Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Moments to Treasure

I’m half-way through The Power of Myth, a fascinating transcription of Bill Moyers interview with Joseph Campbell in 1985-6. Their discussion often returns to the lack of important, shared myth, of ritual, in today’s society, outside of the churches, many of which are losing members at a speedy clip. Even in religious practice, Campbell believes the sacredness of ritual has largely been lost, replaced with “homey and cozy” ceremonies that no longer take its participants outside themselves to the transcendent experience. Familiarity and comfort take precedent over mystery and ecstasy.

“One important part of ancient ritual was that it made you a member of the tribe, a member of the community, a member of society,” Campbell says. And while he notes Western culture is more concerned with the individual than community, we still value shared experiences, when we can find them. “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” Or for the younger generations, on 9/11. National sporting events like March Madness and blockbuster movies give us something to reference in daily interactions, to communicate with and through.

All this has been swirling through my brain, wondering at my own lack of ritual and tradition as I separate from the religion of my youth. How do we celebrate important events and mark the passing of time? A silly Facebook posting reminded me: we use movies.

At the opening of spring training, in celebration of the end of winter, hubby and I curl up for our annual viewing of Field of Dreams and Bull Durham. Major League is usually on the list, but I couldn’t face another Charlie Sheen marathon this year. The winter holiday season is marked by White Christmas on December 15th, never earlier. On Christmas Eve, we watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas in the original Dr. Seuss cartoon version, not the awful Jim Carey remake. And for twenty-plus years, we’ve shared New Year’s Eve with dear friends, grilling steaks and watching noteworthy movies we missed earlier in the year before switching to the ball drop in Times Square – another national shared experience.

The Facebook post referenced another treasured movie we haven’t seen in far too long, The Princess Bride, and there are others in our selected DVD collection that we rarely view. So I’ve decided we need to add more movies to mark annual events. The Princess Bride is good for Valentine’s Day (an annoying Hallmark holiday, but there it is). I have some issues with the latent misogyny in The Quiet Man, but it’s one of hubby’s favorite because of the setting, so it can mark St. Patrick’s Day. Independence Day goes without saying. For our wedding anniversary, The Way We Were, the first romantic movie we saw when we were dating (yes, we’ve been together that long). The soundtrack of Memories by Barbara Streisand became ‘our song,’ with teenage naiveté overlooking the fact it was about a relationship that failed. Since we don’t like horror movies, Young Frankenstein will do for Halloween and the end of autumn.

I’m sure I’m missing a few other good opportunities to establish new ritual in our life. What movies mark your special events?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Left behind at society’s peril

The utter lunacy of No Child Left Behind was made plain to me this past week when I served as proctor for a local Ohio Graduation Testing (OGT) session, administering “assessments aligned to Ohio’s Academic Content Standards in reading, mathematics, science, social studies and writing that students in high school must take to demonstrate proficiency before graduation from high school” (Ohio Dept. of Education OGT site). I suppose NCLB was well-intentioned, but somewhere between Washington D.C., the statehouse, and the classroom, quality was sacrificed in the name of quantitative data. How many students can we push through school with the right test scores?

For six days (one for each subject test, and a make-up session), I watched students from ninth grade through well past graduation age struggle through ambiguously written questions. They were all but led by the hand through the process, prepped with review sheets and testing suggestions literally until the moment the bubble sheet answer document were distributed (the ridiculous volume of tests are not even computer administered and scored – how much paper is wasted every session?). Another proctor’s sole responsibility was tracking down students who didn’t show up, cajoling them into making an appearance. Some were testing for the first time; others had been through the routine many times and failed to make a passing score. One very, very sad and frustrated student was testing for the twelfth time, while site teachers scrambled to find a Special Ed diagnosis for her so even more special accommodations could be made to help her pass. How had she, her family, and the system itself allowed things to reach that point?

On Thursday, I was stunned to learn the students were paid $20 for each testing session they attended. What is the lesson when the value of an education takes second place to cold hard cash? I only hope they weren’t paid for repeated sessions; I can see some mercenary yet forward-thinking students calculating just how many times they could run through the tests and still graduate on time. Squeezing every dollar out of an opportunity, no matter how suspect the method, is one lesson society teaches well.

OGT was in its infancy, and a much earlier incarnation, when my children were in school. They both were eligible to test in eighth grade as ‘practice,’ and if they passed, never had to deal with the tests again. And they did pass, with high enough scores to earn state honors at graduation. Unfortunately, they still spent the next four years sitting through repeated review sessions. Don’t ever believe that doesn’t happen; when teacher evaluations are based on student test scores, teaching to the test will continue to be the norm. All that time could have been better spent exploring new material, and in learning something other than how to take a test to meet ever-changing standards. Music, theater and the arts are shunted aside in favor of the ‘important’ subjects and school is a chore rather than a mind-opening experience.

A recent blog post by Kathy Reschini Sweeney on The Lipstick Chronicles shows the failures of NCLB from another perspective. She’s a college teacher, and every year the students she sees are increasing less prepared for real learning. “They get an information dump, take a test, then flush it out and start on the next set of facts. As a result, they do have better vocabularies and I would even venture that they know more things. The problem is that they understand much, much less.”
In the politically motivated drive for control and standardization, we are failing to teach our children critical thinking skills, and how to learn from life rather than a review sheet. This is our loss as well as theirs.

As a lover of learning, I mourn this insanity and the damage NCLB does to the incredible potential of society’s children. Sadly, with the draconian budget cuts at all levels of government and the attacks on the value and credibility of teachers in general, it’s only going to get worse. The United States will continue to fall farther behind in the unstoppable movement toward globalization and it’s our own fault.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Since our down-sizing relocation six years ago, I’ve spent huge chunks of my days alone. Working at home as a freelance writer and graphic designer, and for most of four years as a student, quiet time in my office space is the norm. I have my routine, the dogs know to be persistent when they really need to go out, and I live inside my head. I guard my time jealously, almost forcing myself out the door for errands, volunteer work, committee meetings, even lunch with friends.

So why did this week alone, while hubby is off in San Antonio teaching the next bunch of Certified Ethical Hackers, cause such turmoil? I was given my answer in Monday’s article “The Power of Lonely” by Leon Nevfakh: “in order to get anything positive out of spending time alone, solitude should be a choice: People must feel like they’ve actively decided to take time apart from people, rather than being forced into it against their will.” We didn’t get to choose this week apart, it was thrust upon us, at the last minute, and I rebelled mentally and emotionally. I recovered quickly enough, but the turmoil led to an awareness of how the universe had prepared me for this week even though I wasn’t paying attention (as happens far too often).

Just last week I started re-reading Anthony Storr’s Solitude: A Return to the Self, which is referenced in Nevfakh’s article. Only a few days prior, The Atlantic published “Caring for Your Introvert,” by Jonathan Rauch. All these pieces have come together to provide yet another lesson of personal discovery, and it appears I am not alone (!) in my interest of this topic.

As a fiction writer, I dwell in made-up worlds with made-up characters. It’s easy to get lost in those worlds, to find those people more comfortable to relate to than the flesh-and-blood characters I meet when I push myself out the door. I have a semblance of control that is quite naturally lacking in the ‘real’ world. In some small way, that make-believe omnipotence eases the anxiety raised by the horrific headlines of strife and tragedy, even while my fictional worlds deal with some of those same issues. At writers group last night, several of us agreed that while we don’t necessarily write ‘happily-ever-after’ endings, we do prefer to end on a hopeful note, a bit of an inspirational upbeat. For me, that’s one of the attractions of writing. It’s not delusion or denial of reality, but it’s hope for a better tomorrow in whatever world I find myself.

There are reasons for my solitude, my preference for quiet, that go beyond my work. But there are also reasons for me to step outside my comfort zone and experience the wider world. My life, and my writing, will be the richer for it.

How do you handle solitude? Do you embrace it or run screaming for the madding crowd?

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Springtime in our new home is a constant journey of discovery. Each day brings another green sprout in the garden and new guesses as to what it could be. A handful of tiny purple and white flowers appeared first and I thought they were crocuses (one of the limited number of growing things I can actually identify) until I found them scattered over half the back yard, not just in garden clumps. Crocuses come from bulbs, I think, so they shouldn’t be propagating at will all across the lawn. I’m waiting for new buds to push aside the remaining golden brown leaves on the beech trees. That I learned from our last home. Their lingering blaze of color helps winter seem not quite so frozen.

The white bottle-brush buckeye bushes along the sidewalk are so bare and spindly it’s hard to believe they’ll soon be covered in thick green leaves that hide the house from the street. Hubby tells me there are two lilac bushes out front, too, along with the hostas and rhododendron. I have no idea how he can tell from those dry branches, but I trust him.

Next to the driveway there’s a cluster of delicate white bell-shaped blooms. Lily of the valley, I thought. Wrong, apparently. A friend identified them as snowdrops. From photographs left by the previous owner, we know the patch between the front yews and the boardwalk will be likely be filled with daffodils interspersed with a few tulips. I’m not sure if the flowers I planted in the boxes out front will come back. I never can remember whether perennials or annuals bloom every year; the naming logic escapes me.

Fast-growing green stalks around the koi pond have me baffled, as do the dark purple flowers scattered among the pachysandra (I learned a new one!) under the big beech tree. They weren’t there in the fall. I know as the season progresses we’ll have cyclamen, day lilies, and yucca, as well as a number of other late-bloomers whose names I’ve already forgotten. But there are still surprises.

And the pond – its profusion of water lilies and lotus blossoms were part of the original attraction to our backyard oasis. Now the water is dark and murky. The fish survived the winter, while it appears the bullfrogs were not so fortunate. We’re not sure yet about the turtles. But the lilies and lotus. How do we resurrect them? Hubby says we need to drain the pond, clean out the winter debris, and replant the potted blossoms. This fall we’ll protect the pond better, but for now, we’re still learning.

As is so often the case, my wider world is a macrocosm of my writing, or vice versa, I suppose. Each time I begin a new piece, I stumble over names and words, finding familiar friends and meeting new germs of ideas. I anticipate the joy that comes with crafting a well-turned phrase, and sometimes mourn when those ‘darlings’ must be killed off. So many rote lessons I think I’ve incorporated into my routine escape me when I try to put them into practice. I have to turn to trusted friends in my writers group or online forums for answers. And like hubby in the garden, they never let me down.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Share and share alike...

Why is it so much easier to be nice to others than to myself? I’m quick to offer mitigating circumstances for another’s misstep, rarely jumping to, “What else to expect? He’s just an idiot.” (okay, not too often)

But when I’m the one who needs understanding, the worst possible motivations are always first up in my mind. I’m undisciplined, I’m weak, I’m selfish, lazy, name it, I can find a way to make use of just about any derogatory term on the books. Even during three days of fighting yet another debilitating migraine, far too many of those unproductive hours were spent in bouts of self-flagellation cycling with unremitting pain. If only I meditated more regularly/better, if only I hadn’t had red wine with dinner, if only...if only. How ridiculous is that?

Hubby and I have had a number of good discussions recently about compassion, about seeing the world through other perspectives and realizing that while we can’t possibly experience life in the same manner as those we encounter, we can still have compassion for their struggles. It’s an ongoing lesson, of course, but much easier when the recipient of that compassion is another individual. Never myself.

A posting this morning from Tara Parker-Pope’s New York Times blog on Health titled “Go Easy on Yourself” couldn’t have been more timely. “Do you treat yourself as well as you treat your friends and family?” she asks. Of course not, don’t be silly! Why would I do such a thing? In her article, Parker-Pope reviews an emerging field of psychology labeled “self-compassion,” a way of thinking that proponents claim has links to everything from over-eating to happiness. I’m not sure I buy all the conclusions drawn from what seem to be rather ambiguous research, but the premise is worth considering.

As a writer, I constantly fluctuate between elation over the works I produce and total despair at facing yet another blank page or, even worse, editing a first draft and realizing it’s nowhere near the lyrical prose I envisioned. Is my negative personal attitude spilling over to my writing, or vice versa? When I talk to other writers, such thoughts seem to be fairly common but by no means universal.

Maybe we need a Self-Compassion Writers Group to supplement our critique sessions. We’re always quick to compliment each other’s writing; ‘love notes’ before criticism is the norm. I know I leave our group energized, if not occasionally deflated by the wonderful quality of writing I’m up against.

Come to think of it, many of our meetings are just that – compassionate. Only we call it loving support, with the occasional kick in the pants when we wallow too much in our misery. And we’re all worth that form of shared self-compassion, even me.