Saturday, June 16, 2018

Mapping Our Ways to Global Competence?

So already, I'm grappling with a global competence-related question, and I think you might be able to help me with it: what kinds of maps--that is, maps that make thinking visible--can help learners develop the dispositions of globally competent people?

Looking Ahead to August's Summer Institute
The reason for my question: I am part of the Harvard Global Studies Outreach Committee (GSOC) team planning an August summer institute for secondary school and community college educators called The Internet: Tangled Webs, Global Promises.  Our goal is twofold:
  • to help participants deepen their understandings of the internet's current and potential roles in creating and solving global and local problems of injustice, inequity, and non-sustainability; and 
  • to foster participants' global competence, or "the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance" (xi).**
Our long-term hope is that the students of these educators will benefit from their teachers' summer learning.

The Challenge of Focusing on Cultivating Dispositions Vs. Skills and Knowledge
Frankly, I'm not so worried about whether participants will deepen their understandings of the internet: we have an impressive array of techniques--I'll talk about concept maps below-- that will surface and make visible their evolving content-related understandings. I am worried, though, that we may fall short of cultivating participants' sense of urgency and teaching confidence in relationship to global competence.

On some level I understand why global competence takes a back seat: many institute participants are hamstrung by required curricula that are exclusively skills- and information-centered, while others are still expected to write and meet daily "know and be able to do" learning objectives. So their "accountability focus" is often not on global competence. Virtually all of these teachers value deep conceptual understandings and understand how seldom they can develop in one day. In addition, they often truly worry about the future of their students as inheritors of the world's complicated problems. Still, they feel most obligated to make clear to both students and administrators what skills are being introduced, practiced, and/or assessed for mastery on a given class day. And when time is short, global competence becomes a lesser goal.

So is there a way to have summer institute participants map their way into a greater sense of urgency about global competence as a teaching priority? And into a place of greater confidence in their abilities to help their students develop it while they're learning required skills and content? Participants really like and value the global thinking routines they experience at our summer institutes. Could some kind of map make visible the links among thoughts generated by both concept mapping and these routines?  

Concept Mapping's Benefits and Limitations:
Last year's summer institute participants mapped their conceptual understandings of urbanization and cities on their first day in Cambridge. And just two weeks ago, the ten Globalizing the Classroom Fellows who were wrapping up their fellowship year created new conceptual maps using the Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate (GSCE) thinking routine, one of the many thinking routines developed in conjunction with Project Zero's Visible Thinking initiative

I found GSCE to be a very satisfying way of generating a concept map. And I was pleased--and relieved-- that the Fellows welcomed the opportunity to map urbanization again. Afterwards, I reasoned that the concept at the center of the map could be a skill or competence that the daily objectives specified students would be developing--such as "revising writing," "reading a historical text written in another century," or "evaluating the reliability of an online source."

But global competence is not just about content understanding, methodologies, and skills. Concept maps make it just a little too easy to keep important global issues at arm's length. Global competence requires the desire and capacity, at the right moment, to move beyond analysis to individual or collective action, even in very small ways.

Cultivating Thinking and Global Competence Dispositions Through Mapping
So what are the best kinds of maps for helping learners develop thinking dispositions, especially the global thinking dispositions*** at the core of the global competence framework? Or are there such maps? And what are thinking dispositions anyway? The Project Zero Visible Thinking web site explains them best: "To put it all together, we say that really good thinking involves abilities, attitudes, and alertness, all three at once. Technically this is called a dispositional view of thinking. Visible Thinking is designed to foster all three."****

Mind Mapping and Heart Mapping
As I first tried to answer my own question, I thought about two other kinds of mapping techniques I'd seen matter immensely to people, one courtesy of the professional development I'd had in conjunction with Nancie Atwell's In the Middle: New Understandings about Writing, Reading, and Learning, and the other as a result of multiple trainings I'd had as a classroom teacher and student advisor. These were heart mapping***** and mind mapping.****** What's important about both is that they permit people to see themselves. 

Heart maps, part of my Atwell training, allow young people--actually people of all ages--to articulate what they care about. They invite storytelling and writing about how the various elements of the map came to take their places of primary emotional importance. Mind maps, like the one you're seeing with "2017" in the middle, also tell us what we care about, but in the context of galvanizing us to start doing what we believe is important and to start becoming the persons we want to be in any number of realms in our lives.

In other words, both kinds of maps make visible people's attitudes and values, even their visions of the kinds of world they want to live in. In terms of thinking dispositions, they reveal people's attitudes. But they don't link those attitudes to those people's abilities or their alertness to opportunities to use those abilities. Still, the "I" and potentially the "we" are present in these maps, whereas they're generally absent in concept maps. Alertness and attitudes can't be discussed without reference to whose alertness and whose attitudes.

The Making Meaning Thinking Routine
Which brings me to another Project Zero thinking routine that I found in a tweet from Ron Ritchhart's more than a year ago: the "Making Meaning" thinking routine. The adjacent picture and the one that follows below were posted on Twitter, the first by Ron and the second by someone offering an example of her own experience using the routine with students.

What I love about this routine is that it invites all kinds of subjective and "objective" responses from participants, actively asks people to build on the responses of others, and encourages questions. I used it myself in a professional development session with last year's Globalizing the Classroom Fellows: two small groups made meaning of "global citizenship" while two others made meaning of "global competence'" because the two terms are so often used loosely and interchangeably. The discussion that followed was fascinating, a real foray into the very different things we meant by terms we believed we were using in common ways.

Multiple Meanings of "Making Meaning"?
I like to think that "Making Meaning" could mean making not just consensual, working-definition meaning, but also personal meaning, and therefore assigning relevance and significance. Check out the adjacent example of making meaning of "gossip." Yes, it's important for there to be some collective understanding of what gossip is, especially if it's having both positive and negative (especially negative) effects on a school community or other organization. But once individuals arrive at their personal definitions that have taken into account others' perspectives, there's the potential for a "what next" step that has a great deal to do with alertness and attitude, those two qualities essential to global competence and good thinking generally.

If a mapping activity is going to help students to cultivate global thinking dispositions, then it needs guidelines that
  • encourage students to represent individual and collective emotion as well as information and understanding;
  • solicit global and local instances and examples; and
  • provide some specific guidance for reflective annotations, or what the GSCE thinking routine might call elaborations.
Linking Thinking Language and Making Meaning
I've always believed students need direct instruction in the language that can help them express the relationships between/among ideas they care about--and also metacognitive opportunities to encourage their alertness to when they might use that language. That's why I was excited to read an article in the October 2012 Atlantic about a Staten Island High School that committed to the explicit teaching of thinking language. Not only did students' reading and writing abilities improve, but their attitudes toward reading, writing, and learning became more positive.

New Dorp High School has me thinking that students might annotate and elaborate global competence-enhancing thinking maps with statements created by filling in the blanks in sentence stems. Here are some of those sentence stems that include language that relates ideas:

Because _____, ______.
Because I/we _____. ______.
Because I/we ______. ______.
Because ______, I/we noticed ______.
Because ______, I/we could/should ______.
If _____, then ______.
If I/we _____, then _____.
If _____, then I/we _____.
If ____, we could/should/might ______.
I noticed _____; moreover, _____.
I could _____; in addition, _____.
Since _____, ______.
Since _____, I/we _______. 
_______; similarly, ______.
Whereas _____, I/we _____.

I know I've listed far too many possibilities of what these sentence stems might be--probably no more than five would best--but these are my first attempts at thinking about how some of the thinking and mapping routines and activities currently in use could be slightly altered to foster the alertness and attitudes that global competence requires. What do you think, and what would you suggest--especially in terms of map directions and sentence stems?

Thanks so much for reading, and I sure would like to hear from you about anything this question and post bring to mind.

* Screen shot of image found on this web page: Navarria, G. (2016). How the internet was born: From the ARPANET to the internet. The Conversation. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from 
** Mansilla, Veronica Boix., and Anthony Jackson. Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Youth to Engage the World. New York, NY: Asia Society, 2011. Print.
*** Screen shot of graphic on p. 13 of the following online publication: Colvin, R. L., & Edwards, V. (2017, November). Teaching for global competence in a rapidly changing world [Scholarly project]. In Asia Society/Center for Global Education and OECD. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from teaching-for-global-competence-in-a-rapidly-changing-world-edu.pdf [Note: Veronica Boix-Mansilla is a major contributor to OECD global competence framework.
**** Visible thinking in action. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from [Note: Though I can't find verification of this on the site, I am sure that Ron Ritchhart, Shari Tishman, and David Perkins are among the sources of the content found on this site.]
***** Screen shot of Georgia Heard Heart Map in Hamilton, Mrs. (2012). Writing in Cafe 1123 [Web log post]. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from  
****** Screen shot of this page: 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Finally Middlemarch #2

A Scott Ketcham Drawing
So already, the honeymoon's over. No, I'm not talking about my romance with reading Middlemarch, which is alive and well; I'm talking about Dorothea Brooke's recognition that Mr. Casaubon, her new husband, is not the man she imagined him to be. And the reality of this is dawning fast: they're still on their honeymoon.

Special emphasis must be placed on the word "imagined." The Casaubon whom Dorothea believed she was marrying was her own invention, the product of her vibrant imagination and her desire to lead a life of moral purpose. Knowing that Casaubon was dedicated to a long-term scholarly project, she invented the rest of his life, its meaning, and her future noble role in it. 

It's almost painful for me to read this part of the book because I so easily recognize the tendencies of my younger self in Dorothea. I too had a talent for "improving" the men I wanted to love and be loved by. And while I was eager to avoid some of the traditional marital narratives--the women's movement was relatively young--I was very (too) good at making up non-traditional happily-ever-after stories. The truth is, any narrative we make up without involving the people whom we want to be part of it is usually doomed.

It was a good thing I didn't get married when I was in my twenties because I would have been divorced by the time I was thirty-two. I even imagined the way I would have left one very wrong man whom I foolishly imagined was very right for me: during the fourth quarter of the Superbowl (which I hate), after putting copious amounts of lasagna, salad, and garlic bread out on the buffet table for him and his friends (whom I hated), I would have walked out of my own house and into the cold January night with one loud hallelujah.

Let's not even talk about my thirties. 

By the time I got married in my late forties, I'd finally learned not to ignore what was troubling and true. I didn't believe that marriage would make my life "come together" (though it did in some ways). Scott and I went out for a long while before we got married, so neither of us discovered on our honeymoon that we'd married someone heart-breakingly different from the person we thought we'd married.

But wait--this is supposed to be a blog post about Middlemarch--and it still is because of the way George Eliot captures the heartbreak of Dorothea, all the more poignant because of her simultaneous commitment to making her new life work and being in touch with her true feelings. Dorothea's walking at the edge of a precipice here: she's seriously considering settling for the grimmest kind of self-erasing half-life because the emotional and spiritual distance between her and her husband is so vast. Unless, of course, she's wrong about how great that distance is.

It's Chapter 20 that spells out the nature of the trouble and the conflict Dorothea feels. As the chapter begins, because Dorothea had "no distinctly shapen grievance that she could state even to herself," the first voice of pain she hears is " a self-accusing cry that her feeling of desolation was the fault of her own spiritual poverty" (192). She has been in Rome for five weeks, and the city and its omnipresent antiquities oppress rather than inspire her, probably in part because she's seeing them on her own while Casaubon works.

Scott Ketcham Sculpture
As Dorothea wrestles with her dissatisfaction, its sources and solutions, Eliot philosophizes about the difficult transition from courtship to marriage: "The fact is unalterable, that a fellow-mortal with whose nature you are acquainted solely through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship, may, when seen in the continuity of married companionship, be disclosed as something better or worse than what you have preconceived, but will certainly not appear altogether the same" (195).

Different perceptions are to be expected from the new perspective of dailiness and will require adjustment no doubt. For those who have put their beloveds on pedestals, the differences may be even more pronounced--and disappointing. 

But it's not just this transition that's a problem: Dorothea has come to suspect that "the large vistas and wide fresh air she had dreamed of finding in her husband's mind were replaced by ante-rooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither" (195). As Eliot explains, "There is hardly any contact more depressing to a young ardent creature that that of a mind in which years full of knowledge seem to have issued in a blank absence of interest or sympathy" (197). Sometimes Dorothea experiences "inward fits of anger or repulsion" rather than depression (196). How can a basically passionate, willing person possibly be satisfied with someone whose thoughts and feelings had "long shrunk to a sort of dried preparation, a lifeless embalmment of knowledge"--especially when they give rise to feelings of disgust, which tend to lead to physical withdrawal (196)?

Still, Eliot doesn't despise Casaubon, even though he's a dull conversationalist and an even duller husband. Like some wise, charitable god who understands human tendencies, limitations, and possibilites, she offers the following:
"We are all born in moral stupidity, . . . : Dorothea had  early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his sense and wisdom, than to conceive . . . that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference" (211).
I was so busy disliking Casaubon and feeling for Dorothea that I hadn't thought about his perspective. In general, great works of fiction help us understand others' perspectives. In real life, it can harder to know when it's best to try hard to understand another's perspective and when it's best to walk away as fast and far as possible.

Thus far, I've encountered a form of the word "stupid" twice in Middlemarch. So far, it seems consequences of stupidity depend on the amount of pride and the type of action that accompany it. I'm wondering if some kinds of Middlemarch stupidity are more natural and therefore acceptable than others--and whether such distinctions even matter. Meanwhile, Will Ladislaw's and Dorothea's conversations about art are fascinating to me: after all, the man I married when I finally figured it out is an artist.

* Eliot, G. (2003). Middlemarch (R. Ashton, Ed.). London: Penguin Books.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Finally Middlemarch #1

So already, finally I'm reading Middlemarch by George Eliot. I was supposed to read it during the spring of my senior year of college and I didn't: one of the few times I, who generally did college by the book literally and figuratively, didn't do my homework. I did, however, read the Monarch Notes about the novel, including the sample essay questions one might expect to see on an exam and the sample answers that might be given to them. How fortunate was I that one of those sample questions appeared almost verbatim on the senior hourly exam. There was no doubt in my mind that I would have done worse on the exam had I actually read the novel, brainstormed questions I might be asked about it, and then framed responses to them. So much for what assessments really assess.

Where I Didn't Read Middlemarch
Of course, my pretense of having read Middlemarch meant I missed out on the real reading thing. But frankly, I wonder if I would have missed out on it even if I had read the book in 1977. Some conditions are more conducive to novel-reading than others; some circumstances ease our entrance into fictional worlds, foster our immersion in them and prevent us from holding them at arm's length. 

There's such a big difference between "getting through the assigned reading" and "reading a novel." I got through Howard's End under college duress; however, I didn't really encounter it until I reread it in 2013. Had I initially read it more sincerely, it's possible I would have appreciated Forster's novel as a person in her early twenties. But I also believe the 58-year-old woman who read it in 2013, the person who had been thinking about empire, voting rights, estuaries, and the Boston Marathon bombings, was poised for a real encounter with that novel. In fact, I needed such an encounter.

I'm on page 178 of the Penguin Classics edition** of Middlemarch that you see to your right, the back cover of which features Virginia Woolf's assessment of the novel as "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." Thus far, it's a novel about many varieties of foolishness, vanity, and generally good intentions. Already, many characters are busily developing triumphant story lines for their own lives. In the most foolish cases, this often involves casting relatively unsuspecting other characters in major roles for which they aren't nearly as suited as the story line developers imagine them to be. Oh, the positive and negative power of fantasy when it's fueled by a momentary inkling of a superior destiny!

But it's not this "shake-your-head at people's foibles" humor that has me writing today; it's the lines that have made me laugh out loud--often while I've been reading on the subway. I share three of them here, with this context: a handsome, eligible, innovative physician new to Middlemarch, Tertius Lydgate, must make the social rounds so he can eventually make the medical rounds.
  • Early on, Eliot's narrator explains that Lydgate has an essential trait for anyone seeking to build a medical practice in Middlemarch: "Mr. Lydgate had the medical accomplishment of looking perfectly grave whatever nonsense was talked to him,  . . .." (92). Many professions require this same skill; I think I mastered it myself during those years that I was perpetually attending required meetings as an educator.
  • When Lydgate makes the acquaintance of Mr. Farebrother at the Vincy family home, the professional cleric/amateur naturalist explains his enthusiasm for having Lydgate visit him: "'We collectors [of beetles and other specimens] feel an interest in every new man till he has seen all we have to show him'" (162). But enough about my collection of specimens: what do you think of my collection of specimens?
  • At that same Vincy family gathering, Rosamund Vincy predicts that Lydgate will find Middlemarch society lacking: "'You will not like us at Middlemarch, I feel sure,' . . . 'We are very stupid, and you have been used to something quite different'"--to which Lydgate replies, '"But I have noticed that one always believes one's own town to be more stupid than any other'" (162). Was he giving her his "perfectly grave" look as he affirmed and softened her strategically self-deprecating pronouncement? 

A residential street in Cambridge 02138
Maybe England is and was different from the USA in terms of genteel communities' willingness to characterize themselves as "stupid." Clearly, Lydgate had no experience with those Greater Boston neighborhoods and towns where degrees from prestigious colleges and graduate schools proliferate and even the suggestion of being stupid would trigger collective and individual despair.  

Before I get back to reading Middlemarch, I have a request for Middlemarch readers past and present: if there were lines that made you laugh out loud, would you please share them? Thanks so much!

* Screen shot of image on following web page:
**  Eliot, G. (2003). Middlemarch (R. Ashton, Ed.). London: Penguin Books.

Friday, May 25, 2018

On Power Lines and Sense of Place

Last Sunday morning, I went to the 9th Annual Massasoit Community College Arts Festival. The festival takes place at the college's Canton campus--Massasoit also has campuses in Brockton and MIddleborough--and at its center are three shows for artists at different stages of their lives: The Annual Massasoit Students Juried Exhibition, the Regional High School Arts Exhibit, and the Open (to the general adult public) Juried Show. In addition, there's food, live music, a "Giant Steamroller Printmaking Demo," and plenty of local crafters, artisans, and Massasoit student groups from whom to purchase goods and artifacts. The day's concluding awards ceremony honors the creators of the three art shows' most outstanding works.

The student art shows particularly impress and inspire me--always make me hope the young artists will (continue to) enjoy, trust in, and develop their considerable talent. It's the former (always) teacher in me who loves looking at the art for flashes of insight into what these young artists are trying to learn and to say to the world.

I loved the high school show's Best in Show painting the minute I saw it--and became immediately curious about what had motivated Canton High School's Srimayi Chaturvedula to create "A Sense of Place, Painting."*

When I thought to myself that this particular landscape wasn't what I would have expected a high school student to want to paint, I wasn't at all focused on what might make it a wonderful challenge for serious young painter: the reflecting puddles at the roadside, the subtle variations in the muted cloud cover, the shadows accompanying the light of early morning or descending evening, the unity created by the gently sagging power lines.

What spoke to me was the way the humble elements of the street scene coalesced to convey pristine, gritty serenity. I loved how everything was gilded and consecrated by natural light--and also parsed and sliced by the abundant power lines in the foreground. 

I imagine that some might wonder why Srimayi Chaturvedula chose to include the power lines that could be viewed as standing between her and her subject: why did she not just paint the yellow light, the distant church, the still puddles, and the darkened houses? 

For me, though, those power lines are an essential element of that place, which represents not only all those places that can't afford to bury power lines underground for aesthetic or practical reasons, but all those neighborhoods that didn't begin as "residential." I live in such a place and neighborhood. Just beyond the living room and dining room windows of my condominium, which is located in a converted factory building, are thick power lines; you can easily see them in the adjacent photo I took last winter. Early on, it bothered me that they trisected my view of sunrise and storm; then they simply became part of the view from "home." When the squawking outside my window is particularly loud, I know the crows are perched on them.

Power lines were on my mind when I went to the public library the day after the Arts Festival. Browsing the poetry books, I came upon Lifelines: Selected Poems 1950-1999 by Philip Booth, which I hadn't seen there before. Among Stanley Kunitz's words on the back cover were the ones Srimayi Chaturvedula had chosen for her painting's title: "In . . . [Philip Booth's] deep-rooted sense of place, the probity of his spirit, the integrity of his art, I find an essential beauty."*** I was reminded of Jeanne Braham's Available Light: Philip Booth and the Gift of Place, which inspired me to make a special trip to Castine, Maine, Booth's home, a couple of years back, an experience I blogged about. I recalled that in one of the photos in Braham's book, a veritable thatch of power lines spanned Main Street, Booth's usual route to and from the harbor and the center of town. 

Castine was/is lovely, enchanting and picturesque from many vantage points, but still real and functioning. Maybe it's the authenticity and solidness of such inhabited places that accounts for their heft as both anchors and forces in our lives. We may delight in and appreciate their photographic beauty, if they possess that, but what most settles and centers us, what makes them beautiful to us in a different way, is their functionality in which we participate and our sense of belonging to them, being "at home" in them (if we're lucky).

That idea of functioning in them productively is important: these places that we feel in our bones aren't just where we go to kick back, escape, or lick our wounds. They're also places we do things, or get ready to go out into the world to do things. In Wednesday's Boston Globe, before the Celtics won Game #5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, sports columnist Christopher L. Gasper referred to a Jane Austen statement as he talked about the Boston Celtics' return to home court after their road losses in Cleveland: "There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort."** Yes, home often "feels better," he acknowledged, but home by itself isn't enough, he cautioned: ultimately, the Celtics, not the T.D. Garden, were have to get out on the court and do what it would take to win.

The more I've been reading the poems in Lifelines, the more I've been appreciating that living one's life in a beloved physical place does not make life an idyll. In "Dayrise"*** from his collection called Before Sleep, Booth describes his and his wife's post-breakfast wood-cutting "before I try to home-in on today's unwritten poem": "we go out into winter to fell next year's wood:/ with her small ax and my stuttering saw, we cut near the bog,/ on the low spruce crown of the woodlot we call Cold Knoll" (155).**** First there's work to be done for home, and then there's work to be done at home. The word "home-in" makes writing itself an act of homecoming. "Try" reminds me that there's always effort involved in coming home in order to reach out to the world.

Let's face it: Castine couldn't write poems for Booth anymore than the T.D. Garden could play basketball for the Celtics. 

That said, our work--our most earnest efforts to reach our goals, pursue our dreams, fulfill the responsibilities we've chosen or others have chosen for us--often go particularly well in those places where we feel most in touch with our authentic selves, most in tune with the lives of others, and most alert to--and sometimes even in step with--the rhythms and ways of the world. These connections that create "a sense of place" are power lines of a different type than those Srimayi Chaturdvedula painted. But like her power lines, they provide energy and stability. As such, they can be thought of as lifelines.

We may hunger for beauty, but that's not the same as needing perfection by some external set of standards; we may yearn to strive earnestly, but that's not the same as needing to succeed. It's wonderful to feel deeply connected to a place that inspires and comforts more than it disconcerts and challenges. In fact, it's a privilege that many of us don't always recognize as such.****

So I leave you with a piece of advice: paint, record, or otherwise make note of what you see--all of what you see. Don't try to sanitize it, clean it up, improve it. Once you see it, sit with it for a while, get really used to it before you judge it (if judge it you must). And if it's your nature and practice to judge, try instead to love it or some part of it. You may be surprised by who and what becomes beautiful and comprehensible. You may feel eager to get to work. Or different. Or just plain peaceful and more connected. It's never bad to feel increasingly connected to the world and those in it, to experience yourself as taking your "place/ in the family of things."****** It's never bad to discover that what gently sags is lovable, beautiful, and very important. Even galvanizing and inspiring.

* I am worried my attempts to get this photo to capture the gradations of color in this subtle painting do not succeed. 
*** Booth, P. (2000). Lifelines: Selected poems, 1950-1999. New York: Penguin Books. 
**** SNote: it's not just the balance of these that confers privilege; it's also that some level of being disconcerted and challenged can lead to individual and collective growth and needed activism.creen Shot of part of Werner Tree Farm Photo:  
*****  Note: It's not just the balance of these that confers privilege; it's also that some level of being disconcerted and challenged can lead to individual and collective growth and needed activism. I also write this knowing that many people don't have places in their lives that support their dignity and physical safety, let alone their happiness and peace of mind. For this reason, we must learn to cultivate  to some degree in ourselves and one another a "sense of place" in connection to places that desperately need transformation and change.
****** Last line of Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese": 

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Approaching the "Distant Light"

So already, every once in a while I encounter a work of art that instantly becomes a compelling irritant, a beloved and beckoning itch I can't scratch, something I see out of the corner of my eye that keeps distracting me with sincere but indecipherable promises.

Renée Fleming's 2017 album Distant Light has been just such a tempting, genuine, mesmerizing torment. I've struggled to speak to myself about the music and poetry joined here, let alone to blog about it. 

It's an album about love--human love and God's love, too, I think--and sorrow, and its architecture is part of its power. It begins with Samuel Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915, op. 24," which I first heard years ago--and loved immediately because of its enigmatic woodwindy beginning that's answered almost immediately by the calm, lyrical authority of the strings. Until I read the CD/album notes, I hadn't known that Barber composed it while both his father and his aunt were ill and nearing death. James Agee's text, which Barber sets, is almost pure, blissful recollection of childhood: it includes a prayer that asks God to "remember [my people]  . . . in their hour of taking away."* Sorrow and death will come, but hopefully gently; the intimation of it is not enough to banish sweet memory or the love of life and all its uplifting and transient moments.

Next comes Anders Hillborg's "The Strand Settings," song settings of three sections of Mark Strand's Dark Harbor and one other poem, and then a set of Björk Guðmundsdóttir songs arranged by Hans Ek. It's these two song cycles that have left me wordless, captivated, and, frankly, envious of the bold voices and confident uncertainties of all the artist-seekers involved.
The speaker in "The Strand Settings" speaks as someone with much adult experience; that the world is much with him/her is especially evident in the third song/poem, which begins with the line "The sickness of angels is nothing new" ("Dark Harbor XXXV,"** p. 355).*** Much of what transpires in the first, second, and fourth poem-songs happens between the speaker and his/her beloved, between whom there's so much intimacy and so much distance. This tension is being negotiated against a vast backdrop that sometimes holds and cradles, other times muddles and mystifies,  and sometimes does both simultaneously. The orchestration emphasizes the context in which the poems' human actors--or is the speaker sometimes conversing with God, who seems both present and doubted?--are operating. The last of the four songs, which I'll write more about later in this post, ends with a not fully understood dissipation of sorrow--relief that's welcome, genuine, and baffling. 

Hillsborg's settings lead us to Ek's, and we're happily arrested by Björk's electrifying creativity, which challenges our assumptions of what's positive and what's negative in order to get us to see what we need and already have. Her songs deserve an entire blog post of their own, but the last of them, less feverish than the other two, surrounds us in rounds of sound so we can know and feel the love that is everywhere around us. Architecturally speaking, by the end of Distant Light, we're back to where we began, surrounded by love. Again the orchestration shimmers. The more I listen to the CD, I more I wonder how much of the music is coming from the compositions and the performance and how much from inside of me, inside of any of us.

At some point, I've been practically obsessed by each one of the album's "new songs." But "Dark Harbor XI," the fourth of "The Strand Settings," was the first to captivate me fully.  It's about liberation from sadness (and therefore suffering), time, persistent mystery, and human relationship--I should probably call it love--that makes endurance tolerable. It's terrifically tender and strangely definitive.

Here it is, in its entirety:
A long time has passed and yet it seems
Like yesterday, in the midmost moment of summer,
When we felt the disappearance of sorrow.

And saw beyond the rough stone walls
The flesh of clouds, heavy with the scent
Of the southern desert, rise in a prodigal

Overflowing of mildness. It seems like yesterday
When we stood by the iron gate in the center 
Of town while the pollen-filled breath

Of the wind
     drew the
     shadow of
     the clouds
Around us
     so that we
     could feel 
     the force
Of our free-
     dom while 
     still the
     of dark.
And later 
     when the rain fell and flooded the streets
And we heard the dripping on the porch and the wind 
Rustling the leaves like paper, how to explain

Our happiness then, the particular way our voices
Erased all signs of the sorrow that had been,
Its violence, its terrible omens of the end? (330)***
It was "a prodigal/ Overflowing of mildness" that spoke to the core of me. An extravagance of mildness--such a juxtaposition! An overflowing of something that's more apt to slip in through an open window or slide across a threshold than to cascade and proclaim. And the position of the adjective "prodigal" at the end of not only a line but a stanza, creating a momentary hiccup--as if the poet might be struggling to describe the sudden--is it sudden?--experience of sorrow's absence after his having become reconciled to its constant presence. He's freed without fanfare and announcement--but with bounty.

Still, liberation is always a process, a letting go of old ways, and as such it requires adjustment. That's why the speaker and his companion--I believe the two of them have weathered this sorrow together, loving each other--"feel the force/ Of our freedom while still captives of the dark."

Finally, he recollects their joy, probably expressed with quiet rather than raucous exuberance, that banished their thoughts of the deep sadness they'd long borne, and of the thoughts of mortality woven through it. Maybe sorrow's departure and the temporary hiatus from acknowledging mortality contributed equally to their experience of true happiness.

Beneath the Strand's expression of motion and emotion happening in shadows past and present is Hillsborg's music. The strings build beneath the first two stanzas, mounting and amounting, ascending and unfolding with the voice to a higher ground, and then retreating some, as liberation is contextualized with reference to memory. 

The texture changes, becomes more unsettled as recollection continues in the third and fourth stanzas: woodwind and other instruments--Bruce Hodges identifies them as "wind chimes and four wine glasses (a glass harmonica)"*****--add points of color, spattering percussively; the voice soars highest on the word "freedom." 

Beneath a further recollection in the fifth and sixth stanzas, the strings again are steady, accommodating, and reassuring. A kind of vibrant but controlled ringing very close to the end of the piece reminds us that the couple's carefree distance from thoughts of mortality is but a temporary reprieve. And finally, a peaceful resolution, perhaps because our mortality is a familiar truth we're practiced at living with. As Hodges describes it, “Dark Harbor XI,” [is] . . . buoyed by the ensemble’s sweeping texture, slowly turning and sparkling as if in twilight."*****

There was a time when I felt "a prodigal/Overflowing of mildness." I will never forget the simultaneous lightness and gravity of that moment. Was it winter, or was it just my personal winter that was over? I can't recall. Conscious that my emotional landscape had shifted, but also not quite sure I should trust the shift, I had no impulse to sing from the rooftops; instead, I just walked around my neighborhood, feeling I was finally actually seeing it again, now that the veil that had interposed itself between me and life had lifted

You might think that the itch and the corner-of-my-eye distraction that I mentioned at the beginning of this post was a deep-seated desire not to have to revisit the deep sadness that preceded my liberation. But that's not so: every day the news reminds me of dignified human endurance--of pain, of loss, of hardship, of injustice--of sorrows more terrible, traumatic, and unrelenting than the relatively short-lived personal sorrow I endured. People endure, hoping or simply refusing to embrace their suffering as meaningless and/or permanent. As the poet Richard Blanco put it recently when he was talking about Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art" on NPR, "We find a way to go on . . . to make meaning out of life still, to get up in the morning." 

No, it's not the plentiful darkness that requires our human endurance that's the irritant; it's the distant light that I want to trust and don't quite. When I'm talking to other people about it--I personally interpret this distant light as God--I can say and believe, "The Distant Light shines for us, especially when we reach toward it." What I can't do with any conviction is personalize this and say, "The Distant Light shines for me, especially when I reach toward it." Instead, I stand with Strand's speaker in the poem "Black Sea" on a night-time rooftop where he "gazed at the sea," . . . "waiting for something, a sign, the approach/ of a distant light," and then wonders at the end of waiting: "Why did I believe you would come out of nowhere? Why with all/ that the world offers would you come only because I was here? (437).***

It makes me uncomfortable to admit this. But given that so many people reach toward the light through prayers that others have written and in the company of fellow congregants saying those same prayers, I have to assume that I am not alone. A beloved minister friend of mine who died many years ago used to say, "There is no faith without doubt." If he was right, then I exemplify his statement. The desire for faith isn't faith, but it's probably a necessary ingredient.

It's National Poetry Month--only one day left now--and I've been reading a lot of poetry. At the same time, I've been reading Abigail Pogrebin's My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew and therefore thinking a lot about the relationship between belief in God and religious traditions that direct us to contemplate death, remember sorrow, recognize fragility and impermanence, and celebrate. The combination of poetry and spiritual memoir is a good one for me. Still no answers, but some meaningful agitation and consolation, courtesy of others' wisdom and perspectives, including those of Renée Fleming and Anders Hillborg who teamed up to select several highly evocative Mark Strand poems to set for voice and orchestra. 

It occurs to me that nowhere in the post have I mentioned the gorgeous--knowing, humble, confident, artful, bravely expressive--singing of Renée Fleming. I took it for granted that she would fuse all of the album's artistic, imaginative elements, and transport me into a place of meaning, beauty, and hope--and she did! Distant Light reminds me that great art and artists have the power to convey our most fundamental yet complex human experiences, and that beauty inspires us to endure.

* Agee, J. (n.d.). Samuel Barber: Knoxville summer of 1915. Retrieved April 22, 2018, from [Actual link:]
** You can read this whole poem in a comment about the photo on this link:
*** Strand, M. (2016). Collected poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
**** Hodges, B. (2013). Renee Fleming meets Anders Hillborg [Review of concert The Strand Settings]. Seen and Heard International.
***** Partial screen shot of