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.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

On catching up

It's been too long since I've checked in here; I apologize, mostly to myself. It is in this space that I take inventory, piece together the different aspects of my life, find a coherent whole. And this process is always nurturing. Yet, I've squandered this time, obsessing over politics (and not in a good way) and looking over my shoulder at decisions past, until I'm a pillar of salt.

Ah...moving forward. I've settled into my new work routine of teaching only two courses at one college. I am finally on the road to being the teacher I've tried to be -- focused and present for my students. The difference in having an allegiance to one college as opposed to three is profound, at least in adjunctville, the town where I reside. Emails from students arrive in my inbox, and I smile. They care about their grade. They ask about assignments. They explain absences. They use commas and periods correctly! No lowercase i, which would drive me hugely ( bigly?) crazy.

Teaching two classes at one school (did I mention, only!) is akin to living on another career universe. My mind doesn't reel from worries of what I need to do, didn't do or incorrectly did. I'm not a well of resentment...(adjuncts, you understand). On non-teaching days, I sub at a lovely little private school, where students call me Sandy, tell me I'm their favorite sub (I know, it's butter, but still...), ask for my help with their essays, and I take home zero papers, write zero plans. Thus far, it's all working; evil eye, kenehura, we're very well acquainted. It's time for you to look elsewhere--or better, close that eye. For good.

Last weekend I went to a rally for immigrants' rights. I'm proud to say, I stood in the rain with hundreds of others, holding a sign in one hand and an umbrella in the other. I was there with HIAS, an organization I love. Its values and work are close to my heart: support for Syrian and all immigrants. If my students held up their country's flags, we'd be a sea of colors. I would hold two--the country where I was born in and the one that holds a piece of my heart.


Alas...I have found a way to segue to thoughts of my summer trip. I've begun to take mental excursions away from the political mess to the second half of my soul's journey. Last summer it was Prague with a day into the greater Czech Republic (at right). This summer I'm thinking of (note: I didn't yet commit...) Slovakia. I hear Bratislava is an Eastern European gem. My compass aims there; the jury is still out on the remainder. Back to Prague is a strong contender. We'll see. (Evil eye, you've been remanded. Just in case (and I always prepare for Just-in-case), my mother bequeathed me anti-evil eye potions.)

Saturday morning calls. My NIA teacher ends each class by saying "Take three steps into your day." And so, I begin.
      

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

On the brain/mind dilemma


In the early days of my teaching life, I read an essay with my class, "The Mind's Eye" by Oliver Sacks. In it, he asked, "does the brain control the mind, or does the mind control the brain?" It was a wonderful question to chew on and dissect, and too, in full disclosure, it was the first time I had thought of the brain and mind as separate and distinct. My class and I didn't come to a certain thesis about it, in spite of Sacks' numerous examples of people he'd met who were clinically blind, yet continued to see vivid images. I'm being vague, because I don't quite recall the fine tunings of the essay. What I do recall is asking people for a long time after what they thought, tossing out the question as though it were a party ice breaker. I may have been flippant, but I wanted a solid truth.

I'm thinking about this now, because I'm certain it is my mind that is desperate for sleep at 1:17 a.m., but my brain is flooded with way too much thought. There is no question. Brain in the driver's seat. Mind a cranky baby strapped in for the ride.

In addition to brain on "acid" is the artifice of light rain on my rooftop, made possible by a sleep tape, which my brain (and mind!) aren't fooled by for a second. For one, I have a ceiling, not a rooftop, and two, there is no rain pinging my windows. Outside, the night is quiet, dry, with an occasional whoosh of traffic.

I'm thinking too much, too intensely about other people's plights, shared with me tonight in emails and phone calls. A friend stuck in a job he hates. I wanted to tell him to quit, but didn't. Another friend having a parent/child issue that makes me squirm. Loosen the reigns, a voice inside screamed. And then I caved and said it.

I suffer when I don't say what I'm thinking...not in a rude, bossy way, just, let's say, gentle honesty (I would guess my mind cares much more about this.) My brain tells me I'm thinking about other people because my own life needs attention (circa therapy 101). I'm scared. I've avoided the newspapers since the start of the year. My mind can't take it in. My brain is parked at the curb, empty.

I miss the rhythm of work. Not the stress, but the space it took up in my brain/mind.  I've returned to painting and have focussed for the past two (3?) days on birds. The photo to the left is a hummingbird by fellow student and painter, Lindsay Wright. She loaned it to me, so that I could practice and get back to finding my own technique. On the right are my renditions.

For the record, my brain did the work. My mind had a good time.and didn't judge. Then I went off the program and painted this on slippery, yupo paper. My friend tells me it is creatures arising from a gelatin gooey substance. Interpretations are so much more interesting than the real thing, in this case, flowers.

Monday, December 26, 2016

On agitation

I've been following Dan Rather on Facebook, which is how I came upon this quote: "To live in freedom, one must grow used to a life full of agitation, change and danger," by Alexis de Tocqueville   Rather found this in an article on politics through the ages, and today. I don't mean for this to be a post about Rather (or politics), but I'll share that his sane voice is pure comfort in the midst of what looms ahead: "...a life full of agitation, change and danger." Will the freedoms Americans have luxuriated in, remain? i-confess. I'm scared and agitated.   

In my personal life, I'm on slow simmer. I'm in the process of mixing and matching a new work life, one aligned with a more peaceful existence.The irony is that leaving a job of agitation before finding a replacement is another state of anxiety. There is the relief of a thought-out decision finally made. I believe fully something better will fill it. But it won't just show up. My friend tells me "you're standing in the hallway." One door closed, the other yet a mystery. Not stuck, but not fluid either.

As I write, Tara Brach's podcast "The Sacred Pause" plays in the background. It is impossible to write this and listen, really pause to listen. Words fly around me as my fingers hit the keyboard: don't react, spaces between, on automatic, except that this blog is my pause. It's where I settle into my feelings, or they settle into me. I want to figure out the freedom part of the quote. Is danger a euphemism for getting through uncertainty? Do we throw everything up in the air and see where it all lands? Pray for the best.

In my memoir class of eons ago one exercise was to cut up each page we had written, paragraph by paragraph. Toss the strips of paper, then tape them as they fell. There--a memoir in puzzle form, which in a way, is what a memoir is. The pieces can always be rearranged, long after its written, read, tucked away in the back of the closet. 

I'm rambling. In the four weeks before school starts up, I need to learn something new or improve my skills at something old. Too much time is my particular devil's workshop. Thinking: I get frustrated when students don't grapple too long with ideas. And yet, for me, thinking can be its own danger when I allow my thoughts to gallop through me.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

On endings

i-confess. I am addicted to Facebook. At 1:00 a.m., unable to sleep, I turn on the computer--not a good idea in the realm of insomnia--and feed (devour) my news feed. It's gotten so that anything other than political dialogue holds zero appeal. I know this isn't a good thing, and yet...I'm at the mercy of my untamed mind. I've begun to call my FB friends, Comrade. But enough of that.

Lots going on in my teaching life. As the semester draws to a close, I'm filled with anxiety. Final grades for two schools--nabbing students missing work, questioning legitimacy (i.e. plagiarism) of last minute papers, upholding academic rigor and standards, while getting it all done so that I can get it all done and breathe.

In that realm, I took some bold steps. I cut back for the spring from three schools to one. I put all my proverbial eggs in one basket and hope for the best. I chose to stay with the school whose agenda is most organic to me. That means essays, essays and more essays. They are the most gratifying to teach and tap my strength. Strength is a good thing when facing down upwards of 50 freshman. If you've never done it, trust me on this. (on right, favorite diner at the now-former school).

But with that comes sadness, looking over my shoulder, questioning. For I'm leaving a school (for now) where I've had my longest tenure and have a group of colleagues turned friends. Will we still see each other? We've managed to do so after hours for the past few years...I hope we make the effort. At my school where I'll be teaching, it's a come and go world with an enormous student body and even more enormous staff. (on left, futuristic view, with all students gone for break).

On the upside, I have time to look for other work, to get back to writing, to pursue my newfound interest in fundraising, to use my letter-writing skills for more than sending Letters to Editors that don't get published (at least not most of them).

Ah...sleep. Tomorrow (or is today?) we're watching The Joy Luck Club at 8:30 a.m. in school #3. The movie rattles me; its emotional manipulation in the realm of mother/daughter relationships, wipes me out. Sometimes there is nothing like a good cry. These days and times seem to call for it. 


.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

On making sense

When I posted the Kierkegaard quote to the right, I was thinking of my personal writing, which was based on looking back and how it had helped me to live forward in a happier way. But that was my life--which I have a modicum of control over. Then there's the world; no matter how much I talk with others, there is only momentary relief. I would like to have a fireside chat with Mr. Kierkegaard. For, looking back at yesterday (I'm talking Election, here) --makes today murkier; understanding shifts and gets lost with each new perspective.
 
Today is a holiday. Time out from all that disrupts me. And yet, my mind spins. My classes are suffering; we focus on our work. Research papers, which many scramble to update with election results, are hard to pin down. Their papers on such topics as transgender, immigration, gender roles, racism, will all be greatly affected by sweeping policy changes. And so will some of them, personally. We guess at what will occur, but how can we when each day rises and falls, tidal waves that never settle. Credible journalists wrap their pens around each new nuance; but what they wrote yesterday, flails today, will do somersaults next week.

In two of my classes we're prepping for a final exam based on New York. One of our readings, EB White's "Here is New York" is an ode to the possibilities in this city, he clearly loved and loved writing about. There are three New Yorks he says: the one belonging to the natives, people like me who have always been here--we take its offerings for granted. New York two is the commuter's New York--here for the day to work and get what can be gotten, and then leave it behind for neater quarters. And then New York three--White's clear favorite--the passionate, adventurous emigres who bring desire and poetry and longing and grit.

As we discussed this in class yesterday, I couldn't help but think will we revert to two New Yorks? Emigres  from only our US boundaries? Or, are there more than three? Four five six New Yorks? White's essay was written in 1949, two years after my parents arrived from Eastern Europe. Survivors of religious persecution, my mother eight months pregnant with my brother--their New York was bittersweet. It represented new life, new chances, tons of grit. But so much had been lost. Passion, adventure, poetry--years away.

Today, New York is a stranger in a strange land. Journalists look back and try to make sense of why we are on a ship with a mercurial captain, Yet we live forward at the same time. Will we get a pass to disembark? Nothing stays the same. I give up on making sense.