Friday, March 25, 2016

Poem on a Holy Day: Reflection #3 on Perspective-Taking

So already, on Good Friday, a holiday of spiritual importance to many I know, and one month before Passover, a holiday of spiritual importance to me, I offer a poem about the news stories and photos that make other lives and experiences importantly real to us, if we let them in and hold them close for at least a while. 

Dangerous crossings into new states, literal or figurative, abound in history, literature, and religious traditions. They sit at the narrative cores of both Easter and Passover. If we take the stories of crossings to heart, we too may cross into a place of deeper understanding of others and ourselves. As to the question of how and how much our newly taken or transformed perspectives affect "the world," I'm still wrestling with that. At the very least, understanding and feeling for other people are starting points. They assert the preciousness of lives--and life. We grieve differently for lost lives that we've tried to imagine and understand; we deplore more sincerely the desperate situations that put such lives at risk.


“In the photos her mother posted on Facebook, . . . [Bella Bond] was, if anything, more beautiful than Baby Doe, the nameless digital approximation through which so many of us came, in death, to know her.”*

For weeks there was Baby Doe. 
And then, finally, Bella Bond. 
The details of her life and death
filled us with powerless grief and rage,
made us mourn other Baby Does,
the ones the tide found
before someone walking a familiar stretch of beach
noticed something that turned out to be someone. 

As trash day drew near, 
I couldn't toss out the newspaper.
"I can't bear for her to be thrown out again," I told my husband.
"Then keep her," my husband said. 

So I did.
I come upon her whenever I open my desk to pay bills.

Last week I saved another photo from the paper, 
this one of nameless migrants
crossing a cold, coursing river.
I feel almost overwhelmed as I imagine
the desperation fueling their risk;
they, in that moment, dare feel nothing 
but the slick muck under their feet,
the water around their thighs,
the children in their arms,
the rope in their chafed hands.

A blue-blanketed baby boy looks on,
curious but oblivious to the danger.
But the pink-jacketed girl to his left
might just sink under the weight
of terror and sadness.
I couldn’t let her vanish
with the turn of the page, the ring of the phone,
the next day’s news story.

So I save newspaper photographs—
a useless way to care, I know,
but my way of bearing witness, remembering,
keeping the ceremony of innocence above the rising water.

* Nestor Ramos and Evan Allen, “’Her Name Was Bella, The Boston Globe, September 19, 2016, p. 1.
   ** I am grateful for the literature, inspiration, and often even the exact words of Richard Wright ("The Man Who Lived Underground"), Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman), William Butler Yeats ("The Second Coming"), NL (Memories of the Heart), Nestor Ramos and Evan Allen (The Boston Globe), and the South Shore Scribes (my writing group).

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A David Brooks Admission: Reflection #2 on Perspective-Taking

So already, in his March 18 op-ed piece entitled "No, Not Trump, Not Ever," David Brooks does two things that many self- and other-professed public intellectuals seldom do: first, he admits that he got something wrong; and second, he explains how he got it wrong and what he needs to do in the future so as not to make a similar mistake.

What he did right was to recognize the perspective of those who support Donald Trump, identify them as a group characterized by their disappointment in their experiences as Americans; what he did wrong was to take their perspective insufficiently, leading him to false assumptions about how they would communicate their dissatisfaction.

Before jumping into his discussion of why Trump is the wrong person to become president of the United States, Brooks shows respect for Trump's supporters and takes responsibility for his own journalistic lapses:

"Well, some respect is in order. Trump voters are a coalition of the dispossessed. They have suffered lost jobs, lost wages, lost dreams. The American system is not working for them, so naturally they are looking for something else.

"Moreover, many in the media, especially me, did not understand how they would express their alienation. We expected Trump to fizzle because we were not socially intermingled with his supporters and did not listen carefully enough. For me, it’s a lesson that I have to change the way I do my job if I’m going to report accurately on this country." 
The source of Brooks' misunderstanding: a lack of "social intermingling" with Trump supporters and, in connection to that, a failure both to listen enough (little intermingling = little listening opportunity) and "to listen carefully enough."

That's the thing about taking perspectives versus recognizing and identifying them: invariably, one must encounter the voice(s) of the other(s) and must overcome the tendency to listen to and for what one expects/wants to hear so that one can hear what else there is to know and understand.

But that social intermingling problem is worrisome. My fantasy is that even in groups including people who represent a range of perspectives and experiences, David Brooks would be quickly surrounded by those who think well of him and/or of themselves. I'm not sure how much intermingling he'd get to do without being downright rude to those who had eagerly, confidently approached him hoping to talk to him.

The Boston Globe recently ran an interesting article about Greater Boston's increasing segregation by income. In it, David Scharfenberg provided data that showed significant growth in the richest and poorest segments of many communities, and the marked shrinking of the historically largest group in between them, the middle-income sector. In contrast to the case in the past, these distinct economic groups are highly likely to live in neighborhoods populated exclusively by people of their same economic category.

Given the geographical separateness of these neighborhoods, members of these various groups have little chance of listening carefully to one another because they interact less frequently if at all:
"Blue- and white-collar families who once lived close enough to bump into each other in the aisles of the local hardware store or chat in the pews of the neighborhood church live in much more homogenous places now. 

"Low-income people can go an entire day without talking to someone who has a college degree or a job in a downtown office. And for the affluent, handing a credit card to the gas station attendant or grocery clerk may be their only weekend brush with blue-collar America.

"Robert D. Putnam, a Harvard social scientist, argues that the biggest threat to national cohesion is not the income inequality that has drawn so much scrutiny from the news media and the political class, but the social segregation that inequality has helped to create — in where people live, where they go to school, and whom they marry. 

"'We just don’t know how the other half lives,' said Putnam, whose book Our Kids traces the growing class divide in his hometown in Ohio. 'It constrains our sense of reciprocity. It constrains our sense of what we owe to one another. We are less and less a community.'"

Even when we have opportunities to engage with others, it's difficult to listen well enough to learn enough*** about them to be able to take their perspectives humbly and knowledgeably. Fewer opportunities to be at the table with others whom we recognize as having different perspectives will not up our chances of either getting better at perspective-taking or recognizing the need for and importance of it.

When I taught Hermann Hesse's Demian at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, I always shared with my students a section of M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth that I hoped might shed some light on the narrator's process of self-discovery. Peck describes an essential practice for personal growth--and, in my opinion, for authentic perspective-taking**** that he calls "bracketing"****:
"Bracketing is essentially the act of balancing the need for stability and assertion of the self with the need for new knowledge and greater understanding by temporarily giving up one's self--putting one's self aside, so to speak--so as to make room for the incorporation of new material into the self" (73).*****
He then quotes from Sam Keen's To A Dancing God," referring to the two crucial simultaneous actions as "'silencing the familiar'" and "'welcoming the strange'" (73).

When it comes to taking perspectives,****** as opposed to cultivating personal growth, "silencing the familiar" might better be paired with "welcoming the stranger"--who may prove to be surprisingly not so "strange" in some ways, and strange or stranger in others.

Social intermingling is key. But what I would really hope is that the first place groups and/or individuals "socially intermingle" not be at that table where the goal is exploring their differences and words are their sole means of communicating their perspectives. Lots can be learned by being places together, doing things together, exchanging words while focusing on something other than ourselves, laughing or crying at something together.

Our economic separateness is definitely having a negative impact on groups' and individuals' efforts at and opportunities for perspective-taking and all the benefits that accrue from such good-faith endeavors. The more difficult--logistically, emotionally, intellectually--perspective-taking becomes, the more essential it also becomes.

Brooks, D. (2016, March 18). No, not Trump, not ever. Retrieved March 23, 2016, from 
Scharfenberg, D. (2016, March 6). Boston’s struggle with income segregation. The Boston Globe, pp. A1, 7-8. Retrieved March 23, 2016, from  
*** The whole question of whether we can learn enough to claim to take that perspective will be discussed in a later blog post, I hope.
**** Yes, I believe there is some superficial perspective-taking (as opposed to deep-enough-to-be-authentic perspective-taking) out in the world that masquerades ingenuously and overconfidently--and is therefore potentially very dangerous.
***** Peck, M. S. (1978). The road less traveled: A new psychology of love, traditional values, and spiritual growth. New York: Simon and Schuster. 
****** Rayburn, J. (2012, July 30). [Illustration-"in your shoes" pragmatic language activity]. Retrieved March 23, 2016, from

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Photo of Migrants: Reflection #1 on Perspective-Taking

So already, so much is written in education* and elsewhere about the need for people not only to recognize perspectives, but to take perspectives.  

Photo from Calendar from Malaysia
As local and national citizens, we're urged to walk in the shoes of others, ultimately to achieve a more peaceful, functional community or country that responds respectfully to the needs and aspirations of all citizens. As global citizens, we're also urged to walk in the shoes of others because of our growing understanding of the interconnectedness of the world and our increasing realization that what happens "far away" matters, whether or not we feel the implications of it in our own daily lives this week, this month.

Perhaps that doesn't even need saying on a morning that we're all listening to news about President Obama's visit to Cuba, this morning's terrorist attacks in Brussels, and the latest news of migrants being detained in Greece.

So over the next two weeks, I'll be posting a series of shorter reflections on the following topics:
  • the differences between and relationship of recognizing perspectives and taking perspectives; 
  • the degree to which we're open to taking perspectives (i.e., whether we're more willing to take some perspectives rather than others)
  • the degree to which we're capable of taking perspectives, even if we aspire to do so genuinely;
  • the degree to which we really value taking perspectives (versus feel that we should value taking perspectives); 
  • the "depth" to which we must take perspectives in order for our experience and understanding to be useful;
  • the degree to which taking perspectives has become an end in of itself rather than a means to an end--and the significance of that, if it's the case.   

So back to the situation at the Greek border. On March 15, The Boston Globe published a photograph on page A3 that featured migrants from a Greek refugee camp attempting to ford a swollen river in order to enter Macedonia. Cold, rushing water terrifies me, and the photo featured a baby and several children among the group making the crossing (hopefully making the crossing).

That parents would think that their best, safest course of action was to carry or urge their children across a "fast-moving" river said everything to me about their desperation. The baby being held looks on, interested but no doubt relatively unaware of the stakes and the danger. But the girl in the bright pink jacket is crying--so sad, so terrified, maybe both, I imagine.

I couldn't get that picture out of my mind, I think because I would have been that crying girl in that moment--I know that about me. As I read the newspaper, I kept turning back to the page, and ultimately I saved the picture as some crazy act of caring uselessly about these people, that little girl. I couldn't bear to let her get swallowed up by the flow of the river or the flow of the news that makes everything, even the most profound suffering, rush into the past, slip away from us as quickly as we notice it, to be replaced by the next fleeting image and our fleeting consciousness of it.

As often happens, I recalled some lines of poetry-- this time, from T.S. Eliot's Journey of the Magi: "were we brought all this way for/ Birth or Death?" and "I should be glad of another death." Apt, but big deal.

I didn't help the girl at all, though I took her perspective, and do so every time I look at that picture, which is often. I've sent some money to a charity that helps migrants, but not very much, I admit. I wonder what the photographer, Matt Cardy, hoped I'd do with my experience of looking at the photo. Understand? Feel? Act?

* The Global Competence Framework, clearly and persuasively laid out in Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Youth to Engage the World by Veronica Boix-Mansilla and Anthony Jackson, names "Recognize Perspectives" as one of the cultivatable dispositions essential to globally competent students' efforts to "Understand the World through Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Study."
** Cardy, Matt. Perilous Attempt. 2016. Getty Images. The Boston Globe. Vol. 289. Boston: John W. Henry, 2016. A3. Print. No. 75.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Stretching Back and Forward

So already, on this first gray day of spring, I post the first poem I've written in some time. It's a rusty poem after a long hiatus from writing verse, but its existence is a mark of progress.

I wish to thank my friend and colleague, NL (I'll replace her initials with her name if she permits me to) whose soulful blog Memory of the Heart has reminded me that blog posts may be poems--and whose rich, evocative poems inspire me in of themselves.

I wish to thank the South Shore Scribes, the local writing group I've joined in the last month. Attentive, discerning, and kind, they've encouraged me to get back into the poetry saddle, and the poem I'm about to share is better because of them.

Finally, a cautionary note. In his review* of Robyn Schiff's A Woman of Property in this week's New Yorker, Dan Chaisson explains that "a poem is a place where conscious and unconscious thought, reality and dream, fact and symbol all jostle for attention on the same busy stage. A poet goes where the language leads: this kind of vulnerability is both exhilarating and scary." I'm not there yet, but here's my poem: 


After the wizard Pedro
Trained his powers on my sprained shoulder,
I gave thanks every wince-free time
I reached for a top-shelf jar.

So when a wayward thigh muscle
Made sitting and standing acts to dread,
Jabbed me each time I urged
Left foot toward left sock,
I remembered Pedro –

How with knowledge and craft and plan
He’d coaxed my stubborn joint to open
A little, and then some more,
And finally full and wide,
As if it had exhaled into a still place
Of warmth and strength.

Pedro stretched and then soothed
Troubled muscles,
Prescribed gentle regimens
To extend the work,
Reconciled feuding bone and tissue.
Progress fed on increments of
Stretch and burn.


I have a routine now.
Early morning on the living room floor,
Gaze toward the wall with windows.
Except for my breathing, silence.
Besides mine, the only movement:
Gliding gulls drawing arcs
On the neutral, just-dawn sky.

Breathing in, I stretch and hold,
Then keep breathing, stretching,
Feeling for the bar
My whispering muscles set and reset.
Strength and flexibility increase slowly.
My muscles spread and lengthen,
Sometimes relax into a deep place
That feels like destiny.

What started as cure
Begins to feel like a way
To live in my own body.


Might stretch and burn
Coax a cramped writing muscle
To flex and flow?

A blank or scuttled page.
The sense of nothing important or beautiful.
But you begin—
And you stay in that knotted crouch,
Keep at it, keep writing,

Keep breathing,
Aware that breath’s the sign of spirit,
Creator within
Whom many shun, for fear of being
Unworthy or unready to create.

Anxious but hopeful,
You keep the pen moving
Across the face of the waters

Because, maybe, one day,
Pen and page will merge, expand,
Unleash a cascade of words
As your mind looks on,
Apart, amazed.

What will become of it,
What it will become: unknown.
But you’ll exhale, relieved
By the flash of fire
And what followed it,
Evidence that something in you
Stirs and yearns.
Post-exhilaration, you’ll keep writing,
In new relationship to yourself,
Your work, your world.

* Chiasson, Dan. "The Tenderness Trap." Rev. of A Woman of Property. New Yorker 21 Mar. 2016: 89-90. Print.