Sunday, September 28, 2014

Tangled in Reflection's Web

So already, outside of one of my living room windows, a large, industrious garden spider has woven a huge web. During the night hours and just after sunrise (where does he go when evening is spread across the sky, I wonder), he's not out there at the center of it; but by mid-morning, he's resumed his customary place, spinning, repairing, doing whatever it is spiders do when they've established themselves in a particular location. Just as nature intended, his web isn't easy to see; it took me multiple photograph attempts, along with the cooperation of the sun and the shadows, to capture Sammy Jr.* and his web through the window screen. 

But don't be deceived by the neatly bounded rectangle of the above close-up: Sammy's web is wide, extending across the width of window from the left side to the right side of its outermost frame, the track that's reserved for one of the storm windows. The web is far enough away from the window screen that when the wind blows, it billows and waves. It's strong and delicate both--but not so strong as to have ensnared my neighbor's car, as the picture on the right might lead you to believe.

So much is about perspective and purpose. Knowing from where you're looking in time and space. Knowing why you're looking, what you're so keen on seeing. What's interesting to me is when focus and purpose actually limit seeing. It happens all the time in television crime dramas** when a robust but incorrect theory of "who done it" blinds detectives to elements of the crime scene photos that point toward the real perpetrator. Until there is someone to charge with the crime, the job of the investigators is to zoom in while never losing sight of the periphery, just in case.

As a longtime teacher, I think about this a lot, especially given the current passion for criterion-referenced assessment of both students and teachers. In my educational book, tunnel vision is never a good thing, even when the tunnel is built out of very thoughtful performance criteria. As educators, we need to move deftly between our zoom lenses and our wide-angle lenses if our intent is not only to judge what our students have learned and how well they've learned it (always important), but to support them in furthering their learning, and in constructing the authentic individual and group identities that can help them realize their potentials as learners and people. 

That's why the Reggio Emilia notion of "a pedagogy of listening,"*** which bids teachers to listen and see both widely and deeply for the sake of learners and learning, resonates so strongly with me: it makes students visible to themselves during the processes of learning and helps them determine and execute their next steps. Experiences of successfully directing and redirecting their own learning propel them towards agency in their lives both in and beyond school. 

But as Reggio Emilia educator Carla Rinaldi cautions, 

       Listening is not easy. It requires a deep awareness and at the 
       same time a suspension of our judgments and above all our 
       prejudices; it requires openness to change. It demands that we 
       have clearly in mind the value of the unknown and that we are 
       able to overcome the sense of emptiness and precariousness 
       that we experience whenever our certainties are questioned (81). 
Recently, I've been thinking how hard it is to see what is there to see, even when I'm actively striving to see. And with that sense of failed but intentional seeing come the feelings of "emptiness and precariousness" that Rinaldi mentions. 

Photography has helped me to understand the fragility of my perceptions of what is certain and there. For a while, I've been conscious that my camera often sees what my mind's eye doesn't register--namely reflections in the water of objects or scenes near the water that have caught my attention. For example, recently, I took several photographs of the rays of the sun shining through broken cloud-cover. 

But only when I looked at the photos a couple of weeks later did I realize that one of them captured not only the sun's commanding rays but the reflection of whole variegated gray yet sun-splintered sky in the waters of Black's Creek. I would have thought that by now, I would have noticed the almost-symmetry of the scene I was beholding and would have taken the photo because of the bonus mirror image of the sky's spectacular arrangement. But I think I know what blinded me: I had begun playing with the exposure because I so wanted my photo to capture the drama of the light-dark contrast above me. In retrospect, my determination to "see" and capture one arresting aspect of the scene before me prevented me from registering that other arresting aspect.

All of this interest in seeing, widely and deeply, into and beyond, has me wondering about the relationship between reflection and realities of all kinds. Over the last five weeks, I've been purposefully reflecting, especially in conjunction with Simon Jacobson's 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays.**** But it's been difficult; I've felt haunted and disconnected as often as I've felt encouraged and connected. It's as if the more I look, the less certain I am of who I am and what I see. Frankly, it's not an easy place for a Jew to be right in the middle of the 10 Days of Awe. According to the book, the King is no longer in the field; He's entered the palace. For some reason, though, I'm still standing in the field. And it feels like the only place I can authentically be. Maybe next year, something will be different. Meanwhile, out here in the field, I am watching the changing season, and I'm terribly grateful for it.

I'm also incredibly grateful to my husband Scott, who gives great advice that I generally don't follow.  While he totally respects my 60 Days process, he's been encouraging the "out in the world" me to to stop trying to figure out my future and to get busy doing anything that appeals to me without worrying about whether it's "the thing I should be doing"--essentially to come to know by doing, not thinking. And he doesn't get angry at me when I keep thinking and not doing. Because on my most unsettling days he somehow manages to remind me of who I am, I asked him if he was doing that intentionally. No, he said; he wouldn't deliberately try to reflect me back to me because he doesn't feel he knows me better than I know myself. He then offered the possibility that the affirmation that I was experiencing was less about who he knows me to be, and more about how much he feels for me as I struggle genuinely--and how much he believes that I'll get to where I should be going. 

I've been thinking about things that one can't see or experience directly, that one can only apprehend somehow reflected. I began thinking about this because early in 60 Days, Simon Jacobson retells the story of Moses' being allowed to see G-d's shadow rather than G-d himself. Soon thereafter, Andrea Barrett's short story, "Servants of the Map," part of a story collection by the same name, came to my mind and sent me to my bedroom bookshelf. First of all, the story's main character has an unusual talent for perspective-taking: when he recognizes that he is evolving importantly through his experiences in a fascinating, beautiful, dangerous unknown part of the world, he almost immediately recognizes the likelihood that his wife and children are on their own courses of change and might be also be worrying about how their changes will affect the family's collective life once he returns. Second of all, the story is about using what we know to know what we don't know: the men executing the Grand Trigonomentrical Survey of India use triangulation to measure the heights of towering Himalayan peaks that they can see but never scale. It's arduous, excruciatingly lonely, and often exhilarating work.

As the surveyors' triangulation method suggests, it may be that triangles of vision are more useful than lines of vision for helping us to see, to understand, to know. If reflection is attached to one angle of a triangle that one might use to know the unknown, to apprehend truth and reality, either within us and beyond us, then what ideas or entities might be attached to the other angles? I began drawing triangles, experimenting with assigning various knowns and unknowns to the vertices of an array of triangles. I imagined the lines of sight heading in two directions, and in so doing, defining a field of vision, upon which perhaps, I or someone else could gain some footing. 

I don't know if this drawing helped me at all to see more clearly or to feel more connected, but it did give me something to do. Now as I look at the triangles, having had that conversation with Scott, I am wondering if a genuinely useful triangle needs "love" or "compassion" as one of its vertices. Scott's constant, attentive presence allows me to tolerate--and sometimes even confront--my sadness and fear as I'm struggling to see. Reflection is different--in my case, far more intimidating--in the absence of love and compassion.

Recently, I took the picture at the right not just because the sky's reflection in the tidal channel was so beautiful, but because the man in the white shirt and red hat seemed to be so thoroughly enjoying this vast, beautiful reflection, and the sea beyond it, as if they belonged to him. I can almost hear him exhaling. I envy his calm contentment. I think I also envy his red hat.

During the last two weeks, my personal reflection experiences have left me feeling more like an insect caught in Sammy Jr.'s voluminous web than like that red-hatted man. But that spider web is an amazing, beautiful thing as long as you're not an insect ensnared in it. Which I'm not. Here******, it's sunlight-reflecting dew-drops that make visible another spider's magnificent handiwork. Yes, sometimes, it really is all about perspective and reflection. But other times, looking and doing, moving and hoping, are just what's needed for knowing and seeing. So I end this blog post determined to keep up my 60 Days reflecting--and to follow Scott's advice. I'll need a zoom lens and wide-angle lens for both, I think.

* Sammy Sr. and his web blockaded the path to a seldom-used bench overlooking the stream on our property in Berlin, New York.
** Screen shot from <>
*** Carla Rinaldi’s definition of this can be found in the chapter entitled “Documentation and Assessment: What is the Relationship?” in Project Zero and Reggio Children (2001): Making learning visible: Children as individual and group learners. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children. 
****Jacobson, Simon. 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays. 2nd Revised ed. New York: Kiyum, 2008. Print. 
***** Screen shot of <>. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

The King is in the Color Field

So already, this morning, I enthusiastically turned the pages of all of my calendars* to September, part of my ritual reorientation of myself to the end of summer as someone who has generally spent a lifetime going to school the day after Labor Day. It's very strange not to be going to school tomorrow. It doesn't feel wonderful, as I hoped it would. I've simply replaced a familiar anxious feeling with an unfamiliar one. The good news is that both varieties of anxiety share elements of hope and possibility. The bad news is that "hope and possibility" keep alternating with little jabs of "terror of the unknown."

But the other good news is that another new month has just recently begun: 1 Elul on the Jewish calendar was last Wednesday, August 27. And so, as I did last year, I am beginning to prepare for the Jewish High Holidays with the guidance of 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays by Simon Jacobson.**

Some Background
All of that said, the real purpose of this blog post is to share a spiritual experience I had the other night while my husband Scott and I were out in Berlin, New York at our cabin. So my more immediate reason for talking about 60 Days is some of its content is significant for my night-time tale. So is the fact that on the day of that night-time experience, Scott and I visited the renovated Clark Art Institute. A word about each of these official contexts.

In 60 Days' introductory materials, I came across an idea that comforted me much last year: Elul is "the month when the 'King is in the field and receives all people pleasantly and with a smiling countenance'" (Jacobson, 5). Since I continue to struggle with how to talk to G-d, the fact that G-d is especially inclined to listen helps me continue to try. As the Chabad web site explains,
"In Likkutei Torah [footnote #5], the Alter Rebbe describes the tightening of the bond between G‑d and the Jewish people in the month of Elul with the following parable:

Before a king enters his city, its inhabitants go out to greet him and receive him in the field. At that time, anyone who so desires is granted permission [and can] [footnote #6] approach him and greet him. He receives them all pleasantly, and shows a smiling countenance to all . . .
". . . In going out to the field, the king makes himself accessible to his people. It is the people, however, who take the step of turning to him."***
The Clark Art Institute has been redesigned to take advantage of the museum's setting on its hilly, beautiful natural "campus" that offers a large reflecting pool adjacent to the new building and a number of walking trails that, for all intents and purposes, leave the museum behind. The two "special exhibits" we saw, one in the brand new Clark Center and one in the slightly older Lunder Center at Stone Hill, were especially moving and memorable because of the way they take advantage of the museum's natural setting, offering exterior views and supplementing artificial light with natural light when doing so "does right" by the works so lit.

In fact, Scott and I saw many of the paintings in the Clark Center exhibit, "Make It New: Abstract Painting from the National Gallery of Art 1950-1975," in Washington D.C. two years ago, but they didn't speak to me then as they did last week. Why I felt personal narrative crying out this time when last time all I saw was passionate technique and experimentation, I just don't know. The adjacent Frank Stella painting, "Delta,"**** which
wasn't at the National Gallery, especially called out to me: perhaps because its repeated shapes seemed to form a candelabra, even a menorah, a symbol of liberation from darkness; perhaps because its repeated shapes also seemed to form a corrugated iron fence, a dark image of oppression, and I've been feeling in a dark place; perhaps because "Delta" often symbolizes change, and this year has been about desired but uneasy change. 

All of that said, if I'd seen this painting at another time, I suspect I would have wondered silently, "Why did the artist want to do this?" That's the question I always seemed to ask about paintings that seemed to be just about pattern or just about color. But this time I saw nuances in both color and pattern and felt engaged rather than put off.

And now, my night-time experience
Last Friday night, I woke up in the middle of the night, and knew immediately that I was wide awake and was going to be up for a while. 

Despite Scott's and my having had such an inspiring visit to the Clark Art Institute, I was feeling uneasy, strangely homeless, alienated from my usual comforts and purposes. As a result, I couldn't conjure the images and fantasies that sometimes get me through at least some part of a "dark night of the soul": my usual images and fantasies seemed to belong to someone else's life, not mine. 

The problem was that once I jettisoned those images and fantasies, I was left with nothing but blankness--not so much the stark whiteness of a page, but a kind of floating neutral not-light, not-dark grayness. Confronted by that grayness, not threatening but not inviting, not cold but not warm, just there in all its nondescript neutrality, I just felt flatly, powerlessly sad, incapable of any kind of escape, incapable of generating anything that might distract me from that matter-of-fact, steady grayness.*****

Then I heard the owl--maybe it was the orange-headed owl that had startled me that afternoon when it took flight from the tree closest to our cabin's front door. It was somewhere in the valley: maybe at the far end of our field, maybe across the brook, maybe perched in any one of the trees across the road and up the hill. It floated its "hoo-oo" five or six times across the faintly humming darkness that is Berlin, making me newly happy with each calm, measured repetition. Scott moved, and I became aware that was he had heard the owl and had enjoyed hearing it, too. I also understood that my sadness could vanish in an instant.

I stayed up for a long time after that. With my eyes open, not my usual sleepless practice. I looked up at the open window in the wall above our bed and could see night--from my perspective, a smoky gray-brown trapezoid, framed by an darker, more opaque gray-brown window frame and wall. The two distinct gray-browns, the soft edges of the lighter trapezoid and its frame, the faint luminosity of the window, and the slight variations in the dark gray-brown of the wall reminded me of the "color field" paintings I'd seen at the Clark earlier that morning. So I just kept staring at the gray-brown-against-gray-brown above me.******

Suddenly, I saw the Helen Frankenthaler purple- and yellow-dominated painting******* that I'd seen that morning hanging on a wall in the Clark as an exemplar of "Color Field" painting. In my mind's eye, the painting was hanging on a white wall next to a large floor-to-ceiling window with a view of trees--like the windows in the sculpture building in which David Smith's circle sculptures, some or them placed as he had placed them on his Adirondack farm, were on display. At the Clark, these sculptures were inside, but everything about the exhibition space itself--its plentiful natural light, large windows, and wooded views--and the arrangement of the sculpture and paintings in it suggested that we were outside. 

But it wasn't a painting and a window alone that I was seeing in my mind's eye. In addition to those Clark-inspired elements, my imagination conjured a long, bare wooden table, resting on which were a pad of paper and the forearm of someone poised to write on it.

In its sparse harmony, its orientation outward, its pristine quiet, my image felt expressive of me. The person to whom the forearm belonged was alone, and view, or views, from the window pointed toward the expansive and infinite, not toward the centered, the drawn-in and finite, that's often associated with "hearth and home." 

Curious about this "looking out" propensity I often feel, I remembered how much I had liked several Sylvia Plimouth Mangold paintings that I saw at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts many years ago, so much so that I bought a book so I could keep looking at "5 A.M. in January, 1979" and "Untitled, 1979" (pictured here********). My favorite Mangold paintings evoked dawn on winter's coldest, stillest mornings and reminded me of how much I liked waking up early in Cambridge and looking at the apartment building across the street where one illuminated window told me a fellow early-riser was already beginning the ritual of the day, though the sky was still blue-black. So many of my homiest images are of the individual, alert and awake and purposeful, while the rest of the world does what it does somewhere else. Such comfort in the cold, alone stillness; hardly a Hallmark moment!

I thought again about the owl, who'd been silent for a while. Or maybe he'd gone elsewhere. In my mind was the field in the still night and the owl somewhere, alert and watching. Like the King in the Field, watching, listening. In the beautiful sunlight of late August, I easily think of our Berlin field as a place G-d could be standing, waiting, listening, crowned in the gold of all the goldenrod, cooled in the lengthening shadows of the trees. But I wasn't used to thinking of the King being in the field at night--and there wasn't any reason that He shouldn't be. And maybe the King was in the color field.

So I began looking at the muted gray-brown of the open window, imagining  the owl somewhere at the edge of the field or the valley, and G-d out there, the King in the darkened field, the King in any field and every field, all day and all night. 

I thought to myself, "Well, if he's out there, I should try to pray." But I'm not good at praying. And I was struggling to remember all three things 60 Days directed regarding prayer.********* I could remember that I needed to have courage, and I could remember that I needed to express my feelings, which could mean asking for what I really needed, really wanted. So I kept my eyes open, looking at the open window, and I found myself saying that I needed to know where to direct my heart. I was surprised I asked about my heart, but I knew immediately I'd actually asked the right question. This was about the heart, about the inclination of my heart. I had moved away from asking "what should I do with my time?" to asking "what should I do with my heart?"

The minute I said it, I began to think more about Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. Actually, I had already been thinking about it because I had made a deliberate decision to keep my eyes open and see the dark, but I now focused on Taylor's discussion of James Fowler's ideas about belief, faith, and trust in Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. The inclinations of the heart are so important. The Talmud calls prayer "service of the heart."********** But knowing and speaking our hearts isn't easy.

The saying goes that "home is where the heart is." But homes are only places if people don't bring their hearts into them. Which doesn't mean that homes can't help to cultivate hearts or to restore them when they're injured or broken. Perhaps home is that toward which the heart yearns, or maybe home is the yearning heart itself if all it can do is wander the world. Given that I come from a religious background in which exile and wandering are chronic experiences, I believe that on some level, home and heart can be portable. The world has too many highways, paths, dark corridors, and darker streets***********; and is too filled with refugees, wanderers, homeless people, exiles, and other displaced and marginalized persons and peoples for it to be otherwise. That said, we all do better when we have someplace that's home, even if we spend more time looking out of the windows than immersed in a perfect sense of belonging around the hearth.

Since Friday, I've been keeping my eye on fields--color fields, natural fields. The one at the right, photographed last Saturday, borders Route 2 in Williamstown, and proclaims in every season that Creation is spectacular. But after my experience of watching darkness deliberately and having the courage to pray, versus almost pray, I'm reminding myself that the King is in the field. Still feels funny to hear myself say that, but I'm saying it, and I'm getting more used to saying it.

And one more thing: I've promised myself to remember how, on that night of flat, calmly expanding grayness, when I felt sad but not scared, the call of the owl banished my sadness completely and filled me with joy. I know owls are nocturnal hunters, but given my experiences of last Friday night, I'm now thinking of the Berlin owl as my "bird of pray," a reminder that some kinds of sadness may be habits rather than unshakable feelings. Luckily, I rediscovered in my cupboard a small ceramic owl and positioned him in my bedroom window for future sleepless nights. There will be some!

* Screen shot of <>
**Jacobson, Simon. 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays. 2nd Revised ed. New York: Kiyum, 2008. Print.
*** From the Chabad web site:<>
*(4) Screen shot of blog post: <>
*(5) Screen shot of <> 
*(6) Screen shot of <
*(7) Screen shot of Helen Frankenthaler's "Wales": <>
*(8) Screen shot of "Untitled, 1979": <>
*(9) Jacobson,161-163.
*(10) <>
*(11) Screen shot "Heart of Darkness" by Scott Ketcham from <>