Friday, December 29, 2017

Rounding Corners Into the New Year

A View of a Cambridge Public Library Corner from Within
So already, for the last month, I've been contemplating corners--the idioms and the spaces connected to them. People can cut corners or paint themselves into them. They can corner markets--or corner puppies that dash out front doors to temporary freedom and need to be brought back home. They can corner friends, colleagues, or acquaintances on occasions when they are bound and determined to say that important thing. And sometimes when they're feeling embattled or misunderstood, they can feel relieved to discover that others are in their corner. Depending on whether we're perceiving corners from inside or outside of them, we might round them, turn them, explore them, avoid them, or retreat to them. 

In 2017, I explored and reckoned with the contents of two corners and rounded two others. With each of these moves, I felt a little less cornered. By the end of the year, I felt beyond the thicket of corners I'd been navigating for the last twelve months: I could more comfortably contain the diverse directions, pulses, impulses, insights, and contradictions that are so often crammed into figurative corners. Our corners, ourselves, I say.

The First Corner: Explored
I wrote "Corner Bones" because I was struggling to feel less at the mercy of my chronic worries about a particular unchangeable reality. My strategy had been to embrace meaningful opportunities, but I soon learned that chronic worries--the bones in the corner--exert their pull even in moments we believe will be worry-proof. But to acknowledge the power of the bones in the corner of a room is not to empower them to rule the room. Before I wrote this poem, I'd been in the habit of bowing to the bones. Since writing the poem, I've come to understand the bones as a fixture. But the room definitely is mine, not theirs.

The Second Corner--Which Really Came First: Explored
Envisioning corners in conjunction with writing "Corner Bones" got me thinking about another corner: a fertile one I'd heard about a summer evening some years ago when my husband Scott Ketcham and I attended a presentation by a visiting artist at the Vermont Studio Center.*

"Large scale work on paper by Dawn Clements"*
In the early stages of her MFA studies, Dawn Clements had focused her official artistic energies on painting--and her unofficial ones on drawing. One day after she and her faculty advisor had conferred about the paintings she had assembled for their session, Clements' advisor pointed to a chaotic pile of papers and asked, "What's the stuff in the corner?" Together they looked at the drawings that were the art Clements really cared about. The stuff in the corner was the real stuff, the beginnings of the oeuvre for which Clements is known.  

Recalling Clements' story got me asking myself, "What's the stuff in the corner? What makes your heart say yes before your mind can muster the counter-arguments and say no?" To ignore the stuff in the corner is to betray one's true self for the kind of safety or approval that imperils the soul--and sometimes even the world. 

The Fourth Corner: Rounded
This fall, paying attention to the stuff in the corner made me say yes immediately to invitations to be on several panels-- even though I'd been telling people and myself that I wanted to do "less education." In all of these instances, my heart said yes right away, and I chose not to let my mind interfere. The most recent panel most challenged me because it required me to speak to an international audience on behalf of teachers around the globe. I knew I would be able to learn about the OECD***, the PISA**** exam, and the new global competence framework that the panel would be discussing. I knew my long experience as a teacher periodically called upon to reshape curriculum and instruction to reflect new frameworks would be valuable. I knew the experience I'd had both inside and outside the USA of working with teachers from other countries would be helpful. Still, would I be able to globalize my responses sufficiently to speak authentically for teachers in many different nations and types of schools?

The Roll-Out of the OECD Global Competence Framework
With the panel's moderator--Veronica Boix Mansilla, one of the designers of the global competence framework--in my corner, I determined to rise to the occasion and even to enjoy myself while I did it. In retrospect, I know I enjoyed myself. And I also think I rose to the occasion. Frankly, saying that so publicly makes me feel that I just rounded another corner.

The Third Corner: Rounded
I suspect, though, that had I not rounded a few blind corners in the months before those panel invitations, I might have declined one or more of them. Last August I blogged about how I'd turned the corner  and gone from paying respectful attention to others' participation in demonstrations and marches to showing up and marching myself. Of course, this kind of political activism represents a very different kind of risk than does participating on a panel, but both are collaborative acts of hope that benefit from confidence in one's ability to think, speak, and act in the unscripted moment.

On the first leg of the Boston march against white supremacy and other forms of hatred the weekend after last August's "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, all of us rounded the corner from Malcolm X Boulevard onto Columbus Avenue. Police cruisers prevented cars from turning from side streets onto the march route so no marcher would meet Heather Heyer's fate. But as high-rise buildings replaced low-rise buildings along the route, Scott and I grew increasingly alert: having read that march opponents might hurl acid into the crowds, we kept glancing upward, looking for any window opened enough to permit the hurling or spraying of acid onto the crowd below. We'd both carried extra water just in case we or others needed to be rinsed down in such an event. 

Scott and I were both very glad when the trees of the Boston Common replaced the tall buildings; we were also glad to be numbered among the 40,000 who stood against hate. Some risks need to be taken. But taking precautions along with them can help. Good intentions and past good luck don't provide good cover. I'm particularly aware of this because last fall's Las Vegas shootings happened on my birthday through one open window in a high-rise. It's sobering to have one's birthday linked in the public's memory to a horrific event.

I believe that with practice, we get better at managing risk and worry--and we don't confuse that with being brave; we realize that though we may dread driving through snowstorms, we usually get to where we need to go without incident, and no amount of worry beforehand guarantees our safety. We calculate the risks, head out of driveways, and turn the corner, almost but not quite sure we'll make it back home. There is no such thing as no risk. So many corners are hard to see beyond.

The Corners in the Rearview Mirror  
An Annita Soble Hanukkah Card*****
And then there are those corners that we don't so much push ourselves to turn as realize we have turned. Only while I was writing holiday cards earlier this month did I recognize that I had adjusted to "retirement"-- my life post-Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and public school teaching. In the report that I wrote last spring for my approaching fortieth college reunion, I had described my blog, Facebook posts, and tweets, not with total comfort, as "being like me: all over the place." But somewhere in the process of writing those annual Hannukah and Christmas cards, I realized that I had to be all over the place in order to be true to the variegated, much alive, mysteriously arranged (or perhaps not at all arranged) "stuff in the corner." The "stuff in the corner" fails to obey the laws of linen-closet organization. It rearranges itself in the dead of night, usually for reasons I don't understand, so that what first catches my eye the next morning changes constantly. Sometimes it glows. 

When I realized that my retirement adjustment process had taken a full four years, I had to laugh: high school takes four years. So in honor of high school's enduring place in my consciousness, I offer this summary of my corner-related thoughts as a series of statements in the form prescribed by a thinking routine that will no doubt be familiar to many of my former students and colleagues:
Corners, Colors, & Coherent Randomness******
  • I used to think I needed to accept worry's dominant role in my daily life; now I think that worry's constant presence in a visible corner of my daily life does not mean that worry dominates my daily life.
  • I used to think the "stuff in the corner" was what I should pay attention to after I'd done what communicated to everyone--especially me--that I was taking proper advantage of being relatively young, still healthy, still professionally respected, and newly retired; now I think the "stuff in the corner" should be paid attention to first because it's critical not only to a good retirement, but to a good life.
  • I used to think that the phrase "being all over the place" was pejorative, synonymous with being superficial and confused; now I think it can mean having interests and commitments that range wide, run deep, and often combine--sometimes with our help--in unforeseen, enlightening ways. And yes, a corner filled with good, real stuff can be all over the place.
  • I used to think that my fears and worries would continue to deter and distract me from exploring and turning important corners; now I think I'm much more capable of not giving them the upper hand. (And I think my timing is good on this score, given the sad, dangerous state of our world.)
  • I used to think it was important to know what to say no to; now I think it's much more important to know what to say yes to.
Corner, Art, & Window, Museum of Russian Icons
Our lives are blessings, and many of us live with lots of freedom and choice in times that ask us to step up. There's something wonderful about being able to strive to be who and what we can be in such times. Our efforts often not only do some good for the world, but enhance our sense of belonging to it. Furthermore, if they reflect the "stuff in the corner," each of us comes into more harmonious, empowering relationship with her true self, an experience that may be not only important, but holy.

As we round the corner into 2018, may we be true to ourselves and the world. May we each have the courage, will, wisdom, and imagination we need to delve into some corners and round others. And may all of us round some important corners together. I believe that we can and will.

* Scott was at the Vermont Studio Center doing one of the summer residencies required by his MFA program.
** "Large scale work on paper by Dawn Clements" (photograph) in “Art Event: Dawn Clements in the Boiler.” JaquetteFITblog, Wordpress, 12 May 2010, 
*** Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 
**** Programme for International Student Assessment. 
***** Annita Soble's work may be viewed at 
****** A painting on display at the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, MA. The exhibition is called "Migration and Memory: Jewish Artists of the Russian and Soviet Empires."