Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Fundamental Things Apply . . .

So already, I write to tell tales of out of school--or really, out of the section of the skilled nursing floor of the senior living community where my mother and about fifteen other people live and are cared for. I debated briefly about whether I should share these stories since they're not my own, but decided to because they have something to teach that, frankly, I didn't know, didn't appreciate nearly well enough until just recently.
 
You will probably laugh at some of what I report below. But I share it not because it's amusing (which it is!), but because it's endearing, heartening, and, frankly, dignifying. The people in my mother's section of the skilled nursing floor, though they've changed in some very significant ways over time, are in some very important ways unchanged. They have pasts, stories, interests, tastes, and personalities; the ability to connect to others; and, in most cases, the capacity and desire to give and receive love.
 
On a recent visit to my mother, I noted that a female resident and male resident, both well-known to me, were holding hands* and smiling at each other.

He was the gentleman who rose late and relished large breakfasts**--and whose first question to me months ago had been whether I was a chemical engineer who had shown up for the chemical engineers' convention that was just about to begin. In his early weeks on the floor, he worried after every meal that he didn't have his wallet with him: how was he going to pay for dinner, his own and everyone else's?

She was a fellow late-rising methodical consumer of large breakfasts who knew the words to many old songs that she could sing with excellent pitch and just the right feeling. But I had also observed her on blue days when she repeated "Hello" to someone or no one and often called for her late husband, repeating his name both hopefully and hopelessly again and again.

But that morning, the two hand-holders were all smiles, and had eyes only for each other. Since my mother and I stayed behind when most of the group went out on the patio, I could hear everything they were saying.

Generally, she was the one who asked the questions. "Do you have pain?" she asked, and was relieved to learn that he did not. She explained that she had volunteered at nursing home as a younger person, and had seen a great deal of pain--so much so that "I began to feel that it was my pain," which led her to take a break at the recommendation of the volunteer coordinator. "You have to have a lot of character to live with pain and not have your life be about pain," she explained.

"Do you visit your parents?" she asked; I was curious about whether their answers would signify an understanding of their parents as living or dead. He explained that he did--at the home where he had grown up; less frequently, they came to visit him--but they did sometimes. The same was true for her, she reported. And she added that she loved going back to her childhood home.
 
"Do you sing?" she asked, "Because if you do, I would like you to sing me a song." He said he didn't sing, which didn't seem to bother her. She explained that her parents had been in the Jewish theater and that everyone in her house was always singing. She knew so many songs as a result, she told him.

I laughed when she asked her next question: "Do you think I am too fat?" I had to wonder if, were I to make it past 100 years, as she has, would I still be worrying about my weight? Ever chivalrous, he looked at her and said, "I think you're just right." Oh, did she smile. And then, of course, they both smiled.
 
About fifteen minutes later, he explained that he had to go. 
 
"Where are you going?" she asked. 
"Home," he said. 
"Where's that?" 
"Georgia," he replied. "But I'll be back in six months, so if you're still around, we can talk again," he said.
"I would like that," she said, "But only if you really want to." 
 
As he headed back to Georgia, I was reminded of something I'd heard in an episode from Season 4 of Shetland, which I'd recently been re-watching. Before meeting an an unfortunate end on the ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick, Robbie, seen in the adjacent photo***, had worked at a "home" on Shetland. When he went missing, the director of the home explained how much the residents, mostly elderly, missed him. I'm paraphrasing here, but she said, "Old people seldom get touched, and they need it. Robbie liked them, and he would touch them; he would hold their hands."
 
The next time I visited my mother, I asked the nurse if the two hand-holders would remember their conversation. I was especially wondering if one or the other of them would feel bad if the other one didn't recollect their happy time spent together. "Neither of them will remember it," she told me. "But we've learned to put them together when either of them is having a bad day. Something about being near each other comforts them."
 
I was fascinated. One of the other staff people joined the conversation, referring me to two women who have been living on the floor since before my mother moved there and who were talking to softly to each other. 
 
"You see _____ and _____?" she said. "Sometimes one of them is the mother and the other is the daughter****; other times, the roles reverse." Interestingly, the one who more often played the role of the mother had no children of her own.

Knowing this made me understand a conversation I had overheard between the two of them a few months back. Sensing that her friend was having a hard day, the motherly childless one said, "You should do whatever you want. You've done so much for other people. It's time to take care of yourself now." She paused, and added, "And maybe soon you'll meet a nice man and get married." When the "daughter" looked at her quizzically, she responded, "Well, don't worry about that, dear; you have plenty of time." Such a reassuring Jewish mother!

So often, because my mother is in the late stages of Alzheimer's, I've gotten questions about how responsive she is: to me, to my sisters, to the people who take care of her. If anything, I've learned that different people mean different things by "responsive."***** For some, responsive means nothing less than being able to listen attentively to long stories and respond to them in long sentences. For others, it means recognizing who's visiting them and being able to call them by the right name. For yet others, it means smiling in response to a heartfelt hello.

I recognize the unspoken question of some who ask about my mother's responsiveness: "Why visit your mother if she doesn't respond to you? What's in it for you? And what's in it for her?" At this point, I don't feel obligated to offer answers to those questions. Bright eyes, smiles, and the words "lovely" and "I love you" mean "responsive" to me.

But since observing the two hand-holders, I have a new appreciation for how responsive people with cognitive and memory limitations can be to one other--and how important and gratifying their relationships and interactions can be in the moment, even in a series of moments, even over time--which no doubt feels so different to them than it does to me.

As long as we're alive, we never stop being people--which means we each want and need, by virtue of being human, what everyone wants and needs. There's so much that many elders can no longer do and do for themselves. But there's also so much they still can do for one another--something I didn't sufficiently understand and appreciate until this past month.

* Amanda Madden Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/pin/old-couple-holding-hands-precious--364862007283583548/
** Photo accompanying recipe for over-easy eggs: https://www.beyondthechickencoop.com/over-easy-eggs/
*** Robbie Morton Shetland Wiki Season 3 https://shetland.fandom.com/wiki/Robbie_Morton
**** Screen shot of an image on Pinterest: Her Campus: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/603200943819962895/
***** Screen shot of an image on the Texas Health and Human Services Commission Website (courtesy of Adobe Stock) https://communityimpact.com/houston/conroe-montgomery/coronavirus/2020/07/27/texas-health-and-human-services-commission-to-post-covid-19-cases-deaths-from-nursing-homes-assisted-living-centers/

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Things Past, Pastel, Passing, and Returning -- And Some Poems About Them

So already, latest April and earliest May, for me, together comprise the most beautiful part of spring--maybe because the beauty of this period is the most ephemeral. But that last "maybe" may miss the experiential point. It's the
abundance of breathtaking pastels that makes latest April and earliest May exceedingly and uniquely beautiful. Those pale, delicate colors create a seasonal softness, especially when combined with gentle breezes and mild temperatures.
 
Yes, these pastels fade or fall to the ground when the great seasonal leafing out begins, just as Robert Frost says in "Nothing Gold Can Stay"*:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf. . . .
But how breath-taking they are, how much they gladden our hearts, has nothing to do with how briefly they stay. Those of us who ritually undertake spring cleaning as a seasonal imperative need to march ourselves outdoors every day even just briefly so we don't miss what will lift our spirits even more than dust-free, shining baseboards.
 
April is the perfect month for National Poetry Month. Eliot and Whitman practically made sure of it with their April references in "The Wasteland" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Then there's poetry's unique ability not only to nail--get right--the ephemeral quality of early spring, but to nail it down so it remains permanently ephemeral. Poetry is like the girl in the 2024 official National Poetry Month poster**: she will ever be mid-air and mid-ecstasy.

For my part, I've gotten myself outside so as not to miss out on this season's nearly daily changes. A few weeks back, before the time of pastel flowerings, I was on the lookout for the first of the skunk cabbage, especially because I'd recently read and loved Mary Oliver's "Skunk Cabbage."***

Oliver's poem conveys the muscular monstrousness of skunk cabbage: it's "brash" and "turnip-hearted"; its smell is "lurid"; its "rough/ green caves" are "Appalling." Its emergence expresses "daring" and "brawn," not "longing" and "tenderness": it rises out of the "chilling mud," reminding us that "the secret name/ of every death is life again"--but, initially, life that perceptibly, undeniably feeds on and reeks of the death that precedes it. Encountering it, we feel repelled and compelled simultaneously.

One of the members of my poetry reading group expressed frustration with skunk cabbage. It's so abundant--and so useless, she explained: we can't make anything out of it. But to my mind, it's use lies in its offering early proof that life will again grow out of widespread cold muck and decay that have begun to seem permanent. 
 
I appreciate Oliver's elevating humble skunk cabbage in a poem of praise that reminds us that "What blazes the trail [to the more "pleasing" expressions of seasonal rebirth] is not necessarily pretty." Generally, I'm grateful for good poems such as Oliver's because of what they hold and keep holding for whenever we want to return to them.
 
In the spirit of the power of poems to capture, affirm, and preserve, I will now take this blog post out of the springtime woods of Greater Boston and place it on the banks of the Androscoggin River in mid-autumn. But its gratitude for poetry and trust in poetry's power will remain.

The reason for this abrupt shift: were he still alive, my father would have been looking to celebrate his ninety-eighth birthday on Saturday, April 27. "Androscoggin Riverwalk" is a poem that I believe captures and preserves his interests and sensibilities and his engaged relationship with the world. I wrote it originally in response to a poetry prompt that required me to write directly to a person about a place. I knew immediately I wanted to write to my father, who'd died two years earlier, about the walk along, across, and then back along the Androscoggin River in Brunswick, Maine.  
 
A shorter version of it appeared in the 2023 issue of the Poetry Porch, but I offer to you a longer version of it here. 
 

You would have loved the riverwalk.
 

You would have paused to watch

The Androscoggin flowing past

Sloping slabs of gray stone

Sprouting pine and spruce.


But the narrow swinging bridge

That spanned the river,

Offering pedestrian transit

From bank to bank,

Really would have interested you.

 

Gingerly, you would have stepped 

      onto it,

Then, gaining trust in it and you,

Continued across it,

Stopping just beyond its far end

To pore over the placard

That told its story:

 

For decades, French-Canadians

Had moved across Le Petit Pont

Going to and from Cabot Mill,

And church and school,

All on the Brunswick side.

 

Nothing moved you more

Than tales of humble people 

Who, sensing opportunity

For their children and themselves,

Left beloved homes behind

For promising new ones.

 

The faces of the migrants,

Earnest in the placard photos,

Would have stayed with you

As you headed downhill

From Topsham Heights--

 

Until a hydroelectric plant

Came into view, compelling

An impromptu discourse

On the likely ties

Among river, plant, and mill:

 

Chance encounters 

With functioning vestiges

Of thriving industrial times

Often drew from you

Specialized knowledge

I hadn’t known you had.

 

Your exposition ended,

You would have set off

For the downstream bridge,

Pausing for a final time

To wonder at the bright-hued flags

Strung across a nearby prayer garden,

And to ask what a prayer wheel was,

 

And then continuing on,

Your thoughts now turned

Toward home and lunch.


An avid golf and tennis player, my father loved spring; it was the declining light in fall that got him down--and made him look forward to the winter solstice as the signal of the sure if slow return of warmth and light over the weeks and months ahead.


Thank you for reading this poem about him--and the rest of this post. And may you enjoy this miraculous season, the poems it writes, and the remainder of National Poetry Month.


* Frost, R. (n.d.). Nothing gold can stay. poets.org: Academy of American poets. https://poets.org/poem/nothing-gold-can-stay
** The American Academy of Poets creates this annual official poster.
*** Oliver, M. (n.d.). Skunk cabbage. Famous poets and poems.com. http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/mary_oliver/poems/15874

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Tossing Notebooks

So already, so many notebooks, so little time--and space. The permission, combined with the encouragement, to dispose of filled, long-stored notebooks was granted to me in early January--and in the nick of time. 
 
I had just decided that the upcoming spring would be the perfect time to renovate my kitchen. But as I drove* toward my mother's senior care community on that rainy Monday morning, I wondered how I would manage to store my kitchen stuff while my kitchen was being gutted and rebuilt. In my small condominium, almost all of the storage space is already claimed.
 
On that gray, wet morning, an author whose name I can't recall was being interviewed on one of Boston's public radio stations. Discussing strategies for overcoming "stuckness" and depression in the contexts of both writing and life, she advocated throwing out old journals and diaries, unless one really had a clear plan and reason to reread them.
 
And oh, did I have old journals and diaries that I already knew I had no desire to read again! Somehow, though, years ago, I'd gotten it into my head that to dispose of one's diaries and journals was to devalue oneself and one's "journey" as a person. So I'd kept them, and planned to throw them out just before I died. 
 
Because I was already dedicated to no one else's reading them, I had carefully planned for their destruction should death claim me before I could make that final dumpster run. As the adjacent photo shows, I had precisely labeled the box in which they were stored, entrusting my husband to toss them without reading them. 

Three days after listening to that public radio interview, I pulled that carton off my closet shelf and emptied it. I flipped through a few of the notebooks just in case something gave me a good reason to reconsider my plan. Nothing did. I felt like the speaker in Mary Oliver's poem "Storage" who feels similarly disconnected from the contents of the storage unit that she eventually empties: "Occasionally I went there and looked in,/ but nothing happened, not a single/ twinge of the heart."**
 
So out those diaries and journals went. Like Oliver, I felt that discarding those notebooks represented more gain than loss, but my experience of parting with them was less spiritual than hers. She--I do think she is the speaker in her poem--equated unburdening herself of "Things!" with creating "More room in your heart for love, . . .." My response was far more practical and self-centered: not only did I now have an additional empty carton and spot to put it in once I filled it with kitchen paraphernalia, but I also felt emotionally freer and lighter, having destroyed the evidence of my bad taste in men during my twenties and thirties.

But, in fact, I had many more filled notebooks***--notebooks connected to my writing aspirations, notebooks connected to my exploration of Judaism, notebooks reflecting my many years of coaching and mentoring other teachers, and notebooks filled with lecture and seminar notes from my college and graduate school days.
 
It's been far harder to decide which of these to toss.
 
As for the
notebooks connected to my writing aspirations, I've now tossed out whole swaths of morning pages**** that I wrote in conjunction with Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way. Those pages fulfilled their purpose when I wrote them. The other notebooks I'd filled with process writing to help me generate or recognize writing ideas seemed to me to have less shelf-life than tax returns: anything written too long ago seemed to have been written by another me. So I've thrown out the notebooks that were more than four years old.

I am holding on to the notebooks related to my exploration of Judaism and its place in my life, primarily because their contents tend to reflect whatever reading I was doing or courses I was taking while I was in the midst of a particular part of the liturgical year.***** I do look back at these notebooks to understand how different aspects of Jewish wisdom and practice have resonated with me in different years. I don't want to forget what is still new and often fragile learning for me.

The notebooks from my years of coaching and mentoring other teachers I've relegated to the trash, though I really enjoyed looking through them a final time before I did: so many notes I'd taken during and after meetings with my colleagues who were always striving to do right by their students and colleagues; so many memories of shared commitment, dedication, and time spent. Fortunately I have books, articles, and artifacts by which to remember the spirit and work of my fellow educators.

To my surprise, I've been finding it hardest to part with my notebooks from college and graduate school. It's hard to let go of the wisdom of my teachers that those notebooks contain. So much of my understanding of literary history and history more generally, and the relationship between these, derives from the coursework captured in these notebooks. So many of my sensibilities as an appreciator and explorer of literature, art, and music were shaped by how, when, and where my professors taught me to look, question, synthesize and imagine.
 
Still, I can't imagine rereading those notebooks. So now that I've recognized that their current importance is primarily symbolic, I will be able to throw them out and to remember them by the adjacent photo.
 
When I first started writing this post, I wasn't sure why I wanted to write about tossing notebooks--but I was sure that I did. My husband Scott suggested I was motivated by a desire to divest myself of some aspects of my past in order to move more freely toward the future and new. But I'm not sure.

I have to admit, the prospect of a new kitchen makes me feel like I'm moving toward the new. But a new kitchen is hardly a perspective-altering voyage around the world. If anything, it's an investment in domesticity and trusted habit, especially because I like to cook, and even need to cook in order to feel that home is being home.

The full ending of Mary Oliver's poem is as follows:
I felt like the little donkey when
his burden if finally lifted. Things!
Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful
fire! More room in your heart for love,
for the trees! For the birds who own
nothing--the reason they can fly!
In the last weeks, I've felt more lightened than enlightened by heaving some of my old stuff. A kitchen is not a storage space; it can't do its job if it holds "nothing." I look forward to the task I'll have later this year of figuring out what to put where in my new cabinets. Cooking requires "Things," and the birds I'm most likely to see in my kitchen are chickens.  
 
* Screenshot section of a photo embedded in the following blog post: Popa, B. (2012, March 11). How Windshield Water Repellent Products Work. Autoevolution. https://www.autoevolution.com/news/how-windshield-water-repellent-products-work-43296.html.
** Oliver, M. (2020). Storage. Devotions: The selected poems of Mary Oliver. (2nd ed., p. 7). Penguin Books. (Original work published 2017).
*** Screenshot section of a photo embedded in the following website: Saint Augustine Catholic school. (n.d.).  Saint Augustine parish. Retrieved on March 23, 2024, from https://www.staugustines.net/fullscreen-page/comp-j8ye2ao1/7b5906bf-7052-4517-8b21-07adaccd182b/3/%3Fi%3D3%26p%3Dq8zel%26s%3Dstyle-j92fd4ds9.
**** I have blogged about writing morning pages; here is the link to one such blog: https://soalready.blogspot.com/2016/08/experiments-and-experiences-in-writing.html
***** I have blogged often about my experiences of preparing for the Jewish High Holy days during the month of Elul; here is a link to one such blog: https://soalready.blogspot.com/2020/09/from-field-when-toe-in-is-all-in.html.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Circling for Campus Community

So already, as a mid-1970s Harvard-Radcliffe student, I lived in Quincy House*, and I've been thinking about it a lot since October 7 when events in Israel and Gaza created grave tensions among Harvard students and members of other groups and communities on other college campuses, across the USA, and in Israel and other countries.
 
Of late, the national news hasn't been saying much about what's been happening among students on those tense campuses.
 
From my perspective, Quincy House in my day was a friendly--or at least friendly enough--house, despite the social jockeying and pursuit of individual goals that were bound to be in evidence at a place like Harvard. Many of us who lived there said hello or otherwise acknowledged one another upon coming face-to-face in the courtyard, the elevator in the eight-story "new Quincy," and the dining hall.  
 
More importantly, on those occasions when each of us went alone to the dining hall, we could sit down with people with whom we usually didn't eat--and sometimes didn't know--and expect to be welcomed and included in the conversation. There was a common understanding that the dining hall belonged to all of us.
 
This made Quincy House different from some other Harvard houses. I knew from some friends that there were dining halls where established friendship groups who ate dinner together every night were less inclined to be welcoming of "outsiders." Some people I knew even skipped meals rather than go to their house dining halls alone.
 
Even back then, I had several thoughts about what made Quincy House "different." Most important was the physical design of the house itself, a fenced-in compound containing old and new buildings accessible only through a single gate. Since we all had to pass through that same gate to leave and enter, we regularly came face-to-face with one another--and minimally couldn't avoid knowing one another by sight. In addition, the compound's central courtyard was a common gathering and stopping place that naturally supported breezy conversation on beautiful fall and spring afternoons.
 
There was also the social-cultural reality of Quincy House. Because it was a relatively new house, it hadn't yet developed the reputation for being the house of choice for particular types of students--such as classical musicians, aspiring journalists, varsity athletes, theater people and other artists, political activists--although it had gained attention for its space club and wine cellar. So its residents were relatively diverse in their interests and lifestyles.
 
In addition, it was less apt to be selected by students drawn to the traditional, iconic red-brick-and-wood-paneled Harvard and by those wanting to live where their fathers and other relatives had lived as undergraduates. 
 
Though some assigned to Quincy House would have preferred assignment to those older houses, others chose it because it wasn't the old, traditional Harvard and/or they were not legacy students--which is not to say they felt adequately comfortable, visible, and culturally seen and understood as Quincy House residents. I know for a fact that I experienced Quincy House as friendlier and more comfortable than some of them did.

So why am I writing about this now? Because I'm wondering how we mid-1970s Quincy House residents would have acted and reacted had we been confronted by the events on and after October 7 in Israel, Gaza, and Washington D.C., and on the Harvard campus. Would our House community have fractured and broken down? Would each of us have stopped talking to or even making eye contact with those around us whose views we knew--or suspected--differed from our own--and whose palpable pain was rooted in lived experiences and world views different from our own?
 
In the weeks since October 7, I have been involved in some painfully difficult conversations with some old Harvard friends. I deliberately used the word "painfully" in the preceding sentence because, as the only Jewish participant in one of those conversation groups, I've felt deeply disturbed by**** the fact that many in the group have been most concerned about the Harvard brand and Harvard's reputation as intellectually rigorous--and seemingly unconcerned about the widely reported on-campus expressions of antisemitism and other types of hatred and bias. Antisemitism anywhere concerns me.
 
To the credit of our group, we've agreed not let our robust differences tear us apart. Still, I didn't find it easy to send the email in which I explained that I viewed Harvard first and foremost as a school and wanted Claudine Gay to remain at its helm, so, as someone publicly and transparently continuing to learn and grow, she could lead and support others living and learning at Harvard to navigate this perilous campus, national, and world moment.
 
Over the last weeks, I have continued to worry about the undergraduates, even though their daily experience has ceased to be of interest to the national press. How have the students been managing to live side-by-side, face-to-face, and day-to-day in the company of those
  • whom they hate and/or by whom they feel hated, 
  • whom they fear and/or in whom their words and actions have created fear, 
  • whom they believe deserve annihilation and/or by whom they fear being annihilated, 
  • whom they believe not only cannot understand their experiences and those of people like them, but belong to the groups responsible for their feelings, 
  • whom they hold responsible for the ongoing violence, injustice, and inhumanity in Israel and Gaza,
  • whom they no longer feel they know--and/or wonder if they ever knew?
That last question may be even more important than any of the others, even though it's personal and emotional. In my experience as an educator, it's always first and foremost about people and relationships. 
 
As I've read articles and listened to cable news, I've heard questions about what is being and should be taught in history and political science courses to help students make sense of this historical moment and prepare them to engage in informed, respectful debate about causes and next steps. But I don't think what's happened on campus is only an intellectual or pedagogical problem.*****
 
Consequently, I've been thinking for weeks that the work of rebuilding safe, respectful community should happen in dormitories and dining halls, the emotional spaces of collegiate life, the places where individuals can't avoid coming face-to-face with the very people who may be angering and frightening them, and by whom they may be feeling betrayed, unseen, stereotyped, or misunderstood.
 
But until this weekend--when I read Rabbi Sharon Brous's The Amen Effect: Ancient Wisdom to Mend Our Broken Hearts and World******--I had no idea what this might really look like. Now I have an idea for a house-based activity. It would have to be voluntary, and it would no doubt feel strange and even uncomfortable at first, especially for those who are by habit very private about what they feel. Some undergraduates (and Harvard others) might dismiss it as uncool, contrived, silly, unintellectual, and/or suspect because of its religious roots, while those willing to participate would likely feel vulnerable doing so--but also curious, courageous, and hopeful.
 
One of Brous's major inspirations is an ancient Jewish text in the Mishna that describes a rite performed on the Temple Mount during a pilgrimage holiday. As Brous explains, summarizing the text, 
    "The crowd would enter the [Temple Mount] Courtyard in a mass of humanity, turning to the right and circling--counterclockwise--around the enormous complex, exiting close to where they had entered.
    "But someone suffering, . . . --someone to whom something awful had happened--that person would walk through the same entrance and circle in the opposite direction [thus, to the left]. . . . And everyone who passed the brokenhearted would stop and ask, 'What happened to you?' . . . 
    "And [after hearing the answer] those who walked from right to left--each one of them--would look into the eyes of the ill, the bereft, and the bereaved. 'May God comfort you,' they would say, one by one. 'May you be wrapped in the embrace of the community.' (3-4)
Two pages later, Brous modernizes and secularizes the ritual:
  
. . . There's a stranger coming toward you, making her way against the flow of the crowd. . . . She is clearly suffering. . . . You stop and greet her with a simple, open-hearted question: 'What's your story? Why does your heart ache?'
    And this grief-stricken person answers: 'I am broken.'
    You offer words of comfort. 'I see you,' you say. 'You are not alone.'
    You continue to walk, until the next distressed person approaches.(5)
Brous then goes on to comment on why this ritual heals, or at least potentially begins a healing process.
    There is a timeless wisdom in entering the sacred circle: this is, on some fundamental level, what it means to be human. Today, you walk from left to right. Tomorrow it will be me. I hold you now, knowing that eventually, you'll hold me. Every gesture of recognition marries love and humility, vulnerability and sacred responsibility.
    . . . This ancient . . . ritual . . . has taught me the transformative nature of showing up when we want to retreat, of listening deeply to each other's pain even when we fear there are no words. Of . . . recognizing that even though we can't heal each others, we can and we must see each other. (5-6)
It was the reference to courtyards in the Mishna text that got me thinking that a variation of this ritual could be enacted at the Harvard houses. Harvard houses have courtyards, courtyards have perimeters, and the common entrances into those courtyards could serve as the entering and leaving points for those walking those perimeters. Furthermore, Harvard houses have common spaces that could be good post-circling gathering places for those wanting to continue engaging with one another after the activity.*******
 
I would change the script for the campus activity--and make it available to all students prior to the actual circling, which I would advise happen once a week for 4-5 consecutive weeks, allowing--and encouraging--all to participate at least once and ideally multiple times. I would also suggest this in recognition of the fact  that some people wait to see how such activities go for the first round of participants before giving them a try themselves.

My suggestions for the ritualized responses would be as follows.
  • A person circling to the right, upon encountering a person circling to the left would say, "Hello. Why are you in distress?"
  • The person circling to the left would say, "I have been feeling ______." Any number of adjectives could go into this blank--"sad," "misunderstood," "enraged," "fearful," "confused," "distrustful," "alienated," "endangered," "betrayed," "abandoned," "ostracized," "frustrated," "outnumbered," "stereotyped," "hated," "hopeless," and "concerned" are some possibilities. And students could share as many adjectives as they pleased.
  • The person circling to the right would then say, "Thank you for telling me. I see you and hear you."
That's all. No one would be expected to say anything else; in fact all would be directed to say nothing else during the activity. But all would be expected to participate in good faith or at least in open-hearted curiosity.
 
My inspiration for adding the hello at the beginning of the exchange was Maya Angelou's optimistic inaugural poem "On the Pulse of Morning," in particular its final stanza:
Here, on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes, and into
Your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope--
Good morning. 

Immediately following the circling activity, anyone wanting to reflect on the experience of participating in it would be invited to gather for a conversation facilitated by a member of the House staff. Guiding questions might be 
  • How did it feel to participate?
  • What, if anything, surprised you about the experience?
  • Would you participate again?
  • What, if anything, did you learn--about yourself? about our House? about others? about structured activities like this one?  
Refreshments would be a must at this further conversation!

I wonder if there's any chance that Faculty Deans (called housemasters in my day) at Quincy House or other Harvard houses would consider giving this idea a try. My own feeling is that circling the courtyard or the dining hall would be far healthier for a fractured community than circling the wagons. But then again, as a longtime teacher in a public democratic alternative school with lots of experience making groups work in schools and classrooms (thank you, Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education), I trust in structured activities that protect all participants while making their voices heard and their faces seen. Healing and community-building take time and work, but that work needs to start somewhere.

* Screen shot of an online photograph by Jeff Soongs or Jeff Songs--can no longer find it, but will keep trying.
**Screen shot of one of the header photos on the following website: Harvard Univerity. (n.d.) Quincy House. https://quincy.harvard.edu/
***Screen shot of one of the header photos on the following website: Harvard Univerity. (n.d.) Eliot House. https://eliot.harvard.edu/
**** "Blue Self," a painting by Scott Ketcham: https://www.scottketcham.com/post/110473758402/259-blue-self-2015-42-x-34-oil-on-denril
*****Screen shot of a photo on blog, filtered by me: Mitchell, M. (2016, September 22). Collaborative circle mural. This little class or mine. https://thislittleclassofmine.weebly.com/home/collaborative-circle-mural (The original unfiltered photo is pictured next to these endnotes.
*(6) Brous, S. (2024). The amen effect: Ancient wisdom to mend our broken hearts and world. Penguin Random House. 
*(7) I now have some thoughts about what might happen next, but they are for a further blog post.