Sunday, December 29, 2019

(A Critique of) Judgment Calls

We don't soon get over judgment of others, said Mary Grace Orr, at insight meditation this morning in Volcano. She quoted Ram Dass as saying we should think of people as being like trees. "Who said I don't judge trees?" my husband asked when I told him. Well, there's that.

Late this past semester, I asked my introductory creative writing students, first in my office, and then in class, to tell me their strengths as a writer, and then to say what they still wanted to work on. It was as if the first half of the question hadn't been uttered; they jumped quickly to "I'm bad at ____"; or "I can't do ____." But what are you good at? I'd ask, and they'd tell me they couldn't say what. Nothing about facility with metaphor or turn of phrase or empathy, nothing until they were prompted again, but then the answers sounded sheepish. "That would be narcissistic," said one student. No, it would not, I responded. A joke about the president came after.

The day before their final projects were due, I asked them what we could talk about that would help them to complete their chapbooks. There were a few questions about covers and book construction, but at least half of them responded with (actually, without), "Confidence." As if we could give them that in one class session at the end of the semester. "It's our generation," one student said. "None of us has any confidence."

Two years ago, I was teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me to Honors students (freshmen) for the second time. The first time the class had taken valuable lessons from his experience as a black man in America. This time (just after the shift from Obama to Trump) several students said that Coates was "too angry." They resisted his book. How could he be so angry. It put them off. So I asked the most judgmental of the students to read a paragraph of the book out loud to us without adding any comments along the way. Just read it. Then, I asked her to tell the class exactly what the paragraph had said, without adding any commentary. This exercise didn't go smoothly, but it was certainly instructive.

As I get older, my teaching gets less rigorous as intellectual transfer. My students learn less about the rules for things, though I still insist on a grounding in history. It gets more rigorous as a counter-intuitive paring away of judgments, especially when they occur quickly. The effort to see the world as it is, rather than to re-imagine it through the curious utopianism of critique, is what I try to instill in them. That this effort proves more difficult than judgment intrigues and disturbs me. At the beginning of each semester from now on I'll hand out my sheets of attention exercises, intended to get students out of their heads rather than farther into them. (Note, not "out of their minds" in the sense it's usually intended, though a loosening of boundaries around creativity is also necessary; students show up to creative writing classes in shackles!) Let me append the list of exercises, so far, here:

Attention Exercises
Prof. Susan M. Schultz
214 Kuykendall

Attention exercises

Do these exercises without doing anything else at the same time. No computer, no phone, no music, nothing. Then write in intense detail about what you noticed. Do not use judgment words, or “poetic” language. Write at least 250-300 words each.

1. Look at a raisin for eight full minutes, then eat it very slowly.

2. Take your dog on a walk and notice what your dog notices.

3. Spend 15 minutes watching and listening to your cat. (Any animal is fine, including geckos, lizards, guinea pigs, and so on.)

4. Spend 15 minutes sitting in a public place (bus stop, mall, etc.). What do you hear and see?

5. Spend 15 minutes with a photograph or a still from the television. Describe exactly what you see. You might also draw what you see, if you wish. Then write about the process of drawing what you saw.

6. Sit somewhere and turn off one of your senses: close your eyes or ears.

7. Start a conversation with a stranger. Where does it go?

8. Take a ½ hour walk to somewhere you don’t need to go. What do you see and hear?

9. Go to the art museum, on campus or downtown, and spend 15 minutes with a painting or piece of sculpture.

10. Take the same walk for many days in a row and find something different each time. Make a list as you go.

11. Meditate for 10-20 minutes a day.

12. Walk at different speeds, exceedingly slow to very fast.

13. Listen carefully to fast and slow talkers.

14. Watch the hand gestures of people around you.

15. Watch a baseball game on television and watch the catcher throw the ball back to the pitcher, as well as other parts of the game that don’t contribute to its score.

16. Watch a football game and watch action away from the ball.

17. Talk to a homeless person; offer him or her something to eat.

18. Play with children.

19. Cook something you’ve never cooked before.

20. Listen to audio in a language you don’t speak. What do you notice, or think that you notice?

21. Figure out what your favorite words are, and those of your friends.

22. Read what you’ve written as if it’s by someone else. What do you notice about the language, the sentence structure, the tone?

23. Learn to ride a unicycle or play the flute. Take notes on your progress.

24. Eat very slowly and write down your sensations.

25. Read signs. Read bumper stickers. Look for flags and other symbols on vehicles.

26. Notice typos and other mistakes.

27. Walk slowly on the beach and describe your sensations.

28. Go snorkeling and list all the fish you see, what they look like, how they act, and what their colors are.

29. Read or listen to an opinion you disagree with. What do you notice when you take away your judgment?

30. Keep a journal of the weather (clouds, sun, rain, etc.)

As I sit in Volcano on the Big Island, I remember Albert Saijo, who lived around the corner from here. His life's writing swung wildly between rants against government and other institutions, detailed descriptions of animals and the marvelous effects of marijuana; late in his life, when he was frail, he simply noted the weather. There would be several entries a day in a small notebook, to record the rain, the clouds, the wind.

Over time, we get whittled down to this: looking out our window and seeing the patterns of sunlight and shadow on a brown fence, listening to the birds in the canopy of ohia. Our judgment is fear of losing this fragile place. There is so much to fear. Perhaps confidence is not what we're looking for, but somthing more flexible and stubborn.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Meditation 1



Between decades a change. “Change is important,” said the woman at the Hilo market, who egged me on about Trump, joked crudely with a man who laughed as he said he was fleeing. Aspiration as breathing, not ambition. Caught between free air and suffocation. Between the frail brown skin on a diabetic’s leg and the cudgel of the president’s tweets, all they represent (if representation can be said to follow breaking). Is representation a form of repair? The OBU Manifestos (Vol. 2) diagnose, dissect, laugh bitterly at. Rise to the bar of community formation, then fall like the bar we wriggled under in elementary school, usually knocking it to the floor. A coalition of categories always more difficult than the category of one, even as mandated as forgetting in Ogawa’s novel. Community of forgetting, rose petals scattered on river water, beauty before release. The feeling of these petals already gone as a woman scatters her garden on water. It’s not memory that matters to the police, it’s the affect that attaches to it. Affect to effect: it’s either politics or spirit, and the real trick is to weld them together. “The bus driver was so kind,” said our new tenant, and he was, speaking to each passenger in turn, bidding them good-bye until the next ride. Sandy wondered about the man who did not turn into a deer and I had no idea where that sentence came from; not even the deer who was one with the dachsund could explain that one. Not metamorphosis but metaphor, presage not the spice itself. The words open like petals, then fall into sentence slots, or spaces between sidewalk segments. A yellow weed reminds us of something, pincered in the gaps. Should we breathe with the poems, she asks of Paul’s new book. I hadn’t thought of it that way. “Look at the tree!” she’d said on the walk home.

Enforced oblivion is violence; dementia degradation. Neither is as quick as gunshot or concussion. If we slow this down, no one will notice our shift from speech to deeply guarded quiet. The book referred to the “war” for silence, which sounded the oxymoron in me. Gerschwin streams from the living room, bartering saxophone for violin, heart cry for mind meld. We argue ceaselessly against the binary, but in terms of oppositions. Do we mean to break them over the knee, like a baseball bat after an ill-timed strike-out? Break into the binary, but never recover the grain of the wood, or the potential energy of the instrument. We adore our teams, but they are composed of contracts made by agents and susceptible to breaking. Our neighbor’s yard fills with scraps of ceramics from projects that did not rise to the bar of commerce. He uses volcanic ash in his process, which comes out as solid grit on a slab, more potential than actual evidence.

But again, the problem. We talk in small groups about trauma and depression in the classroom. We notice the spiking (up, not down like a volleyball). There are so few resources: wait for over a month to talk to a stranger about your affliction, then another six weeks to start talking to another stranger. Our talking makes us less lonely, but just as ineffective. We decide we need each other. K. says her friend opened a door in her house and ran into her husband’s legs; his body was hanging from the ceiling. They’d just been talking about what to eat for dinner. Do not try to make her feel better, I say out of my training, just be present. Present at the harshest absence there is. We are not to call it epidemic and yet. I read the book on the death of culture after hearing of the author’s suicide. Then we read as much for clues as for content. Blu’s Clues will star a Hispanic actor for the first time; the consolation there is in likeness. The one, divided into self and image, reorganized in the mind of a little boy imagined by a man.

Tell your student she can come to the office to cry. Tell her she can count on you to be present. Tell her there’s so little else you can do. Call admin and demand assistance. Watch admin muck up. Another six weeks until she can talk to someone with or without a license. Tell her you’ve been there, without knowing where her there is. Counsel long walks. Take things in your own hands and wring them into the shape of an arthritic joint. Pain beats oblivion, but only in moderation.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Hilo to Volcano bus, Boxing Day, 2019

On the bus from Hilo to Volcano:

--Older local bus driver and passenger talking about Christmas specials in Pidgin. Passenger says his favorite is the I Love Lucy show about five Santas, only one of whom has a real beard (hurts when pulled). Little Ricky was so confused. Driver says her mother watched the show every day. "Great seeing you, braddah," driver says as the passenger steps out at Kea`au, his legs discolored and weak.

--Transgender person with deep voice gets on, starts talking about how the bus used to be free (our taxi driver in Hilo had been obsessed with what a bad idea that had been!), and wondered why you had to go to Kona to get trained to drive the bus. Hilo guy retired, the driver said. The new passenger's vocabulary was big; words flew around the front of the bus until they got off at one of the unmarked stops the driver specialized in.

--Another guy with an old blue bike had gotten on the bus near Target. White hair, pulled back in a short pony tail. He'd been in Hilo to spend Christmas with his ex. Used to work in a care home there. The building was on the ocean, and 50 feet of earth disappeared during one storm. "So good to see you," said the driver as he got off at a "stop" that literally blocked the intersection of a street.

--At the Volcano store I bought two newspapers and a hard-boiled egg. Waited for Bryant to come back in car (which proved to be very unhealthy). A young blonde man with glasses was crouching behind the wooden barrier beside the restaurant. He wanted to know where to find the sun. That way (Kona side?) or that way (Hilo?) he asked. Was so sick of the rain. I said Hilo's sunny today, you could head there on the bus. He asked if there was anything interesting to see in Kea`au. I said he might prefer Pahoa. He pushed his old bicycle across the road to wait for the bus in the rain. He paced back and forth on the road, talking. Pushed his bike back, muttering a one syllable word beginning with f over and over again.

--Another man was standing in front of the store in optic green shirt, smoking a cigarette. He's lived in Volcano since the 1970s. It used to be cold! (Now, I remarked, there are mosquitos.) His father had been in the Air Force, WWII, Korea, and retired after Vietnam. Got 30 acres when he married his second wife, farmed for a long time. Died in '89. Alcoholic.

--The bus arrived on the other side of the road. The blonde guy flagged it down, standing in the middle of the road in the pouring rain. Came back to this side of the road to fetch his bike and backpack. "What was that town you told me about?" "Pahoa." He and his conversations got on the bus.

--The man with the cigarette left for a brief while on a bike. He'd waved to a guy in a BMW SUV with "Vietnam Vet" plate on the front. Might have been one of the grumpy guys who sits in front of the store a lot, or maybe just looked like a grumpy guy who would.

As a freshman in college in Alfred Corn's class, we read Elizabeth Bishop's "The Moose" and I wondered why a conversation in a bus in Nova Scotia about this and that was interesting in a poem. I was not persuaded then, though I appreciated the moose ("a she") and the neatly done stanzas. Today I realized she (both she's) had been my teachers in the art of eavesdropping, how much pleasure (and sorrow) there is in hearing these voices with their local and non-local cadences, and trying to catch the frayed end of a man's conversation with himself outside a general store in the rain.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Doggie Bags

Lilith had already pooped twice when we got to the cemetery, and I had no more bags. I looked up to see an African American man in a TALL MAN THEORY tee shirt, with pit bull and another big dog, striding toward us. "Do you have an extra poop bag?" I asked. "I thought she'd finished for the morning, but decided to grace the cemetery, too." He took off his headphones and I asked again. While explaining that his dogs prefer people to other dogs, he handed me three bags, two of which fell to the ground. "Three bags!" I exclaimed, scooping them up. "I have lots," he said, as they kept walking. He turned back to say, "Dog owners are like cigarette smokers, always bumming off each other!"