That’s how many readers I’ve had since my blog went weekly on December 28, 2021. That’s how many countries my readers represent. That’s how long I spent writing the blog posts. That’s the bed where I wrote them. And I’m the writer. No foolin’.
NOW, 57 of those essays, reflecting the best of the best, have been published in a book that is exquisite from cover to cover and every page of the 346 pages in between. It’s available on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or you can order it from your favorite local bookstore! (Note: if you are ordering a hardcover–my recommendation–from Amazon, ignore the “Temporarily out of Stock” statement. The hardcover version is “print on demand” but well worth the several days’ delay.)
TAKE A LOOK AT THE BRILLIANT COVER!
Surely you recognize ME! I’m smackdab in the middle of my bed writing a blog post about foolin’ around with some well-known writers. Mark Twain and Truman Capote are on the floor at the foot of the bed, blowing smoke rings at one another. Imagine! They’ve got some nerve! Acclaimed artist/illustrator Mike Caplanis gets credit for the caricature based on one of the book’s essays, “Foolin’ Around in Bed with Famous (and Not-So-Famous) Writers” (249-53).
WHAT’S THE BOOK ALL ABOUT? See for yourself.
“Fresh and refreshing through and through.” I love it! Other ADVANCE PRAISES grace the dust jacket of the hardcover book.
“A MUST READ” impresses me so much that I just repeated it and made it all caps and all bold! Dayumn! I like it so much that I want to shout it again: “A MUST READ.” (Thank you, Cheryl Thompson-Stacy!)
IN BED: MY YEAR OF FOOLIN’ AROUND is available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle. I recommend the hardcover. It costs a little more, but it feels so much better than the paperback. What can I say other than there’s something extraordinarily extraordinary about a book that has its own dust jacket!
The publication of this book is an historic and timely solution for every gift-giving occasion that might be coming your way for the rest of the year, if not for the rest of your life. And let me add: may your life be long, healthy, and prosperous and may you keep right on buying copy after copy of IN BED.It’s the perfect gift. Right here. Right now. You do not need to look any further. And while you’re buying multiple copies for gift-giving, remember that IN BED is also the perfect gift for all of your friends … and enemies.
Thank you, DEAR READERS, for all of your support. I have no idea how you found your way into my life, but knowing that you are out there reading my posts strengthens me and uplifts me whenever I need to be strengthened and uplifted.
Time’s a wastin’. ORDER YOUR COPY TODAY on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Or you can or order it from your favorite local bookstore!
Dayum! I just realized that the title of today’s post might lead you to believe that I’ve baked my last cake. Not to worry. I haven’t. I mean, after all, I’ve been stacking cakes for layers on end, and I have cakes to bake before I sleep and cakes to bake before I sleep. (Frost and I have our own thing going.)
Let me count the cakes. (Barrett–Elizabeth, not Robert–and I have our own thing going, too.) I’m thinking something like around the world in 80 cakes. (Well, dayum again. It looks as if movies and I have our own thing going. Maybe I have my own thing going with everything. No doubt. I do.)
But imagine that. Baking 80 cakes from around the world. Well. I have never, not yet at any rate. But I wonder: will I be the first? BRB.
Well, triple dayum. Every time that I have a brilliant idea, someone goes and steals it from me–right here in plain sight for everyone to see–and manages to get away with it years before I even manage to speak up and declare it in my post.
Yep. You read it right. Famed pastry chef Claire Clark has already done it: 80 Cakes from Around the World. 6 continents, 52 countries. What adventures. What delights.
OMG! I just had another brilliant idea! Forget my idea of around the world in 80 cakes. Well, actually, we can’t forget it, can we? It’s published as a book already, enjoying life everlasting to its fullest.
Fine. Since Clark’s book focuses on countries, here’s another idea. I will remove that which defines countries as countries. I’ll take away all the borders. Is that a stroke of genius or what? Then I can bake what I want to bake and not be boxed in. BRB. I have to go Google.
Well. Dayum nearly flew out of my mouth again, but I’m getting tired of saying dayum because I’ve said dayum three times already. So, dammit. I Googled, and, once again, someone stole my idea even before I had a chance to speak up and declare it here in my post.
Fine. No problem. Since the baking borders are gone, let’s call it like it is. One World. How’s that for a simple-syrup solution? I’ll bake up One World Cakes. Forget cakes without borders. BRB. I have to go Google again.
Well, as I live and breathe. I have been duped again. What I found was not a perfect match, but it was close enough in spirit and intent that my conscience would never ever let me move ahead with what I know would become my One World Cakes empire. I can’t because Oksana Greer started her One World Cafe in 2007.
Well, I’ve gotten over the repeated theft of my ideas before I even had the chance to speak up and declare them, but now “one world” is floating around in my head. We are, you know, One World. More and more every day. One world.
But if you had asked me when peopled started talking about one world and the heightened responsibilities that we face as one world, I would have credited Pearl S. Buck, who alluded to one world in her 1950s essay “Roll Away the Stone,” contributed to NPR as part of its “This I Believe” program:
I take heart in a promising fact that the world contains food supplies sufficient for the entire earth population. Our knowledge of medical science is already sufficient to improve the health of the whole human race. Our resources and education, if administered on a world scale, can lift the intelligence of the race. All that remains is to discover how to administer upon a world scale, the benefits which some of us already have. In other words, to return to my simile, the stone must be rolled away.
But I’m glad that you didn’t ask, because I would have been wrong. Buck was not the first. Credit for the first use of one world goes all the way back to 1919:
The English idealists have followed Hegel rather than Fichte … in striving for a one-world theory, for seeing ideal values realized in the actual (Political Science Quarterly, 34: 610).
Gracious me. Have I gotten side stacked or what? If I keep this up, my post might well compete with a Smith Island Cake. Please tell me that you know about this famous cake from Smith Island, Maryland. Say whaaaat? You don’t. Well, let me take just another crumb or two to bring you into the cake know. The Smith Island Cake has been honored a mighty stack of times for the defining role that it has played in American culture. It is a super-sweet confection, consisting of at least seven thin layers with cooked fudge icing between the layers and on top. The side of the cake is often left unfrosted. (I made one once with 15 layers. Talk about a show-stopper.) Give yourself the baking challenge. Here’s Mrs. Kitching’s Original Smith Island Cake. Or, if you prefer, buy one online: Smith Island Baking Company.
Enough of Smith Island Cakes. Enough of one world and one world cakes. Enough of cakes without borders. Enough of around the world in 80 cakes. Enough of my nonsense.
It suits me just fine to let it all go. Enough is enough is enough. Besides, those who know me well know that I have baked the good bake and that I will continue to do so (The Bible and I have our own thing going, too.)
I suppose, then, that the best thing for me to do is stop salivating over the gazillion cakes that I have yet to bake and start putting the frosting on the final cake that I baked, the one that got me going with this post.
Let me tell you all about it. I promise: I’ll make it no more than a three-layer cake.
During my twenty-three years at Laurel Ridge Community College (formerly Lord Fairfax Community College), I always baked cakes for my classes, especially my Creative Writing classes. They were smaller than my other classes. Plus, I usually met with Creative Writing classes on Fridays. Bringing cake seemed perfect for a three-hour class like that.
Baking for my classes became a standard. If it was a Kendrick class, there would be Kendrick cakes. Word traveled fast. Once I walked into class on the first day and discovered that one of my students had written on the board:
We heard there would be cake.
Is that sweet or what?
I continued baking for my students throughout my teaching career, all the way through Fall 2022, my final semester as a full-time professor at Laurel Ridge. However, that semester I treated my students, week by week, to various types of sourdough muffins.
As I prepared for our final class–which turned out to be my final class, too–I had in mind my usual: celebrate my students and their writing successes.
Muffins didn’t do it for me. It just had to be a cake. I had many of my favorites lined up as possibilities, but it seemed to me that my students should get to choose.
So, for our final class, I’m baking a cake to celebrate. And here’s the deal. You get to decide what kind of cake. What would you like? Just name it. You’ll get it.
Silence fell over the very same room that I sometimes thought could never be silent.
But I learned decades ago that the best way of breaking classroom silence is to remain silent.
It always works. After a minute of silence that felt as long as a semester, one student spoke up:
Robbie, thank you very much. German Chocolate it shall be.
I was silent for a moment, pondering why Robbie was the only one bold enough to speak up and declare a preference. The others sat there as if they could not speak. The others sat there, as if they had no preferences whatsoever. I knew otherwise and started laughing a little, as I started asking why no one else spoke up. Typical responses followed:
● Social anxiety
● Didn’t know what others might think.
● Fear of being wrong.
(Hello. How can you go wrong with cake?)
● Wanted to hear what others had to say.
But here’s the thing, and it’s rather ironic. When I walked into class and asked my students what kind of celebratory cake they would like, I stood there before them ready to honor whatever they wanted.
It could have been my 15-layer Smith Island Cake. It could have been a Lady Fingers Cake–Торт “Дамские Пальчики”–from One World Cake. It could have been a Bolo de Fuba from Cake without Borders. It could have been the scandelicious Carrot Cake from 80 Cakes from Around the World. It could have been whatever their taste buds desired to taste, whatever their minds dreamt to dream.
With greater irony, they could have had more than one cake. I stood there before them ready to honor whatever they wanted.
But only one student spoke up. One lone voice prevailed. German Chocolate.
I didn’t want to turn the situation into a lecture, yet I felt that I had a responsibility to seize this moment and make it a sweet learning one.
In a flash, I thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” With greater speed, I found the essay on the Internet, projected it on the screen for my students to see, and read the following passage:
To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this.
When we met the next week, my students were majorly impressed by my show-stopper German Chocolate Cake. Three 9-inch layers of light chocolate cake. Coconut-pecan frosting slathered between the layers, all around the sides, and on the top. Delightfully sticky. Delightfully sweet. Delightfully decadent
When the final class ended, Robbie left–cake carrier in hand, delighted to be taking home what remained of the final cake, his own sweet indulgence to share as he saw fit.
I like to believe, however, that everyone left class that day with an even sweeter realization that might serve them for a lifetime if they will only listen: the influential power of a lone voice surrounded by silence.
Live long enough and you will experience many cutting-edge technologies. That certainly will be the case if you live to be 75 as I have done.
Some of the technologies that I have seen were so short-lived that you may not be familiar with them at all. Boom boxes. Cassette tape recorders. Floppy discs. Portable televisions. Reel-to-reel tape recorders. Slide projectors. TV watches. Transistor radios. VHS video format.
Others, however, remain part of the fabric of our lives. Barcodes. Birth control pills. Communication satellites. Coronary bypass surgery. DNA fingerprinting. DVDs. Fiber optics. GPS. Human Genome Project. Hybrid cars. Jet airliners. MRIs. Microwaves. Pacemakers. Polio vaccine. The list goes on.
Of all the cutting-edge technologies that I have experienced in my life–vintage and outdated as well as state-of-the-art and up-to-date–three are special to me because I was involved with them in the early stages of their development and saw in them promise rather than peril. Interestingly enough, all three relate to automation–specifically the role that computer technology has played–and continues to play–in advancing literacy and learning.
The first goes all the way back to 1969 and my first position at the Library of Congress as a MARC Editor. MARC stood for MAchine Readable Cataloging, a set of standards developed by the Library of Congress in the 1960s to enable electronic sharing of catalog records. Within the next few years, MARC became the cataloging standard, nationally and globally. A parallel RECON Project converted retrospective materials to MARC format. But imagine. Computers in those early days were referred to as machines, and one of the biggest challenges was keeping the mainframe from overheating. I dare say that I did not understand fully the magnitude and far-reaching ramifications of the work that I was doing, but I knew that I was contributing to cutting-edge technology.
Fast forward to the 1990s, when Blackboard started as an interactive learning network to help teachers and professors adapt to the new reality of being able to teach via the Internet. In the fall of 1999, I started teaching at Laurel Ridge Community College (formerly Lord Fairfax Community College). The following spring, I was one of two faculty who opted to pilot Blackboard as our online learning platform. This time, I knew the magnitude and far-reaching ramifications of teaching online.
From that point forward, I continued to teach at least two–sometimes three–courses each semester online. American Literature. Appalachian Literature. College Composition. Creative Writing. Leadership Development. Southern Literature. Technical Writing. I made a point of challenging myself. For any class that I taught in a traditional classroom environment, I wanted to figure out how to revamp it–how to redesign it–for online delivery. I wanted to be a pioneer as my college moved forward with this cutting-edge technology.
Fast forward almost two decades, and I was pioneering again. This time I was embracing Open Education Resources (OER) in my classes. In 2018, I was the keynote speaker for a statewide professional development workshop sponsored by Laurel Ridge Community College, Lumen Learning, and the Achieving the Dream Foundation. I titled my keynote “OER: Open the Future of Education Today.” I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt the magnitude and far-reaching ramifications of Open Education Resources.
Within two years, I was using OER for all of my classes. Mind you: I didn’t tap into existing OER course shells. Instead, I designed and developed my own from scratch so that I could honestly and proudly announce to my students: “FREE Open Education Resources, Personally Curated Just for You.”
It seemed to me then–and it seems to me now–that the power of four great cutting-edge technologies had come together in a powerful way beyond anyone’s wildest imagination: the Printing Press, the Internet, Online College Education, and Open Education Resources. Working together, they all revolutionized not only learning but also the way that we share and distribute information.
As with most innovations, those four met initially with varying degrees of skepticism and pushback.
Printing Press Skeptics: The monks will lose their work. Monks will become lazy. Paper isn’t as good as parchment. With only one typeface, books are really ugly.
Online Cataloging Skeptics: OMG. What will happen to the card catalog. It will die and then what?
Internet Skeptics: Just look at all the inappropriate materials poisoning the minds of our children. Staring at the screen will kill us. Thieves will steal my personal and financial information.
Online Education Skeptics: Online courses will never produce outcomes equal to in-person courses. Faculty-student interaction won’t be meaningful.
Open Education Resources Skeptics: Online resources are much more difficult to use. Who will guarantee quality? You just can’t do better than printed textbooks.
Now we’re all facing another cutting-edge technological moment. Its magnitude is beyond comprehension. Its ramification is beyond far-reaching.
AI. Artificial Intelligence.
We all have a general idea of what it is: a branch of computer science that simulates human intelligence–visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages. AI can get better and better over time based on the information collected and processed.
AI, of course, has been around since the birth of computers in the 1950s. But major advances came in the 1990s. You may recall that the AI app “Deep Blue” defeated chess master Garry Kasparov. And NASA deployed its first robot, Sojourner, on the surface of Mars.
AI is in the news a lot. Below are some major headlines that surfaced during the last few days:
“The 5 Biggest Artificial Intelligence (AI) Trends In 2023”
“AI Infrastructure Market to Reach $309.4 Billion, Globally, by 2031”
“Artists Sue AI Company for Billions, Alleging ‘Parasite’ App Used Their Work for Free”
“‘It’s the Opposite of Art’: Why Illustrators Are Furious about AI”
“AI Tools Can Create New Images, but Who Is the Real Artist?”
“Publisher Halts AI Article Assembly Line after Probe”
“Can an AI ‘Angel’ Help Find Thousands in Mexico Who Were Forcibly Disappeared?”
“This Mind-Reading AI Can See What You’re Thinking – and Draw a Picture of It”
“ChatGPT Passed a Wharton MBA Exam and It’s still in Its infancy. One Professor is Sounding the Alarm”
As an educator and a writer, a more narrow cutting-edge AI technology demands my attention. I’m thinking about AI apps that are influencing the future of writing and authorship. ChatGPA, for example, can be used for text generation, text translation, text summarization, and even sentient analysis of a text to detect tone and emotion. It can even write poetry, and it can make ordinary prose sound like passages from the King James Bible.
It seems to me that all of us need to sit up and take serious notice of all that AI promises, all the while that we need to be aware of the perils that AI skeptics perceive and toss into the conversations.
Skeptics are convinced that AI will:
● change the perception of information
● take jobs away from humans
● rob us of our ability to make decisions independently
● take away our creativity
● make us lazy
● do away with our privacy
● control our behavior
● threaten copyright, authorship, and ethics
It seems to me that the perils being voiced by AI skeptics aren’t too different from those sounded by other skeptics down through the ages about other cutting-edge technologies. The Printing Press. Online Cataloging. The Internet. Online Learning. Open Education Resources.
But here’s what we have to accept. Whether we like it or not–whether we feel threatened by it or not–AI is here. It has started. It will not stop. It is the future.
Promise or Peril? I have to decide where I stand. You have to decide where you stand. We all have to decide where we stand.
We can’t ignore AI.
Sadly, we can, but only if we want to be among the left behind.
Whenever I teach a literature course, I tell my students that aside from celebrating their achievements as they master the course content, I have one special hope for each of them. I want them to find one writer who will be their friend. One writer who will never unfriend them as other friends sometimes do. One writer who will be with them through all the storms of life, for a lifetime. A writer who will be a forever-friend.
What I have in mind is similar to the handful of real-life, forever-friends whom we might have, if we are lucky. It’s never many. At least it has never been many for me. I have perhaps one handful of such friends. All right. Perhaps two handfuls who are in the friends-forever category. With us, we’ve shared so many past experiences that even if we have not seen one another in years, when we reconnect, we pick up magically on the same conversation that we were having when we last met, and we do so without missing a beat. Friends. Forever-friends.
Writers can be our forever-friends, too, with an added bonus. We can have lots and lots of them. As we read more and more, we discover more and more writers who might end up as our friends. We like them. We like what they have to say to us. We like how they inspire us. We like how they make us believe. We like how they make us feel…unalone. We like how they heal our…brokenness. Before long, we want to hang out with them. We can. Whenever we want. For as long as we want.
The great thing about writers who are our forever-friends is that when they pop up unannounced and uninvited, it’s never a problem. We don’t have to clean for them. We don’t have to cook for them. And we don’t have to clear our calendars for them. They can tag along with us just as we are. And they will do just that if we let them.
All that we have to do is be attentive, smile when they arrive, and even smile when they leave, knowing that they will come back to visit us again and again and again.
Their arrival coincides with something that we are experiencing that makes us think of something else. It’s the power of association. Robert Frost captures it best:
“All thought is a feat of association; having what’s in front of you bring up something in your mind that you almost didn’t know you knew.”
That’s the beauty of having writers who are forever-friends. Their arrival is based exclusively on what’s right in front of you or something that you’re thinking about. Something that you almost didn’t know you knew.
No doubt, you have your own writers who are your forever-friends, just as I do.
Obviously, I don’t know about yours, but mine visit me multiple times throughout the day, every day without fail. I never know which writers will visit or when. But I go forth daily, confident of being strengthened and girded up by their company.
For example, Walt Whitman shook his silvery locks right in front of me as I was writing this post. I was thinking about the fact that only a snippet of a writer’s work comes to my mind during an association, while all the other details of the work are seemingly long forgotten. Instantly, the lines from Whitman’s “Once I Pass’d through a Popular City” flashed across my mind:
“Day by day and night by night we were together—all else has long been forgotten by me…”
Here’s another example.
When I met with my Creative Writing class for the first time this semester, I had a slap-stick time promoting this blog. It was nothing more than nonsensical banter aimed at entertaining my students, but they picked up on it.
Not long after I managed to restore myself to a modicum of seriousness, one student raised her hand as if to ask a serious question.
“Professor Kendrick, did you say that you have a blog?”
I started laughing, as did the rest of the class.
A little later on, her hand went up again. I was on to her by then, but I was having far too much fun, so I acknowledged her.
“Professor Kendrick, did you give us the name of your blog?”
(When our laughter died down, my forever-friend Edward Albee paid me a momentary visit. He has chummed me since the 1960s when I was in college and he was a controversial Broadway playwright.)
“Very funny! You know, Caitlin, my hell-bent banter to promote my blog to a brand-new group of students, reminds me of the first line from Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story.”
In the play, Jerry approaches Peter, a total stranger, sitting on a bench in Central Park.
I’ve been to the zoo. [PETER doesn’t notice.] I said, I’ve been to the zoo. MISTER, I’VE BEEN TO THE ZOO!
I was thrilled by Albee’s visit, especially since I was able to share it with my class. He came as he did and when he did because of my dogged determination to tell my students–a group of strangers, if you will–all about my blog. In the process, I remembered Jerry’s insistence on telling Peter, a total stranger, that he had been to the zoo.
My students got it. They saw the association with great clarity.
On another occasion, something similar happened at the start of the same class.
As I drove on campus. I was aware–painfully so–that the grassy, undeveloped acreage all around the college was being gobbled up by townhouses.
At the start of class, one of my students shared the same observation.
In that nanosecond, former United States Poet Laureate Phillip Levine appeared. Immediately, I walked to my teacher station, googled his poem “A Story” and flashed it on the screen for students to see as I read it aloud.
It captures perfectly what my students and I had witnessed with pain that morning.
Levine chronicles the life and death of the woods that once surrounded us and ends with a chilling doomsday prophecy:
where are the woods? They had to have been
because the continent was clothed in trees.
We all read that in school and knew it to be true.
Yet all we see are houses, rows and rows
of houses as far as sight, and where sight vanishes
into nothing, into the new world no one has seen,
there has to be more than dust, wind-borne particles
of burning earth, the earth we lost, and nothing else.
And right now as I typed the above quotation, Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell popped into my head, chanting a few lines from her “Big Yellow Taxi”:
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.
My writers–my forever-friends–visit me far more in my alone times than they do when I am teaching or, for that matter, when I am socializing.
Maybe they appear then because they know that in my alone times friends can add a richness to any moment, even ordinary ones.
Ordinary moments like weed whacking. Somehow, I end up doing that chore on Sunday instead of going to church. That’s no big deal to me. I consider myself Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR). Emily Dickinson must be SBNR, too, because she is always with me on my Sunday morns. Her “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church” overpowers the Stihl noise through all the stanzas, rising triumphantly in the final one:
God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.
Or sometimes it’s as simple as visitorial moments that occur when reading emails from regular friends who aren’t writers. Recently, a friend who is my age wrote that his hands had grown old. I sensed his sadness and immediately thought of a poem about aging by former United States Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz: “Touch Me.” It includes the poignant lines:
What makes the engine go? Desire, desire, desire. The longing for the dance stirs in the buried life.
One season only, and it’s done.
Darling, do you remember the man you married? Touch me, remind me who I am.
And then I immediately thought of Ben Speer singing “Time Has Made a Change in Me.” The title alone was touchstone sufficient. And that led me to W. S. Merwin reading his “Yesterday” with the ever-chilling line:
oh I say feeling again the cold of my father’s hand the last time
It’s amazing: the rich literary company that embraced me, all because of one single solitary email sent my way!
Sometimes, though, my forever-friends arrive as I try to make sense of all that’s going on in our world. The ongoing COVID pandemic. The invasion of Ukraine. Recent SCOTUS decisions. The January 6 Hearings. Global Warming. Poverty. Food scarcity. Gender inequality. Homophobia. Transphobia. Growing humanitarian conflicts and crises. The 21st anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on America.
Need I go on? Sadly, I could. Gladly, I won’t. It’s far too sobering.
But in those dark moments when I find myself spiritually staggering under the weight of it all, I take strength from William Faulkner’s Nobel Acceptance Speech, delivered in 1950 when the world was staggering under the burden of the Cold War:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? […] I decline to accept the end of man. […] I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.
Maybe, just maybe, the need to have writers who are our forever-friends, boils down to nothing more than this. They come regardless of what we are facing. They reassure us that goodness and mercy shall prevail. They remind us to grapple with our soul, to grapple with our spirit.
They come, as Robert Browning came to me just this second, to calm us and anchor us in the full and steadfast belief that despite all the injustices, all the wrongdoings, all the travail, and all the sorrows,
Needless to say, I need not even ask what I am about to ask. But I will ask it anyway.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed?
“Who? Me?” I just heard someone ask.
Yes. You. Maybe. But let’s edge our way in to this just a little more before you decide, lest you decide too hastily.
I’m not talking about the way you feel when that last straw is headed right toward you, and you know fully well that it’s the one that will break your proverbial camel’s back.
If that’s the mell of a hess you’re grappling with, I’m really sorry for your streak of bad luck.
The overwhelmed that I have in mind is when you have a mountain smackdab in front of you. It’s ginormous. And you have to move it, and you have no idea how you will ever get it done.
Maybe, in reality, it’s nothing more than a mole hill. But perceptions are perceptions. If that mole hill is a mountain to you, then it is indeed your mountain.
Aren’t we masterful at turning our mole hills into mountains?
I am. You are. We all are.
And, at the same time, let’s acknowledge that all of us face real life mountains, too, that we have to move.
It’s when we’re facing our mountains–the real ones and the mole hills that we have turned into mountains–that we feel overwhelmed. That’s when we sigh or cry or moan or groan because at that moment we just don’t see how we will ever move that mole hill. We just don’t see how we will ever move that mountain. We just don’t see how we will ever get it done.
To feel overwhelmed before the mountains of life–real or overblown–is to be human.
This week, I’m feeling superhuman. Overwhelmed is on my mind a lot: it’s the next to the last week before my summer classes end. Also, overwhelmed is on my students’ minds a lot this week: they have reading assignments and a final discussion board forum this week and a final reflection essay next week.
(A word to educators who would be wise: abandon those ridiculous final exams. Replace them with meaningful final reflection essays. Reach out to me using Contact, and I will share proven strategies that have worked for me during the last four years.)
My apologies for that digressory jab at defunct final exam practices that continue to plague the hallowed ivory halls of learning. I couldn’t help myself.
Where was I?
Oh, yes. My students are feeling overwhelmed by end-of-semester assignments and by final reflection essays.
I am, too. It’s a mountain of work right in front of me, so close that I can smell the virtual submissions, so close that I can hardly breathe. And I have to get it done.
Let me define the preceding “it.” I have to grade all of that student work that’s closing in on me and smothering me, because I have to submit final grades two days after those final reflection essays are submitted. My mountain seems even larger.
Oh. Yes. I understand how it feels to feel overwhelmed.
I know, too, that my students always feel overwhelmed at the beginning of the semester. They have so much to do before the end.
I do, too. I’m their learning coach. I’m their learning cheerleader. I’m there to help them move those mole hills. I’m there to help them move those mountains. I’m there to help them get it done.
I always suggest some strategies that they can use to see themselves through to the successful conclusion that they hope to enjoy and that they can enjoy if they work at it.
Ironically, the strategies are always the same whether it’s the beginning, or, as it is now, the end.
Ironically, the same strategies work for me, at my beginnings and my endings.
Ironically, the strategies will work for you, at your beginnings and your endings.
Following these strategies can help all of us–me, my students, and you–feel less overwhelmed as we tackle our mole hills and our mountains.
A good place to start is by realistically measuring our grit. Please tell me that you know about grit. You do, right? Sometimes I have to explain it to my students, so let me explain it here for everyone’s benefit.
And yes: after the explanation, you will have a quiz! Don’t worry. (1) It’s optional. (2) Anyone who takes the quiz will pass.
Grit has nothing to do with IQ. It has nothing to do with talent. It has nothing to do with luck. It has everything to do with your willingness to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work always required to achieve any goal, usually a long-term goal, but it applies as well to short term goals. Grit is all about perseverance and passion.
I have always known about grit, but Angela Duckworth is the one who turned me on to the power and awesomeness of grit. She has turned lots of folks on to it, too, and when you get turned on to grit, get ready to get it done, whatever you need to get done.
I start my semesters by having my students take Duckworth’s 10-question Grit Quiz. Why don’t you take it, right now? Hot Tip: Be honest. No need to fool yourself! Not now. Not ever.
After my students find out how gritty they are, I invite them to share their grit score with the class if they wish. I am always amazed by the fruitful and honest conversations that follow. I just heard someone whisper, “What’s your grit score?” Thank you, but no need to whisper. I’m proud of it. I scored a 5. Did you hear me? Let me shout it again. I’m a 5. I’m as gritty as they grit. My grit is awesome. When I start it–whatever the “it” is–I’m going to stick with it until I get it done. Count on it.
After our class discussion of grittiness goes wherever it goes–and wherever it goes is always exactly where it ought to go: learning is always spontaneous, and spontaneity is always all right with me–I get my students hooked on Duckworth’s TED Talk: “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” It’s powerful. It’s motivational. It makes you want to get down and get gritty. Go ahead. Watch it. It’s had 26,997,225 views. With any luck, this post might take it up to 27 million views! So come on! Let’s gr!t ‘r done.
As my students and I get deeper and deeper into the semester, I am always mindful that the journey that I am trying to make a fun and fulfilling one for them might start looking more and more like a mountain. Then I love to share with them little proverbs as little reminders that a little strength applied consistently and for a sustained period of time can bring staggering results. Maybe it’s as simple as “The man who would move mountains must begin by carrying away small stones” (Confucius, The Analects). Or maybe “Little Strokes Fell Great Oaks” (Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac).
Then as research papers start to loom on the horizon, I up the ante still more and share with my classes the backstory for Anne Lamott’s classic book on writing and living, Bird by Bird. In the introduction to her book, she tells the story of her brother who had waited until the last minute to write his paper that was due the next day. Interestingly enough, the paper was about birds. Lamott’s father told him to write the paper bird by bird. Looking at the component parts and completing one part of the paper at a time made the whole project seem less intimidating and less overwhelming.
What Lamott and Franklin and Confucius and a gazillion others are offering up as a pearl of wisdom is a lesson in incrementalism: progress comes gradually, in small steps.
It works for my students. It works for me. It will work for you.
As the semester progresses and end-of-semester fatigue raises its nasty and unnerving head, I can see in my students’ faces the reflection of their mountains right in front of them. Then I know that I have to up the ante once again. I play for the class one of my favorite poems by Rita Dove–“Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967. It’s an incredible tribute to learning and to libraries and to librarians and to getting it done. It has an even more special meaning for me because Rita Dove read that poem at the White House on May 11, 2011. Former President Obama–who believes that poetry and the arts matter (and they do)–provides a masterful introduction to the power of poetry, with wry, charming humor as only he can do. Afterwards the poet reads her poem. Both the former president and the former United States Poet Laureate are genuine charmers. I’ll provide the link in just a second. Watch the video, please. (But not until you finish my post, or, if you insist on watching the video before finishing my post, go ahead. Just come back. I’ll be lost without you.) Rita Dove: 2011 White House Poetry Evening — introduction by Barack Obama.
Without exception, my students always love watching this video. Sometimes they even applaud. Sometimes they even applaud without mention of extra credit. The video inspires. It motivates. It makes them know that they can get it done.
Here’s how Dove empowers my students–and all of us– to come to that understanding. The stanzas that follow are directly from her poem. They recount the poet’s journey home, as a 15-year-old, carrying six volumes of knowledge–six books that she selected on her learning journey:
“I carried [the books] home, past five blocks of aluminum siding and the old garage where, on its boarded-up doors, someone had scrawled:
“I can eat an elephant if I take small bites.
“Yes, I said, to no one in particular: That’s what I’m gonna do!”
Overwhelmed?My students? Me? You? All of us?
Of course, we are. To be overwhelmed is to be human.
Thankfully, we’re not overwhelmed all of the time. But when we are, isn’t it great to know that we have wisdom as our ally–all the way from Confucius to Franklin to Lamott to Dove? Isn’t it great to know that we have wisdom cheering us every step of the way? As we carry away our stones. As we fell our oaks. As we write our birds. As we eat our elephants. As we get it done.
Isn’t it great knowing that a little gr!t will gr!t ‘r done?
It certainly calms me. And just as soon as I finish grading end-of-semester assignments and final reflection essays, I’m going to polish that nugget of truth as I face my next mountain: gardens (right here on my mountain) overtaken by a gazillion weeds, all reaching for the stars.
And guess what else? I will pump myself up just as I try to pump up my students–just as I have tried to pump you up here, so that you can face your own mountains, whatever they might be–and believe you me: I will tackle my mountain, and I will gr!t ‘r done.
Without doubt, I love all of the English classes that I teach, but my Creative Writing classes always tug a little tighter at my heartstrings. I think I know why. We write. We draft. We workshop. We revise. We share. We bond. Together.
Aside from valuing writers’ bond, I like writing with my students because I want them to see that seasoned writers struggle perhaps as much as fledgling writers. I want them to see that writing is work. No, I want them to see that writing is hard work. More, I want them to see that with lots and lots of mental lifting they can become agile writing gymnasts.
Here’s another reason why I like to write with my students. As an educator, I want to experience, as nearly as possible, what my students experience: coming up with a topic to meet someone else’s requirements; developing a draft; workshopping the draft with peers; revising the draft based on peer feedback and personal afterthoughts; and sharing with the class the woven words of heart, mind, and soul.
Also, as an educator I want to feel the pain of jumping through the same deadline hoops that “the good professor” imposes on his students. It’s a much-needed lesson in humility, one that I can experience every two weeks, since that’s the allotted timeframe for each writing assignment: drafting; workshopping; revising; and sharing. Spread over a 14-week semester, I am humbled seven times.
In the past, I’ve done my “writing-with-my-students” stint once or twice each semester, eventually bowing out as the semester progressed because of the full range of my professorial responsibilities, namely commitments to other classes. And that is true. Can any full-time professor be a full-time writer? I doubt it.
My students, generally, are full-time students with the full range of their own full-time student responsibilities, and yet I expect them to be full-time writers, too.
This semester I promised myself that I wouldn’t bow out of writing with my students. Actually, I established more rigorous requirements for me than for them. I decided to write and publish a blog post every week.
I did not make known my personal commitment. Nonetheless, week by week, I chatted with my students about my writing. I wanted them to know that I was writing and that I had my own self-imposed goals and Monday deadlines.
At the end of this semester, we celebrated and reflected on our growth and accomplishments as writers. During my reflections, I projected my blog so that the class could see it on the big screen. Several students follow the blog and others are regular visitors, so they knew already that I had published 24 posts this semester. But those completed posts weren’t at the heart of my sharing. Rather, I wanted to watch their faces when my 17 drafts–at various stages of completion–popped up on the screen.
When I finished, one of my students pinned me to the wall with a pointed question: “Where do you find those ideas?”
How do I answer a question like that? To answer assumes that I can provide directions–a map, if you will–to the magical land where ideas reside.
I wish that I could. Sadly, I can’t.
I’m not certain that I even understand what it means to “find” ideas. Where do I look? And how shall I begin? And how do I know when I’ve found one?
As for me, I don’t go around looking for writing ideas. However, I do go around listening to the world. My world. Inner. Outer.
When I listen–when I am attentive–ideas seem to “find” their way to me. This post is a good example. My student’s question captured my fancy: “Where do you find those ideas?” And in response to his question, I shared with the class a writing idea that found its way to me that very morning.
Its working title is “Growing Up More than Once.” While driving to campus, I had been thinking about Fall 2022 as my last semester of teaching. In the midst of my reverie, I had an insight. I’ve grown up three times. Once in the traditional way that we all grow up and launch our own lives. Next was growing up as a researcher and scholar at the University of South Carolina and the Library of Congress. Now I’ve grown up as an educator at Lord Fairfax Community College. And as this phase comes to an end, another phase will open, giving me an opportunity to grow up once more! I will share no more for now. Otherwise, I won’t have anything more to say when I get around to writing that post.
But here’s my point. I didn’t go looking for that idea. Seemingly, the idea came looking for me. And as soon as it found me, I captured the tentative title and a barebones outline in a WordPress draft as soon as I walked into my office and turned on my computer. Some might call it journaling. But it’s not. I don’t journal. For me, it’s simpling listening. It’s being attentive. Then it’s taking the time to honor an idea that found its way to me.
The same thing holds true for this post. It found me during class when my student asked, “Where do you find those ideas?” Perhaps equally important, the question continued to abide with me as I drove home. Now here I am extending my answer to Morgan through this post. The idea found me; called for–no, demanded–exploration; and I’m honoring the call.
I’ve just shared how one idea found me while teaching and how another idea found me while driving. Other ideas find me when I least expect to be found. Biking, indoors and out. Listening to gospel music. Taking a shower. Pulling weeds in my garden.
For me, it seems that whenever I lose myself–whenever I’m doing something that takes me away from me–a door opens and an idea enters, hoping for home and for honor.
Those are the best directions that I can give to the magical land of ideas.