Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Let it go

It's the last day of final exams, and students are trickling in to say their "farewells" and their "see ya next years." Some are saying yet more long-lasting goodbyes, graduation soon to take them far away.

An hour or so ago three of our more outgoing Honors students came by to bid adieu to Queshia and me. They sat in the Honors office and we talked for about twenty minutes. Much of our conversation centered on the idea of letting go...or not: end-of-semester goodbyes, helicopter parenting, and relationships that have run their course.

"Kids these days," I began, noting that I'd once sworn up and down that I'd never say those words, "don't have the freedom we had when I was young. As long as my parents knew roughly where I was, we were free to roam about the town, with little worry what we'd get into." Now, of course, parents hover overhead. They call the program on their kids' behalves, inquiring about requirements and expectations and perks. They ask after every detail of their kids' academic lives. They have to learn to let go.

We all have to learn to do this, and it's not an easy thing to do.

As I wrote in a recent post, my life lately has been filled with loved ones lost. One of my closest friends lost her mother, suddenly, and not two weeks later another friend, just as suddenly, lost her father. In the skinny interstice between these deaths two other, yet younger, friends of friends passed away, and in the time since my friend's father's death I've heard several talk of losing parents, friends, and pets. It's gotten overwhelming, and, as I hinted in that same post above, I can't say that I've handled it well.

Why not? One reason, I think, is that I've been lucky enough to not have lost many people truly close to me. I've made it through 38 years without losing a particularly close friend or family member. I seem to be blessed with a particularly healthy set of childhood friends, and my friends from college are no less hearty and robust. And my mom and dad both up and moved far, far away from their respective families when they were young, so I grew up hell and gone from my extended families. This meant that I hardly knew any of the grandparents and other more distant relatives I've lost, having only seen them for a few days at a time once every other year or so, and then only when I was very young. We simply weren't close.

I don't mean to sound unfeeling or callous or cold: this is just the way it is. I've never had to deal directly with death; I'm as yet unfamiliar with its effects on me. What's more, I still don't feel as though I'm dealing with it directly, even now, but really only through others, and thus I'm not so much dealing with death as I am dealing with the effects that death has on my relationships with those dealing with death directly. Therefore my experience is a mediated one and, because it centers on others' relationships with me, it's an experience I thought at first was necessarily selfish.

But does it have to be selfish? On reflection, I think not.

When tragedy strikes our friends, we can choose to remove ourselves and feel their pain only through the effects it has on the relationships we share with those friends. We see the tragedy strike, but we don't feel it immediately. We shelter ourselves. We may offer our support, but that support is academic, it's detached and distant.

I fear that this is the kind of support I've been offering to my friends in their recent mourning. I've baked a few dozen cookies and a couple loaves of bread, I've offered the expected words of solace and succor, and I've offered a hand with transportation and child care, if needed. But I've not really been present for the pain. I've spent more time focusing on the way in which the various tragedies affect me, as mediated through my friends' pain in turn.

I need to learn to let go.

I need to learn to let go of my own pain, to feel it, but also to let it pass so that in its place I can place a picture of the pain my friends may be going through as they deal with their loss.

Further, I need to learn to let go of  my self, if only for a little while, to see beyond my self and my immediate relationships with my friends, to see instead to my friends' relationships with the loved ones they've lost.

Finally, I need to learn to let go of those very relationships, or at least my static conceptions of those relationships, and to accept that tragedy brings great waves of change and that once those waves have passed the relationships they've left behind might look very different than they did just days before.

To anyone to whom I've not been able to offer the succor or support you've needed from me, I apologize. I've not before dealt with death so directly, and I'm only now learning my own authentic reactions to it. I'm a work in progress, and that progress may be slow at times, but I promise you that it's there.

Thank you for understanding.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

We are family

I'm now three semesters into my stint as Honors Program director, and I think I'm starting to get the hang of the gig. I've learned the ropes well enough to feel confident tweaking things here, cinching it up there, and making many many midcourse adjustments. Give me another term or two and I'm gonna feel ready to make some bigger changes.

Like what? I've had a number of conversations with one of my closest colleagues about ways in which the Honors Program could be made to cater more to students who demonstrate exceptional intellect and motivation via measures other than standardized test scores and high achievement in courses (like AP classes) ultimately driven by rote examination. I don't want to go too far too fast, but my colleague and I brainstormed ways we could modify both the admission process to the program and the requirements for graduation with Distinction as a University Scholar in order to encourage less the grinds, grade-grubbers, and résumé-builders (many of whom either drop from the program before completing Distinction requirements or simply take a path of least resistance, relying on courses they know won't really challenge them) and more the risk-takers, visionaries, and authentic learners (many of whom are ineligible for the program as it's currently constructed because their risk-taking and earnest focus on real learning has led them to lower performance by quantitative measures).

How might we do this? Disallow membership in the program for first-year (or at least first-semester) students, requiring all interested students to opt in to the program (and not simply be placed there) after having spent some time at the university. Admittance criteria would be more holistic and not so focused on classroom performance. The program's curricular offerings would be more intentionally integrative and dovetail with substantial extra- and co-curricular activities and programming. Students would be asked to complete a sort of Honors thesis at the end of their involvement in the program. Most important, Honors students would be asked to interact in a meaningful fashion with students who are not members of the program. Of what this interaction would consist...I don't know. All I know now is that both I and my partner in crime in this revisioning exercise believe that the Honors Program offers a troubling equity issue, providing real resources to the most academically gifted of students, the ones who are less likely to need those resources in order to succeed in their college careers, while their less-academically-gifted peers make do without such assistance.

Excellence without elitism: how do we realize this vision? One way might be to take the tack we've slowly been turning to over the last couple of terms, emphasizing not the Honors Program's academic offerings but instead its sense of community. I truly believe we've done far more to support Honors students' success during the past year through Honors yoga sessions, Reading-Day snacks, "Good Books" reading groups, and Honors trivia nights than we have through sending a small handful of Honors students to statewide, regional, and national conferences.

My university (like every other in the country) is struggling with recruitment and retention, and I truly believe the community-building we're trying to do in the Honors Program is an unbeatable means of achieving those two related goals. Nothing beats the inestimable and intangible benefit of bringing the students together in the Laurel Forum, introducing those with like interests and aims, giving them access to one another's support. They'll stick around, and they'll not regret a minute of it. And when their younger peers come to visit the school they'll talk the program up into the stratosphere (I've heard them do it).

So, expect to see more community-building as the program looks to the future. And if you've got any ideas for ways we can do this (jigsaw puzzles? Brew-offs? Iron-Chef-like cooking competitions?), please let me know.

Friday, December 06, 2013


Yesterday Nelson Mandela died, and the world lost one of its greatest ever agents of peace. Meanwhile, more locally, during the past few weeks several people very close to me have dealt with the deaths of too many loved ones to count: a father, a mother, and so, so many friends (one covered with once-soft black fur). It's been a very rough month, and I don't believe I've handled it as well as I might have. I don't think I've been as present as I could have been; I think I've been too self-absorbed. I've been sleepwalking, but I feel as though I'm coming awake.

Yesterday my HON 479 students put on their long-awaited workshop on diversity, inclusion, and equity, focusing on the ways in which these manifest in religion, race, and gender. They worked with a small audience comprising about ten faculty and staff and a couple of their fellow students. The group was small, but it was engaged. The conversations we had were rich, heartfelt, authentic. The event was enlightening, meaningful, and moving. Working with wonderful visuals (Like the Cooper Center's "Racial Dot Map" and It's Pronounced Metrosexual's "Genderbread Person v. 2.0") and excellent activities ("The Cold Wind Blows," religious insensitivity role-plays, and a few rounds of reflective writing on our own gender and racial identities), the students' workshop was substantially better than the awful diversity and inclusion workshop I took part in earlier this year.

At some point late in yesterday's workshop's proceedings, while one of my students was talking about her intellectual journey as a devout Christian completing an academic degree in religious studies, I had a sudden feeling of self-awareness. It was a feeling of being and becoming all at once. It was also a feeling of oneness, of unity with the people I'd just shared the past two hours with. Though our group was small, we represented several races and ethnicities, several religious traditions, several gender and sexual identities. We offered a substantial cross-section of our society, and we were having civil...nay, collegial, even cordial...conversation on some of the most difficult topics for anyone to talk about.

On the way home from campus, NPR told me that Mandela had died, and I teared up in the car. I thought of South Africa's Madiba, and his friends and colleagues in struggle. I thought in particular of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for whom I have more respect than nearly anyone else. In his incredible book No Future Without Forgiveness Tutu speaks of the concept of ubuntu, a Bantu term referring to our human interconnectedness, which Mandela once described as follows:

"A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn't have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food and attend him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?"

In the short time I had before I had to leave again to meet with my writing group I sliced onions for the simple meal of lentils and rice I would make when I came home again, and I read the first lines of the end-of-semester reflection one of my HON 479 students had handed to me just before helping to host that afternoon's workshop. "Dear Patrick, I hope you don't find this format too informal," it begins. "I tailored my response with you in mind, so I thought I might address you directly." In tandem with her humble letter (which brought me to tears by the time I was done reading it) was a hand-made jigsaw puzzle the student had crafted.

I had no time to assemble more than the frame of the puzzle before leaving, but completing the puzzle was the second thing (after starting dinner) I did on my return home.

"You may start to notice (or maybe you have finished) that the puzzle is a tree. I chose a tree because I think it represents various aspects of the IHAD program."

"Now, I'm sorry to deprive you of the satisfaction of putting that last piece in the puzzle, but I did not lose it and neither did you. How frustrating is it to complete a process yet still feel as though you are missing something?...Thank you for going through this puzzling process with me today."

I've recently taken to origami, more seriously than my halfhearted efforts in the past. I am struck in particular by the beauty and meaning of the kusudama, or "medicine ball," a form that's meant to ward off evil and encourage health and strength. I made a kusudama a week ago for a grieving loved one, and I'm making more now, for friends, for family, for people I love. I fear I'll never stop, for right now I feel a sort of universal love which I hope I'll never lose.

It's a new day. As this day begins, please take a moment to love yourself, to love each other, to find peace and joy in all that you do. Enjoy being, but keep becoming.