Earl: “Look! Shampoo that’s not tested on animals. I feel bad for those lab animals running around with dirty hair, but if it’s better for the environment, that’s the sacrifice they have to make.” Jason Lee as Earl Hickey, MY NAME IS EARL Karma is a funny thing
In one of the multitude of homes which my family inhabited as a peripatetic Navy family, we lived next door to a man who’d been in the army during WW2 and liberated one of the camps. I was 9 going on 10 and always sidling up to him to ask him what it was like. Sometimes he would talk. Mostly he would cry.
I am sparring with my middle daughter’s high school principal and her history teacher. I want her to have the opportunity to revise an “F” research paper on the Industrial Revolution so she learns how to write a good history paper. They are refusing. I don’t even care about the grade. I certainly don’t care about the industrial revolution. I just want her to learn. Moreover, she wants to learn, and will do the revision, with guidance.
The necessary disclosure: this 9th grade girl is feisty, brassy, exuberant, creative, beautiful, talented, intelligent, and original. She’s also naughty. She breaks boundaries and tests limits. She doesn’t take “no” for an answer and she won’t do most of her work. I look at her and think of that famous quote, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”
And then my heart breaks. Because 80% of what she does ends up being self-sabotaging. Her scrambled-eggs teenage brain has an exquisite talent for bad choices. I am her mother, I ache for her, and I am sad for what she will put herself through before she understands.
But she likes her history teacher, who is dynamic and charismatic. She wants to do well for him. She works in his class. But she started to struggle and to look perplexed while doing her papers in the fall. I started making a request: “Please let her revise a paper until she understands what a good one is.”
She also admitted to me that she didn’t know what to do. I conveyed that, thinking that surely the teacher would want to help her learn what to do.
But the teacher consistently refused it. He didn’t want her to revise and he wouldn’t help her with a revision. It perplexes me. Isn’t the job of a 9th grade history teacher to teach the kids how to write a high school history paper? Isn’t his job more than to be snazzy in class? How are the kids going to learn critical thinking unless they learn how to write, and the ONLY way to learn how to write is to rewrite?
Did he expect her to write a good paper, or even a passable paper, when she hadn’t learned how to write one? Was she supposed to simply stumble across the way to write well? Does keeping-fingers-crossed-for-good-luck pass for careful pedagogy?
I know about learning to write both because it’s my lifelong pursuit, and because I taught writing at the college level. I taught Logic & Rhetoric, aka Freshman Composition, at Columbia University. With 100% certainty, I can say that the freshmen who learned how to write are the ones who revised, revised, revised.
Yes, there are some people who are born good writers. With a small amount of guidance, they become excellent writers. But mostly writing is a skill like piano playing. The more you practice, the better you get. And it’s closely related to learning how to think.
In these notions, I am not alone. George Orwell articulated the argument much better than I can. In his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, he writes, “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits, one can think more clearly….”
So why wouldn’t the history teacher, and the principal, want to take the necessary trouble to help a student think more clearly? Isn’t that their reason for being? At least partly?
My daughter attends a private school, and the tuition is exorbitant. One would think that, at a school charging more than most people earn in a year, she would be required to learn how to think clearly, which means learning how to write clearly.
Orwell is talking partly about diction and construction in his essay. I guess that would be the purview of the English teacher, not the history teacher. But the message about the relationship between clear thinking and clear writing bridges all disciplines. The more clearly my daughter writes about history, the more clearly she is thinking about it. If the history teacher isn’t there to teach her how to write a history paper, shouldn’t he at least be teaching her how to think about history? Or does he just want her memorize that Robert Fulton received a patent for the steamboat in 1809?
Regarding revision, E.B. White stated it best in The Elements of Style: “Revising is part of writing. Few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try….Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers.”
So why wouldn’t the teacher, and the principal, want to instill that work ethic in their students? Why wouldn’t 9th graders be taught as freshmen that revising is writing?
It’s more work for the teacher, for sure. And a teacher who knows he is lively and engaging in class might not be motivated to take the extra time and effort. He knows the kids love to be in his class. But is he really doing his job as a 9th grade history teacher, if he doesn’t require a motivated but struggling student to revise a failed paper until it is passable, so that she learns what to do? So that she learns how to think, both about history, and about an argument?
I don’t think so.
Last night my husband Sabin Howard & I attended the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center event honoring Martha Erlebacher. Martha is a realist painter and teacher. She taught Sabin twenty-seven years ago at the Philadelphia College of Art, and Sabin credits Martha and her deceased husband Walter Erlebacher for giving him the tools with which to create beautiful classical art with a powerful modern sensibility.
It was a wonderful, heart-warming evening. Sabin and I picked Martha up at her hotel to take her to the Lotos Club. In the taxi, I asked about Sabin as a young art student. He had, at one point, sported a gigantic thatch of a beard that would have made ZZ Top proud. Martha laughed, told me that in all her decades of teaching, there were maybe 5 students who had serious, big talent as artists. Sabin was one of them.
She and Sabin fell into a conversation about the draughtsmanship of drapery. I shut up and listened. When two artists of the caliber of Martha Erlebacher and Sabin Howard are discussing drawing, Leonardo, and the play of light, I want to hear every word that comes out of their mouths.
Martha and Walter had to re-invent the Renaissance system of proportions and of how to structure the figure. Walter Erlebacher had been a darling of the art world when he was an abstract expressionist showing at the Whitney Biennial; when he turned to the figure, to the human body, they dropped him. Sad commentary on the lack of taste and vision in the art haute-monde.
No one was doing realism and the figure back in the 60’s, when Walter and Martha understood that the human body is the greatest expression of truth, beauty, and narrative that human beings have. Against a condescending environment in the art world and a disembodied academia that had forgotten the perceptual power of art in favor of heady conceptual babble, they reinvented the proportional system. Martha was the painter and Walter was the sculptor.
“The sculpture of human form is the metaphor for the human desire to live forever,” Martha told me, as we spoke later in the evening. She was telling me how her husband was a genius.
“Don’t underestimate yourself and your contributions,” I said, gently. She shrugged. But this evening was about her. Sabin introduced her, and it was an intense moment for him, because he got to publicly express his gratitude to someone who had, literally, changed his life. Who had set him on the path he lives. “Martha gave us the manual on how to make awesome, powerful, visceral classical art!” he said, with tears in his eyes.
Noah Buchanan, a painter with a big following in California, also spoke. Noah related some funny anecdotes about Martha’s classes, how her words had stayed in the heads of her students who went on to be teachers themselves.
It was a joy to behold the praise being given to a woman who has made such a quiet, fierce contribution to the world, to both the joy and the discipline of art. She’s also a beautiful painter. The painting shown above is her “Dream of Eden.”
Recent events in my life have led me to think deeply on the matter of forgiveness.
I’m not, in a broad sense, a fan of contemporary psychotherapy. It seems to me that the people who are in therapy the most are the ones who are most self-righteously entrenched in their own narcissism. Everything is about them and their process, and if you try to let some light into a closed and airless system by suggesting that not everything in the world is, in fact, about their process–well, it gets ugly. That’s one problem. There’s also, among some child therapists (many of whom, oddly enough, do not even have children of their own) a feeling that children are the unfettered kings of a home, no boundaries required. I think this is folly, and that it undercuts the very structure that serves to give kids a sense of safety and security, and a foundation in life-long values. Kids need structure. They also need a few lectures from mom and dad on topics like, “Don’t get drunk when you’re 14,” “shoplifting is bad,” and “just because all your friends are jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge doesn’t mean you should.”
Note that Proverbs 13:24 claims that “he who loves his children is careful to discipline them.” I know, sure, it’s hokey to quote the Bible in the face of the great amorality of contemporary psychotherapy–but when psychotherapy has endured as human truth for the many thousands of years that Proverbs has, then I’ll quote Melanie Klein and all that rot.
Recently a friend, after I ranted on in this vein, told me to read James Hillman. And I am drawn to Jung, so I’ll make a go of Hillman, when I finish at least two of the four books I’m currently reading. (Which are: The Diamond Cutter by Geshe Michael Roach, The Atlantis Code by Charles Brokaw, The 5 Rules of Thought by Mary T. Browne, and The Search for the Girl with the Blue Eyes by Jess Stearn.)
One of the biggest problems I have with contemporary psychotherapy is that it practices separating the doer from the action. Dr. Phil has espoused this on Oprah, and, with all due respect, this schism goes to the heart of why I view contemporary psychotherapy with prejudice. In fact, we define ourselves by our actions. If we tell lies, we’re a liar. If we cheat, we’re cheaters.
At the same time, in this view of the world that holds people accountable for their actions, there has to be a mechanism for redemption. For returning to self-worth, in our eyes and the eyes of the community, after an error, a wrong, a crime has been committed.
And for absolute sure: we all screw up. Each and every single one of us. Perhaps there are a few saintly monks meditating in caves who have never erred, and isn’t it easy to be a good person when you’re alone on a mountain in deep contemplation? But, for all the rest of us, we are going to hurt people, we are going to make mistakes, we are going to lie and cheat and steal and rage and be lazy and be gluttonous and be jealous and take advantage and persecute and oppress. On purpose and by accident. In the collective sense, and in the personal sense.
I’m reminded of the Passover Seder and how we are supposed to say, “It is because of what God did for me in taking me out of slavery,” and I am reminded of the group confessions during the prayers of Yom Kippur: “for the sin we have sinned before you forcibly or willingly….” I am reminded of Jesus saying, “Let he who is perfect cast the first stone” and “why do you behold the mote in your brother’s eye, but consider not the beam that is in your own?”
So we all make egregious mistakes. Some of those mistakes are cruel and hurt other people profoundly. How is redemption found in those cases? Well, best I’ve been able to figure out, with the help of finer minds than mine, is that we take personal responsibility for our own actions. This looks like: 1, acknowledging the guilt, 2, expressing remorse, and 3, offering to make restitution. Concrete action toward remorse and restitution are key. Someone who has committed a grievous wrong who acts in this way, following these three steps with persistence and humility, ought to get a second chance.
At least, that’s what I am thinking now. This current thinking is subject to evolution, as I journey through my life. It’s a complicated, troublesome subject. I want to be someone who chooses forgiveness and who receives forgiveness. This is so despite my knowing that there are some things I don’t know if I could ever, or will ever, forgive. I also know there are mistakes I’ve made for which I am not able to make restitution, for one reason or another, though I wish I could.
Which brings me back to the essential conundrums of human life: this vale of tears. And the Buddha’s observation that “Hatred does not cease through hatred but through love alone they cease.”
So, here is my prayer: May all conscious beings be released from their suffering. And may I be an instrument of the Lord’s peace, giving and receiving forgiveness.
Yoga & Love
I came to yoga, the ancient physical system for opening the heart, by way of heart break.
It was a bleak February years ago during the bleakest part of my divorce. The end of a twenty year relationship, of which twelve were spent in marriage, doesn’t qualify as easy. I found it fraught, a spiky tangle of anger, relief, grief, and confusion. I couldn’t integrate the double vision I experienced when I interacted with my former husband. There were now two of him: the sweet man I’d married, whom I’d always love, even if we couldn’t make a happy life together, and the difficult stranger who did not mean me well, when things came up to negotiate. It was painful. I was a mess.
I wasn’t alone during this time. I had a boyfriend. He looked like the reason I had left my former husband. But the higher calculus of the heart metabolizes change with infinitely more complexity than that, and no one ever leaves one mate for another. You leave a union for yourself, for the person you hope to be. “She left one man for another” was simply the judgment people made, uninformed people who hadn’t lived the emotional poverty of my marriage.
This boyfriend had a lot of patience for my desolation, but at a certain point, the change in my feelings over the elapsed time wasn’t an impressive differential. He’s a practical man. “Time for you to fix yourself,” he said. “I’m calling the Ashtanga place downtown to send you a teacher.”
So I began a practice of yoga. My teacher Laura arrived with her mat and didn’t want to hear any sad tales about my divorce. She wanted me to practice mountain pose and standing forward bend. She kept adjusting my sacrum. She kept telling me to drop my shoulders down from my neck, where they were squeezing my cervical spine in a relentless grip that would do any pit-bull proud. In retrospect, it’s amazing that any blood was getting up to my brain at all.
The first few weeks were a haze of twisty pain. I didn’t notice it at first, but I wasn’t as obsessed with the cycle of stories that had been playing in an endless loop in my head. It wasn’t until after a month of lessons that something clicked. I was watching Laura demonstrate trikonasana, triangle pose. Gracefully, consciously, she let her straight back leg pull her front body forward until she was clasping her big toe. She rotated her torso while extending evenly through it. She reached up in harmony with her breath while looking up, and it was such an expression of balance, strength, openness, and ease that the light-bulb flicked on over my head. I got it: there was a better way. A better way to move. A better way to feel. A better way to live.
I started to pay close attention to yoga. I asked questions: “How do I get an angle closer to 90 degrees in my leg in warrior two? “How do I better feel the relationship between my breath and my pelvis?” “What does my focus point mean to my mind?” Most of the time, the answer was, “Keep practicing.” Laura told me that all poses are led by the heart, and I took that seriously. Something inside me began to heal. The scars would remain but I was moving forward with my life. After a while Laura told me it was time for me to move on from her as well. She said I needed to attend a variety of classes and to pursue the practice of yoga in the way that I was led to, from within my own heart. It was a gracious example of setting someone free.
So I continue to practice and pursue yoga. It spills over into the time off my mat. When I stand at a street corner and wait for the light to change, I tune into my body. I drop my shoulders and check my pelvis and let my body flow softly into mountain pose. The subtle changes in position open up my breathing, and I remember that all movement is led by the heart.