Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"Last Swim of Summer"

My friend Lee, whose summer place is on Songo Pond in Maine, has given me permission to share the poem she wrote just the other morning--as perfect an end-of-summer poem as there could be, especially at the end of a summer filled with beautiful weather and deeply disturbing national and international events.  Thank you so much, Lee, for "Last Swim of Summer."

The sun just up over the trees in the east
Seven AM
Not a soul on the lake
No motorboats, no disturbing wake
To throw your rhythm off while gulping water and air
No gaping kayakers paddling too close to the shore
Looking in at the outdoor shower
Sending us running for our towels
Not even happy sounds of summer swimmers
Splashing and jumping off their docks

The lake looks like glass
Feels like velvet
Sun makes diamonds dance 
     on the surface
Cold water. Shivers and 
     shouts diving in
Fast start to warm up, then 
     reaching, reaching
Stretching arms as far and 
     deep as possible
Legs beginning the rhythm, 

Like a porpoise, diving, resurfacing
Splashing, playing, gliding, laughing
Sun hot on face and body, water cold from
Depths below.

It’s a moment. Real. Is this realer than work,
Traffic, problems to solve, people to love or
Help or manage? World events?

No. But it’s great.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Slouching Towards Bethlehem Via Chandrapore: Forster's A Passage to India

So already, I finished reading E.M. Forster's A Passage to India two weekends ago, and it's been very much on my mind. My immersion in Howard's End earlier this year is definitely affecting the way I'm making sense of this later Forster novel. But so are my recent readings of Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor and The Unbreakable Soul: A Chasidic Discourse by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In Howard's End, it's Margaret Schlegel who explicitly articulates Forster's "Only connect" idea (End, 186). Well, I'm connecting--or feeling my way towards connecting. There's so much dark and vague in this novel for me, right along with Forster's characters, to navigate.

A Passage to India is a novel about empire, nation, race, caste, religion, society, marriage, and the individual; it's also a novel about the dark yet reflecting interior of the Marabar Caves* and the callous, powerful heat and light of India's sun, characterized by Forster as a "creature" whose "cruelty would have been tolerable" had "beauty" accompanied it (Passage, 124). People and power definitely matter in this novel, and could easily be the subject of an extended and important blog post. But the novel explores something more forceful and significant than the characters' individual and intersecting lives and the often callous, harmful institutions that order them. That said, there is definitely a connection between the something and the something more.

Maybe that's why Forster's character who most senses this something more forceful and significant is named Mrs. Moore. The challenge faced by Mrs. Moore and several other characters with similar intimations is that, as Forster explains,"nothing in India is identifiable, the mere asking of a question causes it to disappear or to merge into something else" (Passage, 91). To their credit, they don't dismiss this something more, although it intellectually confounds and emotionally perplexes them.  

Mrs. Moore's intimations surface despite--or perhaps because of--her increased attachment to her Christian belief as an older person: 
Mrs. Moore felt she had made a mistake in mentioning God [to her son Ronny whose possible engagement is the reason for her visit to India], but she found him increasingly difficult to avoid as she grew older, and he had constantly been in her thoughts since she entered India, though oddly enough he satisfied her less.  She must needs pronounce his name frequently, as the greatest she knew, yet she had never found it less efficacious. Outside the arch there seemed always an arch, beyond the remotest echo a silence (Passage, 54).
Mrs. Moore's sense of arches** beyond arches, and silences extending beyond echoes receding in space and time immediately recalls for me Margaret Schlegel's sense of England's duration and eternity. Margaret understands England's movement into the future to be rooted in something more ancient, knowing, and complex than the commercial and imperial aims of the present: "England was alive, throbbing through all her estuaries, crying for joy through the mouths of all her gulls, and the north wind, with contrary motion, blew stronger against her rising seas. What did it mean? For what end are her fair complexities, her changes of soil, her sinuous coast?" (End, 175-6). Before her conception of England is revealed, we're told that Margaret understands that she conscientiously sees life differently than does her then fiancé, Henry Wilcox: "It is impossible to see modern life steadily and see it whole, and she had chosen to see it whole. Mr. Wilcox saw steadily. He never bothered about he mysterious or the private" (161-2).

The distinction between the ways Margaret and Mr. Wilcox see life could easily apply to the different ways Mrs. Moore and her son Ronny see it. Mrs. Moore's openness to the mysterious--her willingness to encounter the different, the unknown, and even the unexplainable--eventually creates haunting dissonance in her life. But before it does, it makes her humbly curious and sincerely respectful, and therefore capable of forging relationships that other British visitors to India would not forge. Very early in the novel, for example, after she has wandered into a mosque*** and alarmed Dr. Aziz, she reassures him that she has behaved respectfully: "If I remove my shoes, I am allowed? . . . God is here'"(Passage, 18). Her willingness to engage directly with him, to observe Muslim custom, and to assert God's presence in a non-Christian place of workshop, differentiates her from other British visitors and facilitates her and Dr. Aziz's becoming genuine friends--hardly the usual relationship for a Muslim doctor and a British matron. 

Some time later, in the darkness of the Malabar Caves****, as part of an expedition organized by Dr. Aziz, she has an encounter with an echo that she can't ignore, deny, or fathom:
The more she thought over it, the more disagreeable and frightening it became. She minded it much more now than at the time. The crush and smells she could forget, but the echo began in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life. Coming at a moment when she chanced to be fatigued, it had managed to murmur, "Pathos, piety, courage--they exist, but are identical, and so is filth.  Everything exists, nothing has value." If one had spoken vileness in that place or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same--"ou-boum." . . . Devils are of the North, and poems can be written about them, but no one could romanticize the Marabar because it robbed infinity and eternity of their vastness, the only quality that accommodates them to mankind. (165)
When "Religion appeared, poor little talkative Christianity," its "divine words from 'Let there be Light' to 'It is finished' only amounted to 'boum'" (166). The spiritual unease that Mrs. Moore has been feeling, intensified through this experience, cannot be managed or escaped. For her, the darkness of the Marabar caves does not present itself as the fertile reservoir of truth and potentiality that it has evolved into for Barbara Brown Taylor--who has done some cave exploring herself. Nor does it present itself as a metaphor for the world of God's creation into which the human soul must descend in order to attain "the advantage it gains by fulfilling the Divine mission in actuality" before it ascends to rejoin its Divine source (Schneerson, 17). In contrast, the darkness Mrs. Moore experiences seems thoroughly devoid of elevating purpose or potential, offering mystery, but no guidance or assurance, the unknown, but no expansiveness and remoteness. Kurtz's last words in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, "The horror! The horror!," seem like they could easily be spoken by Mrs. Moore after her cave experience.

Later in the novel, when the distressed Adela, Ronny's fiancee, visits her, Mrs. Moore begins to listen intently only when Adela asks her about an echo that she can't stop hearing. The ""echo's better'" only after Adela realizes and admits that she has falsely accused Dr. Aziz of attacking her in another Marabar cave (228), relying on Mrs. Moore's certainty that Dr. Aziz couldn't and wouldn't commit such an act to shape her sense of reality.

Soon thereafter, Mrs. Moore sails for England, her ill humor, disgust, and distress intact. Forster explains that "She had come to that state where the horror of the universe and its smallness are both visible at the same time--the twilight of double vision in which so many elderly people are involved" (230). Still trying to understand as her journey begins, she raises questions: "What had spoken to her in that scoured-out cavity of granite*****? What dwelt in the first of the caves? Something very old and very small. Before time, it was before space also. Something snub-nosed, incapable of generosity--the undying worm itself" (231).

When Mrs. Moore's health worsens on the journey, and she dies, she is still not at rest and at peace. Forster reports that her "ghost followed the ship up the Red Sea, but failed to enter the Mediterranean. Somewhere about Suez weaken and those of Europe begin to be felt, and during the transition, Mrs. Moore was shaken off (Passage, 285)". Mrs. Moore, who could no longer remain comfortably in India, also no longer belongs in Europe. Meanwhile, her "death took subtler and more lasting shapes in Chandrapore," where legends and other tributes spring up, some more lasting than others, due to her reputation for genuine kindness and her only vaguely understood role in Adela's retraction of her accusation (285).  

Mrs. Moore's becoming a mystical figure in the life of others recalled to me Howard's End once again. Though Mrs. Moore is like Margaret Schlegel, the second Mrs. Wilcox, in her renowned kindness and her respect for and willingness to engage with the mysterious, she is like the first Mrs. Wilcox both in her instinctive connection to the spiritual and those who are similarly connected to it, and in the power she exerts through her spirit beyond her own death. As Margaret remarks to her sister Helen (or vice versa),
"I feel that you and I and Henry are only fragments of that woman's [Mrs. Wilcox's] mind. She knows everything. She is everything. She is the house [Howard's End], and the tree that leans over it. People have their own deaths as well as their own lives, and even if there is nothing beyond death, we shall differ in our nothingness. I cannot believe that knowledge such as hers will perish with knowledge such as mine. She knew about realities. She knew when people were in love, though she was not in the room. I don't doubt that she knew when Henry deceived her" (313-14).
As I think about this, my mind turns toward Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, another novel in which a major character defined primarily as a mother dies mid-novel, but not without leaving behind a forceful influence and/or vision--and not without significantly influencing the course of the lives she leaves behind. 

But even as I think this, I remind myself that neither Mrs. Ramsay nor Mrs. Wilcox ever had to grapple at all, let alone unsuccessfully, with the sinister, pervasive, and relentless darkness that fills Mrs. Moore's mind. The Howard's End house that Mrs. Wilcox bequeathes to Margaret Schlegel before she becomes the second Mrs. Wilcox has the power to liberate the spirit of one who sees wholely:
The peace of the country was entering into . . . [Margaret]. It has no commerce with memory, and little with hope. Least of all is it concerned with the hopes of the next five minutes. It is the peace of the present, which passes understanding. Its murmur came "now," and "now" once more as they trod the gravel, and "now," as the moonlight fell upon their father's sword (End, 315). 
It seems that "Wholely" and "holy" seem to walk hand-in-hand in the illuminated darkness of this scene. And that's always our assumption, or at least our hope: that seeing wholely will grant us thoughtful clarity and, ultimately, inner peace. 

But that's not what Mrs. Moore gets when she dares to see wholely, though who's to say that what she gets isn't holy? There's no deliverance here, no "peace of the present, which passes understanding." Her "boum" is not a "murmur of 'now.'" Instead, she encounters something horrifying and incomprehensible akin to what Yeats describes in the last stanza of "The Second Coming":

Hardly are those words out    
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,******  
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
Howard's End was published in 1921, and A Passage to India in 1924. Somewhere in that time period, Forster must have felt that he wasn't done with the theme of seeing wholely: a "peaceful enough" resolution like that of Howard's End would never suffice to shake the modern world into a new kind of consciousness and connectivity. So he gave us Mrs. Moore, another country and continent, and A Passage to India. And he left us to contemplate that the genuinely kind people who see whole, and who increase the goodness and justice in the world by doing so, may fear and suffer without reprieve and without consolation from the living. And perhaps he left us all to slouch toward Bethlehem together, but without the excuse of our ignorance and assumptions.

* Screen shot from <>; Forster based his Marabar Caves on India's Barabar Caves. Chandrapore is also a fictional city.
** Image from <>
*** Screen shot of interior of Jamali Kamali Mosque Interior: <>
**** Screen shot of <>.
***** Screen shot of <> 
****** <>. 

Forster, E. M. A Passage to India. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984. Print.
Forster, E. M. Howard's End. New York: Vintage, 1921. Print. 
Schneersohn, Menahem Mendel. The Unbreakable Soul: A Chasidic Discourse. Trans. Ari Sollish. Brooklyn, NY: 
         Kehot Publication Society, 2001. Print.  
Taylor, Barbara Brown. Learning to Walk in the Dark. New York: Harper Collins, 2014. Print.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Globalisation of Merrymount Park

So already,* on Monday morning, August 3, I took my usual walk at my not usual time--and came across dancing in Merrymount Park. The big public park close to the center of Quincy, Massachusetts, Merrymount Park has a large, easily accessible parking lot that's perfectly placed for summer recreation. In the early morning, nearby trees shade its paved, level surface, making it ideal for summer activities that are energetic, meditative, or both. Because the park's water fountain is close to the parking lot, but not too close to it, the fountain's constantly circulating waters provide a hushed, soothing soundtrack that complements the dappled stillness the parking lot often exudes before day fully awakens.

Over the last few years, I have often seen disciplined walkers and Tai Chi practitioners availing themselves of this choice Quincy spot on summer mornings. But last Monday was the first time I witnessed dancers taking advantage of it. 


It was around eight-thirty in the morning, and I had just rounded the corner from Hancock Street onto Merrymount Parkway (you can see that corner on the right-hand side of the photo on the right).** As I neared the the entrance to the parking lot just beyond the park's World War II memorial (pictured above on the left, and just distinguishable beneath the American flag in the photo on the right),*** I heard American swing music coming from the parking lot's far end. If I'd heard hip hop or old rock 'n roll, I would have walked on, assuming that some group of young friends was congregating near the fenced-in field before heading off to summer jobs or regular work. But that swing music, out of the ordinary for the city's streets, called for a little more investigation.

That's when I saw that there was dancing happening at the far end of the parking lot, and that the dancers were Chinese-Americans--probably some of my fellow residents of Quincy, I surmised. Some were paired off and dancing together, others were encouraging others to form couples and begin dancing, and others were providing instruction to those who agreed to it, enthusiastically or reluctantly.

For a few minutes, I mused to myself about the globalization of Merrymount Park--its ability to embrace and be embraced by its newest wave of city residents at the same time that it honors two American presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, and memorializes Quincy residents who lost their lives in multiple wars.  Then it suddenly struck me: my Chinese-American neighbors' "innovative" use of Merrymount Park wasn't innovative at all. Dancing was one of the first things that ever happened at Merrymount--once it became known as Merrymount. And maybe even before.

In fact, the place became known as Merrymount as a result of an early chapter in globalization's history: the one in which the Pilgrims, Puritans, and other Europeans made their way to New England and encountered those who already lived here--and also encountered one another, not always agreeably.

In fact, the whole area, or settlement, was named Merrymount in the mid-1620's by Thomas Morton who wished to make a point--and also to make some money. I first learned this history from my friend Margo Lukens who teaches, among other subjects, American literature at the University of Maine in Orono. When I first moved to Quincy, Margo's curiosity and advice led me to various online sources and also to Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Maypole of Merrymount." Later, Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower deepened my understanding of whom and what Morton had rejected and embraced, and his reasons for doing so. As Philbrick explains, 
 "As the name of the settlement might suggest, Morton represented everything the Pilgrims had come to America to escape. . . . For Morton, a Sunday was best spent not in praying but in hunting with his falcon or, better yet, sharing a drink with the local Indians.  Instead of building a wall around Merrymount, Morton erected an eighty-foot-high maypole--a gleeful and decidedly pagan proclamation that God was not to be taken overly seriously, at least not in Morton's neck of New England.
"Lubricated by plenty of alcohol, he and his men danced around the maypole with their Native neighbors, making a mockery of the solemn exclusivity of the Plymouth settlement.  What was worse, Morton's intimacy with the Indians quickly made him the favored trading partner in the region. He even dared to equip them with guns, since this enabled the Indians to procure more furs.
"The Pilgrims had come face-to-face with a figure from a future America: the frontiersman who happily thumbed his nose at authority while embracing the wilderness" (163).****
Merrymount's hardly the wilderness these days, and the only visual evidence of this suspiciously "heathen" chapter of early American history is the name of a street that runs off of Furnace Brook Parkway very close to Wollaston Beach. But there was definitely dancing in Merrymount Park, and a lot of it was done by those who came to be known as early Americans, as well as those who, given this widely accepted system of labeling, should be known as the earlier or earliest Americans.

So who should be dancing in the park, and why? I love that August 2014 Merrymount dancers were--and are (I saw them again this morning!)--dancing without the threat, censure, and interference of the 21st-century equivalent of the Pilgrim and Puritan judges of "what we do, who we are, and how we behave in public spaces, including unused parking lots."
I especially love it because I realize that Quincy's Chinese-American dancers are doing what they might be doing were they living in China. In fact, the sites and sounds of them dancing in a Quincy public park brings me right back to that morning in June 2012 when, thanks to the generosity of the NEA (National Education Association Foundation and the Pearson Foundation, a group of American educators of which I was part was able to spend a good portion of our morning at a Beijing public park that brimmed with citizens exercising, walking, performing, and--yes--dancing. I took all the photos of dancers and exercisers contained in this blog post except the one below; it's only the difference between the Quincy pavement and the Beijing bricks that distinguishes the scene in China from the one in America.

It intrigued us all as Americans to see the park both so public and so private. Wall-to-wall people, the utter visibility of all to all, and yet a simultaneous right to be self-contained, self-directing, and self-satisfying. It's interesting to think that our Chinese-American fellow citizens might teach us a thing or two about how to enjoy public space--and how to enjoy ourselves in public space. Alice Farquhar writes about the public park activity in an article called "The Park Pass: Peopling and Civilizing a New Old Beijing"*****:
"It is not even presented as a spectacle. The unself-consciousness Mishra found in the dancers he described invites a certain reflection for the foreign observer. If this is a performance, where is the audience, and who is passing the hat? Where is that sense of physical embarrassment we have come to see as proper to the elderly? What happens to the tendency of the aged to stand on dignity, given that so many of them don’t know the dance step and are always just practicing? Above all, tourists strolling through Beijing’s parks have a feeling that some rather personal, markedly bodily activities have here been made public and collectively pursued in a very deliberate way, without embarrassment. The personal is made public: the most natural and simple pleasures claim, en masse, the city’s space and time and give it cultural form."******
Meanwhile, though it may be true that Merrymount Park is both rediscovering its identity as a place of community through dance and expanding its role in the lives of Quincy's current citizens, thanks to renewed global encounter, there's evidence from China that all this public dancing is not always appreciated. This week's edition of The Week reports the following*******:
"A panda at a Chinese zoo has been found to have stress brought on by a group of grandmothers holding daily square dancing sessions outside of his enclosure. 'As soon as the music starts,' said a zookeeper, 'Chaoyang begins pacing back and forth and is clearly nervous and distressed.  The women sing very loudly and very badly.' Zoo officials have pleaded with the elderly women to practice their routines elsewhere, but to no avail."
Globalization's capacity to broaden our experiences and even our senses of our own possibilities is one thing, but when it comes to dancing in one's own country, maybe it's sometimes a good idea to pander to the panda********!

* And by the way, the globalized spelling of globalization is globalisation! <>
** Screen shot of 10575152_819510494740022_382110501250219317_o.jpg, downloaded from Friends of Merrymount Park Facebook page. 
*** Screen shot of <> 
**** Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.
*****Farquwar, Judith. "Excerpt from 'The Park Pass: Peopling and Civilizing a New Old Beijing'" Public Culture Fall 21.3 (2009): 551-76. Public Culture. Web. 12 Aug. 2014. <>.
****** Screen shot of <>
******* "It Must Be True... I Read It in the Tabloids." The Week 14.681 (2014): 10. Print. 
******** Screen shot of <>.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Different Kind of August: Inputs and Outputs

So already, it's that part of August when the dates are still in the single digits. In Massachusetts, where schools generally open their doors to students after Labor Day, the earliest days of August usually signal that there's plenty of summer left before the inevitable return. Still, one of my Pilot School colleagues once remarked that for teachers, August is like a month of Sundays: that metaphorical Monday hangs in the air like a sheet on a clothesline, snapping now and then on the breeze to remind even the most summer-immersed teachers that fall's out there and coming.

Meanwhile, Facebook is awash with indicators that despite August's relative newness, summer vacation is ending for many of my educator colleagues who teach in other states. Though they're completely dedicated teachers who express excitement and optimism about the upcoming school year, surrendering the freedom of summer--or maybe it's just the difference of summer, since many of them work as well as play during the summer months--makes some of them sad and anxious. Great teaching always involves an intense outpouring of self and energy, and teachers hope that their reserves of both, cultivated and stockpiled over the slow stretch of summer, will see them through what will sometimes feel like one more endless school year.

It's a new kind of August for me as a still novice Cambridge Public Schools retiree. Or maybe it's really an old kind of August for me: the last full month of summer is feeling a lot like it did when I was in grade school, when the imminence of September was a last-week-of-August realization. I haven't experienced an August as stretching out before me, long and lazy, for a very long time.

Perhaps this August seems particularly peaceful and promising because it's following right on the heels of an exciting, intense, and demanding July. I had official teaching and learning responsibilities three of July's four weeks: as a session leader in the Right Question Institute's East Coast Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions Summer Institute during the second full week, as a mini-course co-presenter at the Project Zero Classroom Summer Institute during the third full week, and as a learning group co-facilitator at the Project Zero Future of Learning Summer Institute during the last week. These faculty stints were punctuated by a beautiful wedding, some good visits with old friends, and several exquisite sunsets. It was a month that took and gave a lot of energy.

Now that July is in the rear view mirror, I am recognizing that there's so much I want to think about, read about, and talk about that I've encountered through these summer institutes, particularly the Future of Learning Summer Institute. I'm also realizing that I'm tired from the intensity of the last few weeks and eager to relax and recharge. It seems like a good time to recognize and keep track of what I'm wondering, what I want to learn about. But it doesn't seem urgent, necessary, or maybe even advisable to plunge in right now. Frankly, I've got some goldenrod to watch. I don't want to miss August. 

And this year, in September, for the first time in several decades, I will have time--and choice. At the moment, I have no idea about where to dive into that pile of educational inspirations that are calling to me. Maybe by September, I'll know where to begin.

Also calling to me are new books stacked on a nearby table, including The Warmth of Other Suns, Difficult Conversations:  How to Discuss What Matters Most, and other books that others have recommended to me. In progress are E.M. Forster's A Passage to India and several texts about the history and teachings of Chasidism. 

I think that there may some important connections among these various directions in which I'm feeling myself pulled. It's only a hunch right now, but it's a compelling hunch. So I hesitate to let go of any of this right now.

That said, I did do some letting go this past weekend.

Since the beginning of last January, the area near my bedroom window has been dominated by the eleven cartons I brought home with me from my thirty-four-plus years in public education. Together, they contain books, folders, and other resources that I believed were of some value and might be again in the future. I'm not dismissing what the cartons contain; rather, I often think that much of what they contain can probably be found quickly and easily on the internet or on one of my several hard drives.

For some reason, right after I arrived home after the last faculty meeting of the Future of Learning Summer Institute last Friday, I suddenly felt that it was time to get these cartons out of my house and into storage. So Sunday morning, Scott moved the cartons to his studio in Rockland, where they are away from me but not completely inaccessible to me: at Scott's suggestion, I numbered each carton and made a detailed list of what it contains. Also, because much of what Scott stores in his studio can be seen, it wouldn't be hard to locate a carton and, with the aid of a nearby ladder and some muscle power, retrieve it.

It's interesting to be feeling both a need and desire to think deeply about education, and a need and desire to put away the boxes that contain so much of my career in education. For the first time since I retired, I'm feeling not so much obligated to speak out critically against trends, policies, and practices that worry and/or appall me, as I am inspired to explore some new tools, frameworks, and ideas that I currently think really could change the conversation about education, and by extension, education itself. Frankly, the weekend has been about making physical and mental space for those new ideas, and I'm already having preliminary thoughts about how to combine certain ones of them that may need one another, but not yet know one another.

But before I plunge into them and introduce them to one another, I intend to enjoy August. Today's Writer's Almanac poem, "Summer's Elegy" by Howard Nemerov, was poignant and beautiful--but too mournful for a single-digit August date:  great for the twenty-fifth of August, but not for the fifth! I'll hope for some seasonal poetry that portrays August as calmly, solidly, but gently reigning rather than waning and dying (please send along any August poems you especially like!). And meanwhile, I will give myself permission to be and not to mean, because some months in some years, being is more than enough.