Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Photo-Synthesizing With "A Mind of Winter"

So already, I may be developing "a mind of winter"* as Wallace Stevens calls it in his poem, "The Snow Man." The following just might prove that I'm becoming a bona fide "snow woman": yesterday at mid-morning, I postponed my Cambridge lunch plans without any feelings of deprivation or anger or disappointment or self-pity--just with an abiding feeling that ever-extending winter would probably continue to shape my days. I even felt a little bit of gratitude for all the decisions that could easily be made and all the excuses that could readily be accepted because all those involved generally agreed that winter was in charge.

The night before, I had kept waking up to the back-up beeping of dump trucks and bulldozers on Berlin Street, which runs behind my building; in the morning, the street was twice as wide as it had been when I went to sleep. There was no Boston Globe until 10:30; but then three days' worth of newspapers arrived in one plastic bag, each paper recounting tales of blizzard victims and blizzard heroes. The state was in a state!

The fourth snowstorm was over, but winter wasn't loosening her grip. When I listened to the traffic report to determine when I should leave Quincy for Cambridge, rush hour hadn't yet eased and another SUV had rolled over. It seemed like a good idea to stay put in my dining room rather than sit tight on the Southeast Expressway. Meanwhile, my neighbor's windshield revealed that the day's light snow had begun. Very light snow, not even nuisance snow, just the daily snow.

I've gotten used to the way time passes on these days, each of which seems to resemble all of the others. Despite the beeping of those trucks the night before last, these weeks have generally been silent and freeze-framed; time unfolds slowly, feels infinite, sprawling, and all-containing--broad and blankly dependable. It's that quality, that feeling, of the infinite sprawl of winter that reminds me of my of those times I tried to help my "Religion and Literature" students understand that every one of Hinduism's many gods is an embodiment of and a pathway to the all-encompassing boundlessness of "godhead." I'd write on the blackboard "All gods are one god," "Each god is every god," Each god is all gods," "One god is many gods," and "Every god is infinite." My students came to understand "paradox," even if godhead eluded them.

Near East St. Louis***
I don't think winter, or any part of "Creation," is a god; but there's something about the qualities of winter, this winter in particular, that bring to mind gods, and G-d. A recent performance of the song "River in the Rain" from Big River, the musical based on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, sent me back to the first section of T.S. Eliot's "The Dry Salvages," the first stanza in particular**:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god - sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyer of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities - ever, however, implacable,
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.

Until I searched out the poem online, I had forgotten that Eliot establishes the ubiquity of his "river god" by asserting its eternal presence in the round of the seasons. That made me wonder if my "winter mind" experience had something to do with my recent encounters with multiple seasonal cycles as I sorted, discarded, categorized, organized, and revisited the many photographs that I'd boxed up quickly and taken with me when I moved from Cambridge to Quincy in 2003. 

It's par for the course for new retirees to pledge to purge and organize: leaving a job, a profession, a way of organizing of life means bringing home cartons, making decisions about what has value and might have value in the future, and needing to toss and store. I was too unsettled last winter to know what to keep and throw out, let alone how to organize what I would keep. But eleven months after I bid farewell to Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, I was ready. So in late December, I posted a photo on my Facebook page of the cartons of photos and other "media" I aimed to sort through and reduce in number in hopes of using my limited storage space more wisely.

Don't ask me what derailed me temporarily from my good intentions. I suspect that actually locating and centralizing all the photos, discs, audiotapes, videotapes, slides, etc. that needed to be "processed" seemed like an achievement in of itself. But in early February, I knew that I'd lost my fire and needed to rekindle it. So right after the third snowstorm, I promised myself I'd see the project through and reclaim the corner of bedroom where it was starting to take root.

It wasn't hard to know what to keep and what to save: "better" photos of people, things, and events were kept over "not quite so good" photos of exactly the same people, things, and events. I enjoyed revisiting my fortieth birthday party, the first ever Pilot School Academic Festival, the Scottish Highlands, the Dordogne River at flood stage, low tide at the Bay of Fundy, and the Olympic Peninsula's sea stacks.

Spring Along the Path, Berlin
The experience of unceasing redundancy and repetitiveness came with going through the photos I'd taken in the Berkshires of spring, summer, and fall every year. They captured seasonal phenomena I've come to depend on: the August contrast between the brilliant goldenrod in our Berlin meadow and the deep, dark shadows at the edge of that meadow; the vibrant foliage panorama surrounding the high field near the RRR Brooks Trail in Williamstown around Columbus Day, equally breathtaking against blue sky and gray sky: snow-dusted Mt. Greylock asserting winter's nearness to the frosted corn stubble of Field Farm in November; and the distinct greens of the Housatonic oxbow and the vernal pools at Bartholomew's Cobble in Sheffield proclaiming Spring! every April .

So yes, I flipped through and threw out a lot of photos of goldenrod, shadows, Mt. Greylock, vernal pools, and red-leafed maples and yellow-leafed birches--but only because they looked exactly like other photos of the same places and phenomena.**** It became tedious, I got faster as I went along, and I was very happy when I was done! Liberating the chair meant re-experiencing many springs, summers, falls, and winters in their various moods and phases. I love all the seasons, especially at particular moments. But I know that they don't love me back; they just are. And they don't need to be more than "Creation."

Completing this task gave me something else to acknowledge, too: over the years, "nature" hasn't changed, or seems not to have changed, but Scott and I have--noticeably. Eighteen years have passed since Scott first introduced me to his Berkshires; there are lots of photos documenting our visiting, watching, and revisiting over the years. Only the limb-dropping Wolf Pine, as it's called on the Canoe Meadows trail map, seems to be aging along with us. For the most part, nature keeps on, sometimes as a "strong brown god," sometimes as a flower-sprinkled meadow, sometimes as a soft white blanket. When it fades and wrinkles as part of the seasonal cycle, its smooth, green rebirth is just months away. Our own time in this world of nature is finite and too precious to wish away, even if it's wintry and demanding.

But if Stevens is talking about winter mind over winter matter, he's also talking about winter mind through winter matter, through mindful but dispassionate encounter with the stuff of winter. Stevens says, "One must . . .have been cold a long time/ . . . not to think/ of any misery in the sound of the wind." Winter mind is about accepting winter, being neither for it nor against it. It means rolling with the blizzard's callous force or the cold's frigid indifference. It's just winter.

But winter mind offers more than a release from irritation and despair. Stevens' "snow man" "beholds/ Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." There's something bigger going on than winter's drama; there's something bigger than winter itself, something more vast, more empty, more real, and more full.***** Winter isn't god (G-d), isn't godhead, but winter mind might offer a way into something transcendent and worth experiencing.

Recently I posted a photo of a Scott painting called "Blue Self"****** on my Facebook page. It's possible that in the context of this blog post, the blue self is a representation of winter mind. Regardless of the context, the blue self seems to be an aspect of the more conventionally colored figure on the left who, though she seems to be in a dreamlike state, appears to be supporting, even propping up, the blue self. But the blue figure, whose face seems more set and inscrutable, may be the stronger one. While I sense some weariness in the left-hand figure, the pair feels strong in its union. The two heads, nearly equal in size, become the top of the heart shape that dominates the painting formally. The duality, the integration, though solid, conveys ongoing effort.

Having a "mind of winter" requires integration and surrender, taking winter phenomena in--and in stride, watching and waiting--though probably not for what others are waiting for. And so I end with two things: a photo of my window onto the world of winter and lines from Rumi's poem entitled "Buoyancy":*******
I saw you and became empty.
This emptiness, more beautiful than existence,
it obliterates existence, and yet when it comes,
existence thrives and creates more existence!
The sky is blue. The world is a blind man
squatting on the road.
But whoever sees your emptiness
sees beyond blue and beyond the blind man.
Finally, don't think I'm not looking forward to spring--and summer, and fall. I am. But in time, in their time.

  * Robert Atwan chose Stevens' phrase to be the first half of the title of his collection A Mind of Winter: Poems for a Snowy Season. The book is pictured in this screen shot of <>.
** Eliot, T.S. "The Dry Salvages." Art of Europe. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2015. <>.
*** Image has URL <> with the following Creative Commons license: <>. The image has been altered in no way.
**** This is an oversimplification: the beavers run the Berkshires, making change constantly--but the same kinds of change constantly.
***** Shades of A Passage to India, about which I blogged on August 24, 2014.
****** You can see this painting and other paintings by Scott (Ketcham) at <>. 
******* "Buoyancy." The Essential Rumi. Trans. Coleman Brooks. San Francisco: Harper, 1995. 104. Print.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Grappling With "Global": From Challenge to Opportunity, And Not Just for Educators

So already, how is global interconnectedness a burden, and how is it an opportunity? What are its outcomes, desirable and undesirable? How do they reflect our needs and predilections as human beings and as citizens who want* to "pay attention to" the world? And how can we make global interconnectedness more opportunity than burden?

Pedestrians in front of the Singapore Art Museum
I'm not talking about the idea of global interconnectedness, the abstraction of it, but rather the human experience of it. When my recent travels to Singapore and Penang, Malaysia simultaneously began my education** about Southeast Asia and impressed upon me how the introduction to a place through travel, conversation, and reading is still just that--an introduction--I began to think of the challenges of understanding any new place as it understands itself. Can it happen? Can it happen in the absence of contact between people, flesh-and-blood people? How long does it take, and is there some level of less-than-full understanding that is adequate?*** 

Off the Island of Langkawi, Malaysia
Questions like these last three--and there are so many "new places" they could be asked about--can easily lead us to make the partial the enemy of the complete, the good the enemy of the perfect. But I do think there's a way to manage the vastness and complexity of the global and its component parts. The answer is to dive in somewhere, to dive as deep as we can, to recognize how our personal and national perspectives are shaping the way we're seeing the waters around us, and to keep reminding ourselves not to mistake our partial understandings for complete ones.

But wait: I've moved pretty quickly from global interconnectedness to global understanding, or understandings. And there are probably important way stations between these two. Global encounter is one possible way station; and authentic connection, the by-product of a global encounter marked by real engagement, is another. Can global interconnectedness lead to encounter and then beyond encounter to authentic connection without a great deal of human effort? 

And maybe there's another question to be asked before I go galloping off on any false assumptions about people's desires to connect: for most people, are global encounter and transnational interpersonal connections goals--even minor goals--of global interconnectedness?

I suspect not. Interconnectedness is a fact, a reality, the result of technologies that link people, permit their ideas, their voices, their images, their goods, their bodies to travel to other people and places. Encounter that leads to connection, on the other hand, requires effort, mutuality, contact, some kind of openness to another person, another idea, another way of being in the world. Furthermore, a constellation of articles in Ideas section of the February 1 Boston Sunday Globe**** suggests that people, as individuals and as nations, are becoming less connected, and less desirous of connection. The section's feature article, primarily political in nature, lays out the harmful consequences of deglobalization and less international connection as suggested by history, and recommends ways leaders can combat the trend; other shorter articles share research data about the functioning of our minds and brains when they encounter new people and new places.

In "The Great Deglobalizing,"***** Joshua Kurlantzick asserts that "Since the late 2000s, despite the superficial connectivity of Facebook and Twitter, the world has entered a period of . . . deglobalization." Given his analysis of "cycles of globalization and deglobalization" in the last hundred years, he bids national leaders to act in the following ways, quoted directly from his article:
  • " . . . American and European leaders could help demonstrate the benefits of continued interest in the world."
  • "Leaders could also demonstrate a commitment to global communications, and to the power of intercultural exchange."
  • "World leaders also could push back against the most extreme, and often racist, anti-migration organizations."
Kurlantzick advocates globalization for the sake of world peace and stability. Despite his arguments and advice, and despite my own thoughts about how to approach the vastness and complexity of the global, I sympathize with people's feelings of being overwhelmed by it. I've been watching it snow for three days now, and today's snow is piled on top of yesterday's snow, which is piled on the snow from last week, which is piled on the snow from the week before. So where does one begin to shovel out, sort it into piles, move it? Do I try to understand Boko Haram first? the significance of the nationalities of those ISIL has recently beheaded or burned to death? the Cuba-America relationship past and present? the Ukraine-Russia relationship? Or do I immerse myself post-Charlie Hebdo in a consideration of different western cultures' sensibilities around the exercise of free speech? How do I decide? 

The one recent globally reported event I felt a real connection to was the AirAsia disaster in late December. Having looked at so many maps of maritime Southeast Asia in the last few months, I understood roughly where the plane had crashed. And having flown AirAsia myself three times in November, nervously because it was monsoon season, I knew how likely it was that many, and probably even most, of the passengers on that flight were Muslim. So I could relate not only to the grief and anger of victims' families, but to their need to have their relatives' bodies returned to them for proper burial as dictated by their faith.

But as an item in Kevin Lewis' Uncommon Knowledge: Surprising insights from the social sciences****** column states, "People have more trouble feeling the pain of strangers than that of people they know. . . . According to a new study, one reason is stress hormones, which are generated in the company of strangers and which inhibit empathy." So there's something downright biological in our instinctive lack of empathy, our desire not to connect to the suffering of others. But do we want to be defined first and foremost by our instincts?

Another item in the same Uncommon Knowledge column suggests that there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to new experiences, even those touted as meaningful and worthwhile. As the item in Lewis' column explains, a glut of tourist experiences--which often involve an encounter with another time and/or culture, if not another stranger--fosters a shut-down that translates to paying less attention:
Hollis Hall, Harvard Yard
To test how feeling like jaded travelers affected people’s interest in new sights, researchers surveyed American tourists before they entered Boston’s Old North Church. The tourists were given a checklist of common American destinations or a checklist of exotic foreign destinations and asked to indicate where they had traveled. Tourists who completed the checklist of common American destinations—that is, who were made to feel that they were well-traveled—spent about 30 percent less time in the church.*******
I'd love to understand a bit more about how feelings of being "well-traveled" might have conferred permission to pay less attention. At some point, do people decide that they know enough and no longer need to pay attention? Is their analysis more quantitative than qualitative?

But some decisions about how much attention to pay may not be based on reason. Even if we have the means to see the best of the global, hear the best of it, taste the best of it--chances are our appetites become dulled by a surfeit of stimuli, even "high quality" stimuli. It makes sense that a steady stream of peak tourist experiences or a steady diet of international atrocities fed to us by nightly news reports--especially when they cast us in the role of speedy consumer of facts and ideas as the tour moves on or the next news story begins--would make us want to stop paying attention, to avoid any more experiences that require our intellectual and emotional energy. Understandably, we're sometimes more than ready to change the channel, or to sit on a bench while everyone else moves on to the next fascinating artifact.

This sense of the world's being too complex and too large for us to engage with the whole of it conscientiously and thoughtfully, be it through literature, history, journalism, or travel, makes me think of Arjuna's experience in Chapter 11 of The Bhaghavad Gita. When Arjuna asks Krishna for the power to see Krishna's "cosmic form" (11:4) if Krishna deems him able to "behold" it (11:4), Krishna provides him with "divine eyes by which you can behold My mystic opulence" (11:8).******** 

The cosmic, world-containing form of Krishna is so magnificent and terrifying that while Arjuna grows in understanding, respect, and love, he also grows in fear.********* So he asks the god to return himself to the four-armed form with which Arjuna is comfortable and familiar:
After seeing this universal form, which I have never seen before, I am gladdened, but at the same time my mind is disturbed with fear. Therefore please bestow Your grace upon me and reveal again Your form as the Personality of Godhead, O Lord of lords, O abode of the universe. (11:45)
O universal Lord, I wish to see You in Your four-armed form, with helmeted head and with club, wheel, conch and lotus flower in Your hands. I long to see You in that form. (11:46)
Krishna does as Arjuna asks, and in so doing reminds me that we mere humans need four-armed approaches to exploring a globalized, interconnected world. I've been fortunate to encounter some of these, thanks to the global competence-related initiatives of both Project Zero and the NEA (National Education Association) Foundation. While I believe that all of these initiatives have the potential to foster authentic connections among actual people from different places, I also think they have much to contribute to an overall culture of understanding and cooperation in the absence of developing those connections.

With each passing year, I grow in my appreciation of the EF (Education First) Educational Tours online course about China that I took three years ago. That course, with its well-defined topics and opportunities for choice, prepared me not only for making the most of the NEA Foundation/Pearson Global Learning Fellows' June 2012 trip to China, but for making sense of what I read and see about China in the news today. Travel matters: it's enhanced by preparation for it, and it enhances our engagement with news about the places we've visited once we're back home. The NEA Foundation offers courses and materials through its Global Fellowship Program

Project Zero (at the Harvard Graduate School of Education) continues its commitment to fostering global competence, which demands making the world intellectually manageable for and penetrable by as well as enticing to students and teachers. Just last week, at a Harvard-based seminar offered in conjunction with The Global Lens Project, guest presenter Michael Kozuck shared an interdisciplinary unit that explored globalization's impact from the perspective of just three countries--China, India, and Mexico.********** Both Kozuck and the project's principal investigator, Veronica Boix-Mansilla, used the world "slice" to characterize the size and scope of the pieces of the global pie that the students had explored. Learning to inquire into a slice of the interconnected world yields knowledge of that slice, skills for inquiring into other slices, and perspectives from which to make sense of other slices. 

And while the web site of Project Zero's Out of Eden Learn Project features Paul Salopek's accounts of and reflections on his travels through many countries, it also includes lots of materials for teachers eager to engage their students in learning about the world. It's worth watching the video of Liz Dawes Duraisingh talking about the project on the site's About page.*********** The project encourages students to slow down, look carefully, and embrace age-old as well as current means for making sense of the world by connecting their personal worlds to others' worlds. There's no reason that we as adult lifelong learners shouldn't do the same.

There's no question about it: to develop and maintain a global perspective can be endless, heavy lifting; the world is vast and variegated, and the individual countries and regions that compose it are internally complex and always changing. And yes, it makes sense that, after a week of particularly grim reports of strife, violence, and injustice in other parts of the world, we're inclined hunker down in our own peaceful if snow-blanketed homes and communities and forget the world beyond them.

But that lifting doesn't always have to be so dread-filled and onerous. There are ways, places, resources. With some moderation, some regard for our own needs as human beings, and some deliberate approaches, we might make this global interconnectedness manageable and inviting, particularly as educators. And if we end up producing a generation of citizens who have the knowledge, intellectual and interpersonal skills, and inclination to participate successfully in a global world, perhaps their methodologies and mindsets will spread to the generations preceding theirs, making it more possible for our interconnected planet to work better for us all. 

P.S. I'm thinking a great deal about Singapore, Penang, and maritime Southeast Asia more generally, past and present. Stay tuned for some more "global" blog posts.

* I say this knowing the motivations for paying such attention can vary. For some, the primary motivation could be a commitment to being well-educated and well-informed; for others,the primary motivation could be more deeply connected to advocacy and action. ** I say "began" even though my seventh-grade social studies class studied modern Asia and the Vietnam War led me to look at maps, photos, and news stories over the years.
*** I realize I could be asking this same set of questions about the encounter of two groups of Americans whose worlds seldom or never overlap. 
**** Screen Shot of ("Ideas" section front page of February 1, 2015 Boston Globe)
***** Kurlantzick, Joshua. "The Great Deglobalizing." Feb 2015. Council on Foreign Relations. Feb 2015. 
*(6) Lewis, Kevin. "Empathy for Strangers? Too Stressful." The Boston Globe (Boston, MA). N.p., 1 Feb. 2015. Web. 9 Feb. 2015. <>.  Martin, L. et al., “Reducing Social Stress Elicits Emotional Contagion of Pain in Mouse and Human Strangers,” Current Biology (forthcoming).
*(7) Lewis, Kevin. "Another Fabulous Destination? Yawn." The Boston Globe (Boston, MA). N.p., 1 Feb. 2015. Web. 9 Feb. 2015. <>. Quoidbach, J. et al., “The Price of Abundance: How a Wealth of Experiences Impoverishes Savoring,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).
*(8) "Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 11: The Universal Form." Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 11: The Universal Form. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, 1972. Web. 09 Feb. 2015. <>.
*(9) By Ramanarayanadatta astri ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. 
*(10) You can read about this unit beginning on page 30 of Boix-Mansilla, Veronica, and Anthony Jackson. Asia Society, 2011. Web. 10 Feb. 2015. <>.
*(11) Dawes Duraisingh, Liz, Carrie James, and Shari Tishman. "About Us." Out of Eden Walk. Project Zero, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2015. <>.