On other new beginnings and other new beginnings’ ends…

Howe Sound

“Every man moves on,” says my father quietly, and I think he speaks of Santa Claus, “but there is no need to grieve. He leaves good things behind.”

From Alistair Macleod’s “To Everything There is a Season

At certain times in life, there is too much to rightly say – too much felt, experienced, too many lives intersected, relationships fostered, or memories shared. Attempts to set down thoughts and feelings at a time like this obscure anything that falls outside that declaration; people, sentiments, scenes, and places are erased not for their lack of importance, but because in trying to describe the wholewe inevitably lose sight of the infinite complexities that compose it.

That said, there are the statements of fact to be reckoned with, and with that in mind I do want to share that as of next year I will undertake a secondment as a Faculty Associate at Simon Fraser University, working as part of their professional programs to certify new teachers. For the first time in ten years I will be starting a new job, moving beyond the home and students and role I’ve known for the near-entirety of my professional career, and becoming again the New Guy, an apprentice green and young among my more seasoned colleagues.

These last few years I’ve found myself an experienced member of my school community: confident to speak up, take on leadership roles, experiment with pedagogy and assessment, to fight for my vision of equity and justice for my students and colleagues. But with this confidence I’ve also been struck with a sense of wanderlust. As nice as it has been to feel as though I have a handle on what I’m doing, a part of me has longed to leap into the unknown.

Firm in the belief that we are growing most when we are forced beyond our comfort zones, I began to feel that I had been pushing hard in a host of professional directions – union activism, curriculum development, professional collaboration – and that, in time, this pushing would take me somewhere beyond my local school community. Indeed I had enrolled in and completed a master’s program over the last few years so that such future doors might be open to me, should I seek them out, even without a firm idea of what these new adventures might entail.

To be sure, my work with the TALONS is and has been too good to be true. In its every iteration it is education as it could and should be: community-focused, experiential, authentic, and personal for teachers and students alike. Our students and their families are deeply supportive and committed to making our program reach ever more daring heights and achievements, and celebrate each cohort’s learning with enthusiasm and love that is infectious and inspiring. I have been fortunate beyond words to call this program home these last ten years, and have not taken the opportunity to step away lightly. No small part of me worries that I will never have it so good; but I know that such fears can too often get in the way of stepping out into those new frontiers that we will come to call home.

It is time to scare myself with uncertainty, lean into the discomfort of unfamiliarity, and know again the work that comes with breaking trail.

I would be remiss however if in this time of looking forward I did not look back at a few of the people and places that have given shape to my last decade, without whom whatever lies ahead would not be possible. Without whom the perspective that writes these words would not have come into being.

JAM #SQUAD

Q and Andy

Though they each deserve their own novels of gratitude and attempts to describe what it means to be both colleagues and family, a few words here must be devoted to my TALONS teaching partners, Quirien Mulder ten Kate and Andy Albright.

For her part, TALONS would not exist without Q. In the first it would not be a program in our district for gifted high school students; and in the second it would most certainly not exist in any of its current or future iterations without her superlative energy and devotion to students, learning, the natural world, and the purest ideals of public service.

Since I have known her (with every indication that the trend was established long before), Q has done the work of several people: teaching courses within and beyond the regular timetable, supporting extra-curricular events and activities on evenings and weekends, attending musical and dramatic performances without fail, completing a PhD while she taught summer and night school, volunteering at Wildlife Rescue, and working to support her parents, niece and nephew, as well as a host of godchildren. She is a paragon of productivity, cutting to-do lists to smithereens in the service of others to an extent I have trouble understanding, even while I’ve been able to study her at close proximity for a decade.

Team TeachingFew of us will do so much in our lives to improve the state of our communities or the lives of others as Q does in a month. It has been a densely packed, invigorating, evolving, reflective and critically educational ten years working alongside her, forcing me to stretch my weaker areas as well as to know my own strengths and how better to positively impact my communities of practice both within and beyond the school. Ours has been a relationship of compliments, where each of us has owned the skills and dispositions lacking in the other, and where a state of fluidity and trust has enabled us to grow a program and working relationship that pushes us each to become bigger than we are. I owe every moment of my TALONS experience to her superlative tenacity and devotion to making our program a reality, as do every one of the TALONS, past and future.

And where Q might exude a life lived to its full depth – with singular obsessions explored to their very essences and marrow – Andy joined our program for four years before retiring this winter to lend a sense of life’s breadth. Having come to teaching in his thirties, Andy had previously worked for years in group homes for people living with disabilities, played in bands in the British Columbian Kootenays, and travelled across Canada as a high school senior in a yellow school bus researching the heights of the rock era. He’s sipped Italian wine in Italy, slept under the stars in Oregon, and spent a good amount of his twenties in the Vancouver counterculture-enclaves of Kitselano, Squamish, and North Van before they were millionaire retreats and lucrative offshore investments.

Andy has read the “good” books, can quote Dylan (Thomas, or Bob), loves Monty Python, and frequently recites long passages of The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye. He and I spent a lot of time on busses, around campfires, and laughing at the stupendous incompetence of the local compliment of moving truck companies. We told one another stories, remembered old friends, and shared much of the time we were able to have with one another with a similar purpose: to let what would be emerge, and to determine its meaning and significance afterwards. Ever a calm and articulate force, Andy brought an intentionality and thoughtfulness to TALONS that balanced Q and I, and couldn’t help but influence my life outside of school.

Often in our talks late at night around the campfire – ostensibly keeping watch for TALONS wanderers who might be looking for some teenaged evening freedom – we would lie under the stars and Andy would remember stories about his long-passed friend, Mark, someone I never met but who infused our relationship with the knowledge that even once these moments were no longer – once we had retired, or moved onto other gigs, or whatever would yet transpire – our friendship and the memories of these golden, glowing years would continue.

Where each of my colleagues is concerned, they will be carried with me for the rest of my days. We’ve stood around many a smouldering campfire late at night, debriefing and discussing the day’s events, hiked mountainsides in torrential rain, and chased bears from our campsites together, all of which – and much more between – can only be known by those who will work with the TALONS.

DSC02137

The Woods

A good deal of my professional life since university has transpired in the woods. In fact, my first legitimate educational work was teaching swimming and canoeing, lifeguarding and sailing, as well as what might have been called outdoor leadership in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas at a summer camp for Boy Scouts. Having been awarded an internship to study the Scouts organization by working at the Gus Blass Scout Reservation in 2003, I returned in ’04 and ’05, and gained the teaching experience and other prerequisites to enter the PDP Program and obtain my teaching certification (without ever explicitly pursuing education as a career path).

I had always enjoyed camping, skiing, and swimming in lakes and rivers, of course. But partway through my time in Arkansas I began to take weekend adventures with a teammate (from Prince George, BC) into the southern wilds, and similarly started to lustily plan my summers home in BC with an extra fervour for the oceanside mountains of the coastal range. I started to read Walden, and Jack Kerouac, and non-fiction tomes by Sebastian Junger and John Krakaur while I starting to reach toward what lessons that the wildernesses of my two homes might have to teach me.

In a way, it was how I connected to British Columbia, even while living far from home: what makes the left coast special, to my mind, will always be the unique collision of mountains and the sea. And so while I roamed the south I kept an eye out for the woods and forests on the edges of town: my roommates and I took canoe trips on the White and Buffalo Rivers, we explored the Ozark National Forest, and made regular trips to the top of Pinnacle Mountain just outside of Little Rock.

Eventually I would be working for the Boy Scouts, and not long after that be in PDP, and then teaching the TALONS program, getting the job on the heels of volunteering on the program’s first adventure trip in 2006. The following year, I became a TALONS teacher and our classroom took to the hillsides of Eagle Ridge, and Buntzen Lake, the Fraser River and Harrison Hot Springs. Squamish. The Gulf Islands. The Sunshine Coast.

In our work, Q and Andy, and now Dave and I have been fortunate to act as ambassadors for the natural world, tour guides into botany, natural history, wilderness survival, and leave-no-trace camping. Our jobs take us into the backcountry, down rivers and over mountains, engage us in the most unique collaborations and problem solving situations. We have met the most wonderful people, and been involved in the most challenging pedagogies out of doors. And we have been fortunate to share our joy in living in BC with young people, who leave our program with a raft of experiential memories created in the magic of the coastal wilds: having learned, as one does, the most authentic lessons about life and the self that Mother Nature makes available to us.

TALONS Grade Nine Retreat

The Precious

“It’s not the end of anything: now you get to go out into the world and recreate this, whatever you think this is.”

TALONS grade twelve peer tutor Katie F, speaking to grade tens on the last night of the Adventure Trip in 2012.

There are a lot of educational buzz words the TALONS program has recognized in its evolving embrace of 21st century learning these last many years: place-based, inquiry, experiential, collaborative or community-based, as well as a host of others. There are myriad ways in which the Betts’ Autonomous Learner Model has bent and evolved to contain multitudes, and as I am fond of quoting Emerson, has proven time and again that “At the periphery there is infinite complexity, while at the centre there is simplicity of cause.”

The simplicity of cause that we have lived by these last ten years, which has infused the TALONS program and the lives of those who have passed through its two year cycle, has been the idea that while we all take part in the same basic structures and contexts of learning, what is learned is up to the individual. It is a prerequisite of emergent learning that what is learned arises from the uniquely individual contributions and perspectives of those involved, and cannot be predetermined.

We cannot know from year to year or cohort to cohort what will come about through the traditional pillars of a given TALONS year. The themes, jokes, stories, and lessons of each group are created and held onto by the individuals that pass through the classroom and our community; and while there are rhymes or echoes of the years gone by, each year has brought about completely new iterations of the TALONS community. No two experiences, individual or collective, has yet to be the same.

But there is something that runs through: a simplicity of unspoken cause that keeps our alumni coming back to our Night of the Notables or InDepth Celebrations, maintains friendships across university educations, and keeps us committed as teachers to sleepless nights in May and June, and tearful conclusions at the end of the year. A few years back this unnamed entity started being referred to as The Precious: that unknowable essence that first arises on the Fall Retreat, and fuels the enthusiasm of the Eminent Person Study, and culminates in the storm of April, May, and June (always pronounced Aprilmayjune). It is that feeling, known to those who have felt it, but which they cannot describe to outsiders. It is the reason that the frenzy of what may appear from the outside to be too much, too taxing, or too strenuous, is never worthy of regret.

As I began this post, I can still only admit that there is too much to say, really. There have been too many experiences, memories, and lessons along the way. Arguably it has been something that few will be able to relate to, but that those who know will understand without explanation.

I will defer here to a joke made of the attempt to sum up what TALONS means to those on their way out, and in addition to these near-twenty four hundred words, offer the reflections of our alumni, Liam, who said simply, “It was good.”

So good.

#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”

<

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.