Dance!

A painting called JOY

A painting called JOY

“A dancer’s body breaks down,” she said, “Painters can paint all their lives. Musicians can play until they are old, but a dancer’s instrument, her body, gives out.”

To be a contrarian I responded, “And then there is Martha Graham. She danced into her 80’s, didn’t she?”

She wrinkled her nose and said, “Not very well.”

The lights dimmed, the movie started, and our conversation ended.

She was, in her youth, a dancer, classically trained. She’d spent the bulk of her adult life teaching and choreographing. And, as she told me, “Those things are all you can do when you can no longer dance. They are what’s left.” Had our exchange not bothered me so much I might have felt sadness for her.

Like an art-mantra, Tom used to say, “A writer writes and a painter paints.” I wanted to say to my seatmate, “A dancer dances.” I thought immediately of Linda who dances even when she is not dancing. She is a riot of movement, joy-in-motion; her need to dance is infectious. Even non-dancers find themselves jigging across the floor when Linda is dancing at the party. I once told her that she is my secret weapon for throwing a successful party.

I imagined my seatmate as a young girl. Before all the training, before the technique and expectations, there was enthusiasm. There must have been joy. There must have been lots of joy. She must have known the world by moving, twirling, spinning in it. Artists – before they call themselves artists – make sense through sound, through scribbles, through spinning. They only way forward in life, the only way to make meaning and to learn, is to scribble more, to engage and translate through movement. Lazy educators write off this imperative as self-expression.

The great artist deathtrap is called technique. It is a paradox. It is necessary. It is a kind of language mastery. It is, at first, a struggle of control. How do you say what you need to say when your language is visual, aural, or kinesthetic? Training is necessary. The path to full expression is always paradoxically through constraints, control of breath or brush. Yet, too often, as is the case with my seatmate, technique replaces the enthusiasm. It can turn joy into judgment. It can make an artist forget their WHY and replace it with a too rigid HOW. It is how artists limit themselves with their artistry. It made my seatmate, a healthy ambulatory woman, believe that she is not capable of dancing.

Later, I told Kerri about my conversation at the movies. She said, “That’s why fewer and fewer people are going to symphonies or galleries. People draw lines. Artists not only limit themselves with their artistry but they also limit access to their artistry.” Joy is infectious. Artistry without it is not very interesting (and, arguably, not artistry).

Change They to We

photo-2

the next step in my painting, The Weeping Man. He’s nearly complete

The word that’s captured my recent attention is the word “they.” I’m captivated by language choices that might at first seem insignificant but, once unpacked, are profound. “They” is one of those words.

“They” caught my attention when 20 was making us dinner. His recipe included fennel and, until we googled it, we thought anise and fennel were the same thing. While we Googled for truth, Kerri asked, “Why would they name something twice?”

“Good question!” I replied and then asked, “Who are ‘they?'”

“Good question!” she echoed as the Google oracle brought us clarity about our fennel/anise confusion (as it turns out they are two different plants). Google was not very useful in clarifying who “they” were.

So, this week I listened for samples. Some of what I heard: “Why would they do that?” (a conversation about women in another culture). “They don’t care about us.” (what else, politics). “Don’t you think they cause their own problems?” (referring to a situation in a local minority community).

“They” can be a word of distancing, a word of exclusion. If you want to mess with the meaning, simply change the pronoun. For instance: why would we do that? We don’t we care about us. Don’t you thing we cause our own problems? “We” is inclusive. “We” makes us participants. “We” makes us culpable.

a detail of Weeping Man.

a detail of Weeping Man.

What if, in our current state of mis-education for instance, we stopped asking about our policy makers, “What are they doing?” And, instead, asked, “What are we doing?” What kind of action or meaningful discussion might ensue if we simply refused to use the word “they?” What if, as artists, we stopped asking, “Why don’t they get it?” and instead asked, “What don’t we get?” Artists do not create in a vacuum. Our expression might be individual and unique but without a community to receive, debate, appreciate, revile and otherwise engage it, has little purpose. After all, “they” are “we” if our language will allow us to see it.

the previous photo/stage I posted

the previous photo/stage I posted

Meditate On Mistakes

taking advantage of my mistakes: a detail of my latest painting in progress called Weeping Man

taking advantage of my mistakes: a detail of my latest painting in progress called Weeping Man

A meditation on mistakes:

Actors know. In performance, when they forget their line, they come alive. The exhilaration of forgetting shocks them into presence. The mistake achieves the essential thing: presence. The audience may not be aware of the lost line but they cannot help but come into presence when the actor does. That’s how it works. Presence begets presence. Actors also know that, in such a moment, tension is their enemy. Panic is counterproductive. Relaxation is the only path back to their play.

Mistakes wake us up.

Many years ago, I produced a summer theatre company. In the middle of a performance, a storm blew out the power to the theatre. The performance stopped. The emergency lights came on. The actors looked at the audience and the audience looked at the actors. And then, in the ghostly blue-white light, the actors continued their play. It was the one and only time that the play was riveting. Actors and audience alike became invested. They were together in an experience that was unique. It was, as are all true mistakes, unrepeatable.

the under painting and sketch.

the under painting and sketch.

The playwright John Guare wrote that a writer must write ten bad pages to arrive at the one good page. The writer must value the ten bad pages for the single good page to be possible. The ten bad pages, what educators, locked into testing regimens, might call mistakes, are necessary. Up front expectations of perfection are guarantees of mediocrity. No process is perfect – and that’s the point. Perfection, like happiness, comes after the fact. It is the blossom of a rich process. It ensues and only becomes available when mistakes are valued, when exploration is encouraged. A rich process is alive with trial and error, with strong offers that may or may not work. The strength of the offer, the capacity to make a grand mistake, learn, adjust and boldly offer again – is a great definition of freedom. It is otherwise known as vitality.

It’s what artists understand. When nothing seems to be working, when the most powerful offers fall flat, when paintings turn to mud, relaxation is the only path forward. There is comfort in knowing that the single good page is out there somewhere if only you keep making grand, luscious, brilliant mistakes.

There Is Wisdom In Dancing

TODAY’S FEATURED THOUGHT FOR HUMANS

There is wisdom in dancing

To restate an old notion: knowledge is not wisdom. And, often times, our reliance on knowledge blinds us to wisdom (for instance, passing a test has little or nothing to do with learning). My mentors taught me that the toughest thing in life to master is relationship. The reason: relationship is at the heart of everything we do whether we acknowledge it or not. Life IS a relationship. Education, business, art, spirituality, leadership, management, self love, economics, agriculture, kindness, gratitude… are all relationship skills. Wisdom is found in the fields beyond your thinking. Get onto the floor of life and dance.

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Sometimes It Takes More Than A Text

TODAY’S FEATURED IDEA FOR HUMANS

Sometimes It takes more than a text

In a recent post I wrote that we are often slaves to brevity. We want quick and easy answers to life’s big questions. Peter Block wrote that, in 30 years of consulting with businesses, he was routinely asked “How” but never asked “Why.” Relationship is at the heart of almost every big question (like leadership, management, marriage, self-love, the sacred,…) and, in relationship, there is no shorthand.

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Reach Through Time

TODAY’S FEATURED PRINT FOR HUMANS

Reach Through Time

FOR TODAY’S FEATURED PRINT FOR HUMANS, GO HERE.

Step Into The Unknown

Step Into Unknown with Sig

FOR TODAY’S FEATURED PRINT FOR HUMANS, GO HERE…

Dance With Sherry

A painting from the archives. I call it 'Revelry!'

A painting from the archives. I call it ‘Revelry!’

Sherry was killed in a car wreck many years ago. It was ironic. She had a severe food allergy and was pronounced dead more times than she could count. Every time she went out to eat she rolled the dice. And, because she had been back and forth over that dark line so many times, she never took a day (or a meal) for granted. Death walked with her so she was awash in the appreciation of life. Sherry never missed an opportunity to laugh or dance or shock people. She was a one-person party and her enthusiasm was infectious.

She was a true friend and a colleague and took the plunge with me when I wanted to start a communications academy (teaching core curriculum through experiential processes; with students we made movies, plays, performance art pieces, poetry slams and ran businesses. It was not only a blast but hugely successful. We created things as opposed to studied things. The only trouble I ever had was getting the students to go home). Initially, the academy was a risk but she was quick to throw herself into the chaos and brought her friend Linda kicking and screaming with her. Both were extraordinary English teachers looking for a better way to teach. We were like adventurers in the wilds of education, blowing up old models and exploring new territory. It would be impossible to do today; innovators are nailed to the floor by the standardized master-tests that they must serve.

The last time I saw her she said, “This is the last time you’ll ever see me!” She had a Cheshire grin and I protested, “Why? Are you planning on avoiding me!” She leaned in so no one else might hear and said, “I doubt I’ll be alive when you come back.” I told her not to be stupid but, as usual, she was right. She also asked me to not come back for her funeral. “Let this be our goodbye,” she said.

Kerri and I have been cleaning out the house, purging years and years of boxes, clothes, and…stuff. We are making space for new things. Each load that goes out the door is matched by an opportunity or insight that flows in. Not only are we cleaning out but we are reaching back in time and visiting old friends and extraordinary moments. More than once we’ve sat to share photographs or letters, “This is what I used to look like,” or, “Remember I told you about my friend…., this is us 20 years ago.” For some reason, Sherry has been with me today. I have no photos of her and no letters but I have terrific memories. I’ve been meditating on joy all day and she was the embodiment of joy. She was the queen of mischief and bold leaps of faith. “Life is never sure!” she’d giggle. “You only have today so dance it or get off the floor!” she’d shout, punching me, her Cheshire grin breaking across her face before erupting in gales of laughter.

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See The Force

from my children's book, Peri Winkle Rabbit Was Lost

from my children’s book, Peri Winkle Rabbit Was Lost

Bill is a board member for non-profit education organization and is forming a case for changing the curriculum. He’s asked me to help him shape his argument. The students going to the organization’s classes did not fare well in the public schools. As Bill wrote, most of the students are interested in the arts and there are no arts available. He wrote that the curriculum is mostly “traditional.”

Many years ago, my mentor, Tom, told me that the alternative schools were filled with artists, so Bill’s observation is not surprising. Anyone familiar with Howard Gardner’s work will recognize the notion that people learn in different ways. Desks are torture chambers to kids who need to move or manipulate things in order to process information. I was one of those kids and I can tell you that the word “torture” is not an overstatement. Even today, sitting is unproductive time for me. I do my best thinking while I walk or while painting. Staring out a window is also highly productive: after all, the imagination is a fancy dancer.

Bill is making the same wrong assumption made by all people interested in educational reform when they first wade into the swamps of change: he’s focusing on the teaching and the teachers. If only the teachers could see the value of working experientially, engaging the students in a real pursuit instead of an abstraction, all things would be better. On the surface, that might be true. What he’s not considering are the forces in place that require teachers to default to rote exercises, compartmentalization, and standardization. In his case (and all cases), the teachers are not being reinforced (paid) to engage the students on a learning journey; they are being reinforced to raise test scores. The change he seeks is not in the teachers or the teaching. He must address the forces of compliance that teachers, just like their students, must obey. He must address the systemic assumptions that define the expectations.

This is the same conundrum that organizations face when they desire their employees to work in teams but are structured to reward individual achievement. The desire for team is in direct conflict with the systemic foundations.

As Arnie recently reminded me, 1) our system of education was not created by educators, so 2) the aim was never to educate but to standardize. These two aspects, the structure and the intention, are powerful forces to change. They now define our assumptions of what education should be. Systems are living things, and, as I learned in school, will fight to the death just like all other living things.

Bill has his work cut out for him. Changing the focus of the teachers is the easy part and can only happen when the focus of the system supports the deep human desire to learn.

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Speak Out Of Turn

From my book, Lucy & The Waterfox. The waterfox is shunned for deviating from the norm.

From my book, Lucy & The Waterfox. The waterfox is shunned for deviating from the norm.

I’m not supposed to be writing about the system of education in America. It is a topic that I made off limits for myself because I was ranting too much. I finally allowed myself to admit what I’ve known for years but refused to accept. Our system of education is not broken and never has been; it was designed to create maximum docility and is succeeding magnificently. I decided to open the off-limits file because I just posted a question concerning education inspired by my friend and retired superintendent, Arnie Glassberg, and then this morning the same news story featuring the resignation letter of a teacher came across my screen three times. It is tragic to read and resonated with me: after a career playing in the fields of innovation and change in education, I now have a hard time driving by a public school without shuddering.

For grins I googled “origins of education in America (it was the subject of Arnie’s comment to me),” and came up with more than a few options but was struck by how many of the links topping the list concerned the reprehensible origins and intentions behind this thing we continue to call school. Several were articles, speeches, and youtube clips of John Taylor Gatto, a former New York state Teacher of the Year and most well known for his book, Dumbing Us Down. Here’s a bit from a speech he gave several years ago to a home schooling conference in Vermont:

The secret of American schooling is that it doesn’t teach the way children learn — nor is it supposed to. Schools were conceived to serve the economy and the social order rather than kids and families — that is why it is compulsory. As a consequence, the school cannot help anybody grow up, because its prime directive is to retard maturity. It does that by teaching that everything is difficult, that other people run our lives, that our neighbors are untrustworthy even dangerous. School is the first impression children get of society. Because first impressions are often the decisive ones, school imprints kids with fear, suspicion of one another, and certain addictions for life. It ambushes natural intuition, faith, and love of adventure, wiping these out in favor of a gospel of rational procedure and rational management.

Compare this quote (or read the text of his speech) with the teacher’s resignation letter making the news today. I’ve read a similar letter each spring for the past several years; a teacher – probably a great teacher – can no longer participate in the creation of docility in children and in themselves. They admit what they’ve known for years: the intention of they system they serve is the opposite of what it purports: they can no longer wipe out their natural intuition with the gospel of rational procedure (standardized tests).

John Taylor Gatto’s quote reminded me of the first few pages of one of my favorite books, Teaching As A Subversive Activity, by Neil Postman. It was published in 1969. Here’s a snippet from page 2:

In our society, as in others, we find that there are influential men at the head of important institutions who cannot afford to be found wrong, who find change inconvenient, perhaps intolerable, and who have financial or political interests they must conserve at any cost. Such men are, therefore, threatened in many respects by the theory of the democratic process and the concept of an ever-renewing society…Such men as these would prefer that the schools do little or nothing to encourage youth to question, doubt, or challenge and part of the society in which they live, especially those parts that are most vulnerable.

Retarding maturity has long term consequences: a population that is 1) incapable of the necessary self-awareness that comes with maturity cannot recognize how far it has drifted from it’s center and, 2) even if it did see the tower tipping, it is incapable of meaningful action as the conjoined twins of passivity (born of fear of speaking up) and divisiveness (do you really think the red state/blue state nonsense has no origin or implication?) have been so thoroughly thrummed into the national anthem.

To loop back a few posts to Master Marsh’s quote that keeps on giving: I’ve come to believe this is less about can and can’t than about the challenge of doing. And not doing is always easier.

Complaining is no substitute for doing. Neither is ranting, which is why education is off limits for me. I do not know what to do and have no belief that a butterfly will come from a system directed by a few small minds so hell-bent on remaining a caterpillar.

The only thing I can think to do is echo a sentiment offered by John Taylor Gatto in this short clip: the system is great at hammering the individual deviant but is incapable of handling a mass of deviants. To the teacher who resigned in frustration and all those who have, will, want to, or do not yet know they can, join hands. Become a mass and deviate. Do the thing that you’ve been so trained not to do: speak out of turn. Stop raising your hand and join hands. The kids can’t resign and they need you to, as Neil Postman writes, become a “shockproof crap detector.”

Go here to get my latest book, The Seer: The Mind of the Entrepreneur, Artist, Visionary, title_pageSeeker, Learner, Leader, Creator…You.

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