Thursday, November 29, 2012

Can Poetry Change Lives? Part II

or Do I Dare to Eat a Peach?

Once, following a poetry class, I saw one of my college students stumbling through the hall, his eyes wide with amazement.  He told me that he had just realized that he was one of those "bland-blank faces" turning and turning around the edge of the whirlpool -- going nowhere.  We had been discussing Margaret Avison's poem, "The Swimmer's Moment," which deals with the rewards and dangers of taking risks in life.  Risk-taking is symbolized by jumping into a whirlpool.  Many people, Avison says, don't even notice the presence of the whirlpool, the possibility of growth and change:

And so their bland-blank
     faces turn and turn
Pale and forever on the rim
     of suction
They will not recognize.

My student realized that he had not been engaging fully in his life.  He had been delaying decisions, procrastinating, and letting fear rule him.  I could see a new urgency in his face.  He was bent on action.

English teacher, Brian Whitman, told me of encountering former students who said, "T. S. Eliot changed my life."  One student in particular started his own business, sold it, spent two years on a yacht in the Caribbean, and built a home in the bush because he read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."  The poem gave the student determination to make decisions which would add meaning to his life, instead of wondering, "Do I dare to eat a peach?"

I once assigned my students to choose a poem from an anthology and write a short essay about it.  One student, a man in his 40s, was studying Business Administration as part of a Worker's Compensation arrangement.  He chose the poem "Bearhug" by Michael Ondaatje in which a boy calls his father for a kiss goodnight:

  I yell ok.  Finish something I'm doing,
      Then something else, walk slowly round
  the corner to my son's room.

He gives his son a hug, and says,

  The thin tough body under the pyjamas
  locks to me like a magnet of blood.

At the end of the poem, he wonders,

      How long was he standing there
  like that, before I came?

My student wrote, "When I read this poem, I began to think about my own eight-year-old son who was sleeping upstairs.  I realized I'd been so preoccupied with schoolwork, with my injury, and with my anger and frustration over having to write this stupid essay that I had not even said goodnight to him.  I began to weep for the first time since my accident  ... you can see the drops on the page.  I went upstairs to look at him and, even though it was 10 p.m., he was still awake, and we hugged for a long time."

As I sipped coffee in the Locke Street Bagel Bakery considering this blog, a man sat at the counter beside me and said, "Doin' homework?"  I told him my topic and asked, "Has poetry ever changed your life?"

"Of course it has," he said.  He began to quote "Tintern Abbey" by Wordsworth.  In this poem, Wordsworth shows the power of nature to lift "the heavy and the weary weight of the unintelligible world."  The poem says the best portion of a good man's life are

His little, nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and of love.

"This helped me to see that every little thing we do affects the universe in some way; and as Wordsworth says, we learn to "see into the life of things."  The stranger, who by now had introduced himself as John Unsworth, told me that he took a 19th Century poetry course years ago at University of Western Ontario.  He said, "The course awakened my spirit and changed how I see things.  It showed me that life has moral import."

What poem changed your life?

Friday, November 23, 2012

What's the Best Thing to Say to a Troubled Person?

Statement:  "Every time I drive along that highway, I think about turning sharply and going over the edge."

Response:  "Don't do that.  Your insurance will go up if you total your car."

Statement:  "My mom overdosed last night.  She's in the psych ward now."

Response:  " "Your mom is in the psycho ward?  Yup, sounds about right."

Statement:  "My husband is so depressed, he cut a hole in the ceiling so that he could hang a rope from the joist.  Every day, when I come home from work, I climb up on a chair and cut the rope down."

Response:  "Sounds like he's bi-polar. Hey, have you heard this one?  How many manic-depressives does it take to change a light bulb?  Two. One to get the ladder -- and one to get the rope."

Have you ever heard a troubling statement from someone?  You might immediately give the person advice.  You might say something encouraging like, "Don't worry.  You'll be fine.  Everything will work out."  Maybe your first response is, "I'm sorry to hear that."  Maybe you make an offhand comment or inappropriate joke like the ones above.  These responses are not helpful.  These responses might leave the troubled person  feeling rejected, judged, barraged, isolated, and angry.  The troubled person shuts down and does not want to share any further.

So what can you say when you care about a person and want to help?

Hear what the other person is feeling and reflect it back.  This is just the first step but it is the most important.  You want the other person to know that you hear and are trying to understand.  You are not going to barrage them with your interpretations and advice.  You are not going to tell them your feelings, at least not yet.  "I'm sorry to hear that" is about your feelings and focuses on you, not the other person.  "You'll be fine" tells the other person that you do not want to deal with their problem.  "Everything will work out" is a brush-off.

Use one of these sentence starters:

I guess you're feeling . . .  Is that it?
You seem . . . 
It sounds like . . . Is that it?
I guess you wish . . . Is that it?
You sound upset (angry, frustrated).  What's up?
You seem worried that ... is going to happen.  Is that it?

Tentatively suggest a feeling.  If you want to expand your vocabulary of emotions, here is the NVC list of feelings.

If you really, really want to give advice so that the other person will actually hear you, say

1.  So you’re saying . . . [paraphrase their thoughts and feelings about the problem]
2.  What have you tried so far?
3.  How did that work?
4.  What else have you considered? 

Chances are the troubled person has thought more about his or her problem than you have.  With these questions, you will get a chance to understand the problem more deeply and see what real or imagined barriers keep the person stuck in their problem.  Finally, you can say:

Do you want to know what I think? or
Do you want to know what I did when that happened to me?

There's a chance they might say "yes."  They now feel understood and have agreed to listen to your ideas.

Listening is difficult.  It takes practice.
What troubling statements have you heard?  How did you answer?
Do you hate when people give you unasked-for advice or tell you to relax?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What Do (Heterosexual) Women Want?

Freud's biographer quotes Freud as saying, "The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is 'What does a woman want?'"

Here's my response to Freud, in a poem:


Every girl needs two things:  
Security Man and Adventure Boy - 
with Security Man she’s round and achy
with Adventure Boy she’s lithe and cheeky
she can wrap him up between her thighs
and squeeze.

Security Man works hard for her
and loves her almost as much as his work
maybe more
because what’s the point of work without her
at home

for Adventure Boy
to visit.

Security Man buys her a house
Adventure Boy buys her nothing
who does she love?

Every girl needs two things:
security man insecurity man
adventure boy misadventure boy

With Security Man she sleeps all night
needs to sleep and work and write

With Adventure Boy she’s up till dawn
laughing and talking until he’s gone

Security Man is funny and smart
and warm and loving and in her heart

Adventure Boy jokes and rants
is warm and loving and in her pants

Every girl needs two things:
Security Man and Adventure Boy
They are never wrapped in the same package.

The family loves Security Man
they’ve been waiting all her life
hoping she would meet him.

She doesn’t introduce Adventure Boy.

Security Man is distracted
Adventure Boy is engaged

With Security Man she plans - 
vacations, season’s tickets
Security Man marinates

Adventure Boy gyrates
Adventure Boy is all here & now
No future
not even tomorrow really for sure

Every girl needs two things.
but what does Adventure Boy need?

he doesn’t want to be on call
and shows up late or not at all.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Do You Need a Biographer?

General Petraeus is lucky.  Everyone can use an appreciative biographer (preferably while still alive).  How wonderful to be interviewed by someone who is really listening, really trying to get what makes you tick, what you are.  A biographer doesn't ask one question.  A biographer looks behind your answer and asks the next question, many questions.  A good biographer might even help you see new parts of yourself.
A biographer gets to know you and understand you.  You feel most authentically yourself when your identity is accurately reflected back to you by another person.  Spouses make wonderful companions, lovers, and life partners, but they also have a stake in you being who they need you to be - a human being, sometimes glowing and shimmery, but also sometimes stressed, exhausted, impatient, and real.  Your spouse already did an in-depth interview, and has moved on to other ways of being with you.  But, to a biographer, you are a diamond mine.  
Here's my proposal:
Let's be biographers of one another.  Can we see partners as diamond mines, begin writing their biography, and continue to write it throughout our lives together?  We could take turns asking questions and write little bits of biography every day.  There are enough questions to make that possible.
"The intimacy that develops between subject and biographer is like no other. It's a collaboration between two sensibilities bent on defying the sentence of oblivion imposed on us all.  As an act of remembrance, biography accomplishes what other, more transient forms of memorial never can:  the preservation of a vanished life."                    - James Atlas, editor of Penguin Lives series
What do you think?  Would you enjoy having a biographer?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

What Weapon Would You Bring?

     My friend, Robin, just saw the film, Safety Not Guaranteed.  A newspaper reporter sees this ad, "Wanted:  Someone to go back in time with me.  Must bring your own weapons.  Safety not guaranteed."
     Robin asked me, "What weapon would you bring?"
     Without a pause, I said, "Liquid Paper."
     "Good idea," he replied. 
     "What weapon would you bring?"
     Robin sighed and thought long and hard - like a good weapon.  "If I had to bring a weapon," he said, "a little printer that makes business cards -- like Jim Rockford had.  He never used his gun unless he had to.  He kept it in a cookie jar, for Pete's sake.  But he'd always be making business cards.  He kept a little business card printer in the glove box of his car.  It gave him an air of authority.  Oh...and a clipboard.  With a business card and a clipboard, I would be automatically imbued with competence and authority.  And I could use the clipboard for bludgeoning...if I had to."

What weapon would YOU bring?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

What Made You Change Direction?

Have you ever changed direction?  Once rushing south towards Niagara Falls from Hamilton, Ontario, I found myself on a ramp heading north over a bridge towards Toronto.  Driving across the bridge, I realized that the road I was on had nothing to do with my destination.  After several kilometres, I managed to turn myself around, but lights had gone on in my mind and stayed on, consuming energy, for some time.

I realized that if my hoped-for destination was peace, safety, creativity, productivity, love, and maybe even happiness, I was on the wrong road.

A change of direction can be slow at first and then sudden.  Or it can happen all at once.  My friend, John, was working on his MSc in Engineering Physics at the Chalk River Nuclear Power Plant.  When Chernobyl blew up on April 26, 1986, John's 25th birthday, he quit his graduate program and his research and walked away from Chalk River.

William was a university student in business and economics and entirely invested in the pursuit of money. He planned  to go to school, get a degree in communication, enter some business, and then rise to the top making lots of money along the way.  Then he read Be Here Now by Baba Ram Dass.  He changed his major to comparative religions and soon his interests, beliefs, health and everything else changed as well.  He is grateful!

John told me, much later, that sometimes an event is more of an excuse or a way to mark a turning point.  He thinks perhaps he was changing direction anyway, and Chernobyl was merely an instigating factor.  Perhaps William would have changed direction too without Be Here Now.

Changing direction is difficult, but after the initial disorientation and eventual re-orientation, we are probably grateful for our turn-abouts.

What made you change direction?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Why Questions?

Today, a friend asked me:  "Of all the possible areas of fascination, why are you blogging questions, particularly open-ended questions?"

1.  Questions open conversations - How are you?

2.  Open-ended questions offer possibilities.  Questions with single answers seem to invite avoiding and dissembling.

Even in the Bible, we see problems with single-answer questions.  In Genesis 3: 9-11, God asks Adam three questions, "Where are you?"; "Who told you that you are naked?"; and "Have you eaten of the tree...?"  Note - Adam's first response is to hide from the question.  His second response is to blame the woman.

In Genesis 4:9, God asks Cain, "Where is your brother?"  Cain also avoids giving a direct answer and instead asks another question, "Am I my brother's keeper?

3.  Questions force me to think about everything I don't know.  Questions help me peer into the the mystery and diversity of other sentient beings.

4.  Questions bring out the child in us - the wondering child who asks:  Where do babies come from?  Why is the ocean blue?  Where does the sun go at night?

5.  Science is based on questions.  Scientists ask questions about the nature of the world.  Nothing is taken for granted.  Nothing is assumed.

On this blog, I've written on 97 questions (so far).  I also keep a long list of questions to be dealt with at some point.  These include

  • Why does teamwork go horribly wrong?
  • Are all actions political?
  • The giant hole in the backyard - is that yours?
  • Have I overthrown my own tyranny?
  • Does this stress make me look fat?
  • Does thinking help?
and many others.  What are your big questions?  I'll add them to the list.