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.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

On reckoning

I won't be going to the Goddard-Riverside Book Bash today, for I am having a sick day. However--if you are reading this today, I urge you to get there--brand new books from publishers at excellent prices, all to benefit the Goddard-Riverside Community Center. It's a fun event and a way to rise above what psychologist Jennifer Sweeton calls "Post-Election Stress Disorder."

I had a long conversation with a friend who has strong Buddhist leanings; she challenged me to think about recent events as an expression of a huge ache in the heart of the country. I acknowledge the existence of that ache, but how do I balance it with the heartache that  rises in my classrooms? Some of my students are concerned about immigration status--theirs, their parents and extended family. There was a walk-out at one college I teach at, and there are meetings on all campuses--administrators, faculty, students--lots of support, information, and, too, confusion. 

Where will they go from here? Where do I go? A few months back I wrote about taking yoga teacher training--today that immersion seems ever more right. However, my body tells me, not so fast. My days of contorting myself--at least physically--are done. I can study the tenets, live a yogic life of nonharm--and do so while the world around me flails. Nobody says that will be easy.

A neighbor told me I need to think about something else. He gave me a tour book of Prague. As I write "Prague" I can't help but smile. In the past weeks, I've forgotten how much I want to go back. I tuck the book on my shelf between my other awareness-raising tomes. I write mental notes: don't forget the world is huge. Don't take for granted the freedoms of this very moment. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

On disappointment

Eight years ago when Barack Obama became President, my classes were jubilant. It was pure joy to listen to my students, mostly Hispanics and African Americans, say that now they know they can do anything. That was a moment when I understood I had a job of meaning and worth. To be listener, as their faces and voices alighted with joy, was one happiness atop another.

Yesterday was a very different day. But, hey, this is New York City, and we expected--no hungered for--a different outcome--and felt a stark collective pain. I am veering from my decree to keep this blog a "safe zone" a non-election forum, I know. But I can't today, separate myself from the realities of the external world and their impact on my internal self and my teaching self.

Class began at 8:00, which means I left home at 7:00, filled with the night's revelations, not enough time to downward dog it away. We got right on task: research papers. I told my class, "please don't take it personally if I'm short with you. I'm very sad." They were sad, too. No one was short with anyone. My second class was not so mellow. "What do you want me to write?" a student asked, in response to a note that she needed to write a fuller introduction. She was exasperated; so was I. Another student told me "You're ruining my desire to write." We're not supposed to push grammar--It's hard to not take issue with confusing commas and periods. Maybe there's something deep there. Maybe I need to put a comma at the end of this election fiasco. A period is unthinkable. 

It's hard to teach when feeling despair. It's hard to tell students opportunities they haven't yet dreamed, still await. It's hard to tell students, it will be ok, when I feel so un-ok inside. But I did my best. I did my job. I retreated from commas and periods.

I wonder what kind of teacher this new climate will make me. I feel a protest song coming on, something by Woody Guthrie, a name I haven't thought of in years. I saw Beautiful finally--Carole King's early life story. The soundtrack to my young life enthralled me, brought me joy and tears. I need to see it again, asap. Return to hope, to a cleaner time. I'm not ready to move on.

Friday, October 28, 2016

On practice

My community college students are beginning their research papers. As a community college grad, I feel a kinship to them. In my own educational journey, I had planned to get a job after high school and be done with the whole thing. But all my friends were going on to college; I felt lost and confused. And so, with a not-so-great standing in my high school years (save for English), I applied and was accepted into Kingsborough as a secretarial major.

Many of my CC students are struggling through our English Comp class (fyi, 4-year students struggle too), which is the last class on their agenda of what they want to study. I understand struggle in those years, to wonder if CC is the first step or the last. For me, it was the last, until ten years later when I returned for a BA, the most challenging endeavor, because I wasn't an academic. I was just an unfinished girl/woman who wanted a degree.

My students and I slog through lessons on how to write a thesis--something that took me hours (and hours!) to learn. We repeat these words parrot-like: a thesis isn't a question; a thesis goes at the end of an introduction. And then I get papers that have a thesis as a first sentence, sometimes with a question mark, and I pause to wonder, how did this happen?

Then I took a watercolor class last Saturday. My goal was to paint a scene of birds, something I was copying from a Trader Joe's greeting card. My birds were a labored mess. I turned to my teacher, Joan, and said, I bet you can do this in one brushstroke. She smiled, and said, two. Then she showed me. Tip of the brush to the paper, lay it flat and brush up, like a leaf stroke. So simple. And yet, I had practiced tons of leaf strokes in Joan's absolute beginner class. But there I was: leaf stroke?

After a terrible attempt at copying the exact image, Joan told me to use just one color. And she said: leaf strokes. I was relieved. Basic steps that I could successfully do. After dozens of blue strokes, I attempted birds, all in blue. Then I attempted colors. In the photo above, Joan's bird is lower left. The last of my dozens follow, until ultimately a pretty decent rendition, lower right.

I brought my practice-birds to class on Monday. I passed them around and the class laughed. They also saw where I was going: I'm terrible at watercolor, and when I leave my teacher, I'm lost. Even though I watched and listened, carefully. And so, I practice. I try not to get down on myself, although if you look close you'll note I tore out Joan's bird. I was going to keep that and throw all my terrible work away. And then I saw the lesson in my lesson.

I'm reminded of Anne Lamott's classic book on writing, Bird by Bird. One at a time. Whatever it is. Leaf strokes. A thesis. A lesson. Demonstrate. Repeat. And again.