#Eminent2016: Why Bob? Why Now?

My goal is to try and stick to some sort of chronological ordering of the aging of Dylan in the images used in the creation of this project. Hence, this young shot of Dylan in his Greenwich Village folk days here at the outset of the project, moving toward his more current iterations as the study progresses.

Image courtesy of Rolling Stone.

After almost ten years at the helm of the TALONS annual Eminent Person Study, I decided to conduct my own study alongside this year’s classes. These posts will be collected here. 

Why Bob?

They say everything can be replaced

That every distance is not near

So I remember every face

Of every man that brought me here. 1

For a brief moment when I first thought that I would take on the Eminent Person Study, I initially declared my intentions to study Bruce Springsteen. In recent years my musical tastes and affection has leaned heavily toward the Boss, and I would relish the opportunity to delve deeper into his life and rock catalogue. But with Dylan’s recent Nobel Prize win I’ve been hearing a lot more Bob, reading various responses to his inclusion as the first musician to be awarded with the literary honour, and been coming reacquainted with my first true love (and one of Bruce’s, to boot).

Before Bruce, and Josh, and even Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there was always only Bob.

Why Now?

Image courtesy of Consequence of Sound

An artist has to be careful never to really arrive at a place where he thinks he’s at somewhere. You always have to realize that you’re constantly in a state of becoming, and as long as you’re in that realm, you’ll sort of be all right. 2

Back when I was a student in an older version of our district’s gifted program – the forerunner to TALONS that operated at Dr. Charles Best Junior High back as far as the late-nineteen seventies – our teachers would occasionally participate in the major projects with us: studying eminent people, or engaging in-depth studies to sing or sew, and creating their own inquiries, findings and meaning alongside us. This always seemed an exceptional example to me of what life might be as an adult: that we might go on, continuing to strive, and learn, and change markedly into our middle and advanced ages. But Q and I, as well as the other TALONS teachers, haven’t much made or had the time to engage in these sorts of pursuits as TALONS teachers in recent years.

It’s true, two of us have completed advanced degrees, a PhD and an MEd between us, and we regularly share our personal and professional struggles and triumphs in blog posts and classroom conversations about the nature of lifelong learning and aspiration. But engage in a project directly alongside our students, we have not.

Additionally, TALONS seems to stand somewhat perched at a crossroads in its continued evolution. Having doubled a few years into our run as a two-teacher, twenty eight student cohort, there are now four teachers and nearly sixty students these days, two of those teachers new to the program this fall; we’ve added courses in the senior grades, and are breaking new trails in Adventure Trips, and other aspects of our learning and organization all the time.

As well, I find myself nearly ten years into my career, with just shy of that time spent facilitating the TALONS learning across a variety of subjects. And with so much change arriving in the TALONS world, I feel compelled this year to strike out a little beyond my own comfort zone as an act of solidarity not only with my grade nine and ten students, but my new teaching partners. Our program is a place where adults as well as adolescents are challenged to grow and develop beyond what they may have previously thought  possible, and to be joining such a juggernaut of an ecosystem as ours must be an intimidating prospect.

Hopefully some of this process extends an invitation to them to join the ranks of public learning that makes our program unique, both for what it teaches the young people among us as well as those of us beyond the school.

But… why Bob?

It’s not a good idea and it’s bad luck to look for life’s guidance to popular entertainers. 3 

Around the time I was graduating from university, I had begun to play guitar with the idea that I might be able to expand the scope of my expressive capabilities into music. I would be earning my degree in Creative Writing (with a minor in French and an additional honours thesis on civil society and ideology around a Boy Scout summer camp that I had spent two summers interning for), and had written a roughshod novel during school, along with hundreds of other essays, newspaper columns, letters, and stories. But like Kurt Vonnegut wrote once, “virtually every writer I know would rather be a musician,” I had always been drawn to music, to the images and melodies that lit fires in undiscovered places in myself. And so I set about exploring my existing taste and experience in music through a borrowed acoustic guitar; when I moved home to Vancouver I bought my own and started unpacking the history of popular music from Elvis on forward.

I listened to the Beatles incessantly, and in chronological order. I watched the Anthology documentaries and began to untangle the thread of blues and rock that ran through Elvis, and Chuck Berry, and Johnny Cash. I began to see the tightly woven threads of the culture that connected Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg to Jim Morrison, and back to Robert Johnson. I’d had some experience with each of these threads in isolation: I’d studied the Beats ravenously as an undergraduate; that hasty youthful novel written in my third year bore an inscription from one of Jim Morrison’s poems; and I could talk for hours about the complimentary and divergent aspects of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones’ early aesthetics.

Untitled

Then my dad bought the Martin Scorsese documentary on Dylan, No Direction Home, and everything became obsolete. Here was the Rosetta Stone to synthesize and decode the American spirit that unified the story I’d been untangling for years. Here was an artist who defied category or classification, who by the time you had decided what to call him had morphed into something else entirely, who seemed to know his own voice and gifts so well for never claiming to understand them so much as the fact that he would never cease to explore their potential. With Dylan there were no lines, no titles, no boundaries, and I wanted that for myself.

I wanted, as I still do, to find what my vision and voice can see and say: to expand beyond what I’ve previously thought possible, and to create new ways of being for others to follow, which is Why Bob, Why Now.

  1.  “I Shall Be Released”
  2. No Direction Home
  3. Songwriters on Songwriting

Running, Writing & Living: to Make the Means the Ends

Throwback Friday

This post is part of a serialized collection of chapters composing my recently completed Master’s of Education degree at the University of Victoria. You can access the other chapters on this site here, and access a pdf of the completed paper on the University of Victoria library space here

As it is with running, so it is with writing, and so it is with life, where the joy to be found in each arises from the practice of the thing itself, rather than from whatever the activities are meant to produce. As ink collects on a page, and aerobic breathing and footsteps echo in the local woods, so too have I come to learn that love and joy accumulate in the daily living of life more than in the pursuit of them as external ends. So long as they are not being done to serve some other purpose, outside of themselves, I generally enjoy and in so doing can succeed in these efforts indefinitely. So it is with running, so with writing, and so it is with life.This approach need not, however, ignore the will to strive, to progress, or advance: to grow. It is merely that once these external motivations become the sole and primary objective of these practices – as opposed to merely a by-product of the experiences – it can become all too easy to lose sight of the joy at the heart of the act (however uncomfortable an encounter with a steep hill or blank page may be) that is essential if we are to continue to progress. By realizing this truth of succeeding in the struggles of running and writing throughout my youth and formative education, I have begun to glimpse how best to meet that other intensely personal, often uncomfortable, and naturally rewarding act of living (and learning) itself.

When it is the most fun, after all, I am running not so that I might gratify some purpose not in and of the run itself; I am running for the enjoyment of that time spent running, and so that I might be able to continue to run: so that the most freeing of natural joys in life is available to me, in body as well as mind. When I am enjoying it the most, I am writing not to reap the eventual fruits of the intellectual or emotional labours of reasoning and introspection; I am writing because it is the process itself which brings me into touch with my thinking about myself and my place in the world. Just as in the physical sense with running, writing is an encounter between the self and the world that cannot be predetermined or coerced into existence in advance. Rather, it is the experience that allows my boundary with the world to be defined. Only once it has been so defined does the possibility that this boundary can be transcended come into being.While setting goals or deadlines to motivate myself from week to week or year to year can be helpful in working toward self-improvement, it is this ongoing encounter with the unknown that can most consistently be trusted to lead the way to continued transformation and ongoing personal growth. The outcome, or end, being pursued, in other words, becomes the continuous realization of the means itself: to be able to interpret emerging contexts and plot new courses of action. In striving to achieve this congruence between ends and means, I am reminded of Foucault’s notion of Enlightenment, which should “be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating,” but rather, “a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (Foucault, 1984, p. 50).

As it is in running, so it is with writing, and so it is with life. And so with life, with learning. In each of these capacities, I have challenged myself to make the means of these pursuits their ends:

  • By running merely to run, asking nothing more of what amounts to tiring, challenging work, I am rewarded with better health and fitness, as well as the ability to continue to test my physical limits into the future.
  • By writing only to write, and letting the words and insights arise (or not) where they may, I retain and hone the craft and habit of exploring and expressing my thoughts and reflections clearly.
  • And by living and learning for its own sake, I continue to seek knowledge and experiences that become wisdom and points for further departures of curiosity into the future.

This realization and focus of my graduate education in curriculum studies has emerged from almost 10 years as an educator, but is grounded in life experience and formative passions of both running and writing that have long-provided me with motivation and means to succeed and progress. Before I was a graduate student immersed in the philosophy of education and learning, I devoted a good deal of time and education to expressing my thoughts in words, earning an honours degree in creative writing and working for my university’s newspaper while I drafted stories and poems and novels in my spare time. I had a poster of Jack Kerouac on my university-bedroom wall, and had become at the age of 20 convinced of the transformative power of the creative arts. Whether in beholding the transcendent enthusiasm of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Allen Ginsberg, or William Wordsworth, my undergraduate education nurtured a profound faith that such creative expressions could fundamentally transform not only people’s individual identities, but society itself. It is this faith that has inspired me to help students develop this type of critical awareness and ability to communicate: to become the sort of person Apple founder Steve Jobs said could “put a dent in the universe” (Jobs & Sheff, 1985).

Even before I changed my major (from Biology to English), I was a scholarship athlete on my university’s track and field team, competing across the southern and midwestern states against the best middle distance runners in the NCAA. I waged a 10-year battle against the 800m, sweating and grinding tenths of a second from my best times every year from the ages of 14 to 22, and lived to test the boundary of not only my body, but my will. Every race stood as a new opportunity to create a greater effort than that I had previously achieved, where I might defeat an unbeatable rival, or set a lifetime best. Or not. Even when my efforts were unsuccessful, I was discovering The Line, my boundaries, or the limits that I would be trying to surpass the next time out. Having taken the better part of my twenties away from the sport of running, recent years have found me venturing for further and further runs and races in the localwatershed, and I am again developing the taste for exploration at the edge of my physical limitations. In doing so, I have reaffirmed for myself the faith in a process that I think ought be authentically modeled for students we are encouraging to practice the “analysis of the limits that are imposed on us” and to engage in “an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (Foucault, 1984, p. 50).

References

Summer Book Project: Narcissus & Goldmund

Image courtesy of Solomon Says

I first read Narcissus and Goldmund ten years ago this February – finishing it at 11:33pm on February 16th, 2004 (the inscription in the back cover tells me). It’s likely that I was at my house on Barbara Circle, in Little Rock, an idyllic three bedroom where I spent my senior year of college. It’s possible that I was traveling somewhere with our track team, laying in the back of a team bus taking us north to the indoor tracks of the midwest, or biding time in a hotel or at one of our early season meets.

The note in the back of the book only gives the date and time.

I’d already read some Hermann Hesse by then – Siddhartha and Steppenwolfto be sure, perhaps even Demien (which I purchased at Little Rock’s fabulous Lorenzen & Co Booksellers). But after ten years, Narcissus and Goldmund has stuck out, somehow: there was something about this parable that effected the twenty-three year old me greatly. Delving into the passion at the heart of artistic expression, I recall the book presenting some sacred devotion to life, love and connection that however subtly contributed to the momentum of my post-collegiate years.

This past July, as I began thinking about these youthful books and first (re)read On the RoadI coupled Narcissus and Goldmund into a short list that I thought might capture the transformation that Literature had wrought on my young mind and life. The list included (or has grown to include):

Through On the Road I was heartened to discover in the text that neither of us had aged so terribly that the experience made me cringe. True, there was sadness where before I may have seen lust or excitement, fear where before there had been confidence. But alongside what Kerouac had to say to me at thirty two rang loud and clear the message he had for the younger Bryan, and it was a lesson I’m still grateful to have been taught.

With Hesse I had a similarly passionate relationship as a younger man, reading nearly everything I could get my hands on between the ages of twenty and twenty-five: Steppenwolf, Demien, Rosshalde, Siddhartha, Narcissus and Goldmund (The Glass Bead Game site on my shelf, a treat to myself for some future date when I can read a “new” book by a favourite long-deceased author). Each of them is dog-eared and wildly underlined; the’ve been lent to friends and frequently to students (especially a yellow and yellowing copy of Demien that is currently on a vacation with one of the TALONS alumni). Concerned as so many of his stories and characters are with discovering one’s passion, voice and place in the world, he is what I consider to be an essential voice for wandering youth.

But I’ve long held Narcissus and Goldmund somewhere above his other works – more profound, more lasting, or all encompassing. I’m not sure what, exactly, and so I sat down this February, somewhat coincidentally to see what all the fuss had been about all those years ago.

As in most of Hesse, there is the ring of a Jungian call to pursue one’s heroic calling in life that Narcissus presents his younger pupil Goldmund as he counsels him away from life at the seminary:

“Natures of your kind, with strong, delicate senses, the soul-oriented, the dreamers, poets, lovers are almost always superior to us creatures of the mind. You take your being from your mothers. You live fully; you were endowed with the strength of love, the ability to feel.”

Goldmund’s sensitivity is aesthetic, where Narcissus’ is logical, and the novel makes a case for the superiority of the former as we follow Goldmund away from school to bathe in the personal riddles of time and the nature of the self on a pilgrimage that may be characterized as spiritual without being religious.

There is an exaltation of mystery here that I no-doubt found inspiring as a fifth year senior looking ahead at graduation.

“Oh how incomprehensible everything was, and actually sad, although it was also beautiful. One knew nothing. One lived and ran about the earth and rode through forests, and certain things looked so challenging and promising and nostalgic: a star in the evening, a blue harebell, a reed-green pong, the eye of a person or of a cow. And sometimes it seemed that something never seen yet long desired was about to happen, that a veil would drop from it all; but then it passed, nothing happened, the riddle remained unsolved, the secret spell unbroken, and in the end one grew old and looked cunning like Father Anselm or wise like Abbot Daniel, and still one knew nothing perhaps, was still waiting and listening.”

In the spring of 2004, I was on the verge of graduating from university. I had lived in Arkansas for most of five years, beginning when I was scarcely 18, and the life I had established for myself in the south would soon be over and in many ways irretrievable. While this is true in some ways of all experience, leaving Little Rock brought with it the additional mourning that most of my friends from that time would be returning to their own home countries and cities across the States, and whether I was conscious of it at the time or not, I was comforted through Goldmund’s experience of death bringing his life into a crystalline focus:

“He thought that he, that all men, trickled away, changing constantly, until they finally dissolved, while their artist-created images remained unchangeably the same.

“He thought that fear of death was perhaps the root of all art, perhaps also of all things of the mind. We fear death, we shudder at life’s instability, we grieve to see the flowers wilt again and again, and the leaves fall, and in our hearts we know that we, too, are transitory and will soon disappear. When artists create pictures and thinkers search for laws and formulate thoughts, it is in order to salvage something from the great dance of death, to make something that lasts longer than we do.”

Indeed, a journal entry from the afternoon of February 12th, 2004 – that was written on a charter bus taking our track and field team north to compete at an indoor meet the University of Iowa – is freckled with Hesse quotes, and captures a purely preserved expression of my mind at the time:

“We are in a western-looking saddle of the country, with sparse snow around the trees that flank farmers’ fields. It feels like Wyoming, the sun-bleached yellow terrain, mountainous as we run down the ancient Ozarks. Dirt roads and barns abound, as do the hawks riding updrafts against the dusty foothills, bullet holes against the blue sky.

“It is a place that lends itself to a trip through one’s mental landscape, and easy to become lost in your thoughts up here, and as we ascend a ridge-winding two-lane highway and climb above a soil-rich rolling valley – Marshall Welcomes You, the sign says – something says to me, Merritt, BC, and in a flash I see British Columbia. It is fleeting though and only a moment before the small-town churches and Missouri mom-and-pops begin to dominate the scenery, and Canada is an infinite ride away into the North.

“Home is both a million miles away and yet somehow coming closer than I care to have it. Anyone who cares to read these words will traipse through these last few dozen pages and tire of the time I have devoted to the loss and remorse the idea of leaving Arkansas has brought me. But it is something which weighs mightily upon me.”

As with Kerouac earlier this year, I am happy to find in the rereading of Narcissus and Goldmund that my younger self was fortunate to encounter an author and a companion such as Hesse. Goldmund confronts his own existential nausea with a devotion to applying his aesthetic sensitivities – as both the cause of Goldmund’s inspiration as much as it is his torment – to art that was able to capture “the solemn feeling of a rare and great experience which he might perhaps know one more time in the course of his life or which might remain unique.”

With so many of my own life experiences nearing an end, my anxiety was given solace in attempting to live with what Hesse called:

“A deep reverence, a great earnestness, and at the time a secret fear of the moment when this high, unique experience would be over, classified, swallowed by the routine of days.”

Reverence alone, Goldmund realizes, is not enough, however.

“In order to create a work like this, one had not only to carry images in one’s soul; one also had to have inexpressibly trained, practiced hands. Perhaps it was after all worthwhile to place one’s entire life at the service of art, at the expense of freedom and broad experience, if only in order to be able once to make something this beautiful, something that had not only been experienced and envisioned and received in love, but also executed to the last detail with absolute mastery. It was an important question.”

It is, and it’s one of many pieces of the book that struck me in 2014 as much as in 2004. Almost thirty three, I’m no longer looking out on adulthood as the Void Beyond University so much as I am poised between the path I’ve created of it thus far, and the possibilities it holds into the future. Ten years on from both Hesse and graduation, I have accumulated a good many of the life moments and experiences that will have cumulatively determined who I was in this life. And while my interpretation of the wrestling with that question may have shifted, it feels central to feelings about my self and life today as much as ever.

Like Goldmund, I have remained “in his dreams or his thought-filled moments of rest, overlooking a flowering or wilting valley, […] all eyes an artist.” With him I have “longed desperately to halt the gracefully drifting nonsense of life with [my] mind and transform it into sense,” though of late this has taken on a more intellectual aim than artistic.

Toward the end of the book, Narcissus directs me to consider the merits of complementing this pursuit with more art, and heart:

“Our thinking is a constant process of converting things to abstractions, a looking away from the sensory, an attempt to construct a purely spiritual world. Whereas you take the least constant, the most mortal things to your heart, and in their very mortality show the meaning of the world. You don’t look away from the world; you give yourself to it, and by your sacrifice to it raise it to the highest, a parable of eternity. We thinkers try to come closer to God by pulling the mask away from His face. You come closer to Him by loving His creation and re-creating it. Both are human endeavors, and necessarily imperfect, but art is more innocent.”

Because just as the more academic or reflective posts on this site are records of ideas and expressions of an evolving self, there are emotions and realizations captured in these aged books of both Hermann Hesse and my own ink that light the way to an understanding that yet eludes meaning, an exaltation of

“How mysterious this life [is,] how deep and muddy its waters [run], yet how clear and noble what emerge[s] from them.”

Tell this story.

Morning Class Retreat

Talons talking erratically

In brainstorming a way to synthesize the myriad tangents and threads being pursued in our recent study of rebellion and revolution in Egypt, as well as 1860s Manitoba, I wound up writing what began as a challenge to myself, and the Talons, to boil down the human affinity for stories of power, rebellion and freedom, and became much more something of a spoken-word take on history, storytelling, and the very purpose of life itself.

Sometimes, it can feel as though the objective of a lesson – so often a shared synthesis of ideas that comes from everyone pulling in the same direction, as we say in Talons – is elusive to even the instructor, or facilitator, whose job it is to bring about and make meaning – data – for the concerned parties (learner, teacher, parent), until each group’s unique questions can be asked, and looking ahead at the next few days and a wrapping up of the unit on Canadian rebellion, I struggled to answer a few of the ‘regular’ questions:

  • What to make of the course material (in this case history)?
  • How to connect it to our modern experience?
  • How might this unit / project connect to the group’s collective and individual self?

In this case, I was trying to make the study of history connect with the class’ consistent call to actualize ourselves in the learning environment, and personal lives as students and citizens, and in some small way perhaps echoing Jim Groom’s call to:

...make open education in praxis fun, accessible, and basically rock!! DS106 is the beginning of this movement, and it isn’t about me, just look around ds106. I mean people all over the world are doing Colleen‘s Playlist Poetry assignment, she is shaping this class not only by her willingness to create and participate, but by our ability to connect that urge with many, many others who share her desire. That is the beginning of a new dynamic that is not simply transactional. The idea of creative teaching hopefully re-imagines that locus—and I need to spend some more time framing this out more because I know it’s right. I feel it deeply in my heart of heart’s, and as Gardner notes in the discussion above, it is time to reinvest our hearts in the process of teaching and learning—I couldn’t agree more with that sentiment and I want to make it so.

I wanted the Talons to take their reading and evolving understanding of our national, and current, history, and give it voice in whatever way they might see. But it can be difficult to generate this type of inspiration without a concrete goal, or set of instructions. My vision, though complex and potentially multi-faceted as the personalities and perspectives in the class, and across the world, was simple at its heart: I wanted the class to tell the story of Louis Riel, and the Red River Rebellion, and in doing so tell the story of our class, each of us, in encountering our history, and one another, at this moment in our shared development.

What else is there in life, really?

I was inspired and enthralled in this idea, as well, by my recent drive-time listening to the Radiolab podcast episode, “Who am I?” delving into engrossing scientific radio journalism in support its episode’s thesis: “The self is a story the brain tells itself.”

RadioLab.org – “The Story of Me”

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p style=”text-align: justify;”> And somewhere in there, in reflecting on the recent action research of the class’ blogging community, and the developing narrative of the class’ collective, and individual successes and struggles, I thought that the best outline I could offer the lesson and upcoming group project was the simple challenge of the brief essay I had written the night before. It is – to date – the strangest introductory material I have given to a history class.

Louis Riel by Bryanjack

Tell this story.

Rebellion, oppression, the will of humans to be free. We are taught the nature of history, and government, communication storytelling in the name of a pursuit of knowledge, of ourselves, and the breadth of our nature to be capable of making something, and living the best life we can. If each person who was given the opportunity to express their perspective in life did so, with the tools at their disposal to record and publish their thinking across distance and time we might know some fraction of the truth in a world inhabited by a people whose singular defining characteristic is to staunchly resist the very changes which contribute to our progress. But these struggles each represent a powerful theme in and of themselves about the truth of humanity’s story: that an indominable human will inevitably overcome a beaurocratic means of suprressing it; that new ideologies can shatter the expectations and realities of the old; and that an age committed fervently to its ideals is rife with the opportunity to be exposed by people few and brave. And we well these people’s stories, and attempt to in some way understand them and the moment they ineherited, and chose to stand up, and not submit to the expectations and realities of their day, so that we might recognize, in our own selves, and our own times, those things for which we need to stand up. Throughout history, we read of continuous examples of peoples who have through violence and ignorance have had their rights supressed by regimes both tyranical and democratic. When people have acted in haste or fits of passion, incorrectly, this has resulted in many deaths. Our present moment asks that we stand and be counted as lives lived to the best of our honest knowledge about what our actions mean. We study the lives and times of men like Louis Riel to know what others have been willing to stand for, when doing so has not been easy. Because it never it easy, and surely will not be when it is our turn, whether we are standing for our lives, our minds,or own opinion in a world where everyone’s from New Orleans’ orphans to the Kings of Spain, is exactly equal.