Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sister poems - "Quotidian" and "Waltz Barefoot"


On the periphery it flickers
Almost out of sight or reach
Blink and you miss it
The burning bush

Wash the
dishes, drive
to work, on
the phone, eating
Never see or grasp.
It whispers but we miss the flame
Still it flares

Stop. Breathe. Listen. See.
Art in dishes’ sparkle
Symphony in traffic’s ebb and flow
Humanity in brief conversation
A feast in a bowl of stew
In all, it blazes

Stand barefoot

Live barefoot


Waltz Barefoot

Take off your shoes, for the ground that you stand on is holy.
The burning bush blazes but is all too often neglected.
In the rush of the traffic, the call of our business, the clatter
Of dishes, the ring of a phone. We forget and don’t listen,
Don’t see and don’t notice, we’re too busy trying and striving
And doing to just stop and be. But sometimes a moment
Will catch our attention, and on the periphery we’ll get
A glimpse of something unusual, something that’s beautiful,
Something worth noticing, seeing, remembering. It’s waiting
There always if we’ll just stop and see and waltz barefoot.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ideas Run Amuck - a poem

Behaving like children on the last day of school
My thoughts are persistently antsy
They’re determined to question sensible rules
A hodgepodge of science, religion and fantasy

Plato debates with Martha Stewart
In the corner Poe and Austen do battle
Politics and theater simper and flirt
Banished ideas pound the door ‘til it rattles

Molecules of thought dart around and collide
Then fuse and form some peculiar bonds
Poetry trots through on a horseback ride
Logic is discovered napping on the lawn

Benedictine monks hold Vogue for ransom
Faust’s devil cackles from under the bed
The Prince gets kicked out despite being handsome
Gandhi has the Bloodwrath so he’s seeing red

It’s like trying to make grouchy frogs march in step
They try to catapult away, like popcorn from a pan
A water balloon from Physics leaves me sopping wet
Whitman and Shakespeare play kick-the-can

Buddha bowls models abruptly off the runway
A fencing match begins between Mohammed and Saint Paul
I genuflect to the pontifications of the Lord of Cathay
And watch as my sanity waltzes off to a ball

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Philosophy of Education (and Life)

A besetting question of our culture is what makes a quality education, and how do we ensure that children receive one. The US continues to rank low on comparative statisics for competence in math, science, reading, etc. I'm no expert, and the solution to the education problem will likely be complex and multifaceted. However, as a person interested in the philosophy and psychology of education (and as an elementary education student) I've done some reading and thinking about what a thorough education looks like. Fundamentally, a good education should teach a student how to learn and think. If that skill is accomplished, then no subject will be too difficult. As I see it, as these thoughts develop, is that there are three ways of thinking, in three broad areas, with three applicable skills that together comprise the general goals of education. Additionally, mastering these skills should lead to lifelong students whose education does not end with college.

Three Ways of Thinking
Students need to learn to think mathematically, analyticially, and creatively.These three modes of thought are broadly applicable across subjects and I can't think of a subject which would not apply at least two of them.

Three Broad Areas
The three modes of thinking are applied in essentially what used to be called "The Three R's", reading, writing, and arithmetic. In a broader application of these three basic ideas, writing is expanding to communicating, so that it encompasses being able to express themselves clearly through many mediums: writing, speech, the web, etc. Arithmetic can be expanded to also encompass the sciences and their application in technology.

Three Basic Skills
Students must be able to employ these skills with diligence, collaboration, and curiousity. It the students learn to work with discipline, to work together, and are inspired with curiousity as they think mathematically, analytically, and creatively, applying their thinking skills to reading and discovering, writing and speaking, math and science, then they could certainly be said to have a thorough education.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Final Bell

In a quiet corner of Memorial Park, in Colorado Springs, under the shadow of Pikes Peak, is a statue. A fire fighter descends a ladder, with a child tucked safely under his arm, a marble wall forming a backdrop to the scene. Every year on September 11th, fire fighters and families from around the country gather there, a hallowed place, to stand in memory of the brothers, sisters, husbands, fathers, sons, and daughters they have lost. On that day, the park is filled with men and women in dress uniform, navy blue showing dark against the grass, music floats in the background, bagpipes and drums can be heard warming up, and a general buzz of anticipation fills the air. If you watch the uniforms as they pass, it becomes clear just how many fire departments are represented: Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Austin, Las Vegas, Washington DC and many others. The day has been blessed with perfect weather: a clear sky, bright and warm, with just enough of a breeze to keep it bearably cool, a fact which it is certain those in uniform are thankful for.

At precisely 1:00 pm, when the rows of white chairs are full to overflowing, and large numbers still stand in the back, the chaplain and master of ceremonies mounts the podium. His opening words call the listeners to remembrance, to honor the 343 who gave their lives nine years ago in the World Trade Center attacks. Silence falls, saturated with the emotions of those who know what this moment, what that sacrifice, means. The chaplain begins to pray, petitioning protection for those who put their lives in danger every day, praying peace and comfort on the families and friends who have been left behind. The prayer ends and in the moment that follows the hum of bagpipes fills the silence. Slowly, solemnly, pipers representing fire departments from around the country march into view, followed by flag bearers carrying the banners of the departments who have lost members in the last year. Row after row fills in, a mass of colors heartbreaking in its density.

After the long procession is ended, the crowd comes to attention and the sea of fire fighters salute the flags overhead while the national anthem is sung. As the last note fades, the thunder of jets overtakes the crowd as Air Force pilots perform an aerial salute. As they disappear from view, the crowd is seated. The marble wall, backdrop to the statue, is engraved with the names of the 2274 fire fighters who have died in the line of duty since the memorial was established in 1976. Those gathered there have come to commemorate the 136 names that this year will be added to the wall. They are more than names however. Behind each engraving is a story, a man or woman who made the ultimate sacrifice, a family who still bears that hardest of burdens. That is why they are here, to insure that those stories are not forgotten, that the price the fallen paid is remembered.

Fourteen at a time, the flag bearers march to the front of the crowd, each accompanied by another department member bearing a folded flag. In the silence, the only sound is the snap of flags in the breeze. They begin to read: Orice “Randy” H. Miller, Ventura, CA; John J. Doherty, Chelsea, MA; Richard F. Smith, Houston, TX and the list goes on. As each name is read, it is accompanied by the sound of a bell, a single toll. In early fire departments, it was a bell that rang the beginning of the day and that alerted the fire fighters of a call. A bell was also rung at the completion of the call, signaling that the danger was passed. For some though, this final bell was not to be. So now, as they honor those who never heard that final bell, it clangs with each name.

When a name is read, the family of the fire fighter stands and are presented with the folded flag. Watching those who rise, it is striking how many are themselves in uniform, fathers, sons, or brothers, who answered the call together, but are now left to carry on alone. So also, mothers, wives, children, rise to receive the tribute flag. A brother and sister, no older than ten, stand with their mother and are handed their father’s flag. After the flag has been presented, the carrier takes a step back, with tears in his eyes, and salutes gravely, a world of meaning in a simple gesture.

What is especially striking about the list of names is that of the 136, only 84 of them died in active duty. The other 52 succumbed to occupational diseases, honored as line of duty deaths. To an outside observer, the risks of a fire fighting career may seem obvious. It is dangerous work no doubt, running into burning buildings when anyone else would run out. What most don’t realize is that even those who survive the immediate dangers face still greater challenges. A wife sends her husband off every three days, knowing full well he may not return, but even if he does, the risk does not end there. Heart attacks, lung cancer, other stress related diseases, these are only some of what fire fighter takes on when he chooses that life. The price they pay for lightening others’ burdens is that they shoulder that burden themselves. Smoke inhalation, exposure to toxins, post-traumatic stress syndrome, all are occupational hazards. A fire fighter’s life span is typically five to ten years shorter than the average person. The death toll for fire fighters felled by the 9-11 tragedy is still mounting, as the long term results are only now becoming obvious. This is the price that not only they, but also their families pay, for the good of those around them. This is the sacrifice that they willingly make, that others may live.

So the names are read, far too many of them; the bell tolls, far too many times; the crowd stands and watches, feel the late summer sun burn down, unable to turn away, riveted by the families’ faces as sorrow and pride mingle in their tears. When the list is complete, the bell rings out a final call, three times, three times again. The mournful notes of taps swell in the air, echoing the emotions that swell in the hearts of those who watch. The flags are lowered to half mast, a visible reminder that this group is incomplete, with loved ones and friends missing from its ranks. The choir sings: “The last full measure of devotion/Beyond the call of duty were their deeds/The last full measure of devotion/They gave themselves to serve the greater need.” The ceremony comes to a close and the crowd, quiet with the solemnity of the moment, turns to go, but for the families and fellow fire fighters of those who were honored here, the journey alone has only begun. The country may stand in remembrance one day a year, but for them it is impossible to forget, because every day is a reminder of what they have sacrificed, a reminder of those for whom the final bell has rung.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Picking Your Dreams

I've been thinking a lot lately about how we end up where we do. A number of people that were in high school arround the same time I was are graduating from college, and it seems like every time I turn arround, another one is engaged or married. Some of them are going off to law school, others setting up house, still others expecting children. Most of the people I know who got married around the same time I did have at least one (and many have two) children. There are also plenty who aren't married yet and are off pursuing other dreams. It's an odd thing to watch, because the ones off pursuing other things are doing what I was "supposed" to do, up until my senior year in high school, when I met someone and all those dreams changed. I turned from travel and graduate school to houses and babies. Education and advancement was still part of my dreams, but they took the back burner to family. That was the dream I picked, even though it's not exactly my reality now. We all, every day, knowingly or unwittingly, shape the future we want, pick the dreams we will pursue. Hopefully this dreaming is intentional, and we shape our future rather than allowing our circumstances to do so. At the same time, sometimes the dreams we pick turn out to be out of reach, or by the time you get there have changed shape entirely. The dream I thought I picked, of lots of children underfoot, has been slow in coming to say the least. You could say I'm surrounded by people who have either pursued the dream I voluntarily gave up (education and travel) or have accomplished the dream I chose but have not yet received (home and children). There is absolutely something to be said for our agency in shaping our futures, but I've also realized that there are some factors that are out of our hands. Sometimes they are completely uncontrollable, other times as a result of earlier choices we made in the process of trying to get where we think we want to go. I always tell people that if there's anything I've learned in the last five years, it's that God is really good at changing my plans. It would be easy to get caught up in the things that I wanted that haven't come, or get distracted by the fact that in giving up one dream to pursue another you could say I've received neither. But to do that is to lose sight of the bigger picture, that sometimes when we let go of one dream to pursue another, there's another end in store for us, different than we could have imagined, harder than we could have dreamed, and bigger, deeper, greater, richer than we could have hoped. All there is for us to do is make the decision, pick the dream, then pursue it with all that's in us, realizing that the final results are out of our hands, willing to embrace what life brings, even if it may not be the dream we dreamed at first.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Entering Adulthood in a Complex World

While in high school, I wrote a speech and then a term paper on the idea of adolescence, arguing that it was a myth, originally perpetrated by psychologist G. Stanley Hall, and eventually so absorbed into the American (Western?) psyche as to become fact. As a young "overachiever" I often felt constrained by the low expectations of adults, and sometimes felt as if they saw just my age, rather than seeing me. Looking back, I'm sure that I wasn't as mature as I felt, but I still hold to the statement that our society sets the bar far too low for the majority of adolescents. Humans have a tendency to live up or down to the expectations set for them.

At the same time, as I gain perspective in the complexity of the modern world I also understand why an "adolescent" stage can be beneficial, or even necessary, in bringing young people into adulthood. Although I wouldn't argue that life today is harder I do believe that modern life by definition is more complicated, so I see a place for a more gradual process of coming into adulthood. The creation of the idea of adolescence came in response to the industrialization of society, as more education/experience was considered necessary to function in the world. An article recently published in the NY Times makes the argument that we are beginning to see a similar stage present itself in "20-somethings". Just as a hundred years ago high school was a newer development, a reflection of the increased importance of education, so also today it is becoming necessary, even essential, to have a bachelor's, a master's, or even a doctorate. As education takes longer, and people are waiting longer to marry and have children as a result, a transition stage, echoing the transition of adolescents from children to adults, is beginning to present itself.

While higher and higher levels of formal education are required or expected, the need for other kinds of education has also become evident. In a world with an incredibly complex financial system, where there's a whole lot more to selling and buying a house than shaking hands, turning over the money, and signing a paper, it is more difficult to act as an adult, because more information or experience is required to do so properly. Life is not necessarily harder, but it is more complex. Much of the experience needed to function as an adult can only be acquired one way, experience. As high school (and now college) has replaced apprenticeships as the primary means of education, we have a lot more factual knowledge, but young people are often lacking the practical application of it. It is assumed that a college education prepares you for life, and although it absolutely is an excellent tool, I think many college graduates feel unprepared for other more practical aspects of adult life. I know for myself, I married young and was unprepared for the independent discipline required to live as an adult. I didn't go on campus to college, and I can definitely see how this would be a good first step, since it is a stepping stone between dependence on parental direction and adult independence, leaving room for mistakes and learning experiences in an environment that is lower stakes than a job.

There must be a balance, between paying the consequences for mistakes, and feeling as if a failure is insurmountable. Perhaps some sort of a return to an apprenticeship system would be helpful, not in signing our lives away as was the custom, but in a learning and mentoring based process, which acknowledges a young person’s status as a student, and gives practical instruction, and provides set milestones to adulthood. It would take the work of adults, parents and others, willing to step in, mentor, and direct. It would mean the setting of high standards, holding young people to levels of behavior and discipline, expecting hard work and accomplishment, and giving them the tools to succeed all the while providing room to fail, room to grow, room to become adults.

Perhaps someone needs to write a book: "What I Wish My Parents Taught Me: Lifeskills of an Adult".

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Broken Hurting People

In a geography class I took last spring, I came to the conclusion that the history of nations is fundamentally the story of human depravity. In ever continent, region, country, the basic plot was of one group of people exploiting, hurting, or trying to destroy another. Perhaps it is odd to pull such philosophical ideas out of a geography class, but that's what it kept coming back to. Often however, we have a tendency to distance the history of nations from the history of persons. We assume that even though humanity in unison tends to take advantage and hurt, in the day to day lives of persons this not the case. Recently however, a few movies and TV shows I've seen have led me to wonder if the average person is just as hurting and broken as the nations warring against each other.

On the whole, we are masters of disguise. Walk down the street, go to the grocery store, visit with friends, and it looks like we have it all together. You hear about or see the occasional exception of course: the man on the street corner holding a cardboard sign, the teenager who tried to take her own life, even the middle school boy who bullies his classmates. We act as if these people are anomalies however, as if the normal function of human life and interaction is much more refined and sane. I wonder though, if inside, the majority of humans feel like those social outcasts. Are we just more adept at hiding or ignoring the problem? I was watching The Joy Luck Club last night. Fascinating movie, sad but good. It's the story of four mother-daughter pairs, Chinese-American families. In each case, some trauma or or history of the mother impacts her daughter, and the hurt and pain is passed through generations. It ends in reconciliation for all of them, but doesn't shy away from the pain and hurt that they all feel (and all cause each other). They are each successful, and to anyone on the street, they look nothing like the homeless man, suicidal teenager, or middle school bully. But fundamentally I'm unconvinced that they are any different.

I've also been watching the TV show Rescue Me with my husband. I can't say that I would recommend the show to anyone, but it is an interesting study in firefighter culture, and I've been exposed to enough of it myself, and vicariously in the last few months, that I feel it's a fairly accurate representation of the lifestyle. However, the episodes leave me feeling depressed. They're funny, and interesting, and engaging, but it keeps coming back to how broken and hurting these people are. The firefighters in particular are scarred and often traumatized because of all they have to deal with in their job, but this also spills over into their relationships. Their families too are hurting. The question I keep coming back to is, "Are we all this broken?". Do we all just do a pretty good job of hiding from our friends and neighbors that we fear and fight and weep inside?

I believe strongly in the basic sinfulness of man, and the fallenness of this world. It has merely been all the more strongly reinforced recently that our lives and relationships are perhaps even more broken than we let on.