Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Challenge of Ordinary Time and Extraordinary Experience

So already, sacred time has given way to ordinary time, officially and unofficially. The Days of Awe are over, the Gates of Repentance have closed, and the journey of a new year has begun. My students are writing their first major essays of the term, which they'll submit on Thursday, and the first parent open house of the year was tonight. There's no denying it: school's in session, and the great express train of the school year is barreling down the tracks.

Maybe that's why I want to take a moment to say that the High Holy Days were extremely meaningful to me for the first time in many years. Even though in September I didn't manage to follow my Sixty Days reflection and writing routines as faithfully as I managed to do in August, I kept at them regularly enough to develop a better understanding of the holiday liturgy and the nature of repentance itself in the Jewish scheme of things than I ever had before. The holiday services, with their deliberately arranged and chosen prayers and portions, welcome and remind, demand and support, challenge and understand, unsettle and comfort, and ultimately deposit one -- lightened, mindful, and hopeful -- on the threshold of a new year. Right now, I'm feeling grateful for the whole notion of "covenant with God" and for the heightened opportunity that the High Holy Days provide annually for attempting to "get it right" with God. I am grateful to those of you whose responses to some of my earlier blog posts have inspired me to keep reading, thinking, and trying.

In general, your responses to my blog have been inspiring and encouraging. First of all, some of you have actually left comments, and that's made for a conversation and company, not just my lone voice. Meanwhile, others of you have let me know that you're "lurkers" who read my blog but will probably never post response comments.  A number of you non-bloggers have sent me thoughtful e-mails, facebook messages, and snail-mail notes in which you've shared your own relevant experiences, questions, and insights. Unfortunately, a few of you who are comfortable with the interactivity of blogging have actually tried to post -- only to have your comments evaporate into cyberspace for reasons that neither you nor I understand. But you wanted to post, and I appreciate that. If it's one thing I know, it's that ordinary time doesn't leave much time and space for blog-reading and blog-posting, let alone technologically thwarted blog-posting; so that you have made the time to read and (try to) respond, or even just to read, means so much to me.

Meanwhile, the existence of this blog has changed some of the conversations I'm having with people -- I suspect because I am making clear and they are recognizing how seriously I am taking myself as I attempt to prepare, in part by blogging, for the fast-approaching next phase of my life. If it's one thing I've been doing quite deliberately, it's been trying to recognize and capture those moments and experiences -- past and present -- that I think have the most potential to tell me about my authentic self, the self that I must be in real relationship with if I am to discover new, satisfying post-retirement paths. Simultaneously, and probably understandably, my interest in the moments and experiences that others feel have most defined  and guided them has also grown.

When the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington came along, accompanied by a slew of magazine and television news stories about people's recollections of the March itself and the weeks before and after it, I realized that I had no personal memories of a moment that was critically and personally important to so many people whom I know, as well as to the nation as a whole. In August 1963, I was a seven-year old who had strong television memories of JFK's inauguration and of rockets leaving launch pads, and I carefully examined any photos of Caroline and John-John that came across my path. But the March on Washington never registered. 

At a late August supper at the home of my friend Meg Anderson, who's just a few years older than I am, I asked if she remembered it.  Meg told me that she remembered it vividly. Then we somehow got off-topic and she didn't share what she remembered.

If Meg's name seems familiar to you it may be because she posted a comment in response to my last blog post. Meg and I  began to get to know each other when she became the Dean of Curriculum of one of CRLS' newly established small schools and my direct supervisor in 2000. Some years later, when she left CRLS to join the Center for Collaborative Education and lead its Principal Residency Program, in which my current principal participated, our already firmly established friendship continued.  We've spent much time over the past decade discussing the state of education in general, new educational ideas and programs that seem promising, poems and books we love, and our personal struggles to balance the worlds of work and "non-work" -- and to envision next career and life steps.

A few days after Meg didn't get to share her March on Washington memories with me, I received an e-mail from her that was also addressed to her two daughters, both of whom are a young mothers, wives, and professionals.  Meg had decided to share with all three of us her answer to my question.   Her daughters knew some of the stories, but they'd never experienced them collected into a written whole.

The first thing I did was to do a little bit of online research about Viola Liuzzo, whom Meg had mentioned in her first paragraph and whose name I had never heard before. Then I read Meg's narrative start to finish, beginning again with her first sentence. Among other things, Meg wrote about serving as an usher when Martin Luther King came to her high school in Grosse Pointe, Michigan and hearing him -- and watching him -- speak to an audience that included strategic, venomous hecklers. She also told about her experience of expressing an unpopular race-related opinion at a town meeting and dealing with the consequences of that in the moment and afterwards. Always present in the narrative was Meg's mother, sometimes shielding Meg, sometimes supporting Meg's participation in public life, but always, always talking and listening to Meg, while responding herself to the events of the day.

I've known Meg for thirteen years, but as I read these stories, I felt that I had a much better understanding of how she had come to be the Meg whose integrity and moral judgment are trusted completely by so many of us. At the same time, I also realized that I had come to hear these stories almost accidentally -- because, over a delicious late-summer supper, I had chanced to ask her whether she had March on Washington memories, and because she had remembered that I'd asked her and decided to answer.  

The serendipity of getting to hear stories about experiences that so powerfully shaped Meg made me wonder how often and why really important stories, stories in which narrative and reflection co-mingle explicitly or implicitly, don't get shared face-to-face or one-on-one. Folklife centers collect important stories, oral history projects proliferate, and radio shows such as "The Moth Radio Hour" thrive.  Are we more apt to share our most significant stories, crafted to communicate that we recollect them with no less feeling over time and even perhaps to suggest that they are actually becoming more significant to us over time, with people we don't know personally? 

So what is it that might make us hesitate to share our stories with friends and family? I understand that some of us are by nature quite private, but I am also wondering if there's something about the stories themselves and our relationships to them that holds us back from sharing. So here are some questions I'm wondering about:

  • Do we simply love holding our important stories close, treasuring them as our own?
  • Do our stories feel especially private to us because they're so personally important? 
  • Do we fear that we can't do them justice in the telling? 
  • Do we fear that our audiences won't understand why they matter so much to us -- and may not even try particularly hard to understand? 
  • Dwe hold them back because they're precious to us -- but also still a little too mysterious to us to be shared just yet
  • Do we fear that others won't treat them as the precious things they are -- and might even jump in and assign them particular meanings that are more about who they are than who we are? 
  • Or do we keep them inside because they don't fit into the social discourse of the day, which is often a combination of reporting "the personal latest" and dissecting the events of "the day" more intellectually than personally?

There's an interesting moment in Howard's End when E.M. Forster lets us know that he has a story about a personal experience that he's not going to tell us. Explaining the affectionate, durable relationship shared by sisters Helen Schlegel and Margaret Schlegel, Forster comments, "There are moments when the inner life actually 'pays,' when years of self-scrutiny, conducted for no ulterior motive, are suddenly of practical use," adding that "Such moments are still rare in the West." That eight-word declaration, with its authoritative tone, informs me, "There's an important story to be told -- but it's certainly not going to be told here and now." Then, I begin to wonder how many readers see that there just might be an invitation here, that there just might be a door to open. Then I begin to wonder who will care.

Recently, Meg told me that I could post her story on my blog.  Once she reconfirms, I will do so.  Stories told seem to have so many potential effects:  under the best of circumstances, they can deepen positive relationships, create nuanced understandings, illuminate our identities as members of groups and as the individuals we always are, even enlighten and inspire people who don't even know us.  So I hope you'll respond here with your theories and comments -- and your stories. We'll hope for the best of circumstances -- but I'll count on you to bring up other points and ideas if you think my optimism needs some leavening.


  1. I think when this century turned and Westerners began the great digital migration our already sociological seclusion began to grow into a collective experience. Your blog and revelations demonstrate that rather than "move away" from culture and tradition, we are now able to "gravitate toward" customs we will prefer, or wish to experience for whatever reason. I see this as a process leading who knows where, but humanity will always seek, create, and value meaning, so I will not despair. In the future we will seek our extraordinary experiences, not merely anticipate them :)

    1. Hi, Berhan -- I like the optimism of your post, and your confidence that people will seek extraordinary experiences -- experiences will feel really different from and definitely more significant than "ordinary" ones. I worry that it's so easy to be busy and distracted and to have our attention drawn away from required things that we're hoping to get done so I can so we can do something "meaningful" -- like when I'm trying to finish writing a letter of recommendation so I can get out of the house for a while, but then I start looking at incoming e-mails that matter little and thus prolong my recommendation-writing to the extent that there's no time to go out). Scott (my husband) is always encouraging me to do what I want to do before I do what I think I need to do.

  2. Never look back. Something might be gaining on you.

    Satchel Paige

  3. Hi, Jim --

    When did Satchel Paige say that? How well do you manage to live by it?


    1. I got the Satchel Paige quote from a birthday card years ago. It made me smile.

      Something impels me to tease you, Joan. (Am I the only one?)

      I think it was the lines about needing to find your authentic self in order to prepare for the future. There seems to be that nervousness about not being perfect that I used to tease Nancy about all those many years ago. Too lace doily for me; I just cannot relate to it. It doesn't make upset or anything, but it does bring out my teasing streak.

      I am reminded of your earlier post on self-improvement. I just don't see it. You seem fine to me. Now MAYBE you need rehab, but, if so, you are hiding it real well.

      My sense of the world is chaos, and my sense of our characters is mottled (on a good day). But it is good enough to get by if we try hard. And if we don't take ourselves too seriously.

      Maybe that is my true allergy to earnest. I do not trust self-assurance, self-righteous, etc. In the wrong hands, it is dangerous.

      And that is one reason why I like you so much. I feel confident that you will never feel perfectly self-assured.

      Plus, you know, I like to tease people.

    2. Hi, Jim -- I suspected you were teasing me, but that's not always an easy call in the online world! It's FINE for you to tease me: in my life, what's been true is that most of the people who tease me are the ones who SHOULD tease me. Actually, lots more people used to tease me: some of that stops once you're one of the old folks at work -- which, in my case these days, means that I'm older than many of the new teachers' parents!!!!

      "Too lace doily" -- oooh, I cringe -- but I know what you mean. Like you, I'm suspicious of self-righteous, and prone to be self-righteous, too. That said, I reserve the right to err on the side of seriousness here, in this blog, because sometimes it's hard to be serious enough in a social world where so many are discussing television shows, vacations, and good wines.

      So thank you for this comment, too, Jim; I've known you were the teasing type since French E 40 years ago!! I also know you're wise, and not just a wise guy!!

    3. French E.

      I remember it all too well. I was the only one in the class who didn't speak French.

      That was a hassle. It did not end well.

  4. Coming to this late as is my wont these days: I wonder if we don't tell our stories because they don't appear to us as stories until we are prompted to think of them that way. It was just what we lived. But when asked or when we encounter something that reminds us of a time or of an experience, perhaps that's the point at which it becomes narrative. Perhaps this goes hand-in-hand with whether we are present in our lives.

    I've been thinking a lot about our college days lately in connection with the fanfare commission in Janet's memory. At the time we were college students and every day we were embroiled in the every day dramas of that life. But at this distance all I remember are the things that became stories: the time Janet gave a darkened bus full of half-drunken bandies a guided tour of New Jersey as seen from the Jersey Turnpike or the relentless but hopeless (she knew she wouldn't get it) campaign she conducted to become manager of the Band (she didn't).

    I saw a marvelous production of Our Town a couple of years ago. It was in present day dress with no scenery -- just a table and a couple of chairs -- and the lights in the theater were up so the actors felt just like members of the audience. But when Emily asked to go back, suddenly, at the back of the theater, there was a fully realized kitchen of the period with soft beautiful light streaming in the windows. The actors were now in costume and you could even smell bacon from the stove. It was all so vivid, so "real", that it was unbearable.

  5. Hi, Laura -- I really love your phrase "the things that became stories" -- and I can just feel from your description of the Our Town production how there was something shocking in that staging -- the people experienced initially as "one of us" and then those completely vivid and painstakingly remembered memories placed behind the audience -- with us and behind us at the same time.

    When you talk about being "present in our own lives," do you mean too busy living life to be thinking about telling it as a story? Or do you mean something else? I ask in part because I sometimes have a feeling that some people are purposely creating stories to tell (not many, but some) as opposed to being "doing their lives." I also think that Facebook sometimes turns the present into a story almost immediately -- or at least suggests there's a story to be told.

    Even the brief summaries you're providing of the "Janet stories" you're remembering seem very alive to me, and I don't even know the particulars of the drama! Thanks for responding, Laura!! JSS

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  7. Hello Joan Soble, I am trying to catch up reading your thought-provoking blogs. As you so poignantly stated, "the great express train of the school year is barreling down the tracks."

    I am looking forward to reading Meg Anderson's piece as stories of Dr. King's time always captivate my attention.

    It's interesting that you mention "The Moth Radio Hour" stories because I caught two great pieces this week. Even though it was late, I did not want to get out of the car as Tina McElroy Ansa's story was so gripping, rich, and funny. Your list of questions regarding why many of us do not share stories resonated with me especially, "Do we hold them back because they're precious to us -- but also still a little too mysterious to us to be shared just yet? " This morning while taking a walk, I decided to submit a personal story to Moth Radio. The chances of it getting accepted are slim, but it was fun telling myself the story.

    Well, I am slowly but surely catching up with your entries. The great thing about blogs is that "response" and thus "discourse" opportunity. Natasha Labaze

  8. Hi, Natasha --

    I am so excited that you're going to submit a personal story to Moth Radio. Please keep me posted on what you hear and how this whole process works. The image I have in my mind of you walking and telling yourself the story is a really wonderful one that resonates with me personally. It makes me think that if you need to get back some parts of the story -- or particularly feeling of the story -- you can go out and walk it back, too.

    One thing I know about you is that once you determine to write something, submit something, you always manage to follow through, even if it's not exactly by your first self-set deadline. I keep thinking of the poem you wrote about the earthquake in Haiti . . . I'm putting the link here for anyone who's reading this and would like to read your poem: .

    Thanks, Natasha, and looking forward to more response and discourse! JSS

    1. Hi, Nat Lab -- "Particularly" should be "particular" above. I'm going to be particular about that.

      http://writersofhaiti.com/natasha-labaze -- let's hope the link shows up here, too! JSS