This Dance

Simone Forti

Only after the herd thunders past, then the chewing snapping locust swarm, then the boulder storm, only after all of these have carried themselves off into the collapsing distance does the gesture peek out from its hushed cave.

The ribbon unfurls from my wrist. A glass staircase bears the weight of fear. A feral pup  in its winter wool climbs to the cliff edge and readies its throat.

The wing, first opening, closes.

Opens again.

This dance is free of the burden of purpose. It is not to slim a waistline, beef up earning potential, make headway on a transcript, build community. This dance exists because it does. For that reason alone, it is here. Like an obsidian shard. A switchgrass blade. It has no need to explain. It came without invitation or even a name.

An icicle flashes on the willow limb. It is over, gone, before it has begun (almost). A bone clacks inside the skin of a boy. It is all of itself, entirely. It answers only the questions it decides to hear.

The very presence of this dance would seem nothing short of a miracle if anyone were in charge of miracles. Just think of the staggering odds against it — against any of what’s here, any of us — inhabiting the blink that is the time and place we believe holds everything and really holds only the half-beat between measures.

This dance spins out from the hull of my body. The hard pod surrenders and splits its seam wide. So sudden. On a surge of air it rises like milkweed fluff tearing free. One current then another carry seed and gesture off to where they will become (or not) something that the tethered stem will never witness. This dance escapes the confines of movement in shaped by flesh. It rides a momentum that began before I was zygote. It churns on well beyond the ends of me.

See there?

Watch the sky. Watch the soft naked place when you turn your arm up. You might catch its white tail whipping past as it disappears into a break in the clouds, into the  pores of you. Into the the melting river that swallows us.

Image: Dancer Simone Forti. Read more about her in this 2012 New Yorker piece.




Settle In

Durrie Winter Scene

The first flakes are dusting the sidewalk. My son and his little buddy are engaged in a take-no-prisoners Pokemon battle in the living room. They munch on microwave popcorn and negotiate rules while I re-pot the frozen rosemary rescued from the balcony. Beans for soup are soaking on the kitchen counter. Next to them, a bowl of sourdough rises under a cloth.

My Mister stops by after his final run to the store. He delivers a sack of whole wheat flour, two head of garlic, and several minutes of hugs. While all of these are unnecessary for survival, it’s nice to be provisioned. Cooking is my second-favorite snow day diversion. My first includes hugging, but  because my Mister’s kiddos need him home to batten down the hatches, this fleeting squeeze will have to suffice.

After he rolls out into the ominous gray, I tear cardboard for the fire and stack towels by the front door. Noodle tip-taps around the living room. She snuffles up fallen popcorn, stopping by the window to gaze at neighbor dogs getting their last long walks before the whiteout.

After a strategic play involving Rapidash and Magmar, my boy demolishes his friend. They toss cards aside and yank on coats. Bug presses his feet into the new boots we bought at Sears yesterday. They were sold out of almost every size and we had to dig through shelves to find a  pair that wouldn’t give him blisters. With a shriek and a whoop, the two race out into the deepening white.

Here I wait without waiting. For the first time, the season’s hushed pulse matches my own. Soon enough, this low-bellied sky will carry in the night. We will play music. We will dance with the dog. We will finish Rick Riordan’s Lost Hero and crawl into flannel sheets as winter, at last, blankets our world.


Image: George Henry Durrie, Winter Scene in Connecticut, 1858, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum


Teach As If

Classroom Active

The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alteration of old beliefs.

John Dewey

If only we still believed students were containers. We could pump them full of data and deposit them, ready to perform, on the job market. Our task would be so much easier. We could rely on the old models. We could stand at the front of the class and, through sheer force of will, hold court on subject matter we have mastered.

Sometimes we tell ourselves that because our professors taught us in the traditional models and we managed to learn something, our students should be able to do the same. Even as we try to convince ourselves that we can coast on familiar habits, we know better. We know too many students who have fallen through the cracks. We see students able to perform problem sets but unable to function on a team. We notice how they arriving at the end of a semester having somehow missed the skills they most need to flourish as professionals, creative thinkers, and contributing members of our communities.

We know, even as we continue to write the same tests and deliver the same lessons, we have far more to offer our students. And our students have far more to tap in themselves.

No one can pour learning into someone else. Learning happens through the interplay of cognitive, emotional, physical, and social processes which a learner must experience directly. We need a new starting point. Subject matter is only as important as its application to real-world problems, and it is no longer a reliable guide. The learner must serve as our compass point. The engaged teaching approaches we practice — active, reflective, collaborative, experiential, and inquiry-based learning – help our students integrate content and make use of it through practical skills.

No matter how tired we feel, no matter how stuck in our ways, we can revitalize learning. As long as we have students in the room, we can open up a window. We can re-imagine our classrooms as places of engagement, excitement, and experience. We can practice what we aim to create.

The call is simpler than we imagine: Play with ideas. Require the active and sometimes exhausting contribution of every student. Do the heavy lifting and make room for learners at the center of our teaching. Model dynamic and critical participation. With each lesson plan, in each interaction, act as the reflective practitioner and engaged citizen we hope every student becomes.

Image credit: Wright State University

The Age We Are

standing on shoulders

“Toss the word rain to her,” he says.
I do and she catches it
on the chin. Drenched, she climbs aboard
his shoulders and returns six drops
to the sky. A boy cheers
as his dog digs in the sand
for a smell long severed
from its host. Wild-eyed,
the two wear matching
grins on faces bright
enough to kill
or ignite
or like us
both. We try on hats
now that we see
we could have worn them
all along. Felt
and ribbon and feather, like the grandfathers
of other people whose everyday
days are like our holidays.
Our patriarchs wiped sweat
from their wrists with stained handkerchiefs
before their fingers slipped.
Some had one arm
from forgetting this. Some left our mothers
orphans even after returning intact
from war. We never hear the ones still here
say, It comes to this?
That’s some sick joke

because they only whisper such things
to a sagging ceiling, the most sympathetic ear
for miles. I toss the word blindness
next time
but no one sees it land.

Image: Justin Brown Durand, “careful now, don’t let me fall”


umbrella house

It was easier when the heroes were prophets. They stood just far enough forward that we had to keep moving to keep up. We had to lean in to hear. That was when tyrants wore names like uniforms. Good and evil faced off across chasms and we knew better than to tumble between. We stood firm on our side. Myth grew us a chorus of muses. They sang in every shade of green.

Over across the way, it was hard to make out anything but ruin. Rumor had it someone had salted the earth. The restoration was a long way off. We knew we could only build a bridge after the villains had been vanquished. Even if we could arrive sooner to begin the purge and planting, would our comrades welcome us? Would they even recognize us?

Instead, we wrote our letters to kings and their ministers. We marched in a small but mighty throng to the houses of power. Memorizing the choreography of revolution in playback, we rehearsed scenes for battle. It was easy to believe we mixed with warriors when really we danced our masquerade on daylit streets, aping others in costumes crafted as artfully as our own. We called our theater change.

When we braided dense strands of “oppression” and “hegemony” and “injustice” into our script, we heard only echoes of assent. It was many years before anyone would subject our terms to scrutiny. Anyone we respected, anyway.

We had no idea what was coming.

Inside a TGV we didn’t remember boarding, we sliced through one decade. Then another. We barely registered the motion. Through the dark glass, who can see the land screaming past?

We crossed bridges someone else laid. They were there all along, we come to find. But only later. Only after disembarking where some natives had stars on their bellies and some had none. Allies were naked and bundled in robes. Strangers smiled with knives in their teeth. The rich were kind and the givers were tired and the children still hadn’t learned the folly of human taxonomy.

We expected the destination to be promise made flesh. In our imagining, lush jade pushed up through the cracks. Our steady and earnest struggle would spill open the soil from below. Redemption was to grow from  the efforts we seeded;  whole forests slaking their thirst on the faith we poured into everything.

We find our way more tangled in steel cable now, more carved into concrete, than it ever was. Or maybe just as much as it has always been but far more than we let ourselves believe.

Trade offs are trickier. It is no longer clear how to weigh need. Pushing or pausing? Security or truth? The children of our tongues or the children of the world?

The work we do to shelter what we planted draws our hands ever farther from the fertile soil tucked deep beneath the bed. Love is a 20-sided die. We cast it every morning and it may come up indictment or diversion, servitude or freedom. It may douse a flame. It may call us to action. The day saturates us with its hope. The clock burns us with its light.

We do small things now, hoping that the net around our meager garden hangs together with some kind of coherence. The strands sag away, break, twist into the seedlings. We take them up and bind them to any loose corner. For now, the best we can do is collect stems and bits of string to sustain the perimeter around what we are called to cultivate.

Meanwhile, our tired hands crave surrender. Sometimes we succumb to the indifferent churn of earnings and health and construction and obligation and a thousand small exchanges between a thousand anonymous neighbors. It is too easy to point to the absence of a point, especially when the heroes have vanished from the line of sight. Very few of our people now hear the pulse of our quiet rebellion. We let so very few of our people lean in to listen.

We are reluctant to to reveal to anyone the cacophony of whispers. A way exists. It is possible to stride to the front and lead. Sing your way home. We know but pretend otherwise. We’d rather conceive of heroes as other than us.

Yet the beat hungers to twine like fingers of ivy around limb, stalk, flower. Around anything that will expand its reach and accompany it on its journey. It aspires to become rhythm rising to a hum, to gather into a resonant, endless, breathing chord.

It is for that fecund but silent pocket of promise that we must till and sow the small things. We must keep joining edges and feeling for the tiny vibrations. We  must fill chasms with life. We must turn a larger plot of earth and harvest a bounty that can feed tomorrow’s ragged, bellowing mouth.

Image credit: Umbrella House is a co-op in the East Village of New York City run by former squatters. Photos and full story in The New York Times.

Border Guard

Stone Eye

Suddenly frightened by her hatred, she said to herself: the world is at some sort of border; if it is crossed, everything will turn to madness: people will walk the streets holding forget-me-nots or kill one another on sight. And it will take very little for the glass to overflow, perhaps just one drop: perhaps just one car too many, or one person, or one decibel. There is a certain quantitative border that must not be crossed, yet no one stands guard over it and perhaps no one even realizes that it exists.

 – Milan Kundera, Immortality

Here we must trust ourselves that the weight we feel is real.

Yes, it is only one milligram at a time. The increase is almost imperceptible. Those who want our resource will claim there is no change. They will suggest we are just anxious or imagining things.

When a true accounting gives evidence of the creeping escalation of our burden (and depletion of our stores), they will change course. They will try to convince us that we can handle the accumulation. They will flatter us that we are strong and our capacity is limitless.

Nevertheless, like any vessel, like any ecosystem, we do indeed have a threshold. If demands on our time and attention swell unchecked, the increase will become unbearable. We will have to pay the cost of the load, every pound of it.

So we must stand guard over that quantitative border and measure choice in terms of consequence. We must prepare ourselves for cunning maneuvers and seductive story lines. When we enumerate potential gains and losses, they’ll say that life is random, that we never know how events unfold. Things will change in ways we can’t predict or even imagine, hasn’t it always been so?

This argument is compelling. We’ll rethink history and wonder if perhaps complex forces beyond our control actually got us here. It will start to seem more true than our limited experience, more bearable than our uncomfortable insight. We might let that reasoning turn our focus away from what sits heavy on us.

The idea of unforeseen outcomes is a relief, really, and it will nudge us towards acting on whims and allowing brighter lights to guide us. We want to give ourselves permission to let things “just happen.” It would be unnecessary to identify the source of our unease. We’d be justified in skipping the difficult questions. We’d be free to dispense with complicated endeavors like seeking truth and living with integrity.

We could take a break from sowing discord. We could be agreeable and well-liked.

For these reasons, we are wise to be wary of any implication that our perception is misperception. We have to be suspicious of those who claim our attempts at setting limits are misguided and likely fruitless. We have to ask, How do they benefit when I ignore my instincts?

When I surrender to “fate,” who wins?

Only when we are able to articulate the choices in front of us can we make explicit trade-offs. This requires courage. It needs us to give voice to our intuition even as it is taking shape. With the careful inventory we’ve taken, we can decide what resource to tap and where to yield. We can consider how to fortify our depleted areas before we give over or take on.

But if we let the delusion of unlimited capacity carry us headlong into more, we will find that what we believe to be permanent is actually far from guaranteed. The repo man will come to collect something much more precious than we would have ever parted with by choice. It is up to us to claim the choice at the moment of the exchange or — better yet — well ahead of it.

We have the power to bargain with intention. We can be effective in planting and cultivating what we value most. This is true as long as we retain agency over our body, our time, and our determination of what’s worth saving in this beloved world.

Image credit: Horoshi Ito, I Know You




swing dance feet

He walks the dog while I pull on tights and boots. He leads me to the car then drives us through mist and rush hour traffic to a studio were a purple chandelier glitters in greeting.

We stumble through box step and salsa until motion from inside carries us like small waves lapping. Slow, quick quick, slow. His elbow lifts just enough to suggest an invitation. I twirl once around a maypole of light before alighting one beat shy of our next shared step.

The instructor praises us on our gaze. He can’t know our determination to master seeing. We speak across night, three years of two homes, voice as proxy for proximity. When we are together, we sometimes sit near each other and pluck up the threads of formerly disembodied conversation and spin them around the shape of us, looking, looking. We fill our stores with images that will warm us later. These eyes are accustomed to bridging the gap.

On this polished floor, our bodies have a new exchange. Slow, slow, quick quick. While I listen through his skin for the lead, it’s his eyes that signal our direction. These lessons build on a language we already speak. When parted, we fall into step. When still,  we are dancing.