The October garden.

oct2014 099It’s late October, getting on for evening, and in a backyard chair, wrapped against the chill, I find the same rare spot of unexpected contentment I find on my favorite path in the woods, at the place where the trees arch in a denser ceiling over the trail, swept sideways by the winds that blow down the hill day after day for years. The seasons shape our growth as well, in just that way – reshaping us where we stand and where we move.

Here in the little garden, what’s left clinging to vines or ground is either not harvested yet or probably isn’t going to be. October brings a reckoning of time, of returns on investment and love, promises kept or not, faithful soil still yielding up (although a little more depleted this year, got to pony up and get a couple truckloads of the really good compost next spring.) Grapevines and honeysuckle vines are dying back yellow-green. Lily stalks and wildflowers are spiky and brown, left in place for birds and insects to pick or nest inside. Beans shrivel where they’ve climbed. Sunflowers flare or droop, left for the birds, who know what’s coming next.

oct2014 090In these last days of warm sun the soil bursts out with the seed-burden of its whole history, including things I haven’t actually planted in years: mallow, lamb’s-ear, love-in-a-mist, nicotiana, poppies trying to have a second season before the hard frost. Brussells sprouts are losing that late-summer brassica bitterness and sweetening up, with that sharp tang still underneath (I snap one off to eat and my blood rejoices “green!”) Some peppers are still clinging to the plants; I’ll see if they will ripen any more. Okra stalks are withered, with a few yellow blossoms half-opened, frozen in place.

oct2014 091You’ve been a good garden, I say silently into the air, as I say every year. It’s fixing to be time to take your rest. I’ll do even better by you next year. But thank you for feeding me here deep in fall when I go out looking for something to eat and there are potatoes to dig up, kale and collard leaves to snap off, beans to shell and stash in a jar, and even beets to salvage from what the rabbits left. And sweet potatoes I’d forgotten I’d planted. You abide, and you provide. And I am grateful.

Posted in gardening, gratitude, seasons | Leave a comment

If that don’t beet all…


Benjamin Franklin once remarked, “Experience is a dear school, but a fool will learn in no other.”  Put another way, knowledge can be expensive, but a little pain can make it stick.   Put a third way, I will never again — even in the fall, no matter how busy this busy time always is — go for a week or two without observing my vegetable garden in any meaningful way.  I had wondered what that one elusive rabbit I kept seeing (even after all my rabbit-proofing! even after a successful catch or two by the cat!) was eating. And now I know.

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My beets.  Three rows of beautiful, lush Chioggias and Detroit Dark Reds that I had been waiting to harvest, watching the shoulders nudge up above the dirt, watching them, Keatsianly, swell and plump with ripeness.  Three whole rows of beets grown painstakingly from seed.  The biggest and nicest ones I had ever grown.  And they all look like this, or worse. Every last one.

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No Elmer-Fudd  or Mr. McGregor joke describes the depth of a gardener’s rage. Bastards! You little bastards! 

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Hunkered over the lush green tops that had hidden (all too successfully) the devastation underneath, pulling out one ruined beet after another, I felt the atavistic spurt of fear that those without my twenty-first-century, First World good luck would have felt even more deeply and totally at the ruination of a crop: what will we eat this winter? This was our food, we were counting on it – how will we LIVE?!  I can buy more from the co-op when I want them.  But it was not a pleasant feeling. And as any gardener knows, there is a kind of grief when your crop doesn’t come out, when you have planted and hoped and watered and watched the little beet-shoulders come up and it’s come to nothing.

So let’s think about lessons learned here.

1) Don’t go without observing your garden, even in the fall, even when you assume (mistakenly) that anything rabbits could eat is pretty much done with and your beets are safe because the rabbits have never bothered them before.  A wise gardener once told me that being a successful gardener is all about noticing. He’s right.

2) Let the big cat stay out as much as he wants. Consider the loan of a terrier, if only for intimidation purposes.

3) Come the spring, walk your fenceline again and keep digging in the wire along the bottom.  Again.

4) Sing “Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit…” in Elmer Fudd/ Ride of the Valkyries style so the rabbits will think you are dangerously, rodenticidally insane and leave you alone.

5) Put the beets along with the potatoes in the raised bed, which is too tall for rabbits to reach.  It’s outside the backyard fence, so you’ll have to build a deer shield. But having your own nice beets in the winter will be worth it.

6) And remember the gardener’s ultimate consolation: there’s always next year.

And just for old times’ sake…

Posted in animals, attention, food, gardening, self-reliance | Leave a comment

Dogs in the road: encountering fear.

Last Sunday I was finishing up a 2-day, 40-mile bike ride to celebrate my 40th birthday, and it took me past a house where I knew there were dogs.  They’d barked at me before but never left the yard; I didn’t even see any there this time.  Nevertheless I geared up and pedaled harder, just in case. When I was almost past the house, a big hound-mix came galloping from of nowhere, ears flying, barking in a deep bellow with an undernote of growl.  She was serious, and really fast.  For a cyclist, the clicking of claws on asphalt is an awful sound.  I shouted, “Go home! Bad dog!” and pedaled as hard as I could.  Soon she’d slowed and dropped away.  “A faster bike” just moved up a spot on the wish-list.

Today, on an even more beautiful early-fall afternoon, I had the urge to ride, again.  What about my other favorite route, in the opposite direction?  It’s good for the weekend — about 20 miles, with a mix of hills and surfaces.  But suddenly all I could think about was the house where I’d seen dogs on that road, too.  What if they chased me and I couldn’t outrun them? What would happen then? Maybe I should just ride the dedicated bike loop around town, again.  But I prefer to save the loop for the hour between work and dark when the sun’s setting and I don’t have much time.  And I knew that rising, breathless pressure in my chest — the signature feeling of a fear you are letting take ahold of you in what is probably defiance of reality — couldn’t be allowed to back me down.  I couldn’t let it make the decision for me.  The knowledge that I’d succumbed to that paranoia is usually worse than the fear itself.  So despite trepidation, I set out.

I powered up a big hill and down more hills and up again.  The wild grapevines twined over the fences, the clouds were etched in bright gold, the sky was clear blue – a perfect early-September day.  This is not so bad, I thought, the dogs won’t be there, surely they won’t.  Yet as I approached The House where the Dogs Had Been That One Time, I shifted into my highest gear and hit the pedals as hard as I could.  I was sprinting, flat-out (even though for me that’s not really all that fast.)  My heart was pounding.  I looked to the side.  And – no dogs were anywhere in sight.

Lately it’s been feeling like everything is meaningful, every person and event has something to teach.  And this pair of cycling days is teaching me, as part of a network of now-I’m-40 issues in personal life, spirit, and career.  How can I keep fear from running me, like a dog runs cattle?  How do I keep from bolting for dear life when some (often imagined) worry darts from its hiding place and hares into view, chasing me as hard as it can pelt?  How can I know the sensible concern from the urgent dart of terror of the Bad Thing Happening that any of us can feel and that, if we let it, would keep us huddled on our couches all the time?

Fear does change, I think, as we get older.  What felt like the generalized, omnipresent uncertainty of my 20s and the more specifically focused what-if-I-never [get a job/finish this degree/pay off this debt] concern of my 30s is now getting weirdly, sneakily focused: the late 30s and now 40s (all one week of them) are feeling like a sunny savanna on which I wander purposefully, doing my thing and making my contributions, feeling happy and content with where I am, but then suddenly dodging a tree that falls out of nowhere. Fear comes in infrequent but dramatic spikes, built on sudden what-if, often involuntary imaginings.  And I don’t think I’m the only one. At this age, we have all seen enough to know what can crop up suddenly, out of nowhere. We have more at stake with every year.  Our parents, our siblings, our children, our friends, the people we love, our own mortal bodies, our jobs, our houses, our retirement accounts — all are, in Francis Bacon’s phrase, hostages to fortune. The more you have at stake, the more you stand to lose, and the older and more experienced you are in the world, the more you know reality isn’t always a sunny place.

Yet — and this is a typically hard but necessary kind of spiritual truth — the more aware of danger you are, the more closely and carefully you have to work to both protect yourself (reasonably) and keep going forward anyway.  It’s a version of what you learn from head-balance: a feeling is sometimes just a feeling, not a reality, and, as Anne Lamott says, “doing difficult things is weight-training for life.”  Sometimes being apprehensive about something means that you should proceed with it, because in retrospect you’ll be glad you did, and you will be welcoming in a kind of gift or a kind of knowledge you wouldn’t otherwise have.  I have seen this truth in my own writing life — and in the lives of my students, particularly beginning and hesitant writers — every single day.  A common remark in my creative-writing class evaluations is “I’m a science major and I never thought I was ‘creative,’ so taking this course really scared me, but I’m so glad I did.”   William Deresiewicz writes that “some fears are legitimate, but the ones that are born from insecurity are signals telling you to march resolutely toward them.”

March, or pedal, or enroll in that class, or take a breath and speak.  Nothing is worse than that feeling of stifling, airless worry that freezes you in place and keeps you from taking action — and the knowledge underneath it that you just may be your own worst enemy here, you are worrying about something that will likely never happen, you are blocking your own flourishing before you even give it a chance to take root. That is the worst feeling of all.

So, onward and dogless, I kept pedaling just to work the adrenaline out of my legs and decelerated just about the time a flock of guinea hens from a nearby house went hurrying away from the road, consternating in their high scratchy voices.  My laughter was high on delight and relief, kind of unhinged.  No dogs.  No reason to be afraid after all.  And then, around the next corner, came a man on a horse, out for a Sunday ride along the road.  I stopped so the bike wouldn’t frighten the horse (I grew up with them) and we had a really pleasant chat; his wife, it turns out, had been a colleague of mine, way back.  The horse wasn’t fazed by the bike, or by the two trucks with rattly trailers that came behind us as we talked, or by the rustlings in the corn.  He stood at ease, switching his tail, just happy to be where he was.  And there’s a lesson in that.

Posted in animals, biking, resilience, women | 4 Comments

Upside down, on purpose.

Dear Cheapskate Readers: Sorry it’s been a little while – the summer got away from me a bit, and I have been working incessantly on the Giant Nonfiction Manifesto on Art, Technology, Politics, Gardening, Spirit, and Attention, of which you have all been reading bits and pieces here for some time.  In memory of B.K.S. Iyengar, who just might be the greatest yoga teacher in the world, and who passed away at age 95 this week, I’m going to share an excerpt from this book-in-progress (now in its third, totally overhauled draft!) on what Iyengar yoga has meant to me.

Iyengar practicing head balance (in 1993, at age 75) with students.

B.K.S. Iyengar (center) practicing head balance (in 1993, at age 75) with students.

Over what’s now five years of practicing it, I have found that Iyengar yoga reaches as thoroughly into the interrelation of self, emotion, and body as art does – it, too, is a craft, demanding of body and attention. The point is to align your body properly in a pose and stay there, adjusting by knowledge and by feel, then see what comes up from inside. It’s not about weight loss, “toning,” or even “religion” – it’s about a very, very old practice of using your body to tune into what’s really happening in your mind.

During yoga class one day, we moved through a series of standing poses – uttita trikhanasana, uttita parsvakanasana, parsvotanasana – involving not only strong work with the legs but a strong emphasis on keeping our shoulders back and twisting our bodies to open and raise our chests. In uttita parsvakanasana in particular – body in a deep lunge, one leg extended and one leg bent, one arm stretched down and one up and overhead – I was twisting my torso and ribs upward to look at the ceiling and extending both legs out and down and into the floor, more deeply and correctly than I ever remember doing before. My whole body was active. And I wasn’t really thinking about anything. Near the end of class, we did some deep, seated forward bends, and when I straightened up, an unnameable, inescapable wave of sadness flattened me. For the last few minutes of class I could only lie still, hoping the other students didn’t see the tears leaking down my face. Was it Person X? Was it Recent Emotional Disappointment Y? Was it a voice from some chamber of pain or guilt or doubt or loneliness I don’t even know how to touch directly? I don’t know. When we talked about it later, my teacher wasn’t surprised, with all the chest- and heart-opening poses we’d been doing. “People think the heart is where we hold love,” she said, “but it’s actually where we hold pain, and sadness.” Twisting, bending, and staying there, then moving to take a different position and go at it again, will wring emotion up out of your body as thoroughly as two hands on a rag, twisting one direction and then another to get the whole cloth evenly, lightly damp, nearly dry. It will make you clear of emotion without being clean of it, aware of what has been, or maybe still is, living in you, even if you can’t give it a name.   And that’s a good thing.

It may be best to talk about how yoga works for me by talking about one of the poses I struggle with the most – head balance, or salamba sirsasana. Head balance is pretty advanced. It’s something I never thought I’d do. And the first time I tried it, this year (after having practiced yoga for almost five years) it seemed not only impossible but terrifying.

To go into head balance, you kneel on the floor and make a triangle with your forearms and interlinked hands on the floor, resting your knuckles against the wall if, like me, you’re not yet a freestanding head-balancer. You nestle your head into your hands so that the back of your skull fits against your fingers and the crown of your head is in full contact with the floor, pointing straight down. Then you rise on your toes, straighten your legs, and walk your feet slowly toward your now-upside-down face. Your hips rise into the air and more and more weight comes onto your head and your shoulders, which you should keep lifting up to counterbalance the pressure. You walk your feet forward a little more. And then – I can’t say exactly how this happens, even though it took me so long to figure it out – you kick your legs upward, one leg slightly in front of the other, and bring them to rest against the wall. (If you are more advanced, you can bend both knees, lift both bent legs up together, then straighten your legs, but that’s harder.) Now you are upside down, your body’s whole weight supported by the triangle of your shoulders and arms. The work is to keep straightening and lifting your spine and your shoulders – asking them to reach up rather than sink down to bear the weight, so that you don’t collapse onto your neck and your head – and straighten the rest of your body without clenching it. And then – in the phrase that can strike you as infuriatingly casual when you are trying to do it – you hang out in head balance for a while.

Needless to say, you do not try any of this without proper training over time and preparation within the class session itself – we always do a few poses that point our heads downward before we do head balance – because you could really hurt yourself. Of course, you could also hurt yourself or your teacher or fellow students when you first try head balance – swinging your legs up only to have them fall back down, kicking backwards like a panicked mule, afraid you’ll topple over on your neighbor. This was me. I tried.  I fell.  I cussed under my breath. Suddenly I was caught in my old childhood humiliation at being the one kid who never could figure out how to kick up high enough to do a cartwheel. I was seldom allowed, then, to forget that I was a “fat kid” – tall and alienated from the body at which I seldom felt more than fury and shame. I couldn’t grab a horse’s mane and swing up bareback. I couldn’t jump. I could, when I was fifteen or sixteen working our haying crew in the summer, snatch a square bale by the strings, heave it almost completely over my head, and pitch it up into the loft to be caught and stacked by the boys. I look at pictures of myself now and think, You weren’t “fat.” But when you can’t fit into the cute miniskirts and tops all the popular girls are wearing, and your feet are so large that you have to wear crepe-soled nurse’s shoes (the only shoes anywhere in town that’ll fit you), what consolation is your reliable body’s humble, quiet strength? If you can’t do a cartwheel, if no boy ever looks at you, how can you ever feel what it must be like to fly, to feel all your heaviness – inside and out – just lift away?

Eventually my yoga teacher took pity on me and helped lift my legs into position; then I was doing head balance at last. Except I wasn’t. Head canted back at the wrong angle, neck stressed, I felt flooded with a sense of total panic. I was upside down, all my blood rushing to my head, my face breaking out in cold sweat, my shirt slithering inexorably down to reveal my never-shown-in-public-ever stomach. I dropped down and huddled with my forehead to the floor, breathing hard, unable to move for fear. I couldn’t imagine ever doing that again. Something all through my body was shrieking you’re going to DIE!

Of course, as I came to learn, that is exactly the reason you do head balance – because when you do it carefully and in the correct way, it helps your body and your mind learn that contrary to their first reactions under stress, you are not going to die, that fear may come but it is a temporary thing, and that even in a stressful situation you can still learn to pay attention to what’s actually happening, not only what your mind is telling you is happening.   Head balance rubs this knowledge into deep, deep levels of your nervous system and your self-awareness, and it’s not until you find yourself able to stay calm and not freak out in a stressful situation off the mat that you realize how deeply it’s soaked in, like some kind of really good Vitamin E hand cream. You get nervous or angry or start to lose your temper at work or in a conversation and something inside you puts a calming hand on your arm, just lightly: Calm down. This isn’t really as important as it feels to you right now. You’re not going to die, the danger isn’t real. Calm down and observe what about this situation is real.

I am still working on being able to hold head balance properly and for longer than, say, a minute and a half. But interestingly, I can’t quite remember how not to kick up: I go through the motions, I get close enough to the wall, I do the kick, and my legs seem to float up on their own. (Neuroscientist Douwe Draaisma writes that the present appearance of our loved ones can supplant and erase earlier memories of how they looked; similarly, doing a pose more correctly tends to help you forget how to do it wrong and helps you to do it even more correctly.) Once up, I try to keep my shoulders lifted and run through the rest of the body to see what needs to be straightened out or ungripped. (Pose to pose, yoga is helping me get over my own version of the unconscious, highly Freudian, and culturally omnipresent type-A WASP conviction that the whole world will remain upright on its axis as long as I personally keep my shoulders and buttocks as tightly clenched as possible.) When I feel panic or some other emotion, I remind myself: You’re just upside down. You’re not going to die.  And often, that emotion subsides.

This is a skill for life, it’s a skill and practice of the spirit – don’t be hounded by your emotions, obedient to and driven by them and whatever imaginary stories they lead you to tell. Be able to stop and look at them – like little Danny Torrence in Stephen King’s The Shining, shouting at the Overlook Hotel’s ghosts “False face! Not real!” – and evaluate them for what they are. This goes for actions, too, as yoga teacher Judith Lasater wrote upon B.K.S. Iyengar’s death (at age 95) this year: “Mr. Iyengar challenged me; he challenged everyone he ever taught to create a habit of reflection, then action, reflection then action, over and over again while practicing. He wanted us to never stop noticing how our actions affected the pose, our nervous system, our mind, the world.”[1] I know without a doubt that yoga has been an essential part of the ongoing process of growth and thought and prayer and reaching for the invisible realities I know to be true that has helped me do that. And I have learned it not just in my mind but in my body, which is always there to remind the mind, gently, remember, you are not in here to face the world alone. I’m here too. And I know more than you sometimes want to think.


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Yo, Thoreau.

Image“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived [....] Our life is frittered away by detail [...] Simplify, simplify.”  Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

A few days ago, I read this story about a new app that appears to do nothing but text the word “yo” to somebody else who also has the app installed.  This was enough to attract more than a million dollars in venture capital that might have, I don’t know, gone to a girl’s orphanage in Honduras.  Investor Moshe Hogeg, who kicked in $200,000, justifies his reasoning thus: “I like to do things in the easiest way. We are always looking for the easiest way. My secretary, I love her, but I hate to tell her to come…. My wife, she complains I don’t call her enough during the day. Now I can send a push notification anytime I want.”  Author Sam Biddle’s analysis is right on — “If money still means anything anymore—and I’m not sure it does!—we need to insist that a million dollars is not a trifle, and that giving this amount of money to an app that does literally one thing is worth scrutinizing” — but I like his story’s first line even better: “This week, a group of otherwise mentally sound adults agreed to go fucking insane all at once.”

I said “appears to do nothing” because, as the first commenter observes, “It’s easy to see where they’re making money with the app. This isn’t an app – It’s a wiretap.”  (Click through to the story, then the comments, for the list of data-accessing permissions “Yo” asks for when you install it.) Another commenter seconded this with a picture of the Trojan Horse. Ironically, that day I also learned about a free program called Ghostery, which identifies and lists the tracking devices running silently alongside the webpage you’re looking at so you can see them and turn them off. I’ve been using it ever since. The average webpage runs anywhere from 10 to 20 of these things.  The majority of them are, of course, for advertising.

Blog readers know I’m writing a book about (among other things) the way that “fun” and “convenience” are being used by corporations and marketers, through our omnipresent Internet-ready devices, to short-circuit our capacities for ecological thinking, civic engagement, and sustained attention.  My first reaction to Yo! was similar to Biddle’s: Are you kidding me? Is this really worth a million dollars? Is this what all the power and promise of the Internet comes down to – another incarnation of the Facebook “poke,” that design vestige (as Zadie Smith has pointed out) of a nerdy boy’s difficulty engaging with other people? And are we really so deluded about the meaning of “simple” that we will spend more than a million dollars to send an elaborately casual semi-greeting, via expensive little electronic devices made possible by bee-threatening cellphone towers and mountaintop-removal-coal-powered servers, to our secretary in the next room?

As those who already knew about Ghostery may have guessed, I’m a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant technology user (pace Jane Austen), and I like being just this much outside it. I don’t tweet. Knowing my own capacity for distraction and for absorption in even that professionally justifiable online discussion group that nevertheless siphons an hour or two of time, and being tethered to email enough as a tenured professor about to add some big administrative work to my teaching load, I choose not to have a smartphone because I need to be able to say enough.  I use a landline and a pay-as-you-go fliphone. (Yep, it’s a burner. Just like on “The Wire.”) Those who try to convince me otherwise point to what they see as the “convenience” and “simplicity” of always being hooked to their smartphones, without ever really saying what those words mean.  To be clear, this smartphone skepticism is not just hating: I’m obviously using the Internet right now.  But I get troubled when I look up from my desk after an hour, or two, when I step away from the writing project that is also keeping me at my desk for hours at a time, and I realize I haven’t been outside much that day, or really paid attention to anything in the physical, actual world. My work argues that an ethic of attention, awareness, and care has the potential to renovate our thinking in a way we’ll need to address global warming and all its sad alarming realities from now on. But what happens to us when we are constantly turning back toward the onrushing river of online-life, running onward on our devices, which ask to be thumbed and glanced at and typed-into and checked, checked, checked, so that our whole selves are never actually present in real time, where we are, right now? What if we get so taken over by the “pleasure” and “convenience” of online-ness and what-happens-when-I-press-this-button that we dull our own ability to notice the physical place where we are, and to notice that these little rectangular screens (sticky from being mashed against our cheeks) are mediating our own experience of our brains, and our lives? And — so sadly, when you think about it — when we lie to ourselves that all this is really just “convenient” and “simple?”

I’ve just finished reading an impressive, engrossing new book that has pointed me at this issue from a new angle: Richard Primack’s Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes To Thoreau’s Woods. Primack, a Boston University botanist, and his research team carried out a decade-long project that was fueled by a brilliantly simple idea: what would they find if they compared their own notes on the first blooming/budding/leafing/appearing/hatching dates of plants, birds, insects, and frogs in the early 21st century with amateur botanical observations from the last 150 years — particularly the famous journals of Henry David Thoreau?


As in the work of any great writer, every time you go back to him you find a different Thoreau – and a different version of yourself. In high school, Thoreau’s the companion of furious, wordless rebellion against all the fakeness and phoniness you feel around you but can’t name. In college he’s the older brother for your Birkenstock-wearing passion for nature, which is so important, and why can’t people see that?  You get close to 40, and your conversation with Thoreau deepens (and your respect grows) with every reading, because you’ve seen how hard his real project is — disentangling yourself from politics and corporations that would take your soul and try to sell it back to you, trying to establish some ground for what is true and good and worth trusting and what is not in this, the one life you will ever have.  You see that because you are enmeshed in a project like that yourself, and it is really hard.

Thoreau’s famous efforts to “simplify” are really about stripping away illusions and inessentials to find a bedrock of what is real, deeply informed by the Eastern philosophy he was one of the first “intellectuals” in America to read.  Lots of people know the quotes I led with, above, and lots of people know about the 10-by-15-foot cabin Thoreau built himself in the woods at Walden Pond (with timbers he cut and boards repurposed from an Irish railroad shanty he bought from its owners for $4.25) and began to occupy on July 4, 1845, but fewer know this passage, from the “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” chapter:

Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without perturbation; let company come and company go, let the bells ring and the children cry, — determined to make a day of it. Why should we knock under and go with the stream? Let us not be upset and overwhelmed in that terrible rapid and whirlpool called a dinner, situated in the meridian shallows. Weather this danger and you are safe, for the rest of the way is down hill. With unrelaxed nerves, with morning vigor, sail by it, looking another way, tied to the mast like Ulysses.  If the engine whistles, let it whistle till it is hoarse for its pains. If the bell rings, why should we run? We will consider what kind of music they are like.  Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition,  and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d’appui, below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely, or perhaps a gauge, not a Nilometer, but a Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time. If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.

The marvelous layering of thinking here about the way we buy into social illusions — where Plato, the Bhagavad-Gita, and New England common sense meet — can perhaps be summed up in this way: “‘I have to?’ Why?”  Think about the Hydra-headed consumer world we live in, where necessity shades into whim with frightening ease as last year’s jeans/handbag/haircut/sofa just won’t do anymore, you have to get a new one.  (Thoreau gets irritated elsewhere in Walden when a tailor tells him “they aren’t making jackets like this anymore,” asking, “who’s ‘they?'”)  He’s not saying don’t ever have anything – he’s saying provide for your needs, but be sure they really are your needs, and your decision about how to provide for them.

Thoreau’s project took him into socially uncomfortable places (he famously spent a night in jail in 1846 for refusing to pay taxes that he saw as supporting national reliance on slavery), and it can take us there, too.  “Our inventions,” Thoreau writes, “are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.  They are but improved means to an unimproved end, and end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York.”  What good a telegraph between Maine and Texas, he asks, if “Maine and Texas…have nothing important to communicate?”  (Yo, that sounds familiar.)  Or, as you know if you’ve almost been hit by a texting driver (as many of us have), what’s so allfired important that it can’t wait till you’ve parked?  As Thoreau writes above, “If the bell rings, why should we run?”

Seeking a “realometer” can be uncomfortable, but so is every process of self-examination and growth worth the name.  When it comes to technology, the “have to”s of consumerism becomes downright dangerous for people and for air and groundwater, as discarded cellphones, computers, and flatscreen TVs that used to be the have-to-have thing are too often discarded to leak toxins into ground, air, and human bodies at some dump far away from you.  If we really asked ourselves “Why do I ‘have to’ buy this? How long will I have this? And what will happen to it when I’m done?,” we’d buy and discard much less than we do, and we’d be taking some steps toward our own internal “realometer” that would let us find our own bedrock of integrity and fact amid the shrieking voices of consumerist culture we are all too apt to mistake for truth.

Primack adapts Thoreau’s “realometer” to the problem of global warming, writing, “Despite the clear evidence that the world is already warming due to the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of tropical forests, most Americans still do not regard climate change as a priority.  They [...] believe that the effects of climate change will only be felt in the future and at some faraway place and not where they live today.”  Yet when we “[use] Thoreau’s own observations as a realometer to test for the truth of climate change,” we find some surprising facts, as this apparently distant phenomenon has some highly local instantiations.

Walden Warming teems with case studies of plant, animal, insect, and amphibian species in the Concord, Massachusetts area whose first and last appearances of the year, numbers, habitats, and general health have been affected by a warming climate.  (You can read more about the team and their work here.)  Salamanders, frogs, butterflies, lady’s-slipper orchids, and hummingbirds are among the many species studied, and the conclusions are similar across the board: the species that do survive are blooming or arriving earlier (more than three weeks in some cases) than in Thoreau’s time, and are being affected by the changes global warming and other human activity is wreaking in the ecological web that includes them: earlier ice-melt on Walden Pond, rising pond temperatures, fewer “vernal pools” (temporary rainwater ponds) for amphibians in a drought or too much water in a flood, meadows cut or planted with trees or covered with buildings, pesticides or lawn chemicals that harm beneficial wild plants and insects, and many more.  “[A] quarter of the species Thoreau saw are botanical phantoms, plants that have vanished from the landscape,” Primack writes.  “And since rare, native species are most likely to go extinct, and a lot of the smaller populations we recorded were both rare and native, we could speculate that within a few decades, if nothing is done to prevent it, those species we saw only in a few populations — a third of Thoreau’s original list, remember — could also disappear.  That would mean that around half of the species that Thoreau observed in Concord will no longer be present in a few decades from now; they are destined for local extinction.”  Temperature fluctuations also affect the complex system of cues by which birds arrive and depart during migration cycles, meaning that late arrivals may be able to find only marginal sites and may fall prey to starvation, heat, or other animals and early arrivals may freeze.  Amphibians could be affected by this too, as “[t]emperatures just a bit warmer could dry up [vernal pools] in the early summer before the amphibians have completed their life cycle, causing the death of all juveniles for that year.  This is particularly true for spotted salamanders, which have a long development time.”  (In one of the many personal anecdotes that further enliven this accessible book, Primack describes a nighttime family outing to a golf course where a parking lot and a dangerous road stood between salamanders and a vernal pool at the bottom of a hill; as the excited children “gently gather[ed] up the salamanders in cupped hands and carr[ied] them across the parking lot and access road” to get safely down to the pond for breeding, Primack notes, “This was a night to remember: a night for salamanders, and not one of the hundreds of typical nights of homework, computers, television, and reading.”)

Primack’s pleas to address global warming are direct and heartfelt: aside from preserving this web of life for our children and grandchildren to know, we should care about it not only for the sake of the individual creatures but also for the network of relationships that sustains them and sustains us.  Professor and eco-philosopher Timothy Morton has written extensively on “the ecological thought,” a way of being in and seeing the world that is grounded in the interconnectedness of people, creatures, plants, and objects.  In such an interconnected world, there is no “away,” as in “throw it away” — our actions always have consequences for us right here.  “The ecological thought doesn’t just occur ‘in the mind,’” Morton writes. “It’s a practice and a process of becoming fully aware of how human beings are connected with other beings – animal, vegetable, or mineral.” To illustrate this, Morton borrows “Indra’s net,” an image of interdependence from Buddhist scripture: “At every connection in this infinite net hangs a magnificently polished and infinitely faceted jewel, which reflects in each of its facets all the facets of every other jewel in the net. Since the net itself, the number of jewels, and the facets of every jewel are infinite, the number of reflections is infinite as well.” Reality, seen through the lens of truly ecological thought, looks like Indra’s net; everything reflects, affects, and is reflected and affected by everything else, as biology, quantum mechanics, philosophy, economics, and other fields have their own ways of explaining, and as Walden Warming clearly demonstrates.

Thoreau, always bigger and stranger than we think, got to this place more than 150 years ago in striving to stake out a “realometer,” some place to stand to see what is and to properly assess human’s place it in as one of the myriad – not the dominion-holder, not the sentimental painter-of, but as fellow creature, looking with a factuality that opens, lightly, into wonder.  To dismiss him as a “nature writer” is to misunderstand him and the human project in which he was engaged — the renovation of one’s vision of everyday life, the acceptance of ethical and ecological responsibility — and into which we can follow him. As essayist Rebecca Solnit has written, “This compartmentalizing of Thoreau is a microcosm of a larger partition in American thought, a fence built in the belief that places in the imagination can be contained. Those who deny that nature and culture, landscape and politics, the city and the country are inextricably interfused have undermined the connections for all of us (so few have been able to find Thoreau’s short, direct route between them since). This makes politics dreary and landscape trivial, a vacation site. It banishes certain thoughts, including the thought that much of what the environmental movement dubbed wilderness was or is indigenous homeland—a very social and political space indeed, then and now—and especially the thought that Thoreau in jail must have contemplated the following day’s huckleberry party, and Thoreau among the huckleberries must have ruminated on his stay in jail.”

What sets Primack’s book apart from many other calls to action on global warming is his solution, expressed in the wonderful term “citizen science:” the marvelous simplicity of looking carefully at your local ecology, observing, and writing things down to provide a “realometer” for future studies and fuel for change.  This meshes with what any good gardener or farmer or birdwatcher or butterflywatcher already knows: as my gardening mentor taught me, you don’t have to be a professional scientist, you just have to be observant, and you have to get out and look at things so you know what’s normal and what’s not.  Primack muses on the possibility that maybe among young members of his audience is a “new Thoreau,” eager to observe and act on those observations.  And “citizen science” can renovate perceptions at the local and national level and beyond, as Philip Cafaro (quoted in Primack) states: “In itself, one individual consuming less is trivial, in the context of global climate change. But that person freed from the desire for ever ‘more’ is now in a position to ask for a new kind of politics from his leaders and his fellow citizens: a politics of ‘enough’ rather than the current ‘more more more.'”

Thoreau’s realometer is challenging but inspiring, and, I argue, achievable for each of us if we want it — a practical and ethical position we arrive at within ourselves, a place we can stand to see what is and to properly assess our role in it.  Not as dominion-holder, not as sentimentalist-about, but as fellow, looking with a factuality that opens, lightly, into wonder. This is the “simplicity” that will let us examine our human systems and adjust them to meet our real human needs — with or without the latest devices and toys that only seem so necessary.

In the evening, after I finished Primack’s book, I went into the woods on a high limestone bluff above the river.  Molten sunset striped through the trees onto the stone as the rain melted away.  A raccoon scrambled past.  All around me, rich wet smells rose from the tangled banks of green stretching up the hillside above the river.  A woman in an SUV went by: in the passenger seat sat a kid with head down, texting.  Passing puddles in the road, I thought, vernal pond.  Frog song came up the hill from the river and fireflies — the first of the year, I am prepared to say — blinked on, and on again, under the trees.

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Dandelion wars.

220px-DandelionFlowerIt’s that time again: the latest round of the anti-weed, lawn-spraying wars.  In our town, this plays out not only in individual lawns but on the campus of our college, which routinely comes under fire from lots in the community and some on the faculty for its annual spraying (usually around Memorial Day.)  I am not unsympathetic to the desire for a lawn free of creeping Charlie and dandelions (the two big weeds in this part of the world) because my own lawn gets more taken over by them every year, and my little reel mower takes more and more passes to keep them under some semblance of control.  As a little girl, I once earned a dime per plant for weeding an entire horse pasture full of dog fennel, an obnoxious, straggly deep-South weed, tossing them one by one into my red wagon trundling behind me.  My mom still points proudly to the fact that nary a dog-fennel plant has ever reared its head in that pasture again.

I am just enough of a Virgo neat-freak to dream of the green velvet sward, or at least of clearing enough time in my schedule to dig out every single dandelion by hand.  They say you can eat dandelion leaves as a good spring green.  I’m sure that’s true but I prefer a different treatment for my enemies: trucked in a spare trash bin off to the yard waste site, off the property, out of my life for good.  (You can compost them, but they have a sneaky tendency to turn to seed even after being cut, and then your compost becomes parasitized.)  In moments of weakness I am tempted to call the lawn-spraying company and let them have at it.  But I like to walk on my lawn in bare feet, and so do my cats.  I like to eat what comes out of my garden knowing it is chemical-free and safe.  I know that chemical-company promises of “safety” — like just about every other corporate promise I can think of — are illusions designed to angle for our wallets and scratch the little consumerist itches we tuck out of sight, behind all our good intentions.  If you’ve ever had a family member with cancer — as more and more of us have — you know this danger is real.  Our bodies are the living end results of processing all that’s in the world around us.  And I don’t want to pay for poison in my own dear yard, in the soil that — since I am a homeowner — is mine, just as I wouldn’t pay for poison in my body or brain.

But whether to spray on a corporate or college campus is not always the decision of idealists like me who work there.  It’s an issue connected to our big task these days in higher education: discerning and maintaining our values in the face of market pressures which can be more antithetical to those values than we like to think.  As deposited-student numbers (like everyone’s) come under scrutiny and administrators get nervous (like everywhere), one of the first places we look is to appearances — we show off the climbing wall, the renovated dorms, the beautiful river winding through our valley, the restored and well-maintained prairie with its cross-country running trails, all of which speak well to the values of student health in and engagement with a lovely and particular place.  As a college, too, we ask students to examine and challenge their existing values and ideas in order to grow, as any good college does.  But lawn-spraying is a persistent blind spot, squatting like a big hairy-rooted dandelion smack in the middle of what is otherwise a generally sensible and sustainable conversation about how to maintain our campus’s good looks and appeal to prospective students and beauty as a place we live and work every day.  Our focus on spotless, undulating waves of green betrays the same lurking golf-course, pseudo-nature aesthetic that is wrecking terrain and depleting groundwater all over the country — and the costs of which California, just to name one, is discovering a little too late.  Colleges have to be leaders in facing, and thinking about ways to handle, reality.  And blindly following the same shopping-mall-“pretty,” green-and-weedless-at-any-cost aesthetic that’s poisoning and/or depleting water tables in a world where water is about to be more precious than ever is a failure of leadership.  It’s a failure, period.

A couple of years ago, I wrote to a then-high-up-administrator to urge that spraying be stopped.  In addition to the known, ongoing dangers of lawn chemicals on grass where our students play (and in the groundwater they drink), there is usually an embarrassing casualty of “drift” — last year, a young tree planted in memory of a student.  The administrator was responsive to my concerns but told me the spraying would continue so that the campus would present the best impression to prospective students and parents.  The annual cost, some $4500 at the time, was, he said, in the scheme of things, not that big a deal.  I suggested — in line with other sustainability and marketing initiatives, and with the general cost-cutting pressures every department on campus is feeling in areas from copying to art supplies to student travel to conferences — that we save that $4500 and stop poisoning the air and ground by setting up friendly signs bearing some marketing-approved version of “If you see a dandelion, be happy, not scared — this college controls ‘weeds’ by cutting, not spraying, because we care about our students’ endocrinal and cellular health!”

I still think we should give this a try.  Maybe someday we will.  The day of the spray, at least in our area, is coming to a close as more and more people make the same decisions about their lawns that I am making.  In the meantime, that woman out there in the bare feet, pushing the whishing, clackety reel mower, rooting out the baby buckeye trees from last year’s squirrel-buried nuts (and sprinkling cayenne pepper against future squirrels), and calling to the cats as they nose around in the grass – that’ll be me.

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The triggering town: some thoughts on pedagogy, warnings, and experience.

Sitting in my backyard on the first warm day of the year, I’m reading my first-year college students’ last papers: personal reflections on Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave” and its application to education as they want to continue to experience it. Emphasis on experience. One after another, they return to Plato’s central image: a prisoner is released from his underground cave where shadows (manipulated by others) flicker on the wall, and he struggles up into the light that first blinds him then fills him with a radiant excitement.  He knows that as difficult as that struggle has been (and is going to be), he has pushed through into a new kind of seeing, a new layer of self with which to be present to the world. They match this idea with Dante, tunnelling deeper into Hell and confronting ever-graver suffering (noting that Dante, like the prisoner, is still “ascending” because he’s going through the earth to Paradise, even though at times he passes out from the shock and horror of what he sees), and to Frederick Douglass, whose realization of the staggering odds against him at first depresses, then energizes, him to struggle for education by any means necessary. Over and over, students return to a new conviction I’ve seen growing in them all year: college, like life, is about pushing yourself through discomfort toward the growth that waits on the other side, even (or perhaps especially) when facing the light of the world beyond your dark, protected cave is painful.

Coming inside to check email for a bit, I find the latest in an ongoing conversation on creative-writing-pedagogy and college-professor threads: what is the place of “trigger warnings” in college classrooms? As a creative writing teacher, the first thing I think of when I think of “triggers” is Richard Hugo’s classic book on poetry writing, The Triggering Town, in which “triggering” describes the process by which a new insight or image or poem or story might be sparked into life by something in the world around you, roaring up to startle and delight you like a ring-necked pheasant flushed from underfoot. Being “triggered,” in this sense, is being awakened by the world to something beyond yourself: when a sparrow lights beyond the window, the poet John Keats wrote, “I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.” Keats knew what all creative writing students, and spiritual seekers, and adults in general have to come to know: the beginning of maturity, in any area of your life, is the realization that the world is not a story about you.  That even as you may seek to engage with and alter your world, you will have to accommodate yourself to reality that can be uncomfortable. That reality – for better and worse – is independent of the stories we tell ourselves about it. That – although it can be beautiful, saddening, amazing, traumatic – life is not fundamentally amenable to our own plans for and confident projections about it. Again: reality is not a story about ourselves. From this perspective, to avoid “triggers” is to avoid revelations, discoveries, and changes from the painful to the miraculous. It’s to wrap yourself in cotton, to numb yourself to existence.

As a feminist sympathetic to victims of rape and abuse, however, I know that this is not the only meaning of “trigger,” and I know that this concern for inadvertent re-experiencing of trauma in our classrooms is just one of the many philosophical and cultural realities meeting in college itself. Indeed, college is one of the last big hinge points in this society where adolescence and adulthood meet, and where enduring truths and the search for them, no matter how embattled, are hanging on, struggling with the economic, environmental, and social realities swirling through campus from the surrounding world. College is never only about college; education is never only about education; growing up is never only about growing up. To get below the surface of any text, we start by asking, in my classes, “what is this really about?” So here are some starting answers to the question of what the conversation about “triggers” in college classrooms, all of which feel both transcendent and culturally inflected, is really about: the Platonic/Socratic search for the ultimate “good” beyond illusion; suffering and our responses to it; self-protection; consumerism and our ideas about what purchased “experiences” should or should not contain; our relationship to experience in general.

The world is not a story about you: from the ubiquity of pocket Internet-delivery systems to Google ads that shift their images to angle afresh for your wallet as you browse, just about everything in 21st-century commercial culture is designed to contradict that truth, even as proofs of it are everywhere, offscreen in the world. I think of the stories of meditating Zen monks suddenly smacked upside the head by their teachers to shock them back to the present, out of wandering or digression into the stories of me, me, me the brain is always waiting to unfold. The brain likes those stories, because the world beyond the safety of me is frightening. It is a place where suffering is not redemptive, where pain and terror and agony happen for no reason, where goodness and hard work are not always rewarded, where evil does exist. Part of the terror of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls is that reality that you can still be doing everything “right,” can be pursuing your education and going about your life in the belief that it is under your control and still be snatched out of your own world into a parallel, powerless one, where your selfhood is blotted out under the weight of indifferent forces that see you only as a vessel to be filled with themselves. It’s the horror of the end of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and, more sharply, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; it’s the kind of horror so blithely ignored by Todd Akin and his ilk in dismissing some kinds of rape as “legitimate” and others as not; it’s a basement dungeon in Cleveland. It’s the imposition of your own self’s “needs” and desires over someone else’s; it’s a willed blindness to the fact that the other person is also real. It happens to our students. It happens to us. And it always has.

Humans try to escape suffering or discomfort, in whatever form it might present itself. Yet higher education, set at the hinge point between adolescence and adulthood and increasingly asked, as education in general is, to be all things to all people, cannot be tempted to conflate all discomfort as equal or avoidable. We know that students and parents increasingly shop for and curate their college experiences like any other consumer good, demanding “better customer service” and a more comfortable ride, in and out of the classroom, from climbing walls in the gym to less difficult texts and higher grades. More than ever, we are seeing students who desire to manipulate, manage, and be in control of their own experience of everything, including college. At its best, this mindset leads to the good kind of skepticism, to an active and alert engagement with and choices about what’s around you, and to the knowledge of yourself that is both honest and direct – including a mature openness to the world. At its worst, it leads to an otiose self-protectiveness and intellectual and emotional laziness, setting up filters to exclude challenge and discomfort. As hard as it is, and as apparently uncaring as it can seem, we have to ask: can students expect to be shielded, at college, from certain kinds of pain? How do we separate the Socratic pain of confrontation with the light of truth (necessary for the intellectual growth and maturity we claim to be about, and inescapable in life in general), from a type of psychological suffering college should not inflict or reinflict, such as involuntary re-experiencing of serious trauma? And how can we help students distinguish the two?

I’m going to turn from thinking about obvious subjects of “trigger warnings” – rape, torture, abuse, as cited in the NY Times article above – to a college-specific case study: religion. As a college of the ELCA, established in the nineteenth century to provide training for Norwegian Lutheran ministers in American immigrant communities and a more questioning, intellectually rigorous mode of Biblical exegesis than was common back then, my college requires all students to take courses in Biblical studies. The approaches my religion colleagues use are very historically and textually based, shocking many students with the facts that (for instance) the Bible was assembled over time by multiple authors, and that there is nothing or at best contradictory things about [insert hot-button social issue here] in the text. To a student from a conservative Christian household, brought up to serve God and do well in school and obey what both teachers and parents say, the collision of faith and historical fact may rock the foundations of self in a way it is easy for non-Christians (and non-adolescents) to mock but impossible to overstate. Such a student may experience what a professor would call this Socratic process of struggle as a violation of the deepest aspects of himself and his understanding of the world, a source of existential bewilderment and pain equivalent to struggles with death or war or other kinds of human accident or evil. And many do. My colleagues in the Religion Department wrestle with this and counsel more students over it than the rest of us will ever know. Yet they do not say that we should back away from confronting challenges to faith, that we should only read or study what confirms our 18-year-old view of the world. Neither do students, as it turns out. Routinely, they tell my colleagues and me that their experiences in religion class here are among the most challenging but, because of that, the most important of their lives – that they have grown, as a result, from a child’s understanding of God and the world to an adult’s, and are prepared to see that process continue, no matter where it goes. They are, as Sonya Chung says of creative writers, accepting a tolerance of difficulty and uncertainty as the basic fact of adulthood.

And that tolerance for difficulty is the basic fact of adulthood, as it is of intellect and art. It just is. Routinely now I begin my creative writing classes with age-appropriate discussions of this fact: you will confront, here, your own limitations and insecurities and arrogances in ways you never expected to, and you will be changed, because when you write, that’s just what happens. You will get little to no external reward – even I write and get rejected and keep going. But you will have to decide, for yourself, whether and how to keep doing it because it’s worth it. Creative writers live at the territory of always-inadvertent self-triggering, anyway – going deep and always stumbling across some live wire in our own psyches that unexpectedly jolts and sobers. We know this about ourselves and each other. It’s just part of it.

None of this is to minimize the fact that the difficulty of, say, rape and its aftermath is real. And it is not to say that a student struggling with a personal issue should be constantly smacked upside the head with it in the name of Socratic learning. Self-protectiveness can be necessary for a while; it can lead to the good choices about where to go or not to go, what to see or not to see, that can mean surviving and healing, getting over a bad time and continuing on to a life that incorporates that memory but is not limited or defined by it. But it can also lead to clinging, as a means of self-definition and self-protection, to the same trauma or trouble it claims to be guarding against; the student who refuses to read Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice on the grounds of anti-Semitism (an example from one college’s list of potentially “triggering texts” and traumas) closes herself off to any understanding of anti-Semitism beyond the one with which she approaches it, locking herself in place. Most students, of course, lie somewhere in between. And this spectrum asks for realism and compassion from us, mixed in doses appropriate to that student and her situation that will both support her and nudge her forward, helping her stand on her own two feet. It asks for college to be a place – as democracy still struggles to be a place – where multiple perspectives and experiences meet in a common ground that gives all of them space. This is academic freedom; this is the reality of the world; this is maturity. If dictatorship and oppression are singularity, orthodoxy, and control (and the banning of books that might upset you, as in the recent cases in South Carolina), democracy is multiplicity, possibility, more-than-one-right-answer, maybe-I-am-wrong, there-is-more-to-this-than-I-thought. I do still believe in college as a place where students can experience and learn from this, one by one, no matter what their circumstances. It’s hard to work out how to give everyone this chance, to enable everyone’s flourishing in fairness and rigor and safety. But we have to try, and triggering warnings or regulations, with their potentially chilling effect on pedagogy and academic freedom, are not the way.

Of course, resisting a too-easy embrace of “trigger warnings” does not mean that professors can just charge ahead into a sort of unexamined, tough-guy, if-they-can’t-take-it-get-out pedagogy, which risks turning us into professorial equivalents of the tiresome philosophy major who prides himself on “making people think” when he’s really just being a jerk. We are the adults, and we are twenty years or so ahead of our students, and things that seem “obvious” to us are not always “obvious” to them. It’s easy for us to forget that. “The world is not a story about you” applies to us, too – we don’t and can’t know what is happening inside everyone’s head. But as the example of students encountering Socrates shows, we have to create a fair, safe, but open field for them to encounter a variety of texts, be supported (as needed) in their reading of them, and be ready to experience what we can’t predict in advance.  We can give fair warning in our syllabi if difficulty lies ahead, and we can use our syllabi to make clear how “challenge” and “difficulty” will be defined for the purposes of our class. Of course, we’ll need administrators and parents to support us. We’ll need students themselves to do so too. But an approach to texts that is inquisitive, sensitive, but open and fair can get them on board, offering them more grounds for identity and discovery than “trauma” alone and getting other people into a story that a focus on “trauma” risks shrinking to a false singularity and that lists of “traumas” like the ones from Oberlin et. al. risk flattening even further. In my experience, trauma victims or sufferers of illnesses themselves are often most appreciative of a sensitive but open approach to these issues in the classroom, just as they are often mature and responsible about self-advocating, seeking resources they need, and eager not to be defined by that “trauma” alone.

Novelist Mary Gaitskill, in her essay “On Not Being a Victim,” writes about her own experience of being raped, “Since I had been taught only how to follow rules that were somehow more important than I was, I didn’t know what to do in a situation where no rules obtained and that required me to speak up on my own behalf. I had never been taught that my behalf mattered. And so I felt helpless, even victimized, without really knowing why.” Yet Gaitskill continues, “Part of becoming responsible is learning how to make a choice about where you stand in respect to the social code and then holding yourself accountable for your choice. In contrast, many children who grew up in my milieu were given abstract absolutes that were placed before us as if our thoughts, feelings, and observations were irrelevant.” College has got to remain a place where critical thinking and independent decision-making – based on one’s own nonproscribed encounters with texts – remains possible for students, no matter what backgrounds or experiences they may be bringing to us. Approaching a classroom with assumptions about what a text might or might not do to students risks teaching your own assumptions about students – not the fully multidimensional people they actually are – and denying them of college’s most precious gift, the critical faculty of taking in information from the world around them, making their own decision, and finding the means to act on it.

Like so many of us in 2014, many students long for “authenticity” and “experience of the world” even as they fear these things. They may hesitate to step from beyond the safety of their own equivalent of gated communities, their own internal “caves,” because the light above – which illuminates weakness and fear as well as possibility and self-reliance – is just too painful.  Yet college is one of the last defining adulthood transition experiences – aside from military or post-college-nonprofit service – available to young people now, who are funneled toward it by combinations of personal and economic desires and other people’s expectations. College is where our students are coming to experience something real – to live out the dreams of intellectual or creative transformation that their high schools (as I hear from more students every year) are just not giving them. (“You can still get a great high school education,” colleagues joke, “too bad you have to go to college to get it.”) Even though what they bring with them doesn’t always prepare them for what they find when they get here, we can still offer them difficulty and complexity and the opportunity to find their own voices. And – with attention to their particular circumstances – we have to try.

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