Visions of Apocalypse (3.2): Cracks

As a young poet, I craved a question that would crack open the world. Everyday, I would wake up, literally, with the plan to create it. The world needed cracking—the world needed breaking—and I would dedicate my life to crafting this question.

what if the light I see at the end of my life meme

By this time, I had devoured a lot of books, but my palate was not sophisticated enough to comprehend that the world does not burst from one question alone. No—the world collapses under the weight of a thousand questions, a million questions, presented persistently over time. One book can finally force a rupture, but no one question can sate the appetite for apocalypse on its own.

I enjoyed enough literature to appreciate my error; in this literature, I encountered questions that ruined my taste for anything lacking complexity:

  • How can I plan my world in a sane and thoughtful way? (Homer’s Odyssey, Book 18)
  • Is a single man in possession of a large fortune in want of a wife? (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
  • Are all happy families alike, and are all unhappy families unhappy in their own way? (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)
  • Is life full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? (Shakespeare’s Macbeth).

These questions, these stories, wrecked me, cracked me apart so that I could begin again.



I grew up in Southern California near the San Andreas Fault, which cracks California in two from Mexico to Mendocino.

https://earthquake.usgs.gov/learn/topics/safz-paleo/images/camap.gif

I’ve witnessed the consequences of major earthquakes and lived through minor ones. When I was ten, I awakened in the dawn-dark as my bed swayed toward the center of my room. At twenty-two, I moved to Northern California, San Francisco, pulling into the city on October 18, 1989, one day after the Loma Prieta 6.2 earthquake. For the next several months, I commuted to my job at the Exploratorium in the Marina District, passing homes whose facades had fallen off, looking like giant devastated dollhouses.

In childhood, I dreamed of living in San Francisco because, when I visited with my family, I could not believe the combination of cold air, bright sun, colorful houses, the dramatic shoreline, the bridges cloaked in fog, the green carpet of Golden Gate Park. The year I lived there (1989-1990), I learned that despite the wreckage affecting the city and its inhabitants, life went on. Some days, I felt so lucky to live there, I’d pinch myself on my way to work.




In 1999, my job as a high school English teacher nearly destroyed me; the job demanded so much creative, critical and physical energy that I felt used up. Adding insult to my psyche’s injury, some of the faculty at my school liked to suggest that the arts were “insignificant.” During one English Department meeting, a colleague (a college counsellor) stated that “the Arts classes don’t count; the A’s are so easy, colleges just throw those grades out.” I felt like barking and retching and screaming hearing such trash talk: I had never struggled more in school than during the years spent earning my Masters of Fine Arts. What I did not say in that department meeting, and it’s hard to say even now, is that if a teacher finds it hard to grade creative work, then that teacher might want to leave higher levels of learning. Among my peers, I was known as “the creative teacher,” a reputation that for half of my colleagues meant I was of no serious account. The other half thought I might redeem the school.

Because I would give up a steady paycheck if I quit, I needed serious help deciding whether I should stay or go, even though I knew that if I stayed, I would lose my mind. Magically, I found the serious help I needed in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Hecate, in Act 3.5, reprimands the weird sisters, demanding to know why they had trafficked with Macbeth at all, “a wayward son / Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do / Loves for his own ends.” Nevertheless, Hecate allows the sisters to ruin Macbeth completely: “by the strength of their illusion / [they] Shall draw him on to his confusion. / He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear / His hopes ‘bove wisdom, grace, and fear / And you all know, security / Is mortals’ chiefest enemy.” 

I left the security of that full-time teaching job in 2003.


In 2010, I returned to full-time teaching. Now I work at a school that privileges the Arts, what is known as a “Three A” school: Academics, Arts, Athletics—all play a significant role in the curriculum.
Are there cracks in this place? Yes. But, as legendary songwriter Leonard Cohen sings, “there is a crack in everything, / that’s how the light gets in.”
chrysalis on booboos house

Chrysalis, 2017

 

Mindfulness in the Independent School Advisory Program

In the 2012-2013 school year, The Kinkaid School revamped its advisory program. The following post contains the Mindfulness activity that I developed for 11th grade advisors to use over a two-period time frame.


Recently (February, 2104), Time Magazine featured the cover story, “The Mindful Revolution.”

The Mindful Revolution Cover Image

If you did not see or buy the issue on the stands, that’s okay: here’s a PDF of it for you (if you can’t access it, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll try to find another one) — PDF of Time Magazine.

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 10.35.39 AM

By now, there are very few Americans who have NOT heard the term mindfulness being tossed around like a whiffle ball. But few people have a sense of what this term means — for good reason: it means different things to different people.

Here is a working definition for the general Western audience, from a website called MindfulSchools.org.

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As a media darling, the catchphrase “mindfulness” relates to another contemporary catchphrase — “Emotional Intelligence.” Both imply a state of psychological equanimity that results in more inner and outer peace. In short, the mindful person or the emotionally intelligent person proceeds through life experiences with a deeper level of awareness about what is going on in any given moment, and this deeper awareness naturally provides him or her with more options for how to behave and respond in any situation, no matter the level of intensity.

Whereas the term “Emotional Intelligence” derives from Western psychology, the term “Mindfulness” is traditionally linked with the Eastern practice of Meditation. As a meditative practice, mindfulness can refer to traditional “sitting” meditation — where one focuses on an object, such as the breath or a mantra (like “Om”) — or it can mean bringing one’s full awareness to any given activity; for example, one can walk mindfully or eat mindfully. (Update — I have included a script for a fun “eating” meditation — the Raisin Eating Meditation — in the activities section. The advisor could read the script while each student follows along, eating a single raisin. One small box of raisins should be enough for every student to have one raisin.)

As mindfulness is linked to the Eastern tradition of Buddhism, mindfulness practitioners usually eschew attaching a goal to their practice; that is, they don’t meditate so that they can be more peaceful, or better learners. Nevertheless, the practice of meditating may lead to more personal peace and more ease in learning.  As Jon Kabat-Zinn says in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are, “Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are.”

The best way to understand what it means to be mindful is to practice being mindful. So here are a few links to some different types of basic mindfulness activities. It’s important to note that it’s through the regular practice of being mindful that we grow or develop our capacity for more peacefulness and psychological equanimity.

Videos:

1) Here is a basic exercise — presented by Jon Kabat-Zinn at Google — of bringing mindfulness to the breath. (12 minutes)

Note that in this video, around minute 4, Kabat-Zinn stops talking and breathes with the audience for 2 minutes. Then around minute 6, he begins again to talk about what goes on during meditation.  I suggest preparing students for this silence in the middle of the video, and I would encourage them to close their eyes at this point and try what Kabat-Zinn is suggesting.

2) Here is a very short, animated introduction for how to bring mindfulness to the breath for a minute, used by Howard Rheingold in his Stanford course on Participatory Media Literacy:

Meditation in a Minute by Marty Boronson (5 minutes)

http://mountainsangha.org/take-a-moment-to-meditate/

3) Here is an audio exercise for bringing mindfulness to the breath (around 7:30 mins)

Audio Guide: Meditation on the Breath

from Mindful Schools

http://mindfulschools.org/mp3/mindful-breath.mp3

4) Raisin Eating Script — from West Virginia University. For this exercise, the advisor leads students through the action of eating a raisin mindfully. One small box of raisins should provide enough for an advisory. This exercise should take about 7 to 10 minutes, but it could be shortened or elongated, depending on the time-frame. It should be done fairly slowly, in any case.

(featured image from Crazy Frankenstein)