Visions of Apocalypse: from Dante to Dylan to Dr. Dre (part 2)

What do I mean by “apocalypse”? What are the apocalypses being envisioned by Dante, Dylan, Dr. Dre?

I stand in the back of the Recital Hall and watch and listen as my colleagues (veteran Senior English teachers at the Independent School where I’ve taught for the past seven years) “pitch” their courses.  The AP Courses get pitched first: “Gods and Monsters,” “Shakespeare in Tandem,” “Critical Approaches to Literature,” “Gothic Literature.” Several of my colleagues have visual aids: a wooden Buddha, a hand-held mirror, even a baby! (My colleague on maternity leave returned to campus for the day to pitch her class).  Even though we’ve been given a three-minute time limit to “sell” our courses, most of my colleagues miss the mark by about two to three minutes. Understandable—each of us has designed our course around our passion and expertise, those questions we most care about as readers and writers (eight of our department’s faculty are working, publishing writers).  I want to enroll in all their classes. After each pitch, the students whisper and throw meaningful looks at each other; “That’s the one I want to take,” they say to each other through their eyes and body language.

Now it my team’s turn to pitch, the on-level teachers: “Human Beings: Heroes or Beasts?”; “Rebels and Outcasts”; “Visions of Apocalypse: from Dante to Dylan to Dr. Dre.” I have a little under three minutes to present my course before the bell rings, sending students to their D period classes. I have no notes, no visual aid, but I have my title, “Visions of Apocalypse: From Dante to Dylan to Dr. Dre,” and I’ve spent the previous class period trying to gather my ideas in writing, so I feel prepared enough not to flub it. Here is what I’ve written in prep:

The world is always ending, but through poetry it is always being remade.

In this course, we explore how poets translate the harsh truths about the human condition into an energizing, even beautiful, force. Poetry is like a crucible—a transformative container, wherein the writer transforms life experiences through the forge of language, tempering grief, love, joy, loss, rage, hope, longing through devices such as image, meter, rhyme, etc.

Poetry endures. It’s the most powerful form of literature because of its flexibility: it slays whether a Bible verse, a Shakespeare play, a Greek epic, or a Rap song. In this course, students explore how poets give people language for experiences and ideas which seem unfathomable—for example Hell (Dante), racial and class paradoxes (Bob Dylan), street violence in Compton, California (Dr. Dre). Day to day, students read and analyze poetry (lyric, narrative, epic, dramatic, rap); they read essays and books and articles about poetry, and they write their own essays and articles about poetry. Additionally, they experience first-hand the world of the poet as creator, attending at least two poetry events (readings, slams, workshops) and writing poetry themselves.

My actual presentation to the students does not go as smoothly as my writing, but I stumble close enough to my original thinking, and, as I do, I notice the looks on students’ faces: they’re incredulous, confused, bemused, even happily shocked; some of them laugh at me and roll their eyes. Their skepticism is palpable, and it’s also reasonable: here I am—a seemingly middle-aged white lady proposing a class that sounds bizarre, and, to those in the know about Dr. Dre and rap lyrics in general, iconoclastic (or, in the parlance of high school students, “WTF?”). I bank on the fact that the students who know me already through my 9th and 10th grade courses are giving me the benefit of the doubt because they know that I’m “the kind of teacher who likes to have fun,” as one student wrote in one of my favorite evaluation comments ever.

Fast forward several months. The course selections are complete and the classes have been populated (mine “made”); I’m starting to be asked by colleagues and even a few parents, “What do you mean by “apocalypse”? One parent, who also teaches at the school, admits to me gently that the course was not his son’s first choice, and that when they went to pick up the summer reading, Hamilton: The Revolution, by Lin Manuel-Miranda, the Barnes and Noble clerk was flummoxed: “You’re reading this for a class called what?!! How is Hamilton apocalyptic?!”

“I’m wondering the same thing,” my colleague confesses.

“I mean apocalypse in its original sense; I mean it in its etymological sense,” I explain to him, and I trust he will understand because he teaches Latin.

The word kalyptô in Ancient Greek means “hidden, veiled.” We find this root in a word like, “eucalyptus” (a fast-growing evergreen Australasian flowering tree that dominated my childhood in Southern California). The prefix eu means “well”; add it to the root kalyptô, and the word evolves, referencing the well-hidden seed pod that conceals the tree’s flower.

So, the word in question, broken into its Greek etymological parts—apo (un) and kaluptein (to cover)—I hope clarifies that I do not mean the word in the sense of “the complete final destruction of the world, as described in the biblical book of Revelation,” which is what people initially think I mean. No: what I mean is more along the lines of “unhiding,” and “uncovering” — of revealing that which has been concealed.

Calypso — In Ancient Greek, this goddess’s name literally means, “she who conceals” (Oxford Living Dictionary, online). In Homer’s Odyssey this “bewitching nymph, the lustrous goddess held [Odysseus] back, / deep in her arching caverns” (Fagels 1.13-15). In other words, she hides Odysseus in her cave “across a salty waste so vast, / so endless [there is] no city of men in sight” (5. 112-113).

True, Odysseus has sex with Calypso, losing himself in love in her arms on a nightly basis; however, also true is the fact that “the nymph no longer please[s]” Odysseus. He has grown tired of her. Her ways have worn out on him (or worn him out). Homer describes Odysseus as an “unwilling lover alongside lover all too willing…” (5.172). He is being used; Calypso is using him. Calypso wants to keep Odysseus with her because he gives her immortal existence pleasure and meaning; in exchange, she offers Odysseus immortality (eternal youth). However, in order for Odysseus to enact his human destiny, he must not remain concealed by Calypso. According to Zeus, Odysseus must be apo-Calypsoed.

Thus, when he leaves Calpyso’s island, his apocalypse begins, and even though Calypso prophesies that “pains are fated to fill [his] cup,” even though Poseidon has in store for him “a swamping fill of trouble” (5.229 and 320), this journey is, nevertheless, the one he must undertake in order to reach his home.

 

 

Visions of Apocalypse: from Dante to Dylan to Dr. Dre

Yves Tanguy, “Neither Legends nor Figures”

 

Our worlds are always ending, but through poetry they are remade.

Next fall, I start teaching an English course I have designed for on-level high school seniors (“on-level” means not Advanced Placement). I came up with this course title, “Visions of Apocalypse: From Dante to Dylan to Dr. Dre,” after the curriculum committee rejected my initial title—Poetry and People. “Very few high school seniors will sign up for a course called ‘Poetry and People,'” the committee agreed.

My revised title possesses more verve and vigor, yes, but the humbleness of my first title, Poetry and People, pleases me, too. I wanted my students to know that poetry is for people: high school seniors and iron workers and moms with three children under seven and priests and bus drivers and office workers and business owners and migrant workers and fast-food servers and voice coaches and football players and anime lovers. It’s not exclusively for rarified folks—for example, AP English teachers and AP English students (although, full disclosure, I did fall hard for poetry in my own AP English class at Capistrano Valley High School—T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” being the poem that stopped me from living my life in the same way as I had been before).

Here’s the thing I’ve discovered that I want to share with my students: More than any other type of literature, poetry survives. Homer’s epics, Shakespeare’s plays, The Bible’s verses—all are examples of the enduring power of poetry. The essential question of the course, when the title was Poetry and People, was “why does poetry survive so much, and how can it help me survive?”

It’s risky to design a course for high school students that centers on poetry, but W.H. Auden’s poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” inspired me to do so because, in addition to being the most enduring form of literature, poetry is also one of the most subversive forms, and high schoolers are totally into subversion (defined by my Macbook dictionary as the act of undermining the power and authority of an established system or institution). Auden hints at poetry’s subversive power when he says,

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth. 

Auden’s line “poetry makes nothing happen” often snags readers’ attention and keeps it there, but his word “executive” must be understood as the contrast to this “nothingness” that poetry makes happen. The word “executive” comes from the Latin “exsequi,” meaning “carry out,” “follow up,” or (according to Macbook’s dictionary), “punish” (as in execute). These executives do not dwell in the valley made by poetry while they’re carrying out, following up, or punishing; they are up in their steel-and-glass towers, cutting labor costs to increase their companies’ profits, strategizing how to maximize exposure for their products or services and therefore consumption. These executives work so hard to make money make more money that they are always up in the air. For those of us who live down on the ground in “ranches of isolation,” “Busy [with our] griefs”—turning fifty, losing a parent or a child, paying taxes, coping with illness or addictions, working and living paycheck to paycheck, feeling unrepresented by our representatives—in our “Raw towns that we believe and die in,” when the mouth of poetry speaks, we are more likely to hear it.

In Auden’s poem, poetry is a river that flows through the valley it has made. It may be out of view or irrelevant (why “tamper” with it?) unless we’re on the brink—of loss, of falling, of going down—or unless we already exist down in the valley somewhere near this river. Maybe we live close enough to this river that we can hear its rapids; maybe we can see the cottonwoods that grow along its banks, this river called Poetry that has the power to refresh us, to sustain us. Let’s wade in the water, why don’t we? Perhaps we’ll give ourselves over to the current and be borne along.

Poetry is not merely soothing. It’s energizing and invigorating—even scary. Poetry’s power to frighten was the force that stopped me on purpose. This stanza that opens Eliot’s “Love Song” changed my life:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.”

Auden argues that “poetry makes nothing happen,” and this is true: it has the power to make us do nothing, to stop us long enough on purpose that we notice that something more, something deeper is calling us not just to notice, not just to follow up, but to follow it down.

What is it in poetry that calls us? Who is the Caller?

 

Tanguy’s image, “Neither Legends nor Figures” is taken from The Menil Collection website: https://www.menil.org/collection/objects/5146-neither-legends-nor-figures-legendes-ni-figures

 

Want to be happy? Slow down

I enjoyed this read.

ideas.ted.com

In 1972, Matthieu Ricard had a promising career in biochemistry, trying to figure out the secrets of E. coli bacteria. A chance encounter with Buddhism led to an about turn, and Ricard has spent the past 40+ years living in the Himalayas, studying mindfulness and happiness. In this free-wheeling discussion at TED Global in October 2014, Ricard talked with journalist and writer Pico Iyer about some of the things they’ve learned over the years, not least the importance of being conscious about mental health and how to spend time meaningfully. An edited version of the conversation, moderated by TED Radio Hour host Guy Raz, follows. First, Pico Iyer on how he became taken with the idea of staying still:

Guy Raz (left), Pico Iyer (center), and Matthieu Ricard (right) discuss mindfulness and the importance of being still at TED Global 2014. Photo by Duncan Davidson/TED. Guy Raz (left), Pico Iyer (center), and Matthieu Ricard (right) discuss mindfulness and the importance of being still at TED Global 2014. Photo by Duncan Davidson/TED.

Pico Iyer: When I was in my twenties, I had this wonderful…

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Being Mindful Saves Lives

Guest Post by Dr. James Houlihan

How often we do accomplish something without knowing that we did? And how would we ever know unless someone told us?

I had just finished teaching my three-week Interim-Term class: Buddhist Meditation and Philosophy, where students develop the ability to sit zazen, facing the wall, for ten to fifteen minutes, and to be present to guided meditations for 20.

At the beginning of the term, I had been asked to admit a student even though the class was full and the space limited. But when I heard the student’s story from our psychologist, I agreed. His father had died suddenly of a rare heart abnormality that was also found in the student, necessitating open-heart surgery. His mother was recovering from brain surgery to remove a cancer and for the moment was doing well.

Throughout the three weeks, the young man showed no emotion whatsoever. Any attempt to draw him out was met with a polite word, no facial expression, and silence. But when the class gathered in the dim reflection room he was the first to sit properly on a zafu. I could tell that he was calm, not-distracted, able to follow his breath or the course of his thoughts. Basic mindfulness.

Later, all of his teachers met to discuss his situation with the psychologist and she touched my arm, and turned to tell the other team members. “The Meditation class,” the psychologist said, hand still on my arm, “was a life saver.” But without her words, I would not have known, for sure, the effectiveness of mindfulness for one challenged young man.

Mindfulness: How to Change Your School Culture by Doing Nothing

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This post is part of a series.

I am in Boston at the NAIS 2015 annual conference to present a workshop about practicing mindfulness in the educational environment. I developed this workshop, “Mindfulness: How to Change Your School Culture by Doing Nothing,” with two colleagues Dr. James Houlihan, my peer at The Kinkaid School, and Larry Kahn, Chief Technology Officer from The I’olani School in Hawaii.

Before Larry took his job in Hawaii, he, James and I developed an informal, collegial sangha (Sanskrit word for community) at The Kinkaid School, where we met regularly for the last 15 minutes of our lunch period to sit in silent meditation together.

zafuswiab.euFor many years, Kinkaid has had a Reflection Room as part of its Character Education complex, and this is where we’d meet. We dimmed the lights, sat on zafu cushions, faced the wall (in the Zen tradition), set the Insight Timer iPhone app, and “did nothing” — on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. Recently, the Reflection Room was assumed by Kinkaid’s administration to serve as a staging ground for Kinkaid’s ISAS reaccreditation process, and, currently, it’s being reconfigured as a temporary office space for Kinkaid’s facilities managers, as that space undergoes construction renovations. My dearest hope is that the Reflection Room survives these waves of necessary progress; having a dedicated space to practice with colleagues and students is not only visionary, it’s revolutionary; it’s a built in garden where seeds of empathy, authenticity, resiliency, honor and many other positive character traits can be sown and grown. Our NAIS workshop grew out of our practice sitting together in this room at lunchtime.

We all came to meditation differently: I started practicing sitting meditation in the mid-90s, during a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in Houston (MBSR is the program developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at ); James has been practicing Zen meditation for 20+ years; Larry started with Transcendental Meditation during his teen years in the 70s. Although we all come from different traditions, we all know the positive impact meditating regularly has on our emotional, physical and psychological health.

As educators, we also have experienced the value of sharing this practice with our students and our colleagues. James and I both offer Mindfulness courses during Kinkaid’s three-week Interim session in January. Our classes are among the first to fill up, as students hear from peers who’ve taken them before that our classes are fun, interesting, and ultimately extremely relaxing. In a culture of high-achieving students and faculty, relaxation and peace often sound like elusive fantasies. And yet, through practice, we come to know that peace is available in every step and every breath, as the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh has taught in his seminal book, Being PeaceScreen Shot 2015-02-25 at 6.05.01 PM

 

In our classes, students learn by practicing mindfulness that they can become masters of their time and thereby their experience; time no longer is their foe, stretching them to their limits, causing undue and intolerable anxiety. This is an invaluable, profound lesson for students who are conditioned to feel like there’s never enough time to do everything they want to do, everything they have to do.

In addition to our Interim courses, James and I facilitate a monthly Mindfulness Study Group for our faculty colleagues. Over 27 Upper School faculty members have joined it. We meet in the morning from 7:15 to 8:00; our principal provides breakfast for us.

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We read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Wherever You Go There You Are, and we practice different mindfulness meditations; for example, breathing meditation or walking meditation or eating meditation or Metta (loving-kindness) meditation. This study group has provided us with an incredible community-building experience: in less than 45 minutes, we have connected to one another more deeply, authentically and compassionately than we have in over a decade of working in classrooms next door to one another.

Please join my colleagues and me on Friday morning to learn more about how to “change your school culture by doing nothing.” When: 2/27, from 8-9 am Where: Room 311 at the @NAISAC15.

 

 

Twenty Well-Spent Minutes that Could Alter Your Perspective

This article by Professors Erica McWilliam and Peter Taylor packs a bunch of powerful mental punches.

Australia has an abundance of energy to share with the world, literally and metaphorically. Their article, Why our kids need a powerful disposition to be self-managing learners when they finish their schooling, why they are unlikely to have it, and what we can do about it, provides a lot of fuel for thought, as you might guess by its title alone. Kudos to McWilliam and Taylor for their incisive, cogent synthesis.