Welcome to the 2016-17 academic year!
I’m making a “new school year” resolution to write regularly in this blog. This is my commitment to public scholarship and to being as transparent as I can about the work I do, why I do it, and what I learn from it. I also want to face the hard question of what possible good this work (and writing about it) may do in the world.
I haven’t written in a while. Losing my earlier blogposts stymied me. (See Lessons on Impermanence.) I couldn’t really see reposting old writing. Blogs at their best should be fresh and alive and current.
I have also been suffering from writer’s block in the face of all that is going on in the world right now. What do my words matter, when people are being shot by police at traffic stops, wars are raging, madmen are terrorizing people all around the world, refugees are drowning, the climate is going to hell, and income inequality, racism and xenophobia are at an all-time high…. What can I say in the face of all this? What difference can my words possibly make?
And then there’s just general writer’s block stuff: the voices in our heads that keep so many of us from putting our ideas into the world: “Who cares what you have to say?”
At a writing workshop this summer, in response to the prompt, “Why do you write?” I scribbled this:
I want to say it comes from a noble place, an enlightened space, a transcendent higher self whose pure and perspicacious aim is to breathe wisdom, light and consciousness into the world. I want to believe it comes from an egoless space, a wise and intentional voice of compassion and humility.
But really it comes from a little girl who long ago was lost in the middle of eight, a child who learned take her place and wait her turn and be careful what she wished for lest she blow her precious wishes, and then she’d be sorry. Three rides at Paragon Park each summer: which ones to choose? She wanted to feel her body soar on them all! One box of candy passed around the dinner table at Christmas, with no pictures on the bottom: what if she chose one with nuts or raisins, not the silky caramel or soft whipped chocolate she craved?
When people ask me what life was like growing up with seven siblings, they seem to assume there must have been a lot of chaos at home. We were ten bodies sharing four bedrooms and one and a half baths. But I search my memory and find no fight scenes. No whining or complaints. My mother reined us in with her unspoken rules:
Children should be seen but not heard.
Children should just do what they are told.
Do your share.*
Wait your turn.*
Don’t ask for attention.
Don’t take more than you need.*
What you have is good enough.
Don’t even WANT any more.
So I write for little Mahgie, who thought she took up too much space. I write for the girl who stenciled Margie the Magnificent! in bold capital letters on the half sheets of scrap paper that were rationed out at home, only to crumble under her mother’s stern glare. I shout back at the same glare that Ginny the Genius received when she pronounced herself by that name. I scream with my sister Ginny, who was locked in the “Screaming Room” by herself, at age two, and for my sister Nancy, whose face turned blue when she locked her own screams deep inside. My words are a dance for my mother, who at age three spun around her kitchen gaily in a bright yellow dress only to receive the same shaming look from her mother, and to wake up the next day to learn that her father had suffered the first of a series of strokes that would take his life. I write for little Anna and for the repressed, rationing and self-denying mother she grew up to be. “That’s good enough,” my mother would always say, “That’s all I need; I don’t want anything more.”
I write for my mother, my grandmother, my sisters, and our daughters, for all the people who were told suffer in silence, shut up and take it, be seen but not heard, or not seen at all. For everyone who was ever told not even to WANT any more.
*Note: There is much of value in these unspoken family rules…The world could do with less greediness and more sharing. But when we repress desires, where do they go? They may come screaming out…and it’s really only when we let them out that we can have any chance of reaching to that higher place of wisdom and perspective.
Perhaps my hesitation about putting words out into the world comes precisely from a recognition of the power words really do have. Words allow us to sing, dance, desire, love…or hate. Words can build bridges, or walls. They can release old pains and bring about healing…or cause new wounds. They can invite people in, or close people out. They can open hearts and minds, or polarize and divide.
I want my words to heal my own psychic pain as well as the pain that permeates the world. I want to find words that transform suffering, not perpetuate it, pass it on, or simply translate it into new forms. I want to build bridges, not walls.
This means getting past the two-year-old in me who wants just to rant and rave. (Finally letting her out might allow me to leave her behind.) It also means writing not just to people who will approve of what I say, who already agree with me, who are poised to like anything I pen. It means finding words that will surprise, or give pause, and help people -including myself – to consider things in new ways. Writing can help the writer to grow, as well as those who read.
(Reflecting back on what I’ve written here, I fear my characterizations of the world going to hell are the kinds of words that can polarize: with some aligning with me, and others seeing the world through very different lenses…Still, I’m just calling it as I see it, and I invite people who see things differently into dialogue…)
My colleague, Mike Rose, provides inspiration. Mike’s small book, Why School (https://www.amazon.com/Why-School-Reclaiming-Education-All/dp/1595584676), was the “book of the year” read by all incoming students to the Graduate School of Education this fall. Mike writes with reverence about everyday people, doing everyday things, revealing their dignity and humanity. His words go straight to the heart of big issues, with nuance and complexity, but also crystal clarity, and hopefulness. He stakes a clear stance on controversial social and educational matters, but does so in ways that invite people in rather than close them out. (See his blog: http://mikerosebooks.blogspot.com.)
So this is my renewed commitment to write: to face my own demons who think being good means being quiet, showing them instead the power that words can have to help make the world, not “good” or “good enough,” but much better than it is. Or at least, this is my commitment to try to use my words that way.
I invite you to face your own demons as well, and to write, speak, scream, sing, or dance your own words. Responses to this blog are most welcome. You can leave a reply in the space below.