Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Questioning Infinity and Examining Spots in the Universe

Janna Levin is a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University, as well as an acclaimed fiction writer and amateur artist. She has contributed to an understanding of black holes, the cosmology of extra dimensions, and gravitational waves in the shape of spacetime, and was recently named a Guggenheim Fellow.  She's received widespread praise and several awards for her recent novel A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, based on the work of  scientist and mathematician Alan Turing, who is largely credited with invention of the computer.  I look forward to getting my hands on this book and reviewing in in the near future. This post, however, is focused on an earlier work of hers, which I encountered over a decade ago, managed to lose and forget about, and purchased again not long ago, only to have the funny feeling that I had read it before.  I am so glad I did, and here I will attempt to explain why.   

In How the Universe Got Its Spots, Levin presents her thoughts on infinity, black holes, the topology of the universe, and the highlights and pitfalls of living with a calling to map it - intertwined with concise and poignant reflections on significant developments in her personal life - in a series of letters to her mother.  These begin with her reports of moving from California to England with her boyfriend, Warren - an obsessive compulsive musician who left school at the age of fifteen and who, in addition to displaying an obvious penchant for bluegrass and triangles, is prone to nervous breakdowns upon return to his home country.  Within the first few pages Levin has touched on her wonderings about the relationship between madness and the search for truth, questions about the supposedly infinite nature of the universe (an idea she cannot abide), and the universal human tendency to “throw our vision far beyond the limitations of our eyes.”  Levin’s sensibility is unique in that she began her academic career in the field of philosophy. In her own words, Levin admits to having had "a comical stereotype of physicists memorizing things and being kinda rote... I thought philosophy was after the big questions. And It's very ironic, when I look back at my childhood, that I was absolutely mesmerized by cosmology and astronomy, even evolutionary science, ideas of natural selection. They had always captured my imagination, and with these gratifying sort of ways to think about the world.”  As Levin recalls, it was a guest speaker in a philosophy class that altered her thinking:  “Everybody in the room got very quiet... And what I was most impressed with was that philosophers didn't know how to respond. So I thought it was powerful. And I became interested in physics."  

Levin encounters infinity as “a demented concept,” a perspective that she acknowledges would be lamentable according to many of her colleagues, but, as she rebuffs, “these are my letters, my diary.”

After reading the book and listening to her speak, I cannot help but agree.  My notion of the cosmos, as a young girl situated between the figures of my grandparents in Sunday Church, and throughout over a decade and a half of of Catholic school, has always been inseparable from a the equal amount of time I spent playing scientist in notebooks and on index cards, keeping track of names for things, devising inventions, and - on one memorable afternoon that left me laid out on the dining room floor with a terrible case of vertigo - trying to devise some system for counting the number of raindrops that fell per second in a typical April storm.  Reasoning about this behavior is dubious at best, but any open-minded child with a Saturday ahead of them is prone to wonder.  And as my grandmother explained it to me on Sundays over the brunch that followed Mass, In the Beginning there was Nothing.  And then God created the Heavens and the Earth:  First there was Light, then the Moon and then the Stars.  Later came Man.  Once there was Nothing, then there was Something.  And, as far as my limited sphere of understanding had instructed me, So it Was and Ever Would be World Without End, Amen.  Which I took as my initiation into certain tendencies towards symmetry in the universe, although I never could have voiced it as such at the age of seven.   

Perhaps I had progressive teachers, or because my mother subscribed to Omni and Popular Science, or perhaps because I grew up in the age of  Pope John Paul II - who, as my grandparents and the nuns shared with me often, encouraged and fostered ongoing relationships between scientists and the Vatican, to explore common interests of cosmology, mysticism, and physics -  I grew up understanding that the thrill of scientific discovery was a cousin to the sense of awe and wonder that came from standing in the post-Eucharist silence of church, pondering deep existential questions - or else in story, or while staring up at a sky full of cloud animals, or at a blanket of stars so dense that it made my head ache with the effort of trying to absorb them all.  The ideas of science and the sensibilities of mythology and wonder, for me, have never really lived in opposition to one another (although I can relate to Levin's tendency to stereotype physicists as boring and clerkish, prior to actually knowing any).  It would be decades before I was able to voice why.  This capacity only came when I read a memorable passage by Joseph Campbell (in a context of describing how every religion is the enactment of a mythology) on the ways that science and mythology were simply different modes of explaining the same thing.  One used experiment, the other story.  

The part where it always got confusing, in both mythological and scientific modes,  was precisely the part about infinity.  If God goes on and on, I used to wonder, and the universe does too, then how can anyone really say that everything is contained within the sphere of the divine - that is, unless that which is divine is something that goes on and on endlessly and yet exists within a complete system unto itself?  

“Look,” Levin puts it, in explanation as to the ways that intuitions may sometimes be misleading, “it seems logical, once one understands the concept of velocity, and the concept of infinity, that one would be able to imagine going faster and faster by infinite degrees.”  But this concept, as Levin observes, is at odds with empirical evidence.  We do have a limit, and we reach it at the speed of light. 

All that I knew about this field prior to first reading Levin’s work over a decade ago, and aside from passing references and constant wonder, involved a few literary encounters with the work of Carl Sagan in high school, of which I mainly remembered his observation that “We are all star stuff.” Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, - even space and time and gravity itself - all emerged from the big bang. Recognition that we  share a common inception makes it difficult to not to wonder if we don't also share some other common elements of fate as well. There was nothing, and then there was something, and there we all were - stars, ether, the echo of the big bang itself, the black holes, the supernovas, the peaks and valleys in the fabric of it all:  what to make of such largesse, and even if we can agree in theory on a beginning, how does anyone begin to imagine the rest of it?

One of many aspects of Levin’s thinking that is admirable and compelling:  her observation that “my faith in nature and its laws is deeper than my need for uniqueness.”  This in follow-up to her observation that, if one accepts the concept of infinity, one must also accept - by extension - the strong possibility that there are other versions of each of us out there.  Levin can “welcome the infinite in mathematics” while still maintaining that she would be “pretty shaken to find the infinite in nature.” In explanation of this seeming paradox, Levin offers this:
I don’t feel robbed living my days in the physical with its tender admission of the finite.  I still get to live with the infinite possibilities of mathematics, if only in my head.
She traces various developments in the field from Tycho Brahe, to Newton, to Max Planck, following the discoveries that led to Einstein’s game-changing theory of special relativity, and while she considers Einstein a hero (in no small part for “his defiant brilliance in the face of his own limitations,” referring to how he never allowed the clumsiness of his calculations to stop his earnest quest for large-scale theories about the laws of the universe), she recognizes - as did Einstein- that his quantum theory is ultimately incomplete.  Mulling over the field-altering discoveries that Einstein and others observed, she invites readers to reconsider the commonly acknowledged but perhaps under-appreciated revelation that space and time are relative, not absolute. This suggests curves and folds in the cosmos which had once been thought to be flat and homogenous.

Levin’s habits of mind are admirable on many levels, and one reflection of her elegant thinking may be found here:  “I try to find a simple expression for my ideas.  I figure if there is none, the ideas might be wrong.  And yet, she never shies away from asking questions that threaten to overwhelm by leading one down a virtual rabbit hole of mind-warping complexities, as when she confesses to mom:  “I’m not just wondering if spacetime is finite, I’m wondering if we can look out and see the whole thing.”

Her thinking is poignant and ripe with mystical elements, although she never abandons her commitment to the sober gaze of the scientist.  Her reach is evident in musings like this:
..we are the product of the universe and I think it can be argued that the entire cosmic code is imprinted in us.  Just as our genes carry the memory of our biological ancestors, our logic carries the memory of our cosmological ancestry.  We are not just imposing human-centric notions on a cosmos independent of us.  We are progeny of the cosmos and our ability to understand it is an inheritance.
And later, when she observes, along similar lines of thought:
There are no walls built in the human mind making some of us scientist and some of us artist.  They are branches of the same tree, rooted in a common human essence.  Maybe it’s our ability to step between the different disciplines, weaving strange loops all the while, that’s at the core of our creativity.  The drive for knowledge must be as innately human as any of our more carnal desires.  Maybe the compulsion to ask these questions is rooted in the structure of our minds.  Maybe the answers are too.
If the above may be recognized as evidence of her reach, the following may be offered as evidence that she immune from any critique of being some soft-shelled wonderer with a mystical bent who may or may not care about the precise nature of the suppositions he or she wonders about:
…the enigma of quantum mechanics tempts abuse.  People try to treat quantum mechanics as synonymous with supernatural.  But just because we don’t understand it doesn’t mean all sanity has abandoned us. We can use the predictions of this confounding theory with stunning accuracy in the tremendous colliders that particle physicists have used around the world.  It is probabilistic instead of simply deterministic, but it is still predictive and not utterly wild and random.
Other topics I’ve love to go into: the way that supernovas collapse into the bodies of neutron stars, “smaller than Manhattan spinning thousands of times per second,” the way that human eyes are precisely tuned to interpretation of the spectrum of light emitted by the sun, and a few stunning facts about black holes: how they absorb matter and energy through a vacuum that acts as “ a cut in the fabric of space..”  The way that black holes evaporate, and how before they do so, they can only be measured by examining the matter and light that they absorb (I’ll admit that here I am drawn by a strong tendency to anthropomorphize, for is it not so that the same can be said of the black holes in each of our lives? Often, we may only observe them by observing what they consume.  Certain laws of being seem to consistently prevent us from ever being able to conceive of these head-on. I realize that this hunch is neither provable nor scientifically sound, but I am an admirer rather than a practitioner of these studies, and it could be argued that, as such, I cannot help it.)

Here I’m going to try to get to the truth alluded to in the title.  Levin’s intimate and down-to-earth tone  - combined with her focus on simplicity - have the effect of imbuing the reader with a level of confidence in approaching some rudimentary description of certain theories that is utterly unearned.  (If questioned, I’m inclined to retort with, “Well, it’s like Janna said…,” which alludes to the intimacy of writer-reader relationship that is certainly a hallmark of this book’s appeal.)  This connection arrives via the strain of wonder at the unknowable and celebration of science’s quest for knowledge, that runs through all of her letters, and in which she observes how:

We live at a time  when people have the tenacity to analyze the data of telescopes, build satellites, and develop detectors that, when put together, could actually determine the fate of the whole cosmos.
Here is where she comes across, for this reader, as a kindred spirit - when she observes that “each answer I learn releases a rainfall of new questions.”

William Blake's Ancient of Days
In her contemplation of the origins of the universe, Levin observes that “the universe at its inception is smaller than a grain of salt and unfathomably dense” and my thoughts turn immediately to the writings of fellow mystic William Blake, who observed, in one well-known fragment from his “Auguries of Innocence," how innocence is reflected in a capacity "To see a world in a grain of sand/ and a Heaven in a Wildflower/ Hold Infinity in the palm of your Hand/ and Eternity in an Hour."

More fuel for thought: the echo of the big bang as measured unexpectedly (except to a few forward-thinking theorists) from New Jersey by Bell laboratories in 1967.  In order to echo, sound must have something against which it refracts.  Such a phenomenon gives strong support to Levin’s hypothesis that the universe, though “really, really big” may be finite, rather than infinite.  

If finite, how is it shaped?  Is it a two-dimensional plane, rolled inward upon itself the way a piece of paper may roll in on itself to become a cylinder - or, if slightly more flexible like a piece of cloth, rolled inward like a cylinder and then around again so that the two ends touch, in the form of any number of elaborately curved manifolds that have been proposed as possible shapes of the space (and time) we inhabit?

Perhaps it has handles and holes.  Certain facts strongly suggest that it is much more likely that it has some sort of irregularities, in the forms of bumps and valleys, than that it is completely smooth.  One of the strongest suggestions of this comes in the form of hot and cold spots.  If the universe were infinite and expanding with equal wavelength in all directions outward from the same common point in the big bang, than it would seem to follow that the temperature of the ether would be constant and yet, it isn’t.  It is spotted in hot and cool spots, not entirely unlike the spots of a leopard, and
Model of Calabi-Yau manifold 
which beg the question: “Can we observe he extent of the universe by looking for a pattern in the universe’s spots?”  The thing that makes this significant comes from understanding that if the universe were smooth and infinite, the “light filling the cosmos would primarily ring at one wavelength, one note.” Which it seemed to do, more or less since the universe’s inception, for about 300,000 years, before developing series of small perturbations which Levin elegantly interprets as the “hills and valleys” of a melodic score.  As she observes, “If the universe is finite, the score is not just cacophony but has natural harmonics and imprinted patterns - melody.  This is what we search for.” Much of her work in the field of topography involves experimentation with models of folding dimensions, a sort of “intergalactic origami” intended to effectively catalog the possibilities of arrangement for compact spaces.

In a moment demanding of profound pause, Levin observes, “When we finally do have a TOE [Theory of Everything] that is also a quantum theory, all of our tales will have to be retold."  It raises the question, Who will the observers be, then?

Endearingly, Levin wonders at the possible uselessness of her mathematical calculations, “Should I stop staring into space… shouldn’t I be more concerned with my ordinary life?" Reading this meditation calls to mind a line from a quintessential poet of the American Northwest, Robinson Jeffers, and his meditations on the “divinely superfluous beauty” of his natural surroundings. How could anyone fully conscious of it fail to be completely transfixed? 

The storm-dances of gulls, the barking game of seals,
Over and under the ocean ...
Divinely superfluous beauty
Rules the games, presides over destinies, makes trees grow
And hills tower, waves fall.
The incredible beauty of joy
Stars with fire the joining of lips, O let our loves too
Be joined, there is not a maiden
Burns and thirsts for love
More than my blood for you, by the shore of seals while the wings
Weave like a web in the air
Divinely superfluous beauty.

 - "Divinely Superfluous Beauty" by Robinson Jeffers

"Seagull Silhouette" image provided by versageek on flickr under a creative commons license.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Fr. Greg Boyle on Returning Ourselves to One Another

This post began as a response to a recent conversation about service.  My brother was becoming involved in various organizations, and over the course of discussing new service opportunities, certain predictable questions came up.  How best to be of use?  How to know? Where to begin? And, of course, how to sustain a life of service to others.*

My thoughts turned immediately to Fr. Greg Boyle - specifically to an On Being interview with Krista Tippett  that was my introduction to his tremendous presence, and to his book, Tattoos on the Heart, which I purchased immediately after hearing him speak.  There are certain experiences about which, when remembered in certain contexts, with particular people, one is compelled to fervently say, "You must (see, hear, watch, try) this!" I did say this about Fr. Boyle's work, and about the interview, when it came up, but I was unsatisfied with my explanation as to why.  I want to elaborate when recommending something and meaning it because - let's face it, most people don't have the time.

In this post I will try to explain what is so affecting about the experience of hearing this man talk (via interview or in his book), in the hopes that whomever reads this may be curious enough to decide to listen and/or read for him or herself. I must make it clear at the outset that I am incapable of capturing his presence.  This meager attempt to describe anything about it comes from believing that anyone who contemplates or acts on a desire to live all or part of ones life in service to others, must spend some time in the company of Fr. Greg Boyle, so  I am compelled to try to explain why one may benefit profoundly from doing so.    

I'll start by explaining where I was when I heard the interview: driving home, Friday afternoon, about four years ago, sometime in early March.  I was in my seventh year or so of teaching, which was long enough to have observed the way that, every year a certain strain of despair creeps in, bringing with it a particular line of questioning, which goes something like this: “What does it matter, what we do here?” I hear the question voiced as often among my closest colleagues as I do within myself.

It was still several weeks away from spring break, but well enough into the year for it to have long been made clear that some sort of break, in a kinder world, would surely be manifest.  

Maybe I chose to listen that afternoon out of some hope to learn something useful or edifying about how to better find a way to do what needed to be done - that is, to hang on. If so, it seems important to distinguish this impulse from my reasons for continuing to  listen over the course of an hour’s drive.  These can be explained more simply: because it is a sheer delight to hear this man talk.  It is immediately clear that this is someone whose presence is so authentic and complex, so unassuming while at the same time so aspirational in its hopes of what human beings may be for one another, that it has the effect of making one feel cradled in the womb of a reality that one may have -  for reasons relating to popular definitions of what is real and isn’t -  ceased to believe in, at least completely.  It is likely that if one encounters Fr. Boyle in such a state, one may be reminded back to oneself, in all of one’s childish hopes and dreams for what might be if people remembered one another in certain ways.

All I knew of Boyle, when I clicked Play to hear the podcast, was what I could see from the descriptor beneath the show’s title:

The Calling of Delight: Gangs, Service, and Kinship
A Jesuit priest famous for his gang intervention programs in Los Angeles, Fr. Greg Boyle makes winsome connections between service and delight, compassion and awe. He heads Homeboy Industries, which employs former gang members in a constellation of businesses. This is not work of helping, he says, but of finding kinship. The point of Christian service, as he lives it, is about “our common calling to delight in one another.”  Listen here.  
At the opening of this interview, Fr. Boyle announces, “I have this recurring nightmare that I am being interviewed by Krista Tippett and I am found to be shallow and lacking in faith.” 

I am leaning in, now, and will remain so for the better part of an hour.  As far as I can see, the only ones who can offer any useful instruction as to faith are the natural doubters.   Although I may frequently admire those who seem ever sure of footing, I can never quite identify with anyone who seems immune to regular bouts of hearty self-questioning and a ripe colony of insecurities. I will always prefer the company of those who are willing to freely admit to questioning every step of the way, in an endless series of forward-leaning steps towards a place that is less a destination than it is a belief in what a destination might be if the world were other than it is, to anyone who claims to have figured out in any satisfactory fashion, a way of life so immune to puncture that he or she feels confident in selling it under the guise of a how to book.  Tell me you know how its done and I’m inclined to call bullshit.  Share your story as openly as you share your hopes in what might be and your doubts in what is being or has been done, and I will be your loyal listener forever. 

Listening over the course of my drive home, I wish I could sit beside him at a pub at the end of a long day and buy him a beer. There are familiar tones in his doubts, and in those moments that are new and unfamiliar, any weary listener may be renewed to witness some some glimmer of what each of us is called to become, which is no more and no less someone with the sensitivity to better recognize the people one encounters on a daily basis, in order to better serve as someone capable of finding small moments in which to become the sort of mirror that has the effect of returning ones best self back to oneself.  

I suspect that Fr. Boyle has this effect on many, which no doubt has much to do with his becoming a phenomenon, the man whom homies approach, as he recounts, to ask in lieu of, “Father may I have your blessing?”, “Hey G, Gimme a bless, Ya?”  As I write this line it occurs to me that this is what each of us are asking for every day, some blessing from another.  Some of us just ask more urgently than others.  

A listener with any degree of formal experience in that area of human activity often called service cannot help but be reminded of the habit among so many of those purporting to “serve” of loving to recount how well they “helped” those they worked with. To anyone who has ever felt an inkling that there was something wrong with such a sentiment, know that Fr. Boyle is a longstanding leader of the tribe more inclined to listen than to preach, more inclined to serve in the sense of asking, “How may I help you?” as opposed to telling, “This is what you need.” 

Tattoos on the Heart is not the sort of book you read because you want to know what happens next.  It’s not a book to read in hopes of figuring out how the author “does it.”  Its the kind you read because its written by someone you don’t want to stop being with. Boyles' God is an expansive creator, the divine presence that regardless of faith calls each individual to find the best of him or herself by coming outside of it.    

In the Preface, Boyle describes his intentions for the stories contained within his book, around which he hopes to “slather enough thematic mortar [to] hold them together”:

"With any luck, they will lift us up so that we can see beyond the confines of the things that limit our view." 

His intention, clear as it is from the beginning, does not fail to stun as it continues to emerge.  As witness, one is forced to acknowledge that the thing preventing us from seeing the divine correlates almost precisely with the distance we hold between ourselves and others.  Any careful witness of Boyle's testimony is forced to acknowledge that a full interpretation of "others," equates effectively with “those that we would prefer to dismiss.”  One is forced to acknowledge a tendency to dismiss certain people who exasperate beyond a certain point.  It is these, Boyle reminds himself as often as he does his readers, over and over again, who have the most to offer.  

He cites the words of William Blake:
Jacob's Ladder by William Blake
“We are put on earth for a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love,” and follows with the observation that “this is what we all have in common, gang member  and non-gang member alike:  we’re just trying to learn how to bear the beams of love.”
Boyle speaks often of being returned to himself in his work with “the homies,” and describes his own intentions as aimed towards returning others to themselves. He makes it clear, over and over again, that this is a cooperative process, one that cannot be achieved in isolation.  He celebrates an open and inclusive sense of “church” to replace the  “hermetically sealed”  version that stresses keeping “the ‘good folks' in and the ‘bad folks’ out.” Boyle's God is no tight-lipped, vengeful judge, but an expansive, fun-loving and ever-patient source of opportunities.

Boyle meditates on this expansiveness often, observing that attaining it,  paradoxically, tends to require a narrow focus, as “the gate that leads to life is not about restriction at all.  It is about an entry into the expansive” which, as often as not, “comes to us disguised as ourselves.”

Through story, Father Greg reminds listeners how that which is sacred is found in moments of small humility and kindness.  Boyle observes how in an effort to make the sacred more palatable, less difficult, “We’ve wrestled the cup out of Jesus' hand and we've replaced it with a chalice because who doesn't know that a chalice is more sacred than a cup, never mind that Jesus didn't use a chalice?” In his interview, Boyle offers a profound illustration of this sacrament, through a story related to him by one of the young men he had been working with.
(from the transcript of the interview)
A story I tell in the book about a homie who I saw sometime not long after Christmas Day.   I said, "What'd you do on Christmas?" And he was an orphan and abandoned and abused by his parents and worked for me in our graffiti crew. I said, "What'd you do for Christmas?" "Oh, just right here." I said, "Alone?" And he said, "No, I invited six other guys from the graffiti crew who didn't had no place to go," he said, "and they were all …" He named them and they were enemies with each other.  
I said, "What'd you do?" He goes, "You're not gonna believe it. I cooked a turkey." . I said, "Well, how'd you prepare the turkey?" He says, "Well, you know, ghetto style." I said, "No, I don't think I'm familiar with that recipe." He said, "Well, you rub it with a gang of butter and you squeeze two limones on it and you put salt and pepper, put it in the oven. Tasted proper," he said. I said, "Wow. What else did you have besides turkey?" "Well, that's it, just turkey. Yeah, the seven of us, we just sat in the kitchen staring at the oven waiting for the turkey to be done. Did I mention it tasted proper?" I said, "Yeah, you did."  
So what could be more sacred than seven orphans, enemies, rivals, sitting in a kitchen waiting for a turkey to be done? Jesus doesn't lose any sleep that we will forget that the Eucharist is sacred. He is anxious that we might forget that it's ordinary, that it's a meal shared among friends. And that's the incarnation, I think. 

The need for help is universal, and yet it is easy to forget, sometimes, how delivering the most essential aid, when it is most needed, often has much more to do with being that it does with doing. It's a matter of maintaining proximity and presence.  There are times when, by focusing on why or how anything we "do" matters, we miss the point.  There is no formula, no way to get it right,  and as many of us know if we have ever been found in a moment of obvious need, and been confronted by someone who had an easy solution, the instinct to run from it is likely well advised.  There are enough ideas out there. There are enough hows.  When the time comes for fixing, anyone with enough hope, can figure out how or who to ask.  Presence is harder to come by.   Pain often involves a degree of desperation and despair,  and yet, we are naturally resilient.  All we need is someone to bear it with us.

One of the many striking moments is his observation that what is most worth seeking is this: “A compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgement at how they carry it.” Doing this requires standing with rather than apart.  It involves doing what Boyle describes as “sharing our lives with those on the margins.”  The effect of doing this is a profound widening of the circle that envelops the worthy, until none are left outside of it.   The beatitudes (Blessed are the poor in spirit, etc, etc..) are not a spirituality, after all, he observes.  Rather, "they are a geography," which as Boyle puts it, “tells us where to stand.” He reminds us that “in the monastic tradition, the highest form of sanctity is to live in hell and not lose hope.”
Trusting in Teilhard de Chardin’s vision of “the slow work of God,” Boyle stresses the importance of waiting in faith rather than focusing on results.  “I’m not opposed to success,” he explains,  “I just think we should accept it only as a by-product of our fidelity.  If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones.”

Instead of looking for satisfaction in results, Boyle chooses to delight in the community he serves. His wonder at the presence of the divine in those around him is genuine and contagious.  The moments for laugh-out-loud recognition come often, as do moments of profound loss, as Boyle shares stories of the senseless deaths that emerge in a community where hopelessness fuels constant gang activity, as well as insights into navigating his faith in the face of such losses.  Boyle holds his ground, standing at the edges, in kinship with "the easily despised and the readily left out," explaining his mission as such: "We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop… we situate ourselves with the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”  This only happens when we learn to delight and wonder at one another, in small acts of daily faith.  Boyle reminds how service is less about grand-scale delivery of "help" and much more about learning to see oneself in others, to be returned to ourselves in doing so, and to grow our own capacity to return others to the sacred center of their own being - that which is most constant and most prone to being forgotten.  You read the work of Fr. Greg Boyle, you listen to him speak, for the sheer delight that comes from  remembering.  

With That Moon Language

Admit something:

Everyone you see, you say to them,
"Love me."

Of course you do not do this out loud;
Someone would call the cops.

Still though, think about this,
This great pull in us
To connect.

Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying,

With that sweet moon

What every other eye in this world
Is dying to

 - Hafiz

* This post is dedicated to my brother, Shane, who daily strives to model his behavior after the man he intends to be.  

Sunday, June 14, 2015

On dreams, connections, and gardening in a drought

In order to properly explain my degree of appreciation for the work of three writers whose words I encountered in near-unison a few weeks ago (Seth Godin, Sir Ken Robinson, and Peter Brown) I need to first acknowledge that, since context, as we know, is everything, it is worth explaining certain conditions of these serendipitous discoveries.  

Context: the end of the day at the end of the week nearing the end of second semester, at a desk in room 114 in a comprehensive high school with the highest concentration of poverty in the district, in June in southern California in year four of what many predict may be a record-breaking stretch of drought; when all that relates to School hangs like the stench of overripe gym shorts in a locker,  and everyone that understands this is weeks from being dismissed for summer (except for those of us who will be back the week after graduation, for summer school).  It’s time for reinforcements. One is thirsty and hungry and water for the cooler has yet to be delivered, and lunch - in terms of actual food eaten - didn’t happen.  It’s the time of year when the word School, uttered in a certain tone, tends to immediately be followed by a sneer and some colorful expletive.  Even the most dedicated among us are prone to bouts of seasonal malaise.
It calls to mind certain moments in history, of embattled troops desperately in need of reinforcements, aid, and water. I regret to say that when I consider my own first experiences with these academic doldrums, that History often comes to mind.  Although some of my favorite people in the world are or have been History teachers, there is no denying that for many students, prior perhaps to their first “real” history (emphasis on story) class in college, the subject is irrevocably tied to a deep sense of absurdity at much of what happens in school: the rote memorization of facts and names in time for the test, after which they are promptly forgotten or crowded out by a new set of equally decontextualized facts stored just in time for the next test.  
The historical tableau I am referring to is a scene from the American Revolution, one of the few I can recall in detail that have any bearing on a class with History in the course title. It comes not from my flashcards or lecture notes but from a book merely recommended on the reading list of a syllabus years ago, Scott Liell’s 46 Pages, a taut and engrossing overview of the import of Paine’s Common Sense on the outcome of the Revolution.  Reading it a few years ago afforded me an opportunity to visualize, in great detail, certain critical aspects of the Revolutionary War beyond Betsy Ross’s mythical sewing of the flag, John Stafford Smith’s inspired composition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” or Paul Revere’s and his legendary galloping horse. 

The scene is as follows:
It’s January of 1776, eight months into the war. The dominant ideology, if you can call it that, is doubt.  George Washington is having difficulty maintaining an army, and the numbers of his men have been halved since June.  Those remaining are prone to “insubordination and a lack of attention to duty” and “his greatest concern was the unwillingness of his experienced troops to re-enlist after their terms had expired.”  At the time that he acquires a copy of Thomas Paine’s slim pamphlet, even Washington himself, like most of his peers, has “yet to conclude that independence is necessarily desirable or possible.”  The effect of Common Sense on Washington’s own vision and morale is such that it prompts him to immediately distribute copies to all of his troops.  Its contents crystallize a vision grown murky.  It offers hope and purpose.  And there, in the cold winter of a dark season, purpose is found again.  The right words, offered at the right time, in the right context, become the torch by which we can connect the best of what we might become to certain parts of ourselves in the process of becoming.  
With this in mind, I want to tell you of the way that finding Seth Godin’s manifesto at the right time, and in synchronicity with other finds, has renewed one educator’s spirit and hope: for the values and possibilities of schools comprised of dedicated individuals to nurture and encourage the growth of dreams.
Godin offers Stop Stealing Dreams available for free online, for all interested parties to share (“Just don’t charge for it or change it,” he asks).  His longtime followers know that everything he writes is worth reading, be these one of his self-published (via crowdsourcing) bestsellers or his daily blog. He is genuine and committed, and rather than pander to any audience, his writing captures the musings of his well-informed head as directed by his generous heart, with inspiring faith that the world will receive and reward the deliverance of certain qualities that so many of us have thirsted for: slow-coming substance and quality over cheap and immediate superficial excess.
Themes central to Godin’s manifesto will be familiar to anyone acquainted with Ken Robinson and others calling for dramatic paradigm shift in education to mirror that which has already occurred within global society (for those who aren’t, see: “How Schools Kill Creativity” and “Changing Education Paradigms”), but nevertheless presented freshly with in Godin’s characteristically sensible approach to challenging accepted norms and outdated models.  Godin observes The Shift from industrial economy to “connection economy,” and reflects on the implications for learners.  
First, he stresses the importance of creating desire among today’s would-be scholars.  This - above any other role -  is now, more than ever, the best (perhaps only) way that today’s schools can be of real service.  The reason for this is that the old role, of providing access to information, has now been completely eclipsed by myriad internet sources, most of which serve as vastly superior content delivery methods over the traditional textbook and lecture.  In describing this great shift, Godin observes:
"…school used to be a one-shot deal, your own, best chance to be exposed to what happened when and why.  School was the place where the books lived and the experts were accessible. 
A citizen who seeks the truth has far more opportunity to find it than ever before.  But that takes skill and discernment and desire… the goal has to be creating a desire (even better, a need) to know what’s true, and giving people the tools to help them discern that  truth from the fiction that so many would market to us. " 

For those of us who recall the misery of having to memorize dates and facts, we must acknowledge that, once upon a time,  there was some kernel of truth to the rant that every history teacher seemed to be able to deliver, which generally ran along the line of, “How are you going to be able to do anything if you don’t know this?” It may have been hyperbole; however, it bears repeating that “in the pre-connected world, hoarding information was smart.”

And yet, “in the connected world all of that scarcity is replaced by abundance… of information, networks, and connections.” Anyone can know anything and most of us suffer from “knowing” too much indiscriminately (see the work of Daniel J. Levitin on Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload).  A new survival skill emerges: being able to distinguish what matters from what does not; what is useful from what isn’t, to decide what and how the “what” of anything is useful, and to follow this decision with a well-considered response to its natural extension, “To whom? And, how?”

Basically, what you know no longer matters because anyone can know anything. The ability to care and make connections, though, and to remind information-overloaded, world-weary people what it is that really matters: this is everything.

Thank you for this timely reminder, Seth Godin.  One grows weary of seeing students who seem not to care. Of course, in observing this, it is necessary to stress “seem” as something that exists in the context of a system that has taught them well that caring is not the point.  By pausing to consider that the primary role of today’s educator is create desire by offering opportunities to consider how and why and what to care about, and freedom to learn how caring can lead to knowledge and to action and - above all, connection, the true currency of the “connected world” - well, that’s something worth doing, even if the road to understanding how to do this well may be long and steep. 

In the same day, I encounter Ken Robinson’s latest TED talk, “How to escape Education’s Death Valley.”  What a boon.  I thought I had seen them all.

In this talk, Robinson outlines three principles by which human life flourishes:
"The first is this, that human beings are naturally different and diverse. 
The second principle that drives human life flourishing is curiosity. If you can light the spark of curiosity in a child, they will learn without any further assistance, very often. Children are natural learners. It's a real achievement to put that particular ability out, or to stifle it. Curiosity is the engine of achievement.

The third principle is this:  that human life is inherently creative. It's why we all have different résumés. We create our lives, and we can recreate them as we go through them. It's the common currency of being a human being”

In his characteristic witty meandering, Robinson relays how he and his family moved to Los Angeles twelve years ago (“Truthfully,” he says, “we moved to Los Angeles thinking we were moving to America, but anyway -- It's a short plane ride from Los Angeles to America.”)  Then, in his charmingly roundabout manner, he steers towards a potent analogy at the heart of his message on a shift he terms the “grassroots revolution” in education - which has everything to do with nourishing the stolen dreams of Godin’s manifesto, the ghosts of which are no doubt have something to do with the end of the year malaise that threatened earlier in the week, as it does predictably several times each year, to smother hope.  One wants to celebrate success, and does, in the form of those who are going off to college and those who have just won scholarships; the students for whom a life’s trajectory has just become something upon which they may exercise some influence.  But the dead eyes are always so haunting; there are always those that have learned too early, the irrelevance of all that schools were traditionally designed to do.  They seem unreachable.  Compound the effects of a broken system with the trauma of broken home and you can almost smell it, the snuffing out of dreams, like the lingering scent of candles recently blown out.  Let me be clear.  This is not their deficit; this is not their weakness.  This is the response of fragile and delicate life, made for bounding and blossoming, to overflow and explode and ignite - exposed to unhealthy and smothering conditions.  Only then does it limp where it would run, fade where it would shine, die where it might have filled the air around it with blinding colors and dizzying scents. In the face of what, on certain days in certain months, can appear as barren land bereft of life, every groundskeeper needs regular reminders of the dormant potential lying just beneath the salt-crusted surface of the over-weathered earth.  What if it bloomed? 

Enter Sir Ken Robinson and his Death Valley analogy. 

Nothing grows there because it doesn't rain. Hence, Death Valley. In the winter of 2004, it rained in Death Valley. Seven inches of rain fell over a very short period. And in the spring of 2005, there was a phenomenon. The whole floor of Death Valley was carpeted in flowers for a while. What it proved is this: that Death Valley isn't dead. It's dormant. Right beneath the surface are these seeds of possibility waiting for the right conditions to come about, and with organic systems, if the conditions are right, life is inevitable. It happens all the time. You take an area, a school, a district, you change the conditions, give people a different sense of possibility, a different set of expectations, a broader range of opportunities, you cherish and value the relationships between teachers and learners, you offer people the discretion to be creative and to innovate in what they do, and schools that were once bereft spring to life.

Hours after I’ve been renewed by Robinson’s TED talk, a dear friend informs me that Sir Ken has just released a book.  No one can remember what its called but a quick search (fueled, obviously, by desire to know) leads to Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. As of this post, I am still in the opening sections, but it is clear that where some of his previous works criticized The System so effectively that teachers in certain moods might easily become overwhelmed with the enormity of the odds against transformation, this latest volume is quick to remind that while vast change is needed at all levels, the greatest potential to effectively respond can be found among teachers, because education “doesn’t happen in the committee room of the legislatures or in the rhetoric of politicians. It’s what goes on between learners and teachers in actual schools.” As far as students are concerned, "teachers are the system."

Back to Godin here.  Another potent observation, in line with the necessity of creating desire, involves the proper care and feeding of dreams - which, by their nature, "are evanescent" and prone to quick suffocation. He aptly observes how "when they're flickering, it’s not particularly difficult for a parent or a teacher or a gang of peers to snuff them out."

"Creating dreams," on the other hand, "is more difficult.  They’re often related to where we grow up, who our parents are, and whether or not the right person enters our life.”

When I went to pick up Robinson’s book, at the end of the week in which I discovered and read Godin’s manifesto and watched Robinson’s talk, my five-year-old accompanied me as usual.  Grace picks out her own books, following her own interests, and we generally leave with four or five apiece.  On that day, one of her selections was Peter Brown’s The Curious Garden

It is this last discovery that brings home the lessons of this week, reminding me why I love connections and discovery and learning;  because, at its best, this is precisely what learning is: an organic blossoming of discoveries engendered by a constellation of experiences and discussions, both sought by and offered to, the active seeker.  We need only to look.  

The Curious Garden begins like this:   
"There once was a city without gardens or trees or greenery of any kind. Most people spent their time indoors.  As you can imagine, it was a very dreary place.”

When Liam, the protagonist,  finds dying plants on the side of the railroad tracks he observes that “They needed a gardener,” and by the next page he understands that although he “may not have been a gardener, he knew he could help.”

 "So he returned to the railway the very next day and got to work.  The flowers nearly drowned and he had a few pruning problems, but the plants waited patiently while Liam found better ways of gardening."

At this point in the reading, Grace observes the goosebumps on my arm.  “Look, mama!”  I know, baby.  Look indeed.  Because they do wait patiently, even in a broken system. It's an innate human tendency, which we try sometimes to cover up by appearing to be hardened, even if each one of us knows that at any given moment in time, even the hardest-seeming shell is nothing but glass against the hammer of truth.   We wait for reinforcements to come, and we’re prepared even on the brink of death and despair, to be nourished and reminded of our own capacities for tireless hope in our innate abilities as humans to believe our ways towards creating new realities, if only someone will remember well enough to share our own potential back unto ourselves at the right time. 

Here’s to renewing faith in The Revolution.  Here’s to the power of connections to ignite spirit.  Here’s gratitude to those who offered the best of themselves and to the circumstances that somehow allow us, if we only know how to look, to find that which is was most needed at precisely the right time.  

Finding these words in a children’s book at the end of the week, and connecting them willfully to others encountered days before, I am ready to stand up and go back in, fueled by belief in best of learning, the essence of which makes this space transcendent of spatial and temporal limitations, which is much greater than School in any form (sneer or no sneer), and which must - if we believe in it as we did when we answered the call to battle - be preserved at all costs, just as it must be protected, nurtured, and allowed to grow.

Return now to the vision of Liam, the curious gardener, observing how “the most surprising things that popped up were the new gardeners.”  All around him, he saw others like him, inspired by the change he had catalyzed and the barren city was transformed.

Here it is:  the hope that has been thirsted after like water in a drought, and nourishment in the days of no lunch, in the common sense wisdom of the hopeful keeper of the curious garden, and I have Seth Godin to thank for making connections and offering them for free, and Ken Robinson for recalling the dormant wisdom within each soul that has ever been called to education.  Each, like the animated Liam, comes to it with some inchoate vision of change, and a water bucket.  
Time for dusting off now, and preparing to begin again, with this vision in mind:
Many years later, the entire city had blossomed.  But of all the new gardens, Liam’s favorite was where it all began.  
Gratefully now, I bear witness to the power of a well timed manifesto, delivered in a time of need, to the right audience; to this capacity for awakening all that has been long-dormant to thriving abundance.   One would rise immediately to arms except for the impulse to fall quickly to one's knees in awe at all the dormant dust of life emerging doggedly as ever was, or is, or will be, world without end.  

Outstretched hand: chalk on cardboard provided by Sarah Joy on flickr under a Creative Commons license.
*The average human brain contains 100 billion neurons.
**When praised as a hero by a student in The Freedom Writers, Miep Gies, the woman who hid Anne Frank and others during the German occupation of WWII despite risking her life, gently refused to accept the title.  Instead she offered this: we are all of us, no matter our station, called to be for one another, "a small light in a dark room."