Lessons Learned and the People Who Teach Them

This week has been a challenge. I’m not just talking about writer’s block (which is there) but a darker struggle inside myself, as I question whether or not anything I do has value in this world. I’ve been dealing with:

  • students who seem to think attendance during the last weeks of school is optional
  • students who think that my assignments and the deadlines associated are optional
  • administrators who think that my opinions do not have weight or are not worthy of consideration
  • young students whose lives are so difficult outside of school that its hard to see if anything I am doing is reaching them
  • at least one class where the women in the class refuse to speak up and participate, they defer to the male voices a large percentage of the time. It drives me insane as someone who truly values mentoring young women.
  • a complete lack of faith in myself as director, writer, artist, teacher

But then, Siobhan Curious over at Classroom as Microcosm, posted this prompt as part of her Writing on Learning Exchange Series: she asks this provocative question “Who Taught You?”

That message made me think about what we learn when we least expect it, and who teaches us those important lessons. Sure, hopefully we have teachers throughout our educations that actually teach us something, but I am beginning to think that perhaps true learning comes to us in a different way. This isn’t to say that we have nothing to learn in a classroom environment . . . there’s plenty to learn through those formal methods, but sometimes we learn in unexpected ways, and sometimes we teach without knowing we are  teaching.

In my own life, lessons have come from so many unexpected places and people:

  • the fellow teacher from Australia who didn’t graduate from high school, used less than legal means to get hired to teach English in Japan (you were supposed to have a college degree) and showed me that a love of life and a passion for following your heart is in some ways more important than what you learn  from books. Too bad I didn’t fully absorb that lesson until very recently, despite the fact that she taught me it about 20 years ago.
  • the lessons I learned about prejudice, hate, and racism while working with a group of Roma children in Slovakia.
  • the lessons I’ve learned from the leaders of that Slovakia trip, about caring, sharing, traveling and living life with the understanding that there is more to the world than our small section of it.

    The leaders of Dramatic Adventure Theatre pitching in to make sure we were well fed.

    The leaders of Dramatic Adventure Theatre pitching in to make sure we were well fed.

  • There’s my current student who faces all kinds of challenges including incessant and debilitating migraines, being struck by lightning, and numerous friends dying from suicide or car accidents and things. She’s taken all this sadness, all these challenges, and given herself a goal to help others by becoming a school counselor and learning as much as she can about psychology. She is an inspiration.
  • The lesson I learned this morning from a woman I don’t know. Mia McKenzie’s blog post starts with the words “Hey White Liberals!” and challenges me to reflect on ingrained aspects of racism and injustice that we all need to think about, and somehow change.

This list could go on forever, and my blog is peppered with posts about people of all ages, races, cultures, levels of education who have taught me lessons. The point is that we never know when we will learn something that changes our lives. Nor we will ever truly know when we have taught something that has made a difference.

With that perspective, perhaps my life isn’t as empty as it feels at the moment, because there’s always something new to learn and the possibility that someone actually learns from you.

This is my greatest teacher.

This is my greatest teacher.

 

Dark Reality and My Writing Journey

The young girl lay in her bed under a dusty rose comforter with delicate white flowers. Stuffed animals graced the sides of her bed, while extra blankets folded over her feet made her feel safe and  secure whenever she fell asleep. The early morning sun began to sneak in through the window over her bed, despite the curtains pulled across to block out the light. 

The girl clutched her covers around her. She had been awake for  a while now, before the golden light seeped into the room. Despite the beauty of the morning, she didn’t want to turn her head toward the empty bed across the room–deserted by her older sister when she left for college a few weeks before. She wasn’t afraid of the empty bed, but of what she had seen on and  around that bed upon waking up. 

I can’t look. What if they’re still there? She knew she had to look. It must have been a dream. I imagined it.

She turned her head.

It wasn’t a dream. She saw the bodies piled on her sister’s bed–emaciated bodies with dark circles underneath dead eyes and bald heads. Next to them was an even bigger pile of skulls and other bones  in a jumble. 

She wanted to scream but couldn’t find the breath.

She stared in shock for several long minutes, rubbing her eyes and blinking in the hopes that the nightmare would end. She couldn’t find her voice to call out for help.  After what felt like a long fifteen minutes the image shifted. The piles turned into the reality of her bedroom. The bodies turned into pillows and clothes she had put on her sister’s bed. The bones turned into knickknacks and collectibles on her sister’s bedside table.

She was back into reality, but she knew it wasn’t a dream.Dusty rose bedspread

***

A few days ago I mentioned how the mini-series The Holocaust helped me recognize the power of words. In a comment on that post the fabulous Kathy mentioned how the Holocaust influenced her desire to become a writer. Kathy’s words and images on Lake Superior Spirit never fail to inspire me and give me moments of peace, so we are all blessed by the fact that she found inspiration in the horror.

As did I, but I’ve also found challenges because of it. For you see, that little girl under the rose-pink bedspread was me. That vision or hallucination or glimpse at memory was mine, and I was wide awake.

The miniseries sparked a sort of fascination within me, where I wanted to learn more and understand more about how such horror could happen, how mankind could be so cruel based on things so invisible and meaningless–differences in culture, in belief, in race. I became a voracious reader of Holocaust literature, starting with The Diary of Anne Frank and moving up to more mature and adult fare. (I was a very advanced reader). I talked with Mrs. Sekler, my Hebrew School teacher and the  only person I knew who had the blue numbers etched into her arm.

Until the day I saw the bodies and the bones.

I told my parents what happened,  and they said I had to stop reading Holocaust literature. They said it was probably a dream, fueled by the books. So I stopped until I was an adult and could handle it again.

What does this have to do with my writing journey?

I know my biggest flaw as a writer, if I want to make it as a successful author of fiction, especially YA/NA, I need to be willing to write darker material. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of eerie or creepy pieces, and my characters often have a dark side. They aren’t always flitting with fairies and riding on rainbows. However, I could never have written The Hunger Games because I can’t get myself to write about young people killing young people. I can’t write the descriptive and violent darkness found  in so many successful books these days.

I’m blocked when it comes to that stuff.

Yet, in a world where this cruelty exists every day, in blatant and subtle forms, I have to confront my own inability. I live in a country where a loud and powerful minority want to maintain their flimsy and mostly imagined supremacy by limiting the rights of others to things like healthcare, marriage, control of their own bodies, and the right to worship as they please. How is that different from the desire  to have a “Master Race”? I live in a world of rape-culture where the victims get blamed and the rapists get glorified. I live in a world where people are murdered by guns, while others cling to their rights to have weapons built only for the purpose of killing lots of people as quickly as possible. I live in a world where women are tortured and brutalized every day for reasons as meaningless as the desire to become educated. I live in a world where people are still judged by the color of their skin, the way they worship, the language they speak, or the way they dress.

I live in a cruel world.

If I want to become  the writer I dream to be, I need learn how to write about that world, in the  voice of that world. I need to embrace the possibility of seeing the darkness, the violence,  the pain with my own waking eyes, and then combating it with the power of my words.

This is my challenge to myself. This is my writing journey.

I Will Not Be Silenced

I forced my family to head to Boston with me today, to attend the rally Unite Against the War on Women.

Jaclyn Friedman was an amazing speaker who articulated what I am unable to say.

I found myself sitting on the steps of City Hall, crying silent tears.

In the midst of all these people who had come out to show concern and express anger, to share stories, to speak out against repression and injustice I felt very much alone.

Nathan is interested, but not nearly as passionate about the issues as I am. Sarah really had no interest, despite my explanations that everything happening there had to to with making the world a better place for her. She was distracted by pigeons, the Circus that stood right next to the rally, and the fun potential of steps.

So when I cried, I cried alone.

Where did the tears come?

When I first walked into the plaza, my heart tightened. Around me people carried the signs that should not have surprised me, signs about not being sluts, or stay out of my vagina, or whatever. But seeing them made me realize that the issues we face are so much broader than contraception/choice. If we only focus on those issues, we are focusing our energy in the wrong direction.

The issues move beyond our bodies, to the fact that women are not inferior, second class citizens who serve no purpose other then as incubators for future generations. We are being treated as less than men, as barely human, and that is the real issue.  The laws that are being made affect anyone who is marginalized, and that is a bigger problem than a vaginal ultrasound. I am not diminishing the importance of those aspects. I’ve already written about them as passionately as I could. But, I’ve had the growing sense that we might be fighting the wrong part of the war, and if that is so we could be heading to disaster.

When I heard Jaclyn Friedman (pictured above) speak  I felt pressure release. She broadened the message, speaking of the effects on all people, especially poor people or people of color. She reminded us that this is a battle for all people, where men and women must stand together. She spoke for my thoughts.

But it was not enough and I still ended up in tears.

The tears started when I heard Reverend Aaron Payson Minister of Unitarian Universalist Church of Worcester speak. The title of this post actually comes from his use of “We will not be silenced!” His words showed me that there are some truly religious people out there who recognize that perhaps the words of the bible are being interpreted incorrectly, or perhaps they were written by people who want to keep control of their own power. He too, spoke for my thoughts.

Some of the tears came from hearing people express themselves so beautifully. Some from the power of the stories. Some from the sadness and frustration expressed by women who started this fight in the 70s and could not believe that we were fighting this battle again, now.

But I admit, that some of the tears were personal.

Two incredible women spoke. Idalia, who is described as “” a Puertominican (Puerto Rican and Dominican) writer, performance poet, healthcare advocate, and kitchen table feminist” (http://idaliapoetry.tumblr.com) and Spectra, “n award-winning Nigerian writer, women’s rights activist, and the voice behind the African feminist media blog, Spectra Speaks (www.spectraspeaks.com). [Note that I shortened their bios for this, these women are truly amazing.]

They spoke with the honest voices of their hearts, including their sexuality, their race, and their womanhood. They spoke and the floodgates opened as my heart broke into a million tiny pieces of confusion.

Why? Because when I hear the voices of the truly marginalized I am reminded that I am a white, middle class, heterosexual woman. True, I am a Jew, and that carries with it a different kind of marginalization, but I do not experience rejection based on the color of my skin or my sexual identity.

Sometimes the reality of my identity makes me feel like I should not speak.

I flash back to a time when I presented my dissertation for an award. I wrote a doctoral dissertation entitled, “Theorizing Diversity in Three Professional Theatres for Young Audiences.” Basically I was looking at the fact that most professional TYA companies were white owned, white managed, and yet the audiences they served represented diversity. I wanted to understand the messages being sent in that interaction. I wanted to explore the intersection between what we thought we were doing and what we were really doing. When I presented this for the award, the only thing I was attacked for was the fact that I was a white woman looking at issues of diversity, of race. I explained my position on that, but the explanation was not enough and the question kept coming, “Why do you think you have the right to speak for others?” I did not try to speak for others, I tried to observe and learn and use their voices, but that did not matter to the questioner.

I won Honorable Mention for that award, but nobody won the award that year. Everyone was shocked that I didn’t win.

But this isn’t about that.

It’s about the fact that I should not feel silenced because I haven’t experienced the same level of struggle. If we separate ourselves that way, then we only hurt ourselves. I’m not saying we ignore the differences, but we must embrace those differences and acknowledge that all our voices have the right, the need, to be heard.

I am a white woman. I can’t change that. Nor should I have to apologize for it.

I also have a daughter who is a woman of color. Will she face different challenges than I did?

I can’t answer that, except to say that if we allow the powers that be to control women then her world will be even more challenging than mine.

I can’t allow that to happen. I will not be silent.

Spending Time with Intelligent Women

Now men, before you get your underoos in a bunch, I like spending time with intelligent people in general, but once in a while I need to spend a little quality time where intelligent estrogen overpowers testosterone.

We spent the Tuesday evening and all day yesterday at our second annual mini-reunion with some of my fellow, Smithies and it was fabulous. Note there were males their (husbands and sons) but most of the time it was a chat fest between women.

We talked about everything: books, education, memories, work, relationships, friendship, parenting, homeschooling, politics (a little), travel . . .

While we think a lot alike, we don’t always agree, which is fine. We bring our world perspectives into the discussion and sometimes they become passionate but never angry. We laughed, we teased, and we created some memorable moments that will cause laughter (and blushing) forever.

"Where's the bleu cheese?" "This is awkward." "Hug it out!"

Unlike some people who don’t know me as well, I didn’t have to explain why I am heading to Slovakia in TWO DAYS! The asked about the trip, but when I mentioned that some people wonder why I’m going, their response was a unanimous “why wouldn’t you?” They needed no explanation. Of course, most of you have been that supportive as well, and I truly appreciate it.

Lest you think all we did was talk, we also played a hilarious game of Funglish where you have to get your team to guess the word using a set collection of descriptions. It’s challenging, and resulted in several spontaneous quotes from When Harry Met Sally, because it seemed the person was describing “Baby fish mouth . . . that phrase is sweeping the nation.”

We also did took the entire group on a spy adventure, where we discovered the mole and survived a huge explosion.

We also ate A LOT thanks to the HOSTESS WITH THE MOSTEST, another intelligent woman who I hope to get to know better in the near future.

So back to the premise of this post. I love spending time with intelligent women who are not afraid to express themselves, to be independent, to disagree, to argue, to stand up for themselves, and to fully embrace their power. I have met, throughout the years, some women who use that power poorly, and fall into the belief system that women  must be bitchier, better, and more evil than men if they want to get anywhere. These are the women who crawl their way to the top, stabbing backs and leaving broken bodies in their wake. I have been battered by several of them. But then, I am reminded by my wonderful long-time friends as well as the friends that I have made through blogging, that it is possible to be intelligent, beautiful, passionate, and talented while still being compassionate, caring, and supportive.

I enjoy spending time with intelligent people (of both sexes) who use their intelligence to make the world a better place.  I count all of you among those people, and want to say thank you for sharing your time with me over this past year.

Big hugs for the New Year! May 2012 be filled with laughter, joy, intelligent conversation, good food, and good friends.

I apologize in advance as I will be putting blogging on the back burner (except, perhaps for a couple of posts) as I focus on the experience and the journey in Slovakia. I leave in two days!

Discussion, Debate and Blogging Etiquette

One of the most amazing things about joining the blogging world is the opportunity to learn from other people. I don’t always read something I agree with, and I’m sure that many people don’t always agree with me. But, by reading other people’s ideas and perspectives on life, I clarify my own stance and often even understand issues from a different perspective.

I love the exchange of ideas.

When I first started blogging, I didn’t make many comments. I was afraid that commenting on other people’s posts was somehow intruding and that nobody really cared what I had to say. But, eventually I came to realize that a post without comments might as well be a post into a private journal. If that is the case, and if you are not going to interact with fellow bloggers, then why blog in the first place?

There is a danger, however, in commenting and responding to comments. It lies in the fact that we are communicating only through technology. Without face to face contact (and sometimes even with it) meanings can be misunderstood and interpreted incorrectly. Perhaps someone makes a sarcastic comment in good fun, but if you are only friends via this virtual tool, sometimes that sarcasm can be misunderstood.

Yet, as I get to know my fellow bloggers, I feel like I’ve established a relationship based on trust and a mutual respect for each other. We may not agree on everything, and life would be boring if we did, but we respect each other’s right to their beliefs and their right to write about those beliefs.  If I completely disagree with a person, I either do not respond, or try to respond with a question to promote discussion.

While I doubt my stance on things like religion, politics, women’s rights, war, education, etc. will ever do a complete 180, I am always open to a new way of looking at things. I don’t believe that any issues is completely black or white, but that every issue and situation needs to be judged from a variety of perspectives.

In other words, there is no ONE truth, but multi-faceted truths that lie somewhere between two sides.

I now find myself unintentionally embroiled in a debate of two truths. I’m not going to go into specifics, although most of my readers will know what I am talking about. Basically, the problem comes down to two people who don’t agree and one person who won’t let go. It also boils down to the issue of blogging etiquette.

What is blogging etiquette?

This complicated world of blogging introduces so many challenges in communication, that once in a while it is good to stop and think about how we interact with others. Here are some of the questions that have popped into my head at one time or another, followed by my (uninformed) opinion on the answer. Feel free to add more ideas below:

  • When is it good to respond to a post? I think commenting on posts is valuable at all times, but only if you have actually read the post and have something to say. I admit to sometimes skimming people’s posts when I am in a hurry, so for those ones I either hit the like button, comment briefly, or don’t comment at all.
  • What kind of comments are acceptable on posts? Comments that respond to the actual post are acceptable. Perhaps you don’t have much to say about the content, but want the writer to know that you’ve read, understand, or support what he/she is saying. Then it might be okay to write a very short supportive comment. Otherwise, I think comments should be substantial (ie contributing to the conversation) without being long. If you find yourself writing a long comment on a topic, perhaps you should write a post about it instead.
  • When should comments be blocked or deleted from posts? This one can be tricky, because if you want honest discussion it is important to include all sides, even the things you disagree with. However, if the comment attacks the writer or the readers of the blog in a disrespectful way, it doesn’t need to be kept. If the comment has absolutely nothing to do with the post, why keep it?
  • When is it okay to not respond to a comment? I try my best to respond to comments on my posts, but sometimes it is impossible. As most of my readers know, I have been dealing with a lot in the past month, including moving, no internet and other craziness. So, while I wanted to respond to comments, I had to prioritize, which meant I let a lot of responses slide. I made sure to explain that in posts. I tried to respond to any new readers, because I believe you can only build a relationship through commenting and visiting each other’s blogs. Ultimately, though, I don’t think you have to reply if the comment is something simple like “That’s great!” or “Thanks.”  You should, however, respond when someone has taken the time to submit a well thought out part of the discussion.
  • When is it best to simply remain on the sidelines and observe the conversation? You know the mantra “If you have nothing nice to say . . . “? Well, that might be a good guideline. If you have an opposing perspective that you can phrase respectfully, go ahead and join that conversation. But if your response is going to be simply to rant and rage, without any openness to discussion, perhaps you should keep your opinion to yourself.
  •  When should you make contact with someone outside of the blog, either through e-mail or through actual in person meetings? I have had contact with several bloggers outside of the blog, through Facebook, one phone call, e-mail, and once in person. Sometimes I’ve initiated the contact, sometimes the other person did. When I’ve initiated contact, it was because I felt like I had something to share with that person that was best shared privately, rather than in the public forum that is a blog. I try not to be too aggressive about contacting bloggers in other ways, but I always feel honored when someone reaches out to me.
  • Should you include links to your blog or other sources when commenting? It’s possible to find many debates and discussions on this topic, as including links can seem like simply trying to promote your own blog. I have, however, included links when I have a post that furthers the discussion or adds a different perspective. I also, occasionally, will add a link to some web page that provides information to the writer. However, I have it set up that all comments with links must be approved. Why? Because I don’t want to be linking to sites that make me uncomfortable. I often allow those posts, but if the links seem to lead to disrespectful stuff, bye-bye comment. Comments with excessive links often get sent straight to spam, which means they sometimes disappear quickly.
  •  When is it acceptable to use all caps? This relates to the challenges of communicating electronically rather than face-to-face. Capital letters have come to stand for YELLING! Nobody likes be yelled at. In addition, capital letters are harder to read. So, I suggest using them sparingly, to emphasize or show excitement. I don’t like reading posts that have lots of caps, and I would guess many readers agree.

This is obviously not a comprehensive list, and it is only my opinion. I’d love to hear more of your suggestions or ideas (even if they disagree with mine) in the comments below.

Update About Related Posts: This post has sparked a lot of interesting discussion, both below in the comments and in other people’s posts. Please go check out the following for more interesting perspectives:

If you’ve come across any I have missed that should be added to the list, let me know.


Learning to Forgive

When the world comes crashing down around you, it seems natural to want to put the blame on someone or something. On the system that let you down. On co-workers who manipulated the system. On your partner. On the universe, or G-d, or some greater power. And, often the hardest to overcome, on yourself.

It is so easy to blame.

It is not so easy to forgive. I have been trying very hard lately to let go of the anger and the blame.  I’ve sent messages out to the universe trying to forgive. But it doesn’s seem to work, because there is one person I cannot seem to forgive. You guessed it, I cannot forgive myself. I feel like I am responsible for the chaos around me (no ego there). I know that, realistically, that is not true, but I blame myself for all my perceived failures. And yet, I know that’s not true. I feel like there are multiple people inside of me battling for supremacy: the talented person who knows that she can and will succeed, the wicked person who seeks revenge, the insecure person who wants to stay in bed and hide, the loving person who does not understand, the hurt child, the strong mom , etc.

How do I learn to forgive all of those selves? How do I learn to forgive others in an honest and true way?  I want to learn to forgive. I really do.

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