Loving and Leaving Goddard: Everyday Magic, Day 981

My first group of students in 1996

Arm-in-arm, Vicky, Eduardo, Ralph, and I walked down the snowy country road, belting out “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” and doing wheelies backwards and forward in the heavy-falling snow as we laughed. It was well past midnight, probably around 1997, and I was in love with my colleagues, students, and teaching at Goddard College, where students designed their own curriculum based on what they felt compelled to learn for their communities and souls. I was sure that I would teach here until I was well past retirement age.

A few days ago, I signed, scanned and sent in my final paperwork to be formally “separated” from the college, and although I had been planning this leap from what I loved for many months, I was surprised by the panorama of emotions that engulfed me in sadness, strangeness, and something beyond naming.

Ruth, Katt and behold! A cow!

Last January, insomnia took me up the mountain of making this decision until I realized it was time to come down on the side of leaving. The urge for going began over a year ago when an economic crisis at the college, coupled with my exhaustion from teaching for 64 consecutive semesters, led me to go on leave. Then the dreams, as some of my readers know, began: dreams of following retired faculty into the woods, dreams of walking away from the college in the middle of the night, dreams of saying goodbye to staff and faculty while wearing raccoon make-up. I would wake up, argue with my dreams that I loved Goddard too much to leave, then the next night, another dream kicked my butt.

A handsome group of graduates at graduation

The dreams didn’t come out of nowhere (as dreams rarely do): my body had been singing, signing, and whispering its leaving song for a while. I rarely went to a 10-day residency, bracketed by 12-hour travel days (and that was only if everything went according to plan) without coming home sick, then struggling for a month or two to reach equilibrium. I grappled with living mostly in Kansas but, close to four weeks each year and longer in my dreamscape, in Vermont also.

I also heard something else calling my name: growing Transformative Language Arts, the MA concentration I started and coordinated at the college since 2000. I believe in paying attention to signs and wonders that nudge us toward our real work, and although I had been able to balance teaching half-time plus doing administrative tasks at the college with facilitating writing workshops, my own writing, and coaching and consulting work, that balance was changing. I felt compelled to develop new ways to help people write and witness the guiding stories that showed them their real work, truths, and strengths.

With Gayle, the first Transformative Language Arts graduate

So I made the leap. The timing was good as the college needed to reduce faculty in alignment with student enrollment, an unfortunate problem facing multitudes of small colleges lately. As I told people and amplified my wishes and ideas for evolving work, I found some new inroads and a whole lot of support. I also tripped into new ways of seeing my work and life by virtue of — surprise! — being diagnosed with eye cancer in late April, then going through treatment, and now recovery. Nothing like a whole lot of illness and healing to land a person in a new place in life!

As I move forward, regaining blurry but increasingly larger windows of vision in my right eye and in my sense of what’s next for me, I look forward to what I’ll see and be called toward. At the same time, I wanted to pause here to honor all that I love about Goddard: sitting with a student at twilight in my office as we puzzle out her study plans until she bursts out laughing and crying at once in relief because she now knew what she wants to do in her life as well as semester. Or singing “Salaam” though the thin walls of our offices with my colleague, the Rebbe Lori, before we scooted out to swim in the freezing-cold waters of the quarry between meetings and dinner.

The faculty at dinner with some friends

I loved rehearsing with the faculty for our cabaret act, the Goddard College Dryland Sychronized Swimming Team, while fellow faculty member Katt kept calling out, “Now remember. We don’t want to over-rehearse” although we only had one 10-minute rehearsal.

I loved walking the wooded  road from the dorm village to the library alone or with students, joking about how the wind in the trees was transmitting magic. Or those solo walks across the now-gone (due to a storm) the forest’s Wabi Sabi bridge after a long day of faculty meetings.

Winter happens

I loved the Wednesday morning field trips each faculty member could take with their students, especially the one where Ruth, our program’s director, joined  my six students and me in the Goddard van for a wander day in which we simply aimed ourselves whatever direction we felt compelled to go. Of course, we ended up at a remote Buddhist center where we fell under the enchantment of the bells.

I loved the quiet moments in the residency cabarets when someone got up to sing, tell a story, dance, or play the piano publicly for the first time, took a breath with all of us, then began.

I loved the summer meteor showers even when, lying on a bedspread next to a dorm with a bunch of faculty, we could barely see the sky through the trees. I loved the winter nights when the snow sparkled in kaleidoscopic ways I’ve never seen anywhere else, and I adored the ways the firs and pines dropped snow from their branches in seemingly slow motion.

Just another faculty meeting

In the here and now of this Wednesday evening when my former colleagues are at the college for a residency, I watch my shadow self sitting in a dorm room, as I would be doing if I were still a faculty member, a stack of student papers to read and a day of meeting ideas still swirling in my head. I tell her it’s time to cross that Wabi Sabi bridge of love and memory to the here and now of where I live. The rich Kansas night air — packed with the music of katydids, cicadas, crickets, and humidity — stirs me home. I am grateful for all of where I’ve been and for wherever I’m landing.

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Holding Tight To Bliss Road in a Time of Climate Change: Everyday Magic, Day 955

One of the wonders of this world are mountains of maples at the peak of fall foliage, and I was lucky enough to dwell among recently at the Power of Words conference at Goddard College.  The big picture mind-blowing expanses are all around, from a distance golden variegated hazes that upon closer range become crazy quilts of red, rust, orange, yellow, and green. But what really grabbed my heart was the more narrow and up close light in action of the trees and sky, especially when driving up and down curvy and lilting country roads.

The aptly named Bliss Road, near Montpelier, Vermont, is one of those, but so is John Fowler Road, just east of Plainfield, and several other roads that led me up mountain sides and across stretches of brilliance near Marshfield. I followed color and light through dizzying beauty that kept eclipsing itself after days of rain and clouds that showed a more color-saturated side of fall. Heading up one mountain and turning down a long road, supposedly a dead end although I didn’t reach the end of it, I lost the road to the leaves. It was Bliss Road no matter where I went, particularly on paths I walked throughout central Vermont. 

Coming home, I encountered this urgent and heart-breaking update of what many of us knew already but now see in stark contrast: “U.N. Says Climate Genocide is Coming. It’s Worse Than That.” It makes my jaunt through the ancient glories of maple tree nirvana seem like pure escapism, which, to some extent, it was. Also reading the New York Times article “Major Climate Describes a Strong Risk of Crisis as Early as 2040,” brought me back to how endangered they and we are as well as how illuminated everything is.

There’s plenty to do on a personal, local, national, and global scale, and while the articles I cited share some of the big-picture needs and dangers, back home on the small scale, I’m realizing how I can no longer be silent when I encounter climate change deniers, figuring — as I did in the past — that eventually they’ll “get it,” because while they and all of us will, in horrendous ways that multiple human and more-than-human species suffering beyond what many of us imagine, it’s clearly past time to speak out.

My friend Lise on a blissful path at Goddard College

So I’m saying here that if you also love traversing blissful paths or roads — wherever that is for you — and want to keep marveling and moving through this beautiful life; if you love your or others’ kids and grandkids; if you believe in the sanctity of life, then let’s have these hard conversations, draw on real science and deep love of each other and life. Whatever we can do  for the big picture (writing congress people, joining and contributing to groups, supporting initiatives such as carbon taxes and other ways to make sure cooler heads and temps prevails) and for the intimate picture of our daily lives (reducing our carbon footprint, conserving water, diving into the hard dialogues with family or friends who deny what’s happening), we need to do for our endangered and illuminated lives.

Long live Bliss Road, and may we be wise and strong enough to keep walking it.

“How Aren’t You?”: Hummingbirds, Rumi, and Twilight: Everyday Magic, Day 949

In my favorite Rumi poem, “Say Yes Quickly,” I love these lines especially:

Reach your long hands out to another door, beyond where
you go on the street, the street
where everyone says, “How are you?”
and no one says How aren’t you?

All day long, I’ve been pondering how I am not. I am not at Goddard College, finishing a long day of faculty meetings after, as goes my habit, a long night of fighting my travel-spun brain to calm itself enough to tip out of consciousness. I am not walking back to the dorm to get some snacks I bought, likely rice crackers and hummus, to bring to another dorm where most of us faculty convene to relax, joke around, and retell our old stories around wine and whatever crunchy tidbits Karen brought us from Japan. I’m not stepping outside in the cooler-than-here twilight there, watching the tall swaying firs and pines at the forest’s edge, and telling myself to pause enough to take in this beauty.

Instead I’m on my porch about 1,500 miles west and an hour earlier where my view holds bigger sky, smaller trees, and a whole lot of hummingbirds zip-lining without lines from Osage orange tree to feeder to mid-air acrobatics. It’s lovely to be home, far easier on my schedule, health, and sleep cycle, and the air is full of mild buzzing, perhaps the fading out some of cicadas and the gearing up of katydids right before the barred owls call that sounds like a baritone reverse rooster crow.

As some of you faithful readers know, I’m taking my first leave after measuring out my life by semesters much the way J. Alfred Prufrock (in T. S. Eliot’s poem about him) measured out his life in teaspoons. Luckily, semesters hold more than cutlery, and they certainly held me during 64 consecutive ones teaching at Goddard, K.U., and Haskell Indian Nations University. Spaciousness abounds, at least in theory and hopefully in practice soon, without the weight of all the time I would spend traveling, working, traveling, recovering, then undertaking the fabled and heavily-emailed ways of the semester.

At the same time, being human with a propensity for habit and connection, I miss my peeps at the college where residency beginnings are so sweetly imbued with hugging, catching up on each other’s lives, laughing at Katt’s great spins of life,  or finishing each other’s sentences on occasion because we’ve been seemingly together forever in this program. I miss the beautiful campus (although I’ll be there in October for the Power of Words conference) in its summer fullness and all those cute Vermonters who think 82 degrees is hot out. I also miss the nearby pond, crazy cold and deep, where I swim with Lise or Lori, having learned the best way is to go in fast and paddle my arms and legs wild-fast to warm up enough to propel myself across and back. Somewhat discombobulated with all the shifts lately, I tell people I’m at twelves and thirteens, sort of like being at sixes and sevens, but more so.

I’m very happy to be home watching the western horizon orange itself dark while listening for what comes next. Who am I untethered to an academic schedule for six months? I have no idea, but I’m very happy to be on the cusp of reaching my long hand toward another door and stepping over the threshold.

Photos of the view from here and now.

After 64 Consecutive Semesters, Taking a Break: Everyday Magic, Day 941

Time for a break

I started teaching when I was 26. It was English 101 at the University of Kansas, a gig I figured would help me get through graduate school so I could cozy up with my real calling: writing. A funny thing happened on the way through the classroom: I was instantly smitten and soon discovered that teaching was just as much my real work. I regularly told my students, struggling with essay-writing on demand, what I told myself as a writer: Don’t think. Pay attention. Keep going. It served us all well.

This fall (starting July 1), after 64 consecutive semesters, I’ll take a one-semester leave from teaching  I’ve taught through pregnancies and childbirths (although my children had the good sense to arrive either at the very end of spring semesters or in the summer). I’ve graded papers while balancing a nursing baby. I’ve lecture-paced across classrooms with a baby in a backpack. I’ve fit classes into kids’ school schedules, and later kept teaching because they were in college, and their part-time jobs, loans, and scholarships didn’t cover tuition. As the years unrolled, I taught through chemo, surgeries, my father dying, and later — right in the middle of a residency — Ken’s father dying. Teaching was the backbeat of my adulting and middle-aging tap-dancing and couch-surfing moves and collapses.

Because Goddard is a horse of a different color, I’ve been able to teach at this Vermont college while living in Kansas and sometimes in my PJs. I’ve flown and back forth for 11-day residencies to Burlington Airport, my heart always warmed by the sign on the hanger proclaiming “Green Mountain Boys 1776,” and my gut occasionally trembling when I read “flight delayed.” I’ve adventured in the high seas of travel, once even taking three days to get the right combo of flights after being overnight-paused in Manchester, NH and Laguardia. But the flying is a small part of it: I’ve attended 45 residencies that start with two days of faculty meetings, then lift up  when the students arrive. While there are ample wonders, the pace is often exhausting, and only once did I arrive home without instantly getting sick.

A cat-and-mouse way of taking a break

Most of my Goddard work entails packets — reading long (like sometimes hundreds of pages for thesis projects) — packets of students’ exploration, research write-ups, creative work, studies, and other bells and whistles. My life has been doled out each semester in three-week intervals when packets land, and I’m off to reading them and writing each student a long-individualized letter, often on my front porch or in the living room, and across many a coffee shop, airport, doctor’s office, or other places I’m paused long enough to pull out the laptop and work.

Mostly, I loved it, even when I didn’t. Starting a conversation with a group of students when I’m sleep-deprived (oh, wicked residency insomnia!) often turned into a revelation for all of us. Beginning a packet when I was mildly annoyed by a student using “it’s” and “its” wrong always morphed in my heart melting and mind expanding at what they were unearthing in their lives and the world. Then there’s all the administrative work I’ve done over the years, which I didn’t love as much but brought me so much satisfaction in seeing what good could come from attention to detail, hard-won collaboration, and taking institutional leaps of faith (such as launching the Transformative Language Arts concentration in 2000, and very soon launching the PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies, which I’ve chaired the committee of for three years).

Why have I not taken a sabbatical, you ask. If only! The places I love to teach aren’t the sabbatical types unfortunately, so it’s been either show up and teach, or take an unpaid leave. This time, to my great surprise, when I was in the tub on Memorial Day, I suddenly realized, “I’m going to take a leave!” To my greater shock, when I sat down to see if finances would allow that, I caught up with myself: my subconscious has obviously been planning for me to take a leave because I’ve arranged all this extra work, some connected to the Miriams’ Well tour, and a lot more involving community writing workshops and the like. So I pulled myself together (truly), and started announcing, with great glee, that I was taking a break.

A Caryn way of taking a break

The world continues to give me green lights, but not “green-as-in-go,” more like “green-world-beckons-you-to-pause-and-just-be-with-it” lights. I stare into the magnificent Osage orange and cedar trees all around me, or up through this sycamore yesterday and exhale slowly. In three or so weeks, I’ll be caught up with the end of this semester (our semester officially ends mid-June), and I’ll lean back into the spaciousness of not teaching for a while. Then come winter, I’ll pack up my bags and happily march back into this work I love. I’ll tell myself: Don’t think. Pay attention. Keep going.

Teaching Writing for the Love of It: Everyday Magic, Day 841

Tom McAfee years before I met him
Tom McAfee years before I met him

Believe me, I wasn’t a good poet when I studied creative writing as an undergraduate. I don’t say this to be falsely humble: I wrote poems with lines like, “you are the rose to my thorns,” and like many 20-21-year olds, I focused on dramatizing my already off-the-charts feelings about relationships, trees, skies, and birds. If someone actually sat me down in 1979 and told me that, based on what I was currently writing, I obviously wasn’t cut to be a writer, I would have been devastated. Lucky for me, I had some great writing teachers, especially the late Tom McAfee, a Alabama-born aging alcoholic with a heart made half of vodka, half of gold, who would meet his poetry students in the Tiger Hotel bar to show us the kindness and craft and writing and teaching.

I’ve also had my share of teachers who didn’t give me the time of the day because I wasn’t one of the two top students in the class. One teacher screamed at me when, having to present a poet we loved, I talked about a poet he hated. Others led classes as hazing rituals, punishing and pushing out anyone who wasn’t man enough to take brutal deconstruction of his/her writing. I may have learned about the importance of precise images and active verb tense in such classes, but I didn’t learn much about what it takes to write.

On the other side, for the last 29 years, I’ve taught college-level creative writing at the University Kansas, Haskell Indian Nations University, and especially at Goddard College. I’ve also facilitated dozens of community writing workshops, retreats, intensives, and online classes, working with populations as diverse as Latina women and girls in Kansas City, to all bioregional organizers in an ecovillage. I’ve worked with a group of 10-year-olds and 84-year-olds in western Kansas, a dozen men in my living room, people living with serious illness at Turning Point, low-income women of color at a housing authority, and conference-goers exploring mythology and ecology through writing. To be honest, I find little difference between the most advanced college-level study and newbie writers in a senior center when it comes to what matters to the writers: to write in their own original and powerful voice using their best words to give voice to what brings their lives the greatest meaning and vitality.

In the last few days, the interwebs have been abuzz over a former MFA teacher’s tirade about the very “real” writers he taught, and how bored he was having to work with other students. Such an attitude is elitist, scornful, and potentially damaging when it comes to helping writers write, whether they’re in the world’s top MFA programs or in a small town coffee shop, trying to put their life’s strongest stories into words. It’s also the opposite of worthy buy cialis tablet teaching.

Teaching writing is a form of love, and like all real love, it’s fueled by listening, staying curious, and learning together. There’s a lot to talk about too — the craft of good writing in service of what’s on tap to be written and who’s writing it, traditions and trends and possibilities that help writers expand their relationship with language, and the process of making something out of nothing (as Steve Martin says about one of his novels, “I did pretty good, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank pages”).  The best teachers hold the space for people to learn to trust themselves as writers enough to take healthy creative risks, clear away distractions and ideas of what they think the writing should be, and listen carefully to what the writing wants to be. As a teacher, I talk a blue streak about craft, genres, other writers, and revision, but I also try to help students go further in their life-long development of their own best critical perspective on how to write and revise.

Both writing and teaching writing takes great discernment: feeling out what’s possible at the edge of what we know, dwelling all the time in not-knowing. It’s a little like divining for water, which also takes perseverance, patience, a return to the ground of our imagination, and a good dose of gumption. Sometimes the writing is astonishing, and sometimes the writer is priming the pump for something better in the future. Always, it takes courage and work to get something on the page, and that deserves respect, especially from people who teach writing.

I’ve witnessed so many writers over the years who, like me, didn’t seem to write anything particularly special at first, and then, over time and often in the container of an intelligent and compassionate community, found their way to poems, stories, novels, memoirs, plays and songs that knocked my socks off. At Goddard, I’ve had the honor of working with so many students over so many years who such strong things — spiritual memoirs about circling back to childhood visitations, mixed genre poetry and prose about thriving after surviving great abuse, speculative fiction about parallel universes, and collections of songs about overcoming oppression. In community workshops, I’ve sat breathlessly in circles around tables of varying sizes while someone read a poem about loving so deeply and looking so clearly at life with late-stage cancer. Through online classes, I’ve been dazzled by how communities of writers, who have never met in person, give each generous clear-seeing and inspiration while sharing their first sestina or most recent chapter.

Good writing is not in the hands of a few chosen by self-proclaimed judges of what’s worthy. Whether you started writing your first poem this morning or if you just finished your final story, writing is your birthright. Don’t let anyone tell you anything different.