Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sunday Morning, Cuers, France

in the process of clearing out an upstairs room and getting rid of several years' worth of essays and research from students, I came across a batch of poems I wrote in the late 90s and thought I should let see the light of day (quite literally). I'll present 1 every little 1ce in a while. this one is a poem written about a mass killing in france.

Sunday Morning, Cuers, France

You'd have thought he was hunting birds,

each shot placed just so on an imaginary horizon,

each shot made to count. He worked with the precision of the practiced hunter,

which is what I took him for when he ambled past my shop.

He walked calmly. He wasn't in a hurry. The rifle

cradled in his arms, as if he were working out the best place to find pheasants.

The first to go, of course, was his family--parents, brother--bludgeoned with a hammer,

the way you take care of extra kittens. Why leave them the shame?

An old widow walked her dog on the opposite walk. Her husband had fought

with DeGaulle at Lucerne. I happened to look as a rose opened below her eye.

She dipped to pull up a stocking. Then she was down.

He shot the dog too, although no one seems to have noticed that.

There was a man with a limp, a regular customer of mine,

who preferred the smell of loose tobacco to cigars or cigarettes;

he dove through the glass door of the cafe a little harder than necessary

and went right through the glass. He did not get up.

Even then I had not placed the boy with the rifle.

There was no sound, I saw it all from the window of my shop

as a pantomime. Even then I had not thought to tell anyone what was happening.

It all seemed so familiar. My own boyhood in the fields outside Cuers had included

just this flush, this flash and drop; but here there was no retrieval.

He was well-placed beside the war monument in the square.

One woman, who had bokught a packet of chewing gum from me, and her friend,

ducked, I thought to hide. But when it was all over they stayed put too.

Finally, another man, who played boules with the pensioners for beer,

dropped his ball and his stance. Absurdly, I thought, That's surely a poor way to bowl.

Sure enough, the ball swooped, swung wide, rolled into the street.

The old man lay on his back, looking at the sky. His lips fluttered.

The boy stepped over. He was very calm, very poised.

He put the gun to his shoulder, held his gun steady, adjusted his aim

and fired. The old man's lips were gone, and much of that portion of his face.

Then it was over. The boy moved on, chose the seclusion behind a delivery van

to put the rifle in his own mouth. People cluttered the streets like feathers after a storm.

When I turned to the telephone, I could not open my fists to pick it up.

(photo: eric borel, the shooter)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

what bothers me

this has bothered me all afternoon. after church this morning I stopped at a grocery where I knew I could buy a sunday new york times. I'd stepped in and picked up a copy and was in the process of joining the line to pay for it when something happening just a few yards to the left of me caught my attention.

a cashier had apparently caught a young boy of about 10 or 12 shoplifting, or failing at shoplifting, and caught up with him outside and walked him in a few moments behind me. she wasn't berating him badly or being abusive. she was the only one talking loud enough of the 2 of them for me to hear and I caught her saying, "I know you're heading for the register, I'm heading with you to the register," and "do you have enough money to pay for that? so you are going to pay for it?" I couldn't see what the "it" was, but from the way she held it in her hand I figure it was a small can of soda or maybe a candy bar.

I left before the drama played itself out--she was calling for someone to come over to the register as I paid and stepped back out--and there wasn't a reason I needed to see the kid humiliated. as a person who has done his share of theft, including shoplifting, I'm not anyone to have proferred advice in the situation. except perhaps to tell the kid you don't wear a black hoodie with the hood up if you're a tween planning a snatch & grab--you might as well wear a sign around your neck saying, "gonna do something, here."

here's what bothers me. the area around there is a mix of housing projects and typical suburban houses. I was in bloomington, mn, which is 1 of those odd quickly-building suburbs in the hub that was farmland in recent memory--the church where I am finishing my internship was a seed congregation only 30-some years ago made up primarily of commuters from minneapolis. the place is filling in more quickly than a community ought to and so everyone, middle and lower class and a few upper middle class, live cheek by jowl. so the kid could have been shoplifting for 1 of 2 reasons: he was a stereotypical middle class white kid (and he was white) looking for thrills or he was making a grab at something he couldn't afford (I never heard the outcome to whether he had the money to pay for "it").

what bothers me is that my reaction changes depending on which kid he is. if he's able to afford it, I say good on the cashier: he's taking part in a traditional attempt of kids to test their boundaries and he's not getting away with it and the humiliation of being caught and marched back inside and made to pay might be enough to keep him on the straight and narrow later. who knows, had this happened with ken lay decades ago enron might have had a different ending.

but if he's not able to afford it my reaction's different. I've lifted because of inability to pay for the food I wanted to eat--admittedly, with greater finesse--and I ask myself, if I'd known the kid couldn't pay, would I step forward and offer to pay for him? the answer is yes, and that is what bothers me. is it right that my response depends on the kid's situation? shouldn't theft be theft, no matter the circumstances? if I'd been caught, there would not have been anyone to step forward to pay for me, and I'd have been lucky to only have been humiliated. is it different because he's a kid? am I more lenient because I'm not a kid?

this is a hopelessly complicated reaction to an event that took only a few moments time and to which I don't know much more than the middle. but I think it's in entertaining these complications and rounding back on ourselves to try to examine them more closely that we participate in humanity, having a relationship even with cashiers and kids we never meet.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

wednesday night reading

"there is a time in a reader's life when books are inhaled and absorbed into the body. they become the body of who you are. between the ages of 17 and 22, I gulped down writers. I read them fast and whole, something like a snake swallowing its prey, and I read everything they wrote, 1 book after another, trying to steal their souls or, more nicely, become who they were. starting with 19th century literature, I read ralph waldo emerson, henry david thoreau, and walt whitman. particularly, I read whitman, in love with the physical world and finding divinity everywhere, for whom 'a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillion infidels' and a gnat sufficient explanation. I could as easily have read william wordsworth or alfred tennyson."

I could as easily have written this, having done exactly the same and at the same time of my life. except the authors I would have named are maxwell grant, kenneth robeson (/paul ernst), fritz leiber, terrance dicks and malcolm hulke, don pendleton, h.p. lovecraft, and the multiple authors of the weird heroes series. the only writer whose work I read at that time who has joined the canon is kurt vonnegut, and I stopped reading him when he stopped getting weird (also when jerry lewis made a movie of one of his novels; that was simply too much.)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

by george and eddie

because I've been reading, at random, pages out of the collection by george by george s. kaufman, I'm setting out the following short anecdote about him:

Eddie Fisher once appeared on a television program during which entertainers sought romantic, spiritual, and other miscellaneous guidance from a group of panelists (among them the noted wit George S. Kaufman). Fisher's complaint concerned a certain chorus girl who refused to go out with him on account of his age.

"Mr. Fisher," Kaufman advised, "on Mount Wilson there is a telescope that can magnify the most distant stars up to twenty-four times the magnification of any previous telescope. This remarkable instrument was unsurpassed in the world of astronomy until the development and construction of the Mount Palomar telescope - an even more remarkable instrument of magnification. Owing to advances and improvements in optical technology, it is capable of magnifying the stars to four times the magnification and resolution of the Mount Wilson telescope."

Here Kaufman paused, surveying the puzzled faces around him. "Mr. Fisher," he continued, "if you could somehow put the Mount Wilson telescope inside the Mount Palomar telescope, you still wouldn't be able to detect my interest in your problem."

of no connection except for an accident of the language, george kaufman was also the name of the late bassist for the nails, a punk group of the mid-80s with a single, much-loved song: "88 lines about 44 women."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

lion's teeth

today I attended the annual flower communion at dakota uu church. this is traditionally the final service uu churches hold before their summer break. (why do uus stop meeting for the summer? because they're the only ones god can let out of god's sight for 3 months.) I didn't read the following homily at the service but I have at past services at other congregations and I was reminded of its message in the half-blooming lilac I shared.

“Lion’s Teeth”

Yes, that is a common dandelion I’ve contributed to this morning’s flower communion. Taraxacum officinale. We all recognize it because it’s as omnipresent and indestructible as love.
I’d like to tell you why I’ve included this weed rather than the lilacs and irises and peonies and other such more conventional flowers I’ve been putting real effort into. The dandelion is the cockroach of flora. They existed long before our species rose up from the proverbial swamp and after we return to the dust they will continue to be here.

The name “dandelion,” which I’d always assumed referred to the yellow mane of the flower and its propensity for vanity, actually comes from the French dents de lion, “teeth of the lion,” and refers instead to the deeply serated rosette of leaves that poke up from billions of lawns, in abandoned lots, between the cracks in concrete, in the clefts of mountain crags and skyscrapers, and sometimes tufting out of the useless chimneys of houses where no hearths have burned in decades. They are perennial and rely on bees and flies to pollinate, and when they’re ready, the wind carries their seeds on tiny parachutes to new places. Sometimes they fly as much as several hundred meters. They do not need us at all.

Dandelions are often used as a medicine, usually involved with blood, the liver, and gall bladder. Its juices aids detoxification and bile flow, promotes lactation and the immune system, and helps reduce eczema and cough and asthma. The root can be dried and ground up and added to coffee, like its close relative chicory, and the leaves are often delicious in salads (although I’ll admit I have to add a lot of butter to make them palatable). And most of us are of an age when we have had dandelion wine.

Had Jesus been born in, say, Kansas rather than in the Middle East, the Sermon on the Mount might have included the following:

"No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? …Consider the [dandelions,] how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?...therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day."

Now don’t mistake all this information for anything like love for the dandelion. I relish nothing more this time of year than to walk barefoot among my lawns, swiping the heads off these parasites with a few well-aimed kung fu kicks. There is a deep, satisfying, bottom-of-the-gut joy that comes with yanking a 3 foot long dandelion root from my gardens. Few things are as pleasurable as watching the beasts disappear under the deck of my lawnmower. I do not love the dandelion. I tolerate the dandelion.

Because, try as I might to eradicate it, the dandelion remains a part of my life as much as a part of my landscape. I cannot escape its existence. I mow and weed and even spray the lawns, and still they come back up.

That, you see, is their unique power. And that, you see, is what we must do.

There have been any number of conversations among us, both here on Sunday mornings and between individuals and in UU World and on websites and in newspaper columns, commenting on who and what we are as religious liberals in a time of religious fundamentalist ascendancy. The odds, everyone is quick to point out, are against us. The time has not come in which we are hunted down and killed for our pelts like mink or seal, but that time may come.

This is what we need to do. We are entering a period of our church history during which two possible things could happen: we remain in a standard orbit until the force of gravity pulls on us and we crash and burn in a decade or less; or we make important, painful, and, yes, even dangerous—dangerous in the sense that anything worth doing is dangerous—decisions that may—and I repeat may—keep us alive as a religion and a congregation that our children and their children will be proud to join. Like all good liberals, our natural reaction when threatened has been to turn on one another, to cluster more deeply into a core ball of the elect, the ones we trust, and the others we aren’t so sure of. But my hope is that we emulate the dandelion—stubbornly resistive to any attempt to root us out, to burn us out, and even to the natural tendency of entropy to crumble us from within.

Our messages—that it is better to be alive than to be dead, that to treat anyone as less than the glorious being that he or she is is itself an evil, that children and the people we’re responsible for need safe food and safe water and safe places to live, and that these are not starry-eyed ideals but necessities—must be heard. We must endure for these messages to be heard. We must become ubiquitous and obnoxious, unwilling to be pressed from our perch, willing to grow quietly beside the more beautiful and cozened strawberry and rose and lily so to suck up some of their excess nutrient and water until we can elbow those more popular petals aside to take the place we’ve earned. To endure we need to be as tough, as resilient, and as uncompromising as the common dandelion.

Monday, May 16, 2011

this is a mashup I've done for my course in older testament. the assignment was, attending to my audience, come up with a presentation on some aspect of the hebrew bible. I chose to present wisdom literature and sophia to a UU congregation. below the video is a quick explication of the images used.

“A short celebration of the Sophia in us all”
Shot 1: A manipulated image from Anvari
A responsive reading from Thandaka
Shot 2: A woman sits crying in the ruins of an apartment building in the aftermath of a Russian bombing attack in Gori, Georgia
Shot 3: A child appreciates the rain
Shot 4: “Walking Woman” sculpture (1960s) by Michael Snow
Shot 5: A junkie in an alley in Amsterdam
Shot 6: Shortly after France passed its law banning full facial coverings, including niqabs, a female lawyer, taking offense at another shopper’s appearance in full burqua, tried to rip the woman’s veil off
Shot 7: “Bliss Dance” sculpture made and disassembled at Burning Man 2010
Shot 8: Graffito by Banksy on the Israeli-Palestinian separation wall
Shot 9: Artsy pic from Google
“Get It While You Can” by Janis Joplin, particularly reflective of Ecclesiastes 9:7-10 and Proverbs 4:7
Shot 10: A blow up of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls
Shot 11: Body painting by Chelsea Rose from her website
Shot 12: The Questioner of the Sphinx by Elihu Vedder (1863)
Shot 13: The Goddess of Wisdom (Saraswati) by Om Prakash Saini (2008)
Shot 14: A 3 dimensional model of a carbon molecule
Shot 15: A seedling growing from a mortuary bench
Shot 16: “Moon Flower Opening” (not time-lapse) from Timeforross on Youtube
Shot 17: Buddhist monks eating in Bangkok
Shot 18: Chitra Lele, a Hindu priest
Shot 19: Aminda Wadud, a German imam
Shot 20: Jain monks in India
Film clip 1: Alanis Morissette as God in Kevin Smith’s Dogma smelling flowers and doing a handstand
Film clip 2: Linda Fiorentino as Bethany and Alanis Morissette as God; Bethany’s final facial expression shows her uncertainty about God’s response
Aldredge-Clanton, Jann. 1995. In Search of the Christ-Sophia: An Inclusive Christology for Liberating Christians. Twenty-Third Publications; Mystic, CN.
Brueggemann, Walter. 2003. An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination. Westminster John Knox Press; Louisville, KY.
Ceresko, Anthony. 2005. Introduction to the Old Testament: A Liberation Perspective. Orbis Books; Maryknoll, NY.
New Oxford Annotated Bible. 2007. NRSV. Oxford University Press; Oxford.
Newsom, Carol and Sharon Ringe, Ed. 1998. Women’s Bible Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press; Louisville, KY.
Thandaka. 1993. “The Legacy of Caring.” In Singing the Living Tradition. Beacon Press; Boston.

Van Voorst, Robert. 1994. Anthology of World Scriptures. Wadsworth Publishing; Belmont, CA.

Monday, May 9, 2011

trumpers wood snail

it rained most of the morning, a long, slogging downpour, and after it ended around noon there was a lovely lull when the wind died down and the air was crisp. so I took my dogs for a long walk on the trail next to our house.

the trail is a former railroad and was restructured years ago by the local snowmobile club into a gravel horse and bike trail in the summer, and groomed for snowmobiles in the winter. this last winter was one of the few in the decade-plus we've lived here when we had deep enough precipitation to accomadate the machines, and they used it every moment they could. last spring the rains washed out huge swaths of it, including the bridge made from railties a few miles down the trail, but replacement fill was trucked in and in the year since it has been made solid so that unless you look at the places where trees were washed away you could not tell.

at any rate, in the woods coming back I came across a beautiful snail slowly walking across the path. I was surprised--I hadn't seen snails here although plenty of slugs in my gardens. this one was beautiful and banded and its shell looked like it had been lathed out of mahogany. I picked it up and it sunk so deep into its shell so fast that if I hadn't known it was in there, the weightlessness of the package would have convinced me it was empty. I was intrigued enough to look up how snails develop their shells. I put it back down almost exactly where I'd plucked it from and went on.

teach naked 2

in reading my texts for older testament this week, which included both job and ecclesiastes, I remembered I'd used both as texts for separate sermons I'd delivered. I went to search them out and have not found the sermon on job, but did find the one for ecclesiastes. it surprised me. I'd imagined it was one of the sermons I'd written in the past few years on education but it turned out to be a guest sermon I'd done for my wife's congregation about 5 years ago. I'm including it here as part of my "teach naked" series of posts.

A Sermon Delivered to the United
Church of Christ, Menomonie
, July 30, 2006

In 1987, when the violence that was always simmering bubbled over, I badly beat a drinking buddy over what he had done to someone else, and while I was never punished legally for it, it caused me in 1988 to place myself in seclusion among the gentlest people I could find, and attend spring sesshin among the Buddhists at Dhammapada, a monastery in Montreal. I was put to work cleaning the kitchens and weeding the gardens. I shaved my head, although it wasn’t required, and attended daily zazen and weekly koan with the abbot.

He was a little Japanese fellow come to Canada after World War II, sort of a rounder, fuller version of Sogyal Rinpoche. In Big Indian Mountain, near Woodstock, we had a former monk turned restaurateur named Rudi for whom he was almost an exact match. Monasteries are little places, just like everywhere else only more so, and nothing gets beyond the abbot’s notice. One day during our interview he let me know he was aware I had been engaged in less than purely spiritual dalliances with two other attendees. I stammered out a half-explanation, half-apology, and he simply put up a hand. “You have a tendency to,” and here he used a rather graphic term for an activity other than spiritual intercourse, “everyone that you see. I’d like you to really do that with everything you see. Pay very, very close attention to everything going on around you. Open your eyes to everything.”

I suppose that’s one reason I’m drawn to the Evanescence song “Bring Me to Life,” from which my title is taken. When people complain in my hearing that kids today have no sense of the sacred or the transcendent in their arts, I remind them first of our own generation’s great tradition of spiritual reflection as represented by songs like “Lovely Rita, Meter Maid” and “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” and then I point to this song, among others. Amy Lee, who is the songwriter and powerful voice behind this group, wails the refrain like a chained banshee. “Wake me up inside/Save me/Call my name and save me from the dark/Save me from the nothing I’ve become.” To whom does she make this request? To god? Perhaps. In the words of Ernest Hemingway, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” In his book, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X, Thomas Beaudoin makes clear that, as he puts it, “ambiguity is central to faith.”

This ambiguity Beaudoin focuses on might seem in direct conflict with the Bible, with its constant repetition of “have faith,” “be faithful,” “trust God.” To quote Sam Harris, “Where faith really pays its dividends…is in the conviction that the future will be better than the past, or at least not worse. Consider the celebrated opinion of Julian of Norwich…who distilled the message of the Gospels in the memorable sentence ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ The allure of most religious doctrines is nothing more sublime or inscrutable than this: Things will turn out well in the end.”

If this is the case, and I submit it is for the greater part, then the book of Ecclesiastes is, like Job, the rude flatulence in the face of the pious. To quote Ken Davis, “Anyone who thinks the Bible is a simplistic book offering pat answers to challenging questions hasn’t read…Ecclesiastes [which refutes] those orthodox and fundamentalist Bible believers who condemn anyone who dares to question god or the divine plan. While much of the Hebrew scripture depicts an orderly universe in which the faithful can find hope even in the most desperate moments, Ecclesiastes…is a searching, skeptical book…[that] not only accepts the uncomfortable questions, it honors them.” Ecclesiastes would seem to counsel Amy Lee against asking for salvation from god. “Fear god,” the ecclesiast tells her and us.

The book has come down to us as Ecclesiastes, or the Preacher, from the Greek ekklesiastes, but its original Hebrew title, Qoheleth, which appears nowhere else in the Bible, means “assembler or leader of a congregation” and is more accurately translated as Teacher. I prefer the latter title, not simply because I’m a teacher myself, but also in concert with the traditional concept of the rabbi as the teacher of the ways of god and of Jesus’ role as a rabbi himself. When the rabbis who assembled the canon of what became the Old Testament came to deliberate, they initially rejected its inclusion—its skeptical nature and smart-alecky, sarcastic tone (“vanity of vanities,” “there is nothing new under the sun”) testified against it. However, its attribution to Solomon (since discredited) and the later addition of the phrase “fear god and keep his commandments” ultimately swayed them in its favor. Quoting Lawrence Boadt in Reading the Old Testament, “It was fortunate that they recognized its inspired message, for it teaches the great gulf between the transcendent god and our human striving to understand and so control him. In the end, Ecclesiastes’ message is one with that of Job—trust and surrender yourself to god’s loving care even if you cannot know where it will lead.”

Trust and surrender. In the Koran, the holy book of the religion whose very word means “trusting surrender”—Islam—we read in Sura 33 a paragraph strikingly similar to the opening of today’s Ecclesiastes reading: “Oh you who believe! Be careful of your duty to Allah and speak the right word. He will put your deeds into a right state for you, and forgive you your faults; and whoever obeys Allah and his disciple, he indeed achieves a mighty success.” But Ecclesiastes follows up its recital of what we must do with its two word admonition that sends a chill through my spine: “Fear god.” “Fear god.” Not “love god, trust god, surrender to god, hold god’s hand while you cross the street,” but “fear god.” I have a great deal of trouble with those two words. Not to seem too smug, but what do I have to fear from god? I mean, look at this. I am a white man in contemporary America. I can go anywhere I choose, but my entertainment is usually delivered right into my home, which in this heat is kept at a pretty cool 80 degrees. I have a good-paying job whose wages keep me solidly in the middle class, but even if I lost that I’ve got enough skills and talent that I can find something to keep me afloat. I live in a place where my greatest fear is not bombs or random shootings but the annual sweep of tornadoes, and I can pretty confidently avoid them. I have enough to eat and more than enough that I’m comfortable giving some of it away. When I walk my dogs in the morning or when I head out to work or even when I walk the several blocks to where I park my car at night, I’m in no danger of being hurt and even the people who I meet are either deferential or, at worst, ignore me. What reason do I have to fear god? “Fear god?” Hell, god and I seem pretty tight.

Maybe that’s as it should be. Maybe my obligation is not to fear god but to help to spread this sort of comfort with god to everyone else, to help make the world so that everyone can walk its paths with impunity, so that everyone can feel safe in her home, so that everyone can be cool and warm in his shelter, so everyone’s wage is a livable one. In his biography, God, Jack Miles refers to this as god the puzzle and to the Ecclesiast or the Teacher as “a protophilosopher, a seeker after wisdom who has looked with skepticism on many of the ordinary pursuits of mankind and has begun to look with skepticism on traditional wisdom itself, not excluding the special kind of wisdom that tries to cope with skepticism by a retreat to the would-be subphilosophic business of just living a life. There is a quiet and appealing resignation in some of Eccliastes’ speeches, but his judgment on his own speeches is that they are futile, and one believes he is not feigning his rather frequently expressed loathing of life.” This Teacher points out that, if you can’t take it with you and you must leave it behind, of what use is it to you? Best to give it away, whatever “it” is.

Sounds appealing. But then of course I turn on the TV or open the paper or look on the website and I see what’s going on. Just this week, over 400 people in Lebanon have been killed by Israeli bombing, including two UN observers. In Israel, over 50 people have been killed by suicide bombers and random shootings. Abdallah Deerow Isaq, Somilia’s Constitution and Federalism Minister, was assassinated as he left Friday’s prayers at his favorite mosque. In Bangladesh, a middle-aged man was attacked with acid thrown in his face and chest; his assault brings the number of victims, over 2000 of whom have been women, to 270 this last calendar year, including a one-month old boy forced to drink acid. The Reverend Simon Thomas of Hythe, England, minister at Hythe’s United Reformed Church, was sentenced to life in prison on 35 counts of child abuse, including two counts of raping an 11 year old boy. And closer to home, as I speak Seattle police are ranged among the city’s mosques and temples, protecting worshipers after Naveed Afzal Haq, an American Pakistani Muslim, attacked women at the Jewish Federation Building Friday. How, in the face of all this, do I fear god? I should sooner fear other people. The Koran reinforces this, god telling us in Surrah II, “so surely there will come to you a guidance from me, then whoever follows my guidance, no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve,” and tells us in the 23rd Surrah rather “seek refuge” in god from the evils of men.

Miles points out that “Ecclesiastes neither curses not blesses god but only finds him incomprehensible…” Perhaps the fault lies not in the words of the Teacher but in the way I read them. “Fear god,” he tells us. Amy Lee repeats “save me, wake me up.” If, like the Teacher, I am not to praise or condemn god but to accept the choice in the way things are done, perhaps my fear is misplaced if I fear god; perhaps what I am meant to fear is god’s effect on me.

Amy Lee impels whoever she addresses “save me, wake me up, I’ve been sleeping a thousand years it seems, got to open my eyes to everything.” The Teacher tells us, “to draw near to listen is better than to offer the fools’ sacrifice. Be not rash with your heart…let your words be few…Pay what you vow…Why should god be angry at your voice, and destroy the work of your hands?”

This same god, whom I should fear, will not be angry at me, will not destroy what I’ve created, what I’ve worked at? What sort of god is that to fear? Not, perhaps, a god to fear but a god I can see, see everywhere.

“Wake me up,” Amy Lee says. “Pay very, very close attention to everything around you,” my abbot told me. “Guard your steps when you draw near the house of god…don’t be rash with what you say…let not your mouth lead you into sin,” the Teacher tells us. Pay attention to what you are doing and what you are saying. Not because god will smack you into next week for saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing. But it’s the effect of seeing god in the world around us, what Buddhists call the godhead in things, that we are meant to fear. This may be the fear we should have. Recognizing the godhood in everything, opening our eyes to everything, following god’s guidance and seeking refuge in it may be the wake up call we should both heed and fear. Why fear? Because this portends a new behavior. If we see the godhood in the mosquito sucking blood out of our arm, if we see the godhood in the food we place in our mouths, if we see the godhood in the woman wearing a parka in the 80 degree day and standing on the corner, barking at the world, how then are we to act? God becomes the ultimate alarm clock. Bring me to life, indeed.

If we avoid living lives of quiet desperation, we remain nonetheless for the greater part living lives of willful dissonance. The other day I heard a commercial on KS95 that starts out, “Scientists tell us 2006 is the hottest summer on record,” and goes on to explain that the best thing to do is stay inside, crank up KS95, and win “our 2007 Edition KS95 Humvee.” Most of us aren’t as clueless as the makers of that commercial would have us believe. But the recognition of the god in us would demand different things of us. It demands not only we question the moral effects of our treatment of men and women and children on the business end of our bullets and bombs and laws and policies, but demands of us as well an accounting of the squirrel we run over as we speed to or from work, the spouse we complain to that no one in authority listens to us, the coffee grounds we toss in the garbage can. It demands a certain way we treat the garbage itself.

How do we behave when we see god all around us? That is what we should fear. The recognition that nothing, nothing is unaffected by us and the effect is not always what we should wish. As Denver warns her ghost-sister Beloved in Toni Morrison’s novel of the same name about their common mother Sethe, “Watch out for her; she can give you dreams.” I would amend this, in light of the Teacher’s words, to “watch out for god; she will give you responsibilities.”

Saturday, May 7, 2011

teach naked

in minnesota there's a program open to teachers for the past decade called the center for teaching and learning. teachers join circles of other teachers, usually from other disciplines, to research and discuss elements of good teaching and how to make them better. I've done a lot of these circles over the years at different schools and I've always found them beneficial if sometimes a bit full of themselves. it's good to have the opportunity to sit with your peers and talk about the state of the field, the things you do that work, and especially the things that don't. that contributing teachers were also paid a small stipend didn't hurt either.

you know where I'm going with this. naturally the office of the center for teaching and learning has been closed. this is its final semester. I've been a part of one that's met, unlike most which are face to face, primarily online, which is appropriate because it was on new technology and its use specifically in writing classes. it was good to get together because it's good to know there are other people who take the same things seriously as you do (perhaps more seriously but that's also sometimes a good thing). I will miss those opportunities.

below is my final report for my final teaching circle.

My students are often astonished if I tell them my first thesis was banged out on a typewriter and that I wrote it twenty years ago. That’s absolutely antediluvian in their view, before some of them were even born. If I go to the effort of showing them the library listing for it, they look at it the same way I sometimes look at objects my Older Testament instructor uses in her Power Points (itself now almost Bronze Age as a communication method).

Until a year and a half ago I’d have considered myself squarely a Luddite in my teaching philosophy; I had learned to write using a minimum of technologies and was certain my students were doing well that way too. But over January 2010 I took a course devoted to using media in worship at my seminary and over the weeks I gradually came to recognize the way computer technology had gradually sneaked up and overtaken me. Like with almost all important moments, it came as an epiphany one morning. I was attending a Sunday service at the UU church in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and I noticed at the other end of the pew a 14-year old girl attending with her mother, who I knew slightly. While her mother and I were listening to the sermon, which was a pretty good one about history and the way it overtakes us without our noticing, she was completely enrapt in something in her hands, a Blackberry or a Gameboy, something electronic. She got up and sat down with the rest of us, but she was only there in body.

The next day I asked Jan, my instructor, “How do we reach someone like that? How do we draw her into community and make what we’re saying relevant to her?” Jan’s response was, “Do that.” I came up with the first of several sermon-based online auxiliaries that used multimedia as a way of bridging the gaps between her generation and mine.

It was months later before I made the connection between 14-year olds in church and the late teen students in my classes. Having read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s The Social Life of Information, and particularly Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You, I saw that we are on the cusp of an incredible moment in our students’ lives, the time when the way we used to do things—for instance, the way we used to teach writing—is in such incredible flux that people like myself, taught in the methods that worked for generations and based on skills that had held sway for centuries is simply being overpowered by a new way that we can’t even begin to get a handle on let alone understand.

Here, for instance, is a part of my syllabus from a year ago:

Spring 2010

Prerequisite: Placement

MN Transfer Curriculum Qualified
WRIT Qualified (see below) Office Hours: S 1:00-2:00

• Course Description: You will read and discuss many published essays and write and improve on your own writing through class and instructor instruction.
• Texts:
1. In Brief edited by Judith Kitchen; Norton Publishers; ISBN 0393319075
2. Woe is I by Patricia O’Connor; Riverhead Publishers; ISBN 1594480060
3. Writing and Research Skills DVD

• Goals: At the end of this course you will be capable of reading, evaluating and writing four types of academic expository writing: narrative, descriptive, comparison and contrast and persuasive. You will be a more critical and discerning reader. You will be alert to your intent in writing and capable of evaluating how well you or someone else has achieved it.
• Objectives: You will have met the above goals by demonstrating the following: you read the assigned texts; you wrote assigned essays; you participated in class discussions, class projects and class evaluations; you created a portfolio of your short essays to present to me at the end of the semester.
• Evaluation: You are credited and graded on the following: your attendance; your participation; your assigned writing; and your portfolio. Each segment is assigned points, based on 100, judging how well you completed it. Grading will be judged as follows:

A—800+ points.
B—700-799 points.
C—600-699 points.
D—Below 600 points.
F—Usually reserved for people who don’t come to class.

None of these categories will match up exactly with anyone’s performance, but they will come close. Attempting A-level work on any of the requirements is certain to be reflected in your final grade.
• Always bring a pen and paper to class.
• Attendance: I expect you to be here. I’ll grant you one unexcused absence, but every unexcused absence after that will affect your final grade. To receive an excused absence, all you need to do is call me before the start of class and explain why you’ll miss it. It is as if you were calling in sick at work.

• The Essays: You will write 4 different ones. The essays are short: 500 words or 2 typed double-spaced pages. Each essay will relate to the topic we discussed the previous week. These essays are not graded. I’ll collect them, read and correct them, and return them. At the end of the class, you’ll revise each of them so each is now 750 words long (in other words, you’ll add another 3 to 4 paragraphs). The portfolio is graded.
• Deadlines: In the past I’ve been very lenient concerning deadlines. However, a number of students—a number of them among the worst offenders of that lenient policy—have suggested that they would have done better had they been held to a strict deadline. So I’m revising that practice. When an essay is due, you must turn it in either to me directly or by email on the day it’s due; turn it in a day late and it drops 10 points; two days late, 20 points; and so on. You must turn in every essay. (In the event of illness, call me before class and we’ll set something up.)

Probable Schedule:
January 16—Introduction
January 23—Narration
January 30—Description; Essay 1 due
February 6—Woe is I; Essay 2 due
February 13—Woe is I; Research; No essay due
February 20—Comparison/Contrast
February 27—Definition; Essay 3 due; Essay 4 in class
March 6—Final Class; Portfolio Due

This is the same portion from my current semester’s class:

Spring 2011

Prerequisite: Placement

MN Transfer Curriculum Qualified

WRIT Qualified (see below) Office Hours: TTh 12-1
NOTE: My office hours will be done both in the library and live online via D2L.

• Course Description: You will read and discuss published essays and write and improve on your own writing through publishing your work and through instruction.
• Text:
NextText, edited by Kress & Winkle. ISBN: 031240106X

• Goals: At the end of this course you will be capable of reading, evaluating and writing academic expository writing. You will have experimented with new technologies including blogging, wiki-ing, hyperlinking, and mashups connected with your writing. You will be a more critical and discerning reader. You will be alert to your intent in writing and capable of evaluating how well you or someone else has achieved it.
• Objectives: You will have met the above goals by demonstrating the following: you read the assigned texts; you wrote and passed assigned essays; you participated in class discussions, class projects and class evaluations.
• Evaluation: You are credited and graded on the following: your attendance; your participation; and your assigned writing. Each segment is assigned points, based on 100, judging how well you completed it. The scored final exit essay is worth 20% of your final grade. If we have a scored midterm essay that will be worth 10% of your final grade. Grading will be judged as follows:

A—550+ points.
B—450-545 points.
C—300-445 points.
D—Below 395 points.
F—Usually reserved for people who don’t come to class.

None of these categories will match up exactly with anyone’s performance, but they will come close. Attempting A-level work on any of the requirements is certain to be reflected in your final grade.
• Attendance: I expect you to be here. I’ll grant you one unexcused absence, but every unexcused absence after that will affect your final grade. To receive an excused absence, all you need to do is call me before the start of class and explain why you’ll miss it. It is as if you were calling in sick at work.

• The Class: Having discovered that I was beginning to teach my 1108 classes on autopilot, I’ve restructured the course to reflect the changes technology is making and demanding in our writing environment. Toward this end, I’m making the emphasis in assignments less on how correct they are grammatically, in punctuation and in spelling, and more in how well they get across their content. The essays now more accurately reflect the way actual writing is done in the writing and working communities and the impact of new technologies. As a result, don’t be surprised if I change the assignments from time to time: this is a work in progress.
• The Blogs: During our second week we will start to set up individual blogs that everyone will have access to through Blogger (only because I know the ins and outs of that host best). You’ll be responsible every other week for blogging something relating to the topic we’re reading.
• The Essays: You will write 6 different ones. The essays are short: 5 will be 500-750 words or 2 typed double-spaced pages. Each essay will relate to the topic we discussed the previous week. These essays are worth 100 points each. I’ll collect them, read and correct them, and return them with suggestions.
• The Research Essay: In the weeks after you return from Spring Break we’ll begin working on the basics of academic research. The Research Essay will be the same length as your other essays, but will need to be on a more specific topic than the others. This will also be worth 100 points. We’ll get more into this the weeks after Spring Break.
• Deadlines: When an essay is due, you must turn it in either to me directly or by email on the day it’s due; turn it in a day late and it drops 10 points; two days late, 20 points; and so on. You must turn in every essay to earn at least a C. (In the event of illness, call me before class and we’ll set something up.)

Probable Schedule:
Week of:
January 10—Introduction
January 17—No Class 1-17; Set up Blogs; Chapter 3
January 24—Chapter 3; 1st Blog Entry Due
February 7—No Class 2-8; Chapter 4; 1st Essay Due
February 14—Chapter 4; 2nd Blog Entry Due
February 21—No Class 2-21 & 25; Chapters 4 and 2; 2nd Essay Due
February 28—Chapter 2; 3rd Blog Entry Due
March 7—Spring Break
March 14—Chapter 5; 3rd Essay Due
March 21—Chapter 5; 4th Blog Entry Due
March 28—Research; 4th Essay Due
April 4—No Class 4-8; Research; 5th Blog Entry Due
April 11— Research essay due;
April 18—Chapter 6
April 25— Chapter 6; 6th Blog Entry Due; Chapter 1
May 2—Chapter 1
May 9—Final 6th Essay Due: May 10 10:00

The two won’t match up exactly—the earlier class was one that met for only half a semester and so we were restricted in the amount of essays we could do—but in most of their generalities they’re similar. Except of course that in the first class, for which I was required to include a DVD which had been transferred from video and made reference to word processing and showed computers using the glowing green letters of MSDOS, the emphasis was on styles of writing: narrative, cause and effect, descriptive, etc. (In my full-semester classes we also worked on definition, process analysis, and several other types.)

But in the course of my reading and experimenting online I realized that, outside college, no one writes by style any longer and probably haven’t since I was an undergraduate. Instead, online writing, which is more and more what students read and, more importantly, do themselves, focuses on subject over type. They don’t write narrative essays, they write blog entries about the time their father came home drunk on Christmas. They don’t write a process analysis about baking a pie, they swap recipes in chatrooms that include an explanation for why the pie might taste one way and why it might taste another. Of course, there’s much to be said for the discipline of specific methods—putting the audience in the scene by use of detail and sensory perception, for example—and those have to remain in the instruction, but they are no longer the focus.

In addition there are other important changes—the inclusion of an online office hour, a recognition that most students are only on campus for a limited class period and immediately leave after for work or children; the inclusion of blogging as a way not only of woolgathering and producing a first draft but of having their opinions appear in a public forum complete with response (mine and other students’); as well as the elimination of my old favorite, the portfolio, as students are better capable of keeping their essays online either as posts to their blogs or on their harddrives. These will doubtless also make way for other, more radical changes.
My concern, however, is this: as a class, teachers are well behind the learning curve both in our willingness to learn new ideas (not just new tricks but new ways of thinking, realizing that many of the ways we learned to write are outmoded and might reflect the ways our peers write but not the way everyone else writes or reads) and in our abilities to put them into practice. I count myself as moderately computer-literate, especially for such a recent convert, but I am left far back in the dust when friends working in the business or medical worlds start showing me the technology they use on a daily basis. Many times our institutions, because of budget cuts and declining enrollment and the swift pace of new technology, are laughably outmoded. It’s a vicious circle: We only have Microsoft 2003 available because Microsoft 2003 is what our staff have grown accustomed to and it makes no fiscal sense to update every year or two. Our classrooms still have blackboards and overheads, even if the blackboards are wipeboards now and the overheads can show us objects in 3D. We argue with students about whether or not they should be allowed to have cell phones in class when some of them are actually typing out their assignments, usually for another class, while we lecture.

I’ve got no clue what the answer to this flux might be except that soon there will be a massive wave of new teachers teaching in new ways that, because we have gotten such a late start and because despite our lip service to it change is really too expensive, will still be a generation or two behind the way people actually use the technology and the potential inherent in it.