Transcendence & education

I am in the thick of midterm madness and have temporarily abandoned my post as speculative philosophical muser, gardening enthusiast and poet.

However, I maintain my efforts to stay in mindfulness whenever I can. In the car, on my way to work. In the phlebotomist’s chair, waiting for a blood test. At a staff meeting, or with a student–trying to be aware of what I say, and who the person in front of me is, rather than zone out and get anxious about the next thing I have to accomplish before bedtime. The practice, however badly I manage it, rewards me with moments of clarity and observation that help get me through a day and complement the practice of writing poetry.


Mindfulness does not come naturally to me; I am a daydreamer by temperament, a tuner-outer. It is far too easy for me to get carried out of the now by thoughts of “what if” or “what’s next,” and if I function in that way, I am not living my life in the present moment. Poets may start out as daydreamers, but if imagining never turns to the practice of writing and revising and reading the work–the daydreamer stays a dreamer, and does not mature into poetry-writing.


Among many other things, I am a teacher. I tell my students that English and Philosophy are “friends,” that they share many concepts, and that philosophy and English classes should educate people about The Big Picture. About life. I did not come to mindfulness or a consciousness of the value of the present moment in church or in school or on my own, though. People taught me. I came upon these concepts through philosophy–first, Western philosophy and later, Eastern philosophy.

Here are professors John Kaag and Clancy Martin presenting some of philosophy’s timeless questions (under the lens of Faust, for starters):

Faust knows everything worth knowing. And still, after all his careful bookwork, he arrives at the unsettling realization that none of it has really mattered. His scholarship has done pitifully little to unlock the mystery of human life.

Are we and our students in that same situation? Are we teaching them everything without teaching them anything regarding the big questions that matter most? Is there a curriculum that addresses why we are here? And why we live only to suffer and die?

Good questions.

In their article, Kaag and Martin take the question of life in the present, with its present meaning–if there is one–and propose an even deeper inquiry, one that I sometimes discuss with my colleagues in The Morbid Book Group. The authors write that

[w]hen dying finally delivers us to our inevitable end, we would like to think that we’ve endured this arduous trial for a reason. But that reason cannot, unfortunately, be articulated by many of the academic disciplines that have gained ascendance in our modern colleges. Why not? Why shouldn’t an undergraduate education prepare students not only for a rich life but for a meaningful death?

Then they compose a nice thumbnail sketch outlining some major definitions and explorations in Western thought and then suggest that higher education’s typical intellectual approach to The Big Questions has, to our students’ loss, lacked fullness of the lived experience as a part of its inquiries.

The need to have authentically lived and also to know what to do about dying are knotted together in a way that none of our usual intellectual approaches can adequately untangle. It is related to the strange way that experience is both wholly one’s own and never fully in one’s possession. Experience is, by its very nature, transcendent — it points beyond itself, and it is had and undergone with others.

The authors write, “Who needs transcendence? We suspect that human beings do.” I am certainly in agreement there; exactly how to convey transcendence to students is probably beyond the scope of most college professors, but we can encourage them toward inquisitiveness. We can be mindful about where they are now, and where we are now:

The meaning of life and death is not something we will ever know. They are rather places we are willing or unwilling to go. To feel them, moment by moment, to the end, authentically, thoughtfully, passionately — that is an answer in itself. And for us as educators, to show our students the importance of trying to go to those places — that may be one of the best things we can teach them.

What are we teaching our students about experience and the fullness of the present moment?

“…he not busy being born is busy dying” (“It’s Alright, Ma” Bob Dylan).


And even those being born are already dying. What have we got but the moment? I try to be mindful of that.


Read the article here.


Alexythymia–a term used in psychology and psychiatry. defines it: “difficulty in experiencing, expressing, and describing emotional responses. … Inability to describe emotions in a verbal manner.

It means having no words to describe or express feelings.

Or, experiencing feelings and having no verbal expressive methods to convey the feelings.

As to this 2016 US presidential campaign cycle, I am experiencing alexithymia. My feelings are just not something I can find words to explain. I will therefore rely on logic as much as I possibly can, but I admit that this year my vote is entirely based upon gut feelings that I cannot adequately organize into good prose.

It’s nice to know there’s a word for it.


Museum musing

On a drizzly, quite autumnal day, I returned to one of my favorite places, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Our main purpose this trip was to visit the American Craft galleries, where wood-turner and artist David Ellsworth’s work, including some collaborations with his wife, glass-bead artist Wendy Ellsworth, currently resides for a one-year exhibit. It’s not every day that I can enter a world-class museum and say, “I am friends with the artist who created this marvelous object!” Kudos to the Ellsworths and to the museum for recognizing the importance of David’s astonishing work.


Crafted from a dense burl of wood, precisely bandsawn, these sculptures from Ellsworth’s “Line Ascending” series range from 2 to 5 feet in height and conjure possibilities from dinosaur horns to mountains to minarets.

I had not had a chance on previous visits to walk through the Anne d’Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden at the museum, so despite the drizzle, we followed the paths through the 1-acre urban park. The hardscaping is very nice, though by now a bit cliched, since it seems every city garden in the US uses New York’s (admittedly amazing) High Line as its model. The Anne d’Harnoncourt garden likewise utilizes native plants in the garden areas–a trend of which I approve. The views of Philadelphia, its fountains and the river, are nicely framed, and the park is laid out well for “rooms” to contain or display large sculpture. I am sorry to report that few of the sculptures resident at present are appealing, though. My spouse remarked that one of the Sol Lewitt pieces “looks like a barbecue grill platform.” In another setting, that might not have been so obvious (or so funny). Nonetheless, it was pleasant to wander the sculpture garden paths and muse on things aesthetic instead of thinking about the large stack of student essays awaiting my attention.

Evaluating freshman composition papers requires a different aesthetic altogether.





& more difficult books…

Difficult books” ends up being one of my most-blogged-about topics. I like to challenge my brain with concepts that rattle the typical, with texts that force me to slow down and puzzle through my tangled thoughts. Right now, I am slowly reading two difficult but extremely rewarding books: Ann Lauterbach‘s The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience and Elaine Scarry‘s The Body in Pain.

Both of these writers use plenty of source material that synthesizes (or sometimes argues with) their concepts and explorations. In many cases, these are books new to me, but Lauterbach also quotes from and is inspired by some of my own favorites: Whitman, Emerson, Dickinson, William James. Lauterbach combines what my students would call a geeky interest in theory (literary and social) with anecdote, musings, and a collaged or transgressive approach to the argument or critique. This is to say I admit I do not always know where she is going with her essays, even at the close of them. And yet–her interweavings fascinate, her choices surprise. She’s a master of the pithy definition (“Poetry is…”), but she allows for many perspectives, many definitions.


Brad Hammonds/Flickr Creative Commons

Scarry’s text covers a different domain, though theory certainly has a place in her book. The Body in Pain examines what pain is–semiotically, physically, its interiority, its defining characteristics, the portrayal of pain in art and literature and what that tells us about the body, the Self, and the shared understanding but individual experience of pain. I have not gotten much beyond the second chapter of her book, but I already feel myself inquisitive about aspects of human pain that I had never even considered before; who thinks about pain except when feeling, or anticipating feeling, pain? Of course we know what pain is–until we try to describe our experience of it to another person.

I’ve had that frustrating experience numerous times (here’s Ally Brosch of Hyperbole & a Half with the best solution to pain charts), but I have not devoted much time to exploring why pain is so individual despite our universal recognition of its existence; also, it had not occurred to me why we so often doubt others’ pain. Scarry says we have developed no particular understanding of the phenomenon, one reason she undertook the writing of this book.

Meanwhile, the semester continues apace and my students are interested in argument after all, it appears; and the bounty of late tomatoes has arrived with much processing to do before they all rot. My time spent blogging will be brief in the coming weeks.🙂


Surely compelled

Ann Lauterbach from her book The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetic Experience

We make music, painting, sculpture, films, novels in order to mediate our mortal visiting rights: a specifically human wish to intercede, to punctuate the ongoingness of time and the seemingly random distributions of nature. This punctuation is called history or, more precisely, culture, or, more precisely still, history of culture…

The phrase “to mediate our mortal visiting rights” feels particularly resonant these days, as some of my elderly best-beloveds appear to be navigating that region–mediating it–at present; [to mediate: “divide in two equal parts,” probably a back-formation from mediation or mediator, or else from Latin mediatus, past participle of mediare “to halve,” later, “be in the middle,” from Latin medius “middle”).  –thank you Online Etymology Dictionary]. The two halves, between one world of what we call the living and another which is the end of life, there is really more of a continuum, however. The “gray area” can be quite enriching and lively. Or not. These are ways we create, or punctuate, our personal histories: the year grandmother broke her hip, the year Susan entered school, the year the Twin Towers were destroyed. These, among other “random distributions of nature.”

I think it is true that the arts help us with the wish to intercede somehow, and also–a different sort of wish, it seems to me–the wish to mediate. Lauterbach seems to conflate these wishes. I see her point, but I am not sure I agree wholly.


Intercession. Isn’t that also a form of prayer?

[“intercessory prayer, a pleading on behalf of oneself or another,” from Latin intercessionem (nominative intercessio) “a going between, coming between, mediation,” noun of action from past participle stem of intercedere “intervene, come between, be between” (in Medieval Latin “to interpose on someone’s behalf;”]


…the way words make sentences and sentences paragraphs is also a kind of constellating, where imagined structures are drawn from an apparently infinite fund: words, stars….these acts of narrative and imagistic invention were surely compelled by the inexhaustible human desire to transfigure the incomprehensible into intelligible form.

Lovely–and here, I agree completely: “surely compelled.”


Writing for me is associative, meditative, and digressive.  ~ Ann Lauterbach

images                                        pompeiian woman-writer


Thanks to art critic and blogger Sigrun of sub rosa for alerting me to the existence of this book.


Screech owls. Yipping foxes. Howling eastern coyotes. Tree frogs. Flying squirrels. The brown crickets, slowing their chirps as the temperature falls. Night sounds that I notice when I have episodes of insomnia.


eerie night

All my life, I have experienced insomnia–sometimes to a distracting degree. Now that I have a chronic condition that induces fatigue, insomnia plagues me less frequently; but something about the change of season from summer to autumn tends to arouse the sleepless demon. A colleague speculates that this seasonal insomnia occurs because for most of my life I have had to operate on the school-year’s calendar, September to June instead of January to December. Annually, this has been my transition time. I think she may be correct.


One of the most frustrating aspects of insomnia has been my sense that lying in bed unable to sleep is time wasted. We have only so many breaths to take in our lives. Stewing in anxiety, listening to thoughts run heedlessly through my consciousness–such fruitless minutes! I know I should be giving my body complete rest, nestling into proper circadian rhythms, instead of restlessly tossing. Or I should just get up and do something useful (but I’m too sleepy to do anything useful).

I am not a Buddhist; but learning about the practice of tonglen has provided me with a method for insomnia that does not feel wasteful. When I cannot fall asleep, or when I waken in the darkness and cannot get back to sleep again, the mindful breathing and the focus on compassion that tonglen prescribes are enormously helpful. I slow my breath and think about breath; I think about life, and about all sentient beings. In my awareness on the brink of sleep, I send compassion outward with my breaths–outward to all other beings in the cosmos. I repeat in my mind, “May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May they be released from pain and the causes of pain. May they find peace. I send compassion to all sentient beings.”

The practice is akin to prayer, which I learned very young (my father is a “man of the cloth”) in church and at home. From early in my life, however, I encountered problems with prayer because I had problems with the Omnipotent Other Being to whom I was  directing my prayers. In the abbreviated tonglen practice as I practice it, I do not need to direct my thoughts to any one being but toward all beings. [I should note that in actual Buddhist practice, there is considerably more contemplative work in tonglen; a good reference is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche.]


First Presbyterian Church of Yonkers NY, 1964

The benefits are several. Maybe my consciousness does not affect the consciousness of other beings, or in any way affect the suffering they experience. I certainly allow that may be the case. Nonetheless, the practice of thinking kindly toward all other beings works to make me feel happier and kinder; it reminds me of my own and others’ generous spirits. In addition, the practice soothes me both bodily and in my mind. Slow breathing is comforting and relaxing. All kinds of studies show that slow, thoughtful breaths relieve physical stress and mental stress while allowing oxygen to flow freely through the blood. All of that is helpful to the body–and the slow breaths are relaxing enough to get me back to sleep. Which is also, as studies show, quite essential for good health.


The night sounds and the changing seasons kindle me to write poems, as well. Sometimes those middle-of-the-night awakenings are charged with inspirations, or snippets of imagery from life or dream.The urge to write differs from the urge to share compassion, but they feel like kinfolk to me. Poetry springs, often, from the feeling of shared struggle.


May we make good use of insomnia. May we be free from suffering.

The Protestant in my upbringing says, Amen.