Monday, December 31, 2012

Castles

On a normal Sunday morning, it began when Jennifer looked at me with a spark in her eye and said, "How about a train ride to Scarborough?" Something inside me lit up, and as the two of us told Tyler the plan, he began dancing and immediately donned his red bath robe, announcing, "I will be the boy and the train to Scarborough will be the polar express!"

Two hours later, we had ridden bikes into the city center in a downpour. Soaked and excited, we quickly locked up the bikes outside the train station, offered a granola bar and a Braeburn apple to a man who needed it named Cliff, and then ran towards Platform 5, Tyler's oversized bath robe billowing out behind him.

In Scarborough, the rain didn't let up. After a mile walk down Castle Road--with a brief interlude at Anne Bronte's gravestone at St. Mary's Church--the castle appeared, hunching down as a giant and lowering his hands for visitors to walk through. In the giftshop, we flashed our cards while Tyler tried out some swords, and then tried some crackers with chutney, which he promptly gagged out and onto his shirt and Jennifer's hands.

The next two hours held a slow crescendo of sunlight, until finally a massive rainbow broke the clouds and, as Jen remarked, dove into the ocean beyond the cliff of the castle. We ran and ran and ran--all the while shouting out whatever things came to our heads. We splashed through puddles and tried to wrap our heads around that fact that the castle has existed for a thousand some odd years.

"This is the greatest day I ever had!" Tyler shouted as we ran, and it was hard not to agree.

Leaving the castle, we walked down to the beach and constructed our own. Cold winter sand collected from our gloved hands and rose to form a respectable little tower. We draped seaweed that has washed ashore from all angles of our castle.

The sun slowly made his excuses and ducked out of our day, but not before the thirty-minute-old sand castle and the thousand-year-old stone castle aligned. Looking at them both together from the shore, their sizes were similar. While one would fade with the oncoming waves, in that moment both were just as strong.

In Rachel Joyce's remarkable novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, the protagonist slowly chooses to make what began as a brief walk to the post office into a cross-country journey. Harold continually faces the foes of any adventure that involve the feet and the heart--but again and again Harold makes that quintessential choice: to keep going. As he continues onward, he deals with the regrets of his life--and how his past failures as a man, husband, and father have haunted his present. What is most moving about Harold, though, is that his walk is a promise to face what his life has been, and an attempt to remake it over again.

Joyce writes of Harold, "It didn't matter that he had not planned his route, or bought a road map. He had a different map, and that was the one in his mind, made up of all the people and places he had passed." As Harold walks his journey, he slowly learns to become vulnerable--connecting with others in ways that are authentic and nonjudgmental, and learning to view his own past in this light too.

The thing about castles is that we are often so much more fascinated by those that others have built. We may stand at the boldness of their stone walls and gape at the sheer magnificence of them. And this is important.

But what is just as important is making our own maps, too. Pushing the cold sand into walls that slowly rise and reach up towards the horizons in our very own eyes. Just as important is the need to make maps from all the relationships within which we find ourselves--seeking significance not via accomplishments on the grand scale of years, decades, and centuries, but on the grand scale of the human heart--the way in which we empower it within others, and within ourselves.

In the end, waves come and collect all our work--whether within the tide pushing up against the shore to take the sandcastles we build in a day--or the time pushing up against our lives to bring us to a new home.

What lingers longer than ourselves is never the walls, never the castles themselves, but always the love in which we create and cast our visions onto existence. That is what both allows us to endure, and endures.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Mucking About

There's a beautiful line in The Shawshank Redemption where Red (played by Morgan Freeman) says: "Andy Dufresne--who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side." It's a poignant moment in the film when Andy (played by Tim Robbins) has escaped prison by tunneling his way through a six-foot thick concrete wall and then crawled through the jail's sewage tunnel to land himself in a river, and in freedom.

Though much less dramatic than Dufresne's journey, I had to laugh yesterday as Jennifer and I and Tyler walked through a large field near our house full of sheep, and thus--of course--also full of sheep excrement. Pools of water gathered like lonely bystanders across the field from the previous night's heavy rain, and tracks and paths had converted themselves to mud that sometimes ran deep enough to engulf even our boots.

With soaked socks and to the narration of squelch-squerch, squelch-squerch, squelch-squerch, we ran onwards past the sheep and over small wooden bridges and without any cap for our voices or our laughter. We yelled the things that came to our minds--and we sometimes yelled Freedom! just because it felt like, well, freedom.

Tyler continued to run ahead of Jennifer and I as he said, "I will be the leader!" and Jen and I took great joy in not having to shout ahead, Wait there for us! or Watch out for that car! or Watch out for that massive crowd of people!

We watched Tyler run through the sheep excrement, the mounds of dirt, and the grass that even with mud and flood refused--like especially stubborn cowlicks--to lay down quietly and hide.

And Jennifer and I ran too. We held hands through padded mittens and gloves and as we ran all I could think was this: No matter how crowded life gets in other ways, no matter how hard the hard hits, or how sharp the shocks of the future will surely announce themselves, there is now. There is this moment of running through a field abandoned by people but peopled by sheep. And I love this. 

I used to work as a sherpa for a wonderful program called La Vida (now led by an amazingly gifted leader named Nate Hausman, and first created by another amazingly gifted leader named Rich Obenschain). The program brings groups of students--sometimes incoming Freshmen to Gordon College, where I attended, and sometimes groups of high school of even middle school students--into the wilderness of the Adirondack Mountains. For two weeks, groups travel the mountains, pumping their own water from the rivers, sleeping in the same clothes each night, taking no showers of baths, and hanging food in a bear bag each night--high aloft in the trees so as not to tempt the black bears. One of many beautiful slogans from La Vida is: Be You, Be Here, Be Now.

While there is proper--and important--place and time for planning and thinking ahead, there is also an essential need in us to run freely now. To think not of what has happened (and the guilt, shame, or regret it tries to tag us with) and to think not of what may happen (and the worry and fear we sometimes associate with the future) is sometimes so important to our hearts because they simply can't bear those burdens.

Sometimes our hearts need to move through the dirt, the excrement, the muck in order to find those places of freedom where we can be washed clean.

yesterday, mucking about in the sheep fields, I'm grateful for the freedom I saw on Tyler and Jen's faces. And I'm grateful for the freedom I felt stretch across my own.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Journey from A to B and the Chance for Greater Love

I think most of us seek to get from A to B in the most efficient, least dangerous, most pain-free, worry-free, pleasant, comfortable way. If it's at all possible for us to get from A to B while enjoying a drink with a small umbrella in it, or while having our feet massaged, or while having someone read aloud passages from Fyodor Dostoevky's The Brothers Karamazov while enjoying a drink with a little umbrella on it and having our feet massaged--then we'll go for it.

But the thing I am noticing again, and again, and again, and again is that around this particular day, when we think of Christ's birth, is that the whole nativity story makes absolutely no sense. Zero sense.

On a scale of sense-making, where zero is the idea of trying to squeeze an oversized lampshade down a red stirrer from Dunkin' Donuts, and ten is try to use a Dunkin' Donuts red stirrer to stir your coffee, the nativity story is a zero.

Forget zero, the nativity story nets a negative number.

But maybe that makes a whole lot of sense. God decides to send the savior of the world to earth, and if we were God, we'd be running the numbers. Immediately, we'd have cost-effectiveness graphs--bam!--and we'd be searching all the crime stats for the absolute safest possible town in the absolute safest possible country in the whole planet. And we'd be choosing the most experienced--and wealthiest--couple to find as his parents. And we'd be sure to load up our savior with heavy does of life insurance, health insurance, fire insurance, home insurance--the whole deal. And we'd hire the best consulting firm to process exactly how to raise that savior, and how to prepare the 'consumer' to meet and greet that savior. And--no doubt!--we'd have a few book deals lined up for the uncles, aunt, parents, and for the savior himself. From the get-go,., we're talking multiple deals, at auction.

But God didn't work that way. Instead, God choose the absolute most culturally dangerous situation--a young, unmarried virgin--to become pregnant. Then, God choose the exact moment before a census, so that Joseph and Mary would have to travel during her pregnancy. And we're not even talking here about a three-hour jaunt to the in-laws. We're talking about a multi-day journey wherein food is in short supply, nights are cold, an old donkey is exhausted. And then--to top it all off--God chose to lead Joseph and Mary to the barnhouse to birth the savior amidst hay (which is really quite pokey, prodding stuff, no matter what anyone says), animal poop, and absolutely no plan.

Bam. There they are: new parents away from home with no help and no money and no place to stay.

In essence, then, God brought Jesus into the world in the precise, most specific, utterly exact opposite way any of us in our sense-making minds would choose to do.

But, if we really think about it, it does kind of make sense in a weird way.

It makes sense, especially, if you think about life before children and life after children.



Sure, the journey to get anywhere before kids looks enticing. That nice, slender, thin line. And then before we know it: B! We made it to B! But the thing about the ridiculous journey to get from A to B after kids is this: by the time we get to B, we're different.

B is the same no matter how we travel, but we're different. All those crazy spikes and drops and whirls and twirls have changed us. And a lot of times, not for the better. I wish I could always journey from A to B and encounter those loops and swoops with great hope, faith, and even love. But I don't. However, I think the latter journey affords us the opportunity that we all are desperately seeking beyond the quick fixes and the cost-effectiveness strategies.

The second journey allows us the space to become what we could become.

Which leads us back to God. If he allowed Mary and Joseph to have that first kind of journey to welcome their son Jesus, I wonder what kind of parents they'd be. My hunch is maybe not as good. Something about the danger of the journey, the lack of safety and insurance and the crazy loops and swoops got them to point B as different people--stronger, more faithful, more loving.

Tonight, on the eve of Christ's birth, I keep thinking about this prayer Mother Teresa used to pray whenever something truly difficult occurred: Lord, help me see this moment as a chance for greater love.

And maybe that one part of what God was thinking when he gave Mary and Joseph that second kind of journey from A to B. The nativity story isn't easy, but maybe that's because God knew that to get them to point B in the fastest, most comfortable, easiest way possible wouldn't prepare them for the great love that was about to be unleashed in and through and for them.

And maybe the same is true for us. On whatever loop or swoop or curl or twirl or whirl we're on in our journey, maybe part of the reason we're on it is to prepare us to be the kind of people we need to be so that when we finally reach point B, we'll actually be ready. We may fall down, exhausted, when we get there, but our arms will be open and we'll be smiling and maybe we'll even look back and see everything we went through as those chances for greater love.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Darkest Day of the Year

Today in England, the sun set at about 11:25 am. Okay, seriously: the sun set at 3:30 in the afternoon. (Though it sure felt like 11:25 in the morning.) But it rose at about nine o' clock, and for those six and a half hours, we looked up at a sky that drizzled us with mocking rain and then laughed through a thick layer of clouds.

For other reasons than the fact of absolute minimal sunlight, today--and this past week--has been very dark. I grew up in Connecticut, and hearing the news about Sandy Hook rattled me. Like many people, I found myself weeping.

In the flurry of articles that have come out in this past week, none is able to articulate exactly why this kind of tragedy is pepetuating itself over and over again. But one area that continues to go unexamined by most social theorists and also those in the media is the area of gender. Jackson Katz and Byron Hurt are doing their part to discuss why of the 62 mass killings on American soil, 61 of them have been commited by men. Katz powerfully reasons that if the opposite were true, and 61 of the 62 mass killings had been perpetrated by women, all we would hear and read would be about the gendered nature of the crimes.

As a society, the way we socialize men is dangerous and we see this over and over again. The 61 mass murders are the highest form of the tragedy, but every day we see lesser versions--no less horrendous to the victims, however--of gendered violence: we see men killing men in gang warfare; we see men fighting men for pride, revenge, or to prove their masculinity.

In essence, we see men learning repeatedly--from father, from film, from heroes and mentors--that the only way to be a man is to be tough, violent, and aggressive. Men are not revered for their compassion, gentleness, empathy, and their tears.

I think one reason why Harper Lee's Atticus Finch stands so tall after all these years is that Lee artciluated through fiction an idea of what genuine strength in masculinity could look like.

It could look like going against the bullying culture so many men are bred into and indoctrinated towards. It could look like self-reflection rather than blame. It could look like an end to attacks and harassment (whether through words or actions) and a commencement of authentic listening--asking what it's really like to walk in the shoes of other people, whether minorities, females, homosexuals, or transgendered people.

Until we come face to face with a fraction like 61/62, we are going to be missing an underlying cause of the violence we continue to see in every city of every state of our country. Masculinity does not have to be defined by aggression, violence, tough-talk, and lack of empathy.

After the sun had set today, Jennifer and I watched Tyler run back and forth through our kitchen and hallway as we blasted Enya's Winterland CD. He was laughing, running, laughing, running, giggling.

Tyler is four years old.

He is my son.

The question I am faced with as a father, and the question we are all faced with as members of an American society, is this: How we can we teach boys that to grow into men does not mean to lose one's ability to giggle, to weep, to show compassion, empathy, tenderness, and vulnerability?

It is time we make heroes not only of those who hold a gun--whether in films or in real life--but also of those who hold a hand. If we can learn, as men, to move forward hand in hand--vulnerable, honest, authentically strong--rather than as aggressive lone rangers, I think American society will see massive shifts. Our darkest days--no matter when the sun sets--may yet transmogrify into our brightest possibilities.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What it Comes Down To

I've just gotten off the phone with Dr. Noam Chomsky. For an upcoming book on education tentatively entitled IMAGINE: Visions of What School Might Be, I had the chance to interview Dr. Chomsky, and it was a powerful experience--made even more powerful by the fact that I was calling on a tiny little Magic Jack device that helped me place the call from York, England to Cambridge, Massachusetts and only once during the 25-minutes did the device go haywire and almost hang the call up. Crisis averted, and our discussion was inspiring.

After recently finishing Diane Ravitch's utterly compelling and deeply important book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, I have become more and more excited about the revival of the American Public School system.

Sure, it looks bleak right now, with market-based principles and privatization rampantly encroaching on a basic human right of children. Billions have been spent pressuring teachers to narrow their curriculum so that high-stakes testing becomes the sole focus on schools. What is lost is love of learning, authentic growth, development as citizens, the values of compassion, and the ethic of collaboration.

And yet, we're still standing as a crossroads. Even with the heavy financing of powerful foundations to pressure both the federal government and state governments to work towards competition and market-based principals in schools, somehow, the public school system remains undaunted. Even with vociferous attacks on teachers and teacher unions--media and Hollywood providing the microphones--the public schools system holds as its steadfast mission to reach and teach all children: not just those who can provide better test scores. But the children in special ed programs, the English Language Learners, those with severe behavorial issues--all children.

As a young high school student, I remember watching Morgan Freeman in the film Lean on Me. Originally, I was riveted by Freeman's portrayal of real-life principal Joe Clark. After all, he was tough. He did the dirty work of getting rid of all the "bad" kids. Gathered them on stage and kicked them out so that he could inspire, motivate, and teach the kids who really wanted to learn.

Right on! And, obviously, the media loved the figure of Joe Clark enough to make a movie about him.

These many years later, however, I see the film in a new light. For the first time, I am asking, What happened to all those 'bad' kids? Where did they go? If they were kicked out of public school, then what?

And when I think of similar get-tough figures from our current era--like Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein--an interesting trend asserts itself. We glorify those leaders who talk tough and place blame. Whether it's the bad kids in Joe Clark's Eastside High or the underperforming teachers in Michelle Rhee's District of Columbia, we find outlets to praise those who talk tough and point fingers.

And yet: a stubbornly troubling fact asserts itself. If we blame the bad kids and get rid of them, and if we blame the bad teachers and get rid of them--but the system still doesn't improve, what are we left with?

We find ourselves, then, where we should be beginning anyway: by examining the system itself. How can we truly expect public schools to thrive when funding is based on unequal measures--so that students in poor areas consistently receive vastly lower funding and vastly larger class sizes than students in affluent areas? (This was documented in great detail by Jonathan Kozol in his heartbreaking book Savage Inequalities two decades ago. The book was promptly praised by the press, then promptly ignored by policy-makers and today, that system of unequal funding is largely unchanged.)

How can we truly expect public schools to thrive when teachers are being pressured constantly to raise test scores, thereby spending vast amounts of class time teaching students test-taking skills that will become wholly meaningless skills after they leave high school. Where in the workforce or larger world community do people ask us to take multiple choice tests to prove our worth, abilities, or work ethic? Nowhere. We reveal and demonstrate these qualities via our social interactions, experiences, collaborations, and projects.

How can we truly expect public schools to thrive when we underfund them, overload teachers, pressure leaders to get test results, do nothing to change the status quo of the plight of those in poverty, and then hand 30 students to a teacher and say, get results?

Instead of brow-beating and pointing fingers, this is a time to support students and teachers alike: smaller class sizes for all teachers, increased autonomy and ability to be creative and interactive in classrooms, instead of narrowing the curriculum to focus on standardized test-scores, open it up to possibilities for authentic learning motivated intrinsically. Create ways to help those students with behavioral issues to change and learn new skills rather than kicking them out to the streets. Welcome all students--not just those privatization would encourage us to welcome because they represent possible rises in test scores.

Tonight, one of the things that most moved me about what Dr. Chomsky shared was his response to a question about switching the current trend in education, and some of his answer is a fitting way to close:

The public school system is based on the idea that we do care about other people. That’s what it comes down to. Charter schools undermine the public schools, and the other problem is that schools are very much underfunded, and if you want to destroy a system, underfund it and then people will say we’ve got to privatize it. As an example, when Margaret Thatcher wanted to destroy the public transportation system in Britain, she underfunded it, then she privatized it. That’s what is happening with the schools now.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

One True Thing from Angela Ackerman: Kindness is Contagious

Angela Ackerman is steeped in writerly wisdom--but she is also steeped in life wisdom. The marriage of these two attributes is a blessing to her readers--those who follow her and partner Becca Puglisi's incredible blog The Bookshelf Muse, and those readers of their highly valuable and elucidating book The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression. Angela spreads warmth and generosity wherever she goes--both in person and with her words. So I am so overjoyed to share One True Thing from Angela here today on kindness and paying it forward.

Kindness is Contagious
By Angela Ackerman


I really only have one moral belief that I follow in life: if you can help, do. This mantra guides me as I interact with people, make decisions, and plan my future. I like to be there for others, and contribute to their happiness and success if I can.

It doesn't always work out of course. Like the time a crazy hell cat ran into a neighbor’s house because I had called on her to inquire if a lost cat I’d found was hers (It wasn't  But to be fair, they looked almost identical). And then there was the time my other security conscious neighbor drove off, leaving her garage door wide open, so I closed it for her. (And then subsequently had to help her break into her own house when she returned because her garage door had malfunction and wouldn't open.) Hmm. I see a pattern here: Me. Neighbors. Kindness backfiring.  Perhaps I should think twice about anything involving neighbors?

But back to the meat and potatoes. Why do people proactively do things for others? The small things. Simple gestures. Bits of kindness that aren’t necessary, but people do anyway.

I think it’s because deep down we hope that kindness will inspire kindness.

When it came time for our Emotion Thesaurus book launch, Becca and I knew one thing: we were not comfortable waving our book and asking people to buy it. That’s just wasn't us. So we decided to do something we could get very excited about, something we believed in: proving that kindness will pay forward.  

Our launch initiative involved convincing one hundred writer/bloggers, in secret, to do a Random Act Of Kindness for another writer and post about it on their blog on the same day (our release date). We created a week-long event for this, with prizes each day that people could try to win, prizes donated by industry professionals like Scrivener and Writer’s Digest who believed in what we were trying to do.

The first day was amazing. One hundred Acts of Kindness hit the WWW, things that included small gifts, shout outs, offers to read work and more. The people who were on the receiving end were blown away that someone they knew in the writing community would single them out so thoughtfully. Words of gratitude swam across the internet.  It was great!

When day two came along, Becca and I held our breath.  Would the kindness roll forward as we believed? Would people be inspired by our Kindness Blitz?

And you know what? By the end of the week, we estimate that over 200 bloggers joined Random Acts of Kindness for Writers. So my one true thing is simply this: Kindness not only brings about amazing things...it is also contagious!

Angela Ackerman is one half of The Bookshelf Muse blogging duo, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. Listing the body language, visceral reactions and thoughts associated with seventy-five different emotions, this brainstorming guide is a valuable tool for showing, not telling, emotion. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

One True Thing from Matthew Reynolds: Proving and Disproving

When I think of my brother Matthew, it's sometimes hard not to think of him as a two-year old boy, laying in his bed while my teenage self told stories to him and my other younger brother, Bryan. Laying in their beds, they'd go along with any crazy, silly, ridiculous stuff I shared, and each night as they drifted to sleep, I watched them wondering what kind of people they'd grow up to be.

So it's still a little difficult to think of Matthew as a young man earning a doctorate in physical therapy from Quinnipiac University. However, everytime I see him and realize that his pecs and biceps are about four times the size of mine, I realize that he has, indeed, grown up. Matthew has a deeply inspiring sense of humor, and he makes all those around him feel at home both with themselves and with him. He embodies that beautiful golden rule and treats other people with the kind of dignity, respect, and compassion with which he wants to be treated. Matthew works with passion and commitment and is a firm believer in the power of getting up again, and again, and again.

And he still likes silly stories.

Here is Matthew Harry Wilson Reynolds the Fourth, sharing his One True Thing.

Proving and Disproving
By Matthew Reynolds

Matt at the end of No-Shave-November

For me, it’s difficult to believe in one true thing. When my brother Luke asked me to write a brief synopsis of my opinion, I thought more about the simple question. The simple question turned into many more questions, which turned into more questions, and on and on. 

What’s my point you ask? Let’s take a look at some true things. The world used to be flat hundreds of years ago. The earth was also the center of the universe and everything revolved around this magnificent planet. 

Truths are replaced by disproven theories. 

It is true, although, that old truths are replaced by new truths. That, my friend, is the beauty of learning. The only truth is that we will disprove, discover, and learn new truths. That is the only real truth in life. 

From the second we are born, our brains are taking the huge needle of life and injecting knowledge, ideas, passions, loves, despairs, lies, and truths. Throughout life, we are constantly changing. We are proving and disproving our own beliefs. Therefore, a truth is no more than what we believe. That is the BEAUTY of it.

Ayn Rand once said, “Every man is free to rise as far as he is able or willing, but it is only the degree to which he thinks that determines the degree to which he’ll rise.” This quote speaks truths to my ears. The reason we can thrive, prosper, and grow is because each person has their One True Thing. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

What Really Happened in President Obama's Private Meeting with Mitt

Yesterday, President Obama welcomed Mitt Romney into his private dining room at the White House at exactly 12:30 in the afternoon. One hour and eleven minutes later, Mr. Romney departed the premises, and the luncheon was supposedly one-on-one, with even elite members of the press corps not allowed inside. In the day and a half since the luncheon, speculation has run rampant about what actually went on, and official statements from both camps have been released.

All of it is wrong.

So today--after lingering long and thinking through my decision very carefully--I have decided to come clean. To confess. To spill the frijoles. To open the can of worms (even though many of you, like me, wonder why certain people derive joy out of canning worms; there's plenty else we could can: peas, carrots, perhaps thick marmalade, heck, even toe nail clippings--but worms, really?). To play the pied piper's tune (because I learned to play the pied pipe long ago (it's not much more difficult than learning to play a normal pipe)).

I was there.

I was there for the entire hour and eleven minutes, and after living with the knowledge of what those minutes held--caressed, nuanced, delicately balanced--I have decided to tell all.

First, the reason I was invited by both parties anyway. Many readers of this blog aren't aware of the fact that I am Ryan Gosling. Details of my life--like the fact that I "live" in York, England, am "married" and am a "father" to a four-year old son named "Tyler," am a "writer" and a "teacher" and I have a "real life history"--have all been invented in order to give me some level of secrecy. (As you can probably guess, I work harder than most other actors because of this need for a highly detailed fake life.)

But I am the Ry-master. And even though revealing that fact here (now) will undoubtedly make my life a heck of a lot more complicated, the Obama / Romney meeting yesterday has forced my hand (and I'm not even a card player).

Now, the meeting.

I could have tape recorded the entire thing on a tiny device that I happen to carry around with me everywhere. But I didn't. I don;t need that device, and I only carry it for purposes of establishing humility because I don't like to admit that I have a perfect photographic memory (which, in case you didn't know, also means I have a perfect phonographic memory (which, in case you didn't know, means that I can recall sounds and images at a moment's notice back to when I was three months old)).

Since one of the fake-details of my life is that I am a "writer," I decided to coat the big reveal with the cloak of my writerly self. Thus.

President Obama: Mitt, welcome.

Mr. Romney: Prez, thank you. Thank you very much. [Mr. Romney's hair is slicked back with copious gel, and I wonder if--perchance--he and I are consumers who zero in on the same gel brand at the store.]

President Obama: I hope you don't mind that I asked Ryan to join us? Members of your campaign staff assured me it wouldn't be a problem. [President Obama smiles wide enough to make me faint, and I don't faint easily.]

Mr. Romney: Members of my campaign staff assured me of a lot of things, too, Prez. [Mr. Romney pauses and when I gaze into his eyes, it looks as though he is lost in thought about why people ever decided to start canning worms, only to open up those cans at inappropriate moments. The more he thinks about this, the more he looks like he could cry, and it suddenly seems like his casting via media as a man without empathy might--perchance!--be wrong. Any man who can feel deeply enough about worms to practically tear up over their canning is an empathetic man in my book.]

President Obama: So, were members of your campaign staff correct? [President Obama shirts from foot to foot, and then finally throws his arm around me--a gesture of solidarity, for which I am thankful at this point. Because you can only think about the poor worms being canned for so long before you start to lose control.]

Mr. Romeny: About Ryan?

President Obama: About Ryan.

Mr. Romney: To be honest, I should have chosen Hilary Clinton. You and I both know that. We would have wiped the floor with you. No disrespect, of course, Prez. That Ryan guy--all he did for me was make me go to the extreme of Extreme Makeover.

President Obama: None taken. After all, this is still my private dining room, so you have permission to mourn your loss in any way you see fit. As long as it doesn't interrupt our agenda for the day. [President Obama winks at me. I wink back. Then I turn towards Mr. Romney and wink his way as well. I hate for anyone to feel left out. Mr. Romney winks back at me--the empathy this man has! And President Obama must interpret Romney's wink as directed at him, because he winks back at Mr. Romney and then Mr. Romney eventually winks at President Obama--only after a long, subdued, awkward silence.]

Me: My eyes are hurting.

Mr. Romney: [laughs]

President Obama: What's so funny, Mr. Romney. Haven't your eyes ever hurt before?

Mr. Romney: Never more than 47% of the time.

President Obama: Look, Mitt--I'm gonna call you Mitt from now on, okay?--I am really hungry and we're having an amazing Southwestern salad, so can you just tell me if it's alright if Ryan stays?

Mr. Romney: Yeah, yeah, the kid's alright. Bet he could eat fifty eggs and knock down a few parking meters if he wanted.

Me: I love that movie.

President Obama: Me too.

Mr. Romney: Well, let's get down to gold tacks and brass knuckles. The agenda. Does the kid know about it? [Mr. Romney wags his thumb at me and I feel slightly affronted. After all, I'm not that much younger than him, and we both use the same gel, and we both feel badly about the canned worms.]

President Obama: Mitt, Ryan is okay. In fact, he's solid. he's extremely solid in this area. That's why I asked him here in the first place.

[We all sit down at the table, on which glasses of water are already poured, seven pieces of silverware aligns the cloth in front of each of us, and chocolate Santa Clauses sit on each of our plates.]

Mr. Romney: Nice touch, Prez. [Holds up his personal chocolate Santa Clause.]

President Obama: You like that, do you Mitt?

Mr. Romney: I do, Prez.

[Awkward silence.]

[Continued awkward silence.]

[I decide to eat my chocolate Santa.]

[Awkward silence.]

[I decide to eat Mr. Romney's chocolate Santa.]

[Extremely awkward silence.]

[I decide to eat President Obama's chocolate Santa.]

President Obama: Ryan, please. I only had three of those, and they were especially made by a rare species of gnomes off the coast of Finland who work tirelessly day and night and produce a dozen chocolate Santa Clauses each decade.

Me: [Awkward.]

Mr. Romney: Aw, Prez, let the kid here off easy this time. He was famished after knocking all those parking meter heads off.

Me: I'm not Paul Newman.

Mr. Romney: Geesh, I know, I know. I'm, just saying.

President Obama: Salads please!

[A waiter rushes into the room carrying a tray on which sit three of the most perfect Southwestern salads I have ever seen in my entire human existence.]

Me: President Obama, were these made by those same gnomes off the coast of Finland? [laughing. Come on, it's funny.]

President Obama: Yes.

Mr. Romney: Checkmate.

Me: I don't play chess.

Mr. Romney: But did you ever think about the fact that maybe chess plays you? Bet you didn't. Maybe give that a think or two the next time you want to go our knocking parking meter heads off.

Me:

President Obama: Okay, gentlemen. It's about time we start with the real agenda for this meeting: Mitt's reading choices.

Mr. Romney: Look, when the guy from Time Magazine asked me, I didn't have time to prep--I couldn't think on the spot. You had time, Prez. You could expertly choose a few American classics, a few independent-spirit stuff, some Pulitzer winners. I didn't have the luxury of a whole team helped me narrow down my options.

President Obama: Look, Mitt, I didn't choose your campaign team for you--

Me: And I didn't choose to eat your chocolate Santas. It's a condition.

[Awkward silence.]

Me: But the thing about the reading choices--look, that's the real reason I'm here. And I'm here for BOTH of you.

Mr. Romney: [Aside] That and to knock off a few parking meter heads. [Laughs.]

Me: [Standing, flexing pectorals, biceps, and triceps] Cool it with the COOL HAND LUKE ALLUSIONS, MITT, OKAY!

Mr. Romney: [Sweats]

Me: [Suddenly this image comes to mind and I feel real bad about what I just did. The image is all these worms--nice, friendly, well-meaning worms--trapped in some can solely for the purpose of some rhetorical device in some silly blog post.] 

President Obama: Ryan, take a breath. Good, Now, can you just give us the reading list already?

Me: [I devour my Southwestern salad, and if there were any more of those gnomish chocolate Santas, I'd be hard pressed to not...] Okay. You ready?

President Obama and Mr. Romney: Yes.

Me: Well, you've got to check out MOCKINGBIRD  by Kathy Erskine. It'll seriously amaze you. And, yup, no way you want to miss THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK by Matthew Quick. Awwwwwwsome. And, you need to get your hands on a copy of Francisco Stork's MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD--it'll blow you away.

Mr. Romney: [Aside] The way you blow away those parking meters?

Me: [Deep breath, deep breath, deep--]

President Obama: Can we get the last secret chocolate Santa Clause out here for Ryan please?

Me: You've got to get Mike Jung's GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES--hilarious and deeply moving. And Lynda Mullaly Hunt's ONE FOR THE MURPHYS. Whew. Be ready to cry though, and to change your life. And, let's see...

[Waiter brings chocolate Santa and I devour it on the spot, while stealing a forkful of Mr. Romney's Southwestern, gnome-made salad.]

Me: Oh! A.J. Paquette's NOWHERE GIRL is freaking marvelous, as is Mitali Perkins' RICKSHAW GIRL and if you somehow missed Jonathan Kozol's SAVAGE INEQUALITIES and Ross Greene's LOST AT SCHOOL, man, you guys need to get yourself to your closest indie bookstore yesterday and pick them up, too.

Mr. Romney: [Aside] Bet there are a few parking meters en route to the local indie, ey Ryan?

Me: And can't miss Cynthia Lynch Williams's MILES FROM ORDINARY and Gary Schmidt's OKAY FOR NOW and--yes! yes! yes!--Emily Bronte's WUTHERING HEIGHTS.

Mr. Romney: You mean Charlotte Bronte?

Me: No.

President Obama: No.

Mr. Romney: Oh.

Me: And by all means, you have got to read Jackson Katz's THE MACHO PARADOX. Got to, gentlemen, got to.

[The room ebbs with the flow of my wisdom. It pulses the air in semi-equal reverberations of beauty and joy and truth.]

[Truth.]

Me: And Natalie Diaz Lorenzi's FLYING THE DRAGON is a can't miss--as well as Johan Harstad's BUZZ ALDRIN, WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU IN ALL THE CONFUSION? and definitely Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich's EIGHTH GRADE SUPERZERO.

Mr. Romney: Who are you talking to right now?

Me: You.

President Obama: [Clears throat.] And me.

Me: Yes. And Diane Ravitch's THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SCHOOL.

Mr. Romney: Sounds a little dramatic.

President Obama: Is it about testing?

Me: Yes--specifically about standardized testing and the pressure it entails and the way it forces teachers, students, and schools to focus on memorization over skill, rote learning over creativity is kind of like, kind of like...throwing a dozen gnome-made chocolate Santas right onto the cold, hard floor.

President Obama: [Gasps.]

Mr. Romney: [Considers the canned worms. The man does have empathy, so I decide to forgive him on the spot for his parking meter references. we're all human, after all.]

Me: That's probably good for now. Until our next secret luncheon?

President Obama: [Winks at me.]

Mr. Romney: [Winks at President Obama, whom he thought was winking at him.]

President Obama: [Winks back to Mr. Romney.]

Me: [I wink as fast as I can at everyone, including the waiter who now comes to clear the dishes]

Thursday, November 29, 2012

One True Thing from John Robinson: Passion and Memory

Many years ago, as a senior in college, I was about to undertake my student-teaching experience. I was told that I would be paired up with a high school English teacher near the college named John Robinson. Little did I know what that name would come to represent through the unfolding years of my life.

John and I in Room 106 in 2003 after a day of teaching
That year, John and I would sit together at the front of Room 106 in Hamilton-Wenham Regional High school. I laughed more than I've ever laughed in an English classroom. But I also learned things I'd never imagined before--that writers of the novels we ask students to read had led lives just as fraught with fear, hope, passion, vigor, depression, and joy as we do. That every short story, novel, poem, vignette we read with students houses the uncanny ability to both teach creativity and passion, and also to embolden the power of empathy and bolster the need for new perspectives. Whether John was teaching Ernest Hemingway or reading Girl with a Pearl Earring or exploring poetry, he showed me the ropes of teaching for passion and beauty. He showed me how to be myself in an English classroom, too, which all began with Jack Handey's Deep Thoughts.

These years later, I am deeply in love with literature and writing, and I still can barely make it through a Handy Deep Thought while laughing uncontrollably. I still love teaching--whether it's Public Speaking courses in adult education programs here in York, or public school middle and high school classes. John pointed to a path which held untold passion for writing and teaching, and he pushes open the door for me and showed me how to walk it with joy.

John's lifelong work as a teacher is coupled with his lifelong work as a writer, having published two novels, scores of short stories in literary journals like Ploughshares and The Sewanee Review and many others, and having seen reviews, essays, and journalism into print. Every day, John still makes the fundamental decision to sit down at his desk and pen new words, craft new stories and reveal new lives. Because true passions never wither; instead, they are perennial as tulips: drawing strength from cold winters to flower and flourish with even more resolve. John's passion as a teacher and writer is resolve itself, and I'm excited to share Mr. John Robinson's One True Thing here, today.

Passion and Memory
by John Robinson


Yesterday, on a cold and overcast late November day, I drove to a Mobil Mini-Mart in my hometown, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  I was stopping to purchase a couple of bottles of chocolate milk, a soothing drink I often enjoy late at night.  On my way into the store, I was thinking--brooding really--about the good news I had just received that morning from a esteemed editor of a prestigious literary journal.  I had been informed that my short story had been accepted for publication in the spring.  Yes, I thought, it was good to have yet another story coming out in print, but because most literary journals have small audiences, my joy was somewhat subdued by the prospect of knowing that no one in town will ever know when it is published.  After a lengthy time of being published in many forms and in many venues, I believed I was destined toward that special obscurity reserved only for those whose efforts will be perceived by posterity as being tragically marginal.  Though I knew my work would remain in print long after I'd shed this mortal coil, I would not be remembered, I thought self-pityingly as I entered the store.       
    
I approached the check-out clerk, and laid the bottles on the small counter between us.  Unfortunately, they didn't have "low-fat" chocolate milk, and so instead--because I had no choice--I doubled-down on two bottles of something called "double" chocolate milk.  He was a man around my age.  But below a tattered baseball cap a wizened face--the result of attrition or neglect or addiction-- aged his appearance beyond his years.  He took one bottle into his hand and double-scanned it before announcing the price to me.
            
As I reached into my pocket for the cash to pay him, he looked at me and said, "Hey, aren't you the writer who was in the paper a long time ago?"
            
Long time ago?  He remembered that?  And what an understatement!  It was more like a quarter of a century ago, 27 years to be exact.  I was amazed he remembered my face from the article written so long ago.  The town newspaper had done a feature when my first novel appeared.
            
"There was a picture of you with your dog, I think," he said.
            
"Yes," I said.  "You've got a great memory."  And then after a moment, just before I left the store with my plastic bottles of chocolate milk:  "I'm honored you recalled the article."
            
Somehow the piece about me had moved him enough to remember my face when I entered the store.   The one true thing about organizing your life around your passion--if you're lucky enough to have one--is that for the rest of your life you'll always be rewarded and reminded--in some of the most unanticipated moments and ways--of your commitment to your dream.  It does not matter how small the audience--or how large the financial reward.  It matters only in the existential sense that it mattered to you, and to the few--or many--you unexpectedly reached by trying to become who you were all along.  In my case, a writer.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What Beautiful Is

There is a stay-at-home dad I know who is funny and kind and gracious in conversation. He loves his two young daughters immensely. He writes about birds and trees in a large pad which he keeps in his back pocket at every playgroup. He also suffers from debilitating mental attacks and sometimes struggles deeply and intensely to cope with life and move forward.

This morning, I saw him. The man's smile could swallow an entire street. His youngest daughter walked beside him, her smile echoing his.

The great South African poet Dennis Brutus--who fought against the apartheid system and was even jailed at Robben Island in the cell next to Mandela's for his work--has two of the most beautiful lines I've ever read within his poem, "Somehow We Survive." Brutus writes, "Somehow we survive / and tenderness, frustrated, does not wither." 

To think of the horror Brutus watched unfold in his lifetime--both that subjected to others and to himself--and yet to still be able to write these lines. To still be able to claim the survival of tenderness, the endurance of beauty.

Many of us face attacks that come in all forms and circumstances. If you're reading this, then most likely you and I are similar in that we do not face imprisonment for our beliefs and our quests for justice like Brutus did. And yet, the battles my friend, the stay-at-home-dad, faces threaten also to wither tenderness.

And each of us experiences, perhaps a thousand times a day, the subtle assaults from both within and without that long to make us believe that tenderness withers. Beauty is not sustained.

And that is true if we allow for the world's definition of beauty. If we assent to the notion that beauty is perfection, that tenderness is only possible where no mistakes are made, then we're sunk.

But if we, like Brutus, are willing to fight back against injustice in small ways and large, then we begin to forge a claim on the definition of beauty, the true meaning of tenderness.

What Beautiful is appears after attacks have been mounted and weathered. Rather than throw our hands up in despair and rage, then, we open our hands in readiness--willing the future to be different from the past. Knowing the present is our only genre for writing new stories, we learn to smile wide enough to swallow a street. We learn that tenderness may be frustrated, but it does not wither. True beauty never can.


SOMEHOW WE SURVIVE
by Dennis Brutus


Somehow we survive
and tenderness, frustrated, does not wither.

Investigating searchlights rake
our naked unprotected contours;

over our heads the monolithic decalogue
of fascist prohibition glowers
and teeters for a catastrophic fall;

boots club the peeling door.

But somehow we survive
severance, deprivation, loss.

Patrols uncoil along the asphalt dark
hissing their menace to our lives,

most cruel, all our land is scarred with terror,
rendered unlovely and unloveable;
sundered are we and all our passionate surrender

but somehow tenderness survives.

Friday, November 23, 2012

One True Thing from Michael Reynolds: Everyone Deserves a Place at the Table

My second oldest brother, Mike, used to give me worksheets to do as a kid. He would exude teacherly joy as he described what I would need to do on the worksheets, then pass them out to his class (me) and then wait the appropriate time as I did my best. Mike would then collect the worksheets from the class and grade them, applying a large and quite sparkly smiley face sticker when I did well, and a You'll Get It! across the top when my work could--ahem--use a little improvement.


Mike & Tyler at Clifford's Tower, York
I was about six years old; Mike was ten. Since then, Mike's love of teaching and learning has taken him into the lives of wonderful students and school systems as both an elementary school teacher and a social worker. Even now, at the age of 35, Mike still uses sparkly smiley faces and stickers, and still offers gentle encouragement to others to keep working hard. Mike loves people with more grace than most of us can imagine. If you're white, black, brown, yellow, or any color of the magnificent skin-dyes this planet boasts, Mike is going to love you. If you're gay, straight, or anything else, Mike is going to love you. If you're rich or poor by any nuanced definition of the word, Mike is going to love you.

In high school, Mike volunteered with a number of super-cool groups, but it's his work with Special Olympics that is most powerful in my mind these decades later. I remember going to watch the sporting events where Mike would play alongside Olympians, sparkling smiles merging all around, and watching the gentleness, joy, and exuberant love for all around him just screamed from the playing field or basketball court. And as a kid brother four years the younger, watching this kind of role model was so deeply moving for me.

I'm really honored and excited to share One True Thing today from a guy I love deeply and whose example I will always admire and try to emulate.

Everyone Deserves a Place at the Table
by Michael Reynolds


Mike (far right) with brothers Matthew & I
in ancient Jorvik garb
Justice is rising. It is here. It is among us. It is within us. It is beyond us. This is one truth that gives me continual courage and hope. Not because it is an idea, or something to create in and for the future. But because I see it, hear it, feel it and experience it today. In the moment. In the present.

In the mother who chooses to keep a friendly and joyful spirit, while standing for what is right and necessary for her children, in the midst of the ever-present stressors experienced by her family, and many beyond her control. In the gathering of Catholics at "Call to Action's" National conference, standing as a people who declare through lived action and conviction that WE, all of us, are the church, and giving all an equal and valued place at the table of our faith and communion. In the laws and provisions that affirm marriage equality for all loving and committed couples who desire to share in this pledge of commitment. In the human spirit, that is alive and well, and stirring in us always, calling us to love more deeply.

For justice is love birthed, and justice leads us all to love more deeply.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

On Walls

The thing is, when Walls are broken, they don't often turn back to us--looking up from their rubble--and say, Thanks for breaking me apart. I know that I was pushing in on your life, working really hard to keep you from finding new freedom. But I really appreciate the fact that you've demolished me. Thanks! Let's do it again sometime.

But when I connect closely with close people close to me, in close vicinities encouraging closeness and vulnerability, we kind of confess to one another that Walls really say stuff more akin to: Dude! What the HECK are you doing? I mean, fine, I may be pressuring you into living according to loads of pressure and fear and shame and anxiety, but COME ON, DUDE. Seriously? Did you really have to go and knock me over so that I am now a big pile of Rubble? Rubble?! Is rubble really more appealing than me? Rubble can't even stand on his own feet.

Another thing, though, is this: Rubble kind of provides a clearing for something new to be built. Maybe something that isn't a wall. Maybe a home. Maybe a tree that's planted. Maybe a garden. Maybe a well for drawing water.

Usually, when Walls break, they don't cave. In fact, 90% of the time, they do not cave (even slightly). Instead, they phone their friends and enlist the aid of new walls, built with modern technology and financed by extremely lucrative venture capitalists who see the big bucks in wall-building. Then, the friends of Walls arrive in storm, making you and me and all us think that--surely!--this time we'll never break out. We were silly and courageous and maybe a little sleep-deprived the first time we broke down the ONE wall. But three?

Four?

FIVE!?

However, if we enlist friends, too, and we all get together and have a Wall demolishing party, and then we immediately build stuff--like homes, and trees, and gardens, and wells--then Walls are kind of stuck. They don't really have anywhere to go.

Today, I'm choosing rubble that turns itself into fodder for new projects. And the faster I build--enlisting the help of others--the faster some really cool foundations for some really cool things can be laid.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

One True Thing from Jennifer Reynolds: You Are Enough


Okay, the truth: Jennifer Reynolds is about the most awesome person I've ever met in my entire life. She's my best friend. She's deeply committed to social justice. She can research some of the most harrowing details of human trafficking, and yet still manages to wake up every day and believe in hope, in love, in faith, and in fighting for a better world. Jennifer is the kind of person who dances with her four-year old son in the ancient ruins of Barnard Castle in the Yorkshire Dales. Jennifer is the kind of person who whip up an original, incredibly tasty soup from scratch. Jennifer is the kind of person who brings a book like The Sunflower Sword to life. And Jennifer is the kind of person whose pilgrim soul is ever on thew lookout for new possibilities, new ways of growing and changing both herself and the world around her. So I am beyond honored and excited and over the moon to have my wife share her One True Thing today.

You Are Enough
By Jennifer Reynolds

When Luke asked me to write my thoughts for “One True Thing” I laughed: not because I thought he was joking, not because I didn't want to, and not because I don’t know any true things. I laughed because it made me nervous to narrow down my thoughts and construct something interesting and original (especially within the “paragraph or two” suggested length!). But there was also something else, and it was a subtle sense that anything I came up with could never be just right or worthy of posting “out there”. It’s a battle I have faced for a long time, and it is one that I believe is shared by many others. It is a battle I have tried to put to words and have often come up short. You see, I love to write, to create, to research and to engage with social justice issues. And yet, it is when I am actually trying to pursue these ventures that make my little heart beat so fast that I feel most inadequate. It has left me puzzled time and time again.

So where does this leave me with sharing “one true thing”? Recently, I watched Dr. Brene Brown’s TED talks on vulnerability and shame, and felt something click. As she eloquently suggests in these lectures, there is power in imperfection and letting go of control. There is power in retraining our minds to think more about our passions, our gifts, and the blessings all around us rather than what other people think about our actions and decisions. There is power in recognizing that who we are is a gift in itself, and it is not egotistical, arrogant or self-centered to love ourselves (which is not the same thing as putting ourselves on a pedestal above others; rather, it is treating ourselves with kindness, compassion, patience and grace). This is essential if we ever hope to fully love others. And it starts with seeing and believing one true thing: I am enough. You are enough. We are all worthy of love and belonging…just as we are.

(For a brief talk from Dr. Brown on her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, see this clip which was featured on PBS: http://www.pbs.org/about/news/archive/2011/pbs-living-courage/

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Bronte Sisters and the Wild Yorkshire Moors

When we first came to York, two years ago, I read Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights for the first time and was mesmerized. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre found me 16 years ago, in class with Mrs. Ferraro at Windsor High in Connecticut. But today, both novels came full into focus again in powerful ways as Jen and I and Tyler rented a car for the first time, then left-sided it all the way to the village of Haworth and the Bronte Parsonage.

As the three of us walked through the Yorkshire moors where the sisters rambled, and later viewed the desks where they penned their novels, we felt so grateful. Great novels, like great moments, push past their pages and their timely stages and reach into realms where they take on an energy that is always present-tense.

 Today is a present-tense day for us. The journey, in photos:

Recuperation Rest after Tyler Was Stung by Nettles..
Jen and Tyler on the Path from the Bronte Home to the Reservoire

 

Made It!
 
The Bronte Parsonage
A Certain Special Shop in Haworth Village

"I've dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they've gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind."

--Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights



Saturday, November 3, 2012

Empowerment Is...

After talking late into the night on the phone with Jaques Derrida, one thing became very, very clear to me: "Stand By Me" is an amazing song to sing with your wife while organizing a massive cardboard-box full of papers, letters, drawings by your four-year-old, contracts, scribbled love notes on torn sheets of paper that also contain: grocery lists and various truck sketches.

The thing is: you get to the bottom of that cardboard box. And you've realize that two years of life have afforded tiny moments that contain so much inexplicable joy in their complete normality you would burst if you tried to pretend they were pretzel sticks (in order to stick them in your ears).

When Derrida finally had to go, I did what anyone in my situation would do: I called the towering great, Ms. Harper Lee. She'd know what to make of the tiny moments. She'd know--yes she would--what to make of the fact that the cracks of the past two years have afforded the greatest heights. She'd know--Ms. Lee! Ms. Lee! She would!--what to make of the fact that the absolute highest elation came in the absolute most common moments.

Ms. Lee listened. "Yes," she said, eventually.

Eventually, all things come to that yes, too. Eventually, the cracks that remind us where the boundaries of our dreams belong--well, they open up and if we stand (securely) and look over their edges, we see opportunity rather than dissolution.

It was three in the morning, but those cracks-cum-canyons had gotten me riveted. I knew what I had to do. I picked up the Magic Jack phone which my mother-in-law had so kindly sent our way, overseas, so that Jen and I could make calls back to the states.

Even though I hesitated, the hesitation didn't linger longer than a hesitant moment. Then, the hesitation fled (after hesitating, briefly) and my momentum and determination returned. I pushed the secret digits of the secret number that had been secretly sent to me from a secret, unnamed source.

"Hello?" President Barack Obama intoned.

"It's time," I said, knowing full well that the secret which had covertly connected us in this moment in time would indescribably decipher itself and make the purpose of the Magic Jack phone call clear.

It did.

"Empowerment is finding that the cracks aren't terrifying; they're merely invitations, Lukester," the president said, his voice cracking with that subtle kind of confidence that only comes when you've walked down the canyons of your own life.

Hanging up the phone (non-hesitantly), Jen and I looked at one another. "I Got You Babe" by Sonny and Cher blared, and we sang along. But while we sang along, we also stared into the bottom of that cardboard box. Scattered around us everywhere in the room lay the normal mementos of everyday life for us--To Do Lists with items like Freeze or Use Cabbage and Herbs, and Princesses Tyler had colored in, and letters from friends, and love notes scribbled (yes) on grocery-list halves.

And while we sang, Jen and I silently sent this sentence backwards and forwards between us: empowerment is letting the cracks sometimes pull us apart enough so that we're no longer afraid of the canyons we encounter. 

We tried singing that sentence to the rhythm of "Stand By Me" and "I Got You Babe" but the syllable-count didn't quite match up. The next time I chat with Derrida, Lee, or Obama, I'll get some advice on what to do about that dilemma.

Until then, some deferred wisdom from them--albeit via me--to you: empowerment isn't seeking to evade the cracks of normality that fill life. Empowerment is relishing the normal moments so much that they become the stuff of dreams.

Friday, November 2, 2012

One True Thing from Chris Doyle: Ethics Trump Technique


I first met Chris Doyle as a brand new teacher at Farmington High School, in Connecticut. Immediately, Chris became both a role model and a mentor for me. His incredible passion for ideas, truth, ethics, and his insistence on challenging his students to think far beyond grades and status-quo celebration was deeply inspiring to me. Chris was always ready for an intellectual conversation that challenged my own thinking, and that encouraged me to become the kind of teacher I longed to become. Students in Chris' classes left his classroom with a more clear view of the world and the issues we face within--not narrowed down to sound bites but rather viewed in their full complexity and authenticity. Chris is the kind of inspiring thinker, teacher, and writer who is never satisfied with falsehood, ease, or empty standards based on the status-quo. Instead, Chris Doyle is a person who says, in the words of Socrates, "I prefer nothing, unless it is true." So I am very excited to share Chris Doyle's beautiful and thought-provoking One True Thing. 

Ethics Trump Technique
by Chris Doyle

Our culture prioritizes technique at the expense of goodness. Walk into a bookstore and you’ll see shelves full of self-help books, study aids, how-to manuals (“for dummies,” even), and guides to better eating, better sex, better personal finances. You might not find, however, even a single contemporary, secular, work devoted to ethics; if you want to read up on those, your best bet is the classics section. 

We wall off ethical discussion, often confining it to religion, where it can be embraced, or not, as part of one’s personal faith. Thus ethical debates go missing from public schools, universities, and civic life. The press might ask: “Can we win the war in Afghanistan?” The media rarely, if ever, questions whether that war is moral. I taught recently at a school whose articulated values included “efficacy,” that which produces a desired outcome. Absent from the value statement were words such as justice, love, compassion, wisdom, virtue, or fairness. 

I have learned not to be surprised when my high-school students stumble over fundamental ethical questions. They prize technique and the status that derives from it; that’s what they learn to value. I don’t think it has to be this way, though, and I don’t think it’s futile to replicate the kind of tough ethical questions that Socrates modeled. What counts as truth, beauty, wisdom, and love? How do we acquire such traits? In our world, these questions are subversive. They get beyond technique and undercut it. What would happen if pursuit of the good took center stage in American education reform? What would it mean, then, to “race to the top,” “leave no child behind,” “compete in the global economy,” or deliver “a world-class education?” I’m for trying to find out.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

One True Thing from Carol Lynch Williams: Kindness is Always Significant

Author Carol Lynch Williams has crafted stunning Young Adult novels like Miles from Ordinary and The Chosen One, and when she agreed to be a contributor to the Break These Rules anthology, I was ecstatic. Now, I'm ecstatic all over again to share Carol's beautiful, heartening One True Thing. Writing from a place of authenticity that doesn't resist the hard stuff of life, Carol's words pulse with a dedication to hope and love even int he midst of pain and suffering. Carol's novels are infused with both tenderness and gritty reality--as are her words below. And out of these grappling with both the joy and pain of life, carol is able to share redemption and hope that are hard-won and secure.

Kindness is Always Significant
by Carol Lynch Williams

This morning I am on my way to a funeral.

There have been a lot lately. Too many.

I go to support my daughter who was a friend to this young lady and to support her mother who is my friend.

Though my heart is broken, it beats with the One True Thing I would share. It's this: No matter what anyone may say, the way you treat others is always significant, is MOST important. Kindness is a One True Thing.

The way you are to people who are different, or poorer, or richer.

The way you act to someone who's skin is a different color, or who may not be as beautiful, or who's clothing is not like yours.

How you speak to those who may act in an odd way, or don't vote the way you would, or who practice a different religion.

Being kind is the gift we can develop that puts us all on the same playing field because when we treat people the way we want to be treated, no matter what a crowd or voice or opinion may demand, we see the human-ness in others.

This morning, I am on my way to a funeral.

One day, people will come to my funeral. Yes, I want them to say I was funny, that I was a great Mom, and that I was an amazing writer. But more than all that, I want them to say, "Carol was always kind. To everyone."

That is my largest hope. My One True Thing.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Fog

After a birthday party this evening, Jen and I rode our bikes home, with Tyler in the bike trailer, licking the icing off of the two cupcakes given to him before we left. Jen and I raced one another while Tyler called out who was leading. The air was cold--mid 40s--and the fog had rolled in with dusk.

We rode past a large field where sheep have been grazing for the past month or so. Over the entire field a fog as thick as maple syrup on a stack of pancakes stretched itself out. We rode faster, into it, gulping glee with every glimpse.

Tyler's sugar-heightened shrieks of laughter and amazement, my guttural assertions of beauty before us, and Jen's saying, wow all merged into one of those short segments of time where clarity no longer matters. It's what is hidden that is so stunning--how it's hidden.

With a little more than two weeks to the election, with manuscripts waiting on editors' desks in New York, with Jen's PhD thesis push, with Tyler's ever-more-inquisitive communication, with visions of what might be in the future enticing, enticing, enticing, fog helps.

Fog does more than help. Fog throws down a hammer of sorts and says, Stop. You don't have to know. 

All the questions of future possibilities rage in a riveting rotation, but the fog tonight reminds me that they don't always have to. Their power is only as strong as the stage-time we give them. Vision for the future is a beautiful thing--and chasing dreams, pursuing hopes, believing in the difficult coming to pass is all crucial. But just as important is letting the fog sometimes cover all those visions. Not because they don't matter or because we've let them go; but because seeing them so often in our minds can have the effect of ordering three appetizers because we're afraid the meal won't ever arrive--or when it does, that it won't be enough to fill us up.

Fog sometimes helps us do what we have such trouble doing ourselves: focus only on the precise moment of the journey we're in, rather than the beautiful vistas ahead.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

One True Thing from Beverly Williams: Everybody is Somebody


In 2007, English Language Arts Teacher Beverly Williams was honored with a Boston Educator of the year Award for her work at James Timilty Public Middle School in Roxbury, MA. I have been honored to correspond with Beverly over the past few years regarding writing projects and teaching inspiration. A former student of Ms. Williams has this to share: "By believing in me and holding me to very high expectations, Ms. Williams raised my level of confidence and made me feel that I can achieve great things." I am delighted to share Beverly's ONE TRUE THING today. 

Everybody is Somebody
by Beverly Williams

If we do not teach our children about civic responsibility, we will continually suffer the injuries from insensitive and disingenuous behaviors. The emotional, social and declining psychological health of our children will take us all out of here before global warming.

Social media is overwhelmingly unfolding the message that it is our constitutional right to have freedoms far beyond "establishing domestic tranquility." As an educator, I wish to see the Civics class as I remember back in my day. 

I learned to be a citizen. I developed a social consciousness that said to look out for my fellowman and treat others with respect.  When I prospered I was taught to give back to my community ungrudgingly, not just look for opportunities that advanced my own agenda. I learned there was honor in blue-collar jobs and if people did not go to college, or, become a superstar entertainer, they still were somebody.  

I was taught to be proud of my country and to respect not only my neighbors but the servicemen who fought for my freedoms, and for my president, as well.  Voting wasn't a privilege; it was an obligation. It was my responsibility to make this world a better place to live in.  I don’t think the children of today realize this and I weep for them, and for us.