzy with the thrill of waking up from a deep sleep and thinking of Martin Luther King. Maybe that's the real payoff, the real reason I do this. Although semesters don't always end like this one, on an up note.

Summer is almost here. When my friend K. leaves for Budapest on Monday, I will not be on the plane. Eastern Europe, or any part of Europe, isn't happening for me, at least as far as I know today. Another friend left for Prague yesterday. I said, send my love to the Charles Bridge. This summer, I'll go with the tide or the flow or whatever it is that pulls me in the right direction.

Monday, April 17, 2017

On setting in

This morning I awoke with the answer to something I'd been questioning, right there--clear, written across my brain. The past few months, my life has meandered My work life has been a juggling act. Personal life, too much to chance. A 25-year relationship recently threw itself in the air and hasn't yet landed. I hold my breath a lot.

The answer that presented itself this a.m. was to accept solid options. Those weren't the exact words, but that was the gist. And whenever an answer is the first to greet me when I awake, I trust it. This morning that meant, sending off an email about a work decision. Sometimes the letting go-ness of email is a blessing. There's no addressing an envelope. No walk to the mailbox. No fingers lingering at the swinging drop panel. No space for the demon of overthinking. There's just send. Done.

I have two days before returning from Spring Break. There's prep work to do. Upon return, students will be prepped for the departmental final. That means two dense essays to work through: one by Martin Luther King on civil disobedience, the other by Sarah Pike on environmental activism. The first is clear--I don't worry about students making sense of it. The second feels far away from their own experience. They're city kids concerned with day-to-day practicality. That's not to say they don't care about animal rights and trees, but sometimes those are luxury ideals.

For a few weeks I had a photo of myself posted on the right. And with that, I was unable to write. My anonymity (false--I know) was stripped away. I couldn't write while I was there, looking at myself, looking at you. Writing doesn't come easy to me--as it hasn't for the past few years. And so photo gone. Easy fix.

A lot to reckon with last week. Jewish holidays always throw me off balance. Passover has so many deep and beautiful memories attached. I couldn't shake them while having a simple Seder with friends. There was the Seder before me; the one in my mind. Like the two essays my students and I must make sense of. One so tangible (my memory Seder) One, unfamiliar and distant.

I'll end with this. I found my painting niche. I opened an "Etsy" store and am delighting in the colors and the sheer happiness of finding my niche. Because this post feels so somber, I'm including a colorful photo and a preview of what's on sale.
   

Thursday, March 23, 2017

On diversions

I was wrong. I naively thought my anxiety-filled teaching days were over. Two classes that I've taught often enough to need minimal prep and students on track--I celebrated winning the adjunct lottery! And then.

Emails from a student who is off track arrived. Please please please...please please please kept coming. As I read I was riding on an out of control bus, not stopping at intersections, swerving across lanes. And clutching onto the pole, I wondered...why do I read emails after 5:00 p.m.? After all, the student is doing what students do.

I have developed a nervous tick that relates to the immediacy of technology, that I file in the addiction bin. I noticed this when I began reading books on my ipad. The time of day appears above the text, and so when I read I got in the habit of looking at the time. Then I read a real book. What a shock to find myself looking at the top of the page for the time, for a button, for a something to click.

The other day I listened to and watched a youtube video of Tara Brach, a favorite Buddhist teacher who gives weekly talks which she tapes. I watched on my ipad while simultaneously googling on my laptop her website, and read about her other lectures. I saw the craziness. . Ah...I long for present moment peace, but I think I may be allergic to it.

I digress. My student. I'll wait until working hours. I'll take a deep breath. Not take it personally (as if!).I'll go back to sleep or paint: the two activities where I do live in the now. Where I'm blanketed in color and comfort. On the right, some new painterly doodlings. 
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Thursday, March 16, 2017

On middle of the night musings

Ah...sweet sleep. It doesn't want anything to do with me. Not this morning (evening?), as I've been up since 2:00, and in a wide-awake, forget about going-back-to-sleep way. Checking in with the demon Facebook doesn't help my cause. In fact, the political news that fills my news feed, my own timeline that I add to (just one way to release the pain of watching every civil right fall away), shocks me awake.

And so, I take my seat. Try to come up with something. I'll begin with yesterday. In the tutoring center, politics take a backseat, in fact, no seat. There is no room, and that's a relief. A few students fill the chairs around the tutoring table. An Asian student struggles to write a literary criticism essay about a story I never read. This is her second semester of English, which means she's been through the basics. But I'm at a loss as to how to help her. I'm not a trained English as a Second language teacher. As noted, I don't know the work she's writing about. The assignment is vague: write a response to the story. All the student brings to me is her essay--the one her professor returned to her with no written notes, save one: revise. I can help her with grammar. However, I think I'd be fixing more than teaching.

I'm frustrated. So is she. And that's the part that's so hard to remember when teaching. Students whose first language isn't English go through incredible brain-work, translating language, grammar rules, pronunciation and teacher's instructions. While the students may seem to be not getting it, they are miles ahead of their professors, including me.

And yet. The student bursts out crying because she feels beneath her peers. She tells me her professor asked her, How did you ever pass English 101? I have to confess. I've wondered that too when I've had students with poor English skills. But I've never said it to them. I never will.  But with that question out on the table, I finally know how to help. I tell her, if I went to school in Spain or Korea or Turkey, I'd have to drop out. All that translating and trying. I'd forget college. I couldn't do it.  She smiles and takes the tissue I offer her, although she's still tearful, doesn't believe me.

And so, yesterday at the tutoring table it was my turn to learn.  My turn to think about whether my own assignments are clear enough for non-native English speakers, whether my attitude reveals my frustration or admiration. I think it seesaws between the two. But present moment: I urge the student to visit the ESL lab, to get the help that will really teach her. She thanks me and another student arrives. 

My teaching life has settled into a comfortable routine. Two courses--have I mentioned the utter pleasure? The low low stress of it? I fill in a few hours as a tutor; that is harder work than I imagined. Each student brings a new assignment to wrap my brain around. Sometimes the hardest part is not criticizing their professor for the tangled up instructions. I believe in simplicity--I keep my assignments in the realm of realistic. I hope I'm not shortchanging students. .

It's now almost 4:00 a.m., a decent time to greet the day, at least in my world of loving the early  morning when I own the world.  Later, I will enter a lovely universe: a private school where the walls are plastered with posters.  (see right).

Monday, February 20, 2017

On tossing off the flannel

I wouldn't have thought that the movie, The Devil Wears Prada, would bring me to my knees (so to speak). Not feeling well yesterday, I binged on Lifetime movies. All I wanted was mindless entertainment, a restful way to wile away the long hours of wishing I felt better. But, alas. Life had something else in store for me.

In the movie, Andy is a journalist fresh out of school, wanting a magazine job (I relate, big time). She takes a spot way out of her league -- not better, just wildly different (still relating). She learns a lot of hard life lessons along the way about loyalty, betrayal, ethics, and...spoiler alert...ultimately she fine tunes her moral compass (relating, still). She ends up taking her seat at the write (right?) writer's desk...showing up for the work she has cherished and longed for.  She arrives where she's supposed to be.

At that moment, I burst out crying. Yes, I was wrapped up in a flannel blanket and my resistance was low. I was going nowhere. Fast. But I think what I saw in that moment is that I've been wrapped in flannel, in terms of aspirations and so many things, for a long time. I recalled that amazing-beyond-words feeling of taking my seat at the writer's desk, eons ago. I remembered the utter joy of being welcomed by editors and teachers and family and friends and mostly, myself. I knew deeper than I'd ever known anything where I belonged. What a feeling to no longer be lost.

I cried yesterday because I'd forgotten all that. I cried because I'd lost that feeling. And I cried because I wanted it back, and didn't even know I was lost, again. What was once brand new, can never be so shiny again has been my mantra. The fantastic performer Peter Allen would differ with his lyrics, Everything old is new again. And so, maybe?

Right now, George Benson's Breezin plays in my background, proving Allen's words. My favorite jazz musician of the 70s and 80s, has come back to life in my blanket-half-on-half-off world. Maybe my utterly, dizzyingly shiny new/old thing is write (right?) in front of me, no messing around, no whining that I'm not in the mood.

Argh...so hard to drag myself to the chair (which by the way I'm already sitting on). So hard to believe joy may follow. So hard to do even if joy doesn't follow. There are no guarantees, not one, not a penny's worth, when one tosses off the flannel for whatever their heart calls for.

I loved those tears I cried yesterday, the depth of emotion, the unblanketedness of it all.